It is a pleasure to follow Frank Dobson who has made a cogent case against many of the practical aspects of the Bill.
One thing that is clear is that the Identity Cards Bill is not, as the Home Secretary would have us believe, a gleaming, new Labour modernising measure. I make no apology for reminding the House that it is a shop-soiled, tired old measure that had been hawked round Whitehall for many years before the Government even came to power—proposals for a compulsory, all-singing, all-dancing identity card with biometrics. It was then, and is now, a solution looking for a problem. When we tried to examine how effective it would be at solving the potential problems, we found that the police said that they rarely had any problem in identifying suspects, only in proving that they were guilty. We also found that terrorists normally conceal their intentions rather than their identities, that benefit fraudsters normally misrepresent their circumstances, and that less than 2 per cent. of benefit fraud is due to identity fraud. Furthermore, all illegal immigrants can—most do once they come into contact with the authorities—apply for asylum, at which point they must have an identity card at present, complete with fingerprints on it. At that point, of course, they become exempt from deportation until their asylum claim has been resolved—if ever.
Therefore, the identity card would not help with any of the problems that it is put forward to help unless, possibly, it were made compulsory for everyone to have one and the police were empowered in particular to stop people who they thought looked or sounded foreign to identify whether they had identity cards or were possibly in the country illegally.
The Government say that things have changed since those days, and that they now have support from officials in Departments, the police and unnamed figures in the security services. That should be no surprise—Government employees are paid to support Government policy, and it is particularly of no surprise that the Government found people in the security forces who will say that the proposal is a good thing, as they were the people who told us that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Indeed, when I tabled questions trying to identify which of the agencies and who in the agencies endorsed Government policies, I found that the Government were very reluctant to give the identities of the people who are so keen to have us reveal our identities to them—I suspect, of course, that the person is John Scarlett, but that is in the privacy of this Chamber.
The real test of whether Departments find the identity card useful is whether they are prepared to contribute from their budget to funding the proposal for a compulsory identity card system. Clearly, none is prepared to contribute, which is why the entire cost is to be borne by the ordinary citizen and user, who will eventually be compelled to have it, and certainly required to have it if they want a passport. We also know that the costs will rise. They have already risen, and the one thing that I learnt in Government is that the projects that are most vulnerable to running into difficulties and overrunning on cost are those with more than one user and client Department. This one has at least half a dozen user and client Departments. We know that the Government abandoned a project that I initiated—the pathway project for a benefit payment card. After saying for two years that it was going splendidly, they finally said that they had to abandon it because they could not reconcile the conflicting demands of Post Office Counters and the Department for Work and Pensions, which were jointly responsible for it. If they could not reconcile the demands of those two bodies, how will they reconcile the demands that will arise when half a dozen different Departments seek to make the system work for their needs?
Let me give another concrete example. In America four years ago, Congress mandated the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to reconcile their different systems for collecting and computerising fingerprints. Four years and $40 million-worth of expenditure later, they can transfer the fingerprints of only 2 per cent. of people entering the United States so that they can be compared with and checked against the FBI register. It still takes a month for a new terrorist suspect identified by the FBI to be fed across so that they can have their fingerprints taken and be checked against anyone entering the country. So we know that these systems are very difficult and costly to get right. If America cannot get them right, even with its huge expenditure, there is no reason to suppose that we will find it easy to do so. This card has been said by some to be a plastic poll card, but it could be Labour's modern-day ground nut scheme. Either way, it will cost a lot of money and will probably achieve very little.
In addition to the involvement of a multiplicity of Departments, the Government have moved from prime reason to prime reason as to why they are introducing this measure. Before the election, the prime reason was combating terrorism. Incidentally, when the Government introduced their proposed entitlement card—as it was then called—and listed the 10 uses to which it would be put, they did not include combating terrorism. That was not thought a practical and useful thing to do. But if this card were really going help in combating terrorism, would we wait until 2013 to make it compulsory? We would surely want to do so now, just as ID cards were introduced immediately in the second world war. If this card were really going to help in identifying and checking out potential terrorists, would we not include within its provisions the 24 million people who come here every year on a visa for business purposes or as tourists for a short-term stay—at least, that is what they say when they enter the country—rather than excluding them from any requirement to have one?
It is true that some years ago, when considering the terrorist problem in Ulster, I suggested that identity cards might be helpful, but I was persuaded by the powerful argument of the security forces to the effect that—contrary to what Mr. Robinson said—any benefits that they would derive in terms of combating IRA terrorism would be greatly offset by the problems they would face in enforcing compliance were a minority of the community to resist the use of ID cards. That is a problem that we may well face if we try to introduce this measure, particularly given that—as we now know, and as the Government acknowledge—its principal purpose is to deal with unlawful terrorism. That is certainly the principal demand of the public.
The general public mistakenly believe that most members of ethnic minorities are immigrants, which is not true—of course, most of them were born here and have British nationality—and that most immigrants came here illegally, which is not true either: most came here legally. The general public therefore believe that the police need to have the power to compel people to have these cards about their person at all times, and to have the right to stop and question anyone who looks or sounds foreign, in order to get them to justify their presence in this country. I find that abhorrent, and I am astonished that that there is any Member in this House who does not find it abhorrent that our fellow citizens, just because they are a different colour or have a different accent, could be constantly required by the police—and will be, ineluctably, if this measure is on the statute book—to justify their presence in this country, simply to satisfy the mistaken belief on the part of many people that such a requirement will help to control illegal immigration, which it will not.
This is a fundamental change in the relationship between the citizen and the state. Such a change has only ever been introduced in countries that had authoritarian, fascist or communist Governments. It has never been introduced in a country with a common-law system, and I hope that we will not set the appalling example of adopting that system here today.