As Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, unveiled plans for an ID card, which will be available to children as well as adults, it became increasingly clear that the Government intends all British citizens eventually to carry one.
Although launched as a voluntary system, with cards costing between pounds 10 and pounds 15, the Government admitted that "the aim will be to introduce an identity card which achieves eventually a very wide coverage of the adult population".
John Woulds, director of operations for the Data Protection Registrar's Office, the official regulator, said: "There is a danger that there is going to be a compulsory card [introduced] via the backdoor. I'm sure that will happen in the future."
He added: "What is voluntary today becomes compulsory effectively as time goes on ... you find you can't open a bank account or hire a television on credit without an ID card."
Even Mr Howard admitted yesterday that although the new card would be voluntary, "what may happen in the future is a different question". Labour and the police are strongly opposed to a compulsory system, while civil liberty groups believe both are unnecessary. The scheme came under further attack by John Redwood, the former Tory leadership challenger, who branded the plan "un-British", and described the inclusion of the European Union logo on the card as the "ultimate humiliation". He called on Mr Howard to abandon the scheme.
It is believed that only the opposition from outside groups, particularly the police, and the prospect of having to pay more than pounds 600m to give every citizen a card, prevented the scheme being made compulsory.
The card will be available to children as well as adults, despite a recommendation by the Common's Home Affairs Select Committee of a lower age limit of 16. Mr Howard said the card would assist the police in tackling some less serious crime as well as acting as an alternative passport.
The Government is expected to bring in legislation in the autumn and the cards could be available by next summer.
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