'Neither doctors nor the public seem convinced of the need for the national database element'

What a strange late summer it was for politics and political reporting: Tony Blair's prolonged departure and David Cameron's prolonged arrival were the only stories to emerge from the party conferences.

Yet since the main parties got back to London there's been substantial debate about how to organise public services and the reach of the state.

One outcome is that the Labour and the Conservative parties are now at loggerheads over ID cards. Mr Blair wants them. Mr Cameron would scrap them. But it is their attitude to big government databases - such as the children's index and the NHS care records service - that is more instructive; not least because both parties may think the ID card is dead in the water.

At the start of October, the Home Office announced that a national identity scheme would cost£5.4bn over 10 years. Liam Byrne, the minister in charge of the project, told the Institute for Public Policy Research that the government would push on and issue cards to foreign nationals in 2008. But he was far less bullish at the Labour Party conference.

Indeed, Mr Byrne told a fringe meeting that 'there are opportunities [to] exploit systems already in place that could bring down the costs substantially'.

Many IT commentators took this to mean the government might not issue huge contracts for the scheme in its Identity Card Act but content itself with smaller contracts to bolster existing databases instead.

Meanwhile, data sharing is being given another push. Over the summer, the Department for Constitutional Affairs slipped a 'vision' for data sharing on to its website. On the one hand, this is reassuring. It lauds both the NHS code of practice on confidentiality and the NHS care records service 'guarantee' and says similar documents should be developed for other services. On the other, it tends towards lowering the 'public interest' threshold for sharing information without consent and to indicate that the government may be willing to weaken data protection legislation to achieve policy aims.

For example, the NHS code of practice on confidentiality says patient identifiable information should not be used for purposes other than healthcare without patient consent unless this is in the 'public interest'.

The public interest might include tackling 'serious crime' - but the code is clear that this might not cover fraud. Yet tackling fraud is one of the main reasons the government wants to see more information shared across departments.

The NHS code also says that while legislation may permit information to be shared with other agencies, it may not require it and patients should be informed. Yet creating more targeted services is another reason the government wants to see data shared between agencies. The 'vision' is also curiously blind to the problems caused by database errors and abuses.

Against this background, the Conservatives have not only come out against the ID card but 'big brother' databases and the 'wholesale weakening of data protection laws'.

Some of what the party is saying is wilfully misleading. The children's index will not be used to 'fine' parents whose kids fail to eat their greens. But they are on to something. A recent poll of teenagers showed they were deeply suspicious of the children's index.

Neither doctors nor the public seem convinced of the need for the national database element of the NHS care records service, which is why yet another board has been created to discuss the 'summary' record. Such suspicion is not likely to be alleviated by the suggestion that the government is willing to spread information ever more widely with ever fewer safeguards.

Big government by big database has been the trend for the past decade and will be for the foreseeable future, not least because some of the biggest projects are late and over budget and yet to be deployed. But it is just possible that the political tide is turning against it.