Tony Blair has put off the launch of a plan to compel every Briton to hold an ID card in response to fears that it will turn into an expensive and frustrating assault on liberty.
One version of the scheme would require every adult to report personally to a government office to have their identity checked.
British citizens who fail to register for an ID card could be denied access to the NHS or state benefits, and prevented from renewing their driving licence or passport. Any foreign national living here without a proper ID card would be committing a criminal offence.
But the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, has quietly dropped the idea that people stopped by the police could be ordered to report to a police station with their ID card.
Mr Blunkett first proposed to introduce ID cards as an anti-crime measure after the 11 September attacks, but his latest version emphasises their use in combating illegal immigration.
A recent Home Office study conceded that there could be thousands of people working illegally in Britain. Mr Blunkett believes that making it known that people without ID cards will be denied access to benefits or free health care would act as a deterrent.
The Home Secretary had been expected to announce the scheme before MPs left for their summer break, but the announcement was postponed after a private meeting with Mr Blair on 15 July.
Home Office officials have been told to make adjustments to the scheme to minimise the inconvenience to the general public. This could mean allowing people to renew an ID card by post, so they need make only one trip to a government office for the necessary tests to register their identity.
New details of the scheme were set out by Mr Blunkett in a letter to members of the Cabinet's domestic affairs committee, chaired by John Prescott. Angered by an earlier leak, Mr Blunkett urged members to be extra careful to prevent leaks of his proposals. He said: "Only those in your office and the key official dealing with these matters should have sight of this document, and I would be grateful if you would also keep a register of those who have seen this material."
The letter, dated 4 July, revealed that Mr Blair and Mr Blunkett had met three days earlier and agreed that anyone who claims state benefits or NHS treatment would have to produce an ID card.
But it also revealed that the Prime Minister had demanded "more clarity" over "basic design questions". The Independent on Sunday has learned that the argument dragged on for a fortnight, until Mr Blair told Mr Blunkett on 15 July to put the matter back to the autumn.
Under Mr Blunkett's scheme, every citizen over 16 will report once a decade to be questioned and digitally photographed, and to have biometric information such an iris image recorded. And they will be charged £40 for the card.Reuse content