Round one to Blair as concessions draw sting of rebellion on ID cards

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair saw off the first stage of a triple assault on his authority as a threatened Labour revolt over identity cards faded away.

The first cards, which ministers insist are essential to combat terrorism and identity fraud, could now be issued within two years. Government concessions took the sting out of the backbench rebellion against the measure, despite critics denouncing it as an expensive affront to civil liberties.

Seeking to overturn a succession of defeats to the ID Cards Bill in the Lords, the Government comfortably defeated an attempt to make the scheme entirely voluntary. The Government's insistence that anyone who applies for a passport be added to the database that will underpin ID cards was attacked as a backdoor way of forcing people on to the register.

But ministers, who insisted it was fundamental to the success of the scheme, won the backing of the Commons by 310 to 279 votes, a majority of 31. Twenty Labour MPs rebelled against the Government in the vote. A later vote supporting the requirement of six-monthly reports on the cost of ID cards was carried by 314 votes to 261, a majority of 53.

The next tricky vote for the Government comes today when MPs are expected to approve a ban on smoking in all pubs, a step initially opposed by the Cabinet. Tomorrow the Government faces a cliffhanger vote on outlawing the glorification of terrorism.

Ministers shored up backbench support on ID cards by promising a vote before the scheme becomes compulsory and to update MPs every six months on its cost.

Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, argued that the Lords amendments risked "undermining the basis of the current identity cards proposal".

"We've always been clear that the identity cards scheme has been designed and is intended eventually to become a compulsory scheme for all UK residents," he said. "We believe this will enable a sensible phased introduction of identity cards and that once passports and residence permits are designated it means that as British nationals ... renew or apply for their residence permits they will be entered on the national identity register and issued with cards that will serve as ID cards."

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, who described the scheme as Labour's "plastic poll tax", warned that the proposed national identity database would become a "honeypot" for criminals.

He said: "They will have created the most attractive possible target for every fraudster, terrorist, confidence trickster and hacker on the planet.

"These people will be able to lift data out, put viruses and indeed false data in. If the Pentagon and Microsoft cannot keep hackers from penetrating their mainframes, what chance has the Home Office?"

Neil Gerrard, a Labour MP, and an opponent of ID cards, welcomed the concessions. "I would scrap the whole thing ... but this amendment does make the right step," he said.

The vote came after a massive exercise by Labour whips, stung by the surprise defeat on the Religious Hatred Bill, to maximise support and Gordon Brown argued the case for ID cards.

Mr Blair was one of the few MPs absent after the aircraft due to bring him back from a conference in South Africa developed technical problems.

The promise of new legislation before ID cards are made compulsory was also approved by MPs last night without a vote. The Home Office hopes the Commons victory clears the way for ID cards to be issued in 2008. Ministers will appeal to the Lords to drop its opposition to the scheme but there was no sign last night that peers were ready to back off.

Earlier, civil liberties campaigners chanting "I am not a number", mounted a protest outside Parliament. Phil Booth, of the NO2ID group, told the crowd: "Mr Brown and Mr Blair talk about respect ­ how respectful is it to fingerprint and number and tag every citizen of this country?"

Shami Chakrabarti, director of the pressure group Liberty, said: "ID cards are not the magic bullet against fraudsters, terrorists, and illegal immigrants."

The Prime Minister missed the vote after being stranded in Pretoria for 24 hours following the nerve-racking failure of an engine on take-off. His plane was heading down the runway for take-off when sparks were seen flying out under a wing. The pilot aborted the take-off.

The Prime Minister returned to his South African hosts and continued with a day of events which he had earlier cancelled so that he could make the Commons vote in Westminster.