June 28, 2005

British lawmakers back ambitious ID scheme

By Kate Holton

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's plans to launch the world'smost ambitious biometric identity cards cleared their firsthurdle on Tuesday, despite the first revolt against PrimeMinister Tony Blair since his re-election.

His government's 66-seat majority in the lower house wascut to 31 when lawmakers voted to in favor of the cards,designed to counter terrorism, crime and illegal immigration.

Despite the setback for Blair, who was returned to officewith a reduced majority on May 5, the proposals will continuetheir long journey to becoming law.

If accepted, it would be the first time Britons havecarried ID cards since they were abolished after World War IIby the government of Winston Churchill.

Critics, who say cards are expensive, unnecessary andintrusive, fear they would eventually become compulsory. Thecards would use biometric technology in fingerprint, face andiris recognition.

Neil Fisher, director of security and intelligence atBritish technology group QinetiQ, said many other countrieswere watching the British progress.

"Nobody has ever undertaken an identity card system withthis complexity before, using three biometrics ..." he toldReuters.

"America in particular is watching us with close interestand I think if we do go forward with this and we get it right,it will be a model for many people to follow."


The opposition Conservative and Liberal Democrat partiessay they will vote against the cards.

"We can see no benefits, huge costs and a serious risk tocivil liberties and privacy," Conservative shadow HomeSecretary David Davis said on Tuesday.

Although Blair's House of Commons majority was reduced inMay's election, and some of his Labour members of parliamentmay vote against in protest, political analysts do not expectthe plan to be rejected.

A study on Monday said the cost of the scheme could soar to19 billion pounds ($35 billion) -- three times officialestimates -- but Blair dismissed it as wildly exaggerated.

Voluntary cards would not be introduced before 2008 at theearliest and they would not be made compulsory before 2013, andonly then if parliament agrees, the government says.

ID cards are used in about a dozen EU countries, althoughthey are not always compulsory and do not carry as much data.

Tuesday's vote was the start of a long parliamentaryprocess which will see the bill debated many times.

(Additional reporting by Peter Griffiths)