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Passport rule change anticipates ID refusenik sabotage efforts

Early mass renewal plans go to the dogs

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Updated The new UK Identity and Passport Service, spawned out of the Passport Service after the ID Cards Act became law on Saturday, celebrated its birth by trying to stop people renewing their passports whenever they want to, whether or not the passport is about to expire. The change in terms and conditions were slipped into the website without announcement, and were quite clearly ID card related.

And then, spookily close to the publication of The Register's first version of this story drawing attention to the change, they changed it back again. Fortunately, we have witnesses and while, no, we can't fathom precisely what they're up to, it's probably reasonable to guess that they know they have a potential problem, and they're going to have to figure out how to deal with it before ID cards go live.

Earlier today the Passport Service's (N.B, the website logo refresh is apparently still pending) renewal guidance said that you can renew your passport if "it will run out within the next nine months". But the following section, present until a couple of days ago, and back again today, had disappeared:

"You do not have to wait until your passport is nearly expired to renew it, but we can add no more than nine months unexpired validity from the old passport to the new one. You can renew your passport whenever you wish, but you must pay the full fee and no refund can be given on the unexpired validity in the old passport."

Although it came back pretty quickly after we'd written about it, before we did it had been gone for sufficiently long for the change to have fed through Google's cache.

According to the current rollout schedule, compulsory ID card registration is set to commence on passport renewal from 2008. By the terms of last week's absurd "compromise", passport applicants will be allowed to decline the bit of plastic, but as they'll take your biometrics (including, spookily, iris, which is currently needed for neither passport nor ID card) and shove you on the register anyway, effectively they're just hanging on to your card for you until they pass another law forcing you to accept it. Well, stuff that for a game of passive resistance, as many would-be refuseniks are no doubt currently thinking.

Far better, surely, to keep an eye on the likely ETA of the full scale system (this probably will be some time, possibly considerable time, after 2008) with biometric induction centres and a live ID register. Then renew your passport just before this happens. From the perspective of the individual, this buys up to 10 years card-free existence, although the 10 isn't guaranteed, because we don't know what other dumb stuff they might get up to during the period. And from the point of view of organised opposition, a huge spike of early renewals just before the off would likely paralyse the system.

So it doesn't take much to visualise dim awareness evolving to acute anxiety round at the new Stasi and Passports Service. Why on earth they think this might work on its own, however, is entirely unclear. Dogs have been eating homework, key presentations and, yes, passports for years, and if one's passport were to cease to exist for some mysterious reason shortly ahead of ID card deployment, even if they have forbidden overly-early renewal, what is that they can do apart from give you a new one? They could crack down on people suspected of deliberately destroying their passports, and stamp hard on anything that looked like an organised campaign to encourage co-ordinated passport destruction, but how the hell do they prove it? We'd guess tough new penalties (70 per cent probability) coupled with high profile but symbolic police action intended to scare people into not trying it on. But trying to interrogate everybody just moves the paralysing spike somewhere else.

The Passport Service (as was) certainly has experience of seasonal spikes and ones related to price hikes, and it may already have some data on biometric-related spikes. The first stage of "biometric" passports shipped last autumn with the introduction of the new photo types, so people trying to avoid (sensibly, it turned out, considering the hoops the new photo regime puts people through) hassle may have renewed early. There was one Pledgebank group committed to early renewal to avoid this, but on its own (106 people) it wouldn't have made a serious impact on the system.

The next stage of the biometric rollout was intended to be happening around about now. This involves the addition of the chip to the passport, which will make UK passports fully compliant with ICAO and US passport requirements. It may still be possible to avoid this (but careful planners should have renewed in Q1 to guarantee it), but the chip itself isn't a major worry compared to registry entry and the card. Besides, if you're worried about the chip you could always train your dog to work a biometric chip zapper.

Mysterious chip failures, in any event, may show some promise as a passive resistance route immediately prior to the introduction of the ID register. Obviously, if you discover your chip is broken, then as a conscientious citizen you should tell them and get it replaced. Nor does it seem reasonable, seeing it's their kit that's failed, for them to charge you for it. So how do the smartarses wriggle their way out of that one? ®

* Doggedly (ahem) pursuing an FOIA request The Scotsman tells us that the Home Office's claim of 69 per cent enthusiasm for ID cards in Scotland was based on a sample size of 158 people. Impressive, no? No. The paper might also have added that the Home Office document in question, Identity Cards Trade Off Research - Final Report wasn't actually a survey of whether or not people wanted ID cards, but was conducted in order to assess awareness and demand for a scheme which was happening anyway, and to identity 'sweet spots' the Home Office could use to sell the scheme better to people. Have a look yourself - it's clearly a piece of marketing research geared to figuring out how best to sell you the soap, not about whether or not you wanted it.

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