Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Orders of the Day — Identity Cards Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 20th December 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon 8:45 pm, 20th December 2004

I am not a member of the libertarian right. Rather, I am what I suppose the Home Secretary would describe as a liberal, although to set one's face against authoritarian measures undertaken in the name of the public interest perhaps requires a tough liberalism, and I would describe myself as a tough rather than a soggy liberal.

Tonight, however, I make common cause with those who might more comfortably think of themselves as members of the libertarian right, because I believe that the Bill is a step too far, and I shall be in the Lobby against it. In any democracy, there is an implicit contract between the citizen and the state about the way in which freedom is to be exercised. Some freedom is exercised individually. I choose to exercise it individually because I believe that that is what is best both for myself and for the wider society. Some freedom I choose to be vested in a collective will because I believe that that is better for the broader community and, ultimately, in my interest as well.

There is not a frozen formula: political treatises have been written in every century about where the balance lies between the authority of the state and the authority of the individual. It is undoubtedly true that 9/11 seems to have changed the balance, both in psychological and in political terms, but that does not mean that the question does not have to be asked. We ought constantly to question whether those measures that have been taken by the state, no doubt in good will and out of a spirit of paternalism rather than one of authoritarianism, are necessary.

I have come to the conclusion that we are seeing an encroachment of paternalism, invading the space occupied by liberalism and the role of the individual. Under this Government, in particular, the power of the intrusion of the state has increased and is increasing, and it ought to be halted. Under Labour, ironically, we have seen a sort of creeping Bonapartism in government. I am a well-known Francophile—it is one of the problems I have. I would not start from the assumption that French practices are wrong, but I find it ironic that, over the past decade or so, Bonapartism has, at last, been on the retreat in France, just when it has been on the increase in the United Kingdom. I do not wish to be counted one of les administrés, identifying myself as a subject of the state and being given my identity in terms of what the state endows me with.

I do not believe in the analogies that people have drawn with bank cards, supermarket cards and even national insurance numbers. Those are specific, limited and often voluntary things. The accumulation of information and power in one instrument is materially and substantively different from the dispersal of powers through separate instruments.

The Home Secretary says that we will not have to carry the card and the police will not be able to ask to see it. That makes me wonder why it will exist at all. As my right hon. Friend Mr. Lilley explained, we have seen a curious accumulation of the purposes of the Bill, and if one of the card's purposes is to combat terrorism, it is difficult to explain why it should be treated rather like my driving licence. With that, if I commit an offence, I can produce the licence at a police station of my choice within, I think, seven days. By that time, if I had terrorist intent, I doubt whether I would choose to present my card to my local police station in Skipton or Ripon at the appointed hour.

The trouble is that the Government are proceeding, in this as in so many things, by assertion, not by explanation or persuasion. I am always concerned about how things work in practice and I believe that this Bill will end up in a compulsory scheme. People will have to have an obligation to carry the cards or I cannot see the point of it.

I remember that, when I was the correspondent for the Financial Times in Paris, I used to see the police waiting outside the metro stations. They did not stop the whites, but those with a Maghreb complexion—those from north Africa. If one were white, one could have paraded through Paris wearing a bathing costume in the middle of winter and nobody would have taken any interest. The Bill, therefore, poses more than one problem with regard to the ethnic minority communities in Britain. It is a problem if the police decide to focus on members of the ethnic minority community, but it is equally a problem if the police take a softly, softly approach. In that case, other members of the community complain, as those of us who canvassed in recent by-elections have noted. People object when they think that the police are less rigorous in their approach to certain matters of ordinary law enforcement in ethnic minority areas than in other areas, because they do not wish to disturb community relationships or community equilibrium. In either case, it is a problem.

My fundamental problem is that the Bill is an empty vessel into which the Home Secretary can pour powers. The procedures for secondary legislation in this Parliament, which have been used by all Governments, amount—for all intents and purposes—to government by decree. If we are to have a commissioner, he should be analogous to the National Audit Office and answerable to this House to give us some measure of reassurance.

Another problem is the technical aspect and whether the proposals will work. Cost is another issue, and I was astonished that the Home Secretary in a long speech—admittedly, he took many interventions—did not mention the word. If there are reasons to vote against the Bill, that is one of them. He uttered not a single phrase related to the cost of the project. The Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee is seeking to catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker, and he will know that the Government's record on the escalation of costs of public contracts, especially in IT, is catastrophic. That money could be spent elsewhere to buy a great deal of security and common or garden policing. It could even be spent to keep some of the police stations in my constituency open for 24 hours, rather than office hours as they are at present, which causes considerable resentment among ordinary people.

The timetable is monstrous. Is this a serious attempt to produce legislation or is it to provide an item for an election manifesto? To propose determining something as complex as this Bill in a matter of three weeks is an insult to the House. The implications are enormous and we know from experience that scrutiny is poor in such circumstances. That is why the House of Lords is so necessary, although no doubt that will change, if this Government are returned.

Finally, I say to my Front-Bench colleagues that we do not need to compete with Labour. We stand for individual liberty and a free and open society, in which there is a price for responsibility. We should have small government and big people. This Bill makes the Government too big and me too small.