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Blunkett poised to open ID scheme offensive tomorrow

Answer to HAC imminent, says Blair

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David Blunkett is to publish his response to the Home Affairs Committee's heavily critical report on his ID card scheme tomorrow, Tony Blair said at his monthly press conference yesterday. The HAC report found very little positive to say about the scheme, but bafflingly concluded that "the Government has made a convincing case for proceeding with the introduction of identity cards", and gave it the green light.

Blunkett's mission for tomorrow's riposte is therefore primarily not to make the case for an ID scheme, but to provide a convincing explanation of how it will work and how it can be successfully implemented. This and the case are of course inextricably entwined, because pace Home Affairs you can't possibly have made a case for something you've neither adequately defined or explained, but from a parliamentary perspective he can get away with proceeding on the assumption that the payroll vote and enough others accept that a scheme is both useful and inevitable.

The adequate definition and explanation, should it by some miracle arrive tomorrow morning, will in any event make entertaining reading.

Blair's brief statement to the press conference also provided some useful perspective on where, from the government's point of view, we stand as regards the progress of the scheme. He said he'd taken part in the biometric ID card trial that morning (clips of him grinning cheesily at an iris scanner are available on last night's news bulletins, should you be at all interested), and that: "It is important we get this technology right and ensure it will be user-friendly for the public. That is of course the purpose of the trial."

There was of course no "of course" about it when the trial was announced. The Home Office did not clearly specify that the trial was nothing about finding out whether the public actually wanted ID cards or not, and all about honing the process of giving them the cards they were definitely going to get. People did sign up for the trial thinking they could express their opinions on this, but on hearing the survey questions found they could not. Last month we speculated that the Home Office would try to claim the results indicated strong support for the scheme - tomorrow, we may find out.

Blair also told us that tomorrow Blunkett would "set out how we will take forward some of the issues raised by the consultation over the draft Bill." This also may be interesting. Consultation responses from the draft bill have not yet been published, but as we've noted before the tenor of the "Consultation and Draft Bill" was that this was something we were going to go ahead with anyway, and that therefore the input solicited (not that there's anything in the document you'd call active solicitation here) was regarding the implementation process alone.

The Home Office's justification, such as it is, for taking this direction is "Identity Cards - A Summary of findings from the Consultation Exercise on Entitlement Cards and Identity Fraud" (CM 6019). This consultation, which was conducted in connection with the abandoned Entitlement Cards scheme, was rebranded under the "Identity Cards" banner and heavily spun as a justification for the all-encompassing scheme the Home Office was actually planning by the time it was published and presented to Parliament (November 2003). The spinning of the document is easily detectable and provable - several of the published responses are for example no more than paraphrases and selected quotes from the documents actually submitted. MPs wishing to confirm that the Home Office may not have been entirely truthful to them are at liberty to apply to the Home Office for sight of the original submitted documents, which must be freely available under consultation guidelines. As CM6019 itself (Part A, page 7) says, quoting the Cabinet Office consultation code of practice: "Timing of consultation should be built into the planning process for a policy (including legislation) or service from the start, so that it has the best prospect of improving the proposals concerned, and so that sufficient time is left for it at each stage."

Blunkett may be able to explain why this has not happened as he explains himself tomorrow, and it would be useful if, should he claim widespread support for the scheme, he could provide detailed information as to how this support was measured, when and with reference to what.

We are not however hopeful, given the nature of the justifications that have made it as far as PM Blair's briefings. Yesterday Blair said: "I think ID cards have an important role to play in fighting serious crime and terrorism and tackling illegal immigration. We know that false identities are important to terrorists and criminals, and we know that because they keep on using them. The Director General of the Security Service has said that at least one third of terrorists use multiple identities routinely. Computers and technology are so advanced now that forgery of passports and identity documents is easier than it has ever been. We need to know people are who they say they are, not least to ensure public services are used for those who are eligible for them. A secure modern solution will give us much more protection than we have at the moment."

As we've noted before, the dodgy MI6-sourced factoid that one third of terrorists use multiple IDs routinely is meaningless without there being more data attached to it. It is no more than a statement of the bleeding obvious that a lot of terrorists are going to be using assumed names. A more valid justification for an ID scheme would be statistics showing that a significant number of terrorist attacks were conducted using a false ID which would have been detected by an ID scheme. As the government presents no such data, we must deduce that it has none. Statement of the bleeding obvious number two is that advanced technology is making forgery easier. Here the ID scheme will help, but it will help because it will make the forging of passports significantly harder, which is an objective that will be achieved anyway by the implementation of ICAO-standard passports with facial image. The entire ID scheme could not happen, there could be no central ID register, and this objective would still be achieved.

Blair's third statement of the obvious is that we need to know people are who they say they are (we'd have put it a little more precisely, but we'll let him off), followed by what is effectively a prayer for a "secure modern solution". That'd be nice, wouldn't it? But really he's still in the pub bore 'it's obvious/everybody knows' groove, "sleepwalking into a surveillance society." ®

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