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 fir

 

Spotted an error? If you've spotted a problem with this page, just click once to let us know.

Report error