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

It is quite straightforward. The private sector will not be able to get its hands on the national identity register. However, at present when people ask a solicitor to do their conveyancing, they must go through a sheaf of documents to prove their identity under the money-laundering legislation. In future, they will be able to use their identity cards, and it will be possible for their identity to be verified against the register. I think that wholly acceptable, and a great convenience to citizens. It is entirely different from making the register available to private sector companies.

I have expressed concern about the procurement process and cross-Government commitment. My third concern relates to the Bill itself. I have not yet managed to obtain a copy of the criticisms made by the Information Commissioner, so I am relying considerably on media coverage and the commissioner's evidence to the Select Committee last year. I think that if his full critique were taken on board, it would be impossible to have an ID card scheme at all. It cannot just be a way of making individuals prove their identity. There are occasions when the state needs to identify the individual. There are security arguments in favour of an audit trail of access to the register, as well as arguments against it. Nevertheless, as well as radically changing their approach to the procurement of the scheme, the Government could make changes to the Bill that would address many of the points made by the commissioner and others.

The purpose of the scheme could be much more tightly defined. There need be no requirement for an ID card for use of a public service; public services merely need to be permitted to use the card for that purpose, which would leave much more power in the hands of the individual. Access for the police and other services to the information for crime-fighting purposes could be more tightly circumscribed. Under clauses 19 and 23 in their current form, the Home Secretary could personally authorise all access to the audit trail, as is now the case with telephone-tapping. They could also be used to give that power to any individual police constable. It should be possible to amend them to raise the threshold and establish proper safeguards. Oversight could be strengthened, and brought under a single, publicly accountable commissioner rather than being unhappily spread between two.

I presume, at the moment, that the Government will win the debate and the vote this evening. I certainly hope that they will. Our present circumstances, however, bear some similarity to a situation that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will recognise from a year or so ago, when the Government's discussion of tuition fees began. At that stage, the Government's proposals were not at all bad in principle, but they needed a fair bit of work in the House to be pushed into an acceptable form, which I think we finally achieved. I believe that the ID card scheme is in a similar state. The Government need to make changes both in the way in which they plan to deal with the legislation—there have been welcome indications today that it is open to amendment—and, fundamentally, in the way in which they are attempting to procure the project. There must be proper, independent, technical public debate.

Finally, let me say something about the scope of the Bill. We hear a good deal of talk about "function creep". That will result largely not from the desires of an overbearing state, but from the desire of members of the public to use the information to fight crime. I think it would be more prudent for the Government to recognise that, and not to leave powers in the Bill that might be handy at some point in the future but to limit the powers tightly, confident that the Bill can return to the House of Commons in the future if public arguments favour broader legislation.