Clause 10 — Verification of information

Part of 18. Relief from Tax (Incidental and Consequential Charges) – in the House of Commons at 5:21 pm on 15th September 2010.

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Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Shadow Minister (Home Office) 5:21 pm, 15th September 2010

Pete Wishart has done exactly as my right hon. Friend Mr Blunkett said and has begun to believe his own rhetoric, entertaining though it was to listen to. It might be helpful if I explain to him and to the rest of the House the position of the official Opposition. I remind the House that although many things are said in election campaigns, what happens in reality when people have power is often very different. We have a good example of that in front of us in the form of the coalition Government, but I shall say no more on that.

Her Majesty's Opposition recognise the Government's clear position and the reality of the maths. We know that both parties were elected on manifestos to get rid of ID cards and that the Bill is the fruition of what is a fairly rare point of agreement. Indeed, only on Monday the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Lynne Featherstone, was speaking with enthusiasm about her position when she was in opposition and had to be quickly reminded of something by her Parliamentary Private Secretary, who passed her a note. She then swiftly began to read an alternative position from the coalition agreement, so we know that sometimes things are said but then change. However, the reality is that both parties agreed on this point and we recognise that that gives the Government a mandate. We are not here to oppose for the sake of opposition, but we feel that the Bill sweeps aside many important things.

On Second Reading, the Minister said that the Bill is symbolic-and it is for him and his Government. It is also ideologically based and very rushed. Had he been in his Department a bit longer and had other Ministers in that Department and in government thought things through, they might rue the day they swept away the baby with the bathwater. The Bill has the serious consequence of removing the option to have fingerprints in passports, which the identity register allowed. That would have updated the passport database to allow for the very secure retention of that important biometric.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire is very exercised about data being held by the state. I am sure that he must have a passport for travel and I wonder whether he has ever given a moment's thought to where passport information is held. As I reminded members of the public and others up and down the country during many of my roadshows, visits and talks about this issue over three years, 80% of us have a passport and that information is held securely. We have a good Passport Service, but what we proposed was a more secure approach. I shall not dwell on what we could have done or what we would do differently again, but it is an important principle of the Opposition that the passport should be secure not only now but in future. The new design for a more secure physical passport that I signed off earlier in the year has been unveiled and produced in the Blaydon constituency. We wanted greater security with fingerprinting, but the Government have effectively abandoned that.

Interestingly, the Bill sets the tone for the way in which the Government wish to work. It was brought forward in quite a rush. We finally managed today to extract from the Government the fact that there was no consultation on the Bill, so mentions in manifestos and on individuals' blogs seem to be the way in which the Government choose to consult. We also know that the Bill's impact assessment was inadequate, which is sad, given that one of the Ministers responsible for the Bill is also the Minister for Equalities. Labour Members will watch closely to ensure that such sloppiness does not take place in the future, and I hope that Ministers acknowledge that they have a responsibility to do their jobs thoroughly and properly.

We look forward to hearing more about the transgender issue raised by my hon. Friend Julie Hilling. We tried to put in place something that would make the best of a bad job in this regard, but the Government removed that option overnight without any recognition of that fact. No full solution is forthcoming, so we ask the Government to report to Parliament as progress is made on the issue. I ask the Minister with responsibility for passports to write to me around Christmas or in January to let me know what progress has been made, and to place a copy of the letter in the Library. I have been contacted by many people who would be grateful for such information. A lot of them do not have voices of their own, but they will be looking closely at how the House scrutinises the issue and have made it clear that they want to know what is going on.

The Bill prevents the Government from collecting and storing fingerprints, which means that the British passport will fall behind international standards relatively quickly, although international passports improve over years. Over time, British citizens will be forced to pay for visas when they make certain international visits. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have indicated that they favour biometrics on passports and increasing passport security, so I wonder whether the Bill has been fully squared in government. We hear that the Government are halting the use of fingerprints, but we do not know for how long. I hope that they will consider putting that back on the table because we all have a genuine interest in ensuring that the British public are safe when they travel and that our identity documents are as secure as possible. The use of fingerprints also helps to tackle identity fraud because many criminals have multiple identities, yet fingerprints are one of the surest ways of prevention.

I know that Ministers take seriously the Home Office's responsibility to do everything in its power to protect people-that is the Department's raison d'être-but the Bill throws out the baby with the bathwater. The Opposition would revisit the issue of biometrics on passports, even though I give no commitment about what we would do on identity cards, given that we will shortly be under new leadership. However, if we were to get into power in five years' time, we would be in a different place than if we were not to get into power-heaven forefend-for 10 years. We recognise that we will have to deal with the landscape that we face at the time. I would hope that that landscape would involve fingerprints for passports, but the Bill does not make that look likely.

The Bill's refusal of any recompense to those who bought cards in good faith is mean-spirited, as is the fact that we have had no opportunity to press for refunds, which was the reason why some of the new clauses that we tabled were complex. As I said, no proper account was taken of the equalities impact. If I was to be particularly mean, I would suggest that the mean-spirited nature of the Bill is a metaphor for the Government as we approach tough spending decisions.

I thank hon. Members who have played an important part in developing our policy and supporting my Front-Bench role. The Opposition's redoubtable team has mostly consisted of newly elected Back Benchers, who have been committed to addressing the Bill. I put on record my thanks to the former right hon. Members for Redditch, for Norwich South and for Airdrie and Shotts, the last of whom will no doubt give the Bill a run for its money in the other place, as well as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough. It is rare that a junior Front-Bench spokesman has such support from a series of former Home Secretaries, but they have been incredibly supportive and helpful.

We are not yet dancing on the grave of identity cards. I live in hope that the Government will see the error of their ways and that, despite this Bill, they will revisit the issue of passport biometrics. I look forward to seeing how the Bill progresses in the Lords.

Question put and agreed to .

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.