ID scheme hit for shifting cost to citizens

By Jimmy Burns | The Home Office on Tuesday faced claims of “creative accounting” as it pledged to cut nearly £1bn ($2bn) from the cost of the identity card scheme.

According to the latest official estimates, a broadening of the private sector role in the scheme to include involvement in biometric fingerprinting, as already promised by ministers, will contribute to savings of £975m by 2017, the date by which all citizens are expected to have an ID card.

But Edgar Whitley of the London School of Economics’ Identity Project said the decision to leave collection of biometric data to the open market risked compromising security and increasing the cost to the consumer.

“Presumably this [plan] means that grocery stores and post offices will be encouraged to set up biometric enrolment kiosks, with little financial gain to them unless the citizen is charged — and thus while the headline costs of the scheme to the government go down, the costs and risk to the citizen rise,” Dr Whitley said.

Ministers say they have been heeding the call from Sir James Crosby, the government’s independent adviser, by taking important aspects of the operation out of the hands of Whitehall.

Tuesday’s ID report by the Home Office provided little clarity as to how the government’s strategy will reduce the amount of personal data stored by the national register and make the enrolments free to citizens, as recommended by Sir James.

What it confirms is that ministers plan to roll out ID cards to foreign nationals from November, to airport workers from next year and to young people “who want them” in 2010.

The government has yet to secure any agreement from unions representing airport workers. The main roll-out is also envisaged after a general election that Labour is far from certain of winning.

Damian Green, shadow immigration minister, on Tuesday night repeated Tory calls for the scheme to be scrapped. He asked: “Why don’t ministers admit the inevitable and kill off this expensive and counter-productive scheme?”

The credibility of the handling of the scheme looked to be further undermined by a separate independent study on Tuesday showing management shortcomings in key Identity and Passport Service projects. The IPS’s standards and practices team found that the original timetable for the development of a counter-fraud project linked to the ID scheme had slipped because the original scheme had proved “too ambitious”.