Benefits of national identity cards were oversold, admits minister

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Tony McNulty, the minister responsible for the ID cards programme, has said it will not be the panacea for tackling terrorism, identity fraud or benefit theft, as had been claimed by the Government, it emerged last night.

His admission, at a meeting of the Fabian Society two weeks ago, marks a change of tack by the Government, which had promoted ID cards as vital for tackling terrorism, and to prevent abuse of benefit and asylum systems.

"Perhaps in the past the Government in its enthusiasm oversold the advantages of ID cards," Mr McNulty told the meeting. "We did suggest or at least implied that they may well be a panacea for ID fraud, benefit fraud, terrorism and entitlement, and access to public services."

Mr McNulty also admitted that the Government might have misrepresented the benefits of ID cards to the public, while acknowledging that in Parliament the project could face stiff opposition.

His remarks come as polls show that public support for the ID card scheme is falling dramatically amid fears about spiralling costs and the infringement of civil liberties.

At the meeting, Mr McNulty indicated a dramatic change of gear in the way the Government plans to promote the controversial scheme. Instead of promoting the benefits to the state, it now plans to argue that it will be a useful tool for consumers.

"We have been arguing what the state can get out of it rather than what it can do for the individual in providing a gold standard in proving your identity. There are now many, almost daily, occasions when we have to stand up our identity."

The minister's remarks about over-promoting the scheme are likely to be seized upon by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Both parties have pledged to oppose the introduction of ID cards in the UK.

Until now the Government has taken an aggressive public stance on promoting the ID cards Bill, which is currently going through Parliament. THe Home Office has directly criticised the authors of a report by the London School of Economics that raised concerns about the biometric technology used to take iris scans, fingerprints and facial recognition scans and the costs of implementing an ID card programme.

Mr McNulty's stance sharply contrasts with the position taken by David Blunkett, who aggressively promoted the benefits of the scheme.

The minister responsible for the scheme admitted the legislation could face a rough ride from MPs and peers over the issue of compulsion. Attempts to force people to take up the cards could lead to gridlock between the Commons and the Lords. The Government would then be unable to deploy the parliament act to overrule the Lords as this issue would be dealt with through secondary legislation where the procedural device could not be used.

The Home Office denied, however, that Mr McNulty's comments represented a U-turn. A spokeswoman said they were a continuation of the approach taken by Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, who has argued that ID cards must be deployed as part of a range of measures to tackle terrorism and fraud.

"We have always said that we recognise that ID cards are not the panacea for absolutely everything but that we regard them as part of a wider strategy for tackling terrorism, and identity fraud," she said. "It's a recognition of what we have always said, that we cannot tackle terrorism with ID cards alone."