Tags: Britain | Tests | Compulsory | National

Britain Tests Compulsory National ID

Wednesday, 06 February 2002 12:00 AM

Government sources told United Press International that Home Secretary David Blunkett wanted a nationwide debate on how far the card would go in carrying bearer information.

A Home Office spokeswoman told United Press International "nothing was laid down at this early stage" of a consultation process that would lead to the introduction of a card, described by Blunkett as a national "entitlement" card enabling the bearer to claim state benefits and almost "free" education and health care.

Officials declined to be drawn into the format and content of the card, but industry sources and civil rights campaigners told UPI the card would certainly be devised as a "smart" card and could bear vital information ranging from personal details to health and tax records.

The Home Office said the consultation exercise would propose a compulsory ID card, although people would not have to carry it at all times.

Civil rights campaigners scoffed at the idea. "If you need it for vital state assistance, like health care, then you have to carry it at all times," said Roger Bingham, spokesman for a rights group called Liberty.

According to the Home Office, the ID, the size of a credit card, would be able to store a digital photograph, fingerprints and information such as home address, date of birth, family members and serial numbers.

"We want to do everything we can to tackle identity fraud," the Home Office said. "The black economy is paid for by every taxpayer. This is the difference between a simple ID card which just aims to verify people's identity and an entitlement card which seeks to carry out a broader range of functions."

Analysts said Blunkett's soft approach, designed to deflect criticism, was unlikely to silence civil liberties groups, which went on the offensive hours after the minister announced plans in parliament Tuesday for an "entitlement" card.

Mark Littlewood, a director at Liberty, called the card unnecessary and ill-judged.

"Not only would such a scheme be prohibitively expensive, but it would pose a real threat to civil liberties," he said in statement. "People already have countless ways to prove their identity, whether they are using private or public services."

Charter 88, another civil rights group, said the card would damage relations between the police and the public.

Milena Buyum, coordinator of National Assembly Against Racism, said the card could lead to increased discrimination against ethnic minorities. "It's a very opportunistic way of introducing a radical change in British society," she said.

Asked about those criticisms, the Home Office spokeswoman said that "there are many arguments, both practical and philosophical, for and against the entitlement card scheme." She said the government would "weigh up" all issues.

Asked if anti-terrorist measures adopted after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States had influenced government moves in favor of the card, the spokeswoman admitted the scheme had to be viewed in the wider context of British citizenship.

The terrorist attacks and the discovery of several Britons' involvement with the al-Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan triggered a debate in Britain, amid calls for the trial of British Muslim suspects as traitors to their country.

Added to the furor over citizenship has been a constant flow of asylum seekers from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia through the English Channel link with mainland Europe. Despite a widespread police crackdown on illegal aliens, tens of thousands of foreigners are believed to be working illegally in Britain, and many claim state benefits at the same time.

Asked about criticism that the introduction of the card could cost 2.5 billion ponds at the start and about 1.45 billion pounds a year to operate, the spokeswoman said the government would seek to balance the costs against the benefits.

Liberty's Roger Bingham told UPI the campaigners hoped that the consultation would not lead to the introduction of a card as "the potential costs and dangers far outweigh the benefits."

He said the government would need to guarantee that a central computer bearing all kinds of information about each individual would be protected against abuse.

A former Home Office minister, Mike O'Brien, said introducing the cards could cost 2.5 billion pounds and a further 1.45 billion a year. He predicted a "constant technological battle with the forgers."

"If the criminals got ahead of the technology the government would have to renew 59 million cards. For the cost of 1 billion pounds you could put thousands of police officers on the beat."

Britain's last compulsory ID card was scrapped in 1952 by former Prime Minister Winston Churchill because it was found to be ineffective and damaging to the relationship between the police and the public.

A return to ID cards was first proposed by former Conservative Prime Minister John Major in 1993 but failed to take off because of deep divisions in his Cabinet.

However, last month, the government introduced a "smart" identity card for foreigners who seek asylum in Britain despite criticism that the card could be used for controversial control mechanisms.

The Home Office said the smart card for asylum seekers and a national ID card were two separate issues.

Copyright 2002 by United Press International.

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Government sources told United Press International that Home Secretary David Blunkett wanted a nationwide debate on how far the card would go in carrying bearer information. A Home Office spokeswoman told United Press International nothing was laid down at this early...
Wednesday, 06 February 2002 12:00 AM
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