Home secretary David Blunkett's plans for a compulsory ID card for the UK have been spiked, for the present. The cabinet today rejected a compulsory card and recommended instead that voluntary schemes could be used instead in order to "proceed by incremental steps to build a base for a compulsory national ID card scheme.. later, when the conditions for moving to a compulsory card are met."
This is being presented as a decision "in principle" in favour of ID cards, but in practice is a reversal for Blunkett's plans. He will now be forced to revert to an 'ID cards by stealth' approach. Blunkett himself did not put it quite that way in interviews this lunchtime. "The prime minister and I have convinced them [the cabinet] that we will need biometric ID." His not being able to go for compulsion immediately is not a reverse, because "you couldn't possibly in anybody's dreams have 60 million peopele suddenly coming into the scheme... the timescale is in line with common sense."
Listen to the agreed cabinet statement issued (this is a highly unusual move, reflecting the intensity of the cabinet battle over ID) today and to Blunkett, and you could well think we're talking about two entirely different countries here. The statement boils down to a national ID card scheme being a good thing in principle, but says that "given the size and complexity of the scheme, a number of issues will need to be resolved over the years ahead." It does not say how many years, but the final decision is now postponed until "later this decade". Legislation to enable the scheme will however be "introduced and [planned] on the basis that all the practical problems can be overcome." But it won't go ahead until it is clear that they have been.
As spun by our David, on the other hand, "we've got the green light to go ahead" and "we're talking a three year set-up before we can bring in the biometrics." Which you'll note is sort of the same as the cabinet statement, but sort of different too.
Blunkett however claims that biometrics are absolutely vital in order to tie the identification to the individual, that the whole of Europe is going this way anyway ("the Americans, the French, the Germans the Spanish, they're all up for it"), and indicates that the costs and challenges of introducing biometrics on passports and driving licences would be of a similar order to a national scheme. Which we think is a very significant thing for him to say, because biometrics are indeed planned for these, and it is indeed true that the cost of this will be not unadjacent to that of a full-on national scheme. So this is how he will proceed, and how ID by stealth will commence.
So he wins anyway? Yes and no. He wins in that he has the in principle agreement to have a compulsory national ID card 'sometime', but he loses in that he can't have it until it works, or until the cabinet can at least fool itself into thinking it's going to work. So maybe he's been saved from himself.
If his plans now proceed in a genuinely incremental way (we can surely presume that trying to issue biometric ID to all driving licence holders and all passport holders at the same time does not count as incremental), then there will be time for technical problems to be identified, for privacy issues to crystalise more clearly, for government to get a better grasp on what the real issues are, and for lessons from other countries' schemes to be taken on board. There will still be plenty of scope for the government to mess it up, but at least we no longer face the immediate threat of a control-freak maniac jamming them down our throats.
The three tests the maniac in question tells us will now have to be passed before we arrive at a national scheme are as follows. A central biometric database will need to be set up, it must be clear that people accept it (this is something we feel sure he's told us has been achieved already, but no matter), and we must have achieved "a density of take-up where it becomes logical." So he has nailed his colours firmly to the biometric mast, and will start a drive to achieve universality (as opposed, he says, to "compulsory") on a voluntary basis. One could beg leave to doubt the voluntary nature of compulsory biometrics in passports and driving licences, but at least we now know where we stand. .