Analysis Growing public concern over the cost of ID cards forced price concessions of sorts from Home Secretary Charles Clarke last week, but these leave the Home Office facing the prospect of an ever-widening money hole as the total cost of the scheme climbs.
On the basis of the current cost estimates of £93 for passport and card, and £20-30 for a standalone card a hole probably exists already, and we're beginning to see clues as to how the Home Office proposes to plug it - it will do so via a cost laundering system we'll be seeing a lot more of as the scheme progresses.
On the morning of last week's Commons debate on ID cards, which the Government won with a reduced majority, Clarke indicated to BBC's Today programme that the Government would be developing sources for income for the ID scheme. "The question of what the charging regime would actually be depends on how much income we bring in from other sources and other departments", he said.
Significantly, he had earlier cited Criminal Records Bureau checks as an example of how useful ID cards would be. During the debate itself he elaborated on this: "The actual charge will be determined by the Government at the time of introduction, depending on the business plan for the card's introduction. It will include, first, the cost of producing the card following the tender process; secondly, it will include the income in respect of driving licences or the Criminal Records Bureau, for example, which we could use to deal with the costs associated with the card."
Spookily, although the Criminal Records Bureau hadn't figured anywhere obvious in the Government's ID plans until last week, at his Wednesday press conference Tony Blair piped up: "Just to give you another example, for the Criminal Records Bureau, which after all hundreds of thousands of people have to go through the whole time [what, like Sisyphus? - Ed], it takes something like four weeks to do an identity check, it would take three days with an identity card."
Blair did not explain why an identity check would still take three days in the brave new world of online biometrics, while for Today Clarke confined himself to saying it would reduce the time dramatically. The point however is that the CRB has popped into some wonk's head as both a useful source of income and a shotgun evangelist for the ID scheme. Those looking for a job in a school might well contemplate previous delays and difficulties in getting clearance through the CRB, and consider the ID card a bargain. Schools, whether they want to pay for ID card checks or not, won't have a lot of choice once potential employees start presenting them as ID.
One is drawn to the conclusion that Blair and Clarke's sudden deployment of the CRB in their case is not entirely unconnected with the need to pay for the ID scheme. The CRB would be a small but steady source, but the size of the revenue stream could possibly be increased simply by widening the requirement for employers to make Criminal Record Checks.
Similarly, employers' requirement to check employment eligibility will produce revenue and stimulate ID card uptake. Employers won't be able to demand an ID card until they're compulsory, but potential employees may well find it a lot easier to get a job if they fall in with the system. And previous Home Secretary David Blunkett, in a speech last autumn, made it clear that once the ID card existed he would see little justification for employers to fail to use it to meet their legal requirements.
Clarke's reference to "income in respect of driving licences" is also interesting. According to Blair "people are already looking at, for example, whether it is not possible to get some of the information you need for your driving licence and this type of thing by use of the identity card", so although it won't be permissible for organisations to require production of an ID card until they're compulsory, here also we could have a case where things happen faster with an ID card, and the ID scheme gains revenue through their increased use. Blair's wording is characteristically fuzzy, but we could possibly interpret "get some of the information you need for your driving licence" as implying a series of database links being used to assemble the components of a licence application.
In the real world, of course, things won't necessarily happen faster with an ID card. Considering the Government's track record (the CRB being a particularly grisly example) the promises of greater speed and efficiency remain open to some doubt; but remember we're talking about where the Government thinks it can squeeze money here, not about where it's actually going to. And the spectacular delays in past CRB record checks were not entirely unconnected with the Government's inability to manage database systems effectively; this has not however stopped Blair and Clarke using the historical mess as an argument in favour of their (probably imaginary) super-efficient future.
Although the Government hasn't been specific about the income from "other departments" it must now have a pretty clear idea which departments are going to have to contribute, if not about the precise levels of contribution. Some charges can be absorbed by the individual departments, while others can be passed on directly to the public (which is paying all of them anyway, one way or another), but there are areas where direct charges may be politically difficult. Charging people for dying, for example, might not be popular, but nevertheless we can't altogether rule it out. As far as Government departments are concerned, one can envisage the National Identity Register as acting as a kind of gatekeeper deriving an income per transaction, while the consequent increasing 'popularity' of the ID scheme will mean the number of transactions will steadily increase.
On the evidence of Blair's press conference, the Government may also be looking at online services as a potential source of income, despite the fact that a biometric ID card isn't a lot of use online. The Government did however rule out the inclusion of a digital signature in the card on the grounds of cost in the entitlement consultation, so unless this has changed, the only way the card could operate online is by use of a PIN.