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Soaring card cost headlines threaten UK ID scheme

Home Office mounts priceless performance...

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The UK's ID Card Bill returns to the House of Commons for its (second) second reading tomorrow, and this time it looks in grave danger of being pursued there by a howling mob. After several years of giving the ID scheme at best sporadic notice, the British press has clocked that the 'card cost could treble' story has at least some legs, and Government ministers are shuffling from interview to interview, repeating the claim that the 'build cost' will be 'only' £93.

Unconvincingly - because when pressed they are forced to concede that this is merely an indicative figure, and that they're unable to give an estimate for the full cost of the scheme because they don't yet have (or more likely, haven't yet worked out how to launder) one yet. So they don't have a bottom line, but the bottom line for the British public (and hence the sudden press interest) is that £100 for an ID card is enough to turn an impressively large number of people into rabid revolutionaries. This really oughtn't to be a surprise to the Government, considering that practically all of the surveys it has cited as indicating that'80 per cent' of the public supports ID cards also indicate that people don't want to pay much, if anything, for them. Its own research came up with a similar story - 49 per cent weren't willing to pay anything, 18 per cent less than £10, 23 per cent £10-20, and 7 per cent more than £20 (data published with the ID Card Bill last year).

So their current difficulties were all too predictable, and they've got trouble whether it costs £93 or £300 - but what's the truth? The £300 is derived from an early draft of the London School of Economics Identity Project's report on ID cards, which is published today. Nowhere does the LSE group say '£300 per person', nor does it specifically nail down any particular number as the charge that is likely to be made for an ID card, but given the Treasury's continued insistence that the ID scheme be self-funding, there's some justification for translating estimates of overall cost into a per person cost.

The LSE group report produces low, median and high estimates of the whole cost of the ID scheme of £10.6 billion, £14.5 billion and £19.2 billion respectively, and says: "If all the costs associated with ID cards were borne by citizens (as Treasury rules currently require), the cost per card (plus passport) would be around £170 on the lowest cost basis and £230 on the median estimate" (presumably the LSE's reluctance to produce an individual cost for the high estimate is a lofty attempt not to pander to the gutter press).

We should be clear that this particular argument is really about overall cost. The LSE's numbers reflect the group's view that the Government's own claims for overall cost are extremely optimistic, so the low LSE estimate is substantially higher than the current Government estimate, which itself has climbed substantially since the scheme was first mooted. As the Government has declined to explain how its own figure is derived, we have no proof that it is realistic, while the LSE group's assumptions are explained in some detail in its report. If the Government is right, then perhaps a cost of £93 is sustainable, but if it's wrong, then "as Treasury rules currently require", a higher number will have to apply. In considering the Government's ability to get it right, then it's surely only reasonable to remind everybody of the numbers it first thought of, and published in the entitlement cards consultation document in 2002. These were a £10-£19 price increase in passport and driving licence fee in order to subsidise a standalone card cost of £5-£15, with the card being given to the 10 million poorest people. Ahem.

The most current Government numbers/evasions on actual card costs do not in themselves add up terribly well. Within an overall scheme cost of £5.8 billion over ten years, Home Office officials were saying over the weekend, biometric passports costing approximately £70 would subsidise the cost of ID cards, meaning standalone ID cards for people who didn't intend to travel need only be around £30 (Times report) Get it to add up if you can, even without trying to work out how, in that case, Charles Clarke's claimed plan to offer poor people "cut-price deals for ID cards at about a third of their £93 unit cost" is any kind of a discount.

The notion of passports subsidising ID cards is real enough, however, and there are plenty of other areas where (the Home Office no doubt hopes) scheme costs can vanish into other budgets. Infrastructure and reader cost to the NHS, for example, can be 'disappeared' into the National Programme for IT budget, and ID card operated by the police and the immigration service can come out of the budgets of the police and immigration service. Are these ID scheme costs or not? We don't know, and we suspect Charles Clarke doesn't know either, right now.

And then there's private industry, which will be eager to pay for readers and network access, even in the cases where it isn't actually compelled to (for, say, employment status and money-laundering checks). Unhappily, private industry's contribution to the costs of the ID scheme is the other major hot potato the Home Office has had to deny over the weekend, after a report in the Independent claimed there are plans to "pass on personal details of UK citizens for an initial cost of £750 each." This, as ministers were quick to point out, is untrue, but there are truths they don't mention buried within it.

In the Regulatory Impact Assessment issued with the first version of the ID Cards Bill last year, it was anticipated that one of the ways the cost of the scheme could be recovered was through fees charged for "the verification service - e.g. through charges to accredited organisations". The document also says that the Government wishes to explore "refining estimates of revenues from the verification service as potential users develop more plans for how they will use the scheme." The consultation document for the original entitlement cards scheme meanwhile also suggests "charging other service providers for using the card to administer their services."

This sort of thing is obviously not the same as giving private companies the right to trawl Government databases for information, or the same as the Government selling information to private companies (although it's probably worth asking them if they've ever done, or intend to do, the latter), but depending on the terms and conditions, access to the National Identity Register could still be intensely valuable to many private companies. The core function of the NIR in this area will be to establish identity, i.e., if someone applies for a job the company can use the NIR to confirm that they are entitled to work, or if they try to open a bank account the bank can confirm they really exist. Which seems fair enough, but what if, say, a credit card company wanted to check out the people on its prospect list? That wouldn't be buying data from the Government, it would be increasing the value of existing private industry databases by weeding out duff data, and private industry would be prepared to pay for it, if it were allowed to. Will it be? And if so, to what extent? ®

Related links:

LSE ID Project report (summary)
LSE ID Project report (full)
UK ID cards costs go up
UK to outsource biometric visa checks to Mumbai
Cost of ID Cards could triple, plan could breach DRA

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