Britain May Require National ID for Passports

Britain's House of Commons has approved legislation that would make citizens present a national identity card in order to obtain a passport. The current measure is a compromise on an earlier version, which would have required a national ID for all British citizens. The bill now goes to the House of Lords.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Americans are not the only ones debating their civil liberties in a time of war. The Parliament in Britain is close to approving a plan to introduce mandatory national identity cards. Yesterday, the House of Commons passed a measure that would require all British citizens who want a passport to get an ID card at the same time. This legislation must now be approved by the House of Lords.

NPR's Rob Gifford is covering this story in London. And Rob, first I have to ask about the debate over this. It's been going on for sometime, and I gather that this is actually a compromise.

ROB GIFFORD reporting:

It is a compromise, Steve. The government had originally wanted everyone, every citizen of the United Kingdom, and anyone who immigrates here to have one of these identity cards. There with so much opposition that they have compromised to make it that anyone who gets a passport needs one. So, if you are not applying for a passport, and if you are not putting in immigration papers of any sort, you will not need to have an ID card, and that was really the price, the compromise that the government had to pay to get this bill through.

INSKEEP: And what's the purpose of the ID card?

GIFFORD: Well, the government says that the ID cards are necessary, of course, in the ongoing war on terrorism. There are big security issues here, as there are in the U.S. But there's also another domestic element to it, which is the case of identity fraud. They've been pushing this quite strongly as well. Millions and millions of pounds are lost to identity fraud, social security benefits, that kind of thing.

And the government is using this sort of dual-prong strategy, these two arguments, to say that Britain will be safer, and money will be safer. The government's money, the social security money will not go to the wrong people if these ID cards are introduced.

INSKEEP: What are civil liberties advocates saying?

GIFFORD: Well, as you can imagine, the civil libertarians have been up in arms. And remember, this is not just a photo ID. This is an ID card that will have the fingerprints and the iris, the eye recognition on this biometric card. So it is a very, very rigorous, very strict ID card that is going to come in.

And the civil libertarians have said it's just too authoritarian. They're talking about the Big Brother state. The Shadow Home Secretary, the Conservative Party, the Opposition Party's Home Affairs Secretary said yesterday in the House of Parliament, that we're sleepwalking towards the surveillance state.

And he said that the ID card database will become the target of every fraudster, terrorist, confidence trickster, and computer hacker on the planet. So, there has been a huge debate, and a lot of people are still very angry.

INSKEEP: Rob, people have sometimes talked about ID cards here in the United States, so I want to understand the practicalities of how it's going to work. Once people who also have passports have these ID cards, when is someone going to ask them to show them?

GIFFORD: Well, one of the times is, obviously, when you claim benefits. The problem, as I mentioned, of false benefit claims, not just by British people, but people from Europe who are coming here to take advantage and further afield of the British benefit system.

But also, just in terms of any situation of security. I think when the police are suspicious about someone's movements, or they feel that there is any danger. This is very much in the light of the bombings last July as well. If there are suspicious circumstances, the police and the government feel this gives better possibilities of knowing exactly who people are, so that they can't give fake identities and commit crimes with impunity.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Rob Gifford in London. Rob, thanks.

GIFFORD: Thanks very much, Steve.

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