The Independent on Sunday can today reveal that ministers have opened talks with private firms to pass on personal details of UK citizens for an initial cost of £750 each.
Amid warnings today that the cost of a card for each adult in Britain is likely to double to £200, union leaders predicted that millions of public-sector workers could refuse to co-operate with the scheme, prompting claims that the ID scheme will become Labour's equivalent of the poll tax.
Unison is the latest and biggest trade union to come out against the controversial government plans. The Transport and General Workers' Union and the GMB have already urged backbenchers to vote against the Identity Cards Bill next week. Unison said that ID cards would be ineffective against terrorism and that its 1.3 million members working in healthcare may have the right to refuse to co-operate in enforcing their use.
Bob Marshall-Andrews, one of the Labour MPs opposing the Bill, has accused the Government of doing a "back of an envelope" calculation to reach its figure.
The opening of commercial talks contradicts a promise made when the Home Office launched a public consultation on ID cards in April last year, when officials pledged that "unlike electoral registers, the National Identity Register will not be open for any general access or inspection."
Public support for the scheme has been falling away in recent months amid gathering fears over costs. A report by the London School of Economics is to show that the card's cost to individuals will be around £200.
In addition, firms could be charged up to £750 for technology that would allow them instantly to verify customers' identity through iris scanning or finger-printing, according to official documents.
Whitehall insiders, who have already been passed a copy of the LSE report, say it also includes a warning by a former Nato security chief that the cards could be a "security disaster", are "too risky" to introduce, and could lead to a national meltdown in the event of a security breach of the central database.
After 2008, a machine similar to credit card readers will be a common sight on the counters of banks and large retail stores. These new machines will potentially be able to read a customer's biometric details, such as fingerprints and facial measurements, to check that they tally with information on the customer's ID card.
The Identity Cards Bill has a rough passage ahead, with Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and some Labour rebels joining forces against it. Although government whips are confident of winning Tuesday's vote, rebels are predicting that they can kill the measure off later in the process, in a slow war of attrition, on the grounds of the costs involved and the risks of computer failure.
26 June 2005 09:14
Francis Elliott, Andy McSmith and Sophie Goodchild