Select Committee on Science and Technology Sixth Report


This Report is the final of three case studies considering the Government's treatment of scientific advice, risk and evidence. It focuses upon the Home Office's identity cards scheme, which uses various technologies including biometrics, information and communication technology (ICT) and smart cards. We considered this scheme in order to explore the ways in which scientific advice, risk and evidence could be managed in relation to technologies that are continually developing.

This inquiry has found several areas in which the Home Office's treatment of scientific advice and evidence appears to be following good practice: the establishment of advisory committees, the use of Office of Government Commerce (OGC) Gateway Reviews and the development of risk management strategies are examples. We welcome the Home Office's commitment to implementing the scheme gradually rather than using a "big bang" approach, which could jeopardise the success of the programme.

We have also identified weaknesses in the use of scientific advice and evidence. We are disappointed with the lack of transparency surrounding the incorporation of scientific advice, the procurement process and the ICT system. Potential suppliers are confused about the extent to which the scheme will be prescriptive and when technical specifications will be released. Whilst the Home Office has attempted to consult the wider community, stakeholders have complained that consultations have been unduly limited in scope and their objectives have been unclear. As a result, the wider community does not have the level of confidence in the scheme that could reasonably be expected at this stage. Whilst the Home Office has determined some aspects of the scheme such as the biometrics, it has left other aspects such as the structure of the database undetermined. Its decisions demonstrate an inconsistent approach to scientific evidence and we are concerned that choices regarding biometric technology have preceded trials. Given that extensive trialling is still to take place, we are sceptical about the validity of costs produced at this stage. We note the danger of cost ceilings driving the choice of technology and call for the Home Office to publish a breakdown of the technology costs following the procurement process.

The identity cards scheme has at least another two years before identity cards begin to be introduced and the scheme has not yet entered its procurement phase. There is still time for the Home Office to make alterations to its processes. We encourage the Home Office to seek advice on ICT from senior and experienced professionals and to establish an ICT assurance committee. Whilst biometric technology is an important part of the scheme, it must not detract from other aspects of the programme, in particular ICT. It is crucial that the Home Office increases clarity and transparency across the programme, not only in problem areas. We also emphasise that if evidence emerges that contradicts existing assumptions, changes must be made to the programme even if the timescale or cost of the project is extended in consequence.

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Prepared 4 August 2006