Tories to ID Cards suppliers: don't sign the contracts

Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling appeared briefly on this morning’s Today programme to ask the five framework suppliers under the National Identity Service – CSC, EDS, Fujitsu, IBM, Thales – to think carefully before signing any contracts associated with the delivery of the scheme. Restating the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment that they will cancel the NIS, he warned them that if they sign the contracts they may find themselves out of pocket when the contracts are revoked.

Unfortunately that’s a pretty hollow threat for the suppliers, and there’s not a hope that any of them will rethink their delivery plans on the back of it. Aside from the fact that the suppliers will obviously have factored a change of government into their risk models, there are three key reasons why they won’t rethink their approach:

  1. The Identity & Passport Service has boasted on a number of occasions that the termination clauses in the supplier contracts are so punitive that no government would dare cancel them (sorry, I can’t find a reference for this, but IPS representatives have definitely made this assertion);
  2. The delivery of ID Cards has become inextricably intertwined with that of biometric passports. Cancelling the ID Cards component would not in fact require a cancellation of the supplier contracts, but instead a simple renegotiation of the scope of work that would most likely only shave a small component off the contract value for the suppliers, and certainly not cause them any major problems;
  3. Even if the Conservatives repeal the Identity Cards Act and scale the biometric passport programme back to the bare minimum obligation (which is significantly smaller than the government has repeatedly insisted it is) there will be a gaping void in public service information systems that will have to be filled with some sort of trusted authentication/verification infrastructure. The incumbent suppliers, having been amply compensated already, will have a strong case to argue that whatever new system replaces ID Cards should be procured through the existing framework rather than incurring the cost and delays associated with a fresh framework competition. They also have a wealth of experience in designing these solutions so will be well-placed to bid again.

This highlights one of the policy dilemmas that the Conservatives have created for themselves: it’s not enough just to cancel the ID Cards programme, they have to come up with a more constructive alternative that takes into account both our international commitments and the needs of public authorities and industry for a trusted authentication infrastructure.

It’ll also be interesting to see whether this reignites the spat between Intellect and the Conservatives, where John Higgins wrote to then shadow Home Secretary David Davis to warn him not to interfere in the IT industry, which was countered by a wonderful open letter from Davis in which he chastised Intellect for its involvement and promised that a Conservative government had learned how to deal with the IT industry.

[Declaration: I have no commercial relationship with any of the ID Cards framework bidders, although HP (who own EDS) are members of the Enterprise Privacy Group]