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Saturday, May 12, 2007

A chink of light

If Gordon Brown is going to establish clear red water between himself and Tony Blair then he needs more than an hitherto unknown sunny disposition and a few soundbites about playing it straight and reconnecting with the people. This story in the Guardian hints that the substance may be on its way as well.

The paper tells us that Jack Straw, who is widely expected to replace John Reid as home secretary, has signalled that the future of the £5.75bn national identity card scheme will be under review once regime change has been effected:

Mr Straw, who was Mr Blair's first home secretary, said yesterday the whole cabinet had publicly supported the policy on ID cards. When asked if Mr Brown still supported it, he replied:

"Yes, of course, but I am not going to get into a debate now about any reviews in the future ...

"There have been many, many occasions where we have stepped back and thought 'Is this working?' Should we maintain a particular approach."

While Mr Straw has been supportive in public, leaked papers have made clear that he has repeatedly opposed the idea in cabinet. In 2003 when he and the health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, forced the postponement of the introduction of a compulsory scheme beyond the next election he warned it would be a "debacle".

"I will continue to urge strongly that this issue be shelved," he told cabinet colleagues on September 24 2003 when he was foreign secretary.

Mr Straw raised concerns about the lack of effective procedures to deal with those who refused to provide an electronic fingerprint or eye scan and about potential loopholes that could be exploited by economic migrants. The costs of the project were revealed this week to have risen by £840m in the last 6 months to £5.75bn.

Critics argued that a further £510m - the cost of registering Britons resident abroad - had been offloaded to the Foreign Office budget to avoid the official estimate going over £6bn. Treasury ministers confirmed this week that they have not yet approved the substantive budget for the ID card scheme. The Home Office only has Treasury approval for its initial development costs. This leaves the option open for Mr Brown to cancel the whole scheme when he becomes prime minister.

Another Brown ally, Alastair Darling, has also expressed unease about ID cards calling their very idea "objectionable" during a parliamentary debate.

This is all very encouraging but we will have to wait and see whether it amounts to anything after 27th June.


Stand by for Peter Hain to say he was always against ID cards.
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