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ID cards 'to be enforced by 2008

By Andrew Grice, Political Editor

Everyone in Britain could be forced to have identity cards within five years under a fast-track plan by David Blunkett which is backed by Tony Blair and gaining support within the Cabinet.

Last month's bombings in Madrid and last week's arrest of suspected Islamic terrorists in Britain have persuaded more ministers that compulsory ID cards will have to be introduced much sooner than they originally envisaged. The Government announced last November that it would phase in voluntary identity cards from 2007-08 and decide in 2013 whether to make the scheme compulsory.

But Government sources said yesterday that the "centre of gravity" in the Cabinet was now moving towards a "big bang" introduction of a compulsory system. Last Thursday, Mr Blair told a press conference that cards would be brought in "probably more quickly than we anticipated".

He was speaking immediately after Eliza Manningham-Buller, the director general of MI5, and Sir David Omand, the Government's security and intelligence co-ordinator, gave the Cabinet a confidential briefing on the terrorist threat facing Britain. Yesterday ministers described the briefing on the likelihood of an al-Qa'ida attack in London as "chilling" but insisted that Britain was better prepared to meet the threat than many of its European counterparts because of its experience in fighting the IRA.

One senior Government source said: "The key point was the need for good intelligence. You don't stop terrorists with more armed police on the streets."

Mr Blunkett was forced to water down his proposals for ID cards last November after objections from several cabinet colleagues including Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, and Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary. But Cabinet sources say opposition to ID cards has weakened since the Madrid attacks. "The realities of the last few weeks have had a big impact," one said.

Ministers agreed last week that MPs would be able to vote on a compulsory system without the need for fresh legislation. A draft Bill to be published next month will provide for a full day's Commons debate on a motion which opponents would be allowed to amend.

The Home Secretary plans to bring in legislation in the Parliamentary session beginning in November 2005.

This would set up a voluntary scheme for hi-tech cards storing people's unique "biometric" details, such as iris images or fingerprints from 2007-08. A decision on a compulsory system could now follow soon after that.

Ministers were told that in several recent arrests, police found people with papers giving them multiple identities, and the politicians stressed the importance of making sure the ID cards could not be forged. "The argument has moved on from concern about civil liberties to making sure we get the logistics right," one said.

Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who appears to be among the sceptics, suggested yesterday that she had not yet been won over. She told Sky TV's Sunday with Adam Boulton: "My view is that if we are going to make it compulsory for everybody to have one, even if they don't need it for those other purposes, we need to be absolutely clear that it will deliver additional benefits. That is an issue that we can come to and Parliament, crucially, can come to."

Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, said yesterday he wanted to see ID cards introduced as soon as possible to combat terrorism and illegal immigration. He told GMTV's Sunday programme that cards would be "of great assistance", adding: "I think the sooner they're brought in the better and as a professional police officer I have to tell you we need them."