Q&A: The ID card commissioner talks cards and controversy

Sir Joseph Pilling

The identity card scheme has been controversial since the idea was first mooted, called intrusive, unnecessary, expensive and another addition to the UK's Big Brother state.

To help calm fears - and make sure the programme runs as it should - the Government last year named long-time civil servant Sir Joseph Pilling as ID card commissioner, leaving many questioning how independent a long-term Government employee would be.

After a few months in the job, Sir Pilling has filed his first report. We spoke to him about the job so far and what he thinks of all the criticism.

You spend a lot of time in the report talking about what your role is and what it should be, and what it isn't. You say your job isn't to judge the value of the programme to taxpayers - that such a job falls to the National Audit Office - so what do you think your role should be?

I'm wondering about that actually. I think that we're not a bunch of accountants here, and we'd have to employ a bunch of accountants to do a really sophisticated job on the money.

The National Audit Office exists to scrutinise that. It will scrutinise it whether I scrutinise it or not, so there is just the case of whether it's justifiable to use our limited resources to go over ground that others are inevitably going to go over.

But I don't intend to interpret that self-denying ordinance in an overly scrupulous way. And if I've got some observations to make about money, or that touch on money, I shan't feel inhibited doing it. But I haven't yet stubbed my toe on anything that makes me really wince.

I suppose what's making me think about all of this is that they're charging 30 for an ID card at the moment. I'm just wondering whether that is going to be possible to sustain indefinitely, because the process seems to me to be quite an expensive process, in the sense that the better the quality the card, in terms of its security, the more reliable it is the less easy to use fraudulently, the more it costs to produce it by definition.

I mean, you could create me an ID card on your computer that could be done quite cheaply that wouldn't actually be very much good. I guess what interests me is the balance between the costs and the security of the card, because you could overdo it. You could make it prohibitively expensive.

I'm not at all thinking that they are doing [that], I'm just describing a process of thought I've been going through that makes me wonder if I haven't been too dogmatic about money in what you've just read back to me.

You admit yourself in the report that you didn't know that much about the subject when you were picked for the job. Why do you think they picked you?

I think it's by definition. It can not have been an easy job to fill. Because the opposition have a set of policies on the subject which are rather different to the Government's.

The election has to happen rather soon, whatever the Prime Minister thinks. He can make it happen a little bit sooner, he could announce it today if he wanted, but whether he announces it early or not, it's got to be quite soon.

And I suppose realistically the likelihood is that this job will disappear if the current opposition become the Government. I mean, they haven't addressed anything as detailed as the future of the ID commissioner, but it certainly would be a colloray of the certain types of things they are discussing.

So who wants to drop what they're doing to take on a role that is only going to last for a matter of months? They were forced to have somebody as the ID commissioner, because by law they couldn't issue a card until they had a commissioner.

They solved the problem by coming to somebody like me, who wasn't actually looking for a job and didn't mind if the job actually continued or not. I'm so old and so past it that I didn't apply for the job and wouldn't have been willing to do it on a full-time basis, because I've got other things that I am committed to. They said they'd be willing for me to do it on a part-time basis if I were willing to do it on a part-time basis.

And I thought it sounded interesting. It raises tricky issues about identity and what we mean by it, and about why it is that there are growing problems of identity fraud, and growing internationalism. I'm trying to avoid [saying] globalisation, but I think it's a bit difficult to avoid it all together. Globalisation and technology, the use of card technology, various features have lead to more and more emphasis being put on identity. People's anxiety about borders and illegal immigration and so on and so forth.

I have relatively little background in that. I think one of the great joys of retirement is you have time to spend poking around in things you didn't have time for when you were working. I've done a number of new things since I stopped work four and a bit years ago, and this was another different thing.

It's not the summit of my career to do this. I's something I've taken on to be helpful.