Tuesday, May 17, 2005

LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday announced plans to shake up Britain’s welfare state, tackle terrorism and introduce Britain’s first national ID card since World War II — a challenging third-term agenda that could spark revolt in his restive Labor Party and test his waning authority.

Mr. Blair’s lead in Parliament was slashed in this month’s election, and he may struggle to push the packed program of 45 bills through Parliament over the next 18 months.

One of the most contentious proposals is for a national ID card carrying biometric details such as fingerprints or iris scans, which opponents fear would erode civil liberties.

“An ID-card scheme will take time to set up. It is essential that we begin now,” said Mr. Blair, addressing the opening session of Parliament.

“I urge other parties to think carefully before opposing what is necessary for our security, to combat fraud, to tackle illegal immigration and which the new technology makes the obvious policy for security in the times in which we live.”

Mr. Blair said his agenda would safeguard Britain’s economic stability, continue investment in schools and hospitals and “protect our citizens from terrorism and crime.”

It is likely to be a turbulent parliamentary session, however. A group of rebellious Labor lawmakers are unhappy with Mr. Blair’s leadership and could vote with opposition parties against key pieces of legislation.

Potential flash points include the ID cards, counterterrorism legislation, an overhaul of welfare payments for the sick and disabled and a law that makes inciting religious hatred a crime.

Conservative leader Michael Howard accused Mr. Blair of more “fizzy rhetoric” and said his party would hold the prime minister “to account for the promises he has made to the British people.”

National ID cards will be a priority. The government wants to set up a National Identity Register, containing biometric details of every British citizen.

“In addition, we need ID cards as soon as possible for foreign nationals entering Britain on more than a short-term visa,” Mr. Blair said. No timeline was given for introducing the cards for either Britons or foreigners.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights group Liberty, accused the government of a “chronic lack of respect for our democratic traditions.”

The government also revived plans, first floated after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, for making incitement to religious hatred a crime.

Ministers say the law would protect minorities from bias and target extremists who use religion to stir up tension. Opponents, who already have forced the government to drop the plans twice, fear it could undermine a centuries-old tradition of freedom of speech.

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