Liberty, the National Council for Civil Liberties, said it feared the move could be 'the thin end of the wedge' towards an identity card as Dr Mawhinney insisted the proposal was 'a long way' short of that.
The new licence is expected to start life as a credit-card style piece of plastic, renewable every 10 years to keep photographs up to date. The favoured method of introduction is to start with provisional licence applications as a trial before extending the scheme to the 28 million people who hold driving licences.
In the longer term, a microchip could be added, turning the licence into a 'smart card' which the Department of Transport said could carry a wide range of information - including blood groups, allergies, organ donor wishes and even the bearer's national insurance number.
The AA and RAC yesterday gave a warm welcome to the plan, which they said would bring Britain into line with the rest of Europe. Both, however, said their backing was conditional on it not being made a requirement to carry the card. While driving licences are already widely used as proof of identity, both organisations said they did not want the licence to become 'a compulsory identity card'.
Its introduction will mean more stringent checks when licences are issued. Frank Dobson, Labour transport spokesman, said: 'We have no objection in principle to the idea of photos on driving licences, but we have doubts about the costs and benefits. We also don't believe it should be used as a back door way of introducing identity cards.'
Consultation on the best method of including a photograph and on how the new cards should be phased in came as it was disclosed that 700 jobs - more than a quarter of the total - are to go at the Swansea office of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority. The jobs will disappear by 1997 as new technology comes on stream.
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