Plans for a national identity card scheme have been agreed in principle by ministers - but a decision on making the scheme compulsory has been put off.
There is divided opinion over ID cards in Parliament
The cabinet agreed on Thursday to delay any ruling on compulsion until later in the decade.
The plan - which could see the earlier introduction of a voluntary scheme - was announced by Tony Blair's spokesman after reports of bitter disagreements within the cabinet over the issue.
The decision was described by civil liberties campaigners as a "humiliation" for Home Secretary David Blunkett, who favours the introduction of compulsory ID cards.
But the home office said the timescale for the introduction of ID cards in six to 10 years was in line with an earlier consultation paper.
Following Thursday's cabinet meeting Tony Blair's official spokesman issued a statement that said ministers had "in principle" agreed there were "major benefits" to introducing ID cards.
But he added: "In practice, given the size and complexity of the scheme a
number of issues will need to be resolved over the years ahead."
There have been reports of bitter clashes in cabinet over the introduction of ID cards.
Mr Blair's spokesman went on: "We intend to proceed by incremental steps to build a base for a
compulsory national ID card scheme with a final decision to proceed to a
compulsory card later, when the conditions for moving to a compulsory card are met.
"We will legislate to enable the scheme to be introduced and plan on the
basis that all the practical problems can be overcome but we will reserve the
final decision on a move to compulsion until later this decade."
Whitehall sources later told the BBC that the cabinet has agreed to include a draft bill as a first step towards the introduction of an ID card system in the legislative programme for the year ahead.
On Wednesday, a sub-committee of the cabinet - chaired by John Prescott - met and concerns were aired about the proposals during a discussion that sources later described as "savage" and "a bloodbath".
Opponents say ID cards would be prohibitively expensive to introduce and would have serious implications for civil liberties.
The cards, supported "in principle" by Tony Blair, are said to face opposition from Mr Brown, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt.
Mr Blunkett told BBC Radio 4's The World at One he and Mr Blair had convinced the cabinet that "biometric identifiers" such as face recognition, finger or thumbprint, or
the eye's iris, were needed for any ID card scheme.
He said such identifiers could only be used effectively by phasing them in incrementally.
"Therefore we should give the green light to go ahead with drawing up both
legislation and the practical arrangements for introducing an ID card scheme,
based on that biometric identifier," he said.
Mr Blunkett admitted there had been scepticism among cabinet colleagues.
He said: "I think that disagreement is really healthy. I think that over the last 20
months we have had not only a vigorous debate but the opportunity to draw up in
detail answers to perfectly legitimate questions.
"Very many people who were originally sceptical, including people very
recently, have been won over to both the nature of what we are proposing and the
timescale, which is in line with commonsense on both technology and on finance."
He said it would take three years to prepare the ground for biometrics to be used in the scheme.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights organisation Liberty, said: "To
delay taking a decision until later in the decade, when the composition of the
cabinet will almost certainly be markedly different, is clearly a face-saving formula to disguise the fact that Mr Blunkett has lost the argument.
"This is quite clearly a humiliating defeat for the home secretary."
Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin said: "Even by its own shambolic
standards the government has surpassed itself.
"After going round and round in circles for months, it has achieved absolutely nothing."
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten said: "Over the last year the prime minister and the home secretary have glossed
over the pitfalls and failed to demonstrate that their identity card scheme
would be anything other than a colossal waste of taxpayers' money."