Government in retreat over ID card proposals

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

A voluntary identity card scheme is to be introduced later this year, following a Home Office survey showing most people do not want to be compelled to carry identification.

Baroness Blatch, the Home Office minister, yesterday told a Commons committee that the Government had reached no final decisions over a national identity scheme. But sources confirmed that the threat of a Cabinet rift had already ruled out a costly compulsory scheme. Ministers were said to favour a voluntary scheme based on a photocard driving licence.

It also emerged that what was in any event a lukewarm commitment to a compulsory scheme has now been further watered down by the realisation that ID cards would have little or no impact on crime.

However, Lady Blatch insisted yesterday that a scheme would ease people's "fear of crime". They would believe it was "another shot in the armoury of the police in the fight against crime", she told the all-party Home Affairs Select Committee.

Jack Straw, shadow Home Secretary, immediately attacked the Government for its indecision. "First there was the hype, then silence and now a gradual retreat," he said.

The idea was warmly welcomed by the Tory grassroots when it was held up by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, at the party conference two years ago as a major weapon in the fight against criminals, illegal immigrants and benefit scroungers.

Enthusiasm has since been more muted. Criticised as an attack on freedom, the proposals united the libertarian left and right - including those in the Cabinet. Even the police were ambivalent - unconvinced of the scheme's crime-fighting merits, and concerned about the potential for harassment claims.

There was also Treasury opposition - a compulsory scheme would have cost about pounds 600m - and the evidence of studies from countries that have ID schemes indicating that they had very limited impact on crime, fraud, and illegal immigration.

A government consultation paper, published last May, outlined a number of possible options. A subsequent Home Office survey of over 2,600 voters found that just over half favoured some kind of scheme, but less than a third wanted a compulsory card. About 30 per cent were dead set against.