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Smith's airport ID card plans cut back to small pilot scheme

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Jacqui Smith's plans for ID cards for airport workers are in deeper trouble, with the news that next year's rollout has been downscaled to an 18 month trial at only two airports, Manchester and City of London. According to a report in today's Financial Times, the Home Secretary is due to announce the trial on Thursday - but the paper adds that no agreement has yet been reached on whether or not the trial would cover existing workers, or only new employees.

The first ID cards are scheduled to be issued to non-EU foreign nationals this month, with airport workers intended to be the first employees in "sensitive roles or locations" to be forced to apply, in the second half of 2009. Opposition within the airline industry has been virtually unanimous, however, and the sudden appearance of a lengthy trial at two smaller airports - as opposed to a general rollout across the industry - suggests strongly that the Home Office is losing this fight.

According to the FT, Manchester and London City only signed up to the scheme "in principle" after the government agreed to provide a further £500,000 for pre-employment checks for airport staff. Nor, says the paper, is there any guarantee that the scheme will be extended to the rest of the airline industry after the trial concludes.

In addition to officially announcing the trial, on Thursday Jacqui Smith is expected to announce a "prospectus of market engagement" which the paper says will invite organisations with a high street presence to bid "for contracts in areas such as fingerprinting, application checking and photographing linked to the new biometric passports and ID cards."

An Identity & Passport Service cost reported published earlier this year indicated that the government would attempt to transfer biometric enrolment for the ID scheme to the private sector, and Thursday's announcement would therefore appear to be the next phase of this.

Given the timescales, however, there may well be nothing for them to do. The first phase of the rollout, to foreign nationals, will proceed gradually as it is applied slowly to individuals renewing their leave to remain. Unless the government finds a more tractable group of victims, ID cards for key workers have been stalled until mid-2011 by the 18 month airport trial, and the plan to offer ID cards to young people 'on a voluntary basis' from 2010 will, Home Office research recently revealed, need to find more receptive young people than the ones who actually live here.

Essentially, the whole show has been effectively kicked into touch until after the next election, which will be 2010 at the latest. ®

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