What's up with the Very English Scandal insurance card?
July 6, 2018 11:49 AM   Subscribe

I watched A Very English Scandal on Amazon and have questions about England's National Insurance card. Possible mild spoilers in the question.

As an American unfamiliar with the English system, I'm baffled by this part of the story. When Norman Scott lost his card, why was getting a replacement card such a big deal? Don't people lose their cards from time to time, and isn't there is a procedure to get a new card?

My questions are about how things were done in the 60s and 70s, but also how it works today, since apparently Norman says he still, to this day, hasn't gotten a new card and it continues to impact his life.

How easy/difficult would it have been for Norman Scott to get a replacement card on his own?
How easy/difficult would it have been for Jeremy Thorpe to use his influence as an MP to get a replacement card for Norman?

And what is the insurance card used for, exactly? I got the impression it had an impact on his life beyond just health insurance.
posted by daikon to Law & Government (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
As a British citizen, I too failed to understand this particular issue. What matters is knowing your National Insurance /number/, since you need that for many things, including claiming benefits. That number is on every single payslip, plus your P60 (annual summary of pay & benefits from your employer) and a bunch of other paper records you're likely to have around, as well as on the card you receive sometime during your teens (IIRC).

It is possible that he didn't know or have a copy of his number anywhere other than the card itself, but I'm still not sure how this would have prevented him from finding out what it was by poking the bureaucracy in the correct fashion. Maybe this was just beyond him for some reason?
posted by pharm at 12:14 PM on July 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

The National Insurance card and the associated number isn't related to health insurance - it's used to keep track of someone's tax payments and payments towards state benefits and state pension. The National Insurance number is like a Social Security Number in the US, as you give it to an employer when you start a job, and your tax and National Insurance records are held under the number. (It's also used with HMRC, JobCentre Plus, The Pension Service, Disability, and Carer's Service.)

According to the paperwork mine's attached to, you can only get one replacement card.

You don't strictly need the card (maybe you used to?) as long as you know what your number is.
posted by minsies at 12:14 PM on July 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

National insurance has very little to do with healthcare in the UK. The NHS is not an insurance scheme. It's a service that is free on delivery, funded out of general taxation and available to people regardless of whether they pay income tax (which is indirectly what funds national insurance). Your NI number is not used to track contributions to "health insurance", because you don't make contributions. And most people in the UK are entitled to use the NHS whether or not they have an NI number.

For the purposes of your question, national insurance is essentially the same thing as social security in the US (i.e. it's a benefit paid in retirement with a floor, a maximum, and otherwise in approximate proportion to your contributions during your working life). In that sense, "insurance" is a misnomer.

Healthcare aside, the NI number is more like the equivalent of a US SSN. It's unique ID that records your tax payments and benefits receipts, including of course your contributions to National Insurance.

Like the SSN, the NI number doubles up as a unique identifier for things other than national insurance/social security. It's asked for a lot less than the SSN but like the SSN they usually just want to know the number. They don't need to see the card.

I don't think it would have been impossible to get a replacement card, but it might not have been easy, in the same way it's not easy to get a replacement social security card because of concerns that a number used as an all purpose identifier is a identity theft risk.

For what it's worth, I have no idea where my card is. I don't think I have ever been asked to show it. I do know my number.

But in any case, the government doesn't actually issue NI cards any more. They tell you the number, but there's no official card.
posted by caek at 12:16 PM on July 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

Seems like maybe there was a combination of A) he didn't remember his number and B) he lacked the supporting documentation necessary to obtain a replacement card?

I only have experience with American SSN Cards, where it's definitely possible to get a replacement but you need specific documentation to prove citizenship and identity, like a birth certificate, to obtain one.
posted by tobascodagama at 12:23 PM on July 6, 2018

Ah ha!

This thread on a UK cycling forum reveals some relevant information.

A poster claims that the cards were actually stamped to record the contributions your employer had made to the NI scheme & so actually having the card in your posession genuinely mattered, because it was your final record of contributions, which were crucial to getting, eg, unemployment benefits & your full state pension on retirement. The example given dates from the 1940s. One would hope that by the 1970s central computerisation had advanced to the point that government records were reliable, but one could certainly imagine that 'folk memory' would still be insisting on the vital necessity of keeping hold of your card.
posted by pharm at 12:23 PM on July 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

Which further leads to the Wikipedia Article on UK National Insurance numbers which states:
Until 1975, the suffixes A, B, C and D at the end of the NI number signified the period of validity of the National Insurance cards originally used to collect National Insurance contributions (NICs). Cards were exchanged every twelve months and because of the very large numbers of cards issued the exchange was staggered. Suffix A cards ran from March of one year until March of the next when they were exchanged for a new one. Stagger B suffix cards ran from June until the following June, stagger C from September until the following September and stagger D from December until the following December. For example, a B stagger card issued in 1955 might have run from the first Monday in June that year until the first Sunday in June the following year. This staggered system operated from 5 July 1948 until 1975, at which time the A stagger cards were extended to run an extra five weeks, until 5 April 1975, in line with the end of the tax year. The B, C and D stagger NI Cards had a shorter period of validity in their final year, and ran from June, September and December respectively in 1974 until 6 April 1975. From 6 April 1975 onwards, a computerised National Insurance Recording System (NIRS) was used to allocate all NICs by tax years.
So it sounds like until 1975 there was no central recording of National Insurance contributions directly from employers - the employer would stamp your card & you would hand your card in to be exchanged for a fresh unstamped on every year & the government would record your NI stamps at that point. So Norman Scott was geniunely losing out significantly if he failed to hand in his stamped NI cards - there was no other record held centrally by the sounds of things.
posted by pharm at 12:30 PM on July 6, 2018 [9 favorites]

(This also explains why it still affects him today - he will have a reduced state pension due to not having as many years of NI contributions as he ought to have.)
posted by pharm at 12:36 PM on July 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

It was a pain in the neck getting one in the first place. I had to call up, get an interview date some weeks out and then go in person to an office far from my home and office (half a day off work). And I am a British citizen, with a British passport just had grown up overseas. I wouldn't have wanted to get a replacement after that!
posted by kitten magic at 1:50 PM on July 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

My parents worked for the DHSS in the 1970s, and the stamp system was certainly still in use in 1978. Computerisation was much much later than we imagine - mid-to-late 1980s in many industries.
posted by tinkletown at 3:51 PM on July 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

If anybody has any annoying elderly relatives who proclaim that they are entitled to x, y or z “because I’ve paid my stamp” - they are talking about NI contribution stamps.
posted by tinkletown at 3:54 PM on July 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

pharm, thanks for your interesting answers and research on this! I too couldn't work out why it was such a big deal. In the summer of 1975 I got a summer holiday job at one of the major hospitals close to my uni. I got a pay slip and all. I wasn't British at the time, very new to the system, knew nothing about it and retained less: I was astounded years later, job-hunting again, to find I already had a National Insurance number that had been allocated with that first job. From what pharm found out about renewing them I must have been among the first group to be recorded by computer in the summer of 75.

Coming from where I'm from, that kind of consistent and accurate record keeping seemed the most unlikely thing ever. Imagine a bureaucratic system capable of doing this! They must never ever lose anybody's most trivial details! So I did not understand Scott's problem and wasn't sure it wasn't dramatic shorthand for feckless eccentricity. But if you had to get the thing stamped - well, no wonder he was narked about it. I never even had a card until much, much later, and it is a credit card shaped thing that never gets read or scanned, it's just a memory aid. You're never asked for proof of your NI number, though you often have to put it on forms: I assume if officials checked they could find out in seconds whether you'd given the right number.

most people in the UK are entitled to use the NHS whether or not they have an NI number.
Until this current government.
posted by glasseyes at 5:16 PM on July 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

Just to further emphasise that the National Insurance number has little to do with health insurance, there is a different identifier that's used when interacting with the National Health Service: the NHS number. But I'm guessing this didn't exist at the time of A Very English Scandal.
posted by fabius at 5:28 AM on July 8, 2018

« Older Yet Another Mattress Question   |   I have no idea how to move forward in my career Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.