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Wednesday, 3 July, 2002, 16:31 GMT 17:31 UK
Q&A - Identity cards

As the Home Secretary David Blunkett announces the government's consultation document on "entitlement cards" Peter Gould of BBC News Online explains how the scheme might work.

Wouldn't these just be ID cards by another name?

The card will not be compulsory in the sense that you would not get into trouble for not carrying it.

The police would not be given powers to stop you in the street and demand to see your ID. And you would not be breaking the law if you left your card at home.

But the way the scheme would operate has yet to be decided. Introducing a "universal entitlement card" would require everyone to register although there would be no requirement to carry the card.

Alternatively, the government could make it a voluntary scheme, allowing people to opt-in.

Why is the government so keen on these cards?

The government thinks such a card would be a powerful means of fighting fraud.

It would be a way of checking the entitlement of an individual to receive services and benefits, including welfare payments and treatment under the NHS.

It could also be a means of clamping down on people working illegally, or entering the country illegally.

But banks and high street stores could also start asking to see the cards as a way of checking on customers.

"Identity theft" is one of the fastest growing crimes in the UK, costing 1.3 billion a year.

So these cards could become more widely used as a way of confirming someone's identity.

What information will be on the cards?

A photograph of the card holder, along with their name and address are obviously basic requirements for checking someone's identity.

By including their date of birth, it would also be a proof-of-age card, useful for young people trying to buy a drink in a pub.

But computer technology means that "smart cards" could hold a lot more personal information, particularly your entitlement to a range of welfare benefits.

There would also be the option of combining the card with a person's driving licence and electronic passport.

Local authorities could make use of a card to provide access to their services, and it could also be used as proof of identity for voting.

But couldn't people forge the cards?

As a means of countering fraud, it would be quite possible to incorporate biometric data.

This could be a person's finger prints or an "iris image" the pattern of the human eye that is also unique to each individual.

Such measures might be more controversial. Clearly the government does not want to alienate public opinion - which is why it is holding this consultation process before committing itself to the plan.

Any move towards ID cards is politically sensitive, and civil liberties groups remain suspicious about anything that could lead to a "Big Brother" state prying into the lives of its citizens.

We had ID cards in Britain before, if they are such a good idea, why did we get rid of them?

In the dark days of World War II, the ID card was seen as a way of protecting the nation from Nazi spies. But in 1952, Winston Churchill's government scrapped the cards.

The feeling was that in peacetime they simply weren't needed. In fact they were thought to be hindering the work of the police, because so many people resented being asked to produce a card to prove their identity.

In a country that prides itself on safeguarding the liberty of the individual, there has always been a reluctance to accept ID cards.

Some critics of ID cards fear that if such a scheme is used to counter illegal immigration, it might cause friction among ethnic minorities and set back race relations.

Given these sensitivities, the government wants a clear idea of what the public is prepared to accept, so there will now be a six-month consultation period before any firm proposals are brought before parliament.

Lots of other countries already have ID cards - aren't we out of touch with the rest of the world?

Eleven of the 15 nations of the European Union now have some form of ID card, even if they are not compulsory.

They have become widely accepted by their citizens. In France, for example, about 90% of the population carries one.

But many other countries, like Japan, Australia and New Zealand have not adopted the idea. Even in the United States, after the attacks of September 11, there has been no attempt to persuade people that a national ID card would be a weapon in the "war against terrorism".

The strength of public feeling about privacy and personal liberty remains a deterrent to political leaders. But those who think that Britain should fall into line with Europe argue that we already carry a variety of documents to prove our identity

In Britain, 38 million people have driving licences, and 44 million people (including children) have passports. Most people carry credit cards, and many employees require security passes at work.

If that is the case, they say, why do we get so upset about the idea of ID cards, particularly if one card could perform a variety of these functions?

Not everyone is likely to be convinced, however, which is why the government is treading so carefully.

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