UK ID cards – the incredible shrinking consultation

Disappearing the opposition - every Home Secretary's dream...

UK Home Secretary David Blunkett plans legislation to introduce ID cards this autumn, but possibly has a small problem in transforming the verdict of what must surely have been a heavily anti ID card public consultation into a favourable one. The Home Office does however seem to be trying.

Some months back Home Office minister Lord Falconer happily said the consultation was running in favour of the cards, which were then pitched as "entitlement cards." The heroic number of "people and organisations" who'd then commented amounted to 1,500, but this was swiftly overturned by an extra 6,000 whipped up by Privacy International and stand.org. Then the plot thickens.

The consultation ended in January, so it seems rational to expect the results at some point in the foreseeable future, especially as Blunkett will be presenting his proposals to the Cabinet shortly. This is perhaps complicated by the consultation having been pitched at entitlement whereas Blunkett now has illegal immigrants and terrorists in the crosshairs, but at the very least it's tidier to deal with the idea you had first as you move on to the next one.

Home Office ministers however have shown worrying signs of tidying up in odd ways. In April minister Beverley Hughes told the Commons that 2,000 responses had been received, a number which is of the order of the 1,500 Falconer prepared earlier, and which therefore sounds strangely like a consultation in which 6,000 or so online responses have been miraculously disappeared. Simon Davies of Privacy International made enquiries about this, and made an Open Government request for statistics and related information concerning the consultation. Yesterday, however, Davies says a Home Office official told him this request had been rejected.

Davies further claims that Privacy International had previously been "informally notified by Home Office officials that a decision had been made to 'collapse' the 6,000 responses into one or two by treating them as a single petition." Which might explain how 8,000 could become 2,000, and how Beverley Hughes could be happily giving Parliament the lower figure several months after the 6,000 were submitted.

The Home Office claims the Open Government request was rejected owing to a question submitted by Anne McIntosh MP asking the number and preferences of responses sent via stand.org. The existence of this question, they argue, means provide Privacy International with the information would be a breach of Parliamentary procedure. Davies disputes this, and in any event they don't seem to have given McIntosh any numbers yet either.

Government officials deny that the numbers have been fiddled and say there's "no question of changing the statistical emphasis."

So that's all right then. And The Register has a modest proposal in the interests of clarity and open government. First of all, tell Beverley Hughes about the numbers of submissions and the "statistical emphasis." Then, should this turn out to differ from what she has already told Parliament, she can always tell Parliament the real story too. Having done this, and having dealt with any necessary drilling down to provide a response to Anne McIntosh, there should be no great problem in answering Privacy International's request.

Sorted? Well, up to a point. The basic difficulty is that over the next few months David Blunkett should really be telling the public a few things too, and that is the case whether there were 2,000 responses, 8,000 responses, or a mysterious confection of the two. In any and all of these, we have a "consultation" exercise which was so deeply obscure as to be almost a state secret, so the best way the Home Office could honestly pitch it was as a consultation of nearly nobody whose ballot box was stuffed online by the privacy lobby. So the spoilsports invalidated our invalid consultation.

And while we're being honest, we could also admit that the reasons being put forward now by Blunkett for ID cards are materially different from those covered by the invalidated invalid consultation. Which - no doubt you've been counting - probably invalidates the invalidated invalid consultation.

So Blunkett should tell the public why he now wants ID cards, explain how and why they'll work, make it clear that the public will have to pay the whole bill through a passport and driving licence tax, then, er, have a consultation? But a proper one would be good - the UK government sure as hell needs the practice... ®

Related links:
Privacy International
stand.org

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