Page last updated at 09:22 GMT, Thursday, 27 May 2010 10:22 UK

Q&A: Identity cards

By Dominic Casciani
BBC news home affairs correspondent

The coalition government says it is scrapping plans for identity cards for UK citizens. How is this going to be implemented?

What has the government pledged to do?

Home Secretary Theresa May plans to introduce a bill to Parliament to scrap the identity card for UK citizens and the national identity register by September 2010.

The government will also halt plans for the next generation of biometric passports that might have contained some of the same data as the identity card, such as fingerprints.

When will the card be abolished?

The government wants to enact the legislation before the summer recess with a target of making the cards invalid by 3 September. The National Identity Register will then be destroyed and the documents will no longer be a legal document for travel in Europe.

Was the identity card ever introduced?

There are about 15,000 people carrying the card who voluntarily paid £30 to put their details onto the register. The holders, mostly living in the Manchester area, will not be given a refund.

The scheme to provide identity cards to foreign nationals from outside of the European Union will continue.

These cards, called "biometric residents permits", are currently held by some 200,000 people and the government hopes to include 90% of foreign nationals by 2015.

Ministers say these will be kept because there is an EU-wide agreement to improve records on migrants arriving from outside the European Economic Area.

The cards hold personal data like the domestic identity card but also details of the individual's right to live or work in the UK.

How much has the identity card scheme cost?

The costs of the identity card scheme are complicated because so much of the programme has been inseparable from the modernisation programme for passports.

In short, the entire ID card scheme was projected to cost at least £4.5bn - but a great deal of those costs might have been offset by fees.

The government says scrapping the scheme now will initially save £86m and avoid the government having to spend a further £800m over 10 years.

The total final cost remains unclear however. The Home Office and its Identity and Passport Service has spent some £257m in developing the scheme since 2003 - about £4 for each person living in the UK.

The Labour government also signed four major contracts with private companies to deliver the scheme. One of the contracts, worth £18m, was exclusively connected to the ID cards plan. Two others, worth some £650m together, are being partially renegotiated because parts of the deals were related to wider passport, IT, and biometric database issues. The final contract stands because it is related to the production of the modern biometric passport.

Officials say there are no "poisoned pills" in the contracts and they expect the Home Office to make a net saving even after taking into account all the cancellation costs and renegotiation payments.

Overall, scrapping identity cards is unlikely to significantly help deal with the government's debt - but it does fulfill a manifesto pledge.

Why is the government getting rid of the cards?

Both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats want to scrap the scheme because they say it is unwanted, too expensive and unnecessary.

When Labour was in government, it saw public support for the card drain away amid concerns over the costs and mixed messages over its benefits.

Will the government no longer hold personal data on citizens?

A government cannot function without holding personal data on citizens because it needs to know who should pay tax and who should receive benefits and services.

There are databases in a number of government departments that hold personal information to help meet those aims.

But critics of the national identity register claimed it duplicated information already held elsewhere. For instance, most people in the UK hold either a driving licence, passport or both.

When the national identity register is dismantled, different parts of government will continue to modernise how they take and store data from individuals.

What was going to be the purpose of the ID card ?

There are plenty of people who supported the idea of a secure, fraud-proof way to help people to prove who they are.

However, successive Labour ministers tried different ways of selling the card to the public.

The last Labour home secretary, Alan Johnson, focused on the "entitlement" element of the scheme and targeted it at students.

But David Blunkett, who dealt with the aftermath of 9/11 and huge immigration pressures, argued the card had a role to play in combating both terrorism and illegal immigration.

Do other countries have ID cards?

Several countries in the European Union now have some form of modern computerised ID card, even if they are not compulsory.

They have become widely accepted by their citizens. In France, for example, about 90% of the population carries one.

But many other countries, like Japan, Australia and New Zealand, have not adopted the idea. Neither has the US.

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