Orders of the Day — Identity Cards Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:22 pm on 28th June 2005.

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Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East 6:22 pm, 28th June 2005

I am happy to follow Lynne Jones. Although as yet I have not reached any conclusions—I will explain why over the next few minutes—I share some of the concerns that she expressed.

My hon. Friend Rev. Ian Paisley and I, as well as my hon. Friend Dr. McCrea, are having a little difficulty in orientating ourselves this afternoon. Over the past quarter of a century and more in this House, we have spoken on this issue perhaps five or six times. On those previous occasions, we got support from the Conservatives and a large dollop of scepticism from the party now in Government. However, we have maintained a consistent position.

If the Bill was a straightforward Bill on identity cards, my support and that of my colleagues would have been automatic. Having lived through decades of terrorism in Northern Ireland, we often found ourselves being asked by police chiefs and Army leaders to have a security provision such as this brought before the House in order to give them an additional element that they could use in the battle against terrorism. My hon. Friends and I raised the issue many times, though we never succeeded in getting an ID card in Northern Ireland. All the advice that we got in those days from the security forces—the police force and the Army—was that such an initiative, while it would not in itself solve the problems that they faced, would be a valuable aid in identifying those who might require closer scrutiny and would quickly eliminate those who "checked out".

If all that we were doing, in the face of very real terrorist threats, was requiring people to have a card that proved their identity, I would not have any valid reservation about that limitation being placed on my privacy or that of my fellow citizens. I would not set such a limited curtailment of my civil liberties above the potential for safeguarding or saving lives. I appreciate that many hon. Members have genuine concerns on the basis of civil liberties issues, and I respect their views on that matter. I have to say, however, that having lived through the past 35 bloody years in Northern Ireland, I would not regard the use of a national identity card as a significant infringement of anyone's civil liberties when I consider the carnage that has been caused by terrorism. I place the value of human life far above the minor inconvenience that will come with an identity card.

At the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, we were accustomed to being searched going into shops and having our cars stopped. That was properly seen as a necessary measure to deal with a greater danger. The same is true of identity cards. Just as going through an airport nowadays involves a minor infringement of one's liberties, we are happy to trade that off against the greater feeling of security in the air. Identity cards will of course bring other benefits that will be useful and help to reduce fraud, but the fight against crime and terrorism must take precedence.

In Northern Ireland, we have some experience of using photo ID. It may not be compulsory for everyone, but it is required if one wants to drive a car or to vote. Our driving licences in the Province contain a photograph, and the new electoral identity card is used as one of a series of photographic identifiers in order to obtain a ballot paper before one can vote in any election. In many ways a national identity card is simply an extension of that, albeit, in this case, with potentially a much greater range of information. None of the personal identifiers already used has been a matter of controversy in the Province—they are merely regarded as a sensible measure to enforce the law and to protect us from unlawful activity. A compulsory identity card would also have the advantage of providing a more secure electoral system here in Great Britain; by all accounts, that may become increasingly necessary. Incidentally, Members on both sides of the House were happy to legislate for the electoral ID card in Northern Ireland to ensure that those who claimed a ballot paper were those who received it.

If all we were doing today was passing legislation to enable the state to provide its citizens with a card that would prove their identity, how could any of us quarrel with that? It would differ little from using a passport or driving licence as evidence of who we are. In this House, as in thousands of business around the United Kingdom, we have our own ID card to identify ourselves to security personnel. If that were the beginning and end of the matter, I would not be soul searching tonight. However, this Bill is more than an ID cards Bill—it is, in its present form, an enabling Bill, and it is not yet clear quite what the end product will be. This much is already evident: it is more about building up and maintaining a national database of personal information on the citizens of this kingdom than about simply providing people with a means of identifying themselves. The scope of that information-gathering, the extent to which it can be accessed, and by whom, are but a few of my concerns.

The nature of the scheme is the first consideration, but soon after we have made that determination comes the equally relevant question, "Will it work?", followed quickly by, "How much will it cost?" There are relatively few debates in Parliament where the course of the debate, particularly the Minister's responses, can determine how Members will vote, but for me and my hon. Friends this is one such occasion. Some concerns may well be better tackled in Committee, but some fundamental matters go to the heart of whether the Bill should proceed even that far.

We have dealt with several issues in correspondence with the Home Secretary and I appreciate the detailed responses that we received. In the time available, I suspect that I can deal with only one of them: access to the database by Republic of Ireland authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim raised the matter in an intervention on the Home Secretary, who said in his communication:

"The identity card Bill does not allow information to be provided from the National Register to any foreign Government."

I am careful about the use of the term "foreign Government" in relation to the Irish Republic, because I am aware of the terms of the Ireland Act 1949, which provides that

"the Republic of Ireland is not a foreign country for the purposes of any law in force in any part of the United Kingdom . . . by virtue of . . . any enactment . . . whether passed or made before or after the passing of this Act".

In those circumstances, it is not sufficient for the Home Secretary to say that the information would not be available to a foreign Government because, under current UK legislation, the Republic of Ireland is not considered foreign. However, the Home Secretary went a little further in his oral response to my hon. Friend when he specifically said that the data would not be made available to the Government of the Republic of Ireland. I would be happy with that undertaking if it were included in the measure. However, I have been to the House of Lords on a previous occasion and, in a three-to-two verdict against us, we were clearly informed that what a Secretary of State or Minister says at the Dispatch Box is not binding.