Analysis Although run by Great Communicator David Blunkett the Home Office, as you may have noticed, seems utterly incapable of getting across a coherent message on what it will actually charge people for ID cards. Last month's non-concession announcement was no exception; prices made it into the papers on the morning of 28th October, and by 2nd November there was David Blunkett clarifying the "misleading statements that were made last week." Somewhat tortuously.
There's a reason for this. The Home Office's objective for the ID scheme doesn't actually have a great deal to do with the kinds of ID card and passport you either want or will get, and rather more to do with what it thinks you'll put up with paying. The money extracted goes towards what they really want - the National Identity Register (NIR). The primary goal of the scheme is to collect biometric and personal data on the entire population of the UK in order to build the NIR, and to use this together with your biometrics as a security and validation system. Cards and passports are merely a recruiting mechanism for this system, the most obvious and immediate example being passports, where you're going to have to co-operate sooner or later if you ever want to leave the country. It is therefore convenient from the Home Office's point of view that all your biometrics, rather than just the ones needed for passports, are collected when you apply for your new passport, because it's the quickest and surest way to get them all.
The real requirements Note that the Home Office doesn't need to do that, and that the National Identity Register doesn't need to be built as a consequence of what the Home Office does have to do. The ICAO international passport standard which will shortly be essential for travel to the US simply requires a biometric facial image, while new European standards whose introduction the Home Office itself supported will also require fingerprints on passports within the next few years. But the NIR is not a requirement. A chipped passport will be much harder to forge, while a biometric passport can be tied relatively easily to the bearer via a local check - no network or NIR required. That's the intent, and that's pretty much what more sensible countries will be doing. You could even throw away the biometrics after you'd put them in the passport, and you'd still have a pretty solid validation system for ports of entry.
This, which we repeat is what the Home Office is obliged to do as opposed to what the Home Office is doing, is potentially pretty cheap. People running biometric schemes in other countries (for example Hong Kong, where the card is free, with a $20 charge for a replacement) laugh out loud when they hear the insane prices being quoted for the UK, and read the complex justifications for them. Which is where we came in - back, then, to young David's latest financial explanation.
Juggling the budget In response to a question from David Winnick MP of the Home Affairs Committee, Blunkett stated: "The biometrics will be part of the development of the passport system over the next three years. That development of secure passports which is essential now for travel, not least to the United States where otherwise it will cost an individual $100 a time to obtain a visa and six weeks of considerable wait to do so, will enable us to be able to demonstrate the taking and the use of the biometric and the cost of the passport and then the cost of the ID card which will go alongside it." Note the absence of an actual technical justification for the cost of the passport here. Instead, it is apparently a bargain because it will cost less than the US would charge you for a visa if you didn't have a biometric passport.
Now, the other bit: "The cost of the ID card element will be the database and the ability, as again recommended by the Committee, of people to be able to monitor the access to that database and to check their own details and question with the Commission - that we have also agreed to expand as recommended by you - to be able to determine what is being accessed on that database and by whom. The cost of that therefore will run something like this: 415 million, we estimate, by 2008/9 for the development and delivery of the whole of the cost of the biometric passport and 85 million for the annual cost of running the card system alongside it."
Note first that he's categorising the ID card as being the part of the scheme that has to support the NIR, and second how eagerly he leaps on the opportunity to blame the Home Affairs Committee for increases in cost to the scheme. Home Affairs wanted better facilities for people to monitor their details and a stronger Commissioner to oversee the ID scheme, so it can now take responsibility for upward revisions to the cost. Note also that there is no obvious way that the numbers he's quoting here can be added up to the fabled £3bn total cost of the scheme. But as the passport isn't the bit that's bearing the NIR, then you'd think the passport would cost less than the ID card, right? Or even that the extra cost of a biometric passport over a current one would be less than the cost of an ID card. A passport currently costs £42, while Blunkett envisages "around £70 for the biometric passport and £15 for the card combined together."
The artificial nature of the entire exercise is pretty clear, and can perhaps be rationalised as follows. The biometrics need too be developed for ICAO passports, therefore their cost is loaded onto the passport entirely. The biometric element of the ID card can therefore be counted as 'free' (which would be a funny way to allocate costs in proper business), and the £15 therefore has to cover the NIR plus all of the costs associated with administration, distribution and policing of the system. Even taking into account the fact that Blunkett is busily loading the rollout costs in terms of readers and infrastructure onto other departments (e.g. piggybacking on the NHS' NPfIT, which he revealed at an earlier Home Affairs hearing), £15 is way, way too low.
Previous Home Office suggestions have ranged up to £35 for the ID card, but note Blunkett uses the wording "combined together", i.e. the £70+£15 is actually a special offer only applicable if you buy them both at the same time and "we have yet to determine what the cost should be of a separate card where people do not require a passport and whether we should put the two together so that if you had a passport you would get a card automatically, but do you automatically get a passport if you get a card? I want to come back to that when we publish the Bill."
What a tangled web we weave... You can see just from this how Home Office pricing goes completely wacko. Blunkett is leaving scope for charging more for the separate items, and also lobbing in a completely different notion of forcing a passport on you when you find yourself compelled to get an ID card (which we're sure will happen during the "voluntary" phase - consider, for example, whether you'd be willing to volunteer yourself out of healthcare).
Compare and contrast the current version of the desperate pricing thrashing with the pitch Blunkett made on Breakfast with Frost in April (where among things he said: "I mean it's a meaningless sum." Indeed). Then, he suggested that the passport development would bear the cost of the database and " because we're building on that the cost of actually issuing the card as opposed to placing the biometric on the database linking it to the passport and the card, will only be £4 over a ten-year period." Pressed further on the cost of the card, he said: "The actual card cost will [build up?], over ten years, and we've built in a very substantial leeway here because obviously we don't want to be accused of having made up a figure that doesn't stand up to scrutiny [sic], will be an extra £35. £31 of that over the ten-year period would be required to bring up to date, to make secure, that passport and visa regime with biometrics." Which suggests that the cost of the database is actually being shared between the passport and ID card, and again you're wondering how come the sheets of paper cost so much. "In other words, we're being transparent about it. We could easily without a card simply have increased year on year the price of a passport."
Which they might well still do, depending on whether the card costs £4, £15, £35, or something else entirely. We'll insert a personal finance tip at this point, in the hope that it may make the Home Office's financial chicanery even trickier. Provided the Home Office doesn't specifically hobble the ID card so that you're not allowed to use it for travel (if it does, we can maybe call the ID card 'Passport XP Home Edition'), then so long as you only want to travel within the EU or anywhere else that will recognise it, you don't need a new passport. So try to renew your passport just before biometric passports come in, then don't renew it ever again. With a bit of luck, the Home Office will price the ID card low in order to avoid general public outcry, so if the sums pan out you could actually save money, albeit at the cost of being lumbered with the database. So probably best go for the outcry anyway, whatever the price.
What are you really getting? The essential pottiness of it all becomes more obvious when you consider what it is you're getting when you get a passport or an ID card, and the extent to which they differ. The Home Office hasn't yet publicly stated which biometrics will be used on either, but the passport needs to have facial image and fingerprint according to the new European rules, and the UK has been lobbying for iris scan also to be incorporated in the European passport standard. There is currently no European standard for ID card, but as the UK is likely to be collecting all three biometrics at time of passport application, it seems likely that at least in its ideal scenario all three biometrics would be on both, or that there would be room in the designs for all three. And the convenience of having the same biometrics on passport and ID card will surely be compelling to the Home Office.
What are the two documents? In essence, they're tokens which can be used to validate themselves (i.e. not forged) and the bearer (biometrics match token). They can also be used in conjunction with external data (which could be a network or just a watch list) to determine broader access privileges for the bearer. The bearer is the bearer, the access privileges are the access privileges, essentially the documents are the same, interchangeable. Or, as the Home Office has told us with reference to the ID version, because the validation can be checked via your biometrics you do not necessarily need the token in the first place (N.B. do not try this at border control). This sameness is made more obvious by the fact that you could use the passport to identify yourself in an ID card situation, because you can already do this today, and you could use the ID card as a travel document, as is already the case with other EU countries.
The differences between the two documents will therefore be physical, and semi-arbitrary differences introduced by what the Home Office might or might not decide to store on them. Passports will be a different shape in order to accommodate visa stamps etc, and possibly also because of the reader technology used, so they probably won't fit in whatever reader an ID card fits into, but they'll be the same things in different packages, and in this sense £30-40 seems a lot extra for a few sheets of paper. The Home Office's angsting over whether or not people who get ID cards should get passports at the same time just makes this sameness clearer; if you get a passport then you get an ID card because they're just two different packagings of the same thing, and if you get an ID card you should get a passport, for the same reason.
Apart from the money thing. Blunkett clearly can't pitch the truth to the public, because the truth is that he wants the entire population to give the Government money so the Government can keep files on them all. Logically, if you are your ID (which the Home Office says you are), then the token is just a worthless, non-essential thing that should come free with the control and surveillance system, which is what you're really paying for. All of this ridiculous fannying around over cost arises precisely because Blunkett can't say that, can't just order the whole population to report to their nearest 'pod' to hand in their pass law data, and therefore he has to assign arbitrary and ever-changing costs to items which the population might, grudgingly, accept that they have no choice but to pay for. Watch out for more fannying in a couple of weeks, however, when the Home Office's death-defying bean-counters will no doubt attempt to justify the cost of the standalone ID card. Or the card plus passport special offer you can't refuse.
Blunkettwatch: The Register's surveillance of David Blunkett's parliamentary performances over the past few weeks lead us towards the conclusion that here we have a man who should consider the dangers inherent for him in stringing two sentences together. Or alternatively, examine the quality of the string he's using. Here, for example, he responds to a suggestion by Marsha Singh MP that the arrest rate of under one per cent for those stopped and searched under the Terrorism Act might lead one to believe that the police were "using their powers under the Terrorism Act to go on fishing expeditions". Blunkett protests that a working group exists to make sure police are not engaged in "some sort of fishing trip or trawl which is just deliberately intended to disrupt the community." So no fishing trips, right? Then he adds: "Where that engagement with the community has been effective, for instance, in south London, it has also engaged the cooperation of the community itself. It is fair to say that the statistics that come out need to be measured by the number of charges of activity under other Acts, not just the Terrorism Act. Therefore, half the arrests have led to charges under other measures."
So you stop people under the TA, then nick them for something else you discover because you stopped them. But that's not a fishing trip - brilliant. Blunkett's standard defence of TA stop and search, which he has now mounted several times in answer to parliamentary questions, leans heavily on the 'charged for other stuff' justification. This helps him peddle the myth that the law is useful, despite TA conviction numbers perilously close to zero (example).
And in the House in response to Lynne Jones MP earlier this month, we have the following wondrous piece of reasoning on why Government stats on vehicle TA stop and searches don't match up. Blunkett: "The Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System 2003 report is concerned with detailing stop-searches by ethnicity, therefore, the number of stop-searches carried out on vehicles and not the occupants is omitted. The Home Office Statistical Bulletin, the source for the answer of 27 January, includes instances where the police have stop-searched just the vehicle and not any of the occupants." So as vehicles themselves do not have ethnicity as such, the Met doesn't record ethnicity unless it searches the contents too. We accept David probably didn't come up with this wondrous piece of reasoning all by himself. And if the Met does see an empty car driving along the public highway, we agree it makes sense to stop it and have a close look. ®
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