As time goes by

by David Moss

January 2010
Updated February 2010
Updated August 2010
 

James Hall is the Chief Executive of the Identity & Passport Service (IPS), the Home Office agency responsible for issuing us all with ID cards. He is also the Registrar General of England and Wales, responsible for registering births, deaths and marriages. And he is the Director General of Identity Services, a rôle no-one has ever explained.

Big Brother is His Excellency, Big Brother.

The following fragment of the minutes of a progress meeting between the two of them was accidentally left on a train by a civil servant or possibly by one of Whitehall's many butter-fingered consultants.

BB: ... so Project Stork is an embarrassing failure, Hall, and the UK is the laughingstock once again of the European Commission?

JH: That's not quite how I'd put it, Excellency, ...

BB: I don't care how you'd put it, Hall, quite frankly, or where. Let's move on ... The National Identity Service. ID cards. Finished your tour of the provinces. Bit of a flop. Coming to London next week, I see, Monday 8 February, big day. The banks and the retailers have already told you they don't want your system. Twice. And public support has fallen so far through the floor, you've had to stop measuring it. Have you at least got all 61 million Brits on the database now?

JH: Well, no, Excellency, we are working on an incremental basis, it's all in the framework agreement, where we said we're going to be the "trusted and preferred provider of identity services", we've got nearly 4,000 people on the database, many hundreds of them members of the Home Office, ...

BB: Four thousand, you say. Not three thousand. And not 61 million ... OK, what about the terminals, has every police station got ID card readers, fingerprint scanners, cameras, biometric matching software, and encryption software? What about hospitals and GP surgeries? Universities and schools? Pubs and shops? Banks and airports? Prisons? Have they all got ID card equipment?

JH: None of that equipment is covered by our £5 billion of petty cash, Excellency. So no again, and remember, we agreed an incremental approach.

BB: That was over three years ago, when you took over at IPS. And your predecessors have been on the case for more like eight years, since the heyday of Blunkett. I rather thought there might have been an increment by now ... The telecommunications network. I assume that that's in place. All these police stations and pubs need to be able to check the database quickly and securely to verify people's identity. Well?

JH: Well, no ...

BB: You have to register at least 50 million people over the age of 16. We need biographical information. We need biometric information. That chap from the National Physical Laboratory, he said we need a countrywide network of 2,000 registration centres. How many have we got?

JH: 69. Plus 17 of Lord Mandelson's post offices. So we're on the way, Excellency, we've asked all the high street chemists to help, and we've signed a £385 million contract with CSC to develop the biographical database, and a £265 million contract with IBM to handle the biometric side of it. And IBM have chosen Sagem Sécurité to provide the biometric technology we need. That's what the Australians are using at their airports.

BB: And do these biometrics work in Australia?

JH: I assume they do but, for security reasons, the Australians couldn't tell me.

BB: Let me get this straight, Hall, you've had eight years, an unlimited budget and unstinting not to say uncomprehending political support, and so far you've signed up 0.007% of the population, to a system which everyone is meant to believe will protect them against the imminent threats of crime and terrorism, you couldn't sign up any more because you haven't got anywhere to sign them up, and even if you had you haven't got a clue whether the biometrics you depend on actually work, and even if they do no-one's got the right equipment to use them. What, precisely, Hall, do you do all day, in that morgue you ineffably call an office?

JH: Excellency, we are in the vanguard of identity assurance systems ...

BB: Who told you that? You're not in the vanguard of anything, man. You're in cloud cuckoo-land. This whole system of yours is a fantasy. It doesn't exist. There isn't a National Identity Service. Do you realise the Pakistanis have already issued 70 million biometric ID cards? Do you realise the Germans have already got all their immigrants on biometric visas and they're all hooked up to the EU master system. And look at the Finns. Every time a little troll is born, or dies, it's all updated on-line on their population register.

JH: We like to think of it at Globe House as an incremental vanguard ...

BB: The dignity of my administration needs to be considered, Hall. Our USP is comprehensive efficiency. Customised services are offered to the public based on the computer manipulation of reams of data gathered by the benevolent and, above all, tireless surveillance of people's lives. The entitlement to state benefits is determined by appeal to objective, biometric tests. Even the right to work.

There are certain standards expected. Standards below which the performance of your legions of the living dead round at Galactic Mansions disgracefully falls. Your only achievement to date is hopelessly to have confused everyone as to what the benefits of ID cards are meant to be. No-one knows any more what the point of ID cards is.

You've got a week, Hall. You've got M&C Saatchi working on the account. And Abbott Mead Vickers. And Proximity. PA Consulting have been doing identity management work for the Home Office for 10 years. Pull your collective finger out. You've got a week, to make sure that when this show opens in London, we don't have audiences hooting at you with derision ...

And there, unfortunately, the fragment ends.


Home Office, 3 June 2010: James Hall announces retirement


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

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