Leading article: Do the right thing and drop this wretched scheme

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It is time for Tony Blair to recognise that the tide has turned decisively against his plans to establish a national identity cards scheme. The cost of the proposals is spiralling out of control. A report by the London School of Economics has estimated that members of the public might be charged £300 each for the privilege of carrying a card. It is difficult to see popular support for the scheme surviving when this becomes widely known.

Political support has dried up too. Over the weekend, David Cameron criticised ID cards, reversing the official policy of his predecessor, Michael Howard. In doing so, the new Tory leader has helped to realign the Conservative Party with its liberal traditions. The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, has also hinted recently that he is one of the dissenting Cabinet ministers on this issue. If it turns out that both the Tory leader and the next likely prime minister are opposed to Mr Blair's scheme, it is hard to see it surviving in the long term.

The ID Cards Bill sneaked through the House of Commons last June, but it now seems to have run aground for good in the House of Lords. Tory and Liberal Democrat peers yesterday voted for an amendment requiring the Home Secretary to present a detailed cost analysis of the ID card project before they will consider allowing it to proceed into law.

In its response to these new assaults, the Government has shown little real enthusiasm for the fight. The defence has been left to Andy Burnham, the junior Home Office minister. Responding to claims that the costs of the scheme are spiralling of control, he argued: "We can't just put all the figures out in the public domain because that may lead us not to get the best deal for the taxpayer." But such evasiveness simply confirms the claims by the authors of the LSE report that there is a "culture of secrecy" surrounding the scheme.

The Home Office stubbornly refuses to admit that its initial estimates over the cost of the scheme might have been wrong. And Mr Burnham continues to criticise the LSE's figures for being "based on a number of assumptions that just don't hold". But how reliable are the Government's own "assumptions" on ID cards?

Since July 7, the cards have been presented, once again, as an anti-terror measure. But this justification is as misleading as it ever was. There is no reason to believe the July 7 attackers would have been thwarted by the existence of ID cards. The bombers were home- grown extremists, not foreign jihadists. What evidence is there that they would have been picked up earlier by the security services if they had held some form of personal identification?

The Government promises the scheme will not breach individual privacy. But we have now learnt that a central register will hold some 50 pieces of information about each of us. This information will create a detailed picture of our criminal, tax and health records for the authorities. It is unprecedented for the state to hold such a large amount of our personal information in one place. And let us not forget the Government's lamentable record when it comes to high-technology projects.

The Government is already promising amendments to this Bill. And the biggest clash with the Lords is yet to come. Expect greater fireworks when peers debate the compulsory element of the ID card scheme next week. With all the other battles Mr Blair has on his hands, from education to incapacity benefit, is this really a fight he needs at the moment? Is he really so keen for ID cards to be part of his legacy that he would test his personal authority by re-introducing this Bill following a rejection by the Lords? Let the Prime Minister do the sensible thing and drop this wretched scheme before it takes up any more valuable parliamentary time.

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