Photo of Dr Nick Palmer

Dr Nick Palmer (Broxtowe, Labour)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for an identity card for British residents;
and for connected purposes.

We are all aware of the gruesome fate that awaits most ten-minute rule Bills. This Bill is intended as a pilot for any potential future Government legislation.

I am seeking to promote a serious debate that goes beyond the relatively superficial matters covered in some previous discussions. However, I pay tribute to the serious discussion that has taken place. For instance, reports from the Select Committee on Home Affairs some years ago, and from the Data Protection Commissioner, are notable in that respect. The matter was also given serious consideration in a draft report from the Information Commissioner, which I have seen as a result of my membership of her informal advisory group.

I am also pleased that my hon. Friend Roger Casale will put the case against the Bill. That will allow us to have a full debate. With a little luck, we may also have the opportunity to discover the view of the House.

Why is the Bill needed? The main objectives are to reduce low-level crime and disorder, to help prevent inappropriate purchase—of alcohol or fireworks, for instance—and to discourage all fraud based on impersonation. Such fraud includes benefit fraud and electoral fraud.

The Bill contains four main provisions. First, it provides that all residents should be issued with a smart ID card. It would be compulsory to own such a card, but not to carry it at all times. Similar provisions apply to driving licences. So far, I have not encountered anyone who thought that the requirement that drivers own a driving licence was a great imposition. On a similar principle, it should be possible for residents of Britain to be able to identify themselves if necessary.

Secondly, the Bill would authorise the police to request identification, but only if a person were considered to be behaving suspiciously, or had entered an area temporarily or permanently designated as high-security. An example of such an area would be that immediately surrounding a military base.

The Bill would mean that an ID card would be sufficient to satisfy such a request. Therefore, any British resident carrying an ID card would be able to satisfy police inquiries by producing it. If the ID card were not available, the police would be allowed to request alternative identification. If they could not satisfy themselves about a person's identity, officers could, if necessary, accompany that person to his home and look at the card there. In addition, another person with an ID card or a driver's licence could be asked for confirmation of a person's identity, or some other means of identification might be available.

The key point is that the Bill would give police the power to ask for identification that they lack at present. The other day, a police officer in my constituency told me that he often stops people who he believes to be joy riding. They give him a name and address and say, "Sorry, officer, we haven't got our driving licence with us." The officer is forced to take at face value the name and address that he is given. When the people go off, the officer has no way to tell whether the name and address that he has been given are false.

Similarly, Mr. Speaker, I am sure that it would be impossible for you to be caught loitering in Beeston high street at 2 am examining shop fronts, but it is possible that I could be there. If I were, a policeman might ask what I was doing and who I was. At present, I could give some explanation and any name or address without being required to offer proof. At the end of such a conversation, I could commit a crime when the policeman moved on, secure in the knowledge that I had not been personally identified.

The police should be required to log all such requests. That would act as a deterrent. People who have been identified by the police, and know that the police have logged that identification, are less likely to commit a crime in the same vicinity soon afterwards. It would also be a security measure. Most hon. Members will recall the controversy over the sus law as it applied in Brixton. Perfectly law-abiding people used to be stopped several times a week, simply because they lived in Brixton and were black. We must ensure that such behaviour does not happen again. The Bill foresees an independent audit each year of the number of requests made by each police force, to discover whether any police force is using the power much more than others, and to give those conducting the audit the power to investigate why that should be the case, to ensure that only genuinely suspicious behaviour results in requests for identification.

All local authorities would be provided with a networked card printer, which would replace a lost or stolen card and register with the network that all previous versions of the card for that person were invalid or stolen, so that attempts to misuse identification would meet swift retribution. That provision is necessary. In Sweden, there have been many cases of identity being stolen, with fairly drastic consequences, so it is important that if one's card is stolen there is a local office where one can immediately obtain a replacement and ensure that all previous versions of that card are recognised as invalid.

Finally, I propose that the smart card have sufficient capacity—technically, that is no problem now—to cover a wide range of possible additional services for the holder. I envisage in the long run incorporating the driving licence, the asylum seeker card that is now being introduced, the card that many people have proposed for benefits recipients, and identification for other Government and local government services. It is important that we make it clear that it is not a card that we give to asylum seekers and benefits recipients only, in some way stamping them as requiring special supervision, but a card that each of us has, to register which services we are receiving from Government and local government.

In addition, the Bill foresees the possibility of other organisations and companies—local transport bodies, financial institutions or retailers—renting space on the card's memory for voluntary use by their customers. That would greatly enhance the usefulness of the card to the user and it would provide a secure and well supported ID system for vendors and help fully recover the cost of the scheme.

I have tried to strike a balance between crime reduction, usefulness to residents, protection against misuse and elimination of cost to the Exchequer. I recognise that a great deal more debate will be needed before any such Bill sees the light of day, but I ask the House's leave to introduce the Bill so that that debate may proceed.

4:28 pm
Photo of Mr Roger Casale

Mr Roger Casale (Wimbledon, Labour)

My hon. Friend Dr. Palmer has made a good case and I congratulate him on securing the debate.

Although I oppose the Bill, I do not oppose in principle the idea of introducing identity cards. Nor do I believe that the operation of a system of identity cards would present insurmountable practical difficulties or result in the generation of excessive costs, although costs arguments have been a constant feature of debate on the subject. My hon. Friend Mr. O'Brien quoted a figure of £1.8 billion as the cost of introducing the scheme, which he claims, on the basis of Home Office figures, would be equivalent to putting several thousand police officers on the street. We must be aware of those arguments about cost, but that is not the basis on which I seek to oppose the Bill.

Identity cards do work well in many European countries. There are many practical benefits, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe said, as well as imaginative ways of helping to recover the costs. I oppose the Bill because I do not believe that it would be right to try to introduce a system of identity cards in Britain at the present time. I believe that we need a much more robust and inclusive concept of citizenship before we would introduce identity cards. We must work first to change the rather unbalanced relationship that still exists between the British citizen and the British state.

The positive case for identity cards rests on the idea that they will strengthen the rights of the citizen, but in the title of his Bill, my hon. Friend refers to residents rather than citizens. Many of his arguments about the practical benefits focus on the benefits that would accrue to the holder of an identity card as a consumer. However, identity cards would be issued to individuals by virtue of their status not as consumers or residents, but as citizens. We cannot raise the issue of whether to have identity cards without at the same time raising the question of who is to qualify as a British citizen and exactly what those qualifications mean.

We must recognise that the introduction of identity cards, especially on a compulsory basis, as argued for by my hon. Friend, would fundamentally change the relationship between the citizen and the state. There is no need to rehearse—I do not have time to do so—the many objections that could be adduced on civil liberty grounds, not just in terms of costs, to the introduction of identity cards. Those objections include the effect that identity cards would have on the protection of civil and human rights, such as the rights to privacy, confidentiality and freedom from discrimination.

At the heart of those objections—indeed, the foundation on which they rest—is the notion of the state that, by its very existence, is antagonistic to the interests and freedoms of individuals; thus objectors view the identity card as one more instrument of state control. As Charter 88 has said, the entire concept of a national identity card system requires a level of trust and authority that is notably lacking in this country.

I do not share that fundamental mistrust of the state. I believe that the state is fundamental to our basic rights and liberties and to their protection. However, we have a duty to ensure that we balance the control that the state exercises over us as citizens with the democratic control and accountability that we exercise, so far as possible, over the state through our elected representatives and through the House. The problem is that that broader notion of citizenship is not very deeply entrenched in Britain today. I submit that we still think of ourselves as subjects, rather than citizens, and as relatively weak as citizens, lacking in opportunities for redress in the face of the centralised and, at times, seemingly overbearing power of the British state.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has started to make the case that we should view identity cards as a kind of passport to citizenship that will make it easier for people to prove their identities and guarantee our entitlement as citizens to certain basic services. I welcome that approach, but there is little evidence from countries that have identity cards that they are effective, for example, in managing crime. Nevertheless, the argument that a citizenship or identity card would strengthen the position of the most vulnerable groups in our society—the argument that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary seeks to make—is powerful and must be taken very seriously.

Part of the problem with that argument is that many people believe that, in practice, it will cut both ways. Many of the most marginal groups may feel even more excluded, depending on the operation of the identity card system, especially if they fail to qualify for the card for any reason. Even if vulnerable groups qualified for such a card, it would be difficult perhaps for some of them to benefit if it were used to gain access to services, especially in the digital age.

I return to the point that we need a far broader, more inclusive and rights-based approach to citizenship to underpin any suggestion of introducing an identity card. We must move strongly away from notions of citizenship based on nationality and family descent. As I have said, we need to challenge the notion that lies at the heart of the unwritten British constitutional system that we are first subjects and then citizens. We need to strengthen new concepts of citizenship from the bottom up, rather than trying to introduce a new relationship between the state and the citizen from the top down. I believe that only then will we achieve the kind of sea-change in the relationship between the citizen and the state without which the idea of a compulsory identity card for this country will never enjoy public confidence and support.

There are signs that things are moving in the right direction. Through contact with other European countries, we have seen some of the practical benefits that accrue to citizens because of the operation of identity cards. The incorporation of the European convention on human rights in British law and the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 are all steps in the right direction.

There are also clear signs of a shift in our political culture. The stronger role of civil society organisations, the development even of notions of corporate citizenships and the idea of stakeholding all help to broaden the concept of citizenship and the bottom-up approach.

Not least, the Government's programme of constitutional reform is moving the agenda forward on citizenship issues. The abolition of the hereditary principle as an entitlement to sit in Parliament and the Government's commitment to devolution and subsidiarity all help to make notions of active citizenship—and, in particular, popular sovereignty—more deeply entrenched. One sign that such a sea-change in the relationship between the citizen and state had come about would be if the request for identity cards came from citizens or civil society groups themselves. That would enable us to approach the issue in a bottom-up, rather than top-down, manner.

If we are to have identity cards in the future, they should be just that. They should be a proof of identity and therefore of citizenship and entitlement. We should certainly not try to make the cards do the work that my hon. Friend would like them to do however convenient and attractive that might seem. In seeking to introduce the cards that he has in mind, he will find that he is in competition with Departments, which will find plenty of jobs for the cards to do. The Department of Health has already expressed an interest in using such cards for organ donors; the Home Office would like a smart card; and we will hear from the Department for Education and Skills that the cards should contain our CVs and examination results and perhaps from the Treasury that the card should be able to answer the five economic tests.

If we are to have a system of identity cards at some point in the future, it must be clear that, as well as gaining something, we would be giving something up. We will be giving up the liberty that we currently enjoy—although some might question its practical relevance in the modern world—to be able to move around Britain without documentary proof of our identity. However, if I had the time, that point might lead to a discussion of the important point about the effect that the introduction of identity cards might have on public confidence in the police and on the relationship between the public and the police.

Traditionally, internal controls have been strengthened where external border controls have been weak. There is a much greater use of identity cards, for example, in the EU countries that have signed the Schengen agreement. We should not introduce identity cards in this country without examining our border controls. Citizens should have greater freedom of movement between Britain and other European countries in return for what would inevitably become tighter control over our freedom of movement within the UK.

The time is not right for the introduction of the Bill. The public must not be coerced into accepting its provisions without there being the much more robust and broader notion of citizenship that I have described. I oppose the Bill.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):—

The House divided: Ayes 77, Noes 106.

Division number 141

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly negatived.