Sunak pours cold water on Blair’s call for state digital ID scheme

Former PM publishes paper calling for government to manage digital identity marketplace – but current Downing Street inhabitant seems to dismiss proposal

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Former prime minister Tony Blair has led calls for government to introduce a national digital identity system – but incumbent PM Rishi Sunak seems to have dismissed the idea in short order.

The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change think tank has published a new policy paper, titled A New National Purpose: Innovation Can Power the Future of Britain.

The publication features a range of recommendations for how government can use or support technologies including artificial intelligence and biotech systems.

Among its most eye-catching recommendations made in the paper – which was also endorsed by former Conservative leader William Hague, whom Blair beat in the 2001 general election – was the introduction of a state-managed national digital identity system.

The paper recommends that government should “accelerate the implementation of a single digital-ID system for all residents” of the UK. This would involve “providing a digital wallet to access [the identity], while ensuring that digital and physical copies of ID have the same legal status”.

To support the use of digital identity in the delivery of public services, the paper makes an additional recommendation that government should “legislate for a wide-ranging ‘once-only’ principle as a forcing mechanism to spur secure, proportionate data-sharing between government agencies”.

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The paper acknowledges that “the debate over digital IDs has raged in the UK for decades” – not least during the premiership of Blair and his successor Gordon Brown. Shortly before Blair left office, legislation was passed for the introduction of a National Identity Register, to support plans for ID cards for all citizens. The coalition government that took office in 2010 scrapped the plans.

But the former Labour PM seemingly remains an advocate of a state ID programme.

His institute’s report said claimed that “government records are still based in a different era” when compared with the kind of “digital simplicity” exemplified by commercial sectors such as banking.

 “In a world in which everything from vaccine status to aeroplane tickets and banking details are available on our personal devices, it is illogical that the same is not true of our individual public records,” the report said. “Governments are the original issuers and source of truth for most identity documents, from birth certificates to passports. Rather than creating a marketplace of private-sector providers to manage the government-issued identity credentials of citizens, the government should provide a secure, private, decentralised digital-ID system for the benefit of both citizens and businesses.”

“A well-designed, decentralised digital-ID system would allow citizens to prove not only who they are, but also their right to live and work in the UK, their age and ownership of a driving licence. It could also accommodate credentials issued by other authorities, such as educational or vocational qualifications. This would make it cheaper, easier and more secure to access a range of goods and services, online and in person. A digital ID could help the government to understand users’ needs and preferences better, improving the design of public services. 

It added: “A digital-ID system rooted in a public-sector data architecture like this could pave the way for individuals to make better use of their own data, for instance by using proof-of-mobile bill payments to support their credit rating, or by being able to prove school-attendance records as part of a job application. Far from being a nice-to-have or a question of marginal improvements in online public services, a properly functioning digital-ID system is the cornerstone of a digital-era public sector.”

Shortly after the publication’s report, a spokesperson for the current prime minister Rishi Sunak seem to dismiss the suggestion that government should introduce such a system, in comments made to the Daily Express.

“There are no plans to introduce digital ID. Our position on physical ID cards remains unchanged,” the spokesperson said. “We are already carrying out work to enhance the digitalisation of public services.”

Such work – it should be noted – does already include the use of digital identities, created by tech providers but certified by the government. Since April 2022, employers and landlords can use digital identity to perform mandatory checks on individuals’ right to work or rent property in the UK.

Using a trust framework developed by what is now the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, a total of 36 identity service providers have been accredited to perform these checks. The Office for Digital Identities and Attributes has also been established in DSIT to oversee the sector. The unit was created with the remit to ensure that digital IDs exist on same legal footing as hard-copy documents such as passports and driving licences.

Sam Trendall

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