Johnson appoints ‘independent’ identity commission

By Ian Dunt

The home secretary has appointed Sir Joseph Pilling to be the first identity commissioner, tasked with overseeing the identity cards project.

Alan Johnson was at pains to point out the independence of the post today, stressing that his role entailed representing the public when it comes to the controversial scheme.

“The public has the right to expect the National Identity Service to be run to the highest standards,” he said.

“The identity commissioner will champion their interests, providing a strong and independent voice, holding the Identity and Passport Service to account and ensuring information collected under the Service is kept securely.

“He will also deliver independent scrutiny of the uses to which identity cards are put by public authorities and private organisations.”

Sir Joseph, who was permanent secretary to the Northern Ireland Office from 1997 to 2005, stressed the impartiality he planned to take to the new post.

“I am delighted to accept this post, and plan to be an independent voice in my work towards safeguarding the public’s privacy and identity rights, as parliament intended,” he said.

“In the early weeks and months as I work out how best to do the job I intend to listen to the people across the National Identity Service and to people outside the system with views about my new role.”

The identity commissioner will report to the home secretary at least annually on the way the National Identity Service functions are carried out and the report will be laid before parliament.

All government departments will have a statutory duty to provide whatever information the commissioner and his staff need to carry out investigations.

But the assurances will do little to subdue the criticism of ID cards from privacy groups.

The commissioner will not have an oversight role when it comes to ID cards for foreign nationals – a part of the project already in operation – because it falls under the jurisdiction of the information commissioner and the chief inspector for the UK Border Agency.

Assurances from Mr Johnson earlier this year that ID cards would never become compulsory confirmed that the home secretary is more reticent about the cards than his predecessors.

But campaigners warn that the technology – and planned changes to the identity database and passports – make the promise meaningless.

Phil Booth, national coordinator of NO2ID said: “The role is designed to be toothless and irrelevant. And to appoint a time-served securocrat to the post virtually guarantees that the one power he has – to comment on the scheme – will never embarrass his former masters.

“How can a man who has spent his entire career being the soul of discretion in various departments of state be expected to act as a whistleblower?”