The commitment of Gordon Brown to identity cards was in question last night after he declined to say if he personally supported making them compulsory.
The scheme is due to be rolled out to foreign nationals this year and on a voluntary basis to Britons renewing their passports from 2009. Under the Government's plans, they would be made compulsory in the next decade following a vote in Parliament.
Downing Street and the Home Office insisted that the scheme was on track. But opponents of identity cards detected a softening in the Prime Minister's enthusiasm following a series of scandals over the loss of personal data by government departments.
Both the Tories and Liberal Democrats accused Mr Brown of watering down his support for his predecessor's pet project.
Keith Vaz, the Labour chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, agreed yesterday that Mr Brown was allowing himself "wriggle room" over the plans. Mr Vaz said he suspected ministers were considering delaying the issuing of the first ID cards to Britons until the impact of the foreign nationals scheme had been evaluated.
His committee is summoning a Home Office minister to answer suggestions that fresh doubt surrounds the scheme.
In the Commons the Prime Minister repeatedly refused to say if he supported the move to make ID cards compulsory. Mr Brown said: "It is the Government's policy to move ahead with this, but subject to a vote of Parliament, depending on how the voluntary scheme works."
David Cameron, the Tory leader, claimed the Government was in "full retreat" on the issue. He wrote to Mr Brown last night asking him to clarify his position. He said: "Anyone watching will have been left in considerable doubt about whether you personally support compulsory ID cards and will recommend this approach to the House of Commons."
Nick Clegg, the new Liberal Democrat leader, told Radio 4's PM that the ID card plans appeared to be suffering "death by a thousand cuts". Having earlier made his debut appearance as leader at Prime Minister's Question Time he said: "He seems to be unwilling to commit himself to doing what everyone agrees is necessary if you are going to go ahead with ID cards – namely make them compulsory."
The Prime Minister's official spokesman dismissed suggestions he was getting cold feet. He said: "There has been no change in policy or timetable." The Home Office denied there were any new questions over implementing the plans.Reuse content