Ministers say ID cards 'good for NHS'

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Ministers will claim this week that identity cards are a vital tool in deterring "health tourists", as the Government intensifies its push to get them introduced.

Ministers will claim this week that identity cards are a vital tool in deterring "health tourists", as the Government intensifies its push to get them introduced.

John Hutton, a Health minister, is expected to say that cards will prove a significant boost for the National Health Service, when he gives evidence at a special session of the Home Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday. He will also claim identity cards would improve treatment times by speeding up access to patient records, being of greatest benefit to those who are taken ill away from home and are unable to visit their regular doctor.

Tomorrow, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, will unveil plans for a national pilot of biometric testing, the technology used in ID cards, as part of a draft Bill to crack down on identity fraud.

As many as 10,000 volunteers will be recruited to have iris and facial scans taken, as well as fingerprints, at the UK Passport Service headquarters in London and at three further centres to be announced at a later date.

Civil servants have been taking part in tests for several months but this is the first time the public has been recruited to undergo the procedures. These biometric checks are expected to become compulsory from 2007 for anyone applying for or renewing passports and are seen as a step towards the introduction of identity cards. Ministers are not set to decide whether to make ID cards compulsory until 2013, although by this time, about 80 per cent of the population will hold either a biometric passport or driving licence.

Tony Blair and Mr Blunkett have publicly stated they believe a national scheme is vital to combat terrorism and illegal immigration. A Home Office source said volunteers on the trials - which are expected to be concluded this summer - would be polled on their views on biometric testing.

"This is an ambitious long-term project but the overall message is that identity cards are happening," he said.

Mr Blunkett's cabinet colleagues do not all share his enthusiasm for identity cards, especially if they are compulsory. One opponent of a mandatory scheme is Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who was director of the National Council for Civil Liberties for eight years. If they are made compulsory, cards will have to be produced to access a range of public services.

Monday's draft Bill will set out government proposals for a National Identity Register to hold details of all 60 million people in the UK. The draft Bill will also include plans to make carrying false identity papers a specific offence for the first time. Anyone found with forged passports, driving licences or other official ID will face up to 10 years in prison.

Liberty, the civil rights group, said it is planning to lobby constituencies with high Muslim populations, holding talks with community leaders to warn them of the threat ID cards pose to civil liberties. "We feel it's Muslims who will suffer the most," said Barry Hugill, a Liberty spokesman.