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The Great 'standalone' ID card Swindle

What it really meant, what you'll really get

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The Home Office pulled off quite a coup last week. It contrived to duck or ignore a series of criticisms of its ID card scheme, and announced minor changes which in some cases could actually be seen as strengthening it. Meanwhile, a good section of the press was sent chasing off with the biggest non-concession of the lot - the abandonment of the combined identity card.

Presuming this was not entirely accidental, someone, surely, deserves a knighthood. Several national papers, together with the BBC, led into the story by saying that plans to combine identity card with passports and driving licences had been dropped, with the change coming "in response to MPs who said the plans were badly thought out" (BBC). Home Office research was then cited as saying the majority of the public preferred that the ID card should be a separate document. The Home Office announcement had said that the scheme would involve: "A single, universal ID card for all UK nationals, to be issued alongside passports. This will simplify the operation of the scheme, and reflects public support for a universal card."

We have no idea how much of the synchronicity in the coverage can be attributed to the journalist's notorious herd instinct and how to much to actual herding, but we can say that none of the news organisations can have anyone involved in the coverage with sufficient knowledge of the scheme to spot that this was a dud story. Which under the circumstances we think is pretty damn shabby.

So here, for the record, is why it is a dud. The Home Office has at no time announced firm plans for a combined card. The notion of a single magic card that does everything has certainly been kicked around at various points, and if you asked, you'd probably find that a significant proportion of the general public thought this was what they were likely to get, but the practicalities dictate that such a beast can't be shipped in the foreseeable future. Both the Home Affairs Committee and the Home Office were well aware of this and made no secret of their awareness, as we can confirm by referring to the Committee report the "concessions" were made in response to.

On driving licences it tells us (under EU and ICAO standards, 14) that in the EU, driving licences are governed by directives of 1991 and 1996 which set out their format. "UK driving licences comply with these directives which rules out the possibility, for example, of a combined passport, driving licence and identity card." Stephen Harrison, of the Home Office's ID card policy unit, is quoted as saying "... we would hope to pursue arguments... over time you try to bring the standards together, but I could not say that this is going to be a short term development."

So prior to the development of common formats in Brussels, we have no converged document here. The report reinforces this with a few practicalities: "However neither passports nor driving licences can, for the time being, be reduced to cards, since the first will need space to record visas and the second endorsements. In addition, there are no plans to issue passport identity cards at British posts abroad, so British citizens resident overseas will continue to use passport booklets. Using passports and driving licences as identity cards may also give rise to difficulties, such as, for example, an individual trying to access a public service while their passport identity card is waiting for a visa at a foreign consulate."

What this means is that while it would be possible for a UK ID card to be used as a travel document in areas prepared to recognise it (as is currently the case within the EU for other EU ID cards), travel elsewhere would need a more conventional passport document. The document itself would need to conform to ICAO standards, which presents issues in addition to simple format. It would be technically feasible for the passport to include ID card functionality, but such a scenario would be subject to the caveats expressed above by the Home Affairs Committee, and if the bearer did not also have an ID card then they would have to use their passport as the card all the time. Having two documents is, and has always been, more logical and more convenient.

Public demand

About that research data that said most people would prefer a separate card - what was the actual question? Well, there's an interesting one. It was: "There are various ways that you will be able to get an identity card - it could be issued as a card when you renew your passport, it could be incorporated into the card version of your driving licence, or it could be issued as a separate document. Which of these would you prefer?." Most respondents, as the Home Office is so keen to tell us, preferred it to be issued as a separate document.

You have no doubt noticed that having a single combined card was not actually an option placed before the surveyed public. You may also have noticed have the option that most people preferred is not necessarily the option the Home Office is actually delivering. It does look rather more like it is being "issued as a card when you renew your passport", does it not? Weirdly, the write-up of the survey results (the edited one we're allowed to see, which is tagged "management summary for the UK general public"*) tells us this was the least popular option.

The market research professionals still with us (those who haven't gone for a few sedatives and a lie-down) will confirm that whoever worded this question was either grossly incompetent or was quite deliberately attempting to manage the response in a preferred direction. We'd go for incompetent, given that they've wound up doing the least popular thing anyway, and that it includes an option (incorporated in driving licence) which is currently impossible.

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