Blunkett clears the path for compulsory identity cards

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The Government took a significant step yesterday towards introducing Britain's first compulsory identity card scheme since the Second World War, invoking a furious response from civil libertarians and anti-racist groups.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, told Parliament he wanted to raise the idea of a national "entitlement card", which would determine the bearer's right of access to the NHS, education and state benefits.

The announcement took civil liberties groups by surprise as Downing Street had appeared to reject the idea of identity cards in October, after Mr Blunkett said he was "attracted" to such a scheme.

Mark Littlewood, of the civil rights group Liberty, said introducing entitlement cards would be "a very serious step". He said: "Not only would such a scheme be prohibitively expensive, but it would pose a real threat to civil liberties. People already have countless ways to prove their identity, whether they are using private or public services." Mr Blunkett said refusing to carry the cards would not be a criminal offence but Liberty said the scheme would pave the way for a national database and an "ever more draconian" system.

Charter 88, another civil rights group, said the idea would damage relations between the police and the public. Milena Buyum, co-ordinator of the National Assembly Against Racism, warned of further discrimination against visible ethnic minorities. She said: "It's a very opportunistic way of introducing a radical change in British society."

The Home Secretary told MPs he had received 600 letters about identity cards since 11 September. He said he would be publishing a consultation document in the spring to canvass views on a national scheme.

The Home Office said the cards would help prevent social security fraud, income tax evasion, working by illegal immigrants and other offences.

Mr Blunkett accepted there were "many arguments, both philosophical and practical, for and against a scheme". He said: "We will not proceed without consulting widely and considering all the views expressed very carefully."

A Home Office spokesman said the consultation exercise would propose a compulsory ID card scheme, although people would not have to carry the document at all times. The credit-card-sized ID would be able to store a digital photograph, fingerprints and information such as home addresses, date of birth, family members and serial numbers.

The Home Office said: "We want to do everything we can to tackle identity fraud. The black economy is paid for by every taxpayer. This is the difference between a simple ID card which just aims to verify people's identity and an entitlement card which seeks to carry out a broader range of functions." It was not clear how the access of accident victims to emergency services would be affected by an entitlement scheme.

The former Home Office minister Mike O'Brien said introducing the cards could cost £1.7bn, and a further £1bn a year. He predicted a "constant technological battle with the forgers". He said: "If the criminals got ahead of the technology the Government would have to renew 59 million cards. For the cost of £1bn you could put thousands of police officers on the beat."

Britain's last compulsory ID card scheme was scrapped in 1952 by Winston Churchill because it was ineffective and damaged the relationship between the police and the public.

The case for ID cards was made by the former prime minister John Major in 1993 but his cabinet was so split over the idea he failed to win agreement for a pilot scheme involving the social-security claimants of a single town.