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Secret go-ahead for ID card database

London Guardian

The cabinet has secretly given the go-ahead to the chancellor, Gordon Brown, to set up Britain's first national population computer database that is the foundation stone for a compulsory identity card scheme.

The "citizen information register" is to bring together all the existing information held by the government on the 58 million people resident in Britain.

It will include their name, address, date of birth, sex, and a unique personal number to form a "more accurate and transparent" database than existing national insurance, tax, medical, passport, voter and driving licence records.

The project, which last night set alarm bells ringing among civil liberty campaigners, is believed to have been recently approved by the cabinet's public expenditure sub-committee.

The decision to give the go-ahead to the national population register without any apparent need for new legislation or any public debate is in sharp contrast to the intense cabinet debate now taking place over the home secretary, David Blunkett's, identity card scheme.

Mr Brown's backing for a national citizens' register also contrasts with the Treasury's reluctance to finance the proposed national identity card scheme. The Home Office has had to accept it will be funded through the private finance initiative with part of the cost raised by charging the public for the cards.

The plans for a citizen information register have not been announced and the only official reference was a brief mention to a feasibility study in the government's consultation paper on identity cards published last July. The scheme is a joint project between the Office of National Statistics and the Treasury and is designed to ensure that "public sector organisations have the right records about the right people at the right time."

The existing "unique identifier on each UK resident" - the national insurance number - has long been the subject of complaints about abuse and forgery.

The citizen information register will replace the electoral register and be updated by electronic registration of births, marriages and deaths.

The idea was developed by the Treasury's public services productivity panel - a group of senior business people and public services managers.

Civil liberty campaigners last night claimed the national population register would seem to conflict with the fundamental data protection principle that information given to one government department for one purpose should not be used for another purpose.

But the ONS insists it would need a "once only" link up of the existing information about everyone in Britain held on government databases. The identity card white paper said the records to be used would include national insurance, income tax, the NHS, driving licences, vehicle owners, passport holders and voters.

"Each one holds between 35 million and 75 milliion records. Each database attempts to capture similar core information about people, yet there are inaccuracies. These arrangements are costly, and inhibit the joined-up delivery of public services."

The Home Office consultation paper on identity cards claimed the population database would produce "substantial gains in efficiency within the public sector by simplify ing processing, facilitating the matching of records and reducing error."

It admitted a national identity card scheme will have to be "underpinned by a database of all UK residents" and asked for views on whether the citizens information register should be used for this purpose or be self-standing.

Liberty, the human rights organisation, raised the need for safeguards to protect personal privacy. "The government does seem to be determined to create some form of mass national database on us all, whether identity cards or this system. What on earth is the point? If you create a national database on 58 million people it will be guaranteed there will be numerous mistakes. What rights will the citizen have to check the information is right?" asked spokesman Barry Hugill.

He said the record of all recent governments on computer projects had been atrocious, and he wondered where a private company would be found with the capacity to manage such a database.

He also raised the question of abuse of access to the database by such as private detectives, debt collectors, or violent partners.

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