SOME foreigners will be forced to carry identity cards later this year, but the scheme will not be compulsory for UK citizens until well after the next general election, the government announced yesterday.
A delayed roll-out will begin in November by targeting people from outside the European Union applying to work, study or live in the UK.
The first British citizens will be affected from summer 2009, when some 100,000 airport and power-station workers in "sensitive" jobs will be issued with the cards. Then, from 2010, young people aged over 16 will be able to apply for them on a "voluntary basis".
But the scheme will not become compulsory without a parliamentary vote – and ministers say that will not happen this side of a general election.
Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, hopes British citizens will begin to enrol in "high volumes" in 2011-12, with most British people holding a card by 2017.
However, opposition parties and civil-rights campaigners reiterated their demands that ID cards be scrapped.
The Scottish Government restated its opposition, saying ID cards would not be necessary to access any public services provided by Holyrood.
And there was embarrassment for No 10 when a report commissioned by Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, recommended the cards should be free of charge. They are expected to cost 30, or about 100 if issued with a passport.
Announcing the changes, Ms Smith said the scheme's cost would be cut by 1 billion to 4.4 billion as a result of the staggered introduction.
The cards will store biometric data about holders, such as face and eye scans and fingerprints, together with personal information including name, address and date of birth.
They will not hold medical details or criminal convictions.
Ms Smith believes they will form one part of a three-stage system to increase national security, together with border controls and checks made by UK foreign embassies.
Foreign nationals will have to apply from November, and will all be expected to have a card within three years. Failure to apply for one will lead to unspecified "hefty" fines or deportation from the UK.
The Home Secretary claimed the cards would make it "incredibly difficult" to perpetrate identity fraud, while speeding up job applications that require security clearance, such as in teaching and nursing.
All new British passports will be entered on the National Identity Register – a database of fingerprints and other details – from 2011-12.
David Davis, the shadow home secretary,
said the data would be a "sitting target for criminal hackers and terrorists" and he called for the whole scheme to be abandoned.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of human-rights group Liberty, said: "ID cards remain disastrous for our purses, privacy and race relations."
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, said the "world's most powerful, expensive and unnecessary database" would initially blight only those unable to vote against the government.