U.K. biometric ID card bill faces uncertain future

Facing likely defeat in the House of Lords, the U.K. government is expected to shelve its plans for a national identity card program using biometric technology until after the next general election.

The Identity Cards Bill, introduced to Parliament on Nov. 29, will go for a vote before the House of Lords on March 21. The legislation seeks to create by 2010 a system of ID cards with embedded chips that carry personal information and biometric identifiers. The information will include each citizen’s name, address and biometric information such as fingerprints, face scans and iris scans, all of which will be included in a massive database called the National Identification Register.

But even the bill’s principle sponsor, Secretary of State for the Home Department Charles Clarke, has said he expects the legislation to face stiff opposition in the House of Lords next week. In the light of such resistance, local media are reporting unnamed government ministers as saying the current Labour government will shelve the bill until after the next General Election, expected in early May. Should Labour win re-election — current polls have Labour in the lead — the bill could then be reintroduced at a later date.

“Our political contacts are telling us the same thing: the ID Cards Bill is on hold until after the election,” said Andy Robson, head of campaigns for NO2ID, an organization opposed to the bill.

The ID Cards Bill was approved by the House of Commons in February and the Home Office, the ministry whose responsibilities are similar in scope to the U.S. State Department, remains publically committed to the legislation. The government, including Prime Minster Tony Blair, have insisted the ID Cards are needed to fight against identity fraud, illegal workers, illegal immigration, terrorism and for combating the illegal use of the National Health System (NHS) as well as other government entitlement programs.

The plan calls for a standalone biometric ID card to be issued alongside a biometric passport. It would most likely become compulsory for everyone living in the U.K., including children above the age of 16, to pay for and carry the card by 2012. The U.K. population is about 60 million.

The bill has weathered much criticism, including concerns within the government itself about various aspects of the legislation. The government’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) said in a January report that the bill potentially infringes the European Convention on Human Rights, while a Cabinet Office study indicated biometric tests would incorrectly identify individuals between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of the time.

The U.K. government has already committed itself to the use of facial biometric identifiers in passports beginning next year and the U.K. Passport Service (UKPS) is expected to publish a report on its trial of biometric technology by the end of this month, according to a Home Office spokeswoman. The six month trial, conducted by Atos Origin SA, involved 10,000 volunteers and tested for three biometrics traits: electronic fingerprint, a scan of the iris of the eye and a full face scan.