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One NIR to rule them all...

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Among the Home Office "concessions" on ID cards hailed (with quite remarkable promptness) this week by Home Affairs Committee chairman John Denham MP (Lab) was "the rationalisation of current database proposals and the dropping of the Citizen Information Project." Denham appears however to have been in error in cheering the demise of the CIP on behalf of his Committee, for just 24 hours later Treasury Chief Secretary Paul Boateng issued a written statement to Parliament indicating the CIP is actually being reworked to use the national ID register.

Or vice versa? According to Boateng's statement: "The CIP team has investigated the costs and benefits of a range of potential options for delivering a population register. It has recommended that proposals for a national identity register (NIR), as part of the Government's proposals for ID cards, mean that if ID cards were to become compulsory then it may be more cost effective to deliver these benefits through the NIR, rather than develop a separate register. The Government has accepted this recommendation."

The CIP has been going through the works via the Office of National Statistics as a sort of cuddlier cousin to the ID scheme. The modernisation of births, marriages, deaths and the like led government thoughts to turn to what kind of additional related services could be offered to the citizen, with these ideas being fairly neatly encapsulated in the concept of the "through life record". As the white paper Civil Registration: Vital Change tells us "the creation of a central database of registration records provides the opportunity to make improvements..." Which is all well and good until alongside this particular register of names addresses and sundry details about the population there arrives another register with, as the Home Affairs Committee report put it, "a very large degree of overlap".

In its response on Wednesday the Home Office did not say 'dropping' - it did say: "The Government believes that the NIR has the longer term potential to fulfil some of the functions envisaged for the national population register. In the light of developments to the NIR, CIP is no longer actively exploring options to improve the quality and effectiveness of existing registers, including the possible use of personal reference numbers." So the CIP is no longer developing its own population register as the electronic implementation of births, marriages and deaths, and the National Identity Register becomes that population register, with the CIP going ahead, but now hinging on the NIR.

Which you might view as more of an expansion of the ID scheme than a concession, as such. Alongside the specific CIP complaint, Home Affairs expressed its concern over the growing number of government databases in general. "We believe that the Government must tackle this proliferation of databases, examining in each case whether the number, identifier or database is needed, what its relationship to other existing or planned databases, how data will be shared or verified and other relevant issues. For this action to be effective, it must be co-ordinated at the highest levels of the Civil Service... an identity card should enable access to all Government databases, so that there would be no need for more than one government-issued card."

In its response the Home Office appears to indicate that the CIP-NIR approach could present a model for other services, saying "we believe that the identity card will provide an opportunity for more joined up Government by providing a consistent and standard business key for future systems evolution." Which represents a strengthening rather than a weakening of the ID scheme. Here however the Committee was effectively arguing for a strengthening, and as David Blunkett envisages the ID card and register as becoming the key to everything, this is precisely the kind of "concession" he wants to make. It does rationalise (as Denham put it) current government database proposals in the sense that it makes them dependent on the NIR. The databases themselves will continue to proliferate though.

It's possible that shoehorning CIP functionality into the ID scheme may cause some delay to the ID scheme bill itself. Spy Blog points out that if the CIP stage 2 feasibility study plans aren't to come (as Boateng said) before Ministers until June 2005, they might knock the ID bill back beyond the next election. It's possible the CIP study might be accelerated, but Gordon Brown's Treasury might on the other hand not view it as a top priority. Or worse. Spy also notes that the change will mean incorporating children under 16 in the NIR, and raises the issue of the Children's Bill. This sets up another universal database, of children this time, and will operate with a number of other databases, including the NHS one and Connexions.

In its Home Affairs response the Home Office said that the "National Programme for IT (NPfIT) is putting into place an infrastructure of card readers across the NHS, which will facilitate the checking of cards" and that in the case of the Connexions card readers, which are issued free to schools and colleges, there may be "cost savings to be realised for identity cards by exploiting the existing infrastructure." So some more opportunities for rationalisation here, no doubt. ®

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