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Last Updated: Monday, 25 September 2006, 10:40 GMT 11:40 UK
Identity card cost 'may be cut'
By Ollie Stone-Lee
Political reporter, BBC News, Labour conference in Manchester

An example of an ID card as it could look in the UK
There have been reports of contracts being delayed
The costs of the identity cards scheme could be cut "quite substantially" by making more use of existing government databases, a minister has said.

Home Office Minister Liam Byrne told a Labour conference fringe meeting he had undertaken a full-scale review of the controversial scheme in recent months.

His past as an IT consultant made him wary of taking a "big bang" approach.

The change in tack from the government could mean IT firms do not get the chance to bid for huge contracts.

Some industry insiders believe there would instead be a series of smaller contracts to build up existing databases.

Poll tax fear

Mr Byrne told the meeting in Manchester the ID card scheme could build on existing infrastructure.

"There are opportunities which give me optimism to think that actually there is a way of exploiting systems already in place in a way which brings down the costs quite substantially," he said.

He was speaking after Roger Smith, director of human rights group Justice, urged the government to use the current "lull" in the project to scale down the plans.

He warned that less affluent voters in particular would oppose the scheme if they were forced to pay for the cards.

"I fear that the government is walking into a bear trap. This was a grandiose project like the NHS computer and like the NHS computer is going to fail," Mr Smith told the meeting.

Former MP Ross Cranston said he supported the scheme in principle but asked about fears it could become Labour's "poll tax".

'Practical benefits'

Mr Byrne said there had not been enough work in the ID card debate on how the identity card register could reduce costs and make services across government faster and easier for people.

"People have not had the time and space to do that piece of work but it's absolutely crucial to winning the cost argument," he said.

The minister suggested - as a "hypothesis" - that criminal records checks on staff working with children and vulnerable people could be simplified through the new identity database.

One councillor from Salford told Mr Byrne he was prepared to go to jail for his opposition to the project.

Labour was not always going to be in power, said the councillor, adding: "I just don't trust government."

Mr Byrne said the scope of the ID card register was clearly set out in the legislation and the scheme would be policed by an independent commissioner.

Parliament could in theory change the legislation at a later date but the close margins of previous votes on the issue showed MPs would not be "pushed", he argued.

New chief

The minister accepted the need to win public confidence on the security of the system.

"Ultimately, in today's world, unless we can prove to a sceptical public informed by a 24 hour news cycle that we have got those checks in place then people won't use it and its purpose will be undermined."

Former management consultant James Hall was last week appointed as the first chief executive of the Identity and Passport Agency, which will run the scheme.

Mr Byrne said the appointment was long overdue and Mr Hall would reveal the detailed timetable for rolling out the scheme in due course.

News emerged this summer that there had been delays in putting some of the contracts of the scheme out to tender.

But Mr Byrne said the plan was for biometric residents' permits to be in place in 2008 for foreign nationals living in the UK.

That would pave the way for the scheme to "culminate" in 2009, he said.

See how ID card technology might work

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