UK ID card scheme likely to be ‘debacle’, says Jack Straw

Previous threat to freedom savages current one

UK home secretary David Blunkett's on-off ID card scheme may now be off for the foreseeable future, following the leak of highly critical letters from foreign secretary Jack Straw and the Treasury over the weekend. Straw, Blunkett's predecessor at the Home Office, warns of a "large-scale debacle," while the Treasury letter argues that the £40 fee for Blunkett's compulsory card would have to be categorised as a tax hike.

The leak, publicised in yesterday's Sunday Times, lines up two of the cabinet's biggest heavyweights (and challengers for the succession to Blair) against the scheme, largely on grounds of cost and electoral expediency, which is the language the British government understands best. Straw (who jettisoned his own version of ID cards while Home Secretary), points out that the card would have to be free to asylum seekers (which turns some of Blunkett's populist guns back on him) and points to electoral disaster ensuing from logistical and technical problems.

"How will we get asylum seekers to accept a fee system when asylum seekers get the card free?

"What about the practicality of ensuring every citizen provides a biometric sample while no efective procedures are in place for those who refuse?... I will continue to urge strongly that this issue be shelved."

It's certainly occurred to The Register that the imposition of compulsory biometric registration would create a favourable climate for wide-scale revolt; people will tend to evade because they can't be bothered or because they actively don't want to be tagged, so a large lumpenrevolt would make it difficult to isolate and pick off smaller quantities of liberal refuseniks. Straw is no liberal himself, but can display a weasel-like cunning in some circumstances, and we think this is one of them.

Straw also reveals that the Foreign Office is conducting its own study of the use of ID cards in other countries, which should be a leak to look forward to. He warns of a decrease of £33 million in passport revenues to the Foreign Office caused by people using their ID card to travel within Europe, of the cost of putting biometrics on passports and visas (opposition here is particularly worth noting, because this issue is to an extent free-standing, only related to the ID cards scheme in that Blunkett envisages using passports as one of the jumping off points for ID cards), and of possible format disputes with other EU countries.

The Treasury's earlier position on ID cards was fairly agnostic - if they went ahead, it wanted to make sure the departments benefiting would shoulder the costs, and it looked unlikely to be convinced that there could be any 'general benefit' argument that would persuade Gordon Brown to cough up. Its leaked letter is in no sense as inflammatory as Straw's, and puts forward what we might see as an escape route for Blunkett.

Writes Treasury chief secretary Paul Boateng: "There may well be alternative options that would provide us with a series of quick wins with much lower risks and costs."

This, regrettably, is what The Register has been suggesting they'll do as soon as they figure out what a disaster a straight run at a full-on ID card scheme would be. A strategy of picking off areas where ID in a converged format can be introduced without widespread outcry (e.g. passports, driving licences, national health, social security, foreigners) can effectively be converted into a de facto national ID card a few years down the line, the virtue of this being you don't really have to ask people about it. We might be reading too much into that sentence, but we doubt it.

Boateng also welcomes the "progress we have made" since the cabinet's domestic affairs committee first discussed ID cards, and says that "the practical points raised by cabinet are substantial, though not insurmountable." This isn't opposition from the Treasury at all, is it? It's manoeuvring.

Boateng's letter, incidentally, is said to have been sent to Blunkett, while Staw's went to other members of the cabinet. An odd conjunction of leaks, really.

Meanwhile, a Canadian parliamentary committee has published a preliminary study of the implementation of ID cards in several European countries. As regards the UK, it notes that the UK Home Office felt costs would be higher than published in the government's consultation paper, and that what the department saw as "general support" for ID cards was broad, but not deep, opposed by an "articulate 'liberal minority'... Whether this minority would gain strength following the introduction of legislation implementing an entitlement card was the subject of some speculation."

The Canadian study does not come to any firm conclusions, but is sufficiently guarded to suggest Canada will hang back in order to see how other countries' schemes pan out. As an outline of what's going on elsewhere though, it's useful reading. ®

Related stories:
Finger, faceprints get green light for Europe's ID standard
ID cards protect civil liberties - Blair
Blunkett states ID card aims - but can he achieve them?
National ID cards - a privacy side-issue?

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