Home Secretary David Blunkett told Parliament that he envisioned a universal entitlement card for which everyone in Britain would register to gain the right to social services, benefits and employment.
Blunkett said he was launching a six-month consultative exercise to gauge public reaction. But one source in Prime Minister Tony Blair's office said, "We wouldn't be putting the idea forward if we did not think there was a positive reason to look at it."
Another source close to the government said Blunkett "with Blair's backing has pretty much made up his mind to go ahead with it." The document the home secretary submitted to Parliament even contained possible designs for the credit card-sized ID.
Blunkett has been working on a plan to introduce a national identity card ever since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. But he said earlier that national security should not be considered the sole reason for issuing such cards.
Britain introduced compulsory ID cards as a security measure during World War II, but they were axed in 1952 after a judge questioned their value in peacetime.
The national ID card is seen as a major weapon in the British government's battle against the growing problem of illegal immigration via Europe, most notably through the underwater Channel Tunnel rail link from France, regularly swarmed by hundreds of asylum seekers from the Sangatte refugee camp trying to get to Britain.
Blunkett's ID card initiative came a week after French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said Britain's lack of such a document was a main reason why so many illegal immigrants where targeting it. Sarkozy also hinted strongly that France would not close down the Sangatte camp until London took appropriate action.
The U.K. home secretary did not detail the format of the proposed ID cards. One critic in the opposition Conservative Party accused him of "opaque utterances" but they are expected to include microchip biometric data such as fingerprints or iris information, as well as photos and other identification.
Blunkett said that while every Briton would have a card, they would not have to carry it with them at all times. People would have to produce the ID when requested. For instance, he added, the identity card would be a straightforward and verifiable way to establish the right to work legally.
The lack of a need for such identification has made Britain, and London in particular, appealing to illegal immigrants and tax dodgers looking for work where few, if any, questions are asked.
Blunkett told Parliament that identity fraud, including black market labor and illegal claims for dole money and other social security benefits, is costing the country an estimated $2 billion a year.
Some ordinary Britons backed this reasoning for such a card. "The only people I think who are worried about it," said retired office manager John Rawling, "are the crooks. If they won't accept identity cards, they must be on the fiddle."
Simon Soaper, a social worker, was succinct in his opposition.
"I couldn't care less if ID cards are brought in or not." he said. "As soon as I receive mine, I shall destroy it. I'll never carry one, no matter what the law says."
"If you have nothing to hide," countered shop attendant Donald Walters, "what is the big deal? The more information they could have on, the better. The sooner they bring them out, the better, and I know what I would say to the civil liberties loonies."
The civil rights group Liberty said it would oppose a national identity card. "It's unacceptable and wrong on principle," said John Wadham, a spokesman for Liberty.
Karen Bartlett, head of the pressure group Charter 88, said packaging ID cards as entitlement cards is not going to fool the public. A card, which you have to show to access services, is still an ID card, whatever spin you put on it, Bartlett said.