I'd like to offer my congratulations to the Communications team at the Identity and Passport Service for successfully pulling off one of the most audacious and downright clever pieces of media manipulation I've ever witnessed. If I ever find myself in charge of a large and unpopular public service project, I'm headhunting the lot of you into my team. Here's why.
Yesterday afternoon I was tied up running a small conference when I received an email from a friend telling me that the Home Secretary had scrapped compulsory ID cards. My first reaction was to take that at face value - that the scheme had been binned as a result of the Home Secretary's policy review. Clearly that was the reaction of the media as well - the BBC, the broadsheets and tabloids, even the Metro are running the story that the government has been forced into an embarrassing U-turn*on the National Identity Service, with '£1bn wasted' according to the Metro. The media appear triumphant that the CWIC airside worker trial in Manchester has been switched from compulsory to voluntary, and there will be no compulsion to have an ID Card.
But we're so very wrong, and that's the genius of IPS' communications team.
All that has happened here is that the Home Secretary has reiterated the legislation (Identity Cards Act (2006)) by restating that there will be no compulsion to have an ID card. There never could have been such a compulsion without secondary legislation. Furthermore, work on the National Identity Register continues unabated, and in fact the Home Office is now speeding up the plan for enrolment into that database, which will happen as part of the passport application process. So in one stroke, IPS has managed to persuade the media that the National Identity Service is dead, when in fact enrolment will happen faster than before, and simultaneously distract attention from the delayed CWIC implementation.
The real genius of the move is the headlines that it has created: a seed has been sown in the public's mind that the National Identity Service is no more. If that seed can be made to take root, then ID Cards will cease to be a manifesto battle in the next election. The public won't want to hear debates about something that they believe to have been dropped already. The media will lose interest in an ex-project. And it will continue without the baggage of the public protests (although I'm sure NO2ID will continue their work).
I'm also deeply concerned by a small headline on the BBC feed this morning. In his announcement yesterday, the Home Secretary dropped any sense that ID Cards will be of use in protecting national security or fighting serious and organised crime, instead stating that:
"That is why I have announced today that I intend to see their introduction speeded up. The benefits are not just for individuals but also for communities where a reliable proof of age will be invaluable in the fight against underage drinking and young people trying to buy knives. But at the same time, these cards will benefit young people who, on average, have to prove their age more than twice as often as adults and I want to make that process simple and secure."
Proof of age comes to the forefront of the Scheme's purposes, and with it the fight against knife crime. On the same day, the BBC published the following article:
Trading standards officers have called for a ban on online knife sales after a machete was sold to a 15-year-old for £1.50 over the internet. The potential weapon was delivered in the mail in bubble wrap and cardboard to the teenager who was testing underage sales for trading standards.
To my mind, there's no coincidence here. The government will now shift the focus of ID Cards purposes to meaningless** proof of age arguments, and if it can make it harder for young people to access adult services or goods without proof of age, then they will be coerced into taking an ID Card because life becomes too difficult without one. Expect to see more articles like this, claiming that all teenage social ills could be resolved with a proof of age scheme (which incidentally already exists in a number of successful independent approaches as well as the government's own Proof of Age Standards Scheme (PASS)). We're going to victimise our youth to push this policy through, and that saddens me.
So rumours of the National Identity Service's demise are very much ill-founded - it's alive and well and blossoming. And if I ever have to manage such a difficult project, I'd like IPS' current communications team on my side, since clearly they could sell snow to the Inuit.***
* as a colleague pointed out recently, it's more of a J-turn if something is already going backwards at speed...
** if a young person wants a knife, they can get one from the kitchen drawer. A machete is possibly the least practical edged weapon that anyone could ever choose to carry around with them.
*** to see how this happens, watch the brilliant "Absolute Power" episode on "Identity Crisis"