Orders of the Day — Identity Cards Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:35 pm on 28th June 2005.

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Photo of John Denham John Denham Chair, Home Affairs Committee 6:35 pm, 28th June 2005

Not at the moment.

The cost or risk of failure has been overstated even if something went wrong with the system. Too much of the argument has concentrated on the view that, because the scheme will not solve problems absolutely, it is not worth doing. Many opponents, especially Mr. Oaten, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, simply fail to understand the extent to which many public and private systems in our society depend on proof of identity and are weakened because we do not have an adequate system of proving identity.

All the pressures that have led the Government to introduce the Bill will be more intense in 10 years. There will be more movement in and out of the country and greater pressure to secure the integrity of expensive public services. There will be increased opportunities for identity fraud and more entrenched international terrorism. If the Bill fails in the months ahead, I honestly believe that our successors will rue our lack of nerve and principle.

The Government are clearly in a spot of bother over the Bill, however. It saddens me to say that the problems were not only predictable but predicted—in the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs last year. The Government's case is not helped by continually switching their argument for the scheme every time a new spin doctor enters the fray.

We should admit that the scheme is a state project and there should be no shame in saying so. The state proposes to introduce the scheme because citizens expect it to be able to tackle illegal immigration, crime, terrorism and identity fraud, and to secure the public services. The state needs the co-operation of citizens in that enterprise. The citizen will benefit in many ways but presenting the scheme simply as a benign act of Government to help us to sort out our problems if someone goes through our wheelie bin and steals our identity is disingenuous. The Bill is not about that. Perhaps it could have been, but it is not.

The Select Committee was in favour, by a majority, of an identity card scheme, the register and the then draft Bill. However, we made several sharp criticisms of the management of the project, procurement and the Bill. Although the Government have responded to some criticisms, they have not responded to many. I believe that they should have done.

We cannot expect every dot and comma to be spelled out at this stage, but we should be able to have confidence that all the major decisions about the scheme will be subject to proper public scrutiny and debate before they are made irrevocably. I am not yet sure that we can have that confidence.

Much attention has been paid to the LSE report. I am not inclined to give it huge weight. One of those most closely associated with it gave evidence against ID cards to our inquiry. Hon. Members can read the transcript of his evidence and judge the extent to which his views could be described as independent.

On the other hand, the Select Committee said of the Government's confidential assumptions on costings:

"We are not convinced that the level of confidentiality applied is justified".

We went on to say:

"We are concerned about the closed nature of the procurement process which allows little public or technical discussion of the design of the system or the costings involved."

The Government, unfortunately, have opted for a closed procurement. The LSE report may well be wrong, but it is the Government—my Government—who created circumstances in which anyone's guess is as good as anyone else's when it comes to the cost.

Public confidence in the scheme and its costings is critical. I can tell the Minister that we will find it hard to generate that confidence without switching quickly to a much more open procurement process on the basis of section-by-section discussion of every part of the system. That is true of many aspects of the system. The decision on what type of card should be used is a decision of the same order as the decision on the architecture of the database. It will have consequences for issues such as how the card will be used, the number of readers and the infrastructure needed. We warned that

"the Home Office appears to be taking these key decisions without any external reference, technical assessment or public debate".

I am afraid that that is still true, that the process is still wrong, and that the Home Office needs to change its approach.

The same is true of card readers and verification. It is no good saying, as the regulatory impact assessment says, that the Bill imposes few if any costs on the private sector. That is true, but unless use of the system by the private and public sectors achieves critical mass it will not operate effectively as a system to verify identities. The Government must say when they will produce their assessment of use by both sectors. I say that as a fervent supporter of the ID card scheme, and one who does not want it to fail because of the way in which the Government have gone about procuring it.

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