I beg to move,
That this House
believes the Government's identity cards scheme should be cancelled immediately.
May I begin my remarks with an apology to the Home Secretary? When he made his statement about identity cards last week, I joked with him that his announcement was a fudge arranged between a new Home Secretary who wanted to scrap the ID cards scheme and a Prime Minister who did not. I had, not unsurprisingly, assumed that the result was an ugly compromise between the two, resulting in a voluntary scheme that will cost a large amount of money but will not work. I had also assumed that the Home Secretary had been forced into it in order to keep the Prime Minister off his back, but it now seems that I was completely wrong. The Prime Minister had nothing to do with last week's announcement—in fact, he did not even know all the things that the Home Secretary was going to announce. On reflection, I suppose that is hardly surprising, given that this Prime Minister is clearly no longer in control of his Cabinet, the Chancellor keeps going off piste and the Home Secretary is now joining him.
What did surprise me was what that statement actually means. It means that the completely daft announcement made last week that the Government's flagship ID card scheme, which we were once told was designed to play a central part in the battle against terrorism, will be voluntary was not another stupid pronouncement from the Downing street bunker, but was, in fact, the brainchild of the new Home Secretary. Perhaps my apology should be to the Prime Minister and not to the Home Secretary, who was clearly off his rocker when he made that announcement. How on earth is a voluntary ID card scheme going to work? Will the terrorists sign up? Somehow, I do not see the al-Qaeda sleeper cells all rushing down to Boots with their 30 quid to make sure that they have their own ID cards. What about the organised criminals? Will the traffickers and drug smugglers all rush to sign up? Somehow, I doubt it. What about the benefit fraudsters? They probably will not sign up either. So what we are left with is a multi-billion pound ID scheme for young drinkers in pubs and the vain hope that there will be enough volunteers to pay for it.
Although we did not agree with them, at least previous Home Secretaries appeared to have some method to what they were doing—this one appears to be taking a flight into cloud cuckoo land. How many millions of people does the Home Secretary honestly think will get up one morning saying to themselves, "I know, I'll skip the curry tonight, go down the shops and spend 30 quid on an ID card instead."? How on earth can a voluntary ID card be of any use in law enforcement?
Let us make no mistake about it: the ID card scheme was the magic bullet that the Government told us would solve everything from crime to immigration fraud and terrorism. We were told that once it was introduced, citizens would be safe in the knowledge that there was a piece of plastic and a database that, when combined, would provide the single source of truth about a person.
My hon. Friend is making a very good point. Does he agree that it was always absurd to suppose that an illegal immigrant coming into this country would somehow escape all passport checks but would suddenly be caught out by a check on an ID card? It is completely unnecessary, is it not, to demand an ID card as well as a passport? We should use the passport.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, if we had a proper border police force in this country—that is what we need—the problem would not arise in the first place because we would intercept those illegal immigrants at the border.
We were told that with the card, nobody need any longer fear that their identity could be stolen, because the Government would have it under lock and key—unless of course someone decided to burn the contents of the database on to a CD and then post that through a letter box, leave it in a car or on a roundabout or follow any of the other imaginative ways that the Government have worked out for losing our data. No longer would people need fear that crimes would go unsolved. Between the DNA database, the ID cards and the identity register, the police could just take a quick swab, poke a few buttons and, hey presto, the criminal's identity would be revealed. No longer would people need to fear terrorism. For all the comments that the Home Secretary made last week about the terrorism issue being overplayed, we have all sat here month after month, year after year while his predecessors have told us that voting against ID cards was betraying the nation because they were an essential part of the war against terror. Now it seems that either those views were exaggerated or the current Home Secretary has got it wrong.
The hon. Gentleman says that he has consistently voted against these proposals. Will he cast his mind back to
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that in the early part of this decade, we were more supportive of the Government's proposals than we are now. We have become completely convinced by what we have seen over the years from successive Home Secretaries that this Government are incapable of delivering this scheme. I have spoken with many people in the security world and not one has argued that we are wrong about ID cards and that they are an essential part of the security tool kit.
I ask the Home Secretary why he has changed his mind about ID cards and terrorism. After all the statements by the Government over so many years that ID cards were an essential part of combating terror—including comments after incidents in this country and in others—what has suddenly changed?
The Government told us that the ID card would keep us safe, that it would prevent crime and terrorism and that it would tighten up our immigration system. We are now being told that it will be a benign, handy-sized piece of plastic that will help us to travel around Europe in peace. Of course, it will also be useful for those aged under 21 and trying to buy a drink in a pub. We are left, according to the Home Secretary, with none of the advantages his Government have trumpeted, save continental travelling, and all of the disadvantages. We are left with the staggering costs to which the Government have already signed up through the poisoned pill contracts; the identity register; the cost to the individual; and the hidden nasty that is still there—compulsion by the backdoor of the passport office.
A central plank of the Opposition's argument is the savings that they argue could be made by scrapping the scheme. The credibility of their case is therefore dependent on the hon. Gentleman being able to tell us how much can be saved, over what time scale and what that money would be spent on. Can he do so?
The credibility of what we say will be determined by whether this scheme is right or wrong. We have argued all along that this scheme is wrong, and we are now seeing the Government back away from it. I fear that the right hon. Lady and her predecessors have written poison pill clauses into the contracts for this project that will make it much more difficult for a future Government to back away from the scheme. I will happily give way to her again if she can tell us that there are no such clauses in any of the contracts that would tie the hands of a future Government. If this Government are tying the hands of their successor, as I fear they may be, that is an unacceptable practice by any Administration. It may make it harder for us to do the right thing, but it will not stop us. The right hon. Lady does not appear to want to intervene on that point.
It does indeed speak volumes, but then very few positive reasons for the scheme remain. One reason why I was taken aback by the reports at the weekend was that I thought that the new Home Secretary had realised that and was trying to scrap the scheme outright. I was disappointed to discover that that was not the case. We will have to await the arrival of the new Government to secure that change.
Of course, the battle over ID cards between Ministers has been played out over the airwaves and the newspaper columns for some time now. We have seen an array of different opinions aired about how best either to keep or end the scheme. In March, the then Home Secretary insisted that the scheme was going ahead. She said:
"We are on track to introduce identity cards this autumn, and we have already started to issue ID cards for foreign nationals. Next month, we plan to award two contracts for the national identity scheme".—[ Hansard, 23 March 2009; Vol. 490, c. 15.]
"My sense is that ID cards will not go ahead. We have to find savings somewhere, and it would be better to shelve schemes like this that aren't popular."
On the same day, another former Home Secretary, Mr. Blunkett also called for the ID card scheme to be scrapped, in favour of mandatory biometric passports. Asked whether ID cards could be dropped, he said:
"I think it is possible to mandate biometric passports. Most people already have a passport but they might want something more convenient to carry around than the current passport and may be able to have it as a piece of plastic for an extra cost."
"ID cards are an interesting point because the lion's share of the expenditure is going on biometric passports. People are rightly concerned about who comes in and who goes out of this country. Your old conventional bog-standard passport was okay but it was not too difficult to improvise, shall I say. The biometrics means that it's very much more difficult. That is the bigger cost."
So he made a commitment to biometric passports, but was very cautious about ID cards.
When the current Home Secretary took over, things looked much brighter for those opposing ID cards. He reportedly launched an urgent review of the identity card scheme, paving the way for a possible U-turn on the policy. A source was quoted as saying:
"Alan is more sympathetic to the civil liberties arguments than previous home secretaries. He is genuinely open minded. He wants to see all the evidence and then he will make his decision before the end of the summer".
Statutory instruments relating to the scheme were due to be debated this week but have now been postponed.
It is not the fact that Ministers have made different statements at different times that concerns some of us: it is the fact that we now have a scheme that will be compulsory for some people who are resident in this country and voluntary for others. The two-tier system being created is the real problem.
I understand that point. The issue for me, with the various different views coming out of the Government, is that we have a total lack of strategy. The Government have forgotten what the scheme is all about and they do not seem able to explain its purpose. We have something that is neither fish nor fowl, and that is no way to run what would be one of the biggest schemes of its kind that this country has ever seen.
Can the hon. Gentleman explain to the House what the Conservative party intends to do to tighten up controls on foreign nationals who work and live in this country, if it does not go forward with an ID scheme?
The hon. Gentleman clearly was not listening to what I said a moment ago. The big issue that we have when it comes to people getting into and out of the country is the lack of a proper border police force. That has been central to the strategy that the Conservative party has put forward for a long time. The Government made an attempt to copy the policy two years ago but failed to do so properly. We need properly policed borders.
The new Home Secretary raised expectations that he would change things, but immediately he rowed back from that and said:
"We remain on course to bring in a policy that we believe has widespread public support".
"In my very first interview as Home Secretary I made clear that ID cards were a manifesto commitment and that legislation governing their introduction was passed in 2006".
It was reported that the contract to make the cards—for which Fujitsu, IBM and Thales were bidding—would not be awarded until the autumn of 2010, a year later than expected. Then came last week's announcement, in which the Government abandoned plans to make identity cards compulsory for British citizens, to scrap the airside scheme and to extend the voluntary scheme in Manchester to the north-west as a whole. I have to say that I still do not understand how a voluntary scheme works. What is the policing benefit of a voluntary scheme. If a police officer stops someone in the street, can he ask for an ID card? The person can say, "I didn't want to have one, so I can't produce it." Where is the benefit to an individual of buying an ID card and, more to the point, where is the benefit to the country of spending billions of pounds on setting up the mechanisms in the hope that someday enough people will buy enough of the cards to get that money back? It seems to me to be a scheme without a purpose.
Even last week's announcement was not the final thing to be said. Despite what appeared to be a final clarification from the Home Secretary, the noble and dark Lord Mandelson intervened and insisted that the Government still planned full take-up of ID cards. He insisted that the Government have
"always made clear we want to move to a full take-up of ID cards and what Alan Johnson has said is fully consistent with that."
He was quoted as saying that last week. Perhaps the Home Secretary could clarify. Given that the noble and dark Lord is de facto the Prime Minister of the country at the moment, and appears to have rowed back on the Home Secretary's commitment of last week that the scheme would only be voluntary, will the Home Secretary clarify the scheme's status? Will he categorically rule out compulsion and will he say that Lord Mandelson's comments were wrong?
It is no surprise to any of us that the Darth Vader of modern politics is in favour of the scheme. However, my hon. Friend is being unfair on my previous opponent the former Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith. The author of the scheme was Mr. Blunkett. He has said, in these terms, that the database society is a bad idea. Let us not worry about the card or the passport. What is my hon. Friend's opinion of the national identity register, which is the key threat behind the system?
My right hon. Friend has raised a valid point that I had planned to come on to in a moment. The truth is that the national identity register establishes a level of data collection that goes far beyond anything that has ever been required for passports or that even needs to be required for a system of biometric passports. It remains our intention, as it was when my right hon. Friend was shadow Home Secretary, not to proceed with the national identity register. I see little reason why the rules that apply to the application for a passport should change radically given the current circumstances. To extend those rules to a national identity register such as that proposed by the Government at a time when the nation's finances are straitened and when genuine questions arise about civil liberties seems to suggest that it is a project that we do not need to pursue.
We need clear answers to some of the questions that remain before the Government. The terms of the motion that we have tabled gives the House a clear choice to vote for or against the scheme. First, can we have some transparency about the existing contracts and the amount of taxpayers' money that has been spent already? More to the point, how much public money has been committed to the scheme?
As the House will know, I have written to the contracting groups—as did my right hon. Friend David Davis before me—to advise them that a Conservative Government will cancel the scheme. I repeat that warning today. One of the first acts of an incoming Conservative Government will be to cancel the ID scheme. The scheme and the register are an affront to British liberty, have no place in a Conservative Britain and are a huge waste of money.
We will certainly cancel the national identity register. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we might be in a position in which, in order to allow people to travel to the United States, we need to process biometric data and to pursue the introduction of biometric passports. We have not backed away from the biometric passport option and, I understand, nor has he. Clearly, data collection will be necessary for biometric passports. However, it is not our intention to proceed with a compulsory national identity register.
What do the Government intend—this relates to the point made by Chris Huhne—to include in the national identity register? Section 4 of the Identity Cards Act 2006 gives the Secretary of State the power to designate certain documents under the Act, such as passports. As the explanatory notes to the Act make clear, that means that
"if, as is intended, passports were designated documents, an individual in applying for a passport must at the same time include an application to be entered in the Register if he is not already entered in the Register".
The Home Office consultation on secondary legislation on ID cards, published in November, reaffirmed the Government's intention to designate passports. It said that:
"once passports are designated under the Act, it will be possible to record each individual's identity details, including fingerprint biometrics, on the National Identity Register"
The Government proposed holding applicants' referees' details on the register, too. That is very different from the process of simply applying for a biometric passport, as the hon. Member for Eastleigh will, I am sure, agree.
The Home Office's spurious idea of what is voluntary was demonstrated when the consultation went on:
"Designation is not the same as 'compulsion' as there is no penalty if someone chooses not to apply for a designated document".
However, as we discovered this afternoon when my hon. Friend Damian Green asked his question, it appears that one cannot "unvolunteer" for one of these passports. I would be interested to hear the Home Secretary's confirmation of that.
What will the hon. Gentleman achieve by abandoning the national identity register but maintaining a register, also maintained by the Identity and Passport Service, of those who have biometric passports? The information on the identity card is identical to that on the passport. It consists of only five bits of information: name, date of birth, place of birth, nationality and address.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is wrong. He needs to go and look at the legislation and he will discover that nearly 50 categories of information need to be provided under the Act. That is a huge jump from the current means of applications for passports.
I know that there are 54 places on the computer where the information can be put, but all the information other than name, date of birth, place of birth, nationality and address is identity information from other Government Departments—the national insurance number, the national health service number and so on. They are simply cross-references with other Departments. The only personal information on an ID card, as on a passport, will be name, age, date of birth, place of birth and nationality.
If that is the case, it prompts the question why we need a database for national insurance numbers. The current application system for passports seems perfectly adequate to me. If we had to have biometric passports, the data will clearly have to be stored. I see no need to create a much more substantial database containing 30 or 40 extra items of information that are not necessary in an application for a passport.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point, but I am not sure that I would accept that it is necessary to store biometric data. After all, the document would have the biometric data and it is an additional guarantee of veracity. Why is it necessary to go one step further and store it centrally?
My view is that we should do the minimum that we have to do. If data are submitted for a passport application, they will probably be retained in the passport database. We do not need to create a gargantuan list of items with biometric data attached. We do not need to store somebody's national insurance number and biometric data side by side with all the other items to which the hon. Gentleman is referring on a national identity database. We need a passport system.
The issue is about more than the fact that we do not need to do this. I feel sympathy for my hon. Friend in dealing with the slow learners on the Government Benches. We are talking about a risk. The Government have already lost 25 million records. What will happen when they lose every other record—when they lose the metadatabase with access to all the databases in the Government? This is a serious danger; it is more than an inconvenience.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He is also right to point out the Government's lamentable record of managing data. Dr. Palmer asked why the Opposition have formed the view that we have. We have formed that view for two reasons. First, there are strong civil liberties arguments against an identity cards scheme. Secondly, we have no faith whatsoever in this Government's ability to manage such a scheme on the basis of cost or data protection. They have proved to be systematically incompetent over the years in managing such a big scheme and they should not be trusted with one.
Is it not the case that the fundamental difference is that the biometric passport database is a static database—one submits one's details, they are held there and they are effectively used as verification when one applies to update one's details—whereas the national identity register is a live database? It is not only constantly updated with, effectively, one's details, as one is obliged to do under the 2006 Act. It is also constantly updated every time it is interrogated by public service deliverers such as the NHS, and so on, and therefore forms a fundamental footprint of how one lives one's life and how one accesses public sector services. That is the fundamental difference.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. On many occasions over the years, we have seen the Government introduce something that develops mission creep. Step by step, something that was designed for a particular purpose becomes much more substantial. We are talking about the need to have a database for passports and for nothing else. The Government's proposal for a national identity register is something that, as sure as night follows day, will develop an acute mission creep and will involve far more things than we would ever countenance as acceptable.
The hon. Gentleman is very generous in giving way. But there we have it, do we not? Mr. Wallace has identified the only difference between the passport register and the national identity register: the passport register is kept up to date when people change address. Is that the Opposition's objection? Chris Grayling has not produced another difference between a list of passport numbers—people who have passports—and a national identity register. They are identical, except on that one point.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is talking complete nonsense. He needs to go back and read the Identity Cards Act 2006 and look at the difference between the two schemes, one of which is a vast collection of personal data, as opposed to a limited amount of information needed to issue a passport. If he does not understand the difference between the two, I am afraid that I will not be able to help him.
Does the Home Secretary intend to press ahead with making it compulsory for passport applicants to be entered on to the national identity register? When will that happen? Can he give us an updated statement of the costs of the scheme? How much is the total bill? He talked about the scheme being self-funding. How long will that take? How many people will need to sign up for an identity card before the scheme becomes fully self-funding? Frankly, I do not believe that it is possible to make the scheme self-financing. That raises a third question—the subject of the motion tonight—straightforwardly, why cannot he just scrap the scheme now?
While the Government have been promoting a scheme that is becoming less and less substantial by the week, a considerable opportunity cost has been lost to the country. Although the Home Office's considerable resources could have been devoted to sorting out the problems that we actually have, the Government have been concentrating on inventing the answer to a problem that we do not have. They could have been working on sorting out the asylum system and the immigration system, designing a better strategy for countering terrorism and dealing with policing issues, yet they have devoted eight years to a massive national folly.
I had hoped that the signals given out by the Home Secretary when he took office meant that he had brought a degree of common sense to his new job. How wrong I was. I should not have been surprised, though. The Government are no longer capable of taking clear-cut and straightforward decisions; instead, they just dither. If they are not sure about ID cards, they say, "We're not sure if we can scrap them, so let's have an unworkable, botched job instead." That is no way to govern this country and no way to run the Home Office. They should either stand by their principles and believe that the scheme has a purpose—in which case, stick with it and get on with the job—or they should accept that they were wrong and make big changes. Sitting with one leg on either side of the fence is the most ungainly and painful of all options, but the Government have long since forgotten how to do anything else. So, tonight, we have given the House an opportunity to put the Home Secretary out of his misery and to give a clear answer on ID cards: get rid of what is a ludicrous fudge and scrap the ID card scheme once and for all.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and add:
"acknowledges the continued and growing problem of identity fraud in the UK;
accepts that a universally accepted biometric passport or identity card linked to a national identity register will help secure the identity of an individual and reduce the incidence of multiple identity fraud;
further recognises that for certain groups, including young people, an identity card will enable them to provide proof of age and more broadly enable people to travel throughout Europe;
considers that it is right that non-European Economic Area foreign nationals should be obliged to apply for an identity card which provides a simple and effective method of determining the right of residence and entitlement to employment and benefits;
welcomes the fact that for those joining the National Identity Service there will be a choice between identity cards and biometric passports;
and notes the fact that any decision on whether membership of the scheme should be compulsory would require further legislation."
My hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration is hotfooting it from Heathrow even as I speak, and will reply to the debate.
Having spent my first few weeks as Home Secretary looking at this issue again from first principles, I am more convinced than ever that the national identity service is a sane and rational policy that needs to be implemented rather than scrapped, and accelerated rather than delayed. When I announced the results of my deliberations in a written ministerial statement to the House last week, it was reported in The Guardian as
"a decision to press ahead with the main elements of the national identity card scheme",
and by The Independent as
"the last rites for ID cards".
The Guardian, as so often, actually got it right.
The policy was forged following full public consultation and a supportive report by the Home Affairs Committee in 2004. The former leader of the Conservative party, Mr. Howard said in December of that year:
"We must protect our citizens in every way we can and in my judgement, that includes ID cards."
I was fascinated to hear in the intervention by my hon. Friend Dr. Palmer that Chris Grayling supported ID cards. I have it here in front of me now: on
The right hon. Gentleman has just said that the identity card is about the safety of the British people, but one of the problems with the scheme is that it has become the panacea for all the Government's problems, from benefit fraud to terrorism. Will he set out clearly what he believes the purpose of an identity card is?
I will certainly do that, but the hon. Gentleman will have to be patient for a while. I am going through the policy in chronological order. In 2002, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell supported identity cards. In December 2004, the then leader of the Conservative party supported identity cards. The following year, the manifesto on which my party successfully stood in the general election contained a commitment to introduce identity cards. There was no reference in that manifesto to compulsion and no mention of their use in fighting terrorism. So the manifesto made no spurious claims of what identity cards would do. We won the election. Parliament subsequently approved the legislation, and the Identity Cards Act received Royal Assent in 2006.
The right hon. Gentleman suggests that there was never any mention of terrorism. The Prime Minister described identity cards as an important weapon in the war against terrorism, and said that it was crucial to the destruction of terrorism that we should be able to spot quickly where multiple identities are being used. For the Home Secretary to stand there and say that the Labour party has never claimed that ID cards would be useful in the fight against terrorism is simply wrong.
The hon. Gentleman is struggling a bit. The Prime Minister was absolutely right in everything that he said, as I was right in what I just said. Our 2005 manifesto—that is what I said—did not contain any reference to compulsion, or to ID cards as a weapon in the fight against terrorism.
The right hon. Gentleman suggests that I have changed my mind. He clearly voted for motions and supported policies on compulsion and the importance of ID cards in combating terrorism. When did he change his mind?
Let me say it one more time: the platform on which we stood at the 2005 election—the manifesto that said that we would introduce ID cards—made no mention of compulsion and no mention of terrorism.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend: it gets better and better all the time. So why, given all this and the fact that every public opinion poll then and now shows substantial public support for identity cards, should we leave the path of good governance and common sense and wander off into the dense ideological undergrowth that the motion from Her Majesty's Opposition tries to tempt us towards?
The right hon. Gentleman will know, because he pays great attention to such things, that the Scottish Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the concept of ID cards—not even one Labour MSP was prepared to support it. Will he respect that decision? Will he ensure that people in Scotland will not have to use ID cards, which no one in Scotland wants, to access public services?
This is not a devolved issue, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Of course, we have made it clear since 2007 that if people want to use their biometric passports, which all parties agree on, as their identity card, there is no need for them to get an identity card as well. Their passports will do to verify their identity.
As I understand it, three essential arguments are being deployed against the introduction of identity cards. The first is that they are unnecessary, the second is that they are too expensive, and the third is that giving people a single, safe and secure way to verify and protect their identity—for the benefit of Mr. Weir, I should explain that that is the justification for the cards—will damage civil liberties.
My right hon. Friend is right, of course, to set out the attitude previously taken by the Tories—or at least, by quite a large number of them—towards identity cards. However, on Tuesday it will be four years since 52 people were slaughtered by murderous psychopaths. Will my right hon. Friend accept, as his predecessors did, that no identity card scheme would have prevented the terrible events of four years ago?
We will indeed mark four years since 7/7 tomorrow. I was on "Any Questions?" on
I thank the right hon. Gentleman—and friend. The simple truth is, of course, that the then Home Secretary said that identity cards would not have prevented the outcome, but the Prime Minister subsequently said that they would be a help in defeating terrorism. The Home Secretary has to deal with that. Let me bring him back to the issue of improving the security of our identities. His Government have had the misfortune to lose the records, including bank account details, of 25 million people. When the Government lose someone's bank account details, that person can change their bank account. What do they do when the Government lose their fingerprints?
That is obviously an issue in the debate. The simple fact is that the information that went missing was downloadable. The information on the national identity register will not be downloadable. It is as safe and secure as it could possibly be—as safe as any system that we could possibly devise. According to the right hon. Gentleman's argument, at no time in future could the Government have any databases, because some Inland Revenue records were lost. We have a huge database in the NHS, at the Department for Work and Pensions and at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. It is nonsense to suggest that the knock-down argument against identity cards is that future Governments of all political persuasions should never set up such a database.
May I bring the Home Secretary back to the subject of the efficacy of identity cards? I accept that he has not claimed that identity cards would have prevented 7/7. The challenge for him is to identify any criminal activity that the introduction of a voluntary system of law enforcement would have prevented. Unless he can do that, he cannot demonstrate that identity cards would be efficacious in delivering the public policy objectives that the Government claim.
I will come on to that in a second, but the right hon. Gentleman cannot suggest that identity cards would not make a contribution to tackling identity fraud, benefit fraud, money laundering, people-trafficking, or a whole range of other problems. Incidentally, they would make a contribution towards tackling terrorism; as I have said, identity cards are a tool, not the toolbox. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell—my new friend as a supporter of ID cards, I discover—says that he has never spoken to anyone in the security services who says that ID cards would make any difference. In the five weeks that I have been in this job, I have not spoken to anyone in the security services who says anything other than that they would make a valuable contribution.
I set out the three principal arguments against identity cards: they are not necessary, they will cost too much, and they will interfere with civil liberties. I shall now take each of those in turn. Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House will, I am sure, recognise that people traffickers, drug dealers and, indeed, terrorists depend on ready access to bogus documents. At present, there is no single effective way of recording or establishing someone's identity. That makes people more vulnerable to identity fraud, makes the job of the police and others in tracking suspects more difficult, and makes proving one's own identity, or verifying someone else's identity, a laborious and complex process. It puts us in stark contrast to other European countries, most of which have a central and secure way of registering and tracking people's identity.
There are numerous databases that hold personal details of people living in this country, but none of them exists purely to verify someone's identity. Personal information on anyone who holds a driving licence is held on the DVLA database. The NHS holds personal details of everyone who is registered with a general practitioner and allocates them a unique NHS number, which apparently used to be their identity card number before identity cards were scrapped in 1952.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for mentioning the NHS database, because it is a rather good example of the sort of problems that we may have in store. It was originally estimated that the Spine system would cost £2.3 billion, but the National Audit Office now puts the figure at £12.4 billion and rising. What assurance can he conceivably give the House that the identity card scheme, and the national identity register, will not have a similar catastrophic effect on the public finances?
The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. The assessment in 2003-04 of how much the NHS database would cost was £12.3 billion. Its cost now is assessed at £12.4 billion. It has gone from £12.3 billion to £12.4 billion; that was always the cost. The problem with the NHS database is that we have not been able to spend the money that was originally put aside, because it has been too slow in being constructed. It is not a problem of spiralling costs; the hon. Gentleman is absolutely wrong on that.
I remain a supporter of identity cards: in the context of illegal immigration, identity is a huge problem. However, I have to say to my right hon. Friend that several Labour Members have concerns about the technology and the cost. As he just pointed out, the NHS computer system is years behind schedule. Will he assure me that that will not happen with the national identity register? I am pretty dubious about both the technology and the cost.
I do not want to get on to the subject of the NHS database, although I am tempted. The simple fact is that the identity cards system is on time and on schedule. It has been on schedule from the time it was set up. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell asked me for a report on the costs: we give one every six months and the most recent was in May, so I believe that I can placate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West on that point.
I have a simple question for the Home Secretary: how many people will have to volunteer to take up an ID card, and will have to pay their £30, before the scheme breaks even?
I do not know the answer to that question, but I will let the hon. Gentleman know. The point is that we have always put forward a voluntary scheme. We said in the manifesto that it would be voluntary. It was in the Bill that we took through Parliament that it would be a voluntary scheme. We want it to be universal, just as it is voluntary to carry credit cards and they are universal, and just as it is voluntary to have lots of other items that are universal. We have never based our assessment of the costs on the ID cards being compulsory.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way again, but I am slightly astonished by that reply. He has just announced a change in policy as regards airside workers, for whom identity cards were to have been compulsory. The key point that Chris Grayling makes, which I think is absolutely correct, is that as soon as we make the scheme voluntary, we spread the substantial overhead cost of the scheme among fewer and fewer people. One then cannot raise the amount of money that one expected, and the cost to the Exchequer is substantially higher. The risk of the cost to the Exchequer will be dramatic. What does the Treasury think about that?
I shall come to cost in a moment. As for airside workers, we expect that ID cards would be made free to them for the next 18 months. We expect that removing the argument about whether identity cards are compulsory and ensuring that those workers get the same benefit as all other British citizens from a voluntary scheme will mean that we can speed up the process and get much wider coverage over the next 18 months.
The details of the 80 per cent. of people who have a passport appear on the UK passport database. The DWP allocates national insurance numbers and holds personal details and benefits records. The upshot is that whenever a GP surgery, employer, job centre, bank or passport agency tries to verify someone's identity, they have no foolproof way of doing so, which makes it both easier for people to create multiple identities and more burdensome for people to prove their identity.
Identity fraud has grown, not diminished, since the debate began in 2004. The UK's fraud prevention service, the credit industry fraud avoidance system—CIFAS—estimates that the incidence of fraud whereby someone impersonates a victim in order to take over their bank account more than tripled between 2007 and 2008. A study in the US has ascertained that each time an identity is stolen it takes the victim, once they are aware, an average of 330 hours to sort everything out and claim back their own identity.
The question is: do we need to deal more effectively with the problems of identity fraud, which is a feature of illegal working, benefit fraud and terrorism? The answer must surely be yes. Will a national identity register help? Of course it will. The introduction of fingerprint biometric passports from 2012 will secure identities much more effectively for 80 per cent. of the adult population. The details of everyone aged 16 or over who applies for a passport will no longer be held on the passport database but on the national identity register, and will be linked to their unique biometric data.
Just like the current passport database, the national identity register will record someone's name, date and place of birth. It will also record their current address. It would not hold details of any criminal record or any medical information. Like the DVLA database, it will require people to update their details when their name or address changes. It will be overseen by an independent identity commissioner, and all arrangements for sharing data will be subject to parliamentary approval. Unlike any other existing databases, any unauthorised disclosure of information in the national identity register will be a specific criminal offence that could lead to two years' imprisonment. Tampering with the register could lead to a 10-year sentence.
The second argument is about cost. If identity cards were scrapped today, it does not follow that the Government would save any money at all. Of the total cost of £4.95 billion, 70 per cent. is for the systems to produce the new biometric passport, which the Opposition support. A further £379 million is for the compulsory scheme for foreign nationals, which the Opposition also support. Over 10 years, the operating costs of identity cards will be recovered through fees, so they are not a charge on general taxation over that period. Any initial savings from scrapping identity cards would be offset by the loss in fees that they would generate, which would make a significant contribution to the costs of technology and other systems necessary for the introduction of biometric passports.
The third argument is the civil liberties argument, which unites the Liberals with the libertarians. Holding an identity card is not a new concept for people in the UK. In the second world war, all British citizens were issued with an identity card that showed their name and address and an identity card number, which was held on a national register. When this requirement was abolished seven years after the war ended, the national register was transferred to the newly formed NHS. Identity cards do not create or extend the Big Brother society; they are an attempt to control it— [Laughter.] They are also an attempt to give every individual a greater right to determine the use of their own identity, where so many wish to abuse it. I presumed that was why the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell supported the concept in 2002. I do not know why he is laughing now.
In today's world, people invariably carry a range of plastic cards because they are required to prove their identity regularly. We need them to get into our place of work, to access cash, to pay our bills. Everyday events such as signing a tenancy agreement, starting a new job, or registering at a new doctor's surgery require people to produce not only their passport but a selection of any number of other documents to prove their identity—utility bills, driving licence, payslips, birth certificates, six months' worth of bank statements, all carried around by people in an attempt to prove that they are who they say they are. Many people would much rather produce their biometric passport or a credit card-sized ID card that fits easily into a wallet than waste time trawling through their personal paperwork, and many are likely to choose the £30 identity card over the £72 passport.
It is wrong to suggest that identity cards will make it possible for the Government or other bodies to repress or restrict liberty in any way. The Leader of the Opposition recently used an argument as spurious as his cod German accent when suggesting that it would. As is set out in law by the Identity Cards Act 2006, it will never be a requirement to carry an identity card at all times, and the police will have no new powers to stop people and demand that they produce their papers.
Private organisations will be able to access any information held about an individual on the national identity register only with that individual's consent. Police and security services would be able to do so only under specific provisions approved by Parliament. There is no question of the national identity register being used to compile information about people's political or religious beliefs, or their criminal or financial records. It will hold only the most basic, personal details, and substantially less than the personal records held by the NHS, the DVLA, or the Department for Work and Pensions. Everyone will have the right to see the information held on their record, and the names of any organisations that may have checked their identity against that record.
I point out again that the Opposition parties support the introduction of biometric passports, which will necessitate a register and will be available from 2011. They support our policy of compelling foreign nationals from non-EEA countries to have an identity card. Apparently, they do not think that the arguments of necessity, cost and civil liberties apply in the areas where, as I have explained, the majority of the costs are incurred.
On that point, can my right hon. Friend see a difference between the official Opposition's policy on biometric passports and the data that would need to be kept on those, and their view on the subject of identity cards? From what my right hon. Friend has just said, it seems that there would be no difference between the information on the credit card-sized identity card and that on the biometric passports, which the Opposition support.
It is a puzzle why Opposition Members support not just the passport but the necessary register of information. There seem to be some differences between David Davis, who has now left his seat, and the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell. There is certainly a difference between the two Opposition Front-Bench teams. I respect the fact that Chris Huhne has been consistent, but the official Opposition accept the need for biometric passports, and therefore must surely accept the need for a register of who has those biometric passports. They argue that, having established a system to lock in a person's identity in that way, we should not give our citizens the option of a card rather than a passport. That is the argument. Our argument is very clear: people do not need to have an identity card if they wish to use their biometric passport as their form of identity. Her Majesty's official Opposition say, "No, no. If they want to take a more convenient route and have a card, they shouldn't be allowed to do it."
On the question of having a card instead of a passport, and the figures that my right hon. Friend has given to the House tonight, I would say that if the scheme is to be self-financing at £30 a shot for an identity card, 35 million of them will have to be taken up in the next 10 years. Does he think that that is going to happen?
A further £379 million of the cost is for the compulsory identity card for foreign nationals, so I cannot see any way in which my hon. Friend's figures add up.
I would prefer not to, just for the last few minutes of the debate, because my hon. Friend is a great supporter of the scheme and will want to discuss the issue in detail with me afterwards.
Any sensible pragmatic Government would take advantage of the passport scheme to introduce a more convenient, voluntary alternative—a convenient piece of plastic to match all the others that people carry, rather than a valuable booklet. As I announced last week, I shall accelerate the roll-out of identity cards so that as many people as possible are able to access their benefits. Beginning in the Greater Manchester area, we will quickly move to the rest of the north-west and roll out the measure throughout London. There will be a focus on the most vulnerable in our society: those who not only do not hold passports, but do not have bank accounts or credit cards either—the socially and financially excluded.
But identity cards will not be compulsory for British citizens, and as I announced this week, that includes airside workers. After listening to unions and others in the airline industry, I believe that under a voluntary scheme, we can better explore how ID cards might simplify and make more secure the current arrangements at different airports for airside staff to verify their identity. My view is that, given the practical benefits, take-up will be high.
There is not one convincing argument for scrapping identity cards. It would not save money; it would, in the long term, cost us more, hamper the efforts of the public, the police and the security services to tackle identity fraud—which not only costs the economy £1.2 billion every year and causes considerable personal distress to those affected, but is the bedrock of much serious and organised crime in this country—and weaken, not strengthen, the defence of civil liberties. To scrap the scheme now, as the motion demands, would be an extremely expensive mistake that would deny the British people the practical and pragmatic step that they voted for in 2005 and have supported ever since. That is why I commend the amendment to the House.
I welcome the Opposition's motion on identity cards and have only one key point to make: the ID card scheme is not just about the cards, but about the national identity register. That is why we tabled an amendment, which is on the Order Paper but was not, unfortunately, selected, calling explicitly for the abandonment not just of ID cards but of the centralised biometric register.
I shall deal with the Home Secretary's point about the need for the register, because I simply do not see it. I was even more astonished after hearing his replies about costs than I was at the beginning of the debate. Rob Marris calculates that 35 million people would need to apply voluntarily for ID cards to make the scheme self-financing. A back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals that the figure is certainly about 30 million or 35 million.
The House should duly note, however, that we face the gravest crisis in the national finances that anyone can remember for generations, that we have a public sector deficit of more than 14 per cent. of GDP, and that the Home Secretary is unable—completely unable—to tell us how many people have to sign up for his voluntary scheme to make it self-financing. I hope that he has not had his first meeting with the Treasury, because when he does he will be completely shredded by it.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I have re-done the figures on my calculator and they come to 36.67 million. That is based on 70 per cent. of £4.9 billion, which is £3.43 billion, the foreign national stuff and the division of the resultant figure by £30, which comes to about 36 million. I may be wrong by a million or two, but it is a very big number.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, with whom I had the pleasure of serving on a Finance Bill Committee a number of years ago. I can certainly testify that his figures on the issue are a good deal more credible than those that we have been offered by Treasury Ministers. I find it absolutely astonishing that the Home Secretary has come to the House today to defend a project that amounts to a menu without prices. We are being asked to buy a pig in a poke, and we have no idea of the ultimate cost. The changes that he has announced have serious cost implications, yet he has no estimate to give the House.
The figures from Rob Marris are based on the Government's cost of £4.9 billion. Alternative figures from the London School of Economics have put the cost as high as £10 billion to £19 billion, and, on those figures, more than the entire population would have to have identity cards before the scheme broke even.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing that out, and I simply return to the point that I was trying to make. When I was shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, I looked at Government IT schemes and found that more than four in five such schemes right across the government had exceeded their original budget. If the Home Secretary believes that he is going to stay within his budget, he is living in cloud cuckoo land.
The Home Office has already pushed a substantial part of the scheme's cost beyond the planning period, so we do not really know whether the cost that the Home Secretary has mentioned is the full cost or merely the cost as currently shown in the planning period. I notice that nobody from the Treasury Bench is attempting to clarify that point, but I should be pleased if they did.
The Government have rightly climbed down on applying for cards, and airside workers will no longer be forced to have them. Indeed, no British national with a vote in the forthcoming general election will need to have an ID card, and that perhaps tells us just how popular the Government really think this laminated poll tax is going to be. But that is only part of the argument. If people want to travel, they will need a passport and their biometric data will be entered onto the national identity register. They will be subject to penalties of up to £1,000 in fines if they do not keep the register up to date, for example, with address changes.
The Government have merely devised a new route by which they will collect the data of four in five of the population who have a passport: have passport, will travel, will be registered on the identity database. If that is choice and if that is voluntary, it is the same choice that the taxman gives the taxpayer. The Treasury says, "Pay taxes or go to jail." The Home Office says, "Join the national identity register or give up foreign holidays."
The database fundamentally reverses the relationship between the individual and the state. The Government helpfully tell us that identity cards will make asserting our own identities more convenient and affordable, without addressing the fundamental question of why we should be required to do so and why they seek to establish a national identity database in the first place. During questions today, the Home Secretary was asked about the point of biometric data if they were not on the database, and on that issue we have an important point of difference with Chris Grayling. The answer is easy: biometrics enable the authorities to check that the holder of a passport—or, indeed, a card—is who they say they are. Biometric data such as fingerprints are much less easy to forge and equipment enables them to be checked; we do not need to put the data back on a database to make them useful. A central database is another logical step—a disproportionate one, in our view—in achieving higher security against identity fraud.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman accepts that fingerprints would be a good way of verifying the identity of a passport holder. As I understand it, his party would abolish the holding of such data on a database. How would he prevent people from applying for multiple identities?
The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next comment. The database would provide a check against the issue of duplicate passports or ID cards with the same biometric data. However, the Government have not provided any evidence that there would be a substantial problem. Nothing in what the Home Office has proposed indicates that it would be worth paying £5 billion for that benefit—let alone the £20 billion that the LSE estimates the project will ultimately cost us.
Other states do not think that there would be a substantial problem. Those lucky European states that we inoculated after the war against nanny state intrusion, such as Germany—not Sweden, I should say to Martin Linton—do not allow such centralised databases, and for very good reason. They know how databases can be abused; they suffered from them during the Nazi period and under Vichy France. That is why we should not begin to go down this route.
I ask the hon. Gentleman, in a genuine spirit of mystification, whether he is suggesting that the Passport and Records Agency should issue passports, but not keep a record of the people to whom it has issued them. If he is suggesting that it should keep such a record, what would be the difference between that and the national identity register, other than the fact that there would be a duty—as there already is for those with driving licences—to update the information when a person changes address?
The key point about the national identity register is the access that other agencies will eventually have to it. That is why the database becomes a tool that is much more than just a static record of people who have applied for a passport. Clearly, it is normal for a person's name, date of birth and so forth to be recorded. But we do not need to centralise the collection of biometric data on that record, because the next time the person applies for a passport their fingerprints will be the same and they will be able to be checked. Why is it necessary to have them on the database merely to issue the passport?
The truth is that national identity cards and the national identity register are a technological solution in search of a problem. When will Home Office officials and Ministers learn that just because we can do something does not mean that we should? The concept is not difficult to grasp. We might be able to clone humans, but we have rightly decided that we should not; we can run an Orwellian database, but we do not have to do so. George Orwell wrote "Nineteen Eighty-Four" as a warning, not as a blueprint. Ministers should read it again and not park their democratic values when they do so.
I have heard some more well-turned phrases, but I still do not understand the distinction that the hon. Gentleman is making. He seems to support a database of people who have biometric passports. He is not against biometric passports, fingerprints or the recording of facial images—he just does not want to call the database of people with biometric passports a "national identity register". The only real difference is that it is now to be called that. The police and the security services already have access to Passport and Records Agency information—
Order. That was a very long intervention. Front Benchers have not been quite as bad in this debate as they were during the previous one, but I should say that time is running out and a large number of Back Benchers are seeking to catch my eye. Interventions are part of debate, but they take time out of it.
The hon. Member for Battersea is much more intelligent than he is letting on. The key problem is the document. Does the document attest that the person standing in front of the passport official is who they say they are? If it is to do so, we need a record of the person's biometric data in the document, but we do not need the same record back at the UK Border Agency. That logical step is entirely different, because it enables other agencies to begin to abuse the situation.
I am sorry that David Davis is no longer here. He said that 25 million items of data were lost, but the number was 28 million—in the one year of 2007. There were a further 17 million items of lost data in 2008. Do I trust even someone as competent and charming as the Home Secretary to keep my personal data safe? No, I do not—and the Government's whole record suggests that I should not.
The slipperiness of ministerial justifications for the scheme is extraordinary. When the ID card scheme was launched, the cards were heralded as the solution to the problem of terrorism. It might not have been in the manifesto, but in 2007 the Prime Minister stated that they formed the backbone of any anti-terror policy. That was always nonsense, and was demonstrated as such not least when every one of the Madrid bombers was found to have a legitimate Spanish ID card.
The current Home Secretary seems to be singing from a different hymn sheet. He says that ID cards are no longer integral to the fight against terrorism, but that they are necessary to protect us all against identity fraud. I can see the argument that it is useful to take biometric data when issuing a new passport so that the new document contains those data. However, I say again to the hon. Member for Battersea that I do not accept that a centralised database is necessary.
The advocates of ID cards, including those on the Benches of the official Opposition, said that the cards would be of use to the police in fighting crime, but that does not bear a moment's examination. If it remains voluntary to carry ID cards—as the Government, to give them credit, have always said it would be—ID cards essentially become akin to a driver's licence. If a person does not have it on them when challenged by the police, they are asked to produce it in short order at a police station. If the person involved is a gangster on their way to the costa del crime, I doubt whether they would bother to turn up later to produce their ID card. Very few countries make carrying an ID card compulsory, precisely because it is so draconian to lock up forgetful students, disorganised journalists or amnesiac grannies. [Interruption.] Yes, I was speaking very much for myself.
Another argument is that ID cards and the database will somehow prevent illegal working or illegal immigration, but employers in sectors with known high levels of illegal working are already required to check identification and eligibility documents for foreign workers. The problem is not the fiddling of identity, but that the UK Border Agency does far too few checks and does not prosecute enough of those illegal employers. Only 114 employers have been prosecuted for employing illegal workers since 1997, yet that is the main way of enforcing immigration control in a country with 7,723 miles of coastline and 192 million air travellers coming in and out every year.
One of the problems is that the UK Border Agency has been targeting the wrong employers and the wrong people. It turns up with great drama at a factory or other enterprise, gets all the workers together, and ultimately finds out that none of the people is here illegally.
I am grateful to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee for that observation, which reinforces the point I am trying to make—that ID cards are a sideshow set against the lamentable failure to investigate and prosecute firms that hire illegal workers.
Liberal Democrats believe that the register would be a terrible mistake. People need not just take our word for it. A recent report for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, "Database State", gave the national identity register a "red" rating, meaning that the database
"was almost certainly illegal under human rights or data protection law and should be scrapped or substantially redesigned".
If anyone has an unnerving sense of déjà vu, it is probably because we have heard this all before. The Government's national DNA database was also given a "red" rating in the report, along with eight others: that makes 10 Government databases that are barely legal, let alone reasonable or effective. Yet the Government continue to fiddle around the edges instead of curbing this illiberal and illegal obsession with databases.
I have mentioned our concerns about criminal and civil offences relating to the national identity register in the Identity Cards Act 2006. It is worth reminding the House of those offences and their penalties, so let me spell them out: a penalty of up to 10 years in prison for tampering with the register; a civil penalty of £2,500 for failing in the duty to register on the database when required to do so under the Act; and a penalty of £1,000 for failing to inform the register of a change in personal details of those held on it, such as an address. The practical application of these penalties is likely to be that the innocent student will be pursued and fined for failing to update their address every time they move house, while would-be terrorists will happily keep police informed of their name and address. The most dangerous terrorists are so-called "clean skins" with no criminal record or contact with the security services. They have no problem declaring their identity because what they really want to hide are their intentions.
Would those penalties and civil liberty infringements be tolerable for the sake of increased identity security? I would argue not, given that the Government have never provided figures on the suspected duplication of identity documents. The total estimated cost of identity theft to the UK economy is falling. In 2002, the annual cost to the economy was £1.3 billion, whereas the most recent estimate conducted by the then official identity fraud steering committee in October 2008 put the figure at £1.2 billion: a substantial fall in real terms over a six-year period. In fact, a centralised database may attract identity fraudsters.
I do not know which industry figure the hon. Gentleman is citing, but I am happy if he wants to intervene to give its source.
A centralised database will not lead to these potential gains; indeed, it may well attract identity fraudsters. The Government believe that they can create an un-forgeable database using advanced technology, but history tells us that that is completely misguided. The Pentagon thought it was hacker-proof until it came across Gary McKinnon, who proved otherwise. Technology moves at a frighteningly fast pace. Even if something were un-forgeable today, it almost certainly would not be in six months' or a couple of years' time.
The industry estimates published by the Home Office a couple of years ago were £1.1 billion for the total quantified financial benefits, including the impact on ID fraud, with the impact on ID fraud itself being £570 million. Has the hon. Gentleman seen those figures?
I certainly have, and I have taken into account their source. Could it be the same source that predicted that we would have little more than 50,000 immigrants from central and eastern Europe, and then the figure ended up at 750,000? The source that the hon. Gentleman is quoting is responsible for the worst Government forecast on record; if he is happy with its authority, all I can say is heaven help us.
I fear that the Government may try to deprive us of access to public services unless we sign up to ID cards. The cards may not be mandatory in legislation, but they may increasingly be required to access possibly every type of public service, including health care, education, leisure facilities and public transport—the list is potentially endless. In the Government report entitled "Safeguarding Identity" published last month, officials state that the ability to provide high-quality public services efficiently
"is dependent on our ability to know who everyone is, wherever and whenever they need a service".
I do not understand why biometric information needs to be stored on a national centralised database in order for me to tell a doctor or a nurse who I am. On a practical level, making ordinary life dependent on the reliability of a complex administrative system makes the inevitable myriad small errors potentially catastrophic.
At every level and every turn, the entire national identity register scheme, including ID cards, is flawed. It will not prevent terrorism, illegal working or crime, and it will not protect us against identity fraud—it might even make the problem more difficult to disentangle. Why are we doing it? I am forced to conclude that Ministers have no real grasp of why they want ID cards and the database, other than that it can be done.
The Liberal Democrats have consistently opposed the introduction of ID cards for everyone, regardless of nationality. We would scrap the entire national identity scheme immediately and spend the money on putting more police on the street. The people of this country and our visitors should not have to justify themselves or their identity to the state when going about their lawful daily business. We should not have all our most personal data stored on a central database. This insidious scheme is based on a fundamental flaw in ideology—the idea that we are servants of the state. We reject that view. The state is the servant of the citizen and must not be allowed to get above itself.
Although we would like the motion to be crystal clear about the issue of the database, I was reassured by what the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell said, so for the reasons I have given we shall vote in favour of it.
It is always a pleasure to follow Chris Huhne. I will probably have to continue to do so as Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs.
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate. In fact, this is the first time that I have been able to participate in a debate on ID cards since I became Chairman almost two and a half years ago, which shows that the House has not had the opportunity to discuss the matter in great detail since the Government decided to pursue the policy. I therefore welcome the fact that the Opposition have chosen to have a debate on the subject and that we are able to discuss it so soon after the new Home Secretary has taken over and made his first statement on the matter.
I will obviously be brief, because we are on a time limit and I know that a lot of right hon. and hon. Members wish to participate. I am not at the moment absolutely convinced that the Government have got it wrong, but I am working my way to that position. That is partly because there have been so many changes to the original policy enunciated by the Government, so many reviews and changing nuances, that I wonder whether they are as committed to the concept of ID cards as they were when they introduced the original Bill and had the support of so many Members of all parties.
The problem that I have is that when I look at the reasons why the cards were originally introduced—one has only to look at the Home Office website to see the six key reasons—I wonder whether the practical implication of them meets the Government's criteria. The website says that they are intended to
"help protect people from identity fraud and theft...ensure that people are who they say they are...tackle illegal working and immigration abuse...disrupt the use of false and multiple identities by criminals and those involved in terrorist activity...ensure free public services are only used by those entitled to them",
"enable easier access to public services".
The history of ID cards has proceeded since the Government introduced the concept. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend Dr. Palmer for reminding the House that the introduction of the cards had broad support throughout the House. Some Opposition Members even voted enthusiastically for the concept, which I did not know until he raised it today. Indeed, my hon. Friend Martin Linton clearly spends most evenings poring over the Division lists to ascertain how we all voted. I am nervous about how I vote now in case, in five or six years, my hon. Friend points out that I voted a particular way. However, my hon. Friends have helped identify the broad agreement in the House about the need to do something. Whether introducing identity cards is what we must do is another matter.
The Home Secretary is perfectly entitled, as a new Home Secretary, to examine a policy and consider whether he wishes to continue with it, even though it is in the manifesto and a measure on it has passed through the House. If a Government believe that a policy that they are pursuing is wrong or that its practical implications go against what they perceive to be right for the country, no Member would hold that against them.
For example, we last participated in such a debate when we discussed the Gurkhas. I agreed with everything that the hon. Member for Eastleigh said then against the Government's views, and Parliament decided that the Government were wrong. The Minister for Borders and Immigration is in his place after his day trip to Calais—to do important business, I am sure. The Government entrusted dealing with the aftermath of the Gurkha vote to him, and he devised a good solution to the problem: to accept Parliament's will and grant the Gurkhas the right to remain in the country. It is therefore possible for Parliament to deliberate in such debates—the Gurkha debate was on a Liberal Democrat Opposition day motion—and convince the Government that they are wrong.
My right hon. Friend and I are both admirers of the new Home Secretary, but was it not a tad misleading of him to suggest last week that he had decided that identity cards would be voluntary from now on, when the Identity Cards Act 2006 already makes them a voluntary tool, and altering that status would require primary legislation? The announcement was bigged up, as they say nowadays.
My hon. Friend puts that well. I cannot answer for the Home Secretary, but I am sure that the Minister for Borders and Immigration heard what my hon. Friend said and will comment on it later.
I am worried that we will have a position whereby different people hold different sorts of identity document. Foreign nationals resident in this country will have to have an identity card; they are obliged to have them. Others, in the north of England, starting in Manchester—even though only 3,500 people said that they wanted an identity card—and now in other northern parts of the country, will be entitled to apply for identity cards. However, people in the rest of the country, if they choose not to do so, will not have such a card. As my hon. Friend David Taylor pointed out, having an identity card will become compulsory only when a certain percentage of the population has opted for one. Before that happens, primary legislation is required in order to be in a position to make them compulsory. That is the first practical problem.
Although one takes an intellectual position about whether one supports the concept of identity cards, the practical implications, especially given the Home Secretary's actions last week, mean that some residents in this country will have identity cards and others will not, and some citizens will have voluntary cards because they happen to live in Manchester or Newcastle, while others, for example in Leicester, will not. We therefore have not a fudge, but a bit of a shambles.
That is, indeed, a simple answer. We have paid for the infrastructure and technology to ensure that that happens, but I am not sure that my hon. Friend's solution deals with those who do not want to travel and therefore do not apply for a passport. I do not know what the figures are—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea would give them to us if he were here. However, there are simpler methods of dealing with the matter.
My second point is about cost. I was present when the former Home Secretary challenged the Opposition spokesman about cost, but I am not sure what the cost is. We have been given the figure of £4,785 million and told that cards for foreign nationals would cost £326 million, but perhaps the Minister can confirm those figures when he replies to this debate. I have also heard anecdotally that one of the reasons why the scheme cannot be scrapped is that the contracts have been signed. With the contracts signed, it is not possible to renege on them, because the Government are bound by them. [ Interruption. ] I welcome back the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Meg Hillier, the Minister for identity, even if briefly for today.
If those contracts are signed, what would be the cost of cancelling them? Would it be more than the cost of doing what the hon. Member for Eastleigh has suggested it would be better to do, which for policing would mean putting the money into front-line services? As we all know, budgets are not overflowing with money. There will be a debate over the next 12 months about the possibility of police forces throughout the country wanting to cut the number of front-line officers because—they claim—of the money that the Government have given them over the past year and a bit. We need to know a figure for the total cost and it is extremely important that we have it as quickly as possible.
The House will know that the Home Secretary has agreed to give evidence to our Committee next week. A large portion of our questioning will focus on ID cards, because we are concerned to know precisely where the Government stand. We will want to know facts and figures from the Government, particularly how much the scheme will cost and how much it would cost if the Government decided not to proceed with it.
We have heard in interventions by Opposition Members that the Opposition have written to the suppliers and made it clear that, should the Conservative party win the next election, it will not proceed with the ID card scheme. I am not sure whether, should the Opposition win a general election, they would be in a position to cancel a contract that the Government had signed. If such a contract were binding on this Government, I assume that it would be binding on a future Government too. If that is the case, we have a right to know whether what the Opposition have said will make any difference.
My penultimate point concerns the security of the database. We have had assurances from this Home Secretary, as well as from the previous Home Secretary and others, that the database is secure. I will not make the point that other hon. Members have made about the security of databases at the moment—I know that the Minister for identity also has responsibility for databases—but the fact remains that we have a security problem. It is a good job that we have not had many losses this year compared with the end of last year, but once we have the information proposed, we will have the mother of all databases. Therefore, we will need to be absolutely secure in the knowledge that that information will not leak out or be lost or sent anywhere in error. I am sure that the Government will try to reassure us on that point.
My final point is about the third category on the Home Office website, which says that ID cards will
"tackle illegal working and immigration abuse".
It is therefore good that the Minister for Borders and Immigration is answering this debate. That problem will not be solved by ID cards. The Mayor of London estimates from reports that he has commissioned that the number of illegal immigrants in London alone is probably 861,000. The Minister has been very honest, fair and open with our Committee: he has never put a figure on the amount, because he once did that about another matter and we kept hounding him over it. Very cleverly, therefore, he will not give us a figure this time, but the fact is that there are a lot of illegal immigrants. I do not believe that they will go to Manchester or Newcastle, now that the scheme is being extended there, and apply for a voluntary identity card.
Unless we secure our borders, we will get a lot of illegal people in this country. At the moment—subject to any announcement that the Minister responsible for immigration has made in Calais today about securing our borders even further; I know that that is one of the great templates of his mission—those people are already in the country, whether they are in the bogus colleges that we have heard about in our inquiries, coming in on the backs of lorries, or whatever. There are probably hundreds of thousands of illegal people already in the country, and I do not think that the scheme will deal with that problem.
I am still with the Government on this issue, but less enthusiastically so than I was 12 months ago. They will need to keep making their arguments very clearly on this point, and they will need to put facts and figures before the House if they are going to convince me and other right hon. and hon. Members to continue to support them in the Division Lobby on this and future occasions.
I listened with considerable care and interest to what Keith Vaz had to say on this subject. I thought that I was going to agree with virtually everything he said until he concluded that he was with the Government, although he might be about to peel off. I am not with the Government on this issue, but I absolutely share the right hon. Gentleman's sense that this is a policy in search of a problem. Every time I hear Ministers explaining why it should be supported, I sense that the problem that it was intended to solve has changed since the previous time I heard them justifying it.
I have always taken a reasonably relaxed view of this policy. I have not objected to it in principle from the beginning, based on civil libertarian propositions. There are clearly civil liberties issues at stake in relation to identity cards, and particularly in relation to the national identity register, but I was, and still am, prepared to concede in principle that arguments could be made to justify introducing such measures that would outweigh the civil liberties issues involved.
However, as the arguments have been made, I have become less and less convinced by the merits claimed for ID cards and the register, and more and more concerned, partly about the cost implications—I will come back to that—but mostly about what we are learning about the culture of the Government and their attitudes towards the civil liberties involved. They have not been consistent in their development of the arguments for the merits claimed for the policy, and they have demonstrated a cavalier attitude towards the civil liberties issues that leaves me very worried about the weight attached to those issues in the mind of the Government in assessing the balance of the benefits.
Let us begin with the specific benefits that have been claimed for the policy during the time that the Government have been advocating it. It was introduced by the former Prime Minister, and it has been followed up by the present one. It was said to be the key element in the Government's fight against terrorism and benefit fraud, and in the enforcement of proper immigration controls. All those claims have been made for the introduction of ID cards, but as each claim has been made and challenged, the argument has moved on. We have not heard any justification of the claim that the policy will deliver significant benefits in terms of counter-terrorism or benefit fraud, or in terms of other, broader aspects of law enforcement.
The point of my earlier question to the Home Secretary was that I would like to hear a Minister talk me through the logic of having a voluntary system of law enforcement that will provide a vigorous means of enforcing laws that we cannot currently enforce to the standard that we would wish. If it is voluntary, I do not see how it can become the cutting edge of law enforcement. I have never heard that flaw in the logic explained.
The claims that have been made for the ID card have made anyone interested in public policy sit up—they have also been directed at voters and designed to make them sit up—but those claims have never been substantiated. What we then need to do is to look at the costs in the cost-benefit balance that are undoubtedly involved in the development of this policy, costs both literal and metaphorical.
First, as to the costs literal, it is unclear from the figures bandied about by the Government, by the Opposition Front Benchers and by various interested IT experts exactly how many thousands of millions of pounds this scheme is going to cost. But even if we take the Home Secretary's most modest interpretation, we are talking about £1,000 million, which is going to be recovered at £30 a head from people buying voluntary ID cards. In his days as the Health Secretary—I speak as a former Health Secretary—I suspect that the current Home Secretary could have found quite a lot of attractive uses for £1,000 million beyond giving people a piece of plastic that will allow them to identify themselves as aged over 18 when they go into a bar. This seems to me to be an essentially frivolous use of a significant level of resource as we go into a recession—and this, as I said, is to take the Home Secretary on his own terms.
The reality is that almost all independent parties think that the scheme will cost significantly more than the Home Secretary acknowledges, and whether it is a charge made on ID card users or on passport users or paid by taxpayers, it is unarguably a cost that is not currently borne by the economy but which the Government intend the economy to bear in the years ahead at a time when fewer resources will be available. The Government's decision to impose those costs on the economy will necessarily squeeze out other expenditure that seems to me to have higher benefits attached—or, of course, deny the possibility of reducing the tax burden in order to promote the more efficient development of economic activity in Britain. The Government have made no convincing benefit claims for this policy and have not seriously addressed the pounds cost that they are imposing on the British economy.
That brings me to my next point, which I believe is the strongest argument against the policy that the Government are pursuing because it tells us about the culture in Government in terms of the importance that they attach to the privacy of the citizen and the maintenance of citizens' defences against the developing power of the state. The power of the state is enhanced, of course, by the power of modern information technology.
I believe that among the responsibilities of those elected to this place is our responsibility to seek to insist that the Government should account for increases in the power they wield over the private citizen. We, as Members of Parliament, should be jealous of the privacy of the people who send us here, and we should be concerned to restrain the ambitions of Government to invade the privacy of the people who send us here. What concerns me most about the policy is that it demonstrates that the Government do not observe those same instincts. The national identity register is already subject to inadequate control. What information are we going to be obliged to contribute to this register? The answer is that it is defined by secondary legislation and we are already hearing that extension of the scope of such information is anticipated.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a fair case in saying that a large, centralised register of this kind is innately vulnerable to unauthorised access. Over the weekend, his party announced that a future Conservative Government would flog off health data to Yahoo and Google. Does he support that policy? Does he fear that such a system would be less secure than a centralised system operated by the present Government, or does he believe that it would be more secure?
I would apply the same strictures to information held by all parts of the public sector, such as the national health service and the education service. I do not share the hon. Gentleman's innate suspicion of private as against public. Indeed, I suspect that recent experience suggests that the public sector has been a less effective guardian of the privacy of the individual than the private sector.
The key point, surely—I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and I can agree on this—is that information should not be held on databases unless there is a serious reason for it to be held there, and unless there are serious safeguards in relation to what information is collected, the way in which it is held, and the people to whom it is made available. What worries me about this whole policy area is that the Government have been too free and easy, that the burden of proof has been too easily discharged over the development of the database and the extension of the uses to which it can be put, and that, when we analyse the supposed benefits of a serious increase in the scale of information available for manipulation in the totally technical sense of the word—information available for use by the Government—the Government's policy has not been given sufficient weight in the cost-benefit analysis.
I believe that the Government's approach to this policy has been fundamentally frivolous. It has been policy by press release, not policy driven by a desire to deliver hard results. What we have learned about this Government as the policy has evolved is that they do not possess the instinctive understanding that I believe a British Government ought to have of the importance of the privacy of the private citizen. That is why I will support my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Lobby tonight.
I put my name down to speak in the debate partly because, as mentioned earlier, I proposed the introduction of identity cards before it became fashionable on the Labour Benches. I benefited from the support not only of Chris Grayling but from that of the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Mr. Oaten and that of Norman Lamb. When Chris Huhne said that the Liberal Democrats had consistently opposed the policy, he was forgetting the record of his colleagues and his predecessor. However, I was not totally on message when I presented my Bill, and I will not be totally on message tonight either, because I think that there is a case for delaying the implementation of the card aspects of the scheme. I shall say more about that shortly.
One of the striking features of public opinion over the years is how stably it has remained in favour of this project, despite almost universal media opposition to it. Barely a single newspaper is prepared to put in a good word for the identity card scheme; the reason why support remains quite strong—significantly stronger than support for any of the three major parties, I would say—is that people feel, intuitively, that it makes sense.
I think that people should ask themselves two basic questions before deciding whether, in principle, they favour an identity scheme. First, they should ask how often they actually wish to pretend to be someone else. Secondly, they should ask how concerned they would be if someone pretended to be them. Most people would reply "I never want to pretend to be someone else, and I would be concerned if someone pretended to be me." On the basis of intuition, it is still widely accepted that it is a good idea to have a way of verifying the basic claim that people are who they claim to be. We are one of the very few countries in the world where establishing someone's identity consists in part of their producing a gas bill. There is a lot to be said for a verifiable approach.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the public were in favour of ID cards when they thought they would solve terrorism, crime and illegal immigration, but as they are now realising that they will not do that, and also that they will have to pay for them, their satisfaction ratings are falling?
As the debate has progressed, the satisfaction rate has not remained as high as it was, but it is still surprisingly high; it is about 50 or 55 per cent. depending on exactly how the question is put. I agree that there are concerns about aspects of the scheme, but I think the public are basically sold on the concept that it is a good idea to be able to identify people.
It is important to distinguish between the cards and the database, however, but we have not yet fully addressed that point. They are two completely separate issues. The hon. Member for Eastleigh touched on the matter, but I wish to explore it a little further, because in this context the difference between the Conservative motion and the Liberal Democrat amendment is particularly striking. The database is, and always has been, primarily for the purpose of law enforcement and official verification; that is what it is for. There might be doubt about the identity of someone who is under criminal or terrorist investigation or who is suspected of being an illegal immigrant, and it might also be necessary for an emergency identification to be made if, for example, someone is unconscious after an accident; for all those purposes, it is perfectly reasonable to propose that it would be good for the authorities to be able to check who people actually are.
On the other hand, the cards have always been primarily a tool for consumers. Several Members have asked, "Why would we have voluntary cards for crime prevention?" The answer is, "We wouldn't". Crime prevention is addressed by the database; the purpose of the card is to enable people conveniently to identify themselves without having to produce a gas bill, for example, or a set of utility records or mortgage statements. I have lived in countries that have identity cards, and people generally find it convenient to have them as a consumer tool.
There are, however, objections to the scheme to which we should be prepared to listen; and, to be fair, we are starting to listen to them.
My hon. Friend is very knowledgeable about these issues from his previous life before entering this place. Would he not acknowledge, however, that he is perhaps being a little disingenuous in trying to distinguish between cards and the register? Let us say there are 30 million cards out there; because they have been produced by the system, they would, de facto, be a register, whether in name or practice.
I am not absolutely sure that I have followed my hon. Friend's point. Is he saying that if we were to issue numerous cards, the record of those cards would in effect be a register?
Well, I am sure that is true, but my contention is that if we had the register without the cards, that would still fulfil the crime prevention aspect but it would not fulfil the consumer aspect.
The first thing to do, which we have got right, is to make it absolutely clear that the cards are not compulsory now and never will be. Several speakers have said that the Bill always stated that there would be the need for further primary legislation to make them compulsory, but we were ambiguous about whether that would happen. If they are intended to help the consumer, as I contend, the first step in building confidence in that objective is to make it clear that they are voluntary. If they are voluntary, the question of their being an imposition—something that restricts people's liberty—does not arise, because if someone does not want one, all they have to do is say, "No, I will not have it." The Government have taken an important step forward on that.
The next thing that we need to address is the audit trail, which has barely been mentioned this evening. One of the main objections of libertarians, including so many Liberal Democrat voters, even though the hon. Member for Eastleigh has not stressed this issue, relates to the audit trail, because they suggest that by keeping track of the number and type of organisations that have inquired about the identity of an individual, one can build up a picture of the kind of person that individual is and that that could be used against them to try to profile them as being a higher or lower risk. That genuine issue needs to be addressed, although I hope that such a situation would not arise.
The original reason why the audit trail was to be included was to protect people and give them the reassurance that they could see which organisations had been looking at their data. If we are serious about that and it really is the purpose of the audit trail, we should give the individual the power either to dispense with the audit trail or to edit it. By "edit", I mean that if the trail records that I had visited a particular bank on a particular date, I would be able to look up the record to verify that, ensure that no entries had been made that I did not authorise and then choose, if I so wished, to say that I wanted the record deleted, and all that would then be left would be a note saying that I had deleted a record on such and such a date. If we were to introduce such a power, we would go a long way towards reassuring people who are afraid that the database will, in some way, be used to profile them. If the purpose of the audit trail is to protect people, we should be willing to introduce such a power. We need to distinguish between the urgent and the merely desirable.
The hon. Gentleman has been making a thoughtful speech. One of the things that I object to about the national identity register is its sheer comprehensiveness. As David Taylor pointed out, it is one thing to have a register that, in essence, includes simply one's identifiable aspects—one's name and address, and biometrics—but it is another thing entirely for it to contain the other 49 elements. Would Dr. Palmer be willing to countenance having a register that contains only the identity mechanisms, and nothing else?
I would certainly be willing to countenance that, because a mature dialogue can include that kind of consideration. However, the basic concept of the scheme seems to me to be an objective that is close to being supported by all three Front-Bench teams; the differences are less large than the public may suppose.
The Conservative policy is becoming clear. It is to have the database—not the card, but the database—under a different name. That is a hypocritical attempt to steal Liberal Democrat voters without addressing the real concerns of libertarians and liberal-minded people who worry about a biometric database. I favour the basic concept, but I think that there is real scope to address those concerns in the manner in which I have suggested. If doing that and dealing with the current financial crisis means that things take longer, we should be willing to accept that the card aspect of the scheme is not the highest priority for immediate introduction. If our taking longer allows us to get a scheme that has wider public support, we should be prepared to listen and to amend the scheme. What I do not favour is a populist motion such as the one before us tonight, which simply says, "Scrap the cards and then let's have a database by another name."
It is a pleasure to follow my neighbour, Dr. Palmer.
I wonder what the good folk of Manchester have done to have this wretched scheme visited on them. This whole argument bores me stiff, because I have been over-exposed to a policy and theory that should have been settled a long time ago. I have no doubt that Labour Members will point out my voting record, because I supported the proposals as a shadow Minister. At the time, we were broadly in support of the proposition. After the 2005 election, too, I sat through endless weeks of drivel, as the case was made time and again, in painful and needless detail, by which time we opposed the Government's proposals.
This issue bores me because the Government will not come clean about it. The reason I and others supported the measure originally was not because it was claimed to be a particularly powerful tool against terrorism. I can see that there may be advantages to the scheme provided that it works, that we can afford it, and that the cards cannot be forged. However, I cannot buy the argument that the card would ever be able to control, or even deter, terrorists. After the 2005 election the Government changed their position, and the prevention of terrorism became the principal argument for the card. I could not understand that, which is why I voted against the scheme the second time round.
I am sorry if I am ranting, but I am delighted that the Minister is in his place—I know from his record and his conduct that he will listen carefully to what I have to say. I am probably the only person in the Chamber tonight who has seen an identity card scheme—although that is a slight misnomer, as I shall explain—being put into practice to try to counter terrorism. We have already heard that identity cards were in place in this country during the second world war and for seven years afterwards. That is not the scheme that I mean; I was not around then, although I may look old enough. The scheme I mean was the introduction of a driving licence in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. It was never claimed to be an identity card or a tool to counter terrorism, but it was described to the security forces—I was a serving officer at the time—as a crucial tool against, principally, the Provisional IRA.
The driving licence had to be carried in Northern Ireland, and it was not like the simple piece of green paper that we carried in England, Scotland and Wales at the time. It was a more complex bit of kit. Initially it contained a photograph, and then it was further improved to contain a thumbprint or fingerprint. For the first couple of tours I did in Northern Ireland, the card was not in being. As I recall, it was introduced in 1978, and by the time that I returned in 1979 we were told in pre-deployment training, "Gentlemen, this is the answer. The Provisionals in particular use vehicles in the day-to-day execution of their business. You will, as a result of this card, be able to clamp down on individuals. It is not easy to forge—you will be able to see forgeries—and you will be able to identify those who are opposing you." Let us not forget that this was long before databases and computerised intelligence work.
We bought this argument hook, line and sinker, but the fallacy of it was brought home to me at about two o'clock on a rain-sodden night on a hillside in South Armagh, when any sensible Christian man would have been tucked up in bed rather than cuddling a rifle on the side of the road. We eventually saw a pair of headlights approaching us through a blackthorn hedge, and I sent two soldiers down to stop the vehicle and find out what was going on. They flagged the vehicle down and about three minutes later they came chasing back through the driving rain and said, "Right sir, he's fine. He's absolutely fine." "How do you know he's fine?" "He had one of these new driving licences—he's got to be all right." Suddenly, from being a tool to counter terrorism this driving licence turned into a pass that, in the eyes of the simple soldiers whom I was looking after, meant that that particular bloke was all right. Well, he was not.
Let me go on to give another example. In January 2006, in a mess hall of the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, just outside Baghdad, someone who was allegedly an Iraqi policeman came into the mess hall with a 100 lb device contained in webbing about his body and blew himself to pieces. He killed 17 American soldiers and injured about 35. When questioned afterwards about how this "alleged policeman" had got into the mess hall, the guard on the gate said, "Well, he had a pass on him." He had an identity card on him. In other words, in the examples that I have just given the Minister, these various cards—far from fighting terrorism—aided and abetted terrorism. The Minister might well challenge me on the Northern Ireland driving licence scheme, and we can discuss it if he has time, but that was certainly my experience.
I also found it quite extraordinary, during the endless iterations of Committees that I had to sit through, that the Government made it quite clear—or at least implied—that the scheme was not going to be voluntary at all. Yes, the inception would be voluntary, but enabling legislation was put in place that meant that, at the drop of a hat, identity cards and the concomitant costs could suddenly become compulsory.
There were also howlers that came with that legislation that made no sense whatsoever. For instance, if someone was not resident in the United Kingdom for a period of more than three months, they did not need an identity card. How could that possibly match up to the Government's claim that the cards would be an important tool against terrorists? Not all terrorists are home-grown. It is fascinating, for instance—as tomorrow is the anniversary of the bombings in 2005—that all four men involved in those bombings were home-grown passport-carrying Britons, yet they felt the need to carry multiple forms of identity on their bodies so that their dead bodies could be identified. In that case, had there been an identity card scheme in place, far from hindering those gentlemen, if that is the right term, in the execution—bad pun—of what they were doing to themselves, one of the documents that they would have carried would have been the very identity card that the Government have billed as a crucial tool against terrorism.
We will also find that that situation is impossible to solve if someone is a native or citizen of the Free State of southern Ireland. In other words, the southern Irish—people from Eire—living and working in this country will not be required to carry an identity card. We might think that it is all over in Northern Ireland and in Ireland as a whole, but, as the events of a few weeks ago at Massereene barracks and elsewhere showed, it patently is not.
I would suggest that there might be arguments for the card—theoretical arguments, in some ways—if, as I have already said, I thought that we could afford it, if I did not think that it was a gross intrusion on civil liberties, if I did not think that the cards could be forged, if I did not think that the Government were incapable of putting the scheme in place and, most importantly, if the Government would stop constantly shifting the ground on which they make their arguments. If they would come clean about the fact that the scheme is a menace, and not a nuisance, they could, in my eyes at least, recover some of the credibility that they had in the past. As things are, however, the scheme must be scrapped: it is expensive and a pest, and will aid terrorists rather than hindering them.
I am pleased to follow Patrick Mercer. He gave me some information that I have never heard before, and some useful context to the debate.
My track record is that I supported the Identity Cards Bill on Second Reading, partly in deference to my party's manifesto and partly because I do not have a deep-seated civil libertarian objection to the idea in principle. However, I withdrew my support on Third Reading, as I did not believe that the detailed design of the scheme was likely to be implemented satisfactorily, partly because the justification was muddled in the first place. We have already heard that idea set out by other hon. Members. There were claims that the card would be an anti-terrorism tool, that it would control illegal immigration or that it would prevent identity fraud. The ID card has virtually no role in dealing with the first two, and is effective in the third only if the citizen chooses to use it properly.
The only possible basis for the ID card would be if it were seen as a convenient proof of identity—essentially, a citizen's tool. For that to work, that principle should have been the foundation of the argument in the first place. I have heard it many times from the industry in which I worked before first coming to Parliament that that should have been the basis of argument right from the beginning—but it was not. One must wonder, to be honest, whether we could possibly justify a scheme costing this much for the narrow purpose of providing a useful convenience for our citizens in demonstrating their identity and their entitlement to services.
Any project of this kind would have to be based on trust. The holding of personal data in one place has already prompted substantial public mistrust, and we have heard examples in the debate—I do not have the time to repeat them—but we all understand that human failure is an inevitable part of managing data, and that it is impossible to devise a system that wholly protects us against it.
Lack of trust is not merely an inconvenience; it is an entirely disabling impediment to success in a complex information systems project. The suppliers that have been called on to provide the system have made it quite clear that the project must be explained to citizens and that trust must be built. We have seen some frankly fatuous attempts to do that. The "yoof" attempt, via www.mylifeid.org, which was aimed at youngsters, fell by the wayside extraordinarily rapidly under the ridicule that it attracted.
It would help in building trust if one could show functionality. We have drawn out the example of airport workers. That was one area where it was suggested that ID cards should be compulsory, yet those who might have an interest in the cards being introduced—the British Air Transport Association—clearly said:
"We do not see the ID scheme bringing any security or business benefits."
Frankly, if that area was seen as the target for the initial compulsion but saw so little value in the scheme, one must take some heed of that. It obviously has its own way of establishing secure identity—it must have, to carry on its business—and felt that the scheme would add little or nothing.
There are also practical objections. The national identity register must include a person's address. That is one of the elements within it. That detail will change frequently. It is not currently required for a passport. It is an offence for driving licence holders to fail to notify a change of address. Precisely the same sanction will apply to anyone who fails to update their address on the national identity register. We might assume perhaps that that is something that our dutiful citizens follow by rote. Well, the evidence suggests otherwise. In fact, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency estimates that 20 per cent. of the addresses held on its database are wrong.
Inaccuracy is inevitable and will be substantial, so what value will holding people's addresses actually have? Even if we assume that everyone will attempt to notify changes of address, the cost and scale of the activity involved will be huge. The Home Office estimated, in an answer to me, that 14 per cent. of people change their address every year. We have not discussed, and I have not seen any information on, the ongoing cost of managing the national identity register. That cost will be huge, if the task is to be done reliably and is to fit the scale of the undertaking involved. It is far from clear whether the cost of data management and updating has been built into the costs that we have heard to date. I would certainly like the Minister for Borders and Immigration to set out his estimate of the cost, based on the data that his Department has provided to me.
The practical use of the project is unclear, the trust of our citizens has not been won, and the detailed design of the project is flawed. It deserves termination. But for my lack of knowledge of the contractual obligations entered into, and any consequential costs, I would gladly support the Opposition's motion tonight. However, I must confine myself merely to withdrawing support for the Government's position.
The Scottish National party has always opposed the identity card, and we will continue to oppose it. We will join the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats tonight in the Lobby. I agree very much with Chris Huhne, and it is a great pity that the Liberal Democrat amendment was not selected, because it goes to the crux of the matter.
We have always been concerned about the confusion regarding the purpose of the identity card. It was first proposed after 9/11 by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to fight terrorism. It seems to have gone through many rotations since. It became the solution to whatever problem happened to be uppermost in the Government's mind—benefit fraud, people trafficking or whatever. Frankly, the scheme has never been credible because of that.
The arguments hit a new low tonight when the Home Secretary effectively said that the scheme was for the convenience of the citizen, who could carry a small card rather than a passport or other documents to prove their identity. That might be useful, but it is not worth at least £5 billion of public money.
There is another serious concern about identity cards. It was mentioned that during the second world war, everyone carried an identity card. I do not think that we can quite equate the current situation with war time. In any event, even then there was what the Americans call mission creep, since the identity card went from having three purposes to 39. In 1951, the English High Court said:
"This Act was passed for security purposes, and not for the purposes for which, apparently, it is now sought to be used."
In other words, the identity card took on more and more functions.
We must be clear, given the Home Secretary's recent announcement, that the identity card is not dead. Biometric passports are proposed. I understand that 80 per cent. of the population carry a passport, so there will be a large number of such passports in circulation. Will those passports effectively become ID cards? That seems to be the way things are moving. I am deeply concerned that we might get into a position in which the Government say that a person cannot access health or other services unless they produce a specific piece of identity, whether that is an identity card or a biometric passport. I do not see why we citizens should need to do that, but in the case of many services, the Government determine what identification is needed. It seems that we are moving towards effective compulsion by the back door, because one will either carry the document or not access services. That is very disreputable.
No, I will not. I do not have much time.
When my hon. Friend Pete Wishart raised with the Home Secretary the example of the Scottish Parliament, the right hon. Gentleman rather brushed it aside, but it is an important example. When the Scottish Parliament voted on the principle of ID cards, no one, but no one, supported it. The Labour party abstained en masse. But the Scottish Parliament controls public services in many areas in Scotland, and ID cards or biometric passports will not be made compulsory to access those services, whatever the Government down here choose to do.
The Home Secretary assured us that the database was totally secure—he even stated, if I heard him correctly, that it was not downloadable. I am no computer expert, but I am fairly certain that it would be impossible to create a database that is not downloadable in any event. Others have mentioned the Government's record both on IT projects and on loss of data, so I shall not elaborate further.
I am concerned about the huge costs associated with the database and the lack of clarity about the costs involved. The Government give a cost of between £4 billion and £5 billion. In an intervention, Rob Marris, who is no longer in his place, pointed out that for that cost to be covered, some 35 million people would have to get an identity card voluntarily at a cost of £30. Members can decide how likely it is that that number will do so, unless the Government try to make it compulsory by the back door.
That is not the largest cost that has been estimated for the scheme. There is great difficulty involved in trying to find out the true cost of the identity card scheme. The London School of Economics put a 10-year cost range between £10.6 billion and £19.3 billion. That has been strongly attacked by the Government, who do not accept those figures, about which there has been considerable controversy. Using the method employed by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, as I pointed out earlier, more than the entire population of the UK would have to apply voluntarily for an identity card at a cost of £30 for the Government to get anywhere near covering the projected cost. It is impossible, and the figures do not add up.
It is interesting to note that such is the controversy about the figures that the London School of Economics has stated that it will not issue further costings because of the secrecy and contradictions around the identity card scheme. It should cause all Members great concern that we cannot get even such basic information.
The identity card has been proposed for all sorts of reasons, but there is no evidence that it will deal with those problems. There is no evidence that it is a cost-effective way of addressing those problems—for example, benefit fraud. Identity is only a tiny part of the problem of fraud in the benefits system, and even if the identity card helped to tackle that, it would not tackle the main problem. Many countries have much worse identity card theft than Britain, because they rely on a single reference source, which will effectively be the problem if we move towards an identity card or a biometric passport in this country.
Commenting on the recent announcement by the Home Secretary, Liberty said that the Government proposal still amounted to a compulsory scheme. It said:
"The Home Secretary needs to be clear as to whether entry on to the National Identity Register will continue to be automatic when applying for a passport. If so, the identity scheme will be compulsory in practice.
However you spin it, big ears, four legs and a long trunk still make an elephant. And this white elephant would be as costly to privacy and race equality as to our purses."
I could not agree more with Liberty. The whole thing is a disaster area. It does not do what it says on the tin, to quote someone else. It will be a massive cost that we cannot afford in these economic times, it is a waste of money and it should be ditched immediately.
This has been a most instructive debate: those who have always opposed identity cards now seem to do so with more strength and passion than they ever did; and those who supported them reluctantly seem to be moving from that position. Even Dr. Palmer, who is a leading enthusiast of them, admitted that he is now not in favour of what the Government are doing. The case was put very well by the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, Keith Vaz, who described the Government's position as a shambles, and by my right hon. Friend Mr. Dorrell, who described ID cards as a policy in search of a problem.
The Home Secretary revealed the essential emptiness of the Government's position. I am delighted to welcome the Minister for Borders and Immigration back from France to wind up the debate. He did not listen to the first hour and a half, and, candidly, I would have advised him to stay and have the dinner; it would have been more fun than trying to respond to this debate.
The Home Secretary's speech revealed the essential emptiness at the heart of the Government's remaining arguments for the scheme. He was at pains to say that the Government had never argued that it was going to stop terrorism or be that effective against crime or benefit fraud, and that, in fact, there had never been any particular purpose to it. He is right: those arguments were all used at various stages—and some of us voted against the scheme all the way through—and never were at all convincing. However, what remaining shred of conviction and argument one could have had about the effectiveness of identity cards in fighting crime, terrorism and benefit fraud is completely removed when they are voluntary.
The hon. Lady has not been present for the whole debate, so if she will excuse me I shall not, because we have very little time left.
The Home Secretary revealed the hollowness at the heart of his argument when he said that the scheme had always been intended to be voluntary, but those of us who sat through the debates do not quite remember it like that: it was clearly a scheme that the Government always intended to make compulsory. The legislation states that there has to be another vote for it to be made compulsory, but the provision is in the legislation and it was always clearly the Government's intention to move to compulsion. That was one of the last things that made it logical. What is completely illogical is the Government's position since last week. They have tried to pretend that the scheme was always meant to be voluntary, but none of its so-called benefits applies if it is to be voluntary.
The Home Secretary has blown a hole in the centre of the arguments that successive Labour Prime Ministers and Home Secretaries have made. The previous Prime Minister talked about ID cards being
"an essential way of tackling illegal migration and crime".—[ Hansard, 18 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 833.]
Mr. Blunkett, when he was Home Secretary, talked about ID cards making "our borders more secure" And his successor but one, John Reid, described identity cards as "central to measures to prevent illegal working". All sorts of claims have been made—none of which can be credibly made about the current system.
I am deeply grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I certainly was present for the beginning of the debate; I just missed an hour in the middle. Has he had discussions with Conservative leaders of local authorities? At a recent roadshow run by the Home Department, the Conservative leader of Crawley borough council saw the enormous benefits of ID cards, both in delivering council services and for the business community. Would the hon. Gentleman like to answer that?
I see no advantages to the identity card scheme, and I could happily discuss it with my colleagues in local government.
We all now agree that ID cards will not prevent terrorism; that is now of no dispute between anyone. They certainly will not prevent illegal immigration, because foreign visitors will not have to have an ID card unless they plan to stay in the UK for more than three months. They will not prevent identity fraud. Microsoft's national technology officer, Jerry Fishenden, has said that introducing ID cards would make the problem even worse, warning that it could
"trigger massive identity fraud on a scale beyond anything we have seen before".
[ Interruption. ] The Minister for Borders and Immigration asks how, but I suggest that he talk to Microsoft. We are five years into the scheme—why does he not talk to one of the world's biggest and most successful computer companies about the effects of his policy?
The Government should have spent time and resources on ensuring that biometric passports were secure. In November 2006, an investigation by The Guardian found that the passports could be electronically attacked and cloned with a microchip reader costing £174. A computer expert took 48 hours to write software that could take all the information from the chips.
How have the Government got to the current situation? Contrary to all the assertions about opinion polls showing that ID cards were popular, when real people—airport workers in Manchester and London City airport—were told that they had to have identity cards, they rebelled. Neither the airlines nor the airline workers wanted them. Nobody wanted them, so the Government promptly retreated. As a good former trade union official, the Home Secretary recognised that the trade unions were against the idea, so—as Labour Ministers do when faced with trade union rebellions—he retreated and announced a U-turn.
Previously, the Home Secretary had claimed that, despite their resistance, the airport workers had to have an ID card for security reasons. Now, however, the pilot schemes are to be voluntary. One of the most absurd bits of last week's announcement came when the Home Secretary claimed that he was accelerating the roll-out of ID cards. I gently suggest to him and the Minister for Borders and Immigration that given our discussions today, in various forms around the House, of the fines of up to £1,000 for which people will make themselves liable if they take a voluntary ID card, the voluntary take-up will be particularly small.
That brings me to the subject of costs, which has dominated a lot of the debate. The bad news for the Minister for Borders and Immigration, who is about to wind up, is that the Home Secretary was completely and characteristically honest about the issue—he said that he had no idea how many people would voluntarily take up the card. If the Government have no idea about that, they can have no idea of the cost to the taxpayer. Everything that Ministers say about the cost is bogus; they do not know any more about it than anyone else.
None of the rest of us knows much about the cost because Ministers have spent the past few years energetically trying to hide it. They keep asserting that 70 per cent. of the cost is due to the passports and that only 30 per cent. will go on ID cards—although 30 per cent. of £5 billion seems a lot of money and worth saving to me. However, even if what they say is true, the Government have adduced no detailed evidence for the assertion; they have not allowed anyone to look at any of the accounts, but simply repeat the assertion. We simply cannot know how much preserving biometric passports but not proceeding with an identity card scheme or the national identity register would save. On that point, I reassure Chris Huhne that we could happily have imported his party's amendment into ours; we are as strongly against the national identity register as he is. It is one of the central things that are wrong.
One of the other myths perpetuated this evening is that the passport database is essentially the same as the national identity register. I commend schedule 1 to the Identity Cards Act 2006 to all those who have been peddling that myth; they should read the list of the information that may be recorded on the identity register. The list includes:
"the 'audit log' of how and when any information from an entry was provided to any person or body."
Any attempt by anyone to look at a person's records gets registered. [Interruption.] The Home Secretary says that that is absolutely right. There is much more on the national identity register— [Interruption.] We do know, although some of the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues do not seem to. They seem to think that the information is the same as that on a passport, but it absolutely is not—it is much greater and more intrusive than the information that would be on the passport database, and it would be dishonest of the Government to claim otherwise.
The scheme is not wrong only in cost terms. A Conservative Government would scrap the scheme not just because it is a waste of money—it is also wrong. The Government do not understand a simple, obvious truth: we cannot defend our liberties by sacrificing them. We have taken a principled stance against the Government's control state. We are fundamentally opposed to the Orwellian society that Labour is trying to create through schemes such as this. Privacy International—the Home Secretary should be ashamed of this—now ranks Britain as the most invasive surveillance state and the worst at protecting individual privacy of any western democracy. That is what we have come to after 12 years of new Labour Government. [ Interruption. ] The Home Secretary is objecting to Privacy International, which is no doubt another body that he has no time for. Frankly, however, he must recognise that ID cards are a bad idea whose time has never come.
Anyone who cares about either freedom and privacy or the state of the public finances—some of us care about both—will vote for our motion. The ID scheme is a sickly policy that needs to be put out of its misery. If this Government will not do that, the Conservatives will do it if we win the election. I commend our motion to the House.
It is a pleasure to serve under your speakership in this Chamber for the first time, Mr. Speaker. May I start by apologising to you, to the House and to Chris Grayling for not being here at the beginning of the debate? I am sure that the House would have been supporting me in what I was doing in France in securing our borders.
The modern-day Conservative party has an identity crisis. It is seeking to square its authoritarian instinct with its liberal appeal. Up and down this country there are Conservative councils that use CCTV and use access cards for local services, and whose members and activists support the idea not only of an identity card but a compulsory identity card; we know that because people tell us so in our constituencies. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, who has flipped on this issue, showed his true colours on
Two prime myths are perpetuated by the Opposition. I refer to the official Opposition, not to the Liberal Democrats, who have been consistent in their folly in opposing our policy, unlike the Conservatives, who have been inconsistent in their folly. The first myth is the allegation that the Government are allocating up to £5 billion of public money to pay for an ID card scheme. That is simply a fabrication. We have heard the accusation that clarity has not been given; Mr. Weir made that point. I refer hon. Members to the document, "National Identity Service Cost Report", published in May 2009—particularly to pages 6 and 7, where tables lay out the estimates. The first paragraph on page 7 says:
that is, for the total of £4.945 billion over a 10-year period—
"are gross costs and do not reflect income from fees and charges."
The cost of the passport service is covered by the fee for the passport, which is currently £72—a bit more for someone who wants it fast-tracked and a bit less for a child. The total fee for the estimated number of passports issued over the next 10 years is up to £96.7 million; that gives us a gross cost. The £4.95 billion figure quoted for ID cards is a gross cost before fees and income. Then the question arises as to how much of that money is to be spent on the identity card. The answer is that that depends how many people get one. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell rises up in mock accusation saying that we do not know. Does any business person know how many units of their product will be sold in 10 years' time? No: they know the average cost and the marginal cost.
No, I will not, because I want to bust the other myth, too.
The cost of the scheme is covered by the fee, so the accusation that it is a waste of public money is false. Further, the Conservatives' own public finance policy is based on the idea that they can save money by scrapping the ID scheme, but the fact that it is a gross cost before income shows that there is no money to save by doing that. Once again, there is a black hole in their argument.
Perhaps my hon. Friend can elucidate. From memory, the report gives the distinct cost of identity cards as something in the order of £1.2 billion over 10 years. That suggests, in round terms at £30 per identity card, a take-up of 36 million voluntary ID cards, many by people who would not have passports. Does my hon. Friend really believe that there will be 36 million volunteers in the next 10 years?
I refer my hon. Friend to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, who explained clearly to the House the difference between the cost of the cards and the cost of the national identity register, establishing which will incur costs in order to provide the biometric passport. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell is not denying the desirability of or need for that identity register. The cost report laid before the House explained that difference thoroughly. In any event, my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz is to undertake a study, and I ask him to consider the points that I have made.
I ought to give way to the hon. Gentleman, so that he can explain his own policy.
The economics of that argument are ridiculous. The same could be said of the passport service. If, goodness forbid, the hon. Gentleman were ever in a position of having to take a decision and he were asked what he thought the passport fee for the next year should be, and his officials provided him with a brief saying, "We don't know how many are going to be sold next year, Minister, so we can't set a fee", what would he do? He would say, "We will base it on cost recovery. We will look at the previous average cost of passports and the marginal cost of production", just as any business person has to do, and he will set his fee. [Interruption.] The fee will be £30 next year and £30 the year after; we have said that. This is not difficult economics. [Interruption.] Damian Green says "Do the maths", but he clearly does not know what marginal cost is.
The second myth that has been perpetuated in the debate is that because there are six good reasons for an identity scheme, no one reason is good enough. It is argued that an identity card system in Madrid did not stop the terrorist bombing. On that logic, the police force in Spain could be abolished. They had a police force, but that did not stop the bombing. The Government have not said, as Mr. Dorrell claimed, that it was the key element— [Interruption.] The Opposition might not like the argument, but the right hon. Gentleman said that we had claimed that ID cards were the key method against terrorism. That is not what we said.
I cannot give way; I have very limited time.
Another argument that is put forward is that the scheme will not help diminish fraud. Clearly the 24 European Union countries that have opted for an identity card scheme think that it will help attack fraud. It is not the key element, but it is one element.
Of course, the Opposition want the scheme to be compulsory so that they can get their arguments about the alleged Orwellian nature of the Government on the record. However, when we pulled the rug from under them two years ago, and when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary reinforced the policy, the 71 per cent. of people who want an identity card were with us and against them.
Question accordingly agreed to.
That this House acknowledges the continued and growing problem of identity fraud in the UK; accepts that a universally accepted biometric passport or identity card linked to a national identity register will help secure the identity of an individual and reduce the incidence of multiple identity fraud; further recognises that for certain groups, including young people, an identity card will enable them to provide proof of age and more broadly enable people to travel throughout Europe; considers that it is right that non-European Economic Area foreign nationals should be obliged to apply for an identity card which provides a simple and effective method of determining the right of residence and entitlement to employment and benefits; welcomes the fact that for those joining the National Identity Service there will be a choice between identity cards and biometric passports; and notes the fact that any decision on whether membership of the scheme should be compulsory would require further legislation.