Identity cards in the UK - a lesson from history


Aneurin Bevan MP, 1947, from the government benches in the House of Commons:

"I believe that the requirement of an internal passport is more objectionable than an external passport, and that citizens ought to be allowed to move about freely without running the risk of being accosted by a policeman or anyone else, and asked to produce proof of identity"

As the issuing of ID cards to all members of the population, both in the UK and elsewhere, is now high on goverments' agendas it is worth a reminder that the only time the UK has has such a system was during the Second World War (there were ration cards in the First World War).

1939 National Registration Act

It is easily forgotten that the only time Britain had an identity card system was between 1939 and 1952. The compulsory issue of identity cards was part of the terms of the National Registration Act 1939, a piece of wartime emergency legislation that received the Royal Assent on 5 September 1939. The Act set up a National Register, containing details of all citizens. National identity cards were then issued to all civilians on it.

The Register comprised `all persons in the United Kingdom at the appointed time' and `all persons entering or born in the United Kingdom after that time'. A Schedule to the Act listed `matters with respect to which particulars are to be entered in Register'. These were:

1. Names,
2. Sex,
3. Age,
4. Occupation, profession, trade or employment,
5. Residence,
6. Condition as to marriage,
7. Membership of Naval, Military or Air Force Reserves or Auxiliary Forces or of Civil Defence Services or Reserves.

The Register was the responsibility of the Registrar-General, who was answerable to the Minister of Health (in England and Wales) and to the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Northern Ireland. The compilation of the Register data was entrusted to enumerators, similar to Census
enumerators, responsible for collecting the data by area `blocks'. Section 5 of the Act compelled the production of documentary evidence, when required, to prove the accuracy of the individual's replies to the seven questions.

All civilians were issued with identity cards, which contained some or all of the information supplied to the enumerator. Members of the armed forces and merchant sailors were exempted.

Section 6, sub-section 4, of the Act stated:

"A constable in uniform, or any person authorised for the purpose under the said regulations, may require a person who under the regulations is for the time being responsible for the custody of an Identity card, to produce the card to him or, if the person so required fails to produce it when the requirement is made, to produce it within such time, to such person and at such place as may be prescribed"

Offences under the Act included giving false information, impersonation, forgery of an identity card, and unauthorised disclosure of information. For these offences, maximum penalties on summary conviction were a £50 fine and/ or three months in prison, and on conviction on indictment a £100 fine
and/or two years in prison. It was also an offence to fail to comply with any other requirement duly made under the Act, or with any regulation made under it, and the maximum penalty was a £5 fine or one month in prison or both. The Act applied to the whole of the United Kingdom and was to remain in force until a date which `His Majesty may be Order in Council declare to be the date on which the emergency that was the occasion of the passing of this Act came to an end'.

The Wartime Rationale

Three main reasons were put forward by the government for passing the law in September 1939. The first was the major dislocation of the population caused by mobilisation and mass evacuation and also the wartime need for complete manpower control and planning in order to maximise the efficiency of the war economy. It may or may not have been necessary - that is a matter of dispute but it was seen as emergency, temporary legislation to cope with special circumstances.

The second main reason why the Act was passed was the likelihood of rationing. It was felt that the imminence of rationing (introduced from January 1940 onwards) entailed the need for an up-to-date system of standardised registration, so that rationing could be introduced as easily as possible.

The third main reason was that the Government needed recent statistics about the population. As the last census had been held in 1931 and the next was not due until 1941, there was little accurate data on which to base vital planning decisions. The National Register was in fact an instant census. Indeed, the National Registration Act bears a close resemblance to the 1920 Census Act in many respects.

Introducing the new law to Parliament, Health Minister Walter Elliot explained that the whole process of registration would be carried through in about three weeks and that it would form the basis for proper wartime planning.

In short, none of the three major reasons put forward for the 1939 Act could be put forward today as a reason for introducing identity cards. There is no emergency on a remotely comparable scale to that of war; there is no immediate prospect of wholesale rationing; and there is no shortage of detailed census and survey data. Equally it is worth noting that none of the reasons nowadays advanced in favour of the introduction of  identity cards notably the need for control and identification of undesirables - was put forward in 1939.

Lessons of the 1939 Act

The 1939 Act provides three important lessons that could be relevant if another Identity card system is introduced. First, when Parliament is confronted with an emergency that may justify the introduction of identity cards, it virtually abandons its role as the protector of the citizen against the executive and as the scrutineer of legislation.

In September 1939, vital freedoms of the subject were ended, with hardly any debate, in a matter of a few days. Habeas Corpus was suspended, the Government was given power to ban meetings that it felt might cause public disorder or `promote disaffection', and it became an offence to attempt to
influence public opinion `in a manner likely to be prejudicial to the defence of the realm'. Whether or not such changes were necessary, desirable, effective or popular can be a matter of debate. That Parliament completely failed to examine the legislation is not debatable.

The second notable lesson of the 1939 Act, is that it gave enormously wide and general powers to the police and, indeed, to `any person authorised'. John Tinker MP put the nub of the objection in the Second Reading debate:

"We do not want to be stopped in the street by any person anywhere and to be forced to produce a card. If that kind of thing begins, we shall be afraid of people meeting us and asking for our cards. One thing that we do respect in this country is our freedom from being challenged on every occasion to produce something to prove that we are certain persons"

Another MP, Mr. Tomlinson, said:

"It may be that there is a necessity for compiling a register, but here you have the possibility of people being stopped and asked whether they have or have not lost their cards. You may challenge a dozen people and you find one who has committed an offence. It will not help a scrap to win the war, but there is the possibility of penalising somebody who is perfectly innocent because we have passed a law for another purpose entirely"

There were a few MPs who were able to obtain some minor but important changes in the Bill as it shot through the House, but the overwhelming majority were perfectly content to give these powers to the police - as they were bound to if the Identity card system was to mean anything at all.

The third lesson of 1939 is that, although the system was introduced in an emergency and although it was supposed to perish with the end of the war, it didn't. Laws like this, that the police and government find useful, have a habit of hanging around on the statute book. In fact, it remained in force for longer in peacetime than wartime. As part of the return to peacetime normality, most wartime laws were repealed. But some, like the rationing system, stayed on and were only gradually removed. Each year, Parliament passed an Emergency Laws (Transitional Provisions) Act, continuing the effect of selected wartime laws, and it was not until 22 May 1952 that identity cards were abolished.

Peacetime Continuation

In 1947, W S Morrison MP made some important criticisms of the system when it came up for renewal:

"Now that more than two years have passed since the end of the war, we ought seriously to consider whether the time is not overdue to get rid of what was an innovation introduced in order to meet a temporary set of conditions. There is no doubt that they are troublesome documents to some people. They frequently get lost, involving the owner in difficulties of one kind or another simply because he has not got a certain piece of paper. Law-abiding citizens who live in one community are particularly prone to lose them because they are known by all their neighbours and do not carry the cards. The dishonest man - the spiv, as he has been called - is generally possessed, I am told, of five or six different identity cards which he produces at his pleasure to meet the changing exigencies of his adventurous career. So in the detection and prevention of crime no case can be made out for the identity card."

And later in the debate, Morrison went on:

"The argument advanced on second reading - I conceive it to be the main argument for the retention of these troublesome documents - was that as long as rationing persists they are necessary. I do not believe it. We were told in the House the other day that there are 20,000 deserters still at large. How have these 20,000 persons contrived to equip themselves with food and clothing? Ex hypothesi they cannot be possessed of valid honest identity cards, but that has not prevented them from sustaining themselves with food and clothing themselves with raiment without these documents. Therefore, as a deterrent to the evasion of the rationing arrangements the case is proved that they are of little or, at the best, of speculative value."

Although this attack did not succeed in getting the system abolished it did draw a denunciation of identity cards from the Government's spokesman, Aneurin Bevan:

"I believe that the requirement of an internal passport is more objectionable than an external passport, and that citizens ought to be allowed to move about freely without running the risk of being accosted by a policeman or anyone else, and asked to produce proof of identity"

Morrison had been right to cast doubt on the true reason for the retention of identity cards. It was the wider web of  identity cheeks - their use in all Post Office transactions, for instance, and their use by the police - which constituted the true reason for keeping them for so long. C.H. Rolph, himself an ex-policeman, writes:

"The police, who had by now got used to the exhilarating new belief that they could get anyone's name and address for the asking, went on calling for their production with increasing frequency. If you picked up a fountain pen in the street and handed it to a constable, he would ask to see your identity card in order that lie might record your name as that of an honest citizen. You seldom carried it; and this meant that he had to give you a little pencilled slip requiring you to produce it at a police station within two days"

1952: system lapses

It is unlikely that the identity card system would have been abandoned had it not been for the test case of Willcock v Muckle (1951,49 LGR 584). In this case a driver was stopped in connection with a motoring offence and asked to produce his card. On his refusal to do so, either then or subsequently, lie was charged with an offence under Section 6(4). When the case reached appeal in the King's Bench Division, Lord Chief Justice Goddard delivered a ferocious attack upon police practice:

"Because the police have powers, it does not follow that they ought to exercise them on all occasions as a matter of routine. From what we have been told it is obvious that the police now, as a matter of routine, demand the production of a National Registration Card whenever they stop or interrogate a motorist for whatever cause ... This Act was passed for security purposes: it was never intended for the purposes for which it is now being used"

No separate statistics of offences under the National Registration Act are available for the years 1939-48, since they are hidden under `other misdemeanours'. However, in 1949, 521 people were convicted of offences against the Act; the Criminal Statistics for 1949 give no further details. More detailed figures exist for subsequent years, however. In 1950, 470 (409 men, 61 women) were charged, 436 were convicted, 19 cases were otherwise disposed of, and 15 were dismissed. In 1951, 273 (232 men, 41 women) were charged, 235 were convicted, 16 otherwise disposed of, and 22 dismissed. In 1952, the year the system lapsed, 8 people only were charged, of whom 3 were convicted. For by this time Willcock v Muckle
had taken the carpet from under the police's feet and the government decided to allow the system to lapse.

Source: State Research no 5, April/May 1978 by Tony Bunyan (abridged)



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