The Home Office has delayed putting its £5.8bn national identity card programme out to tender until at least the end of the year.
The postponement comes as the Home Office completes a review of the ID card programme as part of a "root and branch" review of the department's priorities and programmes, senior officials have confirmed.
The review, instigated by home secretary John Reid into every aspect of Home Office work, is expected to lead to the department simplifying its approach to the design and implementation of the ID card programme.
News of the review was disclosed by Nigel Seed, project director at the Identity and Passport Service, during a meeting of private and public sector security specialists organised by public/private sector think-tank the Information Assurance Advisory Council (IAAC).
"It is a sensible delay. What we do not want to do is go out the wrong way while the Home Office is still looking at the solution," he said.
The disclosure came as a surprise to software suppliers. They had expected a tender document to appear shortly after the ID Cards Bill was published in March, said Neil Fisher, vice-president of identity management at Unisys and vice-chairman of the IAAC.
The Home Office review is expected to reduce project risk by rolling it out incrementally and putting only a minimum amount of biometric information on the ID card.
"It might be that we change the order of what we do. For example, we could do UK nationals first or foreign nationals first," Seed said. "We have learned from other projects that if you do things incrementally they work better."
Seed said the biometric details stored on the card might be limited to a digital photo, or a digital photo with two fingerprint records, so the card could be used like a passport. No final decision has been taken.
"We are trying to make it as simple as possible, so there is as little information on the card as possible," Seed said.
The central biometric database will continue to hold the full range of biometric data, including iris scans and 10 fingerprints.
Pauline Neville-Jones, chair of the IAAC and former chairman of the British Joint Intelligence Committee, welcomed the review.
"I think the timetable is, frankly, less important than getting it right," she said. "This is absolutely fundamental because it relates very directly to trust in government."
Fisher said that suppliers expected the review to result in the ID card programme being split into a larger number of smaller projects but said the overall target for project implementation could still be met.
How the scheme would operate
The first detailed specifications of the government's identity cards project were made public last week.
The central population register will need to operate 24x7, have a response rate of 15 seconds for verifying identities, and a failure recovery time of one hour. The register will be backed up in at least one datacentre.
The Home Office is in negotiations with banks about making the cards compatible with chip and Pin systems, which would allow the public to use ID cards with a Pin to prove identity where biometric checks were not necessary.
Vote for your IT greats
Who have been the most influential people in IT in the past 40 years? The greatest organisations? The best hardware and software technologies? As part of Computer Weekly’s 40th anniversary celebrations, we are asking our readers who and what has really made a difference?
Vote now at: www.computerweekly.com/ITgreats