Policy Papers

The right of registration: development, identity registration and social security

Simon Szreter |

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Executive Summary

  • One of the most fundamental determinants of an individual's well-being is whether or not that individual has an acknowledged existence. The right to identity registration at birth is an unambiguously proclaimed human right, which virtually every state in the world has endorsed through its ratification of the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child.
  • Yet many of the world's poorest countries have no comprehensive identity or vital registration system. The poor of the world are anonymous. This is a gross practical impediment to their capacity to exercise and enjoy their human rights, their entitlements, functionings or capabilities.
  • One apparent reason for the toleration of this state of affairs is the idea that poor countries cannot afford registration systems, which are seen as a post-development luxury.
  • However, the revisionist history of Britain's industrialisation which has emerged since the 1980s demonstrates that not only a comprehensive identity registration system, but also a universalist social security system were important and related institutions facilitating mobility of both labour and capital in this pioneering case of economic development .
  • It is therefore argued that a historical perspective suggests that policies to promote individuals' identity registration, as called for in human rights conventions, are not economic luxuries but necessities for encouraging broad-based, liberal market development.
  • However, it is acknowledged that history also shows that the creation of such identity registration systems constitutes a potential danger. Identity registration should be viewed as creating a category of public information that is private property, and which is maintained in such a way that it is not accessible for use by commercial or state agencies. Public health epidemiological uses constitute the only admissible exception to this.


'Human rights' and 'development' have been internationally dominant intellectual themes and policy projects throughout the last six decades, since the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the founding in the same decade of the World Bank. There has been a liberal assumption that they go together, although only in the last two decades in the important intellectual project stimulated by Amartya Sen's work on functionings and capabilities, has there been a consistent effort to think through this assumption. However, one practical aspect of both human rights and development which seems to have been almost entirely overlooked is the human right to have one's legal identity securely registered and accessible for personal use. Such a right is clearly and unambiguously enshrined in Article 24, clause 2 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which states that 'Every child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have a name'. Also Article 7 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states: 'the child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and, as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.'

However a great many states in Africa, in Latin America and in Asia, containing half or more of the world's population, have no effective national, universal system of registration at birth or at death and, indeed, many have never attempted it. Although most nominally-democratic states make efforts of varying degrees of efficiency to compile ballot registers for voting adults, many have not made any investment in a national system of identity or vital registration for their citizens. The Human Rights Committee, the international body responsible for enforcement of UN conventions has not pressed states on their obligations in this respect because it is considered unreasonable to demand that poor countries devote their scarce resources to the luxury of an identity registration system while they are trying to achieve economic development.

This paper will argue that a review of Britain's history of economic development suggests that this is a profoundly mistaken view. British history indicates that an identity registration system, in conjunction with collective provision for social security, can both be institutions of fundamental importance for the stimulation of national economic growth, even in relatively poor agrarian economies.

British economic development

Historians now see the key question of the world's first case of economic development as one of explaining why Britain became so economically advanced over the course of the two centuries, 1600-1800, rather than that of explaining the rapid growth which subsequently occurred during the age of steam power, the factory and the railway, c.1800-1850. Over the two centuries, 1600-1800, the economy of England spectacularly overtook the existing world leaders (Holland and coastal China), combining strongly rising productivity in agriculture with growing internal and external trade and a rate of urbanisation far faster than any other place in the world. Demographic historians have shown how England achieved freedom from famine mortality by the 1650s, a century and a half earlier than any other part of Europe.

Douglass North's Nobel prize-winning work in economics has also powerfully reinforced this search for the deeper, longer-term, early-modern origins of the British economic growth story. North identified three institutional developments as being of fundamental importance for markets in the three factors of production, land, capital and labour. Firstly, the emergence of property rights, both as an idea and a practice, so that individuals have the incentives for economic action in a market. Secondly, the emergence of modern states capable of protecting and policing those property rights by enforcing the rule of law. Thirdly, the accompanying emergence of an appropriate ideology of justifying moral and ethical beliefs in an economy of properties and commodities.

Building on these contributions, Peter Solar has suggested a dramatic re-thinking of the importance of the English Poor Laws for the history of economic development in Britain. Solar's compelling comparative observation was that all the rest of early-modern Europe, including even highly advanced Holland, exhibited, by contrast to England, a patchiness at best in its social security systems and more usually a complete absence of such a system outside the towns. If one was looking for reasons why the advanced organic economy of the British Isles prospered increasingly from 1660 onwards, while the continent and even Holland flagged behind, could England's distinctive social security system, its Poor Laws, be an important part of the story? And, if so, how was it that an enormous, widespread institution like the Poor Law could work relatively effectively in England and even in rural Wales, when apparently it was beyond the imagination and civic capacity of all other European states at this time?

The English Poor Law

The answer to this appears to be that the Poor Law worked closely in harness with two other important institutions: firstly, a national identity registration system, and secondly the Justice of the Peace, J.P.s, or magistrates (Crown-appointed local residents regularly administering impartial, cheap and accessible justice in the localities). No other country in the world before the nineteenth century enjoyed the advantage of all three of these institutions working together: magistrates, poor law and an accessible identity registration system.

A national system of parochial registers of baptisms, marriages and burials was deliberately created by the state in the mid-sixteenth century to be maintained for legal and economic purposes, directly related to the needs of individuals operating in England's precocious nascent property markets. We know this because the system's instigator, Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's Vicar-general, recorded his explanation for setting up the system in 1538, explaining its utility in the following terms: 'for the avoiding of sundry strifes and processes and contentions arising from age, lineal descent , title of inheritance, legitimation of bastardy, and for knowledge, whether any person is our subject or no.'

It is interesting to note that, while insufficient literacy might be considered one of the reasons why it might be unviable for a less developed country today to set up a comprehensive registration system, historians estimate that the English population's literacy rates in 1540 were no more than 20% for males and under 10% for females, below that of any country on the face of the globe today. Nevertheless, the parochial registration system was indeed kept effectively throughout the country. The vital registration system operating in the parishes of England and Wales from 1538 onwards was an immensely important institution helping to make possible the world's first case of self-sustaining market growth in all three of the senses identified as significant by Douglass North. Firstly, it crucially facilitated the workings of a legal system endowing ordinary individuals with their identities and enabling them and their families to exercise their property and other rights. Secondly, it was a paradigmatic example of the effective working of the British state and its ability to protect the property rights of the individual- the keeping of the parish registers demonstrates the capacity for the devolved writ of the British state to run right down to the level of the parish and the individual subject. Thirdly, the parish register system may well have been crucial in sustaining the political and legal credibility of the precocious universal social security system of the Poor Laws. This, in turn, was important in legitimating ideologically the practices of an expanding market economy and in providing it with the means to address the serious social problems of disruption caused by market growth and increasingly mobile markets in land, capital and labour.

By about the 1660s, though by no means uniform in its procedures, the poor relief system established by two statutes of 1598 and 1601 'For the Relief of the Poor' was a genuine reality in full operational force throughout the land. This placed the English population and its labour market, both in town and countryside, on an entirely different basis, in terms of social security, from that of the rest of Europe. Consequently, the English and Welsh (but not the Irish nor the Scottish, where there was no such Poor Law, nor an Anglican parochial registration system) were the first people in the world to cease to experience famine-related mortality, a freedom achieved by the second half of the 17th century.

Implications for labour mobility

Peter Solar has furthermore argued that the comprehensive social security system provided by the Poor Laws, in combination with the very early establishment in English law of complete alienability of land, had the potential to encourage labour mobility and emancipation from a peasant mentality of over-attachment to land-holding as the only form of security. Individuals had a relative certainty of being provided for, wherever they moved to work in the economy, no matter what their property-ownership status. Landlords and farmers could and did increase farm sizes and reduce labour costs without this provoking the same fears and protests as on the continent. But equally, such employers in England had a strong incentive only to do this if it really made economic sense, because, as the principal ratepayers into the parish Poor Law fund, they would also have to reckon with their liability for supporting the families of the laid-off workers, at least in the short term until they found new work. Another reason for both attachment to land-holding at all costs and for a restriction on the labour mobility of the younger generation was attenuated, in that the aged poor, disabled and widowed had an alternative source of support in this recognised right to call on the parish fund, obviating the necessity to retain close geographical contact between the family's generations.

Thus, although in no way a voting democracy, the subjects of the British sovereign in the 17th and 18th centuries enjoyed, relative to the rural labouring poor of the rest of Europe at that time, 'advanced', state-guaranteed practical entitlements to security and health: functionings and capabilities in Amartya Sen's terminology. Note that the argument here is not that the English Poor Law and its ubiquitous operation provided persons with their own preferred means of social security, nor that there was not harshness from some officials in its operation. However, through its mandatory existence in every parish, it did provide a basis for the actual achievement of a state of personal social security, which was underwritten not merely by reliance on the compassion of others, but by an institutionally permanent and unavoidable social obligation.

The Poor Law, and its enforcement both by the Privy Council and by magistrates, created everywhere in England a very public system of acknowledgement of collective responsibility for the subsistence of all. Indeed, given the evidence that has been uncovered by historians of the poor of 'an economy of makeshifts', often involving kin and neighbours, and also of much philanthropic and mutualist activity, it is plausible to argue that far from 'crowding-out' alternative forms of social support, the existence of the locally-devolved and entirely locally-funded Poor Law in fact encouraged all citizens to think and act more purposefully about the problems of insecurity of income, health and welfare; and that this issued in a wider, not narrower, range of private responses and behaviours than in most other societies. The Poor Law, funded entirely from local taxation, created a very clear set of responsibilities on those with means to support those without.

In addition to the vital resource for civil society of the locally accessible magistrates' courts for settling all disputes, the parishes' registers of births, deaths and marriages were probably also crucial in permitting this universalist system of locally-administered social security to acquire long-term consent and credibility among the diverse communities of local ratepayers, who were dragooned by statute into compulsory financial support for the system in each and every parish round the country. A version of the 'free rider' problem is an absolutely standard feature of any scheme of pooled social insurance risk, which is essentially what the Elizabethan Poor Law mandated in each of the parishes of England and Wales. There needs to be robust and accepted rules to ensure a viable balance between the liabilities of those contributing to such a collective, local fund and the level of demands legitimately made on the fund. A critical problem with this highly devolved system of small, parish-scale social security funds, is the possibility of certain parishes becoming temporarily (or regularly) inundated with mobile claimants, whom they cannot afford to support. This problem inevitably emerged during the early 17th century as the Elizabethan system bedded-in. The British state duly responded by passing from 1662 the series of statues relating to the Settlement Laws, which provided an evolving set of regulations for defining the relief liabilities of parishes to individuals born, residing and working within their boundaries.

The Settlement Acts were crucial for the long-term successful functioning of the Poor Laws as a locally-devolved system. Had the Poor Laws not been supplemented by the Settlement Acts it seems likely either that the whole social security system would have fallen into disrepute and disuse because of the impracticality of unlimited liability for the ratepayers of each parish or else the Poor Laws would have come to exert a powerful perverse incentive- from the point of view of economic growth- by producing a 'siege' mentality in each and every parish, thereby institutionally impeding the mobility of labour around the economy. The fact that England exhibited the highest rate of urbanisation in Europe during the era of the old Poor Law (i.e. prior to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which ushered in a far less generous regime) and its rules of settlement would seem to be conclusive evidence that, on balance, it strongly encouraged, rather than impeded labour mobility.

The combination of Poor Laws and Settlement Laws was able to work relatively effectively as a system of relief commanding practical assent, giving genuine social security to the whole population because its workings were crucially facilitated by both the magistrates' courts and the parish registration system. This meant that both ratepayers and administrators of the system could have confidence that several categories of the most frequent, vexatious disputes between parishes about relief liabilities for particular individuals under the Settlement rules could be authoritatively resolved locally by magistrates, while in a proportion of such cases recourse to the identity records held in the parish registers, alone, was sufficient. The parish registers provided the information basis with which a considerable range of practical disputes related to the Settlement Acts could be resolved. This alleviated the burden of liability and uncertainty within the system, which might otherwise have resulted in its breakdown or disuse, as in other parts of continental Europe.

Thus, identity registration- and the capacity for its legal exercise- in addition to being a fundamental human right, as recognised today in UN Conventions, was an important institution which facilitated the consolidation over two centuries of the practical and political viability of the highly unusual, universalist, locally-devolved English social security system. And it was this social security system which, in turn, played an integral role in giving the British agrarian economy its high level of labour mobility during the century of rising economic productivity and commercial expansion which ultimately produced the industrial revolution.

Implications for property rights

Furthermore, England's early identity registration system was also of great importance in relation to the mobility of capital. D.C. North emphasised the importance of the historical development of a generally available system of property rights, supported by the state and the rule of law, in order for widely-dispersed market activity and capital mobility to occur. This insight has recently gained much prominence in the field of development studies through the work of Hernando de Soto. Comparing the history of nineteenth-century USA with his native Peru and other less developed countries, De Soto identified the failure of an appropriate system of formal property law to emerge, enabling persons to gain recognised legal title to the ownership of their assets in countries, such as his own Peru, as a gross institutional disability preventing capital formation among the poor. This failure restricts the commercial usage to which all but the richest in society (who alone can afford the costs, bribes, and delays of the tortuous legal processes) can assign their assets - homes, land and businesses. For the rest of the populace, their inability to gain legal formal title to their assets means that these cannot be used as capital, as a security to generate credit or funds for investment in productive enterprises.

However, de Soto's research and policy prescriptions seem incomplete in overlooking the importance of one further, crucial institutional factor needed for a diffuse system of property rights in society. De Soto seems to assume that the legal and public recognition of individuals' personal identities is a non-problematic issue. De Soto focuses on only one half of the problem of creating fixity and security of legal title for property rights, and omits the question of fixing the legal identity of persons themselves in many poor countries. With its state-instituted parish registration system, as with its social security system, the English pre-industrial economy was highly precocious in this aspect of its institutional development.

Lessons for development today

Thus, there are important lessons which can be drawn from the new, revisionist history of British economic growth, emphasising the significance of the early phase of gradual economic development. Between 1540 and 1780 Britain moved from a position as a small, average economy on the European periphery to that of world leader, primarily because of the increased efficiency of its agrarian economy. England was blessed with a range of crucial, state-sanctioned legal and social institutions facilitating free markets in land, capital and labour, while simultaneously providing more effective personal and collective social security to its capitalists and to individual labourers and their family members than anywhere else in the world. Britain's history indicates that those who are seeking to foster economic development and the expansion of market activity in countries like those of Latin America or Africa today, through a focus on constructing the appropriate institutions required for markets to flourish, need to start by empowering individuals with an accessible and secure system for registering their own identities. The machinery of civil, vital registration is a necessary practical complement to De Soto's emphasis on the need for property title laws and agencies of enforcement to enable all in society - not just the rich - to mobilise their assets into capital. This is not, of course, to suggest that an identity registration system - or even an identity registration system along with a collective social security system - are, alone, sufficient policy levers to produce economic development. However, both of these are wise and necessary polices, which, along with the concept of private property and the rule of law, create a propitious institutional environment for encouraging indigenous market behaviour on the part of a widening range of individuals in society.

Registration can also be a multi-faceted institutional mechanism for simultaneously promoting economic growth, population health and welfare. Vital registration provides the crucial information for implementing an accurate and precise epidemiological intelligence system, as happened in Victorian Britain. Indeed, the British state and its various local government authorities by the 1870s possessed a more comprehensive and detailed knowledge of citizens' changing health patterns than exists today in many countries of the world. Without this quality of information, the promotion of public health investments and services for the most needy are very difficult to implement effectively.

The reading of the origins of early modern economic growth in Britain offered here would suggest, following North's and Solar's leads, that a nationwide social security system, funded through progressive local taxation (as the Poor Law was, since it was a local property tax), combined with vital registration and a cheap, impartial, locally-accessible legal system, provide vitally important and necessary foundational institutional endowments for encouraging market growth and the mobility of labour and capital.

Despite its importance in the British historical case, one can look in vain at many of the most influential international policy documents, such as the annual World Bank or United Nations Human Development reports or the outcomes of important commissions, such as the World Health Organisation/World Trade Organisation Sachs Report or the 2006 Special Report by the World Bank Institute on 'Human Rights and Development', for any references to the importance of promoting practical schemes for establishing safe identity and vital registration systems. The problems involved in achieving such systems in many contexts are far from trivial and will require much thought, negotiation and ingenuity. But if there is one single foundational policy that the world's poor require, it is public acknowledgement of their individual existence from birth to death.

Ethical considerations

The possibility that such identity registration systems could be, and indeed have been, used by a deformed political regime for political surveillance and repression, as in apartheid South Africa, does not negate the value of the argument being presented here and the policy being proposed. All tools, institutions and social assets can be used for both positive and negative purposes and the more powerful and important the tool, the greater is its potential impact. The fact that the Nazi regime tragically was able to exploit the national identity information system of Holland to locate Jews more effectively in order to do them harm does not mean that an identity registration system is so intrinsically dangerous that it should not be constructed - any more than the Nazis' use of Europe's rail system to expedite the Jews in large numbers to their fates means that railway technology is an intrinsically sinister threat. However, it does mean that serious consideration must be given to the ethical implications of creating such information systems.

Firstly, there needs to be consent to rules of ownership of the information. Identity registration systems create a category of public information about persons, but this should be considered to be the private property of the individual to whom it relates. Only from this premise should any possible further uses of the information by other parties be considered, with public health epidemiological uses by accredited professionals probably being the only legitimate such further use which should be allowed by design. As Keith Breckenridge has emphasised in relation to the concrete example of post-apartheid South Africa's new biometric technology, the recognition of this ownership principle means that very serious thought must be given to the kinds of identity information system that are created, the precise technology of construction and modes of access (which should be essentially by private individuals and opaque to state or commercial uses). Attention must be given to the laws surrounding the use of the system and the possibility, for instance, of invoking international sanctions on any state or company abusing this aspect of an individual's human rights (as in principle should apply to the violation of any of the other human rights of the citizens of those states who are participants to the UN covenants and charters).

One possible policy conclusion which might follow from these various ethical and practical considerations is that although systems of identity registration for citizens require the recognition and support of national states and their laws, they would best be constituted as autonomous institutions, independent of elected national governments and their changing political agendas and ultimately answerable only to the UN and international law. This would not seem to be such a radical suggestion, given that all the many states who are participants in the UN International Covenenat on Civil and Political Rights have already acknowledged that the Rights prescribed by the Covenant follow from acceptance by the States Parties of commitments to a higher set of principles than those indicated by national interest or raison d'etat. The right to identity registration is, of course, one of these Civil and Political Rights.


The continuing lack of universal civil identity registration systems in many poor countries and communities is both a human rights scandal and a fundamental development obstacle, which the world's most powerful international organisations for promoting economic development should treat as among their highest priorities to address, while giving due consideration to the crucial point that these systems, though necessarily supported with the authority and resources of national governments, need to be protected against possible abuses. Identity registration systems should be created principally for the liberty and the use of private individuals, not to serve the purposes of commercial organisations or states.

Further Reading

Breckenridge, K. (2005). 'The biometric state: the promise and peril of digital government in the New South Africa'. Journal of African Studies 31 (2), 267-82.

De Soto, H., (2000). The Mystery of Capital: why capitalism triumphs in the west and fails everywhere else. New York: Basic Books.

Higgs, E. (2004). The Information State in England: the central collection of information on citizens since 1500. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

North, D.C. (1981). Structure and Change in Economic History. New York: Norton 1981.

Solar, P. M. (1995). 'Poor relief and English economic development before the industrial revolution'. Economic History Review 48,1-22.

Wrigley, E.A. (1988). Continuity, chance and change: the character of the industrial revolution in England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

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