Skip to main content

Verify: Digital Identity System

Volume 794: debated on Monday 26 November 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the impact of their plans for Verify, the Government Digital Service's digital identity system.

My Lords, over 3 million people have used GOV.UK Verify to perform over 8 million secure transactions. My honourable friend the Minister for Implementation made a Written Ministerial Statement on GOV.UK Verify on 9 October. The Government have an immediate and growing need for a secure digital identity service.

My Lords, this is a very sorry tale. The Government Digital Service started with high hopes for its flagship Verify digital identity system, aiming for 25 million users by 2020. Now, with constant changes in leadership, the imminent cutting of the entire project budget and the refusal by departments such as HMRC to adopt it, the Government are now, after £130 million of investment, simply handing it over to the private sector. Is it not extraordinary, when the need for a trusted universal UK-wide secure identity system has never been higher, that the Government are abdicating all responsibility in that way? Where does that leave Verify’s 2020 target? Is this not an admission of total failure?

I would not describe the service in quite the terms that the noble Lord has just used. Progress is being made towards the target of 25 million users by 2020. It is not the case that HMRC is not using Verify. Noble Lords who want to can upload their self-assessment tax return using Verify, and if they so wish they can check their income tax account using Verify. More and more government services are now subscribing to Verify; the MoD recently added an additional service, and some 18 services are now available. It is not the case that we are abdicating the whole thing to the private sector. Verify, which is a government service, will continue to provide a digital identity service to the public sector, and it is talking to the NHS and to local government in order to continue to broaden the base.

I challenge the premise on which the noble Lord based his question. Verify was launched in 2016 and, as I said in my initial reply, now has 3 million subscribers who have completed 8 million transactions. I signed up to Verify over the weekend and, if noble Lords have not, I suggest that they make themselves familiar with this new and innovative service.

My Lords, is not the simple truth that, following pressure from the Liberal Democrats in the coalition, Labour’s national identity card scheme, which would have dealt with this problem, was abolished? Is it not odd that it has finally dawned on the Government that identification is vital to protect against entitlement fraud? It has taken them a long time to learn that lesson.

Verify was started under the coalition Government—I think Nick Clegg was in charge of the Cabinet Office when it started—but there is a difference between providing a secure online identity, which Verify does, and an ID card which you have to carry with you. The key difference between Verify and an ID card system is that Verify is voluntary and the ID card was to be compulsory.

My Lords, I declare an interest, having worked in government with Nick Clegg on precisely that. I was very impressed by the Government Digital Service and frustrated by the extent to which departments across Whitehall resisted its moves to modernise government handling of data and abandon the separate legal frameworks under which departments manage and keep data. There was much discussion in the coalition Government about introducing a new Bill to update those rules to cope with rapidly moving technology. It has not yet appeared. Do the Government still have plans to do so?

The noble Lord knows much more about this than I do. It is the case that HMRC has its own service, the Government Gateway. Since it developed that service, Verify has come along. Obviously one would like to migrate from Government Gateway to Verify and encourage other departments so to do. I am not wholly convinced that we need legislation to do that—I will go back to my department in the light of what the noble Lord said—but we need to win the hearts and minds of government departments and persuade them to make more services available on Verify. That impetus is, I hope, gathering momentum.

My Lords, can the noble Lord explain what Verify will do to make our borders safe after Brexit? Will he now review his position on compulsory and voluntary ID and agree that the only way for us to have safe borders is by a compulsory form of recognition?

I am not convinced that compulsory ID cards would stop the illegal entry into this country of a whole range of people. The noble Lord will know that in 2010, legislation was passed to scrap the ID legislation introduced by the previous Labour Government. We have no plans to reintroduce such legislation.

Can the Minister say how much has been paid in consultancy fees on this issue? Given that departments and the Government centrally keep no records of how much they are spending on consultancy, is it not about time that we were more transparent?

There is an issue of commercial confidentiality in publishing the amount paid to the five identity providers, but if the noble Lord wants to know the cost of the Verify programme, I should be more than happy to write to him and place a copy in the Library.

My Lords, we electronically tag all our animals—I speak as a former farmer. Why cannot we electronically tag humans? We could all have microchips, and then we would know where we were.

Noble Lords will have their own reaction to that suggestion, but the thought of going along to a vet to have something implanted in my neck is not something I find immediately attractive.

My Lords, I am tempted to ask the Minister why it took a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for him to sign up to Verify, but instead I shall ask him about his other revelation—that there is a Minister for Implementation. What are his or her—I do not know whether it is a he or a she—other responsibilities?

His name is Oliver Dowden and he is a Minister in the Cabinet Office. Noble Lords will find his responsibilities set out in the list of ministerial responsibilities.

My Lords, can the Minister explain why he has the misfortune to be answering this Question today, given that responsibility for digital identity policy has transferred to DCMS?

Well, it is a question that I may have asked myself a few days ago as I find myself answering questions on a whole range of responsibilities that I never knew were mine. The answer is that although overall responsibility has been transferred to DCMS, the Government Digital Service remains within the Cabinet Office, for which I have responsibility as a spokesman.