UK unveils ID cards for foreign nationals

Britain's Home secretary Jacqui Smith has unveiled ID cards for foreign nationals, drawing criticism from opposition parties and campaigners.
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

The U.K. Home Office unveiled ID cards for foreign nationals on Thursday, attracting protests from opposition parties and campaigners.

The ID cards, which will be compulsory for foreign nationals from outside the European Economic Area, will be phased in from 25 November. Home secretary Jacqui Smith claimed on Thursday that the cards will allow employers to check work entitlement more easily.

"ID cards for foreign nationals will replace old-fashioned paper documents and make it easier for employers and sponsors to check entitlement to work and study, and for the U.K. Border Agency to verify someone's identity," said Smith in a Home Office statement. "This will provide identity protection to the many here legally who contribute to the prosperity of the [United Kingdom], while helping prevent abuse."

The Home Office said that IBM would supply the technology behind the cards, through the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). The DVLA will produce the physical plastic cards, and use its supplier IBM to provide the technology, said a Home Office spokesperson.

Foreign nationals will be forced to enroll on the scheme and use the card, rather than their passport, for identification, while their biometric fingerprint data will be indefinitely held on the U.K. Identity and Passport Service (IPS) database. Employers and sponsors of foreign nationals will be forced to keep records on them, including a copy of the employee's ID card. Businesses found employing workers who do not have valid ID cards will face fines of up to £10,000 (US$18,437) per person.

From 2009, airport workers will be the next segment of the population who will have compulsory ID cards, under current Home Office plans. The government has faced opposition over the proposals from airport workers' professional bodies and trades unions, which have argued that the cards will not improve airport security.

From 2010, students will need to have ID cards for certain purposes, such as getting a student loan, while ID cards for the rest of the population will be phased in from 2011. While ID cards themselves will not be mandatory, any U.K. citizen wishing to renew their passport after this point will have to provide biometrics and have their personal details stored in the proposed National Identity Register.

On Thursday, the major opposition parties called for the scheme to be dropped. Conservative shadow home secretary Dominic Grieve said that it was "high time the government scrapped this ill-fated project".

"The government are kidding themselves if they think ID cards for foreign nationals will protect against illegal immigration or terrorism, since they don't apply to those coming here for less than three months," said Grieve. "ID cards are an expensive white elephant that risks making us less, not more, safe."

While a future Conservative government would support biometric technology in visas and passports, said Grieve, "this should not be used as cover to introduce the identity-card scheme by stealth."

David Davis MP, who resigned in June over "the slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms by this government", told ZDNet Asia's sister site ZDNet UK on Thursday that he personally approved of ID cards for foreign nationals, but not for U.K. citizens.

The Liberal Democrats went further in their criticism, calling ID cards "a grotesque intrusion" on liberty.

"It does not matter how fancy the design of ID cards is, they remain a grotesque intrusion on the liberty of the British people," said Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrats shadow home secretary. "The government is using vulnerable members of our society, like foreign nationals who do not have the vote, as guinea pigs for a deeply unpopular and unworkable policy."

Campaigners against ID cards also lambasted the government, saying it had chosen foreign nationals as a "soft target".

"Here's Brown at the Labor conference saying they want a fairer Britain, and the government is picking on soft targets--people who have no choice but to comply," Phil Booth, national coordinator of No2ID, told ZDNet UK. "They're actually targeting people who are completely justified in being here."

Booth claimed that the government was "grandstanding, with a nod to xenophobia", as the majority of foreign nationals in the United Kingdom would come from inside the European Economic Area. He added that he was concerned about the data handling involved in transferring data internationally, which he claimed would be necessary for the scheme to work.

"If the information is handled as data in government seems to be handled, we are putting people at risk," said Booth.

A Home Office spokesperson said data would be securely transferred across international borders, and that biometric details already on the IPS database have been collected abroad since 2004. Foreign nationals will have to enroll twice: once at posts abroad and then again when they get to the United Kingdom.

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