MPs have praised the successful introduction of e-passports and called on the government to explain why ID cards are also needed, given that the two documents will hold broadly similar information.
A report by the powerful Commons public accounts committee says: “The Identity and Passport Service successfully delivered the ePassport project to time, cost and quality standards.”
It adds that the roll-out “offers an example of successful project management and procurement to others contemplating introducing a new service or improving an existing one” and calls on the Office of Government Commerce to make public the lessons learned from the project more widely.
The MPs said the Identity and Passport Service had learned the lessons of previous unsuccessful projects, including its own failed launch of the EPA2 electronic passport application system last year. Earlier this year, the IPS was forced to write off £5.5m in software development costs for the project which saw a huge backlog of passport applications build up.
Introduction of the new e-passports, which carry a chip with the passport holder’s details, was managed much more successfully. The report says: “The agency planned from the outset for a cautious, low risk project. The prototype ePassport and the manufacturing process were both subject to substantial testing, and the agency gave itself enough time for a progressive roll-out rather than a big bang switch immediately from digital to ePassport.”
But the report also notes that under current Home Office plans a UK citizen with a valid e-passport will also need to purchase a UK national identity card, although the two documents will contain broadly similar data.
Last week, the Conservative Party reiterated plans to scrap the government’s £5.4bn ID card scheme.
Public accounts committee chair Edward Leigh MP said: “Most of us are going to have to have both an ePassport and an identity card. The Home Office needs to explain why an ePassport could not serve both purposes. At the very least, the Identity and Passport Service should reduce areas of overlap as the identity card project progresses and make sure that the combined fee for the two documents is minimised.”
The MPs also noted that the IPS accepted a manufacturer’s two-year guarantee for the lifetime of the chips used in the new e-passports, although the documents have a 10-year lifespan, in order to meet deadlines set by the US Visa Waiver programme.
Leigh warned: “The public will want to be told just how durable the chip is and, if it stops working, who will pay for a replacement. The prospect of ePassport failures contributing to yet further delays at border controls is not an enticing one.”
Introduction of a second generation of e-passports, with fingerprints recorded on the chips, “will present greater technical and logistical challenges” than the first generation roll-out, the report says. It urges the IPS to review demand forecasts, consider cost implications and prepare and test contingency plans before going ahead.
“The Identity and Passport Service acknowledged that it still has some way to go to master the technology needed to put fingerprints on a chip, and that there are issues to resolve with chip capacity for the national identity card project,” the report notes.