A free country
By Stephen Robinson
(Filed: 31/01/2003)

Today marks the end of the Government's "consultation period" on the merits of introducing a national ID card, yet no one seems any the wiser, or clearer about the Government's intentions. Officials had to deny that they were about to abandon the plan after Lord Falconer, Home Office minister, said last week: "We may not proceed with the scheme, and if we do it will take several years." Since then the signals have been contradictory.

The Government has tried to blunt opposition to the project by calling it an "entitlement card", suggesting it is rather like a bank card which, when put into a slot, will shower all sorts of benefits upon the user. It will do nothing of the sort, nor will it do anything much to assist law enforcement. The overwhelming bulk of benefit fraud is based on bogus claims rather than bogus identity; police say catching criminals is the problem, not identifying them. In political terms, the Home Office appears to have seized on the scheme as a figleaf to suggest it is doing something about the crisis in the asylum system.

The Government does not like talking about the cost of the ID card, which is understandable given its lamentable record in implementing complex computer systems. The Commons public accounts committee this week exposed the "shocking waste of taxpayers' money" in the new Libra computer system, which was to link courts around the country.

Because of a baffling lack of scrutiny in the Lord Chancellor's department, the cost has more than doubled to #318 million, and it is still not working. But that is small beer against the #1.5 billion the Government concedes that a national ID card would cost. Anyone familiar with the way these gigantic computer projects develop would say: double that, and maybe double it again.