Union blow to ID card scheme
· Key staff could scupper Blair plan
· Home Office prepares for U-turn
Jamie Doward, Martin Bright and Ned Temko
Sunday June 26, 2005
Controversial government plans to introduce identity cards for every Briton were dealt a severe blow last night after the union representing the officials charged with implementing the scheme dramatically came out against it.
Unison, Britain's biggest union with 1.3 million members, used its annual conference to attack the proposals in a move likely to set alarm bells ringing in government.
The scheme cannot work without the full backing of the public sector workers who will administer and maintain the system. The union plans to outline members' concerns to the group of almost 100 Labour MPs who are affiliated to it.
If Unison is successful in making its case to MPs, it raises the prospect that the bill introducing the legislation could be rejected after its second Commons hearing on Tuesday.
'The government will find it more difficult to get contentious legislation through,' a Unison spokeswoman said. 'We intend to make our voice heard through our group of MPs. Delegates voted overwhelmingly to reject the scheme. They don't think it's practical and they don't think it's necessary.'
The government argues that ID cards will help to prevent terrorism, but Unison rejected the claim. 'It's an intrusion on civil liberties. It is not a way of stopping terrorism. The conference heard how the terrorists who orchestrated the Madrid bombings had ID cards,' the spokeswoman said.
The union's rejection of the government's plans follows a similar move by the Transport and General Workers' Union, which has warned that the scheme risks 'becoming Labour's poll tax' and 'a disaster for race relations'. Other unions are believed to be severely critical.
Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, has failed to offer any concessions to buy off potential Labour rebels. But he has indicated he would drop the scheme if an argument could be made that the costs were too high or the technology would not work.
One source close to Clarke said: 'We accept that if it is going to be a massively expensive scheme that won't work, we won't bring it in.'
Clarke met Gordon Brown last week to discuss the issue and is understood to be seeking more money in order to keep the cost of the cards down. A source involved in the talks said there had been 'no change' in Brown's position that the project's cost must be covered from the Home Office budget.
However, Home Office officials are thought to be unconvinced by a London School of Economics report, to be published tomorrow, which suggests the total cost of the scheme could be as high as £18 billion, more than three times the government's estimate.
The Home Office minister Andy Burnham is due to meet the authors of the report at a meeting of the left-wing Campaign Group of MPs tomorrow. But Clarke's aides began to brief against it as soon as they received a copy this weekend. 'The IT and operational costs are fabricated,' said one Home Office source. 'They have spoken to 20 private IT companies, where we have spoken to 300. We just don't recognise many of their figures.'
The official said that the academics appeared to have simply multiplied the original government estimate of £93 per card in order to make the figures look as bad as possible.
Campaign Group chairman John McDonnell, the MP for Hayes and Harlington, said significant numbers of Labour MPs were opposed to the bill. 'There are MPs who object on principle and there are others who believe this is just a mistake. It is like the poll tax and the Dome rolled into one: unworkable like the poll tax and massively expensive like the Dome,' he said.
The rebels will ask for a delay in the bill to allow for more discussion. The Conservative Home Affairs spokesman, David Davis, said his party would co-operate with a review of the legislation by a committee of both houses, but only if the government abandoned the bill in the meantime.
'We have won the argument, even if they get their bill,' said Davis. 'It is now accepted that there are serious issues around the cost of this scheme and doubts over the technology.'
Although more than two dozen Labour MPs rebelled against the ID card idea in the last Parliament, ministers were said to be quietly confident that, even with Labour's Commons majority down to 67, they would win the vote.