ID cards minister admits technical challenges

Business leaders in London greeted the home secretary Jacqui Smith with enthusiasm last week when she spoke of the benefits of ID cards.

Business leaders in London last week greeted the home secretary Jacqui Smith with enthusiasm when she spoke of the benefits of ID cards.

She was at a breakfast gathering of business people who had come to hear how money could be made from the scheme.

Within feet of the IBM and CSC marketing stands – the two companies which have won more than £600m worth of ID cards contracts – fried breakfasts were being offered to all. 

Smith spoke of her excitement at being able to launch ID cards to the public. Some residents of Greater Manchester will be able to buy an ID card later this year.

She introduced a well-made and expensive film which portrayed the ID card as a designer brand. "Identity: what does it mean? Sometimes it's about individuality, to say that you are you."

Post offices, pharmacists, supermarkets, high street chemists, local authorities and universities have expressed an interest in taking the fingerprints and photos of applicants for ID cards.

Businesses which become enrolment partners of the Identity and Passport Service will be able to charge applicants a fee of between £10 and £25, in addition to the £30 flat charge for an ID card. The fee will allow them to recoup their investment in ID card technology – and make a profit.

It sounds a good business arrangement, especially for post offices, which struggle to exist.

The scheme could be scrapped

But something went unmentioned at the breakfast briefing.

So, after Jacqui Smith's speech, we asked her whether the people of Manchester should buy ID cards for £30 when the Tories have said they will scrap the scheme. Those in the room clapped with enthusiasm when Smith made the point that the Tories might not win the next election.

It is an important point, though. Richard Bacon, a Conservative member of the Public Accounts Committee, says that people who buy ID cards in Manchester may be wasting their money. This is because the Conservatives (and Liberal Democrats) have promised to scrap the scheme.

Uncertainties are compounded by a document which was published unnoticeably last week by the Home Office, the dryly named "ID Cards Secondary Legislation - An Impact Assessment".

The document is littered with caveats over the projected costs and benefits of the scheme. The few figures given in the document are in suspiciously rounded billions.

The total benefits will be between £9bn and £17bn over 30 years. The total costs will be £7bn over the same period. So, concludes the document, the net benefit (best estimate) will be £6bn over 30 years.

Jacqui Smith picked out this £6bn figure in her speech last week. She told the business audience, "Figures that we are publishing today assess that the economic benefit of a national identity service could be up to £6bn over the next 30 years."

But the Impact Assessment reveals that the £6bn figure is based on many assumptions, such as when and whether the public and businesses will take to the ID cards scheme.

It is easy to believe, when reading the document, that the figures for the benefits of ID cards have been drawn up on the back of an envelope. The government has decided, with advice from suppliers, that ID cards are good idea. The Impact Assessment is there to provide a justification for an investment in the scheme of at least £4.9bn over 10 years.

Jacqui Smith's speech was not entirely panegyric though. She conceded that there are "serious technological challenges" to delivering ID cards. She also said there is a need to prove that the government can keep personal information secure.

But these uncertainties, and a host of others, seemed of little interest to the business leaders at the breakfast event. They were encouraging the Home Office to roll out ID cards as soon as possible. Which would make it harder for the Tories to cancel the scheme.

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