Hi-tech ID cards will double cost of passport

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Indy Politics

The first national identity cards will be issued within four years as people start renewing their passports, David Blunkett said yesterday.

The Home Secretary set out plans to push through the controversial policy in the face of concerted opposition from senior cabinet colleagues and civil liberties groups.

By 2007-08, hi-tech cards with unique "biometric" details, such as fingerprints or iris images, stored on a microchip, will be produced instead of conventional passports. They will become the precursor to a national ID scheme. Travellers will pay £77 for the cards, almost twice the cost of a passport. Mr Blunkett hopes identity cards can be issued at the same time to replace driving licences.

The moves will coincide with the production of voluntary ID cards in 2007-08 for people who do not have passports or driving licences. The 4.6 million foreign nationals living in Britain would also be required to apply for one of the cards at that time.

The target is that 80 per cent of the working population would possess the cards by 2013, at which point a decision would be taken on whether to make the scheme compulsory. That would require all adults to have a card and to produce it to see a doctor, claim benefit or get a job.

The Home Secretary insisted the moves would help the fight against terrorism, illegal immigration and benefit fraud. Backed by Tony Blair, he persuaded the Cabinet to include a draft Bill setting up his ID card scheme in the Queen's Speech of 26 November. But he will still have to persuade sceptics such as Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, and Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, to support full legislation by 2005.

If he wins their approval, a three-year countdown will begin to the introduction of the first cards. Compiling a national identity register to hold details of the 60 million people would cost an estimated £186m in the first three years, with the eventual bill for running the system reaching about £3bn. Much of the cost will be borne by cardholders, but under-16s will get the combined passport-identity cards free, the elderly will be offered "lifelong" versions and people on low incomes will pay £10.

A six-month pilot project by the UK Passport Service testing "biometric" technology will begin soon. It could involve scanning the fingerprints, eyes and face of every citizen, plus every long-term visitor to the nation, loading them on to a powerful computer database. A reliable national computer network to verify the cards when presented would have to be set up around the country.

Mr Blunkett told MPs the Government would "proceed incrementally" towards a national ID scheme. "It would not be possible to issue cards to the whole population through a big bang approach, even if this were desirable," he said. Information on the card would be limited to the bare minimum of name, age and address, with an emphasis on privacy and confidentiality. He added: "No one has anything to fear from being correctly identified, but everything to fear from their identity being stolen or misused."

But David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "[The scheme] is a compromise and a 10-year deferral designed to appease the Prime Minister and those in the Cabinet who support introducing ID cards, and the Foreign Secretary and others who believe such a scheme will not work."

He said there could be loopholes that could be exploited by illegal immigrants, and the Government remained "worryingly opaque" on the threat to civil liberties. Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "ID cards will do nothing to tackle terrorism or benefit fraud. They could make things worse by creating a false sense of security when criminals start faking cards. The scheme is unworkable and will cost millions, which would be better spent on reducing crime."