James Slack – Daily Mail July 1, 2009
In a dramatic break with years of Labour policy, the new Home Secretary last night scrapped plans for compulsory ID cards.
Alan Johnson said the scheme - which has already cost as much as £200million - would always remain voluntary.
The project will now focus on persuading youngsters to pay £30 for a card so they can prove their age when trying to buy alcohol in pubs and bars.
Mr Johnson is also considering plans to give the cards away free to those over 75.
Opposition MPs said the climbdown effectively sounded the 'death-knell' for the entire £5billion ID cards regime, which was once described as vital to the fight against terrorism.
A succession of Home Secretaries have clung to a policy of making the cards compulsory as soon as they were held by a large chunk of the population. But Mr Johnson said that British citizens should never be forced to carry or even own the cards.
In his first major announcement since replacing Jacqui Smith last month, he also ditched a trial scheme that would have required 20,000 airport staff and pilots to carry ID cards.
Mr Johnson said: 'Holding an identity card should be a personal choice for British citizens - just as it is now to obtain a passport.'
Critics said the scheme was now in disarray, despite the Home Secretary saying that he believed large numbers would voluntarily sign up.
Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling, who has vowed to scrap the cards, said: 'This decision is symbolic of a Government in chaos. They have spent millions on the scheme so far - the Home Secretary thinks it has been a waste and wants to scrap it, but the Prime Minister won't let him.
'So we end up with an absurd fudge instead. This is no way to run the country.'
Tory MP and civil liberties campaigner David Davis said: 'This shows the Government has lost its belief in the ID card as a universal check on identity.
'While it is welcome that Alan Johnson recognises that the British people will not be compelled to accept this intrusive gimmick, he should also understand that this marks the death knell of this ill-conceived scheme.'
Mr Johnson said yesterday that he still believed the cards would help improve security at airports. But he admitted the Government had allowed the perception that the cards would be a 'panacea'.
When listing the benefits of the scheme, he did not at first mention tackling terrorism. Instead he said the cards would help stop illegal working and people-trafficking.
When ID cards were originally suggested six years ago, it was intended that they would eventually be compulsory.
In an early review of the project, police forces said the advantages of the cards would be reduced if people did not have to carry them.
But yesterday's decision effectively makes them little more than an 'entitlement card' - the original name suggested by David Blunkett.
Controversially, everyone who wants a card or a biometric passport will still have their details stored on the huge national identity register database.
Civil liberties groups argue this still amounts to a compulsory scheme, as anybody getting a passport from around 2011 will have no option but to sign up.
Isabella Sankey, director of policy for Liberty, said: 'However you spin it, big ears, four legs and a long trunk still make an elephant. And this white elephant would be as costly to privacy and race equality as to our purses.'
Between the financial years 2003/4 and 2005/6, £41.1million of taxpayers' money was spent on ID cards. Since then, a further £174.1million has been spent on the combined costs of developing ID cards and biometric passports.
Yesterday's decision will inevitably be scrutinised for clues to Mr Johnson's Labour Party leadership ambitions.
He had already suggested that some minor convictions could be wiped from the Police National Computer, in a move which signalled he would not follow the 'Big Brother' policies of Miss Smith.
It could also be seen as significant that his first major decision was so loudly welcomed by unions, who objected strongly to airport workers having to carry ID cards. They will have a major role in selecting the next Labour leader.
Plans for compulsory ID cards for foreign nationals remain unchanged.
Last updated 04/07/2009