My Lords, in moving Amendment 58, which is a very simple and, I hope, practical amendment, I am not putting forward anything original or clever or anything like that. It is a purely practical proposal. In recent days we have all been talking about not just the horrors of war but the need to prevent war. Of course, terrorism is a form of war. I was very encouraged a few minutes ago when the Minister said that the Government will do anything they can to prevent terrorism. This amendment is a simple proposal to help prevent terrorism.
I start with the basic assumption that the state needs to be able to identify its citizens with certainty. I define citizens for this purpose as UK passport holders and those permanently resident in the United Kingdom. Over the years, there has been much discussion about identity cards. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, who is in his place, has often talked about them. I was in favour of identity cards at one time, but I will explain why I am not now and why what I want now is something different.
The two big changes over a long period of years are the emergence of new technologies of identification. In the old days, 100 or more years ago, there were just the photograph and the fingerprint, and then more sophisticated things such as blood groups, DNA and all that. The second change is the extent to which we can record all this data electronically and access it electronically in real time, which is not particularly new either.
The talk of biometrics and identity cards immediately makes me worried. I am talking about identifying with certainty who someone is, and of course an identity card that has biometrics enables a person’s biometrics being looked at to be compared with the biometrics on their card. That is a very dangerous arrangement. If a professional terrorist, perhaps sponsored by a great state apparatus, or a very serious criminal has an identity card of some sort on which there are biometrics and they put a name on it that is not who they themselves are, the one thing that they will ensure is that the biometrics on the card will be their own biometrics. An identity card is a very weak thing to have nowadays.
I therefore want the biometrics to be held centrally. All that we need—this is in my amendment—is a secure identity number that identifies the person; you may or may not need a piece of paper to remind you of your number. The identification, confirmation or investigation would be based on real-time access to the central register of biometrics, which would be far more secure. That is something used all the time now.
I was involved many years ago in advancing this cause a little. Years ago, when people had a firearm—a shotgun or rifle—the police of course had a record of it. If a firearm was found or the police wanted to know who had it, they looked in their record and then wondered if they had to ask another police force and so on. I think it was in 1997 that I proposed, and got the House to agree to, a central electronic record of all firearms. I am afraid the Home Office did not like it very much, and it said no. However, the Government of the day, a Conservative Government, agreed and it was put into the Act. It took very nearly 10 years to be put into practice, partly because I am afraid that the Home Office simply did not want to be told what to do, but it is now in existence, and any police officer with access would be able to know if any of us had a firearm, or if they find a firearm they will be able to find its history wherever it is in the UK—very simple.
Another very obvious example that has been in practice for a very long time is what used to be called the DVLA at Swansea. In the early days it was merely used to see who owned a car, but now of course many basic checks, such as whether the licence is up to date, whether the insurance has been paid or whether the MOT is up to date, can instantly be done. That makes for a much more efficient use of police facilities.
All that I ask for in the amendment is that the Government make a study of the feasibility and desirability of having such a system of identity. The first part states that I want it done in two years, which is not an unreasonable amount, and continues:
“the Secretary of State must lay a report before both Houses … reviewing the case for the introduction of national identity numbers to assist in countering terrorism and ensuring border security”.
The second point is that:
“The review must consider whether unique national identity numbers should be linked to a secure and central database containing biometric data to assist with establishing and verifying the identity of possible terrorism suspects or those engaged in hostile”,
Of course there would be many other uses that would be desirable as well. The health service has a shortage of money, and one of the problems is that a lot of people are getting health treatment on its limited budget that they are not actually entitled to. Europe has quite a good system whereby there is a reciprocal arrangement: if UK people get treated medically in European countries, that is provided free under the local health service and the bill is sent to the UK for that treatment. In the last year for which I have figures, the British Government sent some £500 million for the treatment of UK citizens in Europe. The system is reciprocal but the interesting thing is that in that same year the total amount of money that the British Government received was £50 million. We all know that that is because there is no system in place for establishing whether or not people are entitled to medical treatment. On the non-EU citizen front, just to mention them, this is a far bigger problem; there is estimated to be a loss of over £1 billion. All that is based on the state simply not having an easy method of knowing who people are.
In this Bill we are talking about terrorism and the need to secure our borders. That is what I am proposing the review for, and any other uses there might be for the system would no doubt be taken into account by those doing the review. This is not the first time that I have mentioned this issue in this House but the Government have been totally silent on what they think about it. I hope that on this occasion they will accept this modest amendment, which says merely that they should consider the possibility and desirability of what I have outlined. I beg to move.