Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1142-1159)


14 JUNE 2006

  Q1142 Chairman: Good morning to our two ministers, Joan Ryan and Vernon Coaker. Welcome to this our final evidence session on two of our case studies on ID cards and the classification of illegal drugs. For your benefit and the benefit of visitors this morning, this is part of an overarching inquiry looking at how scientific evidence informs government policy, how it informs risk, and how Government takes advice from an evidence base and a scientific base. That is its purpose. Our job is not to decide whether ID cards are a good thing or a bad thing. It is very much a matter of looking at the science behind it, the evidence behind the Government's policy. We are, first, going to run through the issues on ID cards and then move on to drug classification. Several witnesses have said that they were unclear about the objectives of the ID card programme. Are you clear what they are? Would you give us a quick canter through that?

  Joan Ryan: Yes, I think I am. I am happy to do that. The reason I am clearer than most is because I served on both the standing committees that took ID cards through the process in the Commons. I would outline four main reasons for ID cards. That is not to say there are not or will not be others as this develops but I think we have four key objectives. The first I would identify as being to enable people to have a secure means to establish and protect their identity. The second is to help to counter illegal immigration and work to strengthen our borders. The third is to counter the misuse of public services, to ensure that public services are used by those entitled to use them, and therefore also to improve efficiency and effectiveness in service delivery. I would identify the fourth as to counter organised crime and terrorism, to disrupt the activities of terrorists and organised criminals, and to make the UK the most difficult place in the world to use false identity.

  Q1143  Chairman: Do you feel that from the beginning of this process the Government has been clear as to what its objectives are since David Blunkett announced them as the Secretary of State a good number of years ago now? Do you think there has been a clear timetable and are you working to that timetable? Are you conscious of a timetable?

  Joan Ryan: I do think the Government has been clear right from the beginning and, as I say, I have had quite some involvement in that process from an early stage. I think we were very clear on the face of the Bill. We have been clear in the early discussions and consultations that took place. These four reasons have figured throughout. It is true that people have sometimes given them in a different order and perhaps with a different emphasis.

  Q1144  Chairman: You are working to a timetable?

  Joan Ryan: In terms of a timetable, we have what I would describe as a broad timetable with landmarks along it, rather than a detailed timetable. If we go back to David Blunkett in 2002, we can see the progression; we can see that a very big landmark was getting the legislation enacted. There was a delay there of a year. That is now part of the timetable. In the main, we are now at a stage where we are seeking to move to procurement and the procurement process itself will have a very big influence on determining the timetable from the point at which procurement happens.

  Q1145  Chairman: As the Minister responsible, are you now clear in your mind that, from now until the time that we all have ID cards, not only is the timetable mapped out but there are no hurdles that are yet to be overcome and, if there are any, what are they? Is it all plain sailing?

  Joan Ryan: On the timetable, we do not have a date at which I can say to you, "Here you are. On this date the scheme will be ready and we will start at that point rolling it out". I can tell you where we hope to be. However, as I have said, the procurement phase is crucial. We have landmarks in this timetable to work with our partners to deliver on our building blocks. The committee is probably aware of things like biometric passports, UK biometric visas and biometric residents' permits. Those kinds of developments and the feedback from them will help determine the timetable. The reason why the timetable is perhaps a bit looser than what might be called a very detailed timetable is because of that development and because we want to be very cautious on the basis of all the lessons we have learnt from good and bad projects.

  Q1146 Chairman: You are giving the impression that there are no problems facing you at the moment, no scientific problems facing you at the moment, and all has been resolved.

  Joan Ryan: I am not attempting to give that impression, Chairman. What I am saying is that the procurement phase is going to be absolutely crucial and trialling during that procurement phase in identifying for us where the issues are, if problems are going to have to be caught. It is because we are taking it in that incremental developmental way that we expect therefore to be able to deal with issues as they come up in that procurement.

  Q1147  Chairman: Has procurement begun already?

  Joan Ryan: No. We have done a preliminary information notice.

  Q1148  Chairman: Has that thrown up any problems?

  Joan Ryan: That has obviously alerted the market to the fact that we are seeking to go forward towards procurement. We have done some very detailed market soundings. What we have identified through this are risks rather than problems. De-risking is a very important part of the way we are going forward and of the incremental build with the building blocks I have mentioned and also the way in which we are hoping to structure procurement.

  Q1149  Mr Flello: Do you think that perhaps some of the confusion and difficulty has arisen because actually as the whole idea around ID cards has evolved, more and more really good uses are being thought of for them, for example, in terms of employment? If somebody is coming to an employer and needs to prove their identity, ID cards would be a very good mechanism in that sense. Do you think that some of the confusion and difficulties have arisen simply because there are so many add-on benefits for an ID card?

  Joan Ryan: I think that is exactly right. There are a number of other schemes in different countries around the world, all of which we are looking at and we are talking to the people involved. I know the committee has had some evidence on some of these issues and our conversations with people in terms of the US visit with the FBI; IDENT 1, the police fingerprinting scheme; and the Hong Kong scheme where they can use ID to counter on-line fraud. All of these developments continually bring forward, first, that this is a concept of its time now and, secondly, that there are growing advantages. Different bits of the advantages appeal to different people, and that is what they will emphasise. That is why it is important we have our four main objectives. As I said, that should not exclude developmental work on using the card in other ways as time moves on.

  Q1150  Chairman: One of our concerns as a committee is about the principal objective. Let us say that there is an agreement and the Government is clear about its four major objectives. I understand that different things could be added on in the future, but at the moment take those four things. What we find difficult to understand is how it is possible to decide on a technology which will be most suitable when you do not really know what it is that you want the technology to do. You have some objectives. You are going out to procurement but you do not know what it is you are going to procure in order to achieve your objective. We find that difficult to understand, or I as a simple person do.

  Joan Ryan: I am clear about that. Obviously I have had many meetings discussing these issues with my officials and those who advise me on scientific issues in recent weeks, and only in recent weeks as I am newly in post, as you will understand. That is a very crucial part of understanding how this is going to happen. I think the committee is right to ask the question because these are large expenditures and we have to get this right. My understanding is that the reason procurement will happen in the way it does is that we do have clear objectives and so we know what outcomes we want. The technology that will be developed through procurement will be driven by the outcomes we require. We are not going to the market to buy something off the shelf. We are not saying to the market, "The technology must look like, feel like and act like this". We are saying that the technology must be able to deliver these outcomes for us. We will test that through the trialling. The private sector suppliers are the experts in developing the technology. We want to use their expertise and continually stretch them throughout the procurement process, but always testing and ensuring that we meet our objectives; i.e. the outcomes we require in order to establish the identity card programme.

  Q1151  Chairman: You are now totally in the hands of the market to deliver an unknown product on which you may or may not meet the specifications which have been laid down by the Department?

  Joan Ryan: I do not accept that we are totally in the hands of the market. You will know that in the first instance when we go out to procurement, the first phase will be when the market will produce for us a pilot or prototype where they will bear the risk and they will compete with each other. We will then have trialling of that small-scale production as to how we will enrol people and how the technology will work. At the end of that phase, we will select either a consortium or a private sector provider.

  Chairman: You are confident that that is going to work.

  Q1152  Dr Iddon: While we have been taking evidence, industry has been quite critical of the Home Office. I will give you a quotation from Microsoft, who, after all, are one of the biggest firms, in the field. They said: "After all these consultations we still do not seem to have had an impact on the level of understanding about what makes for a good identity system". On the back of that quotation from Microsoft, I would ask: is industry going to be entirely clear in the procurement process about what you are asking them to deliver?

  Joan Ryan: You will know that we have, as I said, had a comprehensive market sounding exercise, and we have worked closely with industry and technical bodies using the industry routes such as Intellect. We have also worked closely both with experts within the Home Office, through our Biometrics Experts Group, our Biometrics Advisory Group, across Government, through the Assurance Group and the Chief Scientific Officer and his panel. We have also looked very carefully at other schemes that are up and running. I cannot answer for any individual company's comment but I can say that we have worked closely with industry. We have taken a great deal of care to work closely with schemes that are already in operation. We are working with caution, I think it is true to say, to get these building blocks in place so that when we come to the procurement, we already have a large amount of evidence about the way in which biometrics are working. I think we are right to be cautious and to question. This is a big programme and a big expenditure. I am confident that the work we are doing with the market is in-depth work and that we will be able to move successfully through into procurement.

  Q1153  Dr Iddon: It is not just Microsoft that are critical. Here is another criticism from another source. They say, and I quote, "You have people who are, frankly, scientists giving evidence to people who are, frankly, not". The implication there is that there are not enough scientists in the Home Office with which outside agencies and industry can engage at the same level and communicate properly.

  Joan Ryan: Someone said to me on this position, "Don't you think it would be helpful if you were a scientist?" I said, "No, I do not. I think scientists are very helpful people and in fact I could say I am a scientist, a social scientist".

  Q1154  Dr Iddon: I am not talking about you, Joan, but about the officers.

  Joan Ryan: The point I was going to make is that I think we can demonstrate involvement at all levels of scientific and technological expertise both inside the Home Office and outside. It is also crucial that people who are not scientists are able to assess and understand this information and make a judgment about how confident we can feel in all the work that is being done. When we are running this out to the public, there is a huge issue of trust. We have a responsibility I believe, as Government and as Members of Parliament, to ensure that public trust and confidence in a project such as this is developed and maintained for all the right reasons. I think both scientists and non-scientists need to be able to understand it.

  Q1155  Dr Iddon: What we are picking up, and it is not just in this inquiry but in other inquiries that this committee has undertaken, is that there used to be a scientific structure in the Home Office that seems to have been destroyed during the last couple of decades maybe and that the Home Office, when it comes to major procurement programmes like this, gets itself into difficulty because there is not enough technological understanding within the Home Office to be able to communicate with an industry that is going to deliver. Would you think that is a fair criticism or do you think the Home Office is well set with scientists and technologists able to handle this project?

  Joan Ryan: I know that criticism has been made and there has been previous criticism of lack of a scientific culture in the Home Office. I also think that if we look towards the Home Office's Science and Innovation Strategy of 2005-06, which summarises the science in the Home Office and a series of reforms to invent science within the department, we can see that some of those concerns are perhaps not justified.

  Q1156  Adam Afriyie: There are three main types of risk. We have a risk of time; it might take too long to deliver. We have a risk of money; it may cost too much to deliver. We have a risk of functionality; it may not deliver at all or it may not work. Which of those risks would you consider the easiest to mitigate—time, money or functionality—within each area?

  Joan Ryan: All risks have to be mitigated. From what I have said previously to the Chairman about ultimately the issue of trust and confidence, the fact is that this is a large project involving large sums of money and all of those risks must be mitigated. If the honourable gentleman would like me to say a bit on each of those, I think we are working very hard to make sure that that de-risking does occur.

  Q1157  Adam Afriyie: Perhaps you could say a few words on the type of risk in terms of time. You have a very tight time schedule here. I have 15 to 20 years' experience of IT projects. It seems almost inconceivable that you could trial new technology, develop it and have it deployed within the timescale set. Perhaps you could talk about how you are mitigating the risk of time so that all this does not take too long.

  Joan Ryan: As I said, the timetable is not one that says to us, "Here is a ready-to-serve date. You must be rolling out ID cards at this point". We have aspirations built on some of the building blocks that we are putting in place, but the detail of the timetable will only become absolutely clear though procurement. That is as it should be because we would not be de-risking if we said to the committee, "We can absolutely guarantee to you that you will see the first ID card at such and such a date". If we did that, you would rightly say to me, "So are you going to learn no lessons through the procurement process? Are you going to learn no lessons through the trialling?" Obviously we have to work through the procurement process and the exact timetable will fall into place. I am sure we will have much more discussion about that as the process takes place.

  Q1158  Bob Spink: Is the Minister now withdrawing the implementation timetable that had previously been announced for ID cards?

  Joan Ryan: We do not have an implementation programme for me to withdraw, so I am not withdrawing anything. We do not have an implementation timetable.

  Q1159  Chairman: We have been given evidence on that.

  Joan Ryan: What we have been told is that there is a desire, and a strong desire, to see ID cards towards the end of 2008-09 being issued.

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