The government's controversial identity (ID) card scheme is facing renewed criticism after a leaked email exchange between senior civil servants revealed significant doubts within Whitehall about the technical viability of the project.
Experts said that with concerns about the feasibility of the project growing, IT directors should not invest too heavily in assessing how to make use of national ID cards until more detailed plans emerge.
In the emails, leaked to the Sunday Times by a senior official close to the Treasury, officials revealed major concerns about government plans to introduce a scaled down, "early variant" ID card to meet a deadline to roll out the first cards by 2008. One official said there was no evidence this "face-saving" version was "remotely feasible" and warned of a potentially "botched operation" that could "put back the introduction of ID cards for a generation".
A Home Office spokesman said the government had always planned to deploy the technology in incremental stages, adding that "any suggestion that we have abandoned the introduction of ID cards is wrong".
In the correspondence, David Foord, ID card project director at the Office of Government Commerce, wrote to Peter Smith of the Identity and Passport service to voice concerns about the "amount of rethinking going on about identity management", as well as the "(un)affordability of all the individual programs", "the very serious shortage of appropriately qualified staff and numbers of staff", and "the lack of clear benefits from which to demonstrate a return on investment".
Foord concluded that "we are setting ourselves up to fail", before adding in a second email that "just because ministers say do something does not mean we ignore reality - which is what seems to have happened on ID Cards until the [contracts were due to] be issued and then reality could not be ignored any longer".
The emails prompted opponents of the scheme to renew calls for the government to scrap the project. David Davis, the shadow home secretary said the scheme had "all the classic signs of a Whitehall IT project about to go disastrously wrong ", adding that "it's time [the government] admitted failure and cancelled this project."
Alan Rodger of analyst firm Butler Group said the latest concerns would make IT directors "even more reluctant to invest much money in investigating uses for ID cards". He added that it was still impossible for firms to build plans to use the technology as "there are no guarantees around what has been planned and no serious plans around when cards will be available".
Whitehall emails reveal ID card fears
By James Murray on Jul 11, 2006 2:11PM