Don’t blame Sir Humphrey for ID cards, he mostly said yes minister

I have written an article for Guardian Public Leaders Network on the civil service and ID cards, based on the research I did for my book on the subject Card declined. Identity systems appear in two separate episodes of Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister – and in both Jim Hacker gets his own way, at least to some extent. And while Home Office officials appeared keen on reintroducing ID cards – we have that from David Cameron in 2004 – my conclusion is that ministers, not the civil service, were in the driving seat:

Home secretary David Blunkett, who lobbied for a new ID card scheme in 2001 according to Alistair Campbell’s diaries, claimed that the use of biometrics including fingerprints would make identity theft completely impossible – a foolish claim of perfection which a crafty civil servant would have warned him off, if one had been secretly running the show.

There is evidence of opposition from within the civil service for ID cards, rather than support. Some civil servants also ran the procurement of the technology on the basis that the scheme was likely to get canned:

In autumn 2009, the award of the contract to produce physical identity cards was postponed until after the general election, on the pretext of finishing a set of trials rather than because Labour was likely to lose and it would save the taxpayer a cancellation fee.

Such manoeuvring demonstrated a touch of the Sir Humphreys. But it also showed the civil service dealing pragmatically with the likely transition between two governments, which on this issue were diametrically opposed.

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