Blair faces fresh ID card rebellionAs the Prime Minister reels from his first defeat, a new study claims the scheme will cost £40bn and peers prepare to shoot down the bill by Gaby Hinsliff and Jamie Doward
Sunday November 13, 2005
Tony Blair faces a fresh revolt over his flagship plans for identity cards which could, in effect, neuter the scheme, as new questions were raised over its cost to taxpayers.
Peers are plotting to render the scheme toothless by blocking plans to make the cards compulsory for every citizen and sabotaging the requirement to make Britons store their personal details on a national register, which would underpin the cards.
The latest threat to the Prime Minister's programme comes as he begins a concerted fightback from his defeat last week over counter-terrorism proposals, setting out plans to listen, learn and explain himself over controversial school reforms - not just to the public, but even to junior ministers.
Controversial reforms to health and welfare will be delayed while they are examined for potential flashpoints, with a political cabinet meeting to be held this week.
The change of tone comes as rebels are calling for Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to intervene in the row over the timing of Blair's departure from Downing Street.
'All roads lead to Prescott,' said one source close to last week's revolt. 'The question is what he's going to do, when he thinks it's the right time to make the move. It needs someone who doesn't have a personal agenda.'
Blair's first test since the defeat will come when the ID cards bill returns to the Lords this week. Rebel Tory and Liberal Democrat peers are expected to win a vote on amendments which would allow a vote in both houses before every citizen could be forced to have a card. This would make it far more difficult for the government to move from a voluntary scheme to a compulsory one - and easier for any future administration, whether led by the Tories or by Gordon Brown, to abandon the plans.
Doubts are also being raised about the overall cost of the scheme. Following a briefing from Home Office minister Andy Burnham last week, experts at the London School of Economics now predict the final cost to the taxpayer could reach £40 billion. They said the government's own estimate of the cost of the scheme - £5.8bn - excluded the cost of rolling the scheme out across government departments and public bodies.
In a letter to Burnham seen by The Observer, Professor Ian Angell, the convenor of the LSE's expert panel, states: 'We now understand that the projected cost ... applies only to the costs incurred by the Home Office.'
The figure of £40bn has been dismissed as 'nonsensical' by the Home Office.
However, one senior Whitehall source admitted there were question marks over the Home Office's plans, adding: 'They have got it through the Commons by offering a price cap [on the cost of cards] and the exemptions, and now you are looking at it and thinking, "Now what do we do?"'
The Home Office argues that expensive readers and high-tech equipment needed to check the cards when they become compulsory could be partly funded by savings made from reducing benefit fraud and 'health tourism', the fraudulent use of the NHS by foreigners.
The spat illustrates the difficulty for Blair in getting his administration back on track. He will begin by wooing MPs over school reforms, designed to increase 'parent power' over failing schools, presenting them as a boost for working-class children.
At a speech on Friday alongside leading New Labour modernisers including David Miliband, Alan Milburn and the schools minister Andrew Adonis, he will argue the school reforms can help economic regeneration.
MPs will be invited to 'fireside chats' to discuss concerns, and there will be a national tour explaining the policy to MPs, teachers, governors and the public. 'The Prime Minister takes no pleasure in losing votes, but he knows that on this issue he is on the right side of the argument,' said a Downing Street source.'It's about listening to what everyone has to say.'
Writing in the News of the World today, the Prime Minister acknowledges he faces a 'rough ride' in pushing through his reforms, but insists that he and his cabinet are determined to 'continue doing what is right, not what is easy'.