Orders of the Day — Identity Cards Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:47 pm on 28th June 2005.

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Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families) 7:47 pm, 28th June 2005

The opening sentence in the Library briefing on the Bill states:

"Identity cards existed in the United Kingdom during the two world wars, but there has been no national scheme since."

That innocently sums up why the Bill must not go further in its passage through the House. ID card schemes, if they are to exist at all, are features of times of war and national crisis. This is not a time of war, no matter how much the Government may tell us otherwise.

In February 2002, the then Home Secretary said in this place that the terrorist attacks on the United States of 11 September 2001 gave impetus to the ID scheme. However, the current Home Secretary concedes that that does not stack up, as the 9/11 hijackers used their own names and the Madrid bombers all held legitimate ID cards. Of course, it is plausible that the terrorist attacks in the US and in Spain could have been avoided if there had been greater investment in the security services of those countries: for instance, on additional policing. The lesson that a more security-conscious Government might have learned is that additional resources are required for those matters rather than spending a fortune on a dangerous piece of gesture politics.

Last week, in Kendal in my constituency, I met senior police officers who told me that at times they have insufficient resources to tackle antisocial behaviour and serious disorder problems. I merely juxtapose that state of affairs with the Government's commitment to waste billions of pounds on a flawed ID card scheme so as to indulge their authoritarian instincts. The Government are prepared therefore, to coin a phase, to be soft on yobs and put at risk the safety of hard-working families in order wilfully to take their eye off the ball and indulge their authoritarian instincts, as I have said.

The ID system would fundamentally and irrevocably change the traditional British model of policing from a community-based approach to a data-driven approach. The ability of the police to win trust from communities, especially minority communities, would be undermined severely. The effectiveness of on-the-ground policing would be damaged in return for no benefit whatsoever.

This unjustified and dangerous shift in culture is acknowledged at the highest level. We have already heard the comments that the Information Commissioner has made about the national identity register, but he also commented a little earlier that

"the introduction of such a register marks a sea change in the relationship between the state and the individual."

In the same article in which he made that warning, he made additional warnings about function creep, which is a sore point for the Government, and they keep reassuring us that function creep will not occur. At this point I remind Members of the House that the last ID card scheme, scrapped in 1952, was set up with the stated intention of providing identity checks with regard to no more than two functions of the state, and despite those assurances, and during peacetime, by the time the ID card was abolished the number of functions had expanded to 39—under a Labour Government.

We are told, I am sure sincerely, that the ID card scheme would not allow for records to be kept on details of religious belief, political affiliation, sexuality, trade union membership, racial origin or other such inappropriate information, but do I really have to remind the House that Parliament cannot bind its successors, as my hon. Friend Mr. Horwood just pointed out? What we are being asked to agree to in the Bill is the not-so-thin end of an authoritarian wedge.

Let us for a moment envisage a Government more authoritarian, intrusive and control-freakish than this one, and let us imagine what they might do with a ready-made ID card scheme. I am not talking about some unlikely, nightmarish totalitarian regime. Labour MPs might just care to contemplate the ways in which the democratically elected Conservative Government of the 1980s might have used an ID card system to police the enforcement of the poll tax, or in reaction to the coldest period of the cold war, or indeed—most chilling of all, perhaps—how they might have dealt with the "enemy within" throughout the year-long miners' strike. That exercise should fill genuine Labour Members with dread and send a shiver down their spine, and yet here we are, with Labour MPs currently prepared to sleepwalk into an attack on traditional British values and liberties.

It is entirely appropriate to question the Government's authority and democratic legitimacy in introducing the Bill in the face of mounting evidence of the scheme's ineffectiveness, expense and threats to traditional freedoms. The Government must acknowledge, however uncomfortable it makes them feel, that, manifesto pledge or not, 64 per cent. of the British people voted against the present Government, and whether they like it or not, to impose this vast change to our civil culture is at best dubious in the light of that; so to take this illiberal and transparently populist step at all is bad enough, but to do so despite mounting costs and mounting evidence of the impotence of ID card schemes is at best downright sinister.

The Government have spent the past two days investing their energies in rubbishing university academics. No doubt the Home Secretary wishes that the national identity register was already in place, so that he could simply rub out the professorial ranks of the London School of Economics—people who are clearly enemies of the state, and who had the audacity to conduct this most impressive and comprehensive body of research on the ID card scheme and its likely costs, efficacy and impact.

The recent LSE study shows, as we have heard, that the reality of the calculation of the costs of the scheme is in excess of £10 billion and anything up to £19 billion. We have heard no credible rebuttal of that calculation from anyone on the Labour side. The Government are nevertheless, to give them credit, adamant that the LSE is wrong and that others—such as the IT consultants Kable, who put the likely costs at about £15 billion—are equally wrong, but the Government cannot come up with a fixed figure themselves. The official cost to individuals of £93 per head is, we are told, "merely indicative".

The irony is that at the same time as the Government are attempting to attack the credibility of the independent LSE research, they are confidently telling us, on the basis of the flimsiest of evidence, that the economy loses £1.3 billion a year on ID fraud. That is just one of the many reasons that they are giving to explain the need for an ID card system.

The official rationale for the ID card scheme may change week by week, but as we have just heard from Mr. Harris, the underlying theme of that rationale remains the same in each case. That rationale is one of fear—the propagation and incitement of fear. The politicians with authoritarian instincts need to sow and cultivate fear amongst the public in order to contrive public acquiescence in or consent to their authoritarian schemes. And yet we have already heard that even George Bush, Junior, who followed the 9/11 bombings with some of the most outrageous attacks on the fundamental personal freedoms of United States citizens, was persuaded that an ID card scheme was a reactionary step too far.

We have already heard about the flaws in biometric testing, and we heard earlier about Cambridge university academics who apparently backed the Government. Well, I can quote one: Professor Ross Anderson of Cambridge university, who clearly does not. He stated:

"I am afraid that iris scanners like fingerprint scanners are liable to be defeated by sophisticated attack".

A system where it is possible to identify innocent people incorrectly or it is possible for persons of malign intent to get around the scheme is worse from a security point of view than having no scheme at all.

Perhaps the Secretary of State will be so good as to inform the House of the current percentage of citizens in this country who do not register on the electoral roll. He will no doubt agree with me that the enormous majority of those people omit themselves from the register for no nefarious reason whatever—not through any attempt to defraud or attack anyone, but for a range of legitimate explanations. Included in that group are people fleeing domestic violence, people with transient lifestyles, people with frequently changing personal information, and people suffering mental illness or addictions, all of whom may fear, or simply never get round to, disclosing their information. The same groups will approach the ID card scheme with even greater anxiety. Many will rightly or wrongly simply not register and will disappear, incapable then of accessing basic public services, removing themselves from civil society.

In closing, I wish to appeal to right hon. and hon. Members' concerns about traditional British freedoms, their concerns about excessive costs, their concerns about the integrity and the reliability of the technology, and their concerns about the effectiveness of ID card systems based on all the available evidence. But if that does not work, I seek to appeal to naked self-interest. Based even on the Government's own understated account of the costs of the scheme, we could have 12,000 additional police officers for the price that we are being asked to pay for ID cards. A quick breakdown of the figures shows that 50 of those new police officers would be in my constituency of Westmorland and Lonsdale. Those new officers would be able to provide enhanced protection to Ministers when they make occasional visits to their Lake district second homes.