The head of the government's identity card programme has defended the new roll-out strategy launched last week, saying it will deliver "most benefit to all us of as quickly as possible".
In an interview with Computer Weekly, James Hall, chief executive of the Identity & Passport Service (IPS), said the twin-track approach would increase public protection in sensitive areas and make life easier for people who need to verify their identity in their daily lives.
"The twin-track approach to delivery means we will start with compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals and for those employed in sensitive roles or locations, and where identity assurance is important to public protection," said Hall.
"Then we will begin issuing identity cards, on an entirely voluntary basis, to those people for whom there is the greatest personal benefit in their daily lives from having or using an identity card."
Recording biometrics, such as fingerprints and facial images, as part of the enrolment process for an identity card would give far greater assurance of an individual's identity than can be done with existing checks, he said. "The robustness of this process will, in turn, make it easier, cheaper and quicker to conduct other pre-employment checks."
The new twin-track policy requires foreign nationals and workers in sensitive occupations to enrol for compulsory ID cards while other groups, including students, will be able to sign up voluntarily. This year, foreign nationals who want to live and work in the UK will be compelled to enrol on the National Identity Register. The government will also insist that workers such as airline cabin crew and baggage handlers sign up. Starting in 2010, it will target young people such as students for voluntary enrolment.
But this appears to contradict the approach proposed by the government's independent reviewer of Britain's identity assurance programmes, Sir James Crosby.
Crosby said last week that a successful national ID scheme depended on fast and widespread take-up of ID cards. A consumer-oriented approach would lead to a system that people used voluntarily, which would achieve the government's goals, he said.
The Home Office has welcomed Crosby's report, saying, "We will carefully consider the impact each of the recommendations would have for the scheme." It added that it was partly due to Crosby that it had "moved towards a more consumer-led approach to command public trust in a national identity scheme".
The government expects this new strategy to cut £1bn from the scheme's original estimated cost of £5.4bn. Savings are expected to come from the private sector taking over elements of the scheme, such as biometric enrolments. Every six months, the IPS publishes a cost report detailing the estimated cost of issuing identity cards and passports over a 10-year period. The next estimates are due to go to Parliament by May.
Hall said the IPS would run a series of workshops this year to identify which sectors the scheme might be extended to, after airports, to cover people in sensitive roles or locations.
"We have no current plans for teachers, paediatricians, nurses, nannies or parents to be included," he said. "Such a move would not occur without full consultation and discussion with those affected."
The government plans to offer ID cards to young people from 2010. "These cards are entirely voluntary and there are no plans to make it necessary to hold an identity card to access any services," said Hall.
"We expect young people will find an identity card a convenient and useful way of proving their identity when accessing both private and public sector services and intend to work with others to ensure that is the case."
Hall said that over time, the scheme would offer different ways to verify a person's identity. These would depend on the situation and organisation in question, and would range from a simple visual check to biometric verification.
"The roll-out of the scheme will be incremental over many years and we are still in the process of developing plans for identity verification checks," he said. "In particular, we will seek to build on the successful operation of existing services, such as the passport validation service that is operated by the IPS today."
Hall said only accredited organisations would be permitted to make identity checks. "They will make their own decisions on the procurement of ID card readers as necessary in the light of their business environment and operational processes. It is too early to speculate about the precise number of card readers or users."
The recently published National Identity Scheme Delivery Plan 2008 launched a consultation process to "increasingly engage" organisations as the scheme rolls out "to maximise benefits and value for money", said Hall.
Clarifying a statement by home secretary Jacqui Smith at the relaunch of the delivery plan, Hall said it would not be possible to access the National Identity Register directly via the internet.
However, earlier government statements suggested that government departments, including police and national security, would be able to access identity, address and other personal details on the register.
Critical response from business leaders
The government's revamped ID card plans have drawn criticism from UK business leaders.
Roger Wiltshire, secretary-general of the British Air Transport Association, described the relaunch plan, which will make it compulsory for workers in airports and other sensitive locations to carry ID cards, as a "half-baked and extremely dubious PR initiative".
"The home secretary's proposals offer no benefits or added value at all, as far as we can see," he said. "They will, however, add yet another layer of bureaucracy and millions of pounds of expense for thousands of airport workers and businesses."
British Airline Pilots' Association (Balpa) general secretary Jim McAusland said, "The implication of not being able to work as a pilot without a UK ID is nothing short of coercion. It also raises questions about the many professional non-UK pilots flying for UK airlines who will not be able to secure an ID card.
"On a practical level, and from what is known about the plans, this would be an additional requirement to the existing criminal record check, the five-year reference check, the airside pass process, which itself varies from airport to airport, and the inconsistent security regimes practised at check-in at individual airports.
"The combination of all of these existing checks is already seen by the majority of pilots as unco-ordinated, intrusive and unprofessional, and has been shown in surveys to be highly stressful and a growing threat to flight safety. The home secretary's proposals offer no improvements in security or any other benefits, as far as we can see."
James Hall, head of the Identity and Passport Service, said it would be wrong to speculate on how many security incidents at airports might be, or might have been, prevented by the introduction of identity cards.
"We acknowledge that the aviation industry is already taking impressive action to ensure the integrity of the checks and systems it has in place, in order to ensure the highest levels of security for airside personnel, as well as for the travelling public," he said. "These steps will enhance those efforts greatly."
Hall said the IPS would build on the outcome of an independent review of personnel security in the transport sector, currently under way at the Department of Transport under Sir Stephen Boys Smith.
Confederation of British Industry deputy director general John Cridland questioned the robustness of the enrolment process, saying, "One sticking point is the requirement on the private sector to provide information that can be used to verify data held on the national register without making clear who will be liable for the accuracy of the information and how it will be used. The government must address this as a matter of urgency if it wants to build confidence in the scheme."
The British Bankers Association said the banking industry had no plans to use biometrics to authenticate customers or transactions. A spokesman said some banks were experimenting with the technology.