Reports claiming that the government might be preparing for an embarrassing u-turn on the issue of entitlement cards have been firmly rejected by Home Office officials.
Speaking on Thursday, Lord Falconer -- minister of state for criminal justice, sentencing and law reform -- said it was possible that the government might decide against introducing such a card, once the current consultation process had been concluded.
"We may not proceed with the scheme, and if we do it will take several years," Lord Falconer told a one-day seminar on the issue of entitlement cards organised by industry body Intellect.
Lord Falconer also urged local authorities to continue their own smart-card plans.
"We want them to continue because we might not go ahead [with the entitlement card], and even if we do, the universal coverage would not be there for some years to come. That possibility should not inhibit other work," said Lord Falconer.
The suggestion that these comments marked an imminent retreat on the issue is, though, wide of the mark, according to the Home Office.
"Our policy has not changed at all. The whole point of a consultation is that you consult with a wide range of people. We've been doing everything possible to encourage a healthy debate," a Home Office spokeswoman told ZDNet UK News on Friday.
Home secretary David Blunkett has already expressed his support for entitlement cards -- which he says would be used to prevent identity theft and fraud and would also help citizens to access government services.
If the government does ultimately decide against the introduction of entitlement cards, though, it is likely that it will be accused of retreat in the face of public opposition by those who claim that the scheme is expensive, unworkable and would in effect be a compulsory identity card.
The consultation process began in July 2002, and will close on 31 January, 2003.
Last month, the government disclosed that it had received over 2,000 public responses to its consultation document, of which two-thirds were expressing support for the implementation of an entitlement card.
Since then, Privacy International and Stand -- which previously campaigned against the RIP Act -- have been encouraging people to register their opposition to the scheme, and it is thought that up to 7,000 people have done so.
The government, though, is still quoting the 2,000 responses figure, and is refusing to speculate on what it would do if a majority of public responses did oppose entitlement cards.
"We're not getting into that at this stage," the Home Office spokeswoman explained, adding that the government had done "a lot of work with many independent groups," and that all responses would be considered by ministers once the consultation process was completed.
The information commissioner has yet to respond to the consultation. As ZDNet UK reported yesterday, the Office of the Information Commissioner is currently deliberating whether the benefits of an entitlement cards outweigh the risks to privacy, human rights and social values.