ID Cards: A solution looking for a problem

The business case for the government’s multi-billion pound ID card programme has never been clear.

Ministers have variously touted the cards as a solution to terrorism, benefit fraud and illegal immigration.

Set against these moving goalposts, it is hard to judge whether the benefits of the ID card programme are worth the cost.

And, as we report this week, it is the public that will have to pay for the scheme through increased passport charges.

In some ways, subsidising the cost of the ID card programme by charging more for passports makes sense. The same IT infrastructure now lies behind both passports and ID cards.

But as Tony Collins points out, the cost for individuals could be high. The charges for a new passport have already risen dramatically, from £28 in 1999 to as much as £114 currently. A £200 passport is probably not far off.

These charges will hit some people hard – those on low wages, families planning a foreign holiday, and pensioners. And for benefits that are hard to quantify.

The Conservative Party remains unconvinced of the value of ID cards, particularly at a time when public sector finances are under pressure during a downturn.

The party has promised to scrap the ID card programme if it wins the next election. But, as we reveal in this issue, ID cards and passports are so intertwined that scrapping ID cards alone will save very little.

The ID card contracts put in place by the government will be needed whether or not ID cards are introduced.

So ID cards may well be a fait accompli. But without a clear business case, the technology still appears to be a solution looking for a problem.

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While completely agreeing with your conclusion that ID cards are a solution looking for a problem, I have to disagree with you when you say:

"But, as we reveal in this issue, ID cards and passports are so intertwined that scrapping ID cards alone will save very little."

There is no need whatsoever to replace the current passport infrastructure. Britain's current e-passports will meet ICAO standards for the foreseeable future. It looks very much as though the Home Office has dreamed up a non-existant requirement for ePassports with fingerprints precisely so that it can order new IT systems for a combined ID card and passport, which it will specify in such a way as to ensure that the ID card part can't easily be disentangled.

The USA and Australia (to name but two other countries) seem to have no plans to issue ePassports with fingerprints. The Schengen countries have decided to do so, but we are not a Schengen country, and will not suffer any adverse effects if we stay with the current photographic ePassports.

In other words, the entire £0.6bn of contracts for a new, gold-plated passport-plus-ID-card system just placed with IBM and CSC could be completely cancelled with no ill-effects.

For evidence of this, I give you the NAO report on the upgrade to ePassports, published in 2007:

It confirms that UK passports currently meet current and foreseeable ICAO standards, at a cost of only £61m, and that fingerprint biometrics are optional according to ICAO, with few countries using them.

As we all know, building an IT system without clear requirements is a recipe for disaster. Since there are no clear requirements for ID cards and no need to change the passport system, the Conservatives and/or LibDems would be well advised to cancel all the contracts that were awarded this week, and save the country the cost and grief of another large, failed government IT project.

Andrew Watson
07710 469624