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The government had admitted that it has oversold its identity card plans, and now admits the card won't solve every problem facing the country, from fraud to terrorism, via illegal immigration. Despite this, it has pledged to push on with the idea, saying it will still "help" in situations where fraud and identity abuse are factors.

Tony McNulty, the Home Office's man in charge of the card, also predicted a protracted battle between the House of Commons and the House of Lords over the question of making the card compulsory. Currently, both houses have to vote in favour of making the card a must-have, but the House of Lords is not expected to support the idea.

McNulty says the government is looking at the procedure to "see if it does what we want it to do".

Because the switch to compulsion will be secondary legislation, the government will not be able to use the Parliament Act of 1911 to force the change through the House of Lords.

McNulty warned of parliamentary deadlock if an alternative is not found, but perhaps he is missing the point of the two-House system, designed in part to prevent governments with big majorities passing legislation unchecked.

McNulty's remarks, made in a private seminar in Whitehall, The Times reports, are a clear indication that the government is about to take a new approach in persuading us of the benefits of a national identity database.

In particular, he said that the government has been a little too enthusiastic about the benefits the card would bring to the state, rather than to the individual members of the public.

The rather abrupt volte face follows a decline in public support for the card, following revelations about the potential cost of the project. Figures released by the LSE suggest the card could cost each of us up to £300 a throw.

"We don't resile from it," says McNulty. "Perhaps we ran away with it in our enthusiasm."

McNulty has also confirmed that the government will put a ceiling on the cost of the card, although he doesn't specify an amount. The rather empty gesture is clearly aimed at increasing public sympathy for the idea. But since the project will cost what it costs regardless of how much each of us is actually charged, we will end up paying for it one way or another.

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