As the UK's ID cards bill charges through Parliament, signs are starting to emerge that the Home Office's dubious packaging plans might be coming apart at the seams. Asked earlier this week to provide a timescale for the addition of fingerprints and iris scans to passports, Immigration Minister Des Browne said a decision had yet to be made, and seemed to leave scope for this never happening.
Slight scope - Europe is currently committed to the mandatory inclusion of facial and fingerprint biometrics on passports, and while dab-happy Britain isn't being allowed to play with that trainset directly, we're still very enthusiastic about it all. Browne's answer, to one of a battery of questions from Liberal Home Affairs Spokesman Mark Oaten, is however intriguing. He said that production of passports with a facial biometric would commence in the final quarter of this year, but that: "We are at present considering the benefits and impacts of the possible introduction of fingerprint and/or iris biometrics. Unlike the facial biometrics, inclusion of either or both of these biometrics will require the personal attendance of all passport applicants. I have announced that adults applying for a passport for the first time will have to apply in person from the last quarter of 2006. However to require all applicants to apply in person and to record and store their additional biometrics would have a significant impact on UKPS operations and processes and a decision will not be taken on this until later in 2005."
The response is interesting because of the amount of manoeuvring space it leaves when measured up against previous announcements on the matter. The timescale itself has not been fixed, but ID cards will, the Home Office's 'concessions' announcement said, be "issued alongside passports." Obviously when this starts happening everybody will have to show up in person anyway, so there should be no question about that "significant impact on UKPS operations and processes" - if we're still issuing ID cards alongside passports, then the only question is over when the UKPS is going to have to sustain the impact. You could argue that this is what Browne must have meant, but if it's what he did mean he'd surely have found it a lot simpler to put it that way than they way he did put it.
Some skulduggery, readers, is definitely up, and if we consider the Home Office's stated reasons for doing various ID-related things alongside the real reasons and the logistical pressures, we might be able to figure out what.
Ministers have said, over and over again, that US requirements for biometric passports mean we've got to implement biometric passports, so we must shoulder the costs, and once we've done that we'll have most of the ID card scheme already built, so issuing biometric ID cards will be comparatively cheap. As The Register has repeatedly argued, this is nonsense because there's biometrics and biometrics, and schemes and schemes. The US simply requires that visitors' passports have an ICAO compliant facial biometric on them, and that's precisely what British passports issued from the tail end of this year will have. The US and ICAO don't require iris, fingerprint or the all-seeing, all-knowing database at the back end; you can do that if you like, but it's not compulsory and by the end of this year we will have done everything we need to do for the moment, no ID scheme of national identity register necessary.
The EU invention of a passport standard including facial and fingerprint biometrics complicates matters, as does pressure from some people in the US, e.g. outgoing Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge, for fingerprints to be added to US passports. Ridge argues this has to be done in order to keep pace with Europe, while in Europe it has been argued that Europe needs to implement biometric passports in order to keep pace with the US. Which would be funny if it weren't so shameful - it's quite clear what they're all up to.
If the European fingerprint requirement remains, and if (a bigger if) the US decides to add fingerprints to its own passports, then we'll be well on the way to the addition of fingerprint biometrics to international standards and the UK will probably have to join in, but it's not urgent, not something we have to do now.
Over at the UK Passport Service the prospect of having to do the ground-breaking in terms of biometric recruitment for the whole ID scheme has surely been concentrating minds. We do not at the moment have a passport renewal system that is in chaos, and implementing the two changes of adding the facial biometric, which merely needs a compliant picture, and requiring first time applicants to show up in person needn't throw it into chaos. Do we want to bugger everything up again (we did this quite recently, we didn't like it, the voters didn't like it) by making everybody show up and then faffing around with fingerprints and iris scans? No, we really don't want to do that.
Of course, if we had fingerprint and iris scans for most of the population on the database already, then all the UKPS would need in order to add them to a passport would be a design that would accommodate them. People therefore wouldn't have to show up to have them collected and UKPS would not face "significant impact." But, erm, that's the wrong way round, isn't it?
You could add all the stuff to the passport on the basis of 'might as well, got it already anyway, won't cost anything', but if you've been claiming that we're going to have all of this stuff because of the passports, the reality of your not actually needing it for the passports puts you in something of a pickle. Mightn't people say that perhaps you haven't been entirely truthful?
So we think the airbrush artistes in the Home Office intend to handle this approximately as follows. Having got Parliament to accept that the ID scheme should be implemented on the basis of the biometric passport requirement and its various other dubious advantages, New Labour will be returned at the general election and can begin the implementation of the ID scheme. Passports with facial biometric will roll as planned from Q4, and the ID scheme's biometric collecting capability will be rolled out across the country in accordance with the ID scheme's rollout, somewhat later. Once it is possible for this infrastructure to handle a reasonable throughput, passport applicants can be required to report to have their fingerprint and iris scans done for the ID scheme.
This doesn't mean that these biometrics have to be put onto the passport immediately, or indeed ever, nor does it mean that the issuing of passports need be screwed up by the need to collect them. It does mean that the eventual need of most people for a new passport will allow the Government to force people to volunteer to hand in their biometrics and be added to the national database which, as we've also kept saying, is the whole point of the packaging shenanigans. What you actually get in terms of bits of plastic is neither here nor there, so long as you've been logged. Once people have been logged they'll presumably get a card (they'd smell a rat if that didn't happen), and if they've had to be logged because they applied for a passport then in principle they'd likely be getting an ID card in approximately the same timeframe as their new passport.
But they needn't come at the same time, in the same envelope, via the same infrastructure. In response to those who might try to cry foul and claim it's all a big fiddle intended to lumber us with a ridiculously expensive, liberty-eating and ineffective scheme we don't need, the Government can point out that the adjustments are simply fine-tuning, being carried out for logistical reasons. Obviously, they'll tell us, everybody having voted for an ID scheme, we should implement it in the most efficient way possible. And there's no sense in the UKPS duplicating ID scheme infrastructure, although clearly the security of the passport system can benefit from the ID scheme. If by then you've pretty much forgotten what it was they said in the first (or second) place, then the logic will be compelling.
Your loopholes tonight Those of you roughing out plans for escape committees will have spotted the useful passport scheduling information straight away. If one's current passport became unusable ('oh dear - bit scorched, innit?) then a new facial biometric passport without the additional stuff would leave you a theoretical ten years with some country-fleeing capability. This will put you a little further down the queue for the ID scheme call-up papers, but on its own isn't enough for you to escape them, unless the whole thing gets junked in the interim. But other possibilities may be opening up.
Mark Oaten also asked Browne "what arrangements he plans to make to allow British citizens living overseas to register for identity cards", and the answer is that there aren't any. "There will be no requirement on British citizens resident abroad to register for an identity card until such time as they come to take up residence here." That's certainly helpful to refuseniks who're already living and working abroad, and might also be useful for those considering skipping off to a handy European country. It does however hinge to some extent on how the Home Office proposes to define resident abroad. It's perfectly possible to be living abroad while not being resident abroad in accordance with the Treasury's rules, but if the Home Office proposed to simply adhere to these it would find itself requiring people who're not living in the UK to attend for biometric enrolment. Your mum forwards the call-up papers to wherever you actually are, you write back saying you live in Australia now, what happens then? Much scope for chaos here, watch this space. ®