The UK is delaying the start of the procurement process for the IT systems that will eventually issue ID cards for an estimated 50 million citizens over the next decade.

A "major" procurement process was set to begin, but "we're not quite ready yet," said James Hall, chief executive of the Identity and Passport Service, which is in charge of the ID card project. Hall spoke Monday at the Gartner identity management conference in London. Hall did not say when procurement would start.

The delay confirms doubts that surfaced about a year ago about whether the ID card project could be kept on the government's schedule. A leaked memo released about year ago written by an official in Prime Minister's Tony Blair government outlined ongoing worries about whether the first ID cards could be delivered by 2008, in keeping with the government's schedule. The memo cited concerns over procurement, costs and programme management.

The UK government has several large IT projects under way, including a massive IT revamp of its National Health Service (NHS), which has also fallen under criticism for delays and difficulties with suppliers. The ID card programme will cost an estimated £5.4 billion, according to the Home Office.

Once the ID card project is under way, the UK government will issue cards to citizens as they apply for a new passport. The ID card programme met wide opposition over privacy concerns, but the government hopes the cards will enhance national security, reduce benefits fraud and strengthen immigration controls. The cards will be issued to those over 16 years old.

Hall said it's hoped that businesses will embrace the national ID card as a form of identity, as long as it meets its goals of security and privacy. Hall, a 30-year veteran of Accenture, admitted he was initially a "sceptic" of the ID project at first, but now is a "passionate believer."

"If we get this right, we can actually deliver some huge benefits," Hall said.