The news continues the fallout from a weekend report that quoted senior officials suggesting that the scheme is in crisis. One email from a senior Treasury official to a senior Home Office colleague published in recent days said: "what benchmark in the Home Office do we have that suggests this is even remotely feasible?"
The programme is suffering severe delays. After the ID card legislation was passed in spring, suppliers expected to be invited to tender immediately. That process will now not begin until the end of this year and no formal date has even been set. A Home Office spokesman told OUT-LAW that a formal date for tendering had never been set.
The Sunday Times revealed an email exchange that had been leaked to it between David Foord, Mission Critical Director at the Office of Government Commerce in the Treasury and Peter Smith, acting Commercial Director at the Home Office's Identity and Passport Service.
"Even if everything went perfectly (which it will not) it is very debatable (given performance of government ICT [computing] projects) whether whatever TNIR [the National Identity Register] turns out to be (and that is a worry in itself) can be procured, delivered, tested and rolled out in just over two years and whether the resources exist within government and industry to run two overlapping procurements," wrote Foord to Smith. "What benchmark in the Home Office do we have that suggests that this is even remotely feasible? I conclude that we are setting ourselves up to fail."
The Home Office said that it did not believe that the programme was in trouble. When asked was the email exchange not a sign that there was trouble a spokesman said that it did not comment on leaked emails.
One problem identified by the officials was that the project was being dictated by political concerns and not a reasonable perception of reality. "Just because ministers say 'do something' does not mean we ignore reality – which is what seems to have happened on ID Cards," wrote Foord. "I really want to be sure that what IPS [the passport service] intends to do is based on the real world."
Critics say they have known for some time that the project was deeply troubled. "This has revealed that what they are trying to do is down completely to a political agenda, not to a common sense agreement about what ID cards should do," said Phil Booth, national co-ordinator of anti-card group No2ID. "It is clear that they had a particular idea about what a central database would do, that it would hold everything about you your life history."
"This is something which nobody, including suppliers we've talked to, is sure that there is a technical ability to do. So they will build a huge database and spend hundreds of millions or billions of pounds on something that is a fantasy. It is utterly delusional. The civil servants don't think it can be done, the suppliers don't think it can be done. This is going to collapse under its own weight," said Booth.
"The delays to the ID cards scheme announced today come as no surprise to LSE’s Identity Project team," said London School of Economics academic Dr Edgar Whitley, who co-ordinates The Identity Project there. "Our 300-page report last year warned the government that its proposals were high risk. Given repeated statements from Home Office ministers about detailed costings and clear plans for the scheme we are alarmed at the extent of the problems revealed over the past few days."
The emails revealed that Prime Minister Tony Blair has asked for a scaled down version of the cards to be made available so that the project can meet his target of a 2008 launch.
Booth said that some passport service tenders issued last week underlined the feeling that the ID card project was disintegrating. "It looks like the IPS is trying to separate out the two things, the passports and the ID cards," he said. "The Home office has always said that ID cards and passports were intimately linked, that you can't have passports without ID cards and that the national ID registry was connected to passports. Then all of a sudden they are putting out tenders that put blue sky between the two things."
His view was supported by some of the leaked email correspondence. Smith from the passport service wrote in early June: "the procurements we will (we hope) launch in the next few months – not the TNIR but things like APSS and contact centre – are all necessary (essential) to sustain IPS business as usual, and we are designing the strategy so that they are all sensible and viable contracts in their own right even if the ID Card gets canned completely."
A Home Office statement said: "We have already introduced the first generation of biometric passports and begun introducing biometric visas for foreign nationals. As part of the Home Office review we are ensuring that the sequencing of our plans is coherent and addresses the priorities of British citizens. We have always made clear that its introduction would be in states and would be an incremental process and that remains the position."