An open letter

Dear Home Secretary,

Welcome to your new post. I hope your advisers have put in your in-tray a copy of the very lucid analysis of the UK’s National Identity Scheme which Toby Stevens has written here on his ComputerWeekly blog. His starting point is to wonder whether your appointment as Home Secretary signals the opportunity to abandon the government’s ID Card policy, and he then draws out some of the many reasons why that policy has degenerated into a probably irredeemable mess.

As to the first question – I agree with Toby’s assessment. It would be a brave Home Secretary, in the current government, who repealed a piece of primary legislation which, in your own words, embodies a manifesto commitment. On the face of it, there seems little sense in handing the opposition, within bow-shot of the next general election, the PR victory of being able to claim that Labour has finally accepted what the Conservatives and Lib Dems have been saying all along… that the Identity Cards Act 2006 has got to go.

However, as the rest of Toby’s post goes on to illustrate, this is by no means just about the Act. The Act itself is a product of the government’s policy objectives, and has to be reflected in policies and implementation if it is to have any practical effect. That relatively flexible relationship between the primary legislation and the practicalities of ID Cards is at once your opportunity and your burden.

It’s an opportunity in the sense that it leaves the way open (as this Guardian article suggests) for you to pay lip service to the Act – implementing it in a couple of well-circumscribed instances – while investing no effort in rolling out a comprehensive national ID Cards scheme.

But it’s a burden in many senses. First, as I say, the Act is a product of the government’s policy objectives… but so many years and Home Secretaries have passed since those policy objectives were first conceived, and political necessities have forced so many twists, tweaks and back-trackings on them that it is, fundamentally, no longer clear why the government wants a National Identity Card, what benefits it expects from one, and what it would do with it if it had one.

Second, your choices are constrained by the flaw which is built into the Act’s very title: it is, unusually, a piece of primary legislation explicitly framed in terms of a specific technology – an identity card. And yet, when push comes to shove, you would doubtless ditch the card itself, if that gave you the leeway to, as Toby puts it, carry on with “biometric passports and the centralisation of biometric and biographical information into the National Identity Register. In other words, all that will change is that we won’t receive the bit of plastic – everything else will continue regardless”.

How can it have come to this – a national identity infrastructure which omits the very thing named in its own primary legislation? On one level, the answer to that question is simple: we’ve arrived at this state of affairs because successive justifications of the National Identity Scheme have sought to portray it as different things. It’s a counter-terrorism measure; it’s to prevent benefit fraud; it’s to cut health-care costs; it’s to secure the UK’s borders; it’s an entitlement card (remember that one?); it’s “the gold standard of identity”, which businesses will queue up to trust… and my favourite: it’s a conveniently portable alternative to a paper passport, for young ladies who want to carry proof of age when they go clubbing.

Unfortunately, these justifications are all ad hoc, and range from the politically expedient to the absurd. They have never been underpinned by a clear, robust and explicit statement of principles to which all the legitimate stakeholders have signed up. And there are multiple legitimate stakeholders here: public admininstration, law enforcement, commerce… oh, and the citizen/cardholder.

My plea is this: be explicit about who the stakeholders are, and acknowledge their legitimate interests, even if those are many, varied and sometimes conflicting. Have the courage to call out the fact that the Act, as drafted, is fundamentally flawed. Explain to the citizen that the small piece of plastic is actually entirely irrelevant, and the important, useful and dangerous part is the National Identity Register.

Be open and honest about the policy purpose of the National Identity Scheme, and what the National Identity Card and the National Identity Register have to do with it. Set out a clear statement of principles which reflects the aims of the government and the interests of the stakeholders – and be prepared to ditch anything which does not put those principles into practice, whether that’s the Act, the Card, the Register or the policy.

Yours sincerely,

Robin Wilton

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