British national identity card

From Academic Kids

After many years of discussion through successive governments, in 2003 then British Home Secretary David Blunkett announced that the government intends to introduce a British national identity card linked to a national identity database, the National Identity Register, which will track all residents of the UK throughout their lives. This database is planned to perform a key role in the delivery of Government services over the Internet in the future [1] (

The cards and database will record biometric data, including fingerprints, digitised facial scan & iris scan. It is expected that by 2013 up to 80% of the working population will have some kind of biometric identity document, with the cards becoming compulsory then.

Although the focus of the proposal is on the identity cards themselves, not least in the title of the Bill, it is the National Identity Register database that is the key component. Due to the data stored on the Register, cards will not be essential to establish identity, since all that will be required will be to submit to a biometric scan.


Legislative progress

The Identity Cards Bill was included in the Queen's Speech on November 23, 2004, and introduced to the House of Commons on November 29.

It was first voted on by Members of Parliament following the second reading of the bill on December 20, 2004, where it passed by 385 votes to 93. The bill was opposed by 19 Labour MPs, 10 Conservative MPs, and the Liberal Democrats, while a number of Labour and Conservative members abstained, in defiance of party policies. A separate vote on a proposal to reject the Bill was defeated by 306 votes to 93. Charles Clarke, the new Home Secretary, had earlier rejected calls to postpone the reading of the Bill following his recent appointment.

The third reading of the bill in the Commons was approved on February 11, 2005 by 224 votes to 64; a majority of 160. Although being in favour in principle, the Conservatives officially abstained, but 11 of their MPs joined 19 labour MPs in voting against the Government. The Bill then passed to the House of Lords, however there was insufficient time to debate the matter, and were unable to do a deal with the Conservatives in the short time available in the days before Parliament was dissolved on April 11, following the announcement of the next General Election on May 5, 2005 [2] (,11026,1452940,00.html#article_continue).

2005 general election

Labour's manifesto for the 2005 election stated that, if returned to power, they would introduce ID cards, including biometric data like fingerprints, backed up by a national register and rolling out initially on a voluntary basis as people renew their passports. In contrast, the Liberal Democrat manifesto opposed the idea because ID cards don’t work, while the Conservatives made no mention of the issue.

Following their election victory, the Labour Government introduced a new Identity Cards Bill, substantially the same as the previous Bill, into the Commons on May 25. The Conservatives have now joined the Liberal Democrats in opposing the Bill, saying that it does not pass their 'five tests'. These tests include confidence that the scheme can be made to work, and its impact on civil liberties.

Public reaction

The announcement of the scheme followed a public consultation, particularly among 'stakeholder groups' pdf ( At March 2003 the government stated that the overall results were:

in favour: 2606 responses (61%)
against: 1587 responses (38%)
neutral: 48 responses (1%)

However the government has been criticised for ignoring the overwhelming majority of those replying who stated that they did not want national identity cards. The government claimed that over five thousand negative online responses through a single portal site [3] ( represented one lobby group so treated them as one reply, thus reversing what would otherwise have been recognised as an overwhelming vote against national identity cards.

National opinion polls suggest that the public are generally supportive of the scheme in principle if the Cards are free. However a majority also believe that their data will be illegally disclosed and nearly half are unwilling to pay the initial estimate of the fee: £35. A November 2004 estimate from the Home Office placed the cost of a 10-year passport and ID card package at £85, while after the 2005 General Election in May 2005 they issued a revised figure of over £93 - see the section on costs.

In addition the polls consistently predict that around three million people would refuse any ID Card on principle. The general trend of the polls is that the more detail people are given about the plan the less they support it.

Public opinion on the issue varies considerably across the UK. The 2004 State of the Nation poll [4] ( by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust showed that opinion in Scotland was far less supportive than that in the rest of the UK.

Despite the legislative progress being made and the concerns of the Information Commissioner detailed below, as of February 2005 the kind of public protest that accompanied certain other legislation, such as the 2004 ban on hunting and the Poll tax has been noticably absent, and media coverage has been low key.

Privacy concerns

Privacy campaigners have raised concerns over the uses to which the national database might be put. Intended uses so far discussed by ministers have included countering illegal immigration (for which ethnic minorites will need to be frequently asked to produce their ID) and health tourism where the government hopes to save £50 million a year.

The unique National Identity Numbers would potentially make possible the creation of a massive virtual database including the Police DNA database, GCHQ electronic surveillance database and phone & internet surfing records. Civil servants and foreign secret services would potentially be able to access and search through comprehensive files on every person resident in the UK, including current and previous jobs and addresses, tax and finances, family relationships, health, and religious or political affiliations. With the additional integration of information from CCTV facial recognition systems [5] ( and mobile phone location services, people could potentially even be tracked in real-time.

Information Commissioner

One notable voice raising serious concerns over the Government's plans has been the Government's own Information Commissioner.

In a press release on July 30, 2004 (.doc file) (, Richard Thomas stated that:

I want to make it very clear to the public that this draft Bill is not just about an ID card, but an extensive national identity register and the creation of a national identity registration number. Each of these raise substantial data protection and personal privacy concerns in their own right.
Further clarification is also needed [for] the reasons why such a large amount of information needs to be recorded as part of establishing an individual's identity.
I also have concerns in relation to the wide range of bodies who can view the record of what services individuals have used. This will enable the Government and others to build up a comprehensive picture of how we live our lives. However, individuals will not know which bodies have been accessing their personal information.

The commissioner has also pointed out that those who renew or apply for a driving licence or passport will be automatically added to the National Identity Register, so losing the option of not registering.

In a subsequent interview in The Times newspaper of August 16, 2004 [6] (,,2-1218615_1,00.html), the commissioner also mentioned concerns over the children's database, the Office for National Statistics' Citizen Information Project, and the NHS National Programme for IT project, and stated that My anxiety is that we don't sleepwalk into a surveillance society, and drew a parallel to the way that governments in Eastern Europe and Spain gained too much power and information in the 20th century.

As long ago as February 2003, on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he warned that ID cards could become a target for organised crime to steal identities and access their confidential details, adding that We are dealing with matters touching on the very nature of the society in which we live.

Human Rights

On February 2, 2005, Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights questioned the compatibility of the Bill with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to respect for private life) and Article 14 (the right to non-discrimination) [7] (

Ethnic minorities

The Government's Race Equality Impact Assessment pdf ( indicates that there is significant concern among some ethnic groups over how the Police would use their powers under the act, with 64% of black and 53% of Indian respondents expressing concern, particularly about the potential for abuse and discrimination. In their January 2005 report doc ( on the Bill, the Commission for Racial Equality state that the fear of discrimination is neither misconceived nor exaggerated, and note that this is also an ongoing issue in Germany, the Netherlands and France.

The CRE are also concerned that disproportionate requirement by employers and the authorities for ethnic minorities to identify themselves may create a two tiered structure amongst racial groups, with foreign nationals and British ethnic minorities feeling compelled to register while British white persons do not. They also comment that the impact on those who have been living and working illegally in the UK for many years would entrench an underclass, undermining community cohesion.

According to the CRE, certain groups who move location frequently and who tend to live on low incomes (such as gypsies, travellers, asylum-seekers and refugees) risk of being criminalised under the legislation through failing to update their registration each time they move due to lack of funds to pay the fee that may be charged.

Vulnerable individuals

The CRE have also recommended that more work is required to protect the interests of vulnerable individuals. For example, women escaping a violent partner or a forced marriage may be at risk if their previous names or addresses are disclosed.

Identity theft

Security experts have claimed that placing trust in a single document may make identity theft easier, since only this document needs to be targeted [8] ( Falsely obtaining such a 'secure' identity becomes very valuable because people are less likely to question its validity. This has happened in Australia, where identity theft has risen above British levels since the introduction of a widely used Tax File Number. Identity theft surrounding the Social Security Number is also a major problem in the USA.

Due to the supposed security of the British system, proving that your identity has been stolen could prove problematic. If a person's biometric information is discovered and exploited by an identity thief the subject has little recourse, since such information by definition cannot be changed or reissued.

In order to apply for the new identity cards, existing documents such as passports will be used to prove identity; however, such identification is proficiently forged, allowing identity thieves posing as someone else to apply for cards. While new applications could be made using false documentation, existing cards and database entries would also be targets. Apart from the tampering or superficial forging of biometric identity cards, the database would make an attractive target for computer hackers, and any system involving human operators is liable to social engineering attacks, infiltration or bribery or blackmail of staff.


Elsewhere, doubts remain concerning the practicability of the scheme, relying on unproven technologies such as iris scanning, and even the very best system will be liable to a small error rate. In some cases this error rate can disproportionately affect certain ethnic minorities (eg Afro-Caribbeans, for iris scanning).


By the start of 2005 the expected cost of the scheme had doubled to £5.5 billion in six months [9] ( Estimated running costs were revised upward by the Home Office to £584 million per year after the 2005 General Election, however they refused to give a cost for setting up the scheme as the information was deemed commercially sensitive.

Setting out a detailed case against the ID cards in a report by Peter Lilley MP, the centre-right think tank the Bow Group suggested that the costs could easily double pdf ( In May 2005 a leaked draft report by the London School of Economics [10] ( suggested that the costs might triple to 18 billion pounds, or £300 per registration, and that people may need to be re-scanned every 5 years (rather than every 10 as had previously been expected), as biometric measurements change with age.

A number of other major government IT projects have been expensive failures yet none are as complex as the ID card scheme.


The Bow Group are also of the opinion that ID cards offer a "largely illusory solution"; police have problems proving people guilty, not identifying suspects; terrorists normally conceal their intentions rather than their identities; benefit fraudsters usually misrepresent their circumstances, not who they are; and all illegal immigrants can, and most do, claim asylum whereupon they are already required to have an identity card containing their finger prints and photo.

David Blunkett himself stated that "ID Cards won't stop terrorism". It has often been pointed out that Spanish ID cards did not prevent the Madrid bombings.

Other doubts

Amongst other arguments, opponents of ID cards have compared the scheme with the Nazi database for identifying Jews and their tattooing of prisoners for identification purposes in the Nazi concentration camps [11] (

The scheme

The latest interest in the scheme by David Blunkett followed the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attack on the New York World Trade Center, but was generally opposed by Cabinet colleagues.

As a result of the opposition, by February 2002 the original proposal had been downgraded to an "entitlement card", to be used to obtain social security services. However ongoing discussions led to the inclusion of the original national identity scheme in the November 2003 Queen's Speech, despite doubts over the ability of the scheme to prevent terrorism (Government polling indicated that the term 'entitlement card' was superficially softer and warmer, but less familiar and ‘weasely’, and consequently the euphemism was dropped in favour of identity cards).

According to the government pdf (, the scheme is designed to help deliver the following outcomes:

- less illegal migration and illegal working; and better community relations as a result;
- an enhancement to the UK’s capability to counter terrorism and serious and organised crime;
- reduced identity fraud;
- speedier, more convenient access to public services and services to consumers more widely.

The scheme will apply to all British nationals resident in the UK and to all foreign nationals resident in the country for more than three months.

National Identity Register

Key to the ID Card scheme will be a centralised computer database, the National Identity Register (NIR). To identify someone it will not be necessary to check their card, since identity would be determined by a taking a biometric scan and matching it against a database entry.

According to the published legislation, the database will record the following information for each UK resident:

  • Personal information:
    • full name;
    • other names by which he is or has been known;
    • date of birth;
    • place of birth;
    • gender;
    • principal UK place of residence;
    • every other UK place of residence;
    • past places of UK and overseas residence during a prescribed period.
  • Identifying information:
    • head and shoulder photograph;
    • signature;
    • fingerprints;
    • other biometric information.
  • Residential status:
    • nationality;
    • entitlement to remain in the United Kingdom;
    • the terms and conditions of leave to enter or remain in the UK, if applicable.
  • Personal reference numbers etc:
    • National Identity Registration Number;
    • the number of any ID card issued;
    • any national insurance number;
    • the number of any immigration document;
    • the number of any United Kingdom passport;
    • the number of any non-UK passport;
    • the number of any document that can be used instead of a passport;
    • the number of any overseas identity card;
    • any reference number in connection with an application to enter or to remain in the UK;
    • the number of any work permit;
    • any driving licence number;
    • the number of any other designated document;
    • the date of expiry or period of validity of a document listed above.
  • Record history:
    • previous records of the above information;
    • changes affecting the above information and changes made to the Register entry;
    • date of death.
  • Registration and ID card history:
    • the date of every application for registration;
    • the date of every application for a modification of the registry entry;
    • the date of every application confirming the contents of the registry entry;
    • the reason for any omission from the information recorded;
    • particulars (in addition to its number) of every ID card issued;
    • whether each such card is in force and, if not, why not;
    • particulars of every person who has countersigned an application;
    • particulars of every notification given by him (lost, stolen and damaged cards, etc);
    • particulars of every requirement to surrender an ID card.
  • Validation information:
    • the information provided in connection with every application or modification;
    • the information provided in connection with every registry entry confirmation;
    • the steps taken to identify the applicant or verify the information provided;
    • any other steps or information used to ensure a complete, up-to-date, accurate entry;
    • particulars of every notification given by that individual.
  • Security information:
    • a PIN used in connection with applications or information provision;
    • a password used for the above purpose;
    • questions and answers to be used for security when applying or modifying information.
  • Records of provision of information:
    • particulars of every occasion on which the registry entry has been accessed;
    • particulars of every person to whom such information has been provided;
    • other particulars associated with the registry access.

Many people argue that the NIR is more of a threat to privacy and civil liberties than the ID Cards themselves, not necessarily because of the information held in the database, but because of the potential for a wide range of bodies to cross-reference information on other databases.

Currently, the closest parallel to the National Identity Register is the requirement for convicted offenders to register on the Violent and Sex Offender Register.


Failure to inform the Government of a change of address or other personal details will result in a fine of £1,000, while the fine for refusing to register or failing to submit to scanning will be £2,500.

The Government have decided that civil rather than criminal penalties will apply. This could allow those rich enough to do so - including those supported by criminal organisations - to avoid registration and pay the fines imposed.

Voluntary vs Compulsory

The current proposals are for a two-stage scheme. ID cards will be introduced on a voluntary basis, coming to be compulsory at a later date. Controversially, the move to compulsion does not currently require further primary legislation. That is, a minister will able to impose compulsion using delegated legislation.

However a number of bodies have pointed out that many people will not have this option. While agreeing that the scheme could make a significant contribution to achieving the aims set out for it by the Government [12] (, among their criticisms the Select Committee on Home Affairs pointed out that anyone needing a new passport or driving licence would be automatically added to the National Identity Register, and therefore to describe the first phase of the Government's proposals as 'voluntary' stretches the English language to breaking point [13] (


In January 2004, a six-month trial of the biometric technology began, organised by the United Kingdom Passport Service. It was expected that 10,000 people would be involved in the trials, the cost of which was not disclosed.

Problems with the technology forced the Passport Service to cut the trial down to three months. Opponents to the government's plans criticised this cut as reducing the efficacy of the trial.

The trials indicate that at present no one technology is sufficiently robust to reliably identify people, and that consequently it is likely that fingerprint, iris and facial features will all be measured, although whether this will lead to greater reliability has been questioned [14] (

Universal children's database

Under the provisions of the Children Act 2004, the Government plan to create a Universal Child Database of all children living in the UK. While the aim is to help the authorities to identify and protect children at risk from abuse or neglect, some critics have claimed that it is a proto-national identity database.

Historical British national identity cards

Compulsory identity cards were first issued in the United Kingdom during World War I, and abandoned in 1919.

Cards were re-introduced during World War II under the National Registration Act 1939, but were abandoned seven years after the end of that war in 1952, amid widespread public resentment. Opposition reached its peak with the 1951 court case of Willcock v Muckle, after Clarence Henry Willcock refused to produce his identity card. The judge in the case said that the cards were an "annoyance" and "tended to turn law-abiding subjects into law breakers".

Wartime cards were a temporary measure to combat a obvious threat and didn't collect information on people through a central database.

Comparison with other national identity schemes

If the Identity Cards Bill becomes law, Britain will become the 5th Common law country in the world to accept ID cards in peacetime, along with Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Cyprus.

Elsewhere the Greek Government was prevented from introducing biometric border checks by their Data Protection Authority. Denmark and Switzerland are introducing biometric passports, but no central database. The Philippines and Thailand are planning schemes similar to the British. Australia, New Zealand and Canada have rejected the idea.

See also

External links

News stories


Opposition groups

Alternative solutions


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