Identity Cards

What are identity cards?

The UK has traditionally not had a system of identity cards during peacetime, with the idea of officials asking for citizens’ papers long seen as something highly alien to Britain.

Identity cards are used for a variety of purposes, but the basic principle underlying them all is that the bearer of the card is responsible for proving that the bearer is who he or she says they are, in order to be allowed to do or receive something.

The growing use of IT in the provision of public services has resulted in vast amounts of data about individuals being retained by the state and its arms, and by the same token has led to the growth of ‘identity fraud’.

‘Identity fraud’ is a generic term describing one person impersonating another in order to obtain some benefit that they are not entitled to, such as social security payments, admission to the country or access to property.

Identity cards have been held up as the answer to identity fraud.


The last time the UK issued compulsory ID cards to citizens was during the second world war, when national registration identity cards were distributed along with ration books. Everyone aged over 16 had to carry their card at all times – failure to do so was a criminal offence. Children’s cards had to be kept by their parents or guardians.

It was promised at the time that the scheme would be abolished after the war, but in fact it continued until 1952. The scheme was very unpopular with the public, and was regarded as an alien imposition on the British way of life.

Despite the long-standing opposition of the Labour party to identity cards on civil liberties grounds, the government introduced plans in a 2003 white paper for a voluntary scheme, to be succeeded by a compulsory scheme “if the conditions were right”.

A draft bill to this effect was introduced in April 2004. It proposed the voluntary scheme be rolled out in 2007-08 and gradually be expanded to cover 80 per cent of the adult population within five years. The bill was not passed by the time the general election was called in 2005, so it had to be introduced again that autumn.

After months of wrangling, with parts of the legislation going between the House of Commons and the House of Lords several times as they sought to reach agreement, the identity cards bill finally received royal assent in March 2006.

On 25th September 2008 the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, unveiled the first UK identity card, reopening the debate about their necessity.

The plastic wallet cards showed the holder’s photograph, name, date of birth, nationality and immigration status. A secure electronic chip held their biometric details, including fingerprints, and a digital facial image.

However, following the 2010 General Election, the new Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government announced that ID cards would be scrapped. The Identity Documents Bill was subsequently introduced to parliament on 26th May 2010 and provided for the cancellation of all UK ID cards and also for the destruction of the National Identity Register. The Bill received Royal Assent in December 2010.


The controversy about identity cards derives from concern about eroding civil liberties, surveillance of the public by the authorities and a general shift in the balance of power between the state and the individual, who is presumed not to be who they say they are unless they can prove otherwise.

The government put forward a wide range of arguments in favour of identity cards, including the need to combat illegal immigration, benefit fraud and identity fraud, and tackle terrorism.

ID cards would enable employers to avoid breaking the law by hiring staff who are not permitted to work in the UK, supporters argued, while it is widely acknowledged that identity fraud is a serious and growing problem. The Home Office put the cost of fraud at £1.7 billion per year in 2005, most of which was passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices for financial products.

Greater global mobility, brought about by the end of the Cold War and cheaper international travel, has made borders more porous, and EU enlargement has increased this still further. The Home Office argued that an identity card was an important sign of a person’s entitlement to live, work and receive benefits in the UK. It also argued that false documents were widely used by terrorists, and facilitated organised crime.

But in the wake of the London bombings of July 2005, home secretary Charles Clarke admitted ID cards would not have stopped the bombers. A report from the London School of Economics (LSE) suggesting the scheme could cost up to £300 per person also raised major concerns. However, the government stood by its estimate of £30 for a stand-alone card, or £93 for an ID card combined with a new biometric passport.

There were also concerns about the range of agencies permitted to access the national ID cards register, and the government’s ability to manage such a large IT project. Ministers insisted such a database would have to be created as biometric passports were rolled out, but said the identity cards bill would ensure the details were properly protected.

And although the government maintained the identity cards bill would introduce a voluntary ID scheme, it would make everyone applying for a passport after 2007 also apply for a card. Opposition parties said this was “compulsion by stealth” and contrary to Labour’s election manifesto. After months of parliamentary wrangling, the government agreed that people applying for a passport before January 1st 2010 would not be automatically enrolled in the ID card scheme, although their details would be entered on the national register.

Following the announcement by the new Coalition government in May 2010 that ID cards would be abolished, Home Secretary Theresa May said this was “a first step of many that this government is taking to reduce the control of the state over decent, law-abiding people and hand power back to them.”


Cancelling identity cards will save the taxpayer around £86m over the next four years once one-off costs like decommissioning costs, contract termination and asset write-offs are taken into account.

It will also save ongoing operation costs, creating a gross saving of more than £800m over ten years, which would be funded through income from fees.

The new Identity Documents Bill is designed to ensure the identity card scheme can be cancelled and decommissioned by the summer of 2010.

Cards would become invalid within one month of the Identity Documents Bill receiving Royal Assent.

Source: Home Office – May 2010


“The wasteful, bureaucratic and intrusive ID card scheme represents everything that has been wrong with government in recent years. By taking swift action to scrap it, we are making it clear that this government won’t sacrifice people’s liberty for the sake of Ministers’ pet projects.

“Cancelling the scheme and abolishing the National Identity Register is a major step in dismantling the surveillance state.”

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg – May 2010

“The government is moving quickly to end the ID scheme. NO2ID applauds this, but we’ll be watching like hawks to see the job’s done properly….Scrapping the ID scheme was always going to be complicated – not least because the Home Office has been planning its survival strategy for years.”

Phil Booth, National Coordinator of NO2ID.

“With swift Parliamentary approval, we aim to consign identity cards and the intrusive ID card scheme to history within 100 days.”

Home Secretary Theresa May – May 2010