The government launched the first phase of a controversial new identity card scheme Tuesday, forcing certain foreign nationals to start carrying the documents from later this week.
The government has stuck with the programme, claiming it will help fight terrorism and illegal immigration, despite criticism from opposition parties and civil liberties groups who argue that ID cards threaten individual privacy.
Those thought most likely to abuse the immigration system, individuals applying for marriage or student visas, will be the first to apply for the cards, which will be issued from later this week.
Government ministers say that within three years, all new workers from outside the European Economic Area will have ID cards, with 90 percent coverage by 2014.
“In time identity cards for foreign nationals will replace paper documents and give employers a safe and secure way of checking a migrant’s right to work and study in the UK,” Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of rights group Liberty, has said the plan to force non-EEA nationals to apply for the cards “in order to soften up the public is the most unpleasant type of politics.”
The documents will feature the holder’s name and date of birth, their visa status and right to work, as well as a photograph, fingerprint record, and other biometric data.
Workers in airports and other high-security jobs will have to carry them from next year.
Anyone applying for a British passport from 2011 will be automatically added to a national identity database, but citizens will not be forced to obtain ID cards.
In addition to civil liberties concerns, the ID card scheme has been particularly hurt by a string of losses by the government of sensitive data, most notably the loss of 25 million Britons’ personal information by a government agency last year.
The losses prompted concerns about the ability of the authorities to manage vast databanks of private information.
There have also been disputes over the cost of the plan.
The Home Office says the scheme can be delivered for 4.74 billion pounds over 10 years, but some researchers say the figure could be much higher.
Unlike its continental European neighbours, Britain has never had a mandatory ID card scheme other than during wartime, but the idea has gathered momentum since suicide bombings in London in July 2005 that left 56 dead.