Leaked emails printed in a national newspaper yesterday suggest that government officials doubt whether a national ID card scheme will be ready by 2008.

The leaked correspondence, published in The Sunday Times, said that if the government proceeds too quickly with an initial scaled-down version of the program as supported by Prime Minister Tony Blair, it could delay ID cards "for a generation".

"I conclude that we are setting ourselves up to fail," wrote David Foord, identified as the ID card project director at the Office of Government Commerce, which oversees the project for the treasury.

The email, from early June, was leaked, an official with the Home Office said today. The official had no further comment.

Parliament approved the ID card plan in March. Blair has pushed the program despite a backlash over privacy concerns, saying the cards will increase national security, reduce benefit fraud and strengthen immigration controls.

The plan calls for a National Identity Register, which will hold the details of some 50 million people. Citizens will get an ID card when they renew their passport, although a political compromise reached to pass the legislation means citizens can opt out of receiving the card until 2010.

The Home Office has estimated the program will cost £584m per year, with citizens paying about £93 for an ID card and a biometric passport. However, the London School of Economics has said the cost could be double government figures.

The government has come under frequent fire for its track record with other large-scale IT projects. The NHS is modernising its IT systems but wrangled with suppliers over missed deadlines and budget overruns.

Foord wrote that his conversations with stakeholders in the ID card plan have raised concerns over procurement, costs and programme management. "This has all of the inauspicious signs of a project continuing to be driven by an arbitrary end date rather than reality," he wrote.

Another email showed manoeuvring in case ID cards are cancelled. Peter Smith, acting commercial director at the IPS (Identity and Passport Service), wrote that upcoming contracts should help IPS irrespective of where ID cards stand.

"We are designing the strategy so that they are all sensible and viable contracts in their own right even if the ID card gets canned completely," Smith wrote.

An activist group aligned against ID cards, No2ID, said the email shows government knew the plan was unworkable but proceeded regardless to fit Blair's political agenda. No2ID has opposed the holding of personal data in a database.

"The Identity Cards Act is still far too dangerous to leave on the statute books," No2ID said. "Now that the fraud is revealed, it must be repealed."