Once again, ID cards are back on the lawmakers' agenda. Having struggled through the House of Commons on an anaemic majority, the bill's up before the House of Lords. And the Lords, for whom acceptable ID is having your face on the currency, are having none of it. With admirable clarity, they've pointed out that there's no point in the scheme if it doesn't deliver value for money. If the Home Office won't say how much it will cost, then how can we tell? If we can't tell, then why should we do it?
The logic is impeccable, which does it no favours with the Government. Instead, the figures should be kept secret, say the Home Officers, because if we published what we thought they'd be nobody would put in a lower bid. There is so much wrong with this that space precludes an inclusive list: should this principle be extended to all government contracts? If there are billions of pounds on the table, who exactly will be put off by an open bidding process? Whoever lost a contract by coming in with a better figure than the one the client was thinking of?
It is transparently obvious that the real reason for the secrecy is a lack of detailed planning and an excess of panic, both of which must at all costs be hidden from the public. That's OK. We have only to look over the Atlantic to see how this sort of idea pans out.
Washington has introduced its own national ID card scheme by the back door. Citing terrorism, fraud and efficiency — sounds familiar? — the government said that all states must adopt a uniform drivers licence by 2008, without which people wouldn't be allowed to board airlines, enter government buildings or pass checkpoints. Backed by linked databases and a bureaucratic standard that mandates an exceptionally high standard of compliance, the law was rushed through with little consultation and a finger-in-the-air one-off figure of $100m for costs
The chaos is building nicely — see realnightmare.org for one view of it — but the best current estimate is that costs could end up twenty to fifty times that estimate. All fifty states have different systems, many of which need to be completely replaced to meet the new standard, and that's before the necessary work is done making the data in multiple places match. Many states say they can't hit the deadline and can't afford the cost — and then what will happen? Nobody knows.
We have every reason to think many of the same problems would happen here. The House of Lords has done well to act on such forebodings, and we hope that once back in the Commons the MPs will do the decent thing and kill the bill for good.