Compulsory ID cards are to be scrapped, claims the Sunday Mirror today. And although the claim was immediately denied by ministers, the tone of the denials so far has been mysteriously unconvincing.
Home Office Minister Tony McNulty in particular seems to give the impression of a man who suspects he might not know what's going on; he's a Home Office veteran, so ignorance is nothing new, but a glimmer of self-awareness is novel. McNulty, monitor i/c security, counter-terrorism, crime and policing, was asked by Sky News whether the timetable that called for ID cards to become compulsory in 2010 stood, and replied: "As I understand it we will roll it out with foreign nationals first, as indicated. Those seeking asylum already have them in an early form and that will be developed and the thing as I understand it rolls out as planned."
As I understand it, twice? And the very same man told the BBC that: "As far as I am aware universal ID cards remain on the agenda." So how far is that, Tony? All three of these qualifiers could easily have been dispensed with by a minister confident that they had been fully briefed on the current state of the art.
Work and Pensions Secretary Peter Hain was more definite, telling the BBC that the claim was "not true" and claiming that recent discussions took place involving Immigration Minister Liam Byrne on the implementation ID cards for foreign nationals, so that "we will be absolutely certain they are who they say they are".*
That however merely restates one of the claims made by the Mirror, that next year's introduction of compulsory ID cards for foreign nationals will go ahead as planned. As DWP Minister, Hain would be not a little inconvenienced if this didn't happen; the DWP is currently at the forefront of the Government's efforts to tackle the 'immigration issue', and the chosen weapon for getting on top of the question of whether non-UK nationals do or don't have a right to work here, or whether they should be referred to the Borders & Immigration Agency's SWAT teams, is the ID card for foreign nationals.
We've said before that trying to build the DWP's systems into an ID system is crazed folly, but that's the plan Hain is depending on, and there's a certain amusement to be gained from the thought that if universal ID cards go but ID cards for foreigners remain, Peter Hain of all people will be presiding over the pass that drives the pass laws.
According to the Mirror, quoting "Whitehall sources", the rollout of compulsory ID cards will be "shelved indefinitely" after their introduction for foreign nationals. Slightly bafflingly, the paper says that: "Mr Brown was persuaded that the £7 billion scheme would inevitably be challenged in both UK and European courts and the last thing he needs is for the war on terror to become bogged down in litigation."
It's certainly possible that people might find ways to mount legal challenges to compulsory ID cards, but the most obvious potential challenge would be over the introduction of an ID card for EU citizens resident in the UK. This is specified in the ID Cards Act, and can only go ahead without being challenged by Brussels if compulsory ID cards for all UK citizens also go ahead. The moment Gordon Brown's Government admits that compulsory ID cards aren't going to happen for UK citizens is the moment that he also has to abandon them for non-UK EU citizens, because he's not permitted to discriminate against them.
So if the Mirror story is true, Hain is left presiding over a register of less fortunate foreigners, and there's no way ID cards can be presented as a mechanism for dealing with the most recent 'immigration issue', the influx of workers from EU recent entrant countries. Not, of course, that he could have done anything about this anyway.
The other leg of the Mirror story quotes a "minister involved in the original ID card plan" (nice to hear from you again, David?) as saying: "Time and technology has moved on. We now have photo driving licences and isometric [er, he must surely have said "biometric"] passports are being introduced. They fulfil the role of ID cards."
If this really is Blunkett, whose tech-happy time-bombs still explode at the Home Office, marvel at the cheek of it. But whoever it is, they're sort of right. We've had photo driving licences for a long time now, and they haven't fixed the DVLA's ID-related problems, nor are they, or should they be viewed as, strong ID. A passport is however potentially strong ID, and with the introduction of biometric passports the UK has discharged its ICAO-related international responsibilities.
The Identity & Passports Service (IPS) has moved the focus of the old Passport Service from the document to the individual, and will continue down that road, meaning that it will eventually build up a form of identity register covering the bulk of UK citizens under its own steam (see Plan B from Petty France). And via the General Registry Office land-grab it picks up the rest of them (except for the Scots**).
This leaves you with a population-wide database of personal information, and all of the questions about security, privacy and access that have existed since Blunkett first sought to introduce "entitlement cards". But the problem never was the piece of plastic or the passport, was it? ®
* Non-denials update: Security Minister Lord West said he was "not aware" of any plans to "go cold" on universal ID cards. We currently await a proper denial from Liam "Great British Institution" Byrne. ®
** Smug update: The author of this piece would just like to take the opportunity to say that he had the extraordinary foresight to be Scottish, and can therefore smirk guardedly. Whatever you do, don't let him have the files, Alec.