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Sunday, May 29, 2005

What price justice?

The Observer this morning reports that the cost of an ID card could be as much as £300. This is inflation of Weimar proportions.

The figure has been calculated by experts at the London School of Economics, who have spent months producing one of the most authoritative analyses of the scheme.

Last week the Home Office issued a report which estimated that, over the next decade, the cost of running the scheme, in conjunction with a new biometric passport system, would be £5.8bn. Because the Treasury has insisted the scheme must be self-financing, this works out at an average cost of £93 to each card holder.

But, according to the LSE's analysis, a draft section of which has been obtained by The Observer, the true cost of implementing and running the scheme, will be between £12bn and £18bn. This could make the average cost of a card as high as £300 to every adult, unless government departments are prepared to shoulder some of the financial burden.

The LSE believes the government has grossly underestimated the cost of the technology involved in making the system work. Last week the government estimated the biometric card readers needed to scan the cards would cost £250-£750. 'A more likely figure ... would be in the range of £3,000 to £4,000 per unit,' the report suggests.

The report also raises doubts about whether the government is right to assume a 10-year life span for each card. 'All technical and scientific literature indicates that biometric certainty diminishes over time, and it is therefore likely that a biometric - particularly fingerprints and facial features - will have to be re-scanned at least every five years. This cost must be taken into account.'

A further problem, which the government appears not to have factored in, is 'refuseniks' - people who will not co-operate. 'There is evidence that this population could create a substantial additional cost burden. The administrative costs of handling this group will be substantial,' the report states.

The LSE also questions the strain placed on the system by individuals notifying a change in their personal circumstances, as they will be required to do so by law.

'This requirement may result in [between] 300 million and 1.2 billion contacts with the register over 10 years,' the report says. 'This additional cost must be taken into account. If human management is necessary to ensure changes are verified, this facet will add between £1bn and £4 bn to the 10-year rollout of the scheme.'

The cost of the ID card of course, will be the key to public acceptability. However, this is also a social justice issue. The Government is talking about the making the ID card a requirement to access public services. Many of the poorest and most economically deprived people in our society will not be able to afford a card. They could find themselves being barred from using GPs, hospitals, educational establishments or even from receiving benefits.

It is for this reason that the opposition parties in the National Assembly for Wales have chosen ID cards as the next challenge to WAG. In Scotland the First Minister has ruled out any idea that the card will be needed to access services funded by the Scottish Parliament. We are seeking a similar commitment from the Labour Assembly Government. If it is not forthcoming then we plan to force it to the vote on a Welsh Liberal Democrats motion.


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