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Clarke's ID card cost laundry starts to break surface

Hide the billions, levy transaction fees and voila! It only costs £30

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What price an ID scheme?

Charles Clarke, Tony Blair and sundry other Government representatives have rubbished claims, based on the London School of Economics report, that the price of a card could be £300. On the day after the Commons debate, Blair himself said that "some of these figures bandied around about cost are absolutely absurd, I mean no Government is going to start introducing something that is going to cost hundreds of pounds for people, that would be ridiculous."

Which indeed it would be, and Mr Tony might have added that, should his Government propose such a thing, its members would swiftly find themselves suspended from lampposts along Whitehall. But we should contemplate the nature of the absurdity of the £300, and what must be done to achieve the £30 that the desperate characters in the Home Office are pretty close to nailing to the mast.

The origin of the £300 was the report of the London School of Economics Identity Project, but as we noted last week, the LSE estimates the total cost of the scheme, and points out that if the Government were to stick to Treasury requirements that the scheme be self-financing, then the public would have to be charged up to £300 each.

The LSE did not point out the obvious, that anybody attempting to charge this would be strung up, and the ensuing headlines screamed that costs could double or treble. The real story (which we accept would have been a little less likely to grab public attention) was however that if even the lowest LSE estimate was in the right ballpark the Government's public statements on the financing of the ID scheme did not add up. The report, incidentally, also makes a pretty persuasive case for the Government's current estimates (£5.8 billion being the latest we've sighted) erring badly on the optimistic side. For example, although the requirements for the capability of the technology used have increased since the entitlement card scheme was floated, in several cases the claimed costs of equipment (e.g. readers) have decreased since the entitlement card estimates were issued.

In any event, although the £300 scare was helpful in putting the spotlight onto cost, it also allowed the Government to shift the argument at the time of the Commons debate over to card cost. It will now be calculating that if it can hold the card cost at £30, the public will accept a new passport cost of £93 (despite passport cost having virtually tripled over recent years), heaving sighs of relief that it's not being hit for £200 or £300. This shifted attention away from the total cost again, and in rubbishing the £300 the Government was thus able to avoid addressing the LSE's real points, which are rather more difficult to rubbish.

Scheme cost estimates are covered in the LSE report from page 225 on, and use Home Office consultation documents, ID Bill regulatory impact assessments and Passport Office business plans as sources. The Passport Office plans in particular are useful, and it's clear from these that this particular department is effectively taking the lead in ID scheme implementation (we hope to return to the Passport Office's Personal Information Project, relation, at some future date). The report references the source documents liberally, which means that in those instances where Clarke has rubbished specific figures in the LSE report, he has arguably been rubbishing his own officials.

For example, Clarke has cited the LSE's suggestion that cards would have to be replaced every five years, rather than ten, and made the mathematically illiterate claim that this automatically doubles overall cost. But as its source here the LSE cites the entitlement card consultation document, which differentiates between smartcards and cards with a smart chip, and says the latter would need replacing twice in a ten year period.

The cost figures in this consultation put the cost of a smartcard at £3.50 and a chip card at £5. The consultation numbers, says the LSE, add up to a card cost of £240 million over ten years for a plain plastic card, £670 million for a smartcard reissued once over the period, and £2007 million for a sophisticated smartcard (of the kind Clarke is proposing) reissued twice. The Passport Office business plan also suggests that with biometric passports it may be necessary to renew passports every five years, rather than the current ten.

The Government also seems over-optimistic on the cost of readers. In the entitlement consulatation, the LSE notes, the Government "originally envisaged a far simpler scanning system than that used by the police or immigration service, originally considering the scanning of four fingers only." These prints would not have been scanned to a legal standard of proof of identity, so the equipment could be cheaper and staff would not need to be as highly trained in interpretation as police or immigration service staff. But the Government has subsequently said that it does intend to use the NIR fingerprint database to check scene of crime prints, so logically the costs associated with readers should have gone up.

The entitlements consultation however envisaged 2,000 sets of equipment costing £10,000 each, while the ID Card Bill Regulatory Impact Statement puts the cost of readers at £250-£750. This quite possibly factors in some wishful thinking about a far larger number of readers resulting in lower unit costs, however as ministers have recently claimed that the use of three biometrics (fingerprint, facial, iris) will mean the error rate will be extremely low, the cost of 'tri-band' readers should perhaps also be factored in.

Other Government sources tend to support the LSE.

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