Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1160-1179)


14 JUNE 2006

  Q1160  Mr Newmark: Is that an aspiration or is that real timing?

  Joan Ryan: That is a strong desire that we are working towards. As for the building blocks I have spoken about, I was watching ID cards being issued yesterday at Lunar House in Croydon. The ARC card for asylum seekers is, in effect, an ID card. You will know that from August every passport issued will be a biometric passport. All these building blocks are being put in place. We dealt with the secondary legislation on UK visas last week. By end 2007/early 2008, all UK visas will be biometric. That is a timetable and we are moving towards it, but that is not to say that I can give you a guarantee that the procurement process will have happened in a particular way.

  Q1161  Chairman: To be fair, Joan, your predecessor did not give us a specific date either. We will not follow up on that. Risk is something on which we have not had a clear answer from you. Your predecessor appeared to be content to allow us to view the risk register. Why have you said no?

  Joan Ryan: I hope I explained in my letter that there are potential confidentiality issues around parts of the risk register and obviously, at the point we go into procurement, this is crucial. Therefore, I took the decision that this could pose a difficulty.

  Q1162  Chairman: What changed between your predecessor and you? Why am I not trusted to look at parts of the register?

  Joan Ryan: Also, much of the register is outside the scope of this investigation. It is not a question of trust between myself and you, Chairman. I have said that I would be very happy, if you want to make a specific request, to do all that I can to meet that request and enable you to see those parts of the risk register within your specific request as it relates to the scope of this investigation and the work of the committee.

  Q1163  Chairman: This inquiry is actually dealing with scientific evidence and risk. Particularly for those bits of the register that relate to science and technology underpinning the scheme, it would be very useful if in fact as a committee I can report back that we have actually seen the register and seen those elements of it and can say that that is happening.

  Joan Ryan: I appreciate the point you are making and I would say that the offer I have made was very genuine. If you come back with specifics, then I will do all I can to accommodate that request. I understand that your desire is genuine and obviously the findings and the outcomes of the committee are helpful to us.

  Q1164  Chairman: Of course they are and so I will be able to look at those elements of the register which refer specifically to the science and technology underpinning the scheme on a confidential basis?

  Joan Ryan: I would ask the honourable gentleman, the Chairman, to respond to the offer made in my letter.

  Q1165  Chairman: Why can you not just say yes?

  Joan Ryan: I would like you to write to me with a specific request. It is important, with my responsibilities as an Under-Secretary of State, to consider carefully, particularly from a select committee, the requests that are made to me. I would like to give that consideration to your specific request. I can assure you that I will do that in good faith.

  Q1166  Chairman: I find that very disappointing, if I might say so. One of the purposes of a select committee, particularly on an inquiry like this, is in fact to be able to have a trust between a minister and the committee. The idea that we cannot see and I cannot see elements of the register without going through a long process with you I think is disappointing, but there is no point in moving that on.

  Joan Ryan: I am not saying you cannot, and I do hope that you will not be disappointed and that that trust will exist and does exist between us.

  Q1167  Mr Newmark: Given that the Home Office has said that trials will provide vital new information, why is there at least a perception that this has been left so late? Is this not just increasing the risk of problems at a later stage?

  Joan Ryan: That presupposes that no trialling has occurred, and I would not say that that was the case. First of all, there was some very important case work done early on in 2004 on the biometrics and technology options. There has been trialling since then. I would point to IDENT 1, which I think all are agreed has been a very successful procurement and build operation, and also obviously the IAFS immigration and asylum fingerprint system. The fact is that these are new, up and coming and existing programmes as IAFS is going to move into IAFS Plus to accommodate the UK visas and biometric resident's permit. They give us a huge amount of information and they are in effect trialling. However, that can only happen within the procurement phase because we want to trial what is being developed. We are able to do that in that first phase at the private sector's risk, which I think is a very good option for Government in procurement. Following that first phase, we will then, once we have our private sector partner and as the technology and the register are built, trial. For a system that will run for some 60 million entrants, we think somewhere around the first 2 million people registered into it will in fact mean very large-scale trialling. That is another reason why we are taking it a step at a time.

  Q1168  Mr Newmark: According to the evidence we received on 8 May, there is not going to be that sort of trialling of specific technical issues.

  Joan Ryan: We have used evidence from the US National Institute of Science and Technology that does world class biometrics testing.

  Q1169  Mr Newmark: Let us move on. One of my concerns is about what happens if the technology actually does not meet up with the expectations in these live enrolment trials. Just to give you an example, and I am sure you have heard this two or three times at least, in women in terms of iris recognition there are changes at various times of the month.

  Joan Ryan: No, there are not. The retina might change but the iris does not. I think we have clarified that.

  Chairman: We have sorted that out.

  Q1170  Mr Newmark: That was one of the things they were not confident about when we went to the States.

  Joan Ryan: Brian raised it with me in Home Office orals. I would understand any concern like that. I am very pleased it was raised with me.

  Q1171  Mr Newmark: I will come back to a more generic statement. What happens if the technology does not meet expectations during live enrolment trials?

  Joan Ryan: You can see from what I have been able to say when you read the answer about irises that we are alive to these issues and these risks, and we are alive to them because of the work that we are doing looking at the deployment of existing technology and working with using evidence from bodies like NIST. I think that is a very important part of our trialling. Clearly, as I have said, we would build on that.

  Q1172  Mr Newmark: By definition, you would not be trialling if you had total confidence in the technology.

  Joan Ryan: I think it is best and good practice to trial and we would be trialling. We are confident that we will achieve procurement to deliver a technology that will deliver the programme, but I think your committee would rightly ask me what I thought I was doing if I was not insisting that there was trialling through the process. If I did not do that, you might be worried.

  Q1173  Mr Newmark: Adam has been in high tech for 15 years and I have been in business for 20 years. Things never run smoothly and that is why I am curious. Have you any contingency plans in case there are problems during procurement?

  Joan Ryan: As we are not tied to this exact timetable, that of itself is a contingency because if there are issues, then there is time to resolve issues. That of itself is a contingency. I think the real contingency is the fact that we are building gradually and it is incremental. That is because of the lessons we have learnt. I would say something else, and perhaps it comes back to the three risks that Adam mentioned, and add a fourth. If we look at what happened perhaps with the passport service, which is now an excellent service and one of our great successes and deserves to receive an accolade for that, as you all know, it had a difficult period, shall we say. That was not to do with the technology; that was to do with people issues—staff, training and enrolment. That is the fourth risk I would identify and it is another area we will be doing a great deal of work on. We are doing some of that work now through trialling, i.e. rolling out the biometrics passport and seeking to go to authentication by interview because it is not just about biometrics, you understand, establishing identity and issuing a card; it is also about a biographical footprint. That work is already going on as well.

  Q1174  Dr Harris: To what extent is the scheme governed by politically imposed deadlines? Are you alive to the fact that there is a tension between the need to deal with pesky Opposition politicians who say, "No, this will be delivered" and scientific advice saying, "Wait a minute. There needs to be scope for wriggle room if problems emerge"? How do you balance that?

  Joan Ryan: I hope what I have already said about the timetable you will find reassuring. I do not feel I am running this according to some political deadline. We have the legislation. We are moving to procurement. We are seeking to deliver, but I am not pressured by any external deadline outside that programme.

  Chairman: That is good to hear.

  Q1175  Dr Harris: If scientific advice said that the planned timescale, even if it is informal, is not reasonable because of difficulties, then that would count a lot. Do you fear that there is a culture that says that because this has become so political, it has to be delivered and the scientists will just have to get on with it?

  Joan Ryan: I would like to go back to an earlier answer when I said there is another issue and that is about our responsibility to the public and the issue of trust. I do not think anything can be more important than getting it right. That would be my answer. I hope we can do that in a timely fashion, meeting a reasonable timescale, but nothing is more important than getting it right. If scientific evidence comes forward that tells us there is an issue, it will depend on the evidence. We will have to have that evidence assessed. I have no doubt we will be discussing it here. It would depend on what the issue is. I cannot comment on a hypothetical problem. I am not anticipating something major that would completely delay or derail the programme. I would like to reassure the committee that nothing is more important than getting this right.

  Q1176  Margaret Moran: We have been told by the Government that facial recognition will be effective in protection and prevention of fraud as a central plank of what we are talking about here. Yet, we have received evidence from Professor Angela Sasse to say that 90% of benefit fraud is committed by people who do not lie about their identity. What specific evidence do you have on the extent to which fraud is based on lies about identity? Could you also tell us how the ID card project will guard against this?

  Joan Ryan: I think it is the case that the majority of benefit fraud is not perpetrated at present by people who are lying about their identity, as far as I am aware. Given your question, I will ensure that I look at specific evidence. That is my understanding. We would say that where there is a level of benefit fraud which relates to identity, then clearly it is important that that is tackled. Clearly, in that case identity cards will help. As I mentioned, there is the issuing system in the Hong Kong system. These technologies are developing. The way in which people access services and markets is changing. Much of it is internet-driven. We know that the ways in which people can commit fraud, in terms of use of identity and credit cards and all kinds of issues and stealing other people's identities, is on the increase. We know that these measures will help. I cannot put figures on that here and now for Margaret but I will of course look more carefully at that. I think what you say about benefit fraud is in fact correct.

  Q1177  Margaret Moran: You referred to yourself earlier as a social scientist. We have heard from the Home Office that social science is being used to validate assumptions and that where that research rejects a current assumption, a change is made. Could you give us a specific example of where that has been the case, where social science has influenced a change of direction in a project?

  Joan Ryan: I can say that we have undertaken nine separate pieces of social science research, and so we do think this is very important. One of the pieces of research is looking into people with special needs issues. We have undertaken 16 focus group discussions. Certainly, from all that we have learnt from that, it is not so much that we make an assumption and then change it; it is that we are learning from that kind of work and from the other social science I have mentioned done with the public. We are learning from them what the issues for them will be. I mentioned special needs in particular because you will know from the UK Passport Service that we have done trialling and we have found that elderly, people with various disabilities and some minority ethnic groups had more difficulty enrolling than others. That was not necessarily to do with technology.

  Q1178  Chairman: Have you changed the system as a result of this?

  Joan Ryan: It is informing the way in which we are enrolling people and the way in which we are enrolling them for a biometric passport. That will inform how we are going to enrol obviously for an ID card because a passport is the designated document. I am struggling to think of specific changes that we have made. We know that there are issues for people about how easy it is, given various disabilities, for them to deliver their fingerprints, whereas facial recognition is much easier.

  Q1179  Chairman: Would it be possible for you to look at that and perhaps let us have in writing some ideas on the way you conduct the social science research and the way it has affected the programme is moved on?

  Joan Ryan: I would be delighted to do that. As I say, there has been a lot of work done there. I would appreciate giving the committee more detail on that.

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