Page last updated at 13:44 GMT, Tuesday, 24 November 2009

UK national identity register is 'up and running'

The UK National Identity Card
The first identity cards were unveiled earlier this year

The national identity register - the controversial database at the heart of the ID card scheme - is "up and running", a new watchdog has told MPs.

Sir Joseph Pilling said 538 people were on the database when he checked last week; all except one were UK nationals.

Sir Joseph, the government's independent identity commissioner, was speaking to the home affairs committee.

Greater Manchester recently became the first part of the UK where British citizens could apply for ID cards.

Sir Joseph revealed that he was being paid £44,000 for six months as chairman of the new body, a role in which he works three days a week. He has a staff of four and an annual budget of £560,000.

He said he would be reporting directly to Home Secretary Alan Johnson, rather than MPs, and his role was to provide "public information" about the ID card scheme - not to judge whether the scheme itself was a good or bad idea.

Fraud concerns

But he said he had been instructed by Mr Johnson to be as independent as possible.

"If it was a safe pair of hands they were looking for I am probably the wrong person," he told the committee.

He said he would be "consulting widely" on his new role, which the Home Office says is to act on behalf of the public to ensure the information held on the database is accurate and secure.

He said his role was "helping citizens, including their elected representatives, to find out how it is working".

Sir Joseph, the former top civil servant at Northern Ireland Office, said the fact the ID cards contained fingerprints and other security measures meant they would be difficult to forge.

Foreign nationals

But he promised to look into concerns that because the scheme is voluntary - rather than compulsory as originally planned - it would be possible for people to register for ID cards using false identities.

He also revealed he had been overseeing the introduction of the national identity register, telling the MPs that when he checked on Thursday there were 537 British citizens on it and one citizen from an EU country.

There were no details of non-EU foreign nationals on the database, he told the committee.

He told MPs that he had not applied for the new role but had been telephoned at home to be offered it without an interview.

He said he had agreed to do it for an initial period of 18 months, with his future role depending on the outcome of a general election.

Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have said they will scrap the ID card scheme if they win power.

Register worry

British citizens in Greater Manchester can now apply for ID cards, with the scheme set to be introduced in other parts of the north-west of England early next year, prior to national roll-out.

Airside workers at London City and Manchester airports will be able to apply for the cards and they are compulsory for non-EU foreign nationals coming to work in the UK.

From 2011, British citizens aged 16 or over who apply for a passport will automatically be registered on the national identity database, which contains personal details including fingerprints and facial scans.

Home Secretary Alan Johnson has said having an ID card will not be made compulsory in the lifetime of the next Parliament, if Labour wins the election.

But civil liberties campaigner say it is the identity register - rather than the ID cards themselves - that pose the biggest threat to privacy and security of personal information.

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