Might Alan Johnson abandon the ID Cards scheme?

The Sunday Times reports that new Home Secretary Alan Johnson has ordered a review of the National Identity Service. Claiming inside information that he “is more sympathetic to civil liberties arguments than previous home secretaries,” the article suggests that he would scrap the ID Card scheme but continue with the build of biometric passports. Could this be the victory that anti-ID campaigners have been seeking?

It seems unlikely to me that a Home Office review could ever countenance the scrapping of the National Identity Service in the way that opponents want: the last thing the government would do at this time is to repeal one of their own Acts of Parliament, and nothing short of that will satisfy campaigners. The Home Secretary would gain favour with some of Labour’s rebel elements, but for his purposes this can be achieved by scrapping ID Cards in name only, or even just by restating the government’s intention to make it optional to carry a card.

Over the past five years, successive Home Secretaries have managed to obfuscate the boundaries between the government’s international obligations and their own policy desires; between which components of the National Identity Service serve the Identity Cards Act and which serve other border control and security legislation; between the costs of each component; and between how much of the awarded contract values are tied up in cancellation clauses were the scheme to be scrapped. This is most dramatically demonstrated by the fact that Foreign National biometric visa cards are being branded as ID Cards despite the fact that they are issued under completely separate legislation.

So when the review of the NIS goes through, it may well recommend scrapping ID Cards, but I suspect that it will support ongoing work to issue Foreign National cards, critical worker (CWIC) cards, biometric passports and the centralisation of biometric and biographical information into the National Identity Register. In other words, all that will change is that we won’t receive the bit of plastic – everything else will continue regardless.

That would score the Home Secretary his PR win of ‘scrapping ID Cards’, and allow him to shave just a few million pounds off the scheme, although of course it could save many billions of pounds for the other public authorities and private companies that would otherwise have been obliged to purchase card reader equipment. But the cost to the UK would be far greater than the current approach, since we would continue with the bulk of the expense – and the associated hit on civil liberties – but effectively abandon any hope of achieving any of the Identity Cards Act’s stated purposes of improving public service efficiency, whilst simultaneously denying businesses the ability to benefit in any way whatsoever.

This shaved down approach to ID Cards would scale the project back to providing border security, law enforcement and right to work functions. That makes the approx. £5bn cost over the next 10 years look rather expensive when any anticipated savings disappear.

What’s the bigger picture here?

There is a growing concern within industry, including many individuals and organisations who have long been opposed to the National Identity Service, that abandoning or scaling back the NIS will create a policy dilemma. For five years we’ve been waiting for the NIS to emerge, and the UK has fallen behind a host of other nations in its provision of identity-related services. Public authorities are reluctant to invest in their own regional or application-specific ID approaches when they’ve been told to expect the NIS as a trump card to beat all other programmes. Private companies have stagnated in the development of technologies or infrastructure because of the risk that whatever they come up with won’t be compatible with the NIS – the lack of standards or a coordinated business approach from government has effectively stifled innovation in this space.

If the NIS is removed from this scenario – or worse still, pared back to eradicate any functionality that might assist authorities other than the Home Office – then we will see a host of public sector programmes appearing to fill that void, and the expansion of functionality expected from the likes of ContactPoint and Government Gateway (and we already know what happens when programmes have extra functionality thrust upon them half way through their development). Industry will start to build a host of competing technologies and initiatives that confuse and divide the market for identity-related services, and suppress any hope of a sensible federated trust approach to pan-industry collaboration. Other countries will leap ahead in competitiveness, leaving the UK as a developing nation in technology terms – so much for ‘broadband Britain.’

So what should the Home Secretary do?

The National Identity Service is already too convoluted, confused and chaotic to be able to withstand yet another Home Secretary messing with its objectives and delivery plan. We either have to scrap it and repeal the Act – as opposition parties have committed to do – or continue along our current path but with a much greater focus upon public service efficiency and commercial benefit, as was advocated by the government’s own report into the scheme. My preference would be to scrap the Act and start again, but this time basing the project on a more commercially- focussed and citizen-centric approach (those two objectives are complementary, not competing). But we must do something in this space, since ignoring ID would carry an even greater risk for the UK.

As a friend and colleague recently said: “The only thing the government could do now that would be more stupid than building the NIS, would be not to build an NIS”.