Have the UK's ID cards really played their last hand?

The ID card scheme has officially ended. Celebrations are in order, but we mustn't get complacent. A brief glance at the long history of the 'National Identity Scheme' shows that this is a modern-day monster that refuses to die.
Andrew Watson
11 February 2011

Our NO2ID group in Cambridge is holding a party today to celebrate the abolition of the ID card scheme, which officially ended on Friday January 21 with the cancellation of the few cards ever issued. But is it too early to break out the bubbly? Have we really driven a stake through the heart of the 'National Identity Scheme', or will it come back to haunt us again?

If the scheme had developed as originally envisaged in 2005, the minutiae of everyone’s daily lives would have been monitored, and to some extent controlled, by a computer within a single government department. How did we come so dangerously close to this Orwellianstate of affairs?

An ID card scheme, accompanied by an authoritative, continuously-updated record of every adult’s personal data, has long been a Home Office objective. The scheme now being abolished was actually the third attempt in modern times to create one. The first was hurriedly introduced during the First World War to enable conscription into the factories and armed forces. It rapidly fell into disuse and when finally withdrawn in 1919, one of its authors wrote that he was ‘ashamed of the whole business, which for futility and ineptitude has been hard to beat - even in this war’.

The second attempt was more carefully planned during the 1930s, as war again loomed. This time officials ensured that ID card holders would maintain their registration by linking it to food rationing, making a card literally a ‘licence to live’. Officialdom quickly found new uses for the ID card register, held at a requisitioned hotel in Southport, and by 1950 it had 39 separate functions. ID cards were routinely demanded in everyday life to allow the holder’s actions to be recorded. However, what had seemed a necessary imposition during the war became the object of growing resentment after it ended, and the system was abolished within months of Winston Churchill’s 1951 General Election victory, won on a campaign promise to ‘set the people free’.

Once again, Whitehall did not forget Identity Cards, and repeatedly tried to persuade politicians to reintroduce them. In 1974 Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins rejected them as a response to IRA terrorism. In 1995 the Home Office convinced his Conservative successor Michael Howard to propose a new compulsory ID card scheme based on driving licences, but it was vetod by his cabinet colleagues. Peter Lilley, a minister from 1990-97, noted that that ID cards had been ‘hawked round Whitehall for decades’ but were in fact a ‘solution looking for a problem’.

David Blunkett, recently appointed Home Secretary in 2002, proved more suggestible and announced plans for a National Identity Scheme (NIS) to create a ‘new, clean database’ of the whole population. Because of the timing, this was widely assumed to be a response to the September 2001 terrorist attacks, but in fact the ‘consultation’ used to announce the scheme did not justify it in these terms; officials were merely using the climate of fear in the attacks’ aftermath to get voters to accept the otherwise-unacceptable.

The Home Office's ambition was quite simply to recreate the authoritarian wartime ‘licence to live’, with ID cards to be shown and database records accessed whenever officialdom demanded. In a Parliamentary written answer in 2005 junior Home Office minister Andy Burnham, anticipated that ‘individuals [will] routinely present their ID cards in order to receive education, benefits and non-emergency health care or to gain legal employment’. In 2007 Liam Byrne, then immigration minister, predicted that the National Identity Scheme ‘will soon become part of the fabric of British life’.

Modern technology would have made these cards much more intrusive than the 1940s scheme - instead of officials having to telephone or write to Southport to check identity records, cards could instead be put into an electronic reader, allowing the Home Office computer to authorise or reject the requested transaction in a matter of seconds. An official web site gave examples of how requests to collect a parcel at the post office or transfer one's own money between bank accounts would be checked online, and possibly refused, on the spot. Records of every transaction would be stored on the database, and linked to the holder, possibly for life. Plans to make the cards compatible with credit card readers would have allowed millions of daily purchases to be recorded in ID card holders' electronic dossiers.

The legislation was resisted fiercely in many quarters. A detailed 318-page assessment of the scheme, written by over 60 experts and published by the London School of Economics concluded that ‘The risk of failure in the current proposals is ... magnified to the point where the scheme should be regarded as a potential danger to the public interest and to the legal rights of individuals’. Organisations as diverse as the Law Society, Liberty and the Church of Scotland voiced their opposition. An entirely new grass-roots civil liberties campaign, NO2ID, sprang up to combat "ID cards and the Database State". Whitehall's own Information Commissioner warned that we were ‘in danger of sleepwalking into a surveillance society’.

However, this resistance counted for little in the House of Commons, where the Labour payroll vote nodded through wide-ranging enabling legislation. Anyone renewing a passport was to be forced to accept an ID card and lifelong registration on its database. The House of Lords rejected the legislation a record five times in just a few weeks, but their Lordships were eventually brow-beaten into accepting it with a few face-saving amendments. The Home Office triumphantly announced plans to start issuing ID cards with passports by 2008.  It didn't work out like that. A plethora of ministerial speeches and newspaper articles failed to win over the public. On a BBC1 chat show, Joanna Lumley earned enthusiastic applause when she announced, ‘Prepare my cell ... I shall not have an Identity Card’; Shirley Williams also said she would rather go to prison than have one.

However, it was government departments themselves that were to do most to wreck the plans. In 2007, civil servants at HM Revenue and Customs lost the entire database of child benefit claimants as it was being transferred between departments, putting at risk the personal and bank account details of every family in the country. A stream of other revelations about government data losses followed, bringing the risks of large databases of personal information to wide attention. At the Home Office, tens of millions of pounds spent on designing the scheme’s single gigantic new database, which would have been one of the largest and most complex in the world, yielded no results after two years’ work - although we don't know exactly what happened, since the department is still fighting tooth and nail to conceal the evidence of its own failure.

A second plan to re-use an existing government database also collapsed after a further two years and huge expenditure, which peaked at £230,000 per day. By late 2009 the department was back to square one, with no idea how to implement its long-cherished database. The election in 2010 produced the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government, which delivered on the promises made by both parties in opposition to cancel the scheme.

So is the danger now past? Not completely. Even as it cancelled ID cards for the population as a whole, the coalition kept the previous government's system of biometric residence permits for long-term visitors from outside the EU. Labour Ministers had called them ‘ID cards for foreigners’, and there’s more than a grain of truth in this. Not only do the new permits look like ID cards, but more importantly they're linked to a database of fingerprint biometrics and other personal details. The Home Office now has the opportunity to spend a few years developing this small ID card system, experimenting on a limited number of guinea-pigs with no political representation, whilst waiting for the next national crisis and gullible Home Secretary to come along.

We must be on our guard. Like a modern Dracula, the ID card monster refuses to die.

Andrew Watson is the regional co-ordinator of NO2ID for the East of England.

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