In May 2010 it was announced that the plan to introduce compulsory ID cards for everyone in the UK was to be abandoned. The introduction of a new wave of biometric passports was also put on hold.
Managing the UK’s Borders Without Identity Cards
Whilst budgetary savings may have contributed to the decision, many people in the UK will have been happy to see compulsory ID cards removed from the political agenda. However, the need to strengthen and secure the UK’s borders continues to be a prime concern at a time when the threat posed by international crime and terrorism remains. In addition, the coalition government has made controlling the level of immigration into the UK one of its headline policies. A comprehensive and sophisticated system for checking those entering and leaving the UK is a vital tool in achieving both of these aims.
The Immigration and Asylum Biometric System
In September 2010 the UK’s immigration minister, Damian Green, announced that the UK Border Agency had negotiated a contract for the provision of a new immigration system – the Immigration and Asylum Biometric System. This new contract is claimed to represent a £50 million saving on the plans previously in place whilst also marking a new era for technology-based immigration control in the UK. Originally, the new system would have included the provision of ID cards for all UK nationals but as these will no longer be required the Immigration and Asylum Biometric System will be cheaper to implement.
It is anticipated that the Immigration and Asylum Biometric System will be in place by the end of 2011. The System is expected to enhance the ability of the UK’s immigration authorities to use biometric information to monitor and control people of all nationalities who cross the UK’s borders. The new system is due to introduce the use of biometric visas and residence permits. The intention is that it will be harder for those who have previously been deported from, or refused entry to, the UK to re-enter the country. The Immigration and Asylum Biometric System should also make it easier to identify people who are wanted for a criminal offence or who pose a threat to the UK’s security.
A National Identity Database
The new Immigration and Asylum Biometric System would be central to any type of identity database in the UK. The creation in the UK of such a database was one of the main, stated, aims of a system of compulsory ID cards. The information provided by an individual when applying for their ID card would have been stored on a national database. The database could subsequently have been used by authorised organisations to verify that individual’s identity. The database could also have been used by the authorities to help combat identity fraud, breaches of immigration laws, terrorist threats and other unlawful activity.
The official line was that having such a database would benefit everyone as it would make it much easier for ordinary citizens to complete many types of application. Rather than an applicant having to provide various documents – such as passports, birth certificates and utility bills – to prove they were who they said they were, a simple check of the database could be made in order to conclusively verify their identity. Inevitably, critics of the proposed scheme argued that it represented a massive assault on civil liberties. Unused to the concept of compulsory identification cards, the UK’s population remained largely resistant to the idea. By abolishing the introduction of ID cards the Conservative-led coalition government managed to both strike a populist note and save money.
The increased use of biometric information to protect the UK’s borders is part of the ongoing programme of redevelopment of the country’s immigration system. It may be possible to compile a partial database by collecting biometric information from people entering or leaving the UK. This could enable the immigration authorities to quickly and easily identify individuals crossing the UK’s borders. However, in the absence of compulsory ID cards, it is likely that any database will be less than comprehensive.