Home secretary Alan Johnson has flatly denied killing off the ID card programme with his announcement last week that the scheme will be entirely voluntary for UK citizens.
He delivered the denial in a Commons debate in which a Tory demand for the plan to be dropped was defeated by 293 votes to 206.
A government motion insisting the cards will help secure individuals’ identity and reduce multiple ID fraud was carried by 283 votes to 203 despite intense speculation about the programme’s future.
Johnson announced last week that airside workers at London City and Manchester airports can decide for themselves whether to apply for cards, a U-turn on original plans to make them compulsory for workers in such a security-sensitive role.
He started the debate with the declaration: “We havent scrapped cards. What we are doing is accelerating their introduction.
The airports decision was a victory for the trade unions representing the 20,000 workers involved.
The compulsory rollout of cards to 50,000 non-European Union or European economic zone workers is proceeding, although a target of 50,000 signed up by the end of March was missed by half.
Johnson claimed consistent public support for ID cards and denounced as ” ludicrous” Tory claims that scrapping the programme would save a large sum, because biometric passports and the national identity register would have to proceed in any case.
He was ridiculed by Labour rebels Andrew Mackinlay, who said he was presiding over “the denouement of a failed policy” and David Winnick, who said the whole idea of British citizens carrying such a card was “distasteful”.
Tory spokesman Damian Green protested about a statutory instrument also due to be passed that would impose penalties on holders for failing to keep card information up to date.
And shadow Tory home secretary Chris Grayling ridiculed the idea of volu ntary cards whose sole purpose would be to enable young drinkers in pubs to prove their age. He said taxpayers faced a bill for “billions of pounds”.
Grayling confirmed the Tory pledge to cancel this “massive national folly” if they win the next election.
Johnson retorted that he is now “more convinced than ever that the national identity service is a sane and rational policy that needs to be implemented, rather than scrapped, and accelerated, rather than delayed, and accused Grayling of being “a covert supporter” who had switched sides.
The home secretary insisted the programme is “on time and on schedule” and would help deal with the problem of identity fraud.
Liberal Democrat spokesman Chris Huhne said the government was living in ” cloud cuckoo land” if it thought the project could be delivered on its claimed budget and warned that students repeatedly changing addresses would be hard hit by fines of up to £1,000 for failing to re-register each move.