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Private sector saviours wanted for desperate ID scheme

Home Office chucks in the cards?

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Plans for the widespread introduction of fingerprint passports and ID cards, already delayed until 2012, have receded further into the distance with the publication of the latest Identity & Passport Service cost report for the ID scheme. This effectively pulls the plugs on the network of IPS-run interview centres, and lobs future responsibility for these and for biometric enrolment over to private sector companies.

This however seems more a case of wishing the private sector would rescue the project than having actual companies straining at the leash. Not, erm, unless you pay them. The report claims a cost decrease of £975 million over the life of the scheme to 2017, but IPS has achieved this by creative accounting and merrily chucking biometrics off into the middle distance in the hope that somebody will catch. The report lists "gross costs, the majority of which will be covered by income from products and services... this income... depends on the future fee strategy and the emerging market in identity services."

The initial USPs of the ID scheme were a 'new, clean database' and biometric ID, and it was the Home Office's intention to position IPS as the UK's official identity broker, thus enabling it to make revenue from that very "emerging market". But with the clean database abandoned, and fingerprint biometrics now highly doubtful, there's little of obvious use that IPS can offer that market. Apart from money.*

The entirely absurd interview centres that have yet to catch a fraudster were originally intended to be rolled out to all passport applicants, and subsequently to provide venues for biometric enrolment, but according to the report the cost of replacing the current passport application system has been reduced, and: "We now plan to provide this through the open market."

The cost report is silent on how this will happen, but it seems logical that IPS would contract out the interviews and seek to offload its current network of interview centres to private sector partners. It will still have a need for a biometric ID card enrolment capability from 2009, unless it abandons plans to make ID cards for selected groups compulsory, starting with airport workers, but it now seems almost certain that this will be handled via a private sector contractor. How it proposes to handle the planned 2012 general rollout is anybody's guess.

The report does concede that despite its claim of near term savings, the overall cost of the scheme has increased, but the extra costs have effectively been shifted towards the tail end of the ten year period by postponing the general rollout to 2012. By 2017, if we're going on previous experience we'll have been through another six or seven Home Secretaries, so this isn't a matter likely to concern the current incumbent. ®

* Historians will recall that David Blunkett advanced the merits of the clean database, the "100 per cent secure" biometric ID, and boasted of the UK becoming a world leader in the arena by virtue of the ID scheme. The UK will now get biometric passports of the fingerprint variety (if it gets them at all) later than the rest of the EU, and now looks likely to be severely behind numerous other European countries in achieving biometric ID cards. Outstanding.

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