The cabinet agreed yesterday to draw up plans for a national identity card, but it will wait "until later this decade" to decide whether to make them compulsory.
The compromise, forced through by Tony Blair, was designed to defuse a bitter row between ministers over the practicality and wisdom of the step. One human rights organisation claimed the outcome amounted to a "humiliation" for David Blunkett, who has made the case for ID cards. But the Home Secretary vowed to press ahead with his scheme and will announce a timetable for its introduction within days.
A draft Bill to be included in the Queen's Speech will outline how ministers plan to create a database of every person's name, address, photograph and biometric information, such as fingerprints and iris scans. It will also propose safeguards to stop the information being abused.
It will set out a two-stage process, with people originally picking up the cards voluntarily. The population could be compelled to possess them by the year 2010.
A statement from the Cabinet said it believed a national scheme could bring major benefits, but several issues "need to be resolved over the years ahead". It added: "We intend to proceed by incremental steps to build a base for a compulsory national ID card scheme with a final decision to proceed to a compulsory card later, when the conditions for moving to a compulsory card are met. We will legislate to enable the scheme to be introduced and plan on the basis that all the practical problems can be overcome but we will reserve the final decision on a move to compulsion until later this decade."
The complex formula followed fierce cabinet rows over the issue, with Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Jack Straw joining forces to oppose Mr Blunkett on the issue. The Home Secretary said: "We are talking about a three-year set-up period before we could bring in the biometrics, which are crucial to changing the picture. This isn't an old-fashioned ID scheme I am talking about. We need legislation and therefore presenting draft legislation to Parliament then moving to legislate does make sense."
Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil and human rights organisation Liberty, said: "To delay taking a decision until later in the decade, when the composition of the Cabinet will almost certainly be different, is clearly a face-saving formula to disguise the fact that Mr Blunkett has lost the argument.
"This is quite clearly a humiliating defeat for the Home Secretary. I'm particularly pleased that many members of the Cabinet have made clear their opposition to a compulsory national ID card, not least on civil liberties grounds."
Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "Even by its own shambolic standards the Government has surpassed itself. After going round in circles for months, it has achieved absolutely nothing."
Under Mr Blunkett's proposals, people would be unable to use public services such as the NHS, schools or libraries without the card. It would cost up to £3bn to implement, with costs potentially being passed on to the public at £40-a-head.
Mr Blunkett said compulsory cards would help deter illegal immigrants and tackle identity fraud, which costs £1.3bn a year.
WHERE THE CABINET STANDS ON ID CARDS
David Blunkett, Home Secretary: enthusiastic advocate as way of keeping tabs on illegal immigration.
Tony Blair, Prime Minister: support "in principle", pointing to potential for combating benefit fraud and illegal immigration.
John Reid, Secretary of State for Health: believes it could combat abuse of NHS.
Charles Clarke, Secretary of State for Education and Skills: believes police need extra help to identify suspects.
Geoff Hoon, Secretary of State for Defence: Blairite loyalist.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton, Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs: shares Blunkett's view.
Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for International Development: believes the case has been made.
Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Paul Murphy, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
Hilary Armstrong, Chief Whip.
Ian McCartney, Party chairman.
Valerie Amos, Leader of the House of Lords.
John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister: strong reservations over principle and feasibility.
Gordon Brown, Chancellor: fiercely critical of the cost of introducing such a scheme.
Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary: civil liberties objections.
Alistair Darling, Secretary of State for Transport: worried about costs.
Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry: has gone public on civil liberties objections.
Paul Boateng, Chief Secretary to the Treasury: shares the hostility of Gordon Brown, his boss.
Peter Hain, Leader of the House of Commons: civil liberties objections.
Andrew Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions: follows Mr Brown's lead.
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