Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Call For Home Secretary To Apologise For Misleading House On Id Cards

Lynne Jones MP has written to Andy Burnham MP. The letter deserves to be widely read but I don't suppose it will be, so I hope Ms Jones won't mind me including it in full here:

"Dear Andy,

ID card and register scheme

Thank you for your letter dated 14 February, responding to some of my remarks on the World at One on Friday 10 February.

You say that it is ‘simply not credible’ to imply that the Government is proceeding by ‘sleight of hand’ because Home Office documents have made it clear that it will be compulsory for people to go on the NIR when they apply for a passport. However, as you know, our 2005 Manifesto stated the opposite. It stated that the scheme would be “rolling out initially on a voluntary basis as people renew their passports”. In the letter you sent to colleagues on Friday, referring to the Manifesto commitment, I note that you omit the first part of this phrase:

“We have a clear manifesto commitment to introduce the National Identity Register (NIR) and the identity cards scheme "as people renew their passports".

You then try and get around the fact this was supposed to be voluntary as people renew their passports by stating:

“The manifesto reference that this process would initially take place on a voluntary basis refers to the fact that no order setting a date for compulsory enrolment would be laid in this Parliament.”

How were voters supposed to know that? It is ridiculous to infer that this is what people would have understood without it being explained alongside.

Furthermore, in view of the fact that the Government has made much of the fact that further primary legislation would be required before the scheme becomes compulsory, it is perfectly reasonable to point out in interviews that, despite this, there will be compulsion for the majority of people through ‘designated documents’ which will not come through the ‘front door’ of further primary legislation.

Ministers have also frequently and repeatedly given the misleading impression that the scheme is proceeding on the basis of international requirements or is at least keeping up with international schemes, when in reality it goes far beyond these. During the last debate on 13 February, when I asked Charles Clarke which other countries propose to have 13 sets of biometric data on a centrally held database, he replied:

Mr. Clarke: A number of countries, including the United States of America, is the answer to my hon. Friend's question.

Following this, I asked the House of Commons Library if they could verify the Home Secretary’s answer. When the Library asked the Home Office 'what sources or authority the Home Secretary had relied on, when he said that a number of countries including the USA proposed to have 13 sets of biometric data on a central database' the Home Office replied “We have no specific information as to when other countries will move to using 13 biometrics.” Unless you or Charles have evidence to the contrary (that your officials are unaware of), I suggest it would be appropriate for the Home Secretary to apologise for misleading the House (I am copying him into this letter).

You state that limiting the document designation powers in the Bill will lead to higher costs, thus acknowledging that those in need of passports are expected to subsidise the ID card scheme. You make no reference to the fact that, if you had a less intrusive scheme then your costs could be as low as in other countries with biometric ID cards. As you state in your letter, all countries that issue passports and ID cards have databases to administer their scheme, but can you give details of any other scheme that proposes to have a live central database with an audit trail on the scale proposed under the NIR?

You suggest that raising the concern that the Government’s scheme may make the identity fraud situation worse is an ‘uninformed assertion’ as ‘with many criticisms of the scheme’ (without specifying to which criticisms you are referring). You state this despite the comments of the Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft UK that the Register would become a 'honeypot' for criminals. Is he ‘uninformed’? Furthermore, the European Commission’s Data Protection Working Party, in their publication Working Document on Biometrics looked at whether biometric information should be kept on smart cards and retained by the individual or whether it was acceptable to store the information on a centralised database. The House of Commons Library note on Biometrics states that the Working Party’s clear preference is for the former as it believes centralised storage presents an increased risk of data misuse. Is the Working Party ‘uninformed’?

Turning to your response to my comment that the Home Office are ‘making the scheme up as they go along’, I stand by this view, which is based on the answers I have received to Parliamentary questions, for example:

• In June 2005 the Government didn’t know how many enrolment centres there would be for the ID cards programme and have still not provided this information to MPs. Whilst it has been announced there will be some 70 centres for interviews for passports, the Home Office stated in a PQ tha, whilst these 70 centres form part of the ID card programme, ‘these offices do not necessarily form part of the enrolment centre provision’ and ‘at this stage it is not known how many of these facilities there will be’. Are we to seriously believe the Government’s estimated costs are realistic when such a major part of the project has not been worked out?

• In December 2003 the Minister stated that ‘The costs estimates which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary set out in Command paper 6020 were based on the assumption that this automatic replacement card would be provided free of charge’. In June 2005, when asked if this assumption remained the Government’s policy, you answered ‘No such assumption was made in CM 6020.’ We have still not been told what the policy is on replacement cards and who will bear the cost. On the issue of how much it will cost an individual to replace a stolen, lost or damaged card, in a recent PQ, answered 13.02.06, we are told that no final decisions have been taken.

• No detailed planning or cost estimates have been undertaken in respect of assessments of applications for exemptions for when the ID Card scheme becomes compulsory.

• When asked if the Home Office would be revisiting its cost assumptions in line with the recommendations of the KPMG review, on 25 October 2005, Tony McNulty answered that his officials were reviewing the recommendations of the KPMG review and ‘would be acting on them in future iterations of the costings’. Yet the Government have not revised their £584m figure or referred to these KPMG recommendations in their briefings on costs.

• The Home Office admit in their own Regulatory Impact Assessment analysis of 25 May 2005 that some benefits are ‘not yet quantified completely’. In answer to a PQ asking if the cost benefit analysis of the scheme includes estimates for these unquantified benefits, we are told it did but that further analysis was underway to ‘refine these estimates’. When asked what the results were of his Department’s further analysis, you answered that benefits were continuing to be identified and quantified and the analysis was ongoing. The Government do not say whether any of this analysis will have any impact on the Government’s cost estimates.

Regarding your claim to be consulting with industry, I have to say that talking to people from the industry with an interest in procurement within the scheme is not the same as listening to the concerns of independent industry experts. You cite Intellect as a source of expert guidance. Is my understanding correct that Intellect’s membership includes several companies who are likely to bid for contracts with the Home Office? I would be more willing to accept that the Government have really researched this project thoroughly with industry experts if you had provided satisfactory replies to the many letters my constituent, Andrew Hawker (who has had many years working in the industry and who now comments on this matter independently) has taken the trouble to write.

Despite your failure to address Mr Hawker’s questions on how the benefits of the ID card scheme have been calculated, Mr Hawker has taken the trouble to respond to your last letter of 20 February, your reference: M3198/6. A copy of Mr Hawker’s letter is enclosed. I should therefore be grateful for your response to the specific points Mr Hawker has raised in the enclosed letter (and previously) about the Home Office’s estimated benefits of the ID cards scheme.

In your letter, you state that cost reviews have been done by the Treasury, Office of Government and Commerce and KPMG but won’t publish these on the basis that a detailed breakdown of costs might have procurement implications and lead to higher costs. As you will note from Mr Hawker’s letter, biometric equipment is freely advertised and priced on the internet and companies regularly announce the value of other biometric contracts. Presumably there will also be competition between bidders anxious to win what must be extremely lucrative contracts (unless you are implying such companies are capable of price rigging). Both these factors render the excuse for not providing some cost breakdown of the ID cards project most questionable. Furthermore, the Government has never addressed the point that MPs like myself have only requested a broad breakdown of the estimated costs for the major components of the scheme. We haven’t even been told the likely cost of the National Identity Register!
Finally, I would like to raise the case of individuals who could be put in danger if their biometric details are accessible on the NIR, for example security personnel or victims of crimes such as domestic violence. The intended compulsory registration of UK citizens in the NIR may endanger individuals who are threatened by terrorists or organised criminals. For instance, witnesses threatened with revenge, would typically be relocated and given new identities. Were enrolment on the National Identity Register to be established on a compulsory basis, what guarantee could then be given to such a person that their whereabouts could be kept secret? I am sure you would agree that it would become impossible to carry out anything like a normal life without a functioning ID card. Thus a witness would have to be registered in the database under their new identity. But because they are identified by biometric information in the database, and that biometric information would not have changed with their identity, it would be possible to find them using biometric information recorded before they disappeared. (Or are you accepting that multiple identities will be possible with the same biometrics?)
As an example, a photograph of the person taken before they disappeared could be used to match the facial biometric information in the database enabling all the person's details to be looked up including their new home address. No doubt you will be aware that it is possible to identify a person using an ‘iris code' obtained from a photograph taken many years before as demonstrated publicly in the case of Sharbat-Gula, an Afghan woman who appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1985, and who was positively identified in 2002 from that photograph using an iris biometric. I accept that, on as large a database as the NIR, facial and iris recognition alone would not necessarity provide unique identification but presumably you are arguing that possession of all 13 biometrics would. Numerous Police officers and others would be allowed to perform this type of search without the subject's consent and, while the Bill would make unauthorised disclosure of information from the Register a serious criminal offence, this could not prevent an organised criminal from coercing an authorised person into performing lookups on their behalf.
Dose the Home Office have a solution to this problem?
I should be grateful for your response to the points raised in this letter. I apologise for its length but I hope you will appreciate the serious nature of the concerns raised.

Yours sincerely,


cc Charles Clarke, Home Secretary"

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