Revisiting Citizen ID

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It’s deeply heretical for a Liberal Democrat to question our long-held opposition to formal verification in the relationship between the citizen and the state.  But there are at least three reasons why Liberal Democrats should now be considering a shift in our long-standing opposition to some form of citizen ID.

The first is the impact of the digital revolution, with the accumulation of mass data by both private and public bodies, posing very different challenges for privacy, transparency and data sharing and ownership.  The second and third come from recent clashes between the Home Office and British citizens and residents, in the treatment of the ‘Windrush generation’ and of EU citizens applying for settled status in the UK. 

The Labour Government’s ID Card proposals, 15 years ago, were for physical identity cards, on a compulsory basis.  It was a costly and complicated scheme, which we opposed.  But the coalition government recognised the utility of simplifying the multiple interactions between citizens and government agencies, and the rising number of instances in which consumers are asked to prove identity in financial and commercial transactions, by developing a ‘Government Verify’ service.

Enthusiasts looked to the example of Estonia, where all citizens have access through a government portal to their own government-held information, hoping that the UK would follow that enlightened example.  Legacy systems in different government departments made data-sharing, with in-built safeguards, difficult; and after 2015 the Conservatives preferred to favour private-sector partners in the scheme’s development.

So you and I are still dependent on multiple official numbers and databases when we need to prove our identity.  I have photocopied my passport several times in the past three years, for bank references and other transactions.  I use my National Insurance number often enough to remember what it is.

I also have NHS and tax reference numbers, thankfully used more rarely. Whitehall has now introduced a ‘Tell Us Once’ procedure through which executors can inform multiple government agencies that someone has died.  But I’m not aware that this is easily available when citizens move house, doctor, school and employment (disappearing from the electoral register as a result). 

Our traditional system of multiple and separate interactions with local and central parts of government preserved our privacy – but didn’t always protect our rights.  When the Home Office challenged the right of immigrants from the West Indies to live in Britain, it did not check with the Department of Work and Pensions, or HMRC, or – it appears – even with old electoral registers to find evidence of long-term residence.

Government agencies hold a great deal of data on us all, but often lack well-established protocols for cross-checking the presence of records without accessing the detail of each entry.  The Home Office did not wish to find out; but those challenged could not access data the government held on them to prove their rights. 

The 3 million EU citizens seeking settled status have now been offered digital numbers to verify their standing.  Many have protested that they need physical documents as well, to prove their legal status easily to landlords and employers.  Liberal Democrat spokespeople have supported their arguments – contradicting our traditional position that no-one should have to show documentary evidence to protect their rights. 

Britain’s traditional way of collecting mass data relevant for local and national policy has been the Census. The Government Statistical Office has suggested that next year’s census, which will cost around £750m, should be the last.

Most of the data it will gather will already be held somewhere within the public sector, but so far without the ability for effective analysis; faster and more frequent data analysis should make for better-informed policy responses.    The challenges we face as government becomes more digital include how to ensure that public data is accurate and comprehensive, how to allow mass data to be shared and analysed without intruding on personal privacy, and how to monitor and regulate the unavoidable interplay of public and private data.  

We are in the middle of a profound digital transformation, which will affect the relationship between the citizen and the state as well as between the producer and the consumer.  Liberals should focus on pressing for transparency of data wherever possible, on privacy of personal data, and on effective regulation of both private and public data collection and analysis.  Jamie Susskind, in his 2018 book Future Politics, sets out the case for ‘digital liberalism’.

Others, from Dominic Cummings to Russian and Chinese policy-makers, will prefer some form of digital authoritarianism.  We have many younger members who are far more expert in this field than I am, who can help us to develop an informed liberal response – exploring the risks and benefits of digital government and the safeguards we must build in. And part of that response must be to reconsider our approach to the verification of citizen identity. 

* William Wallace has fought five parliamentary elections in Manchester and West Yorkshire. He is a former president of the Yorkshire regional Liberal Democrats.

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  • I’m with Harry Wilcock on this, sorry

  • Peter Hayes 25th Feb '20 - 2:21pm

    I do wonder about any government database, not just implementation will be delayed and over budget but security. Any database that knows too much about us gives hackers a target. I don’t worry about using my bus pass to go to the doctors but if it ended in a national database accessible anonymously ‘for research purposes’ how long will it be before insurers use AI to identify me for life or travel cover? There is also the problem of getting people listed, my parents gave up passports and driving licences and suffered dementia so how could they get an ID if it was required for NHS access.

  • I don’t see why we need to fear digital ID. I would embrace it and go further by following the lead of Open Banking to push for an ‘Open Data’ culture – across government if nothing else. Let people have a digital profile but one that they have more control over – both to let Government share data in a more sensible and efficient manner, and to let individuals share that data with third parties. You don’t need a single centralised database, you just need the available databases to be able to talk to each other through a common, highly secure, and centrally mandated standard. There already snippets of it here and there – eg DVLA has a licence checking API that lets private sector companies confirm certain types of information.

    In the same way that ‘Open Banking for Good’ is a boon for (say) debt charities to better support vulnerable customers, ‘Open Data for Good’ would be a boon for (say) charities to better support people who find it difficult to access existing government services. It could be such a powerful tool.

    Citizen ID is only ‘illiberal’ if it is controlled by, and for the benefit of, the state alone. Let individuals own it and it couldn’t be more liberal?

    To Peter’s point re AI – a lot of that sort of data is already collecting by private entities as it is. Regardless, what we let the private sector use data for (whether sourced from government or otherwise) is a separate question (data ethics) to data security, and another thing that we ought to pushing hard on. The concept of ‘privacy by design’ is well established. We need to build on wider momentum for ‘Ethical by Design’ and push for regulation around that, too.

  • James BLESSING 25th Feb '20 - 3:48pm

    Once upon a time, in an office many years ago, I spent several hours discussing why centralised databases and ID cards were bad news for those on the edges of society.

    I’m more than happy to have the conversation again, and again and again – there is no ID card solution that doesn’t have (by accident or design) inherent illiberal impacts on some part of society.

    The poorest can’t afford a card, the homeless won’t have an address to register their card, BAME and non-gender confirming will be asked for their card more often than they really should, those escaping violence will become easier to track, and the list goes on.

    Radical Liberal not centrist

  • William Wallace 25th Feb '20 - 4:15pm

    Peter: We’re right to worry about the development of government data-bases, and to push for tight regulation, limits to data-sharing (I’m told that block-chain provides ways of limiting the levels of data shared), access by citizens to information held about them, and so on. But we have to recognise that there are also advantages in government having accurate ways of identifying citizens, and of citizens having the ability to establish their rights – which is why I mention the Windrush case. We’re not going to stop the transition to digital government, since there are real advantages in making that transition. So what we need to discuss is how to build in the necessary safeguards.

  • William Wallace 25th Feb '20 - 4:24pm

    We also need to reconsider our approach to privacy in some sectors. In the UK the public have accepted the near-universality of CCTV, which is much more resisted elsewhere. But in Sweden the public have accepted (even welcomed) transparency of tax returns; which would I think cause hysterical opposition from many in Britain (and lead to a gradual reduction in tax evasion and inequality, in all probability). What do we consider to be the key sectors in which data should not be shared, either within government or within privately-held data bases? And how do we tighten control over exchanges of data between private and public bodies?

  • James Brough 25th Feb '20 - 5:08pm

    I worked for the Home Office for 10 years. I remember cases being stored in cupboards and forgotten, case files being taken out of the office and left on the bus, valuable documents submitted by applicants being lost, evidence being binned because it would mean extra work for the caseworker, staff passing photos of applicants around to laugh at. I’ve no faith that anything has improved.

    Even were that not the case, Lord Wallace admits that the Windrush and EU debacle are the fault of the Home Office not wishing to research the information already available to them.

    What is needed here is a change of culture at the Home Office. As long as it remains the way it is, the option to overlook or misuse information will always be there, no matter how much privacy we forfeit.

  • Laurence Cox 25th Feb '20 - 5:51pm


    How can you discuss this without referring to the Government Gateway user ID, mostly used by people completing their tax returns online? This requires two-factor identification; you not only have to enter your ID number and password, but they also send you a text with a time-limited reference number that you have to enter to access your tax return.

  • I second what Jennie said. How can the fact that the “Home Office did not wish to find out” whether long-term British residents had a right to remain be used as a justification for giving Government more powers over its citizens. I do not trust Governments, of any political hue, and enabling the Government to draw together all the information its various elements hold on individuals is, potentially, a step towards facilitating authoritarianism. At a time when our Government appears to be in the hands of people who have contempt for the traditional institutions of the state the last thing we should be doing is making it easier for them to inch their way towards a form of soft fascism.

  • “Once upon a time, in an office many years ago, I spent several hours discussing why centralised databases and ID cards were bad news for those on the edges of society.”

    I don’t doubt it. So our challenge is how to mitigate it. Ever larger databases, and ever greater sharing of data, is as inevitable as the changing of the tides. We can’t just stick our heads in the sand, cry illiberal, and pretend we can possibly hope to stop it happening. It already is happening.

    To repeat WW: “We’re not going to stop the transition to digital government, since there are real advantages in making that transition. So what we need to discuss is how to build in the necessary safeguards.”

  • It’s “deeply heretical” for a reason. I simply do not accept that formal ID is the answer to Home Office incompetence/maliciousness when it comes to the Windrush Generation, EU citizens, or anyone else. I simply don’t trust them to act in the best interests of ordinary citizens and residents. Our “multiple and separate interactions” provide us with partial protection against this.

    As Lawrence Cox points out above, a Government Gateway ID already exists for online interactions with Government.

  • Ben Rattigan 25th Feb '20 - 11:15pm

    I cannot agree with this. Why? Mission Creep
    That’s what happened with Labour plans and why I switched from Labour to LibDem. Govts can’t help themselves, verification is one thing but it won’t stop there. Start recording interactions in detail, more and more Govt, local gov, agencies, security services and private companies will demand access then it’s just ends up being full blown big brother. I cannot and will not support this because the above named organisations cannot be trusted and have demonstrated that they can’t.

  • Tony Harris 26th Feb '20 - 9:12am

    The are lots of arguments both for and against ID cards. I’m somewhere in the middle primarily because of the homeless and low income arguments. However, I have never understood why an ID card solution should be so expensive. In the USA ID is required. They use the driving license system through their DMV where a license is marked ‘not valid to drive’ if it is just used for ID. It’s $32 for a new application, free for seniors or for name and address changes, and $9 for those on low incomes. We already have the DVLA which manages driving licenses and they could easily implement a similar system because the infrastructure already exists. Foot for thought if the party decides to look again at ID cards.

  • William Wallace 26th Feb '20 - 12:19pm

    The Windrush scandal showed that there are real disadvantages in individual citizens and residents being invisible to the state, and unable to access individual public data to demonstrate their rights. Any moves towards an explicit social contract, let alone a universal basic income, would require a register of citizens, their entitlements and obligations. The smaller the state, the less public bodies provide for citizens, the less the need for such data. Economic liberals can therefore continue to oppose citizen ID (though they will nevertheless run into trouble as we move towards a digital economy); social liberals need an active state, with asocial contract between citizens and government.

  • We already have ID cards. Most people use them often not for their primary purpose, but to prove who they are in any number of situations. Anyone can get one if they want it, and some people do even if they don’t need it for it’s primary purpose, because it makes their life easier.

    Most people don’t realise they’re carrying an ID card because It has “Driving Licence” printed at the top. They have legal status across the EU as a “Photographic Identity Document”, so wake up do wake up at the back there, we already have them.

  • Bernard Aris 26th Feb '20 - 1:20pm

    I would urge anybody who knows somebody from a continental EU country to talk with that person about how their people and their government handle these things. Remember Napoleon introduced government citizens registers and passports for 60% of the EU territory (the Baltics an Poland excluded; they were Russian for decades; and parts of the Eastern European and Balkan countries were Ottoman occupied) so the continental experience with those is over 200 years.
    The demand for physical ID’s for the EU citizens living in the UK comes partly from the experiences in their home countries.
    Continental Europeans also have vivid memories about when governments abuse those civilians registers, “thanks” to the Nzai occupation (Dutch resistance tried to blow up the Amsterdam residents register).

    And we Dutch have both
    *) passports showing your “Citizes Service Number” (BSN) being used for your files in government departments, and
    *) a separate government platform where you receive correspondence from the fiscal and other departments after using an acces code diffferent from your BSN.

  • Nonconformistradical 26th Feb '20 - 5:37pm

    @Bernard Aris

    To what extent are Dutch government departments allowed to share personal data other than the BSN and the fiscal access code?

    What are the penalties for unauthorised access to/use of personal data?

    Oh by the way…

  • I see a prominent (perhaps using the term advisedly) Lib Dem talking of requiring
    “a register of citizens, their entitlements and obligations. ” and I’m tempted to say

    Please, tell me how the party has not changed quite significantly from the one even in 2015. The Venn diagram of my connection to this incarnation of the party doesn’t have much overlap.

    (I say prominent when I mentioned this to someone who is prominent they asked who was saying that and I got a very strong sigh and eye-roll in response!)

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