Despite rumours to the contrary, the Government has as yet not announced plans to harvest the UK's electoral rolls for ID card defaulters, or to make voting dependent on having an ID card. But an answer to a parliamentary question given by the Department of Constitutional Affairs earlier this week makes it reasonable to suspect the existence of unannounced plans, or perhaps just partially-formed dreams, to this effect.
In pursuit of her own party's press release on the subject, Tory MP Caroline Spelman asked "what assessment the Government have made of whether a new electoral register database (a) will be of assistance in and (b) may be used to assist the introduction of identity cards."
Which is a straightforward question standing some chance of a straightforward answer. For the DCA, Harriet Harman MP (for it is she) could simply have said whether or not the Government intends to use the planned co-ordinated online record of electors (CORE) to identify ID card defaulters and use Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) to extract penalties for non-compliance (as the Tories claimed), or not. Harman however passed up the opportunity to tell the Tories they were making it all up, and instead went for answering a rather different question:
Ms Harman: The Government are currently consulting on proposals for national access to electoral register information, in particular the development of a consolidated record of all that information in a centrally-held dataset. This consultation paper on the proposed co-ordinated online record of electors (CORE) identifies a number of ways in which a consolidated record could be of assistance, in respect of decreasing the administrative burden on existing users of electoral register data...
[We mentioned sales opportunities when we covered this first, but suggested that the processes envisaged could well increase the burden on EROs]
...and strengthening measures to counter any attempted fraud in relation to electoral registration.
Note how this doesn't answer the question at all. Spelman asked how the CORE system might be used to aid the introduction of ID cards, Harman told her how the existence of a consolidated national dataset would strengthen the integrity of the electoral register. She continued:
...The consultation paper also seeks views on longer-term possibilities opened up by establishing a co-ordinated record of electors. Such possibilities include the potential for comparison of electoral register data with that in any identity card register, so that the integrity of the former can benefit from the high levels of verification proposed for ID cards.
Here she swings close to answering the question by referring to the potential for comparing the CORE dataset with the National ID Register, but then banks away by stressing the benefits the CORE dataset might derive from this, and failing to get specific about the possibilities of it being a two-way street.
That however is one of the points of comparing databases - data that matches up is strengthened by the exercise, and data that ought to match but doesn't is clearly wrong in one, the other, or both. In the bad old days (which for the purposes of current electoral rolls we still inhabit), a one-way check was/is conceivabl, but a check of a future central CORE dataset against a future National Identity Register will by its nature be a cross-check. The ID card is not intended to become compulsory until it has achieved a high level of penetration, and until the ID card is compulsory it quite obviously can't be made a requirement for electoral registration. So electoral registration could only aid the introduction of ID cards once ID cards had been successfully introduced. Sorted? But once both do exist, anyone who seems to want to vote but doesn't seem to have an ID card will be an anomaly to all sorts of Government Departments,* all of whom will be busily whittling away at their own anomalies.
Which is the point, right? So the correct answer for Harman to have given would be something along these lines: 'The CORE dataset is unlikely to be of great assistance in the initial introduction of identity cards. Once the NIR has achieved a reasonable level of penetration, however, CORE will be one of many Government datasets which are strengthened by the NIR and by links to other datasets facilitated by the NIR. All of these datasets are themselves expected to contribute to the strengthening of the NIR, and of the ID card as the "Gold Standard" of ID, and CORE will be no exception.' She wouldn't need to mention what happens to the anomalies - that goes without saying.
* In a roadmap published last year (in its ID card benefits overview) it envisages CRB checks and DVLA business as benefiting from the card early on (in the case of the DVLA, in starting to debug its driver database, although the Home Office coyly describes this as "improving business processes and customer relations") and education and employment related ID checks kicking in with "low card take-up". At majority take-up immigration 'improves its internal processes' (presumably by finding all those people it's missing), and the police 'provides intelligence and assists the public' (which is nice, one hopes). The Department of Work & Pensions, HM Revenue & Customs and the NHS kick in as we approach total coverage, and by comprehensive take-up we find the DCA enforcing fines, the Immigration & Nationalities Directorate "enforcing illegal working" (sic - presumably finding roles for all those people it discovered in the last phase), police trawling the NIR in search of matches for crime scene fingerprints, and the ONS (plans for 'whole life records' were killed off by the ID card scheme) using cards to support the census. ®