The horror that was the National Identity scheme may be dead – its end pronounced yesterday – but it is not altogether gone and now, zombie-like, supporters of the ID card are returning to haunt the Coalition.
And while el Reg has not been known for its support of the scheme – or the NI register that under-pinned it – it is possible that the complainers have a point.
In the months between the launch of the National Identity card and its abrupt termination at the hands of the Coalition, some 30,000 individuals are estimated to have signed up for the card, at a modest £30 a time.
Fingerprinted, photographed and details neatly recorded, the promise to these identity guinea pigs was that less hassle at banks and shops throughout the UK – where the demand for documentation grows ever more pressing – and the ability to carry their card with them at all times, while abroad, instead of the rather more cumbersome and costly UK passport.
Two individuals who took up the offer were Angela Epstein, a freelance journalist, frequently to be found writing for the Good Health section in the Mail, and Investment Banking Consultant Nicholas Hodder. They are not best pleased that the cards are being scrapped – though for slightly different reasons.
Ms Epstein, who was the very first individual in the UK to sign up for a card, feels that the card performed a useful function: she will mourn its passing. She is also less than amused that the government is scrapping her 10-year card without providing a refund.
Mr Hodder made extensive use of his card when abroad, presenting it at border checkpoints in excess of 30 times. He dislikes carrying a passport: he finds the card that much more convenient.
Both were on the BBC last week, on Rip-off Britain, making the case for the government to offer either a refund, or continued recognition of the card, over its lifetime, for those who do not opt to receive their money back. Mr Hodder points out that at UK Borders, the only check made is whether cards or passports are blacklisted. So there are no major database implications of retaining the card as a stand-alone identity document.
These views have gained some ground in Parliament. In November, the matter was debated in the Lords, where peers on both sides of the House expressed dissatisfaction at the proposal to scrap the cards without providing a refund.
Lord Brett pointed out that although the intention to scrap them had been made perfectly clear by both Tory and Lib Dem manifestoes, neither party had stated a position on whether it would offer a refund or not.
Lib Dem peer Lord Phillips of Sudbury reckoned that few ordinary members of the public would have read the manifestoes. Speaking of his own experience, he said: “I will be quite frank – I did not even read my own party’s manifesto. It was 115 pages long, for a start.”
He also queried the view expressed by the deputy director of policy at the Identity and Passport Service, who claimed that the ID card was not a consumer good – and therefore exempt from consumer protection law.
Putting in a plug for UK SME’s, Lord Erroll expressed scepticism about a claimed £20m needed to refund the card cost, suggesting that the government “have clearly fallen into the hands of the large systems integrators again, who are siphoning off our taxpayers’ money to America”.
On 17 November, the Lords voted an amendment to the Identity Documents Bill that would have required the government to pay compensation to cardholders. This was agreed on 24 November and passed across to the Commons earlier this week as part of the process known as “parliamentary ping-pong” which takes place whenever Lords and Commons cannot agree on an issue. The Commons has now appointed a Committee of MPs to look into the matter.
According to a statement from the Identity and Passport Service: “The Identity Card scheme has already cost the taxpayer millions of pounds. Combined with development work on biometric data, some £292 million has been spent on ID cards.
“The amendment to pay refunds would add a further cost to be picked up by the taxpayer.
“The Government will reverse this expensive change when the Bill returns to the Commons.”
With the abolition of ID cards becoming law yesterday, Mr Hodder’s suggestion is pretty much history: however, the question of whether or not to pay refunds is a quite different matter, and despite Home Office hopes to the contrary, it may yet be one that returns to bite the government, in the courts.