LONDON — CIVIL liberties groups are attacking moves by British Prime Minister John Major to require identity cards for citizens wishing to qualify for social security payments and other benefits.
Mr. Major has decided that the only way to combat fraudulent welfare claims, which cost the country an estimated British pounds5 billion ($7.4 billion) a year, is to bring Britain into line with most other European Community (EC) countries, where ID cards are either compulsory or widely used.
Initially, cards bearing a photograph and national insurance number, and possibly also a thumb or palm print, will be issued to the 5 million citizens who claim social security benefits. Government sources say that Major is likely to extend the system later to the entire population.
But the plan has been heavily criticized by Liberty, Britain's leading civil rights group, as ``insidious'' and possessing ``Orwellian overtones.''
John Wadham, Liberty's director for legal affairs, says it is ``wrong in principle'' for people to have to carry identity cards. The scheme would discriminate against the poor, the homeless, and ethnic minorities, he says.
This view was echoed by Donald Dewar, the Labour Party's spokesman on social security issues, who said the plan was ``disgraceful.''
But in deciding to promote ID cards, Major is supporting Peter Lilley, secretary of state for social security, who claims that a large chunk of his annual British pounds80 billion ($119 billion) budget is spent meeting bogus claims.
A government investigation into welfare fraud revealed widespread abuse, including improper claims for old age pensions, unemployment assistance, and child benefits. At last month's Conservative Party conference, Mr. Lilley said that even some visitors from EC countries had attempted to claim benefits to which they were not entitled.
If Major implements an ID card scheme, it will be the first time the state has required British citizens to carry any formal identification, other than a passport, in peacetime.
This differs sharply from practice in most other EC states. In France and Germany ID cards are required by law.
Only in Ireland, Denmark, and the Netherlands, among EC countries, is their use voluntary. Dutch citizens have resisted carrying ID cards ever since World War II, when, during the Nazi occupation, they were compulsory.
During the war against Hitler, British citizens were required to carry national ID cards. The government attempted to continue the system after the war, but many Britons protested and their use was discontinued.