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The UK’s election may spell out the future of its national ID cards

The UK’s election may spell out the future of its national ID cards

Identity cards are back among the UK’s top controversial topics – thanks to the upcoming elections and its focus on migration.

Last week, British Labor Party politician Lord David Blunkett called for reintroducing national ID cards, arguing that it could be the country’s solution for unchecked immigration and human trafficking.

“Identity cards are a simple, practical and affordable answer, one that would shatter the business model of organized international gangs making billions from human trafficking,” Lord Blunkett wrote in an opinion piece in The Daily Mail.

The call came after authorities announced that a record number of almost 5000 migrants crossed the English Channel in small boats in the first three months of 2024. The “small boat crisis” has shaken up the Tory government ahead of the UK’s local elections in May. But it is far from certain whether this would be enough for the UK’s identity card project to finally come to life.

ID cards are far from a uniting issue across the British political landscape. Lord Blunkett’s argument that migrants would not come to the UK if they were unable to work or claim benefits without an ID card was dispelled by his own party.

“There are already ID requirements for foreign citizens living or working in the UK. But the problem is there are no proper checks or enforcement to prevent illegal working and exploitation,” a Labor Party spokesperson told The Daily Telegraph.

According to some political commentators, the issue could cause a rift within the government during the next general elections, slated to be held no later than January 28, 2025.

The origin of UK’s identity card conundrum

Many of the arguments Lord Blunkett presented are the same as the ones highlighted by the UK government during its first attempt to introduce ID cards in the early 2000s. As home secretary under Prime Minister Tony Blair, Blunkett proposed compulsory IDs as a solution for multiple problems: Illegal migration, benefit fraud, identity theft and the looming threat of terrorism after 9/11.

But despite relative support from the public (a 2004 survey showed 80 percent supported the national ID card scheme), the government failed to convince that ID cards are indeed necessary.

Opponents of the scheme, such as civil rights group Liberty argued that ID cards are a pathway to less privacy and greater surveillance – a notion that was fuelled by the plan to build a biometric database of UK citizens called the National Identification Register (NIR).

The UK government, headed by a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, finally repealed the law governing the ID scheme in 2010 and closed down the biometric database in 2011. The project was dubbed “wasteful, bureaucratic and intrusive.”

The ID cards scheme has remained a topic among politicians over the years, with Labor Party’s shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock arguing in late 2022 that it would assure control over borders. The Tony Blair Institute, which backs digital ID development across the globe, has also expressed support for the project.

The year 2024 sees the same arguments repeating. The latest call to revive ID cards still read as a silver bullet proposal for the complex problem of immigration into the UK.

“If Britain had kept [the experimental ID scheme] and developed it, I believe the small boats scandal might never have happened,” Blunkett says. “If we had maintained and developed it, illegal immigration would be running at a fraction of today’s levels.”

The majority of Brits (54 percent) remain supportive of the idea of making carrying ID cards mandatory, according to a 2023 survey from YouGov. But the criticism has also remained the same. Advocacy group Liberty has continued its campaign.

“National digital ID systems tend to rely on creating huge central databases, meaning all of our interactions with the State and public services can be recorded,” the organization wrote in a response to the government’s digital ID plan in 2020. “This personal data could then be accessed by a range of Government agencies or even private corporations, potentially in combination with other surveillance technologies like facial recognition”

UK’s upcoming election is a test for its ID system

The UK’s next national elections may spell out the future of its national ID card.

After the Conservative government introduced mandatory photo identification for voters for local elections last year, Britain is planning to uphold the same rule for national elections for the first time this year. The decision, however, has already created a backlash, including from London’s mayor Sadiq Khan.

In March, Khan criticized the move ahead of London’s mayoral election in May, arguing that the new ID rules are a deliberate attempt to reduce voter turnout.

Earlier in 2024, the country’s electoral watchdog issued a warning that the tight ID rules risk disenfranchising certain groups, including disabled people, unemployed people and other groups. The introduction of photo IDs for voting has been fueling accusations that the Tory government is trying to exclude voters who are likely to vote against them, including younger people.

These are not the only groups that may be affected. A study surveying 200 trans and non-binary found that 25 percent of respondents are less likely to vote due to voter ID changes. Reasons range from increased costs and bureaucracy to fear of confrontation over IDs at the polling station, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports.

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