Orders of the Day — Identity Cards Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 28th June 2005.

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Conservative, Ashford 8:45 pm, 28th June 2005

Last year, in the last Parliament, I voted against the Bill content in the knowledge that I was doing the right thing, but a little unsettled in the knowledge that I was rebelling against the party line. Tonight I will vote against the Bill, still content that I am doing the right thing and delighted that I am supporting my party, since wisdom has settled on our Front Bench.

Some Members have objected to the Bill on principle, others on practical grounds. In the short time available to me, I want to begin with the principled objections. The longer we consider this proposal, the less attractive it becomes.

As a Conservative, I regard the defence of individual freedom as a core part of my political beliefs. As a lover of freedom, however, I am genuinely delighted that a distaste for state intervention is also present on the Government Benches. I hope that the rebels on those Benches keep their nerve. I encourage them to do so not from our partisan viewpoint, but from their long-term partisan viewpoint. Let me take them back to the 1980s. The phrase "poll tax" has been used frequently this evening. It would certainly have been embarrassing for Lady Thatcher's Government in the short term had the Conservative rebels succeeded in voting down the poll tax then, but it would have been a great deal less embarrassing than what happened to that Government after they failed to vote it down. I urge potential Labour rebels to hold their nerve. Not only will they be doing the right thing; they will be doing their party a favour in the long term.

Mr. Howarth said that he could not understand what freedoms were being lost by the Bill. The main principle at stake is the basic relationship between the citizen and the state. Democracy makes the state answerable to the citizen; compulsory identity cards do the exact opposite. The freedom that is lost is the fundamental freedom to have a private life, because of the national identity register. It is not necessary to be a criminal to want some privacy. I agree with Liberty, which says

"the Identity Card Bill . . . represents a fundamental shift in the state's attitude to individual privacy."

Liberty believes that we are moving away from a position where information is not given to Government and shared among Departments unless that is necessary

"towards one where it will be shared unless there is a reason not to".

That is indeed a fundamental shift, which I think breaks a fundamental principle.

It has been said that no other common-law country has an identity card scheme. That is extremely important. With a written constitution and a code specifying what is legal and what is not, it is possible to protect privacy. Under a common-law system, once it is assumed that it is a Government's right to have private information about citizens, we have lost an essential protection that all citizens of a democracy deserve.

It is clear that in practical terms the Government cannot be confident that all the problems that they say the identity card will solve will indeed be solved, but we need only look at the history to see that Ministers have for ever been adept at providing ridiculous reasons for why identity cards are necessary. The House of Commons Library note tells us that, in the 1950s, just before identity cards were abolished, Ministers argued that one of the main reasons for retaining them was the prevention of bigamous marriages. I am not aware that the 1950s saw a huge upsurge in bigamy as a result of the abolition of identity cards, and some of the scares being put forward by Ministers today are about as valid as that one.

The final word should go to Mr. Harry Willcock who, in 1951, challenged the police and took his case to court. He argued that he should not have to carry an identity card, and he won. The Lord Chief Justice said that compulsory identity cards would

"tend to make people resentful of the acts of the police and incline them to obstruct the police instead of assisting them."

Those words showed great wisdom. We should also reflect that the last word of Harry Willcock—a difficult man who liked to argue—was "freedom". That should be our final word when debating this wretched proposal.