Standing on the brakes

by David Moss

March 2010


No progress is being made on the NIS, the National Identity Service. There is nothing to show for four years hard work and no sign that we will ever see a useful system. The suggestion is made here that failure on such a scale requires the leaders of the project to be doing it deliberately – someone is standing on the brakes. Loopy? Conspiracy theory nonsense? Maybe. But the alternative is that the project management is just incompetent. Take your pick. Either way, our money is being wasted.


In July 2002, a Home Office consultation document estimated that it would take three years to set up the National Identity Service (NIS) and that the cost of set-up and the first 10 years of operation, 13 years in all, would be between £1.318 billion and £3.145 billion.

Three years to get the NIS set up. Then it would be ready to run. That was the estimate. That's what was voted on by Parliament. We have had four years now since the Identity Cards Act was passed in March 2006 and there is still no NIS population register. There is still no national telecommunications network linking prospective users like schools and GP surgeries and banks and police stations and benefit offices to the population register, so that people's entitlements can be checked quickly and securely. None of these users have the card readers, cameras and fingerprint scanners needed to use the NIS. To all intents and purposes no-one has an ID card. And the Home Office have only got 34 registration centres where they can enrol the population, out of the 2,000 estimated to be needed.

In other words, the NIS is a failure.

Meanwhile, the estimated cost of the NIS for the next 10 years has risen to around £6 billion. The public have no idea how much has been spent since 2002. And the £6 billion figure only covers Home Office costs, it doesn't cover the costs that would be incurred by schools, GP surgeries, banks and others.

The NIS is an expensive failure.

There appear to be no budget constraints on the NIS. There is no lack of political support from Prime Ministers, Home Secretaries and their bag-carriers. There is any amount of external consultancy available – PA Consulting, for example, are thought to have charged tens of millions of pounds for advising the Home Office on identity management since 1999. Further, the Home Office have retained M&C Saatchi, BBDO Abbott Mead Vickers and Proximity for marketing work. And yet nothing is happening.

Compare the experience of Pakistan. Poverty. Political unrest. War. And yet they've managed to issue 70 million biometric ID cards. In the rich and stable United Kingdom, how many biometric ID cards have we issued? 10,000.

Failure on this impressive scale takes some explaining. How can hundreds of intelligent and hard-working people have so little to show for their efforts on the NIS after so long? The lack of progress is so complete that it's hard to believe that it isn't deliberate. Someone, somewhere, with the power to make things not happen, has got his or her foot firmly planted on the brake. That's the way it seems.

The original plan, back in 2002, was for the NIS population register to be built from scratch. Then in the autumn of 2006, the Identity & Passport Service (IPS) acquired a new chief executive, James Hall. And one of his first decisions was to drop the idea of building the population register from scratch and, instead, to start with the Department for Work and Pensions database, the Customer Information System (CIS).

There it is in his December 2006 Strategic Action Plan for the National Identity Scheme, Annex 1, p.25: by June 2007 design work will be completed on using DWP's CIS. Now, three-and-a-bit years after the plan was published, IPS have just announced that they can't after all use CIS for the population register, they're going to have to build a new one from scratch.

Getting on for eight years after the Home Office consultation document, here they are, back at the drawing board, just getting started all over again. That takes some cheek, but IPS seem to have got away with it, the Daily Mail haven't noticed. Yet.

Home Office work began on identity management at least as early as 1999, and IPS have just announced that they think it would be a good idea if ID cards worked online. The present cards don't. Better ID cards, proper ones, according to IPS, will start to become available from about 2012. You have to admire their nerve.

And their sense of humour. "IPS aims to be the trusted and preferred provider of identity services", it says in one of their framework agreements. A Visa card is accepted at 27 million outlets worldwide. The banks can claim to be among the preferred providers of identity services. So can the phone companies. They've both got the global infrastructure to prove it. The Home Office haven't.

This is all good news, of course, for normal people. Mr Hall is to be congratulated. So is Sir David Normington, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, for letting him get away with it.

The fundamental principle of the NIS is that governing a country is no more than an extended case of stock control. Stock controllers maintain a master register of all their stock, they keep track of every movement of the stock and they do that by stamping it with bar codes or sticking RFID tags in it. There are abnormal people who believe that humans can be treated as stock. The European Commission, for example. Messrs Normington and Hall are, in their way, national heroes, unsung perhaps but there they are, patriotically defying some very powerful interests.

Is it possible that IPS are just being cautious? Going slowly, to make sure they get everything right? No. There are very few new facts in the world of identity management. They've all been investigated by the European Commission. And seven years ago, in March 2003, the Commission published the 2,000-page blueprint for OSCIE, the open smart card infrastructure for Europe. If the Home Office wanted to, they could save a lot of money and make a lot of progress by just implementing OSCIE. They're not just being cautious. They're standing on the brake. And good for them.

David Moss has spent seven years campaigning against the Home Office's ID card scheme.

2010 Business Consultancy Services Ltd
on behalf of Dematerialised ID Ltd