Friday, 1 February 2013

Identity cards in Britain - an early Belgian start





The continuous issue of identity cards for the British population has been foreshadowed by a similar debate during the First World War. Then "the National Registration Act of 1915 provided for a register of all men and women between 15 and 65, later used to aid conscription.  The National Register was produced by Bernard Mallet, the Registrar General of England and Wales." Mallet was the President of the Royal Statistical Society in 1916-1918 (and succeeded by Herbert Samuel). In the capacity of President of the RSS, Mallet helped publish findings on the Register of Belgian Refugees by the statistician T.T.S. de Jastrzebski.

The information demands of the war also provided an opportunity for Mallet to press forward his pre-war agenda of reforming the system of routine registration of births, marriages and deaths. His desire for reform was shaped by the pressing eugenic questions of the day - infant mortality and national efficiency - and as the war progressed, he developed his ideas to include a permanent universal register of all individuals."

Rosemary Elliot's 2008 article An early experiment in national identity cards: the battle over registration in the First World War examines "the fate of Mallet’s proposals, and shows how lack of political consensus and lack of support, even from colleagues in the General Register Office for Scotland, prevented his proposals coming to fruition."

"The General Register Office (GRO) in England and Wales, and the General Register Office in Scotland (GROS), were set up in 1837 and 1854 respectively to provide the apparatus for obtaining the vital statistics of the population. During the First World War, the administrative machinery of the two register offices was adapted for the war effort, collecting, coding and circulating information on men and women of military age in the National Register. The office also responded to requests for information on the births, marriages and deaths of Belgian refugees from the Belgian authorities, and provided details of interned Germans dying on British soil to the German government. [...]

Mallet rejected the idea of a separate numbered index to the register because of the labour involved and the possible loss of forms and duplication. This appears to be the result of lessons learnt from the creation of the Central Register of Belgian Refugees, which the GRO had set up at the request of the president of the Local Government Board in late 1914. This register was intended to ascertain numbers and particulars of the refugees and to allow them to be traced (ostensibly by family and friends, although searches in the register were also made by foreign committees, the police and the British and Belgian military authorities).

The Central Register of Belgians held records of some 225 000 people on a central card index and was beset by problems of duplication and erroneous records, as people registered more than once or failed to give adequate details. Stevenson had also set up a second parallel card index of Belgian refugees, coded and classified by occupation as in the 1911 census. This was supposed to be kept up-to-date through information from the labour Exchange, a plan which proved unsuccessful. This unsatisfactory experience may have had some bearing on the decision to make notification of change of address for the National Register a personal responsibility, not the employer’s."

More through 20th Century History online

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