Azara Blog: UK government does not want to publish cost of ID cards

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Date published: 2006/01/16

The BBC says:

The government has been defeated in the Lords as peers said its controversial ID cards scheme could not go ahead until its full costs were revealed.

Ministers say it will cost £584m a year to issue cards but say revealing costings for the full scheme could make it harder to get a good value deal.

Peers voted by 237 votes to 156 to block the scheme until the National Audit Office and MPs vet the figures.

The government is likely to try to overturn the defeat in the Commons.

Ministers say they will press ahead with the scheme.

Home Office Minister Andy Burnham said he would study the debate carefully but found it hard to believe the opposition amendment was sensible.

"People want us to keep the costs of the ID cards down but this amendment would limit the government's ability to do that," he said.

"It would require us to put into the public domain costs we want to keep back as we want to get the best possible deal for the taxpayers."

The defeat comes after a new report from the London School of Economics said the Home Office was relying on guesswork and had underestimated the costs.

Conservative peers were so determined to get at the real cost of the scheme that they proposed holding a rare secret session of the Lords to discuss the issue.

Shadow home affairs minister Lady Anelay said the government had rejected that offer.

As the Lords began the report stage of the Identity Bill, Conservative Baroness Noakes said the government had given "absolutely no information" about the scheme's start-up costs.

It was unprecedented that legislation with such major consequences should go forward without Parliament being able to scrutinise the financial impact, she said.

Liberal Democrat spokesman Lord Phillips of Sudbury said it would be "constitutionally wrong" not to insist on a full estimate of the costs across government. "At the moment we are being offered a pig-in-a-poke; the cart before the horse," he said..

The Home Office estimates the scheme will cost about £584m to run each year, with each combined biometric passport and identity card costing £93.

But it has not given full cost estimates for setting up the scheme and says its overall costs will depend on how government departments choose to use the card scheme.

In a new report, the LSE sticks by its claims that the scheme would cost between £10bn and £19bn over 10 years if the government followed its original plans.

Simon Davies, one of the academics involved in the scheme, said it was impossible to updates the costs because the government was "changing the goal posts", including making it less secure.

He complained there was a "culture of secrecy".

Ian Angell, head of the LSE Department of Information Systems, said: "Contradictions, guesswork and wishful thinking on the part of the Home Office make a mockery of any pretence that this scheme is based on serious reasoning."

But the Home Office says the LSE is using "fantasy figures".

The Lords: the last bastion between the citizens of Britain and an unaccountable executive. How pathetic can the government get that it cannot even publish estimated costs. Nobody with any sense would believe that the actual costs would be exactly the same as the current estimated costs, they never are. (Try multiplying by two.) But this does not mean the estimated costs should not be published, how else can people judge for themselves whether the Home Office is just making it all up. And for the Home Office to complain that the LSE is using "fantasy figures" is doubly pathetic. It's simple, set the record straight. Unfortunately, New Labour does not seem to believe it should be held accountable by Parliament. (Not that the Tories would have behaved any differently had they been in power.)

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