The first UK ID cards will be of limited use for full biometric ID checks on foreign workers, with the government yet to reveal a timetable for the deployment of scanners capable of reading the cards.
The first UK ID cards were issued to people from outside the European Economic Area on Tuesday.
But the Identity and Passport Service (IPS) has revealed that, for the foreseeable future, employers will not have scanners that can verify a worker's ID against the fingerprint and facial scans held on the card's chip.
Employers instead will have to rely on visual checks on the card and calls to a UK Border Agency (UKBA) hotline if they have any concerns that the card might not be genuine.
The admission by the IPS bolsters recent concerns that the ID verification scheme has been relegated to relying on 'flash and go' cards, after Home Office documents revealed this month that the cards' biometric details will only be cross-referenced with the central National Identity Register in a minority of cases.
An IPS spokesman said: "There are currently no scanners that will be available to employers."
"Over time, there will be a number of ways of authenticating and verifying identity, depending on the importance of the check, ranging from a visual check to a biometric check," the spokesman said. "These are the first cards to be rolled out and the scheme will be developed over the next couple of years."
Phil Booth, national co-ordinator for ID-cards pressure group NO2ID, said: "It makes a lie of all these grandiose claims about biometrics if there is not the infrastructure to back it up."
"It will be a bit of plastic that will be eminently copyable," Booth said.
According to Booth, employers have been told to flick the card and listen for a distinctive sound, if they doubt the card's authenticity.
"This is the mechanism by which employers are supposed to be checking a worker's identity. It is farcical," he said.
The cards will contain a person's name; place and date of issue of the card; the type of permit; how long it is valid and whether or not the holder can work; and a chip containing their fingerprint and facial scans. Biometric details will be collected from all foreign nationals over the age of six.
Cards are being introduced for foreign students, at a cost of between £295 and £500, and for people seeking marriage visas at a cost of between £395 and £595. Other categories of foreign nationals will be required to take up the cards at a later date.
Fingerprints and facial scans will be captured at seven UKBA centres, starting with Croydon on Tuesday, ahead of other centres in Armagh, Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool and Sheffield, with all centres taking biometrics by the middle of December.
The Home Office said it will issue 50,000 cards to foreign nationals between now and April 2009, and that it expects to be issuing more than one million such ID cards per year within three years.