By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent
Net activists are pressing the UK Government to explain what has happened to thousands of public responses that expressed doubts about the merits of ID cards.
Lobby groups fear public responses will be trashed
The responses were passed on by groups such as Stand and Privacy International when the government was seeking public comment on its ID card proposals.
The groups have been dismayed by bullish official announcements on ID cards and fear that all dissenting views are being ignored.
In response the Home Office said it would take all views into account and was still scrutinising responses.
From the 31 July 2002 to 31 January 2003 the government ran a consultation exercise asking for public input on its entitlement card plans.
Towards the end of the consultation period, a government spokesman announced that the majority of the 2,000 responses it had received were in favour of ID cards.
The announcements galvanised net lobbyists Stand and civil liberties group Privacy International who were convinced that broader public opinion would not be as wholeheartedly in support.
Stand made weblinks to the consultation paper widely available and acted as a conduit for responses to government plans.
It received official assurances that the responses it passed on would be treated just like those sent any other way.
During the last three weeks of the consultation period, Stand submitted responses on behalf of 5029 people. Many, but not all, of these responses were against the proposals.
Privacy International set up phone lines that let people record their views about the ID card proposals. The messages were converted to audio files and relayed to the government.
Again, the majority of responses were critical of government plans.
But both groups were dismayed when, on 28 April, Beverley Hughes, Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, responded to a parliamentary question about ID cards and only mentioned the earlier 2,000 responses.
She said: "The responses have been about 2:1 in favour of introducing a scheme".
In late May Home Secretary David Blunkett seemed to signal that the government was determined to introduce ID cards.
He bluntly declared: "I want them because I do want to know who is here."
Privacy campaigners fear ID card information will be abused
Stand is now trying to get official word about what will be done with the 5,000 responses it passed on.
Stand spokesman Danny O'Brien told BBC News Online that he feared the entire corpus of responses the group conveyed will be counted as a single negative vote.
Mr O'Brien has written an open letter to Beverley Hughes expressing Stand's worries.
"I'm pretty disappointed," he wrote, "and I don't think I'm the only one."
He said the issue of ID cards had prompted comments from a much wider pool of people than was usual with many other technology issues.
Many of those who used the Stand site were contributing to a consultation exercise for the first time.
"To turn to them now and explain that their voice counts for nothing - or 1/5000th of a voice, whichever is greater - seems to me to convey the exact opposite of what a consultation is meant to achieve," wrote Mr O'Brien.
A Home Office spokeswoman said that all responses would be counted. She said the government was currently preparing a reply to another parliamentary question that asked specifically about the Stand responses.
Con or consult?
An e-mail sent to Privacy International from Home Office civil servants going through the responses said it was still counting them to see how they were divided across individuals, public bodies, commercial organisations and interest groups.
Mr O'Brien said the government must decide how it dealt with online responses.
"We are most concerned about what happens beyond this issue," said Mr O'Brien, "the issue of listening to people online is much bigger."
Responses sent via fax have forced policy re-thinks
"If they are depending on people not being very well informed about these things I think increasingly that's not going to work," he said.
Stephen Coleman, Cisco Visiting Professor of E-democracy at the Oxford Internet Institute, said the government had very clear guidelines about how to handle responses to consultation papers.
He said that he had been calling for the government to develop new guidelines for dealing with responses made via the net.
He said it should also do a much better job of showing how public comments shape policy.
"It's very difficult to work out the relationship between input and output in this process," said Professor Coleman. "I don't think there's any transparency here."
The ID card responses could force the government to work out how it handles consultation.
"I think they really need to think about the value of consultation and get their act together," he said.