1990s >> 1995 >> no-1085-january-1995

ID Cards and Social Control

Britain first had identity cards in September 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War. They were subsequently abolished in 1952, seven years after the war ended.

The official reason for their use after the war was for the easier running of the ration system and the NHS. The same personal number being used for both. Cards also had to be produced at the Post Office for certain transactions.

According to Personal Identity by C. H. Rolph:

“The police, who had by now got used to the exhilarating new belief that they could get anyone’s name and address for the asking, went on calling for their production with increasing frequency. If you picked up a fountain pen in the street and handed it to a constable, he would ask to see your identity card in order that he might record your name as that of an honest citizen. You seldom carried it, and this meant he had to give a little pencilled slip requiring you to produce it at a police station within two days.
“The system was finally abolished in 1952 after the test case of Wilcock v. Muckle (1951 49 LGR 584). This arose from the refusal of a motorist either to show his identity card to a policeman or to accept the note requiring its later production at a police station in the next two days.”

The High Court accepted that the constable was within the law, but Lord Chief Justice Goddard remarked:

“Because the police may have powers, it does not follow that they ought to exercise them on all occasions. It is obvious that the police now, as a matter of routine, demand the production of national registration cards whenever they stop and interrogate a motorist for whatever cause. Such action tends to make people resentful of the acts of the police instead of assisting them.”

The powers which were available then are very similar to the ones now being asked for by some MPs and police.

Identity cards are about social control. The experience of some European countries points to the danger of minorities and dissident groups being harassed by the police. The use of card checks to identify anti-government demonstrators means that such people can be monitored and discriminated against in various ways. There is also evidence that in Britain certain groups are subject to “Stop and Search” procedures.

In this computer age the dangers are self-evident. How much information will be stored on this card? How many people will have access to it? You will never know.

The argument is that identity cards will be effective against crime. This has not been proven. The professional criminal will always find a way round it. Dr Michael Levi, Director of Criminological Studies at the University of Wales and an expert on fraud, speaking to an audience composed of police, civil liberties groups, building societies and bankers, twenty-four hours after the Home Secretary announced at this year’s Tory Party Conference a further step towards the introduction of identity cards said that “in ordinary policing terms, the value of ID cards is hard to discern”. He went on:

“While an ID card would have a modest effect in helping to stop some types of fraud, whether even at a pragmatic rather then a rights-based level their benefits outweigh the cost to civil liberties is an open question.”

The government is testing the water at the moment to see what public reaction

there is.
Gerry Geraghty