Millions of teachers, doctors, nurses and carers could soon be issued with identity cards, Jacqui Smith disclosed yesterday as she moved to inject "new momentum" into the controversial plans.
The Home Secretary was accused of forcing the scheme on Britain by stealth after she set out a detailed timetable for its gradual introduction.
The Government now envisages that the biometric details of the majority of the population could be held by the state by 2017, some five years later than originally planned. A move to compel remaining "refusniks" to register could follow towards the end of next decade, if Labour is still in power.
Ms Smith insisted the project, which has been dogged by fears over the safety of confidential information, was essential for the security of the country and its citizens. Under her new timetable, up to 200,000 airport workers will, next year, have to go on the new identity register that will underpin the scheme. Staff in other "sensitive roles", such as power station employees and construction workers on the Olympics site, will follow.
Ms Smith also said the Government was considering asking millions of workers in "positions of trust", who are currently checked by the Criminal Records Bureau, to register voluntarily. The attraction for teachers and health workers would be that their status could be checked in four days rather than four weeks. Asked whether they could be forced to register, she said that was "part of an on-going discussion".
From 2010, youngsters from the age of 16 will also be offered ID cards on the basis that it will make it easier for them to apply for a student loan, open a bank account or prove their age.
Ms Smith hopes the ID card scheme will be given crucial impetus by the voluntary inclusion of millions of public-sector workers, students and young adults. Speaking to the Demos think-tank in London, she predicted: "Three years from now we will be offering cards to millions of people ... I want as many people as possible to enjoy the public good of the identity scheme as quickly as is practicable." The moves would "inject new momentum into the delivery of the scheme and its benefits", she said.
People renewing their passports will be added to the register in 2011-12, four years later than originally planned.
They will also be able to use their biometric passport as an ID card rather than having separate cards. Nearly £1bn will be trimmed off the £5.4bn budget for ID cards as a result, as well as by a plan to get private firms to take fingerprints for the database. However, a report commissioned by Gordon Brown from Sir James Crosby, the former head of HBOS banking group, raised a question-mark over the scheme's costings by suggesting that the expense of enrolment and receiving a card should be waived to win the "hearts and minds" of the public.
The first compulsory cards for foreign nationals arriving to work or study in the UK will be issued in November and all will be registered by 2011.
David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "The Government is contriving to implement, by spin and by stealth its now utterly discredited plan."
Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said ministers had produced "a new sales pitch for the same bad product".
How the timetable has slipped
David Blunkett's blueprint (November 2003):
* 2007-08: First cards to be issued to UK nationals as they renew passports. Foreign nationals also to be given cards.
* 2012-13: Eighty per cent of population covered.
* 2013?: Cards compulsory
Jacqui Smith's strategy (March 2008):
* November: First foreign nationals to be registered.
* 2009: Airport staff required to sign up.
* 2010: Teenagers aged 16 and upwards to be invited to register.
* 2011-12: People added as they renew passports.
* 2017: Vast majority of population with cards.
* 2018?: Cards become compulsory.