Good morning everybody. Before we begin, I have a few preliminary announcements. Members may, if they wish, remove their jackets during Committee sittings—I see you already have. Would all Members please ensure that mobile phones, pagers and so on are turned off or switched to silent mode during our proceedings? I remind Members that adequate notice should be given of amendments. For example, to be eligible for selection at a Tuesday sitting, amendments must be tabled by rise of the House the previous Thursday. For a Thursday meeting, amendments must be tabled by the previous Monday. As a general rule, my fellow chairman and I do not intend to call starred amendments.
Not everyone is familiar with the process of taking oral evidence in Public Bill Committees, and that includes me, so it might help if I briefly explain how we will proceed. The Committee will first be asked to consider the programme motion on the amendment paper; debate on that motion is limited to half an hour. We will then proceed to consider a motion to report written evidence and a motion to permit the Committee to deliberate in private before the oral evidence sessions; I hope that we can take them formally, so do not get too comfortable in the Gallery.
Assuming that the second of the motions is agreed to, the Committee will move into private session. Once the Committee has deliberated, witnesses and members of the public will be invited back into the room, and our oral evidence session will commence. If the Committee agrees with the programme motion, we will hear oral evidence today and then revert to the more familiar process of clause-by-clause scrutiny on Thursday.
Tuesday 29 June
Until no later than 12.30 pm
Justice and Liberty
Tuesday 29 June
Until no later than 5.30 pm
Manchester Airport and Angela Epstein
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. This important and very welcome Bill is the new Government’s first, and it clearly sets out our attitude to the importance of civil liberties. The programme motion directly reflects that. We have allowed a large amount of time for debate on this short Bill, which is clearly relatively uncontroversial, as it was not opposed on Second Reading. I am sure that the Committee will be able to scrutinise its details in the time allocated, so I am delighted to move the programme motion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship during proceedings on this important Bill, Mr Streeter. The Government’s first Bill, in their first 100 days, is a repeal, which is not exactly positive. Opposition Members will certainly give the Minister a run for his money. In many ways, the Bill is controversial, and we will be raising various issues in Committee. However, we have discussed the planned programme through the usual channels and we are happy with it, so we are happy to support the motion.
I beg to move,
That, subject to the discretion of the Chairman, any written evidence received by the Committee shall be reported to the House for publication.
It is genuinely uncontroversial that we should report to the House any written evidence that the Committee receives.
Thank you. Before I call the first Member to ask a question, I want to remind hon. Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill, and that we must stick strictly to the timings in the programme motion that has been agreed. I hope that I do not have to interrupt anyone; in fact, I am sure that that will not be necessary. Julian, did you want to ask a question?
I just want to declare for the record that I am a member of the national council of Liberty. We have not had any particular discussions about the Bill since it came out, but I just wanted that fact to be recorded.
Thanks very much, Mr Streeter, and welcome to Ms Chakrabarti and Mr Metcalfe. I think that we all know where you, or your organisations, are coming from on this issue: you are pro this Bill in its entirety. Given that you are pro the cancellation of identity cards, are you ruling out the use of biometrics, such as fingerprints in identity documents, in the UK per se?
Shami Chakrabarti: From Liberty’s point of view, we do not rule out the use of biometrics per se in purpose-specific identity documents, whatever they are, if that is the most effective and proportionate means of making such documents secure. It remains a matter of discretion, obviously, for the Government and others in relation to any particular identity document, be it a driving licence or passport, whether a particular biometric, or biometrics per se, would be the most effective method, and proportionate to the purpose in question; but no, there is no principled or complete objection on my part, or on Liberty’s part, to the use of biometrics in some circumstances.
Eric Metcalfe: We are of the same view. It has to depend on the context and the biometric. It may well be appropriate to have biometric identification for, say, airport security—for an airport worker working in a sensitive part of the airport. On the other hand, you would not need biometrics for library accounts, I should have thought.
Biometrics include signatures, so if we take it to its extreme, you do need a signature for quite a lot of things.
If that is the case then, one of the objections about identity cards was having an identity register, but one of the points about any register—and we have a passport database, of course—is that you do need to keep a log of people’s data; otherwise the card, as a stand-alone card, is less useful. So presumably therefore you do not have a problem with having a register or a database of biometrics if they were to be included in a card or a passport in the future.
Shami Chakrabarti: Ms Hillier, you and I have had the pleasure of debating these issues before, and I hope that you remember that we are realistic about a complex modern democracy and the need to have purpose-specific databases, to deal with benefits, for example, or the Revenue or immigration; but it is incredibly important, to Liberty at least, that such databases are purpose-specific and hold no more information than is strictly necessary and proportionate to that purpose. One of our fundamental concerns about the national identity register was that it was a multi-purpose and non-purpose-specific database, which meant that by definition the amount of information on it would inevitably grow and by definition it was not necessary and proportionate to a particular cause.
Eric Metcalfe: I agree with that, once again. I think a basic point to make is that the larger any biometric database—the more material you store and the more individuals’ data you store—the more liable it is to be in interference with the right to privacy and the more likely it is that any breach of that database will have results on a larger scale. If you have a database that only records the data of, say, 200 people, and someone hacks into it—which happens—then 200 people have had their information interfered with. If you have a database with 20 million people’s biometric information and you are storing a large amount of biometric information—not just, say, someone’s signature, but also their eye colour, or a retinal scan or DNA sample—when that database is compromised the interference with privacy is so much greater. So there are sound practical reasons to restrain the size of any database, particularly a public one.
I find that interesting and a bit puzzling, because eight out of 10 British citizens currently have a British passport and there has been a passport database for some time—I have seen paper records from 1916, for instance. Those data are kept for quite a long time. It is important to prove citizenship, even after someone’s death, for their relatives. That data are held and used for many purposes—for example in the passport validation service. Someone can ring up and check data against the register. They are used if you apply for a driving licence. You can get data downloaded from the passport database and make sure your driving licence is included. So if we have that database, what is the particular concern about a national identity register, which had a number of security measures that were taken very seriously by the previous Government? In fact, Ms Chakrabarti was invited to be involved in some of those discussions, although we never got a response from her office. We were open to hearing such things when we were in Government and keen to ensure that the new passport database was even more secure than the old one. I am puzzled. What is the problem with databases?
Shami Chakrabarti: I can only reiterate that purpose-specificity is incredibly important to any database, and purpose-specificity is what the national identity register lacked. In a nutshell, our three fundamental objections to compulsory identity cards and this non-purpose-specific database include race relations and discrimination. Over the years, you will remember, your predecessors and colleagues offered up many reasons and justifications for the scheme that came and went. One that kept coming back was immigration and the suggestion that we in Britain might move from being the kind of country that my parents came to in the late ’50s—where border control takes place at the border—to having something more akin to continental schemes where immigration control happens on the street. You can imagine the consequences for race discrimination and race relations if an identity card became required on the street.
Second is the fundamental shift in the relationship between the individual and the state in a country without a written constitution or very strong torts of privacy. What we have had in Britain instead, over the years, is a justificatory principle: the police officer identifies himself to you, and you are only required to identify yourself to the police officer or others for specific reasons, such as reasonable suspicion of offending.
Finally comes the issue of personal privacy, which is exacerbated by an identity scheme of the kind that the world had never seen before—not in the war and not subsequently—because of the enormous capacity that computerised databases of this kind have to hold vast amounts of information that invariably grow over time.
Yes, because I need to counter that. I do not want to appear rude, Ms Chakrabarti, but that is frankly nonsense. As I am sure you are aware, in the Act as it currently stands while we are debating this Bill, that was not allowed. First, the card was not compulsory, and we had no plans to make it compulsory; secondly, it did not need to be presented. It is important to get that right on the record: it was actually not legal to require someone to present the card for access to any public service. It is important to get those facts absolutely straight. In terms of race relations, it could not have been used as a border within the country. That is absolute nonsense.
In terms of civil liberties, the card would have put the citizen in control of their data, because no one could have had access to anything without the permission of the card owner, without the card present and, crucially, without their fingerprints. I would counter the argument and suggest that by removing the measures, we are going back to the old system of multiple databases across Government. We are reducing that. I wonder whether there are any final comments from the witnesses.
Shami Chakrabarti: I respect your point of view, Ms Hillier. Of course you are entitled to say my view is nonsense. All I would say is that notwithstanding the assurances that came over time from you and your colleagues as the scheme became less and less popular, and notwithstanding the late amendments, assurances and safeguards that you describe in that piece of legislation, the direction of travel was not a happy one. We were not comforted by those assurances, even though I am sure you meant them in completely good faith.
This one is nice and simple. Do Liberty and Justice have any databases themselves? Can you tell us how big they are, how many people are on them, what sort of information they contain, what safeguards there are and how long you have held the information?
Shami Chakrabarti: Liberty is, of course, a membership organisation. You make a very good point, which is why I return to my original position on purpose-specificity. In the case of the Liberty membership database, people join Liberty as volunteers. The database is governed by the principles in the Data Protection Act 1998. I could tell you more, but I would have to kill you, and that would be a terrible thing. We certainly never—
Shami Chakrabarti: How do I take that back or indicate a lightness of remark?
We guard that voluntary membership database very closely—we never sell on the data; we never share it. If we were required to, under police warrant, that would be a different matter. It is a very important point, which is why I return to the databases that are voluntary. If they are compulsory, they contain no more information than absolutely necessary, and other safeguards must apply.
I just wanted to check this bit. If I was on your database, presumably I have a right to go and look at that. At some point you moved from a different system to the one that you currently employ. I wonder when that was and whether you can tell me anything about the change that occurred. I am trying to establish how secure the system is and whether it has always been secure. How confidently can you tell the Committee that that has always been the case?
Shami Chakrabarti: What I can say, Mr McCabe, is that the organisation was formed in 1934. It is now 2010, so inevitably we moved at some stage. I can find out and write to you if you like, but undoubtedly at some stage we will have moved from a paper-based system to a computerised one. You make a really important point, which is that you can put in as many safeguards as you can, but no scheme will be absolutely risk-free, which is why I return to my central point about the sensitivity of people’s personal data. Whether you are a member of a campaigning organisation, a political party or whatever can be quite a sensitive piece of information in certain contexts, you will agree. Given the sensitivity of information, it is incredibly important that you hold no more information than absolutely necessary and that it is used for very clear and understood specific purposes to really keep these databases under control.
Eric Metcalfe: I just want to give you some information about our database. We first campaigned for the Data Protection Act in 1970. As you will know, we did not have such an Act in this country until 1984, so we campaigned for quite a long time for that to be put in place. It stands to reason that we take our obligations under the Act extremely seriously. I cannot say when the current software that we use for our membership and contact database was put in, but they are not connected to the internet, so it is not possible for people to hack in. You cannot, of course, prevent the fact that someone might break into your offices. A basic point that we made to the Home Affairs Committee inquiry on the surveillance state was that if you have something that is electronically accessible from a number of different points, you increase the risk of the likelihood that people will be able to access it. Nothing is perfectly secure in this world, but the problem with large-scale Government databases is that they tend to be more vulnerable because they have to be accessed from a greater number of points.
Can I move us on to residency permits—sometimes known as identity cards for foreign nationals—and the fact that those are being treated separately? What are your thoughts on the fact that they are not included in this area? Would it lead to a potential risk of discrimination between foreign and British nationals if the Bill were to become law?
Shami Chakrabarti: For Liberty at least, it is an area of residual concern, so I am delighted that the Government appear to be moving in the direction of making clear that these will be immigration purpose-specific residence documents. They will not be known as identity cards for foreign nationals. The language is important. I know that Ms Hillier and some of her colleagues will say it is just language, but it is not. The language can lead to limited purposes. In our view it is and always has been perfectly acceptable as a matter of immigration control to have visas or residency documents required of foreign nationals as part of their leave to remain.
That the UK Borders Act 2007 and the European legislation that was implemented subsequently do not contain sufficient safeguards in respect of the database is incredibly important. We urge the Government to return to that matter. If that is not possible during examination of this Bill, we want them to put the database for foreign nationals on a clear statutory footing, to limit its purposes very tightly to immigration control, to limit the amount of information on the database and so on. A lot of that does not happen because such matters were not covered by the national identity register legislation and, as Ms Hillier rightly pointed out, various limits and assurances in that legislation do not currently apply to foreign nationals.
We urge the Government to pay closer attention to such matters. There could be less information on the database than there is currently. For example, when people leave the country, there is no reason why their biometric and other information should be retained indefinitely. It might be quite an important tightening-up exercise to ensure that it is not just an exercise in citizen’s rights’ protection, but that it is about human rights and privacy protection for everyone.
Eric Metcalfe: Not much. We agree with that answer. We did not address it in our written evidence, but we certainly support the idea of holding as limited an amount of information as is necessary for the system to be effective. To some extent, the Government are bound by the existing EU regulations that require third-party residencies from non-EU nationals. For example, the most recent regulation from 2008 requires only two fingerprints to be taken from a non-EU national. We are currently taking 10. That is an example of taking more than is strictly necessary. We are to an extent required to have a system of residents’ permits in ID-card format, but that does not mean that they have to be treated as an ID card.
Liberty is promoting equal treatment and fairness, and given that 15,000 cards have already been issued to individuals on a voluntary basis, do you have a view whether it would be reasonable to use them as a legitimate form of identification?
Eric Metcalfe: That 15,000 have been issued leaves, by my estimation, roughly 59 million that remain fortunately unissued. I am very sorry for people who have purchased the cards. I hope to some extent that those who have been required to do so for reasons of employment will have been compensated, but I see no reason why other existing forms of identification such as drivers’ licences or passports could not have been used. I certainly would not want to give validity to the previous scheme, merely for the sake of those 15,000 people. As I said, it is very unfortunate that they paid money and bought their ID cards.
Shami Chakrabarti: As Ms Hillier quite rightly reminded me earlier in her forceful cross-examination, it was voluntary. I am sad that there was such a sales exercise quite late in the day in poorer parts of the country towards younger and older people and various vulnerable groups to take up the card. I was sad about that at the time. None the less, it may be that the wise thing to do is for people to frame the cards and save them. I seriously hope that, in a number of years’ time, they will be collectors’ items for their rarity and memorabilia to the great campaign for rights and freedoms in Britain.
Do you have any sense of how complex it would be to keep the entire system going for those 15,000 or what the costs involved might be in keeping an entire national identity system for such few people?
Eric Metcalfe: Only in the crudest terms. I am speaking as a former Government lawyer, as Shami is. I have been involved in advising on the application registration card for asylum seekers, so I have a rough idea of the costs that are involved. They probably vastly outweigh any residual benefit—I stress “residual benefit”—in making the cards valid.
I am very concerned by your comments about people using a passport, a driving licence or other forms of identification. Do you not recognise that there are people who do not have much money, or records of living in certain accommodation? I am thinking about women who are fleeing domestic violence, and people who are trying to open bank accounts. If you do not drive, cannot afford a passport and have not paid any bills in your household, how do you prove your identity?
Eric Metcalfe: It seems to me that if the passport is so expensive but such a valuable document, and you are concerned to make identification documents more readily available for people of limited means, you could introduce a means test to allow people from poorer backgrounds to get a reduced rate on their passport. The idea that you need to introduce a whole new scheme of Government identification simply to benefit people from those backgrounds seems a very strange way of going about it, with the massive public expense involved.
Shami Chakrabarti: If this is an argument about protecting the poor and the vulnerable, the Committee ought to be reminded that in the old scheme the fines for losing your identity card, not notifying a change of address, and so on, were absolutely extortionate and did not come from a policy that was about empowering poor and vulnerable people.
You refer to the fact that it was mainly poor people who took up the ID cards. Do you therefore think that those people should be compensated, or that there should be the opportunity to transfer the cost of that compensation into acquiring a passport, as some kind of credit transfer? In that way, those people—many on poor incomes—who bought the cards in good faith following an Act of Parliament, would not be unfairly disadvantaged.
Shami Chakrabarti: I think that it is certainly open to the Government to take that view and to be generous in that area if they seek to do so. None the less, of all the many injustices that you debate in this place, and on which I sometimes give evidence, it is sad that there was such a recruitment drive in some of those areas to some of those people, at a time when people would have been on notice that there was a real risk that the scheme was running out of steam. Two opposition parties were, I am glad to say, completely against the scheme. But you are quite right, it is open to the authorities to think about that; it is certainly an option.
I am sorry to keep doing this, but I wish to make what is, I think, a factual correction of the record. The whole point of the national identity register is that it cannot be interrogated for information. In fact, nobody in this room, unless Ms Chakrabarti, the Minister or someone has a hotline—seriously, not even the Minister—will know the background, for example the income or ethnicity, of any individuals who hold identity cards. So, we can make no assumptions. There will be some anonymised data to which the Minister might have access and to which he might be able to alert us, but generally speaking none of us can make assumptions about who holds the cards.
On that last point, could you actually achieve an effective voucher or something, without compromising all the data security about which you are concerned? Would not you necessarily need someone at the Passport and Records Agency to be able to check that the discount you were offering was valid—to do a cross-check?
Shami Chakrabarti: I do not know, but I think it is a good point that it could arguably be disproportionately time-consuming, expensive and so on. This is not something that I have looked into, and it is not necessarily my expertise. It is obviously something for the Government, when looking at the people who bought the £30-card in what were the dying days—we say now, with hindsight—of the scheme. There is a balance to be struck there, between the £30 they spent when they were on notice that there was a real risk that the scheme would not continue, and other difficult expenses in difficult economic times.
I have a second, not very, related question: do you actually think that an ID scheme with only 15,000 cards in existence can be an effective recognised scheme, or will people be so unfamiliar with it in four years’ time that they will not accept the cards as a form of ID even if they were, in theory, legally valid?
Shami Chakrabarti: I think that yours is a very good point, and it was one of the concerns about the idea that this was going to be a voluntary scheme, at one stage. Long before Ms Hillier was in Government, the original driver was to have compulsory identity cards for every man, woman and child in the country, with all the concerns for civil liberties and race relations. The voluntary scheme never made sense to me, and this residual voluntary scheme would not make a huge amount of sense to me, either.
What effect do you think the cancellation of the voluntary ID card scheme will have on some of the reasons why the previous Government wanted to bring it in, such as the prevention of terrorism, the prevention of illegal immigration and the reduction of identification fraud? What effect do you think the cancellation of the voluntary scheme will have on those issues?
Eric Metcalfe: I think it will be negligible, that it will have no negative impact. In fact, I think it will divert public funds elsewhere. For example, if you want to strengthen airport security, far better spend the money on effective measures than on identity cards. Similarly, there are many other measures that can be used to combat illegal immigration or fraud that address those matters more directly, rather than the implementation of a general scheme.
What effect do you think the cancellation will have on people who do not have any other means of identification, who cannot currently open bank accounts or other things? What effect will cancellation have on them?
Shami Chakrabarti: I remain sad that this card was sold. The Minister is right, I do not know the profiles of the people who have the cards—in terms of income and so on—but I do know that the card was pushed very heavily and talked about in schools. Ministers visited schools for some reason. There was a big push in parts of the north of the country. That made me very sad at the time, but I hope that those people will find more proportionate forms of identity service.
Shami Chakrabarti: I am happy to have a look at the interplay between the legislation and the Data Protection Act to see whether there are any obvious pointers in that direction, and I will write. I agree that it is important that it is done by whoever in Government is effectively the data controller, and that it is done under supervision. Despite the concerns that have been raised about people having spent their money in vain, they can at least know that their privacy is now safer in future.
Do you think that a special audit committee should be set up to ensure that the material has been destroyed in the way that it should be, and to monitor the process?
Briefly, how broad do you think the destruction of data should be? There is the register itself and other information on people who applied and other interactions that have happened. Should it be a minimalist or a maximalist destruction?
Going back to my previous premise of imagining that this scheme continues on a voluntary basis, do you have any concerns about the security and reliability of the register?
Shami Chakrabarti: Absolutely, as I always did. Of course, it is smaller than a database that had had time to grow would have been. The card itself was ultimately voluntary, but the entry on the national identity register became, effectively, compulsory if you applied for a passport. That was one of our many concerns about the development of the scheme. We have real concerns about the security of that information, which is why the points being made about destruction are incredibly important.
On the point of people voluntarily going on the national identity register and then being on it for life, those of us with passports—eight out of 10 British citizens in this country—are on the passport database for life. I am puzzled as to what the principle objection is. Ms Chakrabarti has talked about specificity—I hate that word—and the focused need for data. The passport database, however, is used in much the same way as the proposed national identity register. The aim of the register was effectively to modernise and automate certain transactions that were open to human error. That remains the case with the passport database, which is not on a statutory footing.
Shami Chakrabarti: Ms Hillier predicts my answer: I have been banging on like a broken record about purpose specificity. I may use my passport when I visit Ministers in the Home Office, but it is a passport none the less, and the information that can be held on me on the passport database is no more than is necessary to hold a British passport. The fact that I visited the Home Office and used my passport to get past security—yes, it happens—will not go on the passport database, and that is incredibly important.
I am interested in clauses 4 to 6 and parts of clause 10, which will re-create parts of the 2006 Act. We will begin with clauses 4 to 6 and then move on to clause 10. Mr Metcalfe, you claim that much of clauses 4 to 6 merely re-enacts existing information from the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981. To what extent are the clauses a simplification of the long list of other Acts that you mention? Are there benefits in having new, clearly defined offences, or would the effect be exactly the same without them?
Eric Metcalfe: I tend to think that they are an elucidation of the 1981 Act, which is still in force and continues to be used to combat forgery and fraudulent documents. The 2006 Act spelt out in more detail that things such as passports, visas or entry clearance permits could be among the things used as fraudulent documents. The introduction of provisions that clarify existing legislation is not a major cause for concern, but our view is that it is unnecessary and that they were only introduced to bolster up the identity card scheme in general. You would probably lose very little. I do not think that there is any ambiguity surrounding the 1981 Act. It is not a major point, but our view is that you do not really need to keep those things from the 2006 Act. You may as well get rid of them and return to the previous law, which, as I have said, is already regularly used by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.
Do you have a sense of which Act is used for convictions? Has there been a shift for good reason to the 2006 Act, or are people still using the 1981 Act? You said that very little would be lost, but there is a difference between very little and nothing.
Eric Metcalfe: I think that you would have to speak to a prosecutor. I am aware that the CPS has gained at least a couple of convictions under the 2006 Act. The question is whether it thinks that it could have achieved the same convictions under the 1981 Act. My view is that it could have, but we are open to the views of people who have more experience in prosecuting offences. We are not aware of, and our legal analysis cannot see, any difference. All things being equal, you could get rid of it and little would be lost.
In that case, I will move on to clause 10, which deals with relevant information for determining whether to issue or withdraw passports. I would be interested in some comments on the range of information listed here. Just as background, I asked around at the House of Commons Library and there is no statute law that governs what information can be required in relation to passports. It is a royal prerogative issue and so, in principle, any information whatsoever could potentially be used to determine that. I would be interested to hear your comments on that and whether there should be some way of defining what information is relevant, because issues, such as tax records or someone whom one has met at some stage, could in principle be used. How would you go about constraining the requirements of clause 10, so that it does what it wants to do and does not open up a huge list?
Shami Chakrabarti: Perhaps Dr Huppert is edging towards a concern that passports are governed by the prerogative and not by statute, and that is a different question and a bigger question. As far as the Bill goes, I actually think that clause 10 is a pretty good data-sharing power as they go. It is pretty specific in that at least this is limited to the purposes of the issue of passports. If I may say so, I think your bigger concern is that you would, I suspect, like to see passports put on a statutory footing and not left to the prerogative, but I suspect that that may be an issue for another day.
We have already touched on some of the issues here, but we currently have a system for foreign nationals of ID cards, or biometric resident permits—whatever you would like to call them. Many of my constituents, who are British but not necessarily born in Britain, were very keen to have an identity document issued by the British Government that would show very clearly that they are British. That was, unfortunately, due sometimes to prejudice from other people, but they were very keen to have one. I wonder if either of our guests would be keen to comment on that, and the situation we have now with identity cards, or resident permits, for certain people resident in the UK but not for others. Is there an inequality there? I know that Bridget wants to come in on that.
Shami Chakrabarti: Your colleague in Hackney, Ms Abbott, famously said that she feared that identity cards would become a new pass law in the inner cities. I am afraid that that is a concern that I very much shared, and it is a concern that is partly informed by the experiences of French Algerians, Turkish guest workers in Germany, and so on. But none the less, the residual point remains, and that is the point we began to open up earlier in the evidence session about the resident documents for non-EU nationals. I am glad to see the Home Office moving from the original language—on its website—that we are keeping identity cards for foreign nationals. That was not a very comforting thought, because who looks like a foreign national—Dr Metcalfe, despite his New Zealand accent, or Shami Chakrabarti? On the street, one of us looks potentially like a foreign national and one does not. That, of course, was fed by the argument that immigration controls are what ID cards are about.
Now, I would like to see the database, in relation to the foreign nationals, severely limited, put on a statutory footing, constrained in all sorts of ways and limited to immigration control. Ideally, in the long run, I would, if it is possible, like to see the Government argue at European level for the requirement to be changed in relation to Britain, where we do not have identity cards, from the requirement of a card towards a sticker or a vignette. The way we tend, traditionally in Britain, to do immigration control is via the passport. I would like the Government to leave open that possibility of renegotiation, but until that happens, to regulate tightly on a statutory basis the purposes to which these residency documents can be put and when they can be required as people go about their lives.
Eric Metcalfe: I am a foreign-born British citizen; as Shami notes, I am not from Britain. I came here first when I was 23. I am a British citizen by descent and I find it surprising to learn that there are other foreign-born British citizens who would be keen on identity cards. I would have thought that foreign-born British nationals are in that category of people who are far more likely to travel because of their foreign connection and hence would have a passport. I have always had a British passport—it is one of my most treasured possessions—but I cannot imagine ever wanting an identity card simply to prove that I am British despite not being born here.
This is just a minor point, but given that Dr. Metcalfe has drawn his citizenship status to our attention may I ask him this? I notice that you were educated in New Zealand and Canada, two countries that do not have identity cards. Do you think that if you had grown up in a European country that had ID cards it might have influenced your view and the evidence you are giving us today?
Eric Metcalfe: It is very interesting that you raise the European experience because it is true that a number of European countries have identity cards, but you have to bear in mind that they are governed by a very different legal tradition—Roman law, not the common law. It is a striking fact that no English-speaking country has identity cards, even after 9/11 and the terrorist attacks. One thing that was unthinkable in the US context was the introduction of identity cards.
Shami Chakrabarti: And they all have written constitutions, often with entrenched Bills of Rights and very strong torts of privacy of the kind that would be potentially unpopular in parts of British society. I would also go back to my point: the people who have complained to me about their European experience of identity cards have, to put it bluntly, not been white Europeans in the main. Those who have complained about having their “papiers” demanded of them are, in the main, Algerians in France and Turks in Germany. Of all the concerns—the massive concerns about privacy and the deep constitutional concerns—as a British Asian in 2010, my biggest concern was always the effect on race relations in the oldest unbroken democracy in the world and, actually, not a bad place to be for somebody like me.
I want to focus on two issues of equality. First, in my previous career I managed a women’s refuge and I know the difficulties that many people face in acquiring some kind of photo identity. We touched earlier on the fact that you can acquire either a passport or a driving licence, but I would argue that you would not seek to acquire a driving licence if you did not intend to drive. To some people it would seem a bit illogical to get a driving licence as a form of identity if you had no intention of driving because you did not have the means to learn to drive. Secondly, the cost of passports can be high for some people. I know you touched earlier, Ms Chakrabarti, on whether the Government could consider means-testing or providing assistance on that. I do not imagine that that will be forthcoming. Would you like to comment on the difficulties that people find in proving their identity and, regardless of whether you believe it is right or wrong, the fact that to do quite a lot of things these days, such as sign for a house or rent a car, you need photo identity, and that for some people the photo ID card provided a cheaper alternative to the current systems?
Eric Metcalfe: Let me very quickly make the point that a lot of the activities to which you refer involved the private sector. A basic point to make is that a number of people will have to prove their identity for the purposes of access to Government services. The Government have obviously been delivering services to a lot of people for a very long time and some of those people will not have passports and some of them will not have driving licences. Obviously the Government have in place procedures for establishing identity for those people. It is obviously not an insurmountable barrier.
Yes, there clearly are exceptions, but I am sure that you can appreciate that that sometimes leads to unnecessary delays. Exceptions can be made and there are other alternatives, but sometimes that will lead to considerable delays in being able to sign for a house and move on with your life, and a whole range of issues.
Shami Chakrabarti: Ms Phillipson, notwithstanding what I suspect is a fundamental difference between us on the national identity register and compulsory or voluntary ID cards, you make a good point. There should be concern on the part of all of us, including the new Government, to ensure that purpose-specific identification, whether that is secure national insurance cards, passports or driving licences, is available to people who need it on an affordable basis, and that banks and the private sector take an interest in, and responsibility for, those poor people. We can share that cause even though we disagree on the monolithic central database and card. I was just concerned about putting all your precious eggs in one basket. I was not saying that you should not have different baskets for different purposes, and that people should not be able to access them, so your point remains a good one, although I suspect that there is a fundamental difference between us on the old scheme and the single, non-purpose specific, multi-purpose and, in my view, dangerous honey pot of information.
We have received evidence from an individual who referred to the special provision made under the ID card scheme to allow transgender people to have cards in both their birth and acquired identities. Do you think that there is any way, in the absence of the ID card system, that we can look to make some kind of provision for people who may feel some difficulty in having to provide identity documents relating to their previous, rather than current, gender?
Shami Chakrabarti: Absolutely. It is not just that there should be such provision; there must be. I think it is now a European Court of Human Rights decision that people have the right to be respected in their new identity. As I say, the other forms of identification should, in appropriate circumstances, be made available. That is an important point.
I wonder whether Ms Chakrabarti has any concerns that the multiplicity of purpose-specific documents that she would like us to carry could lead to a growth in crime and identity fraud, which is already a major issue. If I were required to carry a different document for every eventuality, I would have a number of versions of my identity on my person. Presumably, as regards theft, having all those documents that look different makes things easier for people who want to forge identities and deliberately use them to further crime. Do you have any concerns that that is a problem under your line of reasoning?
Shami Chakrabarti: Again, Mr McCabe, I think we share the concern that people’s sensitive information should be safe and secure. As the exchange about the Liberty membership database demonstrated, we have to share a realistic concern that no database can be absolutely 150% safe. However, we go to rather different conclusions from the same concern. If I may say so, you, Mr McCabe, put your faith in the single database, which will have all sorts of sensitive material in it that you think you can ensure will be absolutely safe, or much safer than the multiplicity. I take the approach that I have just described to Ms Phillipson: I would rather keep my sensitive information, like my precious possessions, in different secure places. I think that that is how you limit risk, and I suspect that that is the fundamental difference between us. However, we share a concern for people’s secure identity and the sensitivity of their information.
On the different concerns that have been raised by members of the Committee, it strikes me that in the quest to abolish, the fear caused by the potential use of a national identity database is outweighing the potential benefits, or the difficulties that will arise from not having the ID card. For example, not having it will cause a more fractious and less equal society, in the sense that everyone will be card-carrying in different ways. People on lower incomes who have no other means of having a form of identity will carry their “I am on a low income” card; foreign nationals will carry a different type of card to prove their identity; those with the means will have passports; and others will have driving licences. The rationale behind the ID card was that it was a cheap and unifying way for people to prove their identity. Do you see any weight at all in that argument?
Shami Chakrabarti: I appreciate that this was part of the ambition, but I never believed that the identity card would be a unifying thing, that we would all be more British and more cohesive as a society if we all carried our ID card—quite the reverse. I shared Ms Abbott’s view that requiring people to hold compulsory cards, which in the end is where it would go—
Shami Chakrabarti: You are quite right, and I accept that that is what you are defending, but our fear, constitutionally and historically, was that it would not remain voluntary. The more people took it up—I am glad that they did not—the greater the push to move, in the end, to a compulsory scheme, because the greater use would only come in if everybody was required to carry the card.
On a multiplicity of identifiers leading to inequality, I want to clarify a point, because I do not think that people on poorer incomes should carry the “I’m on a low income card”, as you put it. The point that I think Dr Metcalfe and I were making is that if passports and driving licences are too expensive, and it is too hard to open a bank account, and so on, all those problems should be addressed. But I am not suggesting at all that there should be a special card for poor people and, as I hope you heard in my evidence on non-EU nationals, I do not want non-EU nationals to carry a card in-country either. While their visa is, we are told, now in card form, I would like to see legislation on the statute book to severely limit the purposes to which that card could be put and the purposes for which it could be required. My ambition in the future, and I think it ought to be the Government’s also, is to seek to negotiate a return to secure vignettes or stamps in passports, so that border control happens on the borders of this country, and not on the streets of Hackney.
Eric Metcalfe: I share Shami’s fear. It was a nice intention—introducing the single card to ensure that we were all treated equally—but my great fear was that it would eventually be turned into something that was demanded of people from poor and ethnic minority backgrounds by the police on the street. So, for those people in particular, it would not be an equalising tool; it would be a tool of their persecution, and I think that that would be unfortunate.
Eric Metcalfe: That question is premised on the idea that there always has to be a single-answer solution for every situation. The answer that we have been trying to give is that you always have to look at the particular context, and at what is demanded in the particular circumstance. It might be that to access housing benefit you do not need to hand over to a Government official a document with a chip that, let us say for argument’s sake, gives access to a database that has your date of birth, height, weight and eye colour. You do not need to have a database with all that different information on it for the sake of accessing your housing benefit. It might simply be enough to know that you are resident in a particular local authority, and that can be established by a number of different methods. I share the concern that we all can be required to carry lots of different forms of identifiers, but I think that that is probably an unnecessary fear, in just the same way as we have the unnecessary fear about all the bad things that will happen if we do not have the general ID. There are, however, many different ways of establishing identity effectively—which it is important to do—without resorting to a general database.
Shami Chakrabarti: Mr McCabe’s argument was that if you have too many different forms of identity, there are too many different documents to be lost or stolen. My answer to him is that given that we live in a world of risk—in which that risk is always possible—it is better that you do not hand the keys to your innermost life to the one person who steals your card or, more likely, hacks into the computer. It is better to spread the risk than to have it all in one place.
It seems to me that you are saying that there is not really a solution for the person who has fled domestic violence, or the person who does not have any record. When a small organisation tries to open a bank account, for example, a number of people cannot be signatories, because they cannot provide the necessary documentation. I am trying to push you; if we do not have identity cards, what is the solution?
Shami Chakrabarti: If they can apply for identity cards, they can apply for passports and driving licences. If you say that those are too expensive and too inaccessible to people, the cost must be addressed in order to achieve the inclusion that you want. That is a very important point. If national insurance cards are to continue to be of any relevance to people, they may need to be made a more secure and more useful form of identity. The point is not that we are against all identity documents, but that we want them to be fit for their separate purposes. We want each database to hold no more than is relevant to that purpose. Our principal position is that it is more proportionate, particularly in terms of privacy, to have various specific forms of identity than to put everything in one place.
I would like to ask Dr Metcalfe, who talked about data and how they are held and used, a question. We give an immense amount of data on a daily basis to all sorts of organisations. Many of them, from the Ministry of Defence to the ITN building, have a photograph of me, and presumably some record that I have been there. Data protection is working properly, one hopes, in that respect.
An identity card would hold specific information in one place about who I am, and would provide proof of that, if necessary in certain circumstances, through the form of a fingerprint. I would not need to provide a lot of other information to a lot of organisations. My driving licence only needs to show that I am able to drive, and other documents only that I am able to meet a specific purpose. If you look at it like that, identity cards could have been a way for citizens to choose to give their core data to one place and to then not have to give them to many other organisations. You could very quickly prove with your card in your hand, and not necessarily through access to a database, that your identity was secure; the rest of the data would not need to be supplied. Have you thought about whether there are better ways of reducing the amount of data that we have to give others? If we are not to have the ID card scheme, what would you like to see the Government do?
Eric Metcalfe: You want to store various kinds of information on the national identity register, but although you may only want different parts of that data made relevant for different services, the main store of data, containing all the different aspects of your biometric information and all the rest, will still be on the register. It may not be necessary for a person who is using their identity card in a particular context to supply all that information; that may be the mechanism by which an identity card would work, but—
I am sorry to interrupt, but I should like to clarify my point. The way that the scheme was set up meant that no one could have mined the data. My point was that if I wanted to hire a car or get a driving licence, an identity card could prove that I was me. I am not suggesting that other data be added to the national identity register. My point was about identity.
I have a question for both of you. I think it was Edmund Burke who said that liberty lost is rarely regained. The previous Government always said—and it has been said several times today—that the proposed scheme was voluntary. My understanding, from reading the legislation in my previous life, was that the original purpose was to combat terrorism and improve international security. What evidence do you have that the voluntary carrying of an ID card would have become a requirement in the longer term?
Eric Metcalfe: I have a couple of examples from off the top of my head. Look at how the DNA database has expanded in a relatively short period of 15 to 20 years. First, we were just gathering DNA from convicted prisoners, and then it became everyone who is subject to arrest and charge. Similarly, in the terrorism context, look at our period of pre-charge detention: in 2000 it was seven days; in 2003 it was 14 days. Now it is 28 days.
Shami Chakrabarti: Look at the world war two identity card, an emergency, exceptional measure that started with just a few pieces of information on it; that grew, by the end of the scheme, post-war, to many more—more than a dozen. With modern technology and greater capacity, the irresistible urge to grow the purposes and the information is so much greater. Yes, terrorism was offered as a reason at one stage. Immigration came back many times, which is why I had my concerns about race relations and on-the-street border control. Benefit fraud was offered at one stage, as were the issues of entitlements and social cohesion. At the end of the day, I have never thought that the arguments really stood up to scrutiny and, I am glad to say, I think that the public at large ultimately felt the same. Yes, perhaps financial cost played a part in the decision—let us be honest about that—particularly in a time of economic crisis, but that is not such a bad thing, because sometimes when you have to make the difficult decisions that all of you in this place have to make about costs and benefits, it focuses the mind on whether the card would really keep you safe, or appreciably safer, from terrorism.
I sense that we are drifting into the debates that we may enjoy on Thursday and next week, but I do not want to short-change anyone. Are there any more specific questions for the witnesses? If not, we will move towards a conclusion.
It is time to wrap up our business for this morning. Thank you to Dr Metcalfe and Ms Chakrabarti for an interesting and helpful session.