Labour ditches Tories' plans for ID cards

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair has unceremoniously junked all Conservative plans to introduce an identity card system, proposed as a measure to help the police, reduce crime and bolster law and order.

The Independent has been told that there is no question whatsoever of any move being made to take forward the Tory plans. "They are stone dead," one source said.

Over the course of the last week, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, and Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, have repeatedly argued in meetings with European colleagues that Britain needs to retain control over its own borders for immigration purposes because - unlike many other European countries - Britain does not have identity cards.

With national identity cards police officers are able to stop and check people on the streets, and regularly do so on the European mainland.

Mr Blair and his colleagues have argued that without such internal checks, it is necessary that external border controls are maintained for immigration and asylum purposes.

The Government insists that even if some form of co-operative agreement on borders is written into the EU treaty to be agreed at Amsterdam next month, the British position will have to be protected.

An opt-out is not being demanded because that smacks of John Major's style, but the border control demand is being presented as a "bottom line" by Mr Blair.

No announcement has yet been made about the new Government's attitude towards identity cards, but officials in the new Department of Environment and Transport, and the Department of Social Security, cannot make final decisions on the new EU driving licence, or the "smart" benefits payment card, until ministers have made their intentions clear.

The Conservative manifesto said: "Identity cards can make a contribution to safer communities. We will introduce a voluntary identity card scheme based on the new photographic driving licence. It will, for example, enable retailers to identify youngsters trying to buy alcohol and cigarettes or rent classified videos when they are under age."

Under the terms of a European directive, photographic driving licences have to be introduced "not later than the year 2001". But that simply means that new or replacement licences have to switch to the European model by the end of 2000. Conservative plans would have meant an acceleration of that proposal, with the licences being introduced much earlier, possibly this year.

Three versions of a card were proposed by Michael Howard when he was home secretary: a straightforward United Kingdom identity card carrying two pictures of the holder, the Union flag, and the Royal crest; a photo- driving licence carrying the Union flag and the 12-star EU flag; and a combined ID card-driving licence featuring all three symbols. It was possible that one or more of the cards could have been used as a passport for travel within the EU.

Because the Labour Government opposes the Major-Howard obsession with ID cards, pressure for the new driving licences has been eased.

It had been estimated that setting up the joint ID card and driving licence would have cost about pounds 16m, money that will now be saved. The Conservatives' initial proposals, issued as a consultation document in May 1995, said: "Any voluntary scheme would need to be met by a charge levied on those who wished to have a card."

It added: "A compulsory scheme might cost in the region of pounds 600m to introduce, but could cost more depending on the type of card system chosen. Private finance would be considered for any such identity card scheme."

There was also a suggestion that ID cards might in some way be linked up to the introduction of the new "smart" benefit payments card. Although there was no public indication that the payment card would carry a photograph, it would carry personal details of the holder on a machine-readable strip, and the combination of that with an ID card would have aggravated fears of "big brother" controls being introduced.