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Gov. resists ID card scrutiny

Will Brown sign up to Blair's baby?

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The Office of Government Commerce has appealed against an order by the Information Tribunal that it must publish official documents that assess the justification for the government's identity card scheme.

Meanwhile, speculation over Prime-Minister-in-waiting Gordon Brown's support for the programme has been see-sawing for lack of any real substance.

The clerk of Mr Robin Tam QC, the OGC's legal representative, ran round to the high court this morning to file the office's appeal against an order given by the Information Tribunal on 3 May that it should publish the Gateway Reviews it had performed on the identity card scheme in 2003 before the project was given official approval.

The OGC refuses to publish Gateway Reviews on the grounds that their disclosure would discourage their contributors from making truthful submissions to the process. Aside from giving a traffic-light indication of a project's health, early Gateways give an indication of whether a project is likely to succeed, what it would cost and so on.

The feasibility of the identity card project - including its likely cost - has been one of the main arguments used by opponents of the scheme. The government is regularly accused of underestimating the challenges it faces getting the scheme running.

Mark Oaten MP and Mark Dziecielewski, a security consultant allied to the No2ID campaign group, had both filed Freedom of Information Requests to get access to Gateway Reviews for the identity scheme. Both had been refused but the Information Tribunal found last month that there was a greater public interest in disclosing the gateway information than in keeping it secret.

The OGC, on filing its appeal, said in a statement that it thought it was more in the public interest to keep the Reviews secret than publish them.

An arm of the Treasury, the OGC has been under the ultimate directorship of Chancellor Gordon Brown since it was formed in 2002. Coincidentally, when Brown launched his bid to be Prime Minister a week after the Tribunal decision he made "open and accountable" government one of the central planks of his appeal to the nation.

ID opponents were so hopeful about the change of premier that in the days before Brown launched his bid, a little loose talk from Jack Straw, his then leadership campaign manager, prompted speculation that the then Premiership hopeful planned to ditch ID cards because they because they would be too expensive.

All Straw did was squirm under direct questions about the possibility that a review of the scheme might be possible.

Straw's comments were made the week before Brown won the Labour party contest to replace Tony Blair as Prime Minister. They chimed nicely with leaks that had placed Brown in opposition to identity cards on the basis that their costs outweighed their benefits.

Now suddenly, everyone appears to have remembered how Brown had the HM Treasury commission a review of identity cards last July. Its brief was not to question whether ID cards were feasible, as is supposed to have been decided by the early Gateway reviews, but merely what preparations ought to be made for business to make the most of them.

Its publication is more likely to be a justification of identity cards as a means of making Britain's economy run even more ship-shape efficient than it already does. The assumption is that if business and government can between them establish and verify people's identities more efficiently, then the economy can make some more money. The Treasury review, being conducted by financial bigwig Sir James Crosby, is likely to come out in favour of identity cards: as a means of categorising and organising people in a capitalist democracy, they will undoubtedly be of use to business.

Aside from the numbers game, Brown's opening speech for the leadership contest gave an indication of how he might review identity cards as an instrument of new labour social policy. He indicated more of the same by repeating the mantra of "rights and responsibilities". But then weaved in the idea of economic and social entitlement into one utilitarian view of civil liberties: "Fairness not just for some but all who earn it."

So it less the case that Brown has at last come out in support of identity cards, than the press getting over the initial excitement that he might just possibly want to scrap them.

It was nevertheless a good excuse to spin out some fresh sound bites in opposition to the scheme. The Liberal Democrats shadow home secretary Nick Clegg stepped up to the plate.

Guy Herbert, general secretary of the campaign group NO2ID, had a pop as well: "John Major killed the poll tax. Mr Brown has a great opportunity to drop the whole misconceived plan for the government to 'manage' my identity and yours, before it has a chance to cripple his premiership".

The Conservative Party revealed how David Davis, the shadow home secretary, had written to Brown last week, asking him to clarify whether he was going to ditch the "expensive white elephant" that is the identity scheme or not. A reply will not be necessary.®

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