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The Stack Archive

UK government: National Insurance numbers misused as ‘National ID’

Fri 3 Feb 2017

The UK’s Revenue and Customs office is investigating an anomalous recent increase in third-party demands for confirmation of National Insurance numbers, in a variety of consumer and work-related situations, and have found evidence that the numbers are being misused as ID documents.

All British citizens are issued with a National Insurance number from birth, or via proving their current residency (for example, as an EU citizen). The number is associated with contributions to (and access to) National Health services in the UK and Europe. It is also associated with PAYE tax deductions, pensions, out-of-work benefits and maternity and bereavement allowance.

However, as the government’s initial report confirms, the NI number is not a valid form of identity verification. Nor does it constitute proof of British citizenship, but only that at some point the person attached to it is legally allowed to work in the UK.

‘Though the National Insurance number is not proof of identity there was some evidence from customers of both banks and employers requesting National Insurance number for that purpose.’

HMRC is investigating the reasons for the increased demand for NI numbers over the past five years, with a view to reducing these requests. Initial research took place between May and July of 2016 as a collaboration between the Employment Welfare and Skills (EWS) team, Ipsos MORI’s Social Research Institute and HMRC.

Though a person’s National Insurance number is linked to a great deal of information about them – including their tax details, address, date of birth, declared income, among many others – this database is not thought to be accessible to employers in any way, except for the purposes of providing correct tax codes for payroll purposes upon taking up a new post.

The report does not speculate, but it is possible that the NI number is increasingly being demanded of applicants as part of a matrix in background checking.

Compliance in Britain seems to be automatic:

‘Customers demonstrated low interest in understanding why third parties requested their National Insurance number. They viewed the request as a necessary requirement and so were not inclined to challenge or refuse.’

The report confirms that employers are increasingly asking for National Insurance numbers on application forms, even though traditionally this has not been requisite until acceptance and enrolment.

‘Customers felt obliged to provide their National Insurance number, believing there would be a negative impact if they did not: either the offer of employment would be withdrawn, their contract would be terminated or they would not get paid.’

The NI number is, and always has been, quite abstract. Though credit card-style IDs were issued between 1984 and 2011, they were merely for reminder purposes, and were not valid forms of identification. The process has been discontinued, though UK residents can still retrieve their number via the government’s online forms.

The report states that the rising number of third parties prefer to request NI information in order to connect their customer data to HMRC for tax purposes. ‘However,’ it notes ‘this could be processed using an alternative identifier, for instance their employee number from a previous job.’

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