Thought you didn't need to show ID in the UK? Wrong
Your papers please. NOW
One of the first things Britain's home secretary Theresa May did on taking office was to abolish the previous government’s identity cards scheme. But while she made ID cards history, she is in the process of extending Britain’s range of identity document checks.
The "sample" UK ID card from the previous
government's 2008 effort: The National
Identity Register, abandoned in 2011.
Britain may be a country without ID cards, but British officialdom has plenty of reasons for requiring your papers, please – usually a passport or a driving licence – other than for crossing a border or driving a vehicle.
May’s immigration bill, published in October, will among other things, require private landlords to check whether prospective tenants are allowed to live in Britain, on pain of £3,000 fines.
According to the Residential Landlords’ Association, which says 82 per cent of its members oppose the measure, it will mean everyone renting will have to show papers, including Britons – with landlords having to learn to recognise the 404 types of European ID documents that legally entitle someone to live in the UK. The association argues that many illegal immigrants will get around such checks by subletting, or renting from those in the hidden economy.
If the bill makes it into law, this measure will be introduced in only one area by 2015, following the intervention of the Liberal Democrats. Even so, it will extend a substantial list of situations when, despite Britain not having an all-purpose identity document, you still need to show one – although don’t expect much consistency or logic as to why.
Taking a domestic flight
British and Irish travellers do not need passports for either domestic flights or those within the Common Travel Area shared by the two countries and the UK’s various dependent islands. This apparently leaves airlines to make up their own rules as to what locals require to get on a domestic or UK-Eire flight.
All airlines will accept passports to show you are who you say you are, and all but one accepts driving licences. But for British and Irish travellers British Airways will accept its own Executive Club membership cards or company ID cards, and says you do not need any ID to fly within the UK at all if you don’t check in a bag – although it adds “it is always advisable to have some form of identification with you”.
FlyBe accepts a wide range of documents for UK and Irish travel by locals, including recently-expired passports, armed forces ID cards, student cards, senior citizen bus passes, company photo ID cards (but only for a “nationally recognised company”), photographic firearms certificates and even non-photo bearing pension books.
BMI has a shorter list of acceptable forms of photographic ID but includes armed forces, police and airport staff cards, while easyJet simply wants to see “photographic ID”. All four airlines let children under 16 travel ID-free within the British Isles if accompanies by an adult who can vouch for them.
However, one airline requires a passport for all flights – not even a driving licence will cut it – and that goes for children, too. Readers may be unsurprised to hear that the name of this airline is Ryanair.
Offered the chance to comment on why it will only accept passports, the airline said: “In accordance with Ryanair's terms and conditions it is each passenger's personal responsibility to ensure they have valid travel documentation which meets the requirements of Ryanair, immigration and other authorities at every destination. Ryanair does not accept driver licences, residence cards, seaman books, a police report (issued in the event of travel document loss/theft), military ID cards etc.” That doesn’t answer the question why, but given the airline’s punitive policies on pretty much everything else, ‘because we can’ springs to mind.
Checking into a hotel, if you’re an alien
Much of Britain’s ID-related legislation dates from the last decade, but you can’t blame Tony Blair and colleagues for the Immigration (Hotel Records) Order 1972.
Under this, every provider of accommodation has to retain for 12 months the name and nationality of all adult guests – and, if you are from outside the UK, Ireland or Commonwealth (which as far the original order is concerned makes you “an alien”), it also requires passport or ID card number, place of issue and the next place you plan to stay. The order requires these records to be open for inspection by the police, or anyone else authorised by the home secretary.
This order has been in force since 1 January 1973 – which means that it has been four decades since you could legitimately check in to a hotel as ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’, unless your names are both Smith, and it’s not as if there are any document checks unless you are, well, aliens. In 2011, as part of a contribution to the government’s Red Tape Challenge, travel association ABTA described the order as “an obsolete piece of legislation originally borne out of Cold War security concerns”. When contacted for this article, ABTA said its position is unchanged. So is the order.
Having initially claimed this was a HM Revenue and Customs matter, and after HMRC pointed out it wasn’t, the Home Office simply said it has no plans to change the regulation.
Getting in to high-security locations (most of the time)
Some high-security buildings and areas impose identity checks before allowing access, with passports, driving licences or government-issued identity cards being the norm. You will also need strong identification to get into a royal event such as a Buckingham Palace garden party – Palace police are quite strict on checking ID, as Prince Andrew found out not so long ago.
But rules vary. Getting into the Palace of Westminster requires rigorous airport-style physical checks, but visitors do not need to provide identification. And it is possible to bend the rules elsewhere, as William Heath, co-founder of personal identity management firm Mydex, found in 2008 when invited to a reception at 11 Downing Street. The invitation arrived with 30 hours to spare, and required “photo id (e.g. driving licence or passport)”.
Edges that can be subverted
The SIM tattoo adorning Reg hack Bill Ray's hand – no word yet on whether he plans to upgrade it to a nano-SIM, nor whether it will ever be accepted as legal ID.
Heath, who campaigned against the last government’s ID card scheme, didn’t have either to hand, but got in anyway: “The kind staff organising the event made special efforts on my behalf. So the system has edges which can be subverted,” he wrote at the time.
It’s surprising how much those edges can be subverted. A 2004 speech by home secretary David Blunkett, talking up his ID card scheme and supposedly requiring photo ID for access, was accessed by Phil Booth, then national co-ordinator of NO2ID. He did this while carrying a smouldering stick, that had until recently supported a giant ID card which Booth had burnt outside the venue.
Getting a drink in Newquay if you look under 25
Older Register readers may not realise it, but getting a drink these days for 20-somethings generally requires the use of something that looks much like an ID card. Under the Challenge 21 and Challenge 25 schemes operated by pubs and retailers, anyone who looks under 21 or 25 (depending on which version an outlet has signed up for) has to prove their age.
However, almost every seller of alcohol and other age-restricted goods will accept a relatively cheap Proof of Age Standards Scheme (Pass) card as an alternative to a passport or driving licence. Pass, set up in 1998 with the support of the Home Office, police and trading standards departments, licences 17 providers to issue cards with photos and holograms, costing around £15. As the scheme’s website points out: “Young people are rightly concerned about taking valuable documents such as passports with them on a night out, because of the inconvenience and expense to replace if lost or stolen. If they fall into the hands of criminals they can represent a real security risk.”
But Newquay in Cornwall only accepts passports and driving licences, under its Newquay Safe partnership. This was launched in July 2009 after two young men died after falling from cliffs, with the police blaming alcohol.
The town has taken a hard line in tackling its reputation as a teenage party centre. Police “meet and greet” incoming trains and planes with dogs and drug detectors, confiscating alcohol from under-18s; parents may be called to collect inebriated youngsters; and the authorities will write to parents and schools about any interactions, so “making sure that what happens in Newquay does not stay in Newquay”. Mad-for-it holidaymakers even risk arrest or exclusion for wearing offensive clothing – or carrying offensive inflatables – if they don’t co-operate (presumably by removing, or deflating, the offensive items).
While Newquay’s strict rules can be understood as a reaction to the tragic results from underage drinking in the town, why not accept Pass cards given they are designed to make it easier for young people to prove their age? Rob Andrew, joint project manager for the partnership, says that the town’s venues saw the wide range of Pass-approved card designs as confusing. “The feeling among the trade was the Pass card was open to abuse,” he says. “If you’re working at night with a big queue, you don’t want to check each one.”
Andrew says that Newquay’s requirement for a passport or driving licence is widely publicised, and adds that when parents ask why their offspring have to bring a valuable document, the partnership responds that if you don’t trust them with that document, why trust them to go away alone? With financial support from the Home Office, some of the biggest venues in Newquay have also installed scanners for passports and driving licences. These are designed to spot fake documents, those belonging to youngsters on banned lists – and those who are already inside the venue, as one trick involves adults trying to share their IDs with similar-looking but under-age siblings. Around 3 per cent of those trying to get into the venues in question have been stopped by the machines, Andrew says.
And finally… over the sea to Orkney and Shetland, ID-free
Sometimes, rules get lifted rather than imposed. On 22 November 2012, ID checks were lifted by NorthLink Ferries for its sailings between mainland Scotland and the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland.
It is fair to say that these checks, introduced on 1 May 2008, were not exactly rigorous. Under-16s were exempt, and as well as the usual passport and driving licence options, NorthLink accepted its own ID cards, young people’s and travel concession cards, photo bank cards and some employee photo ID cards, among others.
“This will enable positive identification at check-in and to ensure the safety and security of all our passengers, crew and vessels,” NorthLink’s website used to claim.
Leaving aside the question of how this would ensure safety and security was the question of why this particular line alone needed to see ID. It is not generally required on Scottish ferry routes, including others run by Caledonian MacBrayne, the government-owned operator which ran NorthLink at the time. A rival privately-owned line to Orkney, Pentland Ferries, boasted about its lack of ID checks. And even ferries between the UK and the Republic of Ireland require only the production of that well-known high-security British identity document, the utility bill.
However, thanks to outsourcing giant and unlikely champion of freedom Serco – which took over NorthLink last year – photo ID is no longer required, except when picking up some pre-booked or discount tickets. “Halting the need for photographic identity cards will make it easier for people to make spontaneous visits. It also makes the Northern Isles feel welcoming and inclusive from first impression,” said NorthLink’s MD Stuart Garrett, also announcing nicer seats, better showers and Wi-Fi… and “a bigger bar”.
We’ll raise a cup of kindness yet, for the sake of ID-free ships to Stromness, Kirkwall and Lerwick. ®
SA Mathieson is the author of "Card declined: How Britain said no to ID cards, three times over"