Page last updated at 10:12 GMT, Thursday, 2 July 2009 11:12 UK

Q&A: Identity cards

Home Secretary Alan Johnson has said identity cards will not be compulsory for UK citizens. Here's a guide to what it means for the multi-billion pound identity scheme.

What did Mr Johnson actually say?

He says he wants ID cards to be voluntary for British citizens. The government had originally wanted them to be compulsory - and planned to use hundreds of thousands of airport workers and pilots as guinea pigs for such a scheme. This was scaled back to workers at Manchester and London City airports - but even that has now been scrapped following a campaign by trade unions. Now the only people who will be forced to have ID cards are foreign national workers - so far 50,000 have them.

Does this mean ID cards have been scrapped?


But if they are not going to be compulsory, what is the point of them?

That's what a lot of ID industry experts and former enthusiasts for the scheme are saying - but critics say the cards themselves are almost irrelevant. Alan Johnson is still pressing ahead with the main elements of the ID card scheme. From 2011, British citizens aged 16 over who apply for a passport will automatically be registered on the national identity database.

Why has Mr Johnson made this announcement now?

In the short term, the government wants to avoid a damaging row - and possible strike action - from airside workers who resented being made to have ID cards. In the longer term, they want to neutralise a potentially difficult general election issue. The cards was never going to be made compulsory without a vote in Parliament - so Mr Johnson's announcement does not represent a major shift in policy. But he will be hoping headlines about the death of ID cards will help blunt Tory and Lib Dem attacks.

Why not just scrap the scheme altogether?

Critics say the government wants to avoid what would be presented as a humiliating U-turn. But ID cards remain a central part of the government's plans to tighten up Britain's border controls and clamp down on illegal working. The government says the police and security services also want the cards - although opinion is split on how effective they would be at combating crime and terrorism. Mr Johnson has admitted it was a mistake to sell ID cards to the public as a "panacea" for combating terrorism.

But wouldn't scrapping ID cards save a lot of money?

Not necessarily. Mr Johnson has said scrapping ID cards now would save "diddly squat", as the cards themselves were going to be self-financing by the charges people would have to pay for them. The bulk of the cost of the scheme will still be spent in setting up the identity register and biometric passports. The scheme is usually said to cost £5bn, although the London School of Economics has said the true cost will be between £10bn and £20bn. Either way, much of the money has already been spent or committed. The Tories say they are not "assuming vast savings" from scrapping it - somewhere between £1bn and £2bn, as they would not scrap biometric passports or the database. That's a substantial sum but only a fraction of Britain's £750bn national debt.

Is there any evidence people want ID cards?

So far just 3,500 people have registered an interest in having an ID card in the Greater Manchester trial area but the government hopes many more will join them. It has appointed an advertising agency to run a campaign stressing the benefits of ID cards. It is also speeding-up plans to offer cards to people in London, which it says will happen next year.

But who would voluntarily pay for an ID card if they don't have to have one?

About 80% of the UK population have passports, so the Identity and Passport Service is confident of a high voluntary uptake of ID cards. The government is also pinning its hopes on "early adopters". Mr Johnson hopes that by stressing the convenience of ID cards - how they would replace all the existing forms of ID currently cluttering up people's wallets - that they will become desirable items. He is considering a discount for the over-75s to encourage take-up. Banks will also try to sign up young people when they open up their first bank accounts.

Is there a chance that they could be made compulsory in the future?

Former home secretary Charles Clarke, who pushed the ID cards Bill through Parliament, said they could be made compulsory once around 80% of the population was covered. Alan Johnson has rowed back from this, insisting he wants it to be voluntary. Campaigners are still pressing the government for a guarantee that it will never be made compulsory.

What is the timetable for introducing ID cards?

Everyone over the age of 16 applying for a passport will have their details - including fingerprints and facial scans - added to a National Identity register from 2011/12. The first identity cards have already been issued to non-EU foreign nationals coming to work in the UK. Later this year airside workers at London City and Manchester airports will be able to apply for ID cards. There will also be a voluntary pilot scheme in the Greater Manchester area. From 2010 young people will be encouraged to get ID cards when they open bank accounts and there will be a voluntary scheme in London. From 2011/12 the Identity and Passport Service hopes to issue "significant volumes" of ID cards alongside British passports - but people will be able to opt out of having a card if they don't want one.

How can I get an ID card?

People who want an ID card can register their interest now on the Directgov website. They will be told later in the year how to get their card, which will probably involve a visit to a passport office to be interviewed and have their fingerprints and photo taken. After two years the plan is that you will be able to register at post offices and some High Street chains, which will be equipped to take biometric information.

How much will they cost?

The cost of the cards themselves has been capped for two years at £30. It will eventually be up to retailers how much they charge to do enrol people on the database, but it is estimated it will be about £30 on top of the £30 for the card.

Where will you have to show your ID card?

The Home Office says there will be no requirement to show an ID card anywhere and all officials will have to accept other forms of ID too. The police, immigration officers, job centre and other public service staff will all eventually be issued with scanners enabling them to check a person's identity, but there is currently no timetable for this to happen. You will also be able to use ID cards in shops, banks, pubs and other businesses but there are as yet no plans to issue them with scanners either. Staff will have to rely on visual checks.

What if staff or officials suspect someone is using a fake ID?

If they have suspicions about a person's ID they will be able to call a special phone line. Opponents say the lack of widespread biometric scanners will lead to a black market in fake ID cards but the Home Office insists anti-fraud measures will be built into the cards.

How have the plans changed?

Under the original plans the first British citizens would have been issued with ID cards in 2008, with the widespread roll-out taking place in 2010. Plans to take iris scans of passport applicants have also been ditched. And plans for enrolment centres have been scrapped, with retailers such as Boots and the Post Office to be given the job of taking fingerprints and signing people up. Ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair had suggested plans to make it compulsory to have - rather than to carry - and ID card was going to form a major part of the next Labour election manifesto.

Why have the plans changed?

The Home Office is under pressure to cut costs. Public support for the scheme has also been hit by a series of data loss scandals, although the government claims the majority of people are still in favour of it.

What information will be on the cards?

The card will contain basic identification information including a photograph of the card holder, along with their name, gender and date of birth. A microchip will link to a biometric database holding a person's fingerprints and address.

Are the details stored centrally too?

No. Plans for a single database holding the personal information of all those issued with a card have been scrapped due to cost and data security concerns. Instead, information will be held on three existing, separate government databases. The whole scheme will be overseen by a new independent watchdog.

What won't be stored?

The government has sought to allay some fears about ID cards by saying they will not store details about someone's race, religion, sexuality, health, criminal record or political beliefs. According to the Home Office, the data stored will be the same as is currently held on passport records.

What about foreign nationals wanting to enter the UK?

They will have to apply for "biometric residence permits" or "biometric visas" and their details will be entered into the national identity database. The government also wants all foreign nationals living in the UK to have identity cards and will make anyone applying to extend their stay register biometric details. The aim is that 90% of foreign nationals in the UK will have ID cards by 2015.

Who is against ID cards?

The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have both said they would scrap the scheme if they came to power. The Tories have written to firms warning them not to sign long-term contracts for ID card work. Most other political parties in the UK, including the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Green Party and UKIP, are also against ID cards and there is a grassroots campaign against them, through groups such as NO2ID.

What are their objections?

Critics say identity cards interfere with civil liberties, are too expensive and will do little to tackle problems like terrorism and illegal immigration. There are also fears the cards will antagonise ethnic minority communities targeted by police stop and search operations. They are not happy that the only people forced to have cards will be foreign nationals. Some critics also claim the scheme will not work and that the cards will be too easily faked - something denied by the Home Office.

Do other countries have ID cards?

Several countries in 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. Neither has the US, but it does intend to make visitors have cards to cover their visas.

Why did Britain get rid of ID cards after World War II?

During the WWII the National Register of ID cards 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 were not 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. The National Register became the NHS register, which is still in use today.

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