On the surface, I don't have a massive practical problem with an ID card. I already carry plenty of stuff to identify and track my movements - my credit and debit cards show where I shop, the loyalty card shows where I buy my petrol, my phone can be tracked across different cells and I have a company ID card and a driving licence with my photograph on them. If I apply for a loan, my credit history is checked and I've recently been run through a CRB check as a school governor. So, I'm not unused to checks on my identity and having one card to identify me wouldn't be a huge bind - and this simplification will be important later on.
But when you look more deeply into what is proposed, then it all looks a little less attractive. Talk Politics has been writing some excellent pieces on the whole bill - they are a little technical, but the proposal is very technical. Knowledge is a dangerous thing as far as this project goes.
One of my biggest concerns about the project is whether the whole thing can work. The track record of recent government IT projects is less than heartening:
- the Inland Revenue tax credits system which locked up for 15 minutes at a time and led to staff walking out. After ten months, 220,000 cases were unresolved and 400,000 people got their money late.
- the NIRS2 national insurance system that came in years late and massively overbudget - costing £85 million in compensation and £68 million to put right.
- the electronic personnel management system in the Inland Revenue that can only be used by managers on a Monday to ensure that demand doesn't cause the system to fall over.
- the on-line PAYE system that hasn't been sufficiently well-tested.
- Five million tax records lost by the Inland Revenue.
- Problems with the Swanwick air traffic control system.
- the Security Service's new SCOPE computer, which is running three years late and 50% over budget for an underpowered system.
- the HR system for the Northern Ireland Office which cost £3.3 million and didn't work after nine years
- a lack of peformance monitoring on NHS IT, criticised as 'an appalling waste of money' by a parliamentary committee.
- the BOWMAN military radio project, which came into limited use over a decade late at a cost of almost £2 billion.
- the new Child Support Agency system which went massively over-budget and over-schedule
- the complete cock-up of the payment card system that swallowed £1 billion before it was scrapped
- the immigration document handling project that was scrapped after £77 million and a delay of years
- the CRAMS system for the probation service that went 70% over budget
- and on and on and on...
Anthony Sampson wrote in Who Runs This Place that the Civil Service doesn't do project management, a statement backed up by the National Audit Office blaming the Home Office for 'poor specification of expected outputs, weaknesses in service monitoring and inadequate control of purchases.'
Now, don't get the idea that this is solely a government problem - plenty of private sector projects go equally over-budget and hit delays. IT is relatively simple when you have a single PC, but start plugging them together and sharing data and things get a touch more challenging.
This is going to be the daddy of all government IT projects and will dwarf the other projects and it won't work.
Add into the fact that the much-vaunted biometric technology is more fallible than you think - the face matching software gets it wrong 40-50% of the time; fingerprint checks fail 20% of the time; and even iris scans can be wrong 5-9 times in every 100. All of this comes from the trial of the Passport Service biometrics recording system, which also revealed that it took about 10 minutes to obtain this data for each participant, suggesting that registering the entire population will take a quarter of a million man-weeks.
This has the makings of being a poll tax for the new millennium. Come the next election, not only will we have the first stories about a massive overspend (place your bets now that the system will cost at least £10 billion more than currently forecast), we will also have lots of stories about the system misidentifying innocent civilians as Al-Qaeda terrorists. Anyone care to write the first headlines in the Daily Mail?
And don't think that it won't be compulsory to carry your card. The government won't need to enforce that part of the legislation for quite a while, because the private sector will do it for them by stealth. It will become the easy way for any business to check your identity and you will want a card because it will make life easier.
Want to open a bank account? Show the ID card to prove your address.
Want to buy alcohol or go into a club? That card will prove your age and stop the licensee being prosecuted, so they will be bound to demand it.
Want a job? Show your ID card to prove your entitlement to work in the UK.
In a hundred little ways, you will find your life more difficult without the card before the government ever have to force you to carry it. By the time they do (and they will), you'll have no problem with it, because you will already carry it.
By the way, Bob Marshall-Andrews on Any Questions on Radio 4 this week said that he had been told by the Home Secretary that ID cards won't have any effect on fighting terrorism or controlling illegal immigration. Is it really worth all the grief? Is it worth the billions before the government gives up? Is it worth your £93 to buy your card?
I don't think so.
Let's hope that 30 or so Labour MPs have the same view.