UK Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday knocked the wheels off Home Secretary David Blunkett's ID card bandwagon, citing "huge logistical and cost issues that need to be resolved" before the cards can be implemented. If words such as "privacy" and "freedom" also figured in his reasoning he neglected to share this with us, but he pointed out that the last government (by which he presumably means Tory government, rather than the one he himself baked earlier) had examined the issue "over a period of years" and had come to similar conclusions.
Blair's comments were made in response to a question, covering asylum seekers, at his monthly press conference. In recent months the Home Office's desire for an "entitlement card" to be used for interaction with government has morphed into a more security-driven compulsory national ID card scheme. Yesterday, however, the question followed up on proposals for ID cards to be used as, yes, "entitlement cards" for health service treatment. Health Minister John Hutton has supported Blunkett on this basis.
Blair however addressed asylum specifically and the issue of ID cards. On asylum, he clearly does not regard cards as the central issue - "what is vitally important with all these questions to do with asylum is to get the numbers down"... this is the "only way of dealing with this in the end."
In the long run he thinks there is a case for Britain "moving towards a system of ID cards," but they present huge logistical and cost issues. It is "worth looking, and this is what we are doing, at how you can resolve them, but it is not a quick fix for the system."
So what should we make of this? The cost, estimated at £39 on passports and driving licences, but perhaps double this according to less optimistic assessments, was intended to be borne by the luckless applicant; not a scheme calculated to aid Blair's personal re-election plans. However, Blair's reference to the experience of the previous government suggests that all of the difficulties and pitfalls that have historically been associated with ID cards have been taken on board.
And that phrasing "moving towards a system of ID cards" effectively runs the curtain down on any kind of big bang, compulsory rollout. Which, perhaps, sets the government back on the road to sanity. As a security mechanism ID cards only work if everybody has one and (very big if) if you can be pretty certain that everybody's card really says who they really are. Lack of compulsion, which is what Blair seems to be saying here, pushes it towards the back-burner security-wise, possibly allowing cards as an authentication mechanism to move back into the foreground.
By strange coincidence, the E-Envoy's Office today kicked off a smartcard policy consultation. This may or may not turn out to be satisfactory, but but in principle it ought to be more promising than the Blunkett version.
Coming up with some kind of coherent policy may however be becoming urgent. Britain has recently been accused of falling behind the rest of Europe on smartcards/authentication/ID; but that's kind of what you'd expect if government confines itself to alternately coming up with the misguided and unworkable, then shooting it down. ®