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British plan for biometric IDs clears hurdle

Prime Minister Tony Blair's plans to introduce national identity cards to help tackle terrorism and fraud cleared their final hurdle in Britain's lower house of parliament on Tuesday but still face stiff opposition.
/ Source: Reuters

Prime Minister Tony Blair's plans to introduce national identity cards to help tackle terrorism and fraud cleared their final hurdle in Britain's lower house of parliament on Tuesday but still face stiff opposition.

The proposed biometric cards — to carry fingerprint, iris and face recognition technology — are the world's most ambitious, experts say, and their roll-out could be used as a model for other countries, including the United States.

The House of Commons approved the identity cards bill by 309 votes to 284, cutting the ruling Labour Party's 66-strong majority to 25.

Interior minister Charles Clarke tried to allay fears the cards would erode civil liberties.

"It provides a means for everyone legally resident in this country to assert their right to be here and help them gain access to the services to which they are entitled," he told parliament.

Labour's majority shrank in a May election, meaning Blair is much more vulnerable to revolt on controversial policies. The bill now proceeds to parliament's upper house, the House of Lords, where Labour does not have a majority and where the measure is expected to face stiff opposition.

If approved, it would be the first time Britons have carried ID cards since they were abolished after World War Two.

The government argues ID cards are essential to combat identity theft, abuse of the state benefits system, illegal immigration and to fight organised crime and terrorism.

Britain has stepped up its anti-terrorism fight following the July attacks on London that killed 52 people, including the four bombers, and injured hundreds more.

Critics say ID cards are unworkable and costly, and argue they will exacerbate identity theft and undermine civil liberties.

Clarke has acknowledged the scheme would not have stopped the July bomb attacks.

Opposition parties are against the scheme and accuse the government of reneging on an election pledge that the scheme would be voluntary.

"ID cards will do nothing to combat benefit fraud, illegal immigration or terrorism. The only thing we can be certain of is that they will undermine our civil liberties," said David Davis, the Conservative Party's spokesman for home affairs.

ID cards are used in about a dozen EU countries, although they are not always compulsory and do not carry as much data.

Voluntary cards would not be introduced before 2008 at the earliest and they would not be made compulsory before 2013.