Britain’s new government moves to scrap ID cards

Reporting from London —

Britain’s new government announced Thursday that its first major legislation will be a bill to scrap a controversial and costly plan to introduce national identification cards.

“ID cards will be gone in a 100 days,” Home Secretary Theresa May said at a news conference.

May said the government would save more than $1 billion in the next decade by canceling the cards and the corresponding national registry. The cards contain biometric data, photographs and fingerprints.

“But this isn’t just about saving money,” May said, “It’s also about principle.... We did believe there was a liberties argument for not enforcing ID cards on the British people.”

Identity cards were first proposed in 2002 by the then-ruling Labor Party as part of efforts to fight fraud, crime and illegal immigration. The plan drew heavy criticism from civil liberties groups as an intrusion into the privacy of citizens. It also came under fire for its initial costs, which were estimated at more than $6 billion.

After eight years of parliamentary debates, consultations, political arguments and public protests, ID cards became obligatory for foreign nationals in 2008 and optional for British citizens at an individual cost of $45 in November when it was introduced in Manchester.

Both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats opposed the program during the recent election campaign, which saw Labor driven from power after 13 years. Once the parties formed a coalition government May 11, the cards were a natural target for quick legislation.

May said the Identity Documents Bill, which the government aims to pass by August, “is the first step of many that this government is taking to reduce the control of the state over decent, law-abiding people and hand power back to them.”

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats issued a statement supporting the bill: “Cancelling the scheme and abolishing the National Identity Register is a major step in dismantling the surveillance state. But ID cards are just the tip of the iceberg. Today marks the start of a series of radical reforms to restore hard-won British freedoms.”

The coalition also hopes to abolish biometric fingerprint passports, another Labor measure.

May did not reveal the cost of canceling several private sector contracts already negotiated with printing and technology companies such as IBM to make the cards and new passports, but news reports put the tally at about $56 million.

About 15,000 cards have been issued to British citizens. Under the new bill, the cards would no longer be valid documents. Cardholders would not be reimbursed their $45 fee.

Some ID holders said they would mourn the cards’ passing.

John Kirby of Nottingham told the BBC his ID card had been useful in traveling and opening accounts.

“I’m not worried by the civil liberties arguments. I believe the state already has all the same details on me; they’ve got my photograph and the details on my driving license. So the only extra thing I’ve given over is my fingerprints, and that’s fine by me.”

Stobart is a news assistant in The Times’ London Bureau.