Fast track for ID cards
Ministers hope Tory disarray will let contested bill throughAlan Travis, Tania Branigan and Rebecca Smithers
Monday May 16, 2005
The cabinet has decided to rush through its controversial identity cards legislation, one of the centrepieces of tomorrow's Queen's Speech, to try to take advantage of the Tories' post-election disarray to get it through the Commons, Whitehall sources have confirmed.
Ministers privately believe they can overcome any renewed Labour rebellion over the legislation by relying on the backing or abstention of some Tory MPs to get it through its second reading vote within a fortnight.
They have also made it clear that they will use the Parliament Act to force through the House of Lords their equally contentious plans for a new criminal offence of incitement to religious hatred. Peers have rejected this proposal twice in the last four years on grounds of "free speech", but ministers have told Muslim groups that as it was a manifesto commitment they would now be justified in invoking the Parliament Act to override opposition.
In the Commons, the government's reduced majority, down from more than 160 to 67 on May 5, leaves it vulnerable to backbench rebellions - a particular headache for a prime minister determined to embed reforms before he stands down.
Tony Blair told reporters last week: "Our task now is to deepen the change, accelerate reform and address head-on the priorities of the British people in the National Health Service, schools, welfare reform, childcare and support for working families, crime, disorder, respect on our streets, asylum and immigration."
But yesterday there were signs of a rapprochement between the government and its most outspoken critics, who have indicated they are unlikely to mount a serious challenge over ID cards.
Glenda Jackson, the MP for Hampstead and Highgate, said: "Where we have principled objections to pieces of legislation we will obviously make our views known, but we will not be trapped into engaging in some virility test with Tony Blair."
Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland secretary, said the government would have to fight to pass legislation. But he told BBC1's Breakfast with Frost programme: "I think we can now build a consent at the beginning and that will be very healthy for everybody concerned. So yes, it will be different. But I think it will be positive." He insisted there was overwhelming public support for ID cards, but conceded ministers might reconsider the detail of proposals.
The home secretary, Charles Clarke, might concede to strengthening the ID cards commissioner's powers and the introduction of extra safeguards over access to the national identity register.
Janet Paraskeva, chief executive of the Law Society, which opposes the proposals, said: "They will push this legislation through while the opposition parties are still in some disarray. We will see a rush on ID cards whether or not they soften the edges."
The Tories have been split over the issue, but are now united in opposition. They would not support ID cards without wide-ranging assurances.
The legislation on incitement to religious hatred would introduce a new criminal offence with a maximum penalty of seven years in prison, to close a loophole that allows criminal behaviour motivated by religious hatred.
Other elements in the new legislative programme could also provoke anger, such as measures reforming incapacity benefit, asylum and immigration reforms, and new anti-terrorism powers.
Proposals giving parents a role in forcing school closures and in replacing senior staff will also prompt arguments. Other bills will include banning smoking in enclosed public spaces, and tightening up election rules following concerns about postal voting.