It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I welcome particularly all new hon. Members to the Committee. I am sure that they will find it a life-enhancing experience. Clause 1 is the heart of the Bill. It repeals the Identity Cards Act 2006 with certain limited exceptions, so we shall have to resist repeating the speeches that were made on Second Reading. It would be tempting to go down that route, but it would be out of order. I shall resist the temptation. We are delighted that the new coalition Government were able to introduce the measure as our first new Bill in this Parliament.
On Second Reading, the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), made an extremely interesting and lively speech, and described the Bill as expensive, misguided and spiteful. He was wrong on all those points. The clause clearly demonstrates our commitment to remove the identity card scheme from the statute book because it was—and, until the Bill is enacted, is—an expensive and misguided scheme. Despite its obvious lack of popularity and demand with the public, it was pursued wrong-headedly by the previous Government. The scheme could carry on by gathering volumes of biographical and biometric data from people and charging them for the privilege of doing so, as we discovered in our evidence sessions. However, not all of them were charged as we now know because several thousand of the small number of people who apparently signed up for ID cards did so only because the Government were paying for them. Having done that, the Government levied financial penalties of up to £1,000 if those people failed to keep their personal data up to date. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch is looking surprised at that assertion, but she heard the evidence from Manchester airport.
The 2006 Act clearly symbolised the previous Government’s aim of extending the boundaries of the state into the private lives of the citizen. Obviously, there are situations when public protection, national security and the prevention of serious and organised crime require that information is gathered, analysed and disseminated, but that must be a proportionate response to the level of risk or threat posed. Our objection to the ID scheme was that it was wholly disproportionate, and ludicrously expensive and intrusive for the various virtues that were prayed in its aid by Ministers in the previous Government.
The criterion for holding such a large volume of personal biometric and biographical data on ID cards was based on the fact that they had paid £30 for a card or, had indeed had that £30 paid by the taxpayer. We cannot expect the public to play the full and active role that they need to do and should do in making our streets safer and our communities better places in which to live when the Government continue to gather a whole host of factors about them and their whereabouts on the remote off chance that, in the distant future, it might be of some benefit to public authorities. That is not the way in which to create responsible citizens; it is to treat all citizens of this country as potential suspects. It is wrong in principle and hugely expensive in practice.
Far from being a spiteful Bill, as the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle described it, it is a common-sense Bill. The clause takes a major step in removing the intrusion of the state, enhancing the liberty of the individual and removing a costly and expensive scheme that has been, and will continue to be, funded by the taxpayer. Whether the scheme is self-financing is irrelevant because people would be paying for it. Whether taxpayers or cardholders, they are the same people. The distinction that the previous Government tried to draw between the Government paying or the citizen paying was wholly bogus, because either way the citizen would have to pay. It was an act of audacity to require innocent people to pay £30 for the dubious privilege of allowing the state to build a national identity register, including several dozen of their personal details, and then threaten them with a £1,000 fine if they got any of those details wrong or forgot to update them. In all the consultations, debates and discussions on ID cards since 2001, we were promised benefits and savings, but the reality was that none materialised, with no imminent prospect that they would.
In our useful evidence sessions on Tuesday, I found it particularly instructive that Angela Epstein, a huge enthusiast for the ID card scheme and a witness selected by the Opposition to pray in aid the virtues of the scheme, admitted that she had not found a single use for the card in the seven months that she had owned one. If the enthusiasts of the scheme could not find a use for it, why on earth did the previous Government think that the British public as a whole would? The scheme was unpopular, intrusive and indiscriminate, bringing expense and confusion.
On that basis and without anticipating the will of the House or of another place, we have taken steps to ensure that future spending by the taxpayer and fee-paying by individual citizens is at an absolute minimum pending parliamentary consideration of the Bill. We shall of course meet our statutory obligations, but we are deferring consideration of any further identity card applications until Parliament has determined the future of the Bill. Such a practical and common-sense approach cuts the cost to the taxpayer and prevents individuals from spending the £30.
The hon. Gentleman is, I am sure, mischievously misinterpreting what he just heard. No, there is absolutely no intention for the Government ever to return to anything like an ID card project. We are absolutely sticking to our manifesto commitment. I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman is, as ever, completely awake.
That practical and common-sense approach cuts the cost to the taxpayer and prevents individuals from spending £30 on a project that has little in the way of benefit and, potentially, a short shelf-life.
I do not. I have heard the hon. Lady and others make that point. Frankly, it could not have been clearer in recent months, in the months leading up to the general election, that if the previous Government lost that election the identity card scheme would be scrapped. That was a commitment by the Conservative party for years, and it was a commitment by our partners in the coalition, the Liberal Democrats. The British people elected the Government who are now doing what we said we would do, so no one can complain that they did not see that coming and that it is unexpected.
The Minister referred earlier to the number of cards issued to those working at Manchester airport. Can he give us the number of those who paid £30 themselves for the card, not just of those who were part of the pilot scheme?
Presumably the number is somewhere between the 2,600 or so that were given away for free and the roughly 15,000 total. Do the maths—about 12,400 paid. I thought that the Angela Epstein remark to which I referred was interesting: she, a great enthusiast for the scheme, had not found a single use for the card. I suggest that if the hon. Lady had bought a consumer gadget last December for £30 and had not found a single use for it by June of this year, she might have just shrugged her shoulders and said, “That was a bad buy. That was a shame. That was a waste of £30,” which, I suggest, is the attitude of any sensible person to the identity card.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), the former shadow Home Secretary, said specifically before identity cards were issued that anyone who spent £30 on one would be buying a souvenir of a failed Labour Government. That is what the cards now are.
That would clearly have been a sensible assumption to make, since it proved to the case. Frankly, observing the death throes of the previous Labour Government, it was not out of court for people to assume that that would happen. People took a risk and thought that the scheme would survive if the Labour Government survived, but they did not, and neither will the scheme survive—that is what happens.
In assessing the value of ID cards, the Minister has not mentioned the intangible benefit of security, on which it is difficult to put a price. He referred to Angela Epstein not being able to give an example of an ID card being used in a practical way, but one of the biggest growth areas of white collar crime is fraud, particularly ID fraud. Surely, ID cards are one method of addressing that problem.
Fraud is clearly a problem, but the key is proportionality, as I have said. Banks and financial institutions—indeed, Governments—can take steps to prevent fraud, but each scheme has to be assessed on whether it is proportionate and effective. All along, our case has been that the ID card scheme is by no means the most effective way of fighting fraud; it is certainly the most colossally expensive way of doing so. Apart from all that, such a scheme is hugely intrusive on the private lives of every adult citizen of the country. The scheme therefore completely fails any test of proportionality.
The so-called benefits that were listed in various forms for the scheme proved to be unfounded. The hon. Gentleman was not in the House to follow the debates closely, but I assure him that about every six months a new benefit was adduced, when it became clear that the benefit previously claimed for it would not become a reality. I do not agree with him that the scheme is an effective way of fighting fraud.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton.
The Government have said that the Bill is symbolic. I would counter that it is also ill thought out. Things that are done in a symbolic fashion, without attention to detail, often have perverse outcomes. Her Majesty’s Opposition recognise the outcome of the general election, the formation of the coalition Government and the clear will of the two parties involved to repeal the Identity Cards Act 2006. However, as we progress through the Bill and towards the possible abolition of ID cards, it is important that the Opposition point out some of the real pitfalls and security gaps that will result. The Minister is new in post and the first legislation proposed by the Government is to repeal the 2006 Act, but the Home Office should bear strongly in mind its core responsibility: the protection of the public. The Bill will reduce protection for the public—in a sense, the Government are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
There is still uncertainty over the future of fingerprints in passports, despite reports of spies using false British passports in America and the earlier alleged problems with Mossad, when the current Foreign Secretary raised concerns about the security of the British passport. Although it is pertinent to the Bill, we have no idea about future proposals for the security of passports. Those matters are connected because the database established under the 2006 Act would have covered fingerprints used in the passports that would have been introduced two years later. To have secure documents, it is important to have a database to back them up. That is not new. As the Minister is also responsible for passports, I hope that he will visit the passport archives, which for many years have kept records of passports and of the deaths of passport holders. Such records are important for all sorts of reasons, including proving citizenship.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Perhaps the Minister is not fully apprised of this yet, but if he talks to his officials at the Home Office and to experts in the field of identity fraud, he will know that it is a real issue, because criminals seek to have multiple identities to carry out their business. They do that not only to pretend that they are someone else, but often to get bank accounts, money and other assets under other names, and fraudulent documents are what they often use.
One of the key benefits of a having a fingerprint to attach an individual closely to their identity is that opportunities for fraud are reduced. The passport is always being improved and enhanced for security reasons, and it has changed even in the last 10 years. The identity card is essentially part of the same process. However, passports are not on a statutory footing, and it was not necessary to introduce a Bill in 2006 to make some of those enhancements.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the new Government having halted the introduction of biometrics, such as fingerprinting, into passports, and the risk that it may cause to our security?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is a serious question for the Government. We heard this week of what happened in America with a British passport, and it is important that we have an answer from the Minister today about those plans. It is not enough to say that the Government are halting something; the Minister needs to reassure the British public about the integrity of their passports now and in the future.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important question, and it is important that we nail this one. Eight out of 10 British citizens currently have a passport—I am sure that the Minister can give an up-to-date figure as he has the support to do so. Those passports are voluntary, and the more secure that document is, the better it is for its holder, and it is similar for ID cards. The two schemes are intertwined, because to have a fingerprint on the card requires a database secure enough to hold that information so that it cannot be downloaded, looked up or taken by anyone else, and that database was necessary to enhance the security of the British passport.
I am pleased to see that new hon. Members are interested and I hope that they think deeply about what the Bill will mean to the British public. My contention is that if we do not have fingerprints in passports, or a secure database to back them up, we risk the security of that document—we have already seen its breach on a couple of occasions in the past six months. We want to ensure that the passport retains its strength and security.
Mr Aidan Burley (Cannock Chase) (Con) rose—
I just want to make a little progress.
The Minister has talked about the lack of popularity in the ID card scheme. I contend that that is not the case, because the most recent figures that I have seen indicate that, at any point, between 58% and 62% of the British public were in favour of ID cards, and I will be glad if he gives the most recent figure from Home Office polling. It is one of those things where if people are against it, they are fully against it. However, although the people to whom I have spoken up and down the country were ambivalent beforehand, they were much in favour of the scheme after learning about it.
The Minister is being flippant with the opinions of the British public. The Home Office, as he will know from his role as shadow Minister, regularly polls the public on other things. All I am asking is what the latest figure is—it will, clearly, be from before the election—and it is important that the Committee hears that while it is deliberating the repeal of an important Act of Parliament from 2006, which was being implemented.
No one ever said that terrorists would all sign up to the scheme. [ Laughter. ] Hon. Gentlemen may find that funny, but there is a serious point. The harder it is for somebody to get a document—a false document, or a real document in a false name—the harder it is for them to carry out their business of damaging this country. It is a core responsibility of the Home Office to protect the public from that. Just as chip and pin bank cards radically reduced fraud in banking and just as regulations helped tackle money laundering issues with solicitors and banks, the identity card would have been a simple proof of identity, when many private businesses—particularly banks—require high levels of proof of identity.
We are talking about terrorism, but is it not true that all the terrorist acts that have been carried out in this country have been undertaken by British citizens?
I would be delighted if the Government came up with a total solution for terrorism. The previous Government never said that they had a total solution—if only any Government had that power. The point is that the Home Office’s responsibility is to do all in its power, within reasonable means, to ensure the security of the British public. My contention is that having the opportunity to secure people’s data and identity absolutely was an important aspect of that, not only for security, but for general convenience. Many of us have constituents who have had their identity stolen, and have seen the challenges and the hassle that they had to go through. Those are the very people who were keen to see identity cards introduced, because it would have incontrovertibly linked them to their identity.
Mr Burley rose—
If I may, I will make a little progress. I am more than a little surprised at the Minister’s comments about the airport scheme. His lack of preparation and knowledge about a scheme—it was not a revelation, because it was widely reported in the press and was reported to Parliament—simply reflects that he has not done his homework. I have some sympathy with new Members who are surprised by that—although research and homework are important in this place—but for the Minister to suggest that he found that scheme a revelation is a little odd.
It was not particularly well reported, but it is noteworthy that in an attempt to prop up this failing scheme, which she was trying to foist on the British people, she was prepared to waste hundreds of thousands of pounds more of taxpayers’ money in a desperate attempt to give identity cards away for free. In retrospect, what is interesting is that the Government could not even give them away.
It is easy for the Minister to make cheap debating points and have a laugh about these things, but he is partly responsible for security in this country. This scheme, and its exact make-up, was at least as widely reported—probably more so—than this Government’s apparent policy to get rid of identity cards.
A few weeks before the election, the Minister and I went to a debate with students at a London university, and I think that there were 30 people in the room—the Minister may remember it better than me. That was the first time that I had heard him say that his view was that there should be an absolute repeal of identity cards. It was his view, so I was not entirely sure whether it was a wider view across his party, because I had not heard it quite so categorically from anyone else. The British public could be forgiven for not having heard that message. Although the Minister may have said those words, and he may have said them to his hon. Friends on the Back Benches, that does not mean that every person purchasing a card would have had any understanding or belief that this Bill would have gone through. Most people have a reasonable expectation that a £30 purchase would lead to the actual product being theirs.
Does my hon. Friend share my surprise to hear that the Government have no figure for those who paid £30 for those cards, and does she find it unfair that as a consequence they have been unable to do any assessment of what the cost of reimbursing those people would be? [ Interruption. ] I am a little surprised by the dissent on that point. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is wrong for the Government to say to people who bought a card in good faith, “I’m afraid that we are not going to refund you.”?
I am greatly disappointed with that, and we will be touching on that issue in an amendment that we have tabled. People paid £30 to receive an identity card, which is a simple transaction, but we do not know the precise number who did so. Will the Minister tell us the number of people who paid £30 for a card?
No, I want to finish my point.
I also want the Minister to detail the cost of sending two letters to every card holder, because there may not be much difference between the cost of sending those two letters and providing a refund, which would be relatively simple to do, or at least providing some form of credit. The Bill is meanly worded—perhaps the draftsman should be congratulated on drafting Government policy with such zealous enthusiasm—but there is no money resolution, so it is impossible for us to table an amendment providing a £30 refund. Obtaining a refund is clearly the will of those who paid for an ID card, which are now being scrapped, and I hope that the Minister has a change of heart.
Although there is debate about the precise number of people who obtained an identity card, either paid for or free, does the hon. Lady accept that the popularity of the scheme is shown by the fact that, even though thousands were given away for free, only 15,000 people obtained one?
I have been put in the position of having to educate hon. Members, but I will indulge the hon. Gentleman. The scheme was launched in autumn last year, and it was only marketed and developed in two cities, Manchester and, latterly, London. Such schemes are never taken up by everybody over night. Passports are a 10-year document, so people do not buy or renew them every time that they are redesigned. It is important to recognise that there would have been greater take-up if the scheme had run for longer. The shame of the Bill is that it is strangling at birth something that, had it run for longer, might have proved, even to Her Majesty’s Government, that there was value in all or part of the scheme. Rather than waiting to see whether there was any value in the scheme, the Government are strangling it at birth.
On costs, reimbursement, equity and fairness, are the Government establishing the principle that compensation will be paid to large corporations affected by Government policy, but not to individuals? On that basis, is it reasonable to assume that if, for example, a Government, of any persuasion, decided to nationalise an industry, compensation would not be paid? That is a fundamental point.
I share my hon. Friend’s sadness. It seems that big corporations will be compensated, but the little man in Easington, the little woman in Hackney and the Manchester resident will not get their money back. Perhaps that is a symbol of who the Government feel that they represent, or perhaps the Minister will reconsider. Will the Minister specifically tell us the Government’s plans for compensating the companies that provided the infrastructure for the scheme? I have been told in a written answer that discussions are ongoing, but will the Minister commit to letting me know when those discussions are complete and what figure has been decided for compensation? The British public need to know the total cost of abolishing the scheme. The Government are trying to do that on the cheap by not giving people who paid for the cards their £30 back, but, interestingly, they are not refusing to compensate big businesses. Perhaps that is because those businesses may, quite rightly, have recourse to law and may be able to take strong action against the Government, whereas a resident in Easington or in Bolton might not have the wherewithal to take the Government to court in order to reclaim their money.
I am intrigued to hear the hon. Lady raising the question of the cost of the scheme, but will she remind us how much money the previous Government wasted on the scheme for only 15,000 people to take it up? Is she aware that during the nine months for which the scheme was running, about 2 million passports were issued, which is slightly more than 15,000 identity cards?
The hon. Gentleman might have come a little better prepared. He professes to be interested and an expert on this matter, but he is fundamentally wrong on both those points. More passports were issued, because they were available to everyone in the country. Identity cards were available to only a limited number of people resident in a limited number of postcode areas, which clearly made a difference. In addition, the public always had a choice, and some people may have chosen to have only an identity card or a passport, while others would have chosen both. The key point, which he should be aware of, is that the scales were massively different.
The hon. Gentleman’s point about cost is also a red herring. The scheme was the most openly reported to Parliament of any Government project ever. The Government of the day reported to Parliament every six months with a projected 10-year cost for the scheme. That was only the cost; the fees that would be coming in were not taken into account. Under the rules of the Treasury, identity cards and passports must pay for themselves—the money received in fees must cover the outgoings. Clearly, there were set-up costs involved in developing the infrastructure; in the same way, however, the first Mini off the production line would have cost some thousands or millions of pounds, whereas the 500th or the 5,000th would have been much cheaper as a result of economies of scale. I am sure that I do not need to lecture him on economics—he is an academic and I am sure that he is clever enough to work that out for himself. Let us remove that red herring—someone who paid their £30 received an ID card; someone who did not pay did not receive one. I think that if people paid £30 for a card that is now being scrapped, they should get that £30 back.
On costs and cost-benefits, what price national security? It is the first duty of a responsible Government to protect the citizens of this land. As for the suggestions that there are no cost-benefits, and the mutterings about the difficulties of quantifying them, if a biometric identity card deters a terrorist attack, its value is extraordinary.
I am making an intervention, so I do not think that I can.
A number of my constituents are employed at the passport office at Millburngate in Durham city, and they stand to lose their jobs as a result of this decision by the Con-Dem coalition Government. Has that been factored in to the cost-benefit analysis?
As if by magic, my hon. Friend has led me to my next topic. Having discussed recompense to the individual, I want the Minister to tell me today how many temporary and permanent jobs have so far been lost from the Identity and Passport Service since his Government came to power. Will he be candid about the plans for the future of those jobs, and how many he expects will be lost, given that we are in difficult financial times? Will he also tell us whether the costs that relate directly to those people who were issuing identity cards have been factored in? I believe that removing the scheme in such a fashion will cost the taxpayer dear at a time when we ought to be saving money.
The Minister mentioned one of the witnesses from Tuesday’s oral evidence session saying that she had not had the opportunity to use her identity card. We pay £77.50 for a passport. I do not know how many of us use it daily; we might not use it for six months at a time, depending on our lifestyle and what we need to prove. Not using something does not indicate that people do not want or value it; they have the security of knowing that it is there when it is needed. The identity card was very convenient for some people and it was a very secure form of documentation, which is why it was quite popular among young people and those who need to prove young people’s age and identity regularly.
The Government seem to be keen on databases if they are freelance and private, but not if they are held by them, which is curious, because the Minister seems to believe that the Government are less capable of protecting secure data than Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Iceland. I find that a little surprising. We all provide data to a lot of different organisations. I would rather that the Government held it than a lot of random private companies, and that legal recompense and security measures were in place if there were any problems.
In the Government’s impact assessment on scrapping identity cards and the national identity register, I read that
“a possible maximum of £0.4M in reclaimed card fees” would be paid by the Government at the taxpayer’s expense, if they were to return the fees. Given that the Government do not know how many people voluntarily paid £30 for a card, does my hon. Friend share my surprise that any figure has been arrived at?
I certainly do. The Government are muddled, and it behoves the Minister to come clean with us and give us the figures for the number of people who have a card and will not be recompensed.
I have asked questions about the number of people applying for cards who were in the system, and I have been told that that information is impossible to obtain. I asked the question again, in case, in the meantime, a miraculous way had been discovered to find out how many people had rung the Identity and Passport Service to request a form, because I cannot believe that the figure is not available. It is important to understand that although the number of applicants may be small, those people have a right to receive from the Government what they paid for. We have consumer protection law, and the Government are running roughshod over it, as they are over many other matters.
I want to touch on a couple more points before I conclude my comments on what we will lose if the Bill is enacted. There is still wriggle room for the Minister to do what the Government want—to get rid of identity cards—without throwing out the baby with the bath water, and ensuring that the British public are protected.
Will the Minister clarify the Government’s plans to introduce fingerprints on passports? We risk having British people become second-class citizens in the world, if the British passport does not keep pace with modern technology, and we risk their having to pay lots of money for visas to visit countries where their passports no longer meet security requirements. We have international agreements on that, and it is important to ensure not only that we catch up with the rest of the world, but that we are ahead of the curve. This country has a proud tradition on passport security, but recently we have had some worrying incidents. The Minister needs to answer the British public’s concerns about that.
I want the Minister to clarify what halting the second generation means. I also want to know whether a review is taking place, if so what it is covering, whether it will report to Parliament in due course and whether there is an approximate timetable. I appreciate that autumn in the civil service can stretch to nearly Christmas, but we would like a timetable, because that information is important to the public. If I were about to renew my passport, I would want to know what was happening in the future and whether it was worth hanging on for a month or two to obtain the more secure passport that the Minister will deliver, no doubt, when he sees the light.
It is important for the Minister to outline his vision and view about the use of fingerprints and other biometric data in future. Is he fundamentally opposed to the principle of having people’s fingerprints collected? If he is not, will he tell us what plans the Government have to hold that data securely, if they get rid of the identity database? The Government must clarify the muddle. I believe that the Minister is in favour of fingerprints for visas out of country and for the identity cards of foreign nationals that prove their resident status in this country. If that applies to foreign nationals, why should it not apply to British citizens who choose to go down that route? Overall, there is a muddle about security.
It is mean-spirited not to refund people’s £30, and it is mean-spirited not even to allow us to attempt to amend the Bill to ask for that. We are asking the Minister, but we cannot table an amendment.
I see that although I took a self-denying ordinance not to make a Second Reading speech, that did not necessarily cross the Floor.
In that parade of synthetic indignation, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch raised some serious points, and I will deal with the most serious, which is passport security. We remain confident that the British passport is one of the most secure documents of its kind and, to address her final point directly, it fully meets rigorous international standards. As she is aware, passports issued by the British Government since 2006 are biometrically linked to an individual through an electronic chip, which contains their photograph. The chip cannot be altered without border control officers becoming aware that the passport has been tampered with. The previous Government introduced that initiative, which we welcomed at the time. I am happy to pay tribute to them again today, because it has made our passports safer. As the hon. Lady is aware, however, identity checks using passports are not reliant solely on a chip. The documents have a range of physical security measures that are designed to prevent forgery and tampering.
On time scales, the new design of the UK passport will be issued from 5 October, and it will contain new security printing features to combat fraud. If the hon. Lady wants more detail, she will appreciate that I cannot discuss security measures.
No, I do not. This is all very well, and I am aware of the new passport design and how secure it is—the Minister and I probably know more than we can share here today. However, if he is so confident that the chip is secure for the facial image, why is it not secure for a fingerprint? Will he clarify the Government’s plans on fingerprints in passports and the security of those documents beyond October? I am asking about the longer term.
The fundamental difference between us is that I think that our passport is secure. [ Interruption. ] The former Government Whip, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak is howling with laughter, because eight weeks ago he was sitting as a member of a Government who—
The Minister says that he thinks that our passports are secure, but was that the view of the Foreign Secretary when he asked the former Foreign Secretary about the security of British passports after the incident concerning Mossad? If the Minister looks at the record, I think that he will find that it was not.
I was about to discuss that issue. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch made another serious point about what has happened in Washington this week. There are clearly people around the world who seek to forge passports. That happens all the time, but it would be noteworthy if the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman were suggesting that British passports are not secure, since they were responsible for them about eight weeks ago. The world has not changed very much since then, and the same dangers and problems still exist.
I am sure that traditional passports provided a secure method of identification, but all the evidence suggests that biometric data cannot be readily copied or fraudulently produced. Is there not an irrefutable argument that a biometric element to an identity document or passport is the way forward?
Passports currently include a biometric element, and a long and wholly out-of-order debate is still to be had on the absolute security of biometrics. The hon. Gentleman is aware that even fingerprints are not 100% secure, and that there can be confusion. Clearly, one can use biometrics to establish identity, which the current British passport does.
The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch asked about the medium-term future, and, as she knows, the programme on second generation biometric passports has been halted. It is not continuing, and I do not think we can be any clearer than that.
Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab) rose—
The Minister has been far from clear. He says, “It’s halted. That’s it.” Halted does not mean repealed. A new word seems to have come into the Government’s lexicon since they were elected. We have had commissions, reviews and halts. I understand repeal, but is it halted for now or is it absolutely stopped? The Minister is saying today that the Government will not be introducing fingerprints into British passports from 2012 or at any point in the future. We need to be clear about that.
There is no doubt that it has been halted. I cannot be clearer—that is a perfectly clear statement. Let me answer some more of the hon. Lady’s questions. She wanted the exact number, and I said that it was just under 15,000, but she was not satisfied with that. It is 14,670. Almost 3,000 cards were issued free of charge to airside workers. She asked about the cost of a refund. With administrative costs, the remaining 11,500 or so would cost just under £400,000. She said that that would be about the same cost as writing notification letters, but actually the cost of that is £20,000, so that is massively different. Opposition Members need not write this down, because that information was given in a written answer by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary two weeks ago.
Apologies if I am going backwards, but what the Minister said about biometric data and the fingerprint programme being halted is far from clear. The shadow Minister asked whether the Government had considered the national identity database, whether the programme is to be halted in light of those considerations, and what the future of the programme is to be, with reference to that database. It is cause for concern that the only answer given is that it is to be halted; nothing more certain was said about whether there will be a repeal or whether the scheme will go ahead at some point in future. That raises concerns about it potentially being a huge waste of public money.
We will come to a debate on the national identity register under clause 3, so it would be out of order for me to address such issues during a debate on clause 1. I suggest we return to the subject of the national identity register. The hon. Lady raises a perfectly valid point. How expensive would it be to carry on with the register? Indeed, amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, the former Minister, address that. I look forward to discussing the issue.
To return to costs, I am glad that the Minister has clarified how many people would require a refund if the Government decided to do the decent thing and issued refunds. Does he think £400,000 is a large or a small amount of money for the Government to issue? Does he think that £30 to the individuals concerned is inconsequential to them? I contend that £30 is not an inconsequential sum, and people bought those cards in good faith.
Any sum of taxpayers’ money spent by Ministers should be carefully considered, and Ministers should be frugal and prudent in their use of public expenditure. I regret that Ministers in a previous Government were not—they wasted far more than £400,000.
That is the point that I made: the previous Government, whom the hon. Lady supported, claimed that the identity card system would pay for itself because people would pay for the cards. It did not pay for itself—it took money from taxpayers. On a point of principle, we and our Liberal Democrat partners said all along that a non-Labour Government of any kind would scrap the identity card scheme. That was made perfectly clear, and it is disingenuous of the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch to say that nobody knew about it. Anyone who paid attention to the issue—anyone who bought an ID card would presumably have been interested in the scheme—might have clocked the fact that the card would not outlive the Labour Government, and that spending the £30 was a bit risky.
Will the Minister give some consideration to the fact that many members of the British public do not necessarily follow the inner workings of Government with such avid interest? An ordinary person on a low income who requires some form of identification and is offered an easy way of getting it would not care whether the Government were Labour, Conservative or Liberal. The Government owe a duty to their citizens who have entered into a contract with them.
That is an interesting argument. It suggests that no Government could change the previous one’s tax rates—the biggest things that any Government deal with—because they affect the financial circumstances of every citizen in this country. I have never heard anyone on either side of the House argue that it is illegitimate for a new Government to change the tax rates of previous Governments.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I suspect that the reason why we have not heard about how many people scrimped together their last £30 to buy an identity card is because very few people found themselves in that situation. Moreover, while we are talking about wasted money, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, mentioned the figure of £400,000, but between April 2006 and March 2010, the previous Government spent £251 million of taxpayers’ money on the ID card scheme.
For the record, it is important to note that some Government Members on the Committee are sniggering about people who paid £30, which is a lot of money for many people. The few who were able to get a card chose to do so because £77.50 for a passport was a lot of money. I have constituents who were very keen to have a card, and I am sure that my hon. Friends have such examples, too. Some of those people did not qualify for the scheme because it applied only to people with recently expired passports, so they were desperately waiting for the time when they could get a card. It is unacceptable to belittle and laugh at members of the British public who have paid £30.
The hon. Lady has returned to synthetic indignation mode. I have constituents for whom £30 is a lot of money, and had they asked about the ID card scheme—nobody asked because nobody was interested—I would have advised them not to waste their money on it, particularly because a different Government would abolish it after the general election.
Grahame M. Morris rose—
I wish to make some progress. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch asked about the commercial decisions. Negotiations with companies are ongoing and she will recognise, as a former Minister, that it would not be appropriate for me to speculate on costs at this stage. I am happy to assure her, however, that the results of those discussions will be published in the Identity and Passport Service’s 2010-11 annual report.
This year’s report came out last week, so I imagine that report will come out around this time next year.
The hon. Lady also asked about staff. The restructuring of the IPS as a result of this Bill resulted in 60 temporary staff being released three months earlier than expected. These were people who generally commenced their temporary employment with the IPS between January and March 2010. She also asked about applications for packs. This is an interesting statistic: 100,000 requests for an ID pack were made. Of those 100,000 people, who were clearly the potential early adopters, only around 15,000 pursued it. As we know, 3,000 were given them free anyway. Some 11,500 people voluntarily went ahead with the process. I do not know, although it is interesting to speculate, whether the others decided not to because they thought it was a complete waste of time or because they doubted whether the scheme would continue.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, referred to passports. In the Mossad case, the passports used were old-style ones that did not contain a facial biometric image or chip, so there is no direct read-across to passport security from that case.
Passport security is an important issue—I accept that the passports used in the Mossad case were the old-style ones—and that is one of the reasons why the passport was regularly updated with new security measures. As I said, the Government have to be ahead of the curve on this. I still do not know whether “a halt” means never again. Are the Government unwinding the infrastructure, and stopping contracts with the businesses that were developing the database and the production of the new-style passport book? We need to keep ahead of the curve in this country. Will the Minister respond specifically to those points about what he is doing about the infrastructure?
I have said everything that can be said about that. The hon. Lady is inviting a huge amount of speculation, which I suspect, inter alia, is out of order under the terms of the clause. The programme has been halted. The work on it has been halted. I do not think I can be clearer than that. I hope that I have addressed all the specific questions.
If that is the case, then I should like to know—the Minister may need to write to me on this—what negotiations are under way with the organisations that were developing the passport book. What compensation, if any, will they be given for the break in the contract? When will that figure be reported to Parliament?
The hon. Lady rightly anticipates that those commercial details are probably not best shared across the Committee. I will write to her on that subject. I have sought to address all of the many detailed questions on the clause, and I commend it to the Committee.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton. I owe it to all my constituents and former constituents whom I consulted regularly on ID cards at least to comment on the Government’s proposals. Perhaps the Minister has never engaged in conversation with his constituents about ID cards, but the majority of those whom I consulted supported the principle of ID cards. There are obviously always arguments about the detail of any scheme, but my experience has been that people, certainly in my part of the country, have not fundamentally objected to the principle. It would be wrong for their views to be entirely ignored as the Government attempt to steamroller this policy through.
That is relatively simple. We accept that the combination of the coalition is opposed to ID cards. “Steamrollering” refers to the fact that this is the only bit of legislation that the coalition has so far been able to introduce. To the best of my knowledge, there is not a single other bit of legislation, so my comment was a reasonable one.
I was about to say that I am grateful to the Minister for now giving us the figures. He tells us that to compensate those who in good faith purchased the cards would cost about £400,000 and that it is not reasonable to spend that amount. However, he thinks that it is perfectly reasonable to spend £5 million this year on abolishing the scheme itself. Perhaps in new coalition-speak that is value for money, but I find it hard to understand.
Again, on costs and cost-benefits, the Minister did not really address the impact on “Safeguarding Identity”, the Home Office strategy—in fact, a multi-departmental cross-Government strategy—designed not only to guard against benefit fraud but to deliver more efficient services. Is that being addressed properly in the consideration of the cost-benefits of the measure?
My hon. Friend makes a perfect point. It cannot have escaped anyone’s attention that we have heard absolutely nothing about that from the Minister. I simply cannot understand why it is all right to spend £5 million of taxpayers’ money on abolishing the scheme but it is not acceptable to spend £400,000 on compensating poor people who in good faith responded to an initiative made available by the Government of the day.
Dr Huppert rose—
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the cost of the scheme and the steamrollering, but does he realise that he ought to be complaining about his Government, who spent millions of pounds—£251 million, I think the Minister said—on introducing the scheme, steamrollering over a massive number of objections, including from many people in my constituency, where I can assure Members the scheme was not popular?
That was possibly not an academic intervention after all.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is wrong. I am delighted to hear that he has an independent view. That is possibly not good for his health in the coalition, but I accept his anxieties. The scheme was originally proposed by a Conservative Administration and supported by a former Conservative leader. It was introduced twice before general elections and was put through Parliament in 2006. Therefore, if someone thinks that that is steamrollering, they are simply wrong.
Again, on the massive public opposition to the concept of an ID card, I do not think that there is any evidence base for that. My hon. Friend the shadow Minister suggests, as does the written evidence submitted to the Committee, that the polls indicated that there was public support on the basis of national security, and the more efficient combating of ID and benefit fraud—[ Interruption. ] Several Members say that there is no support for the card, but I suspect that that might not be the case.
I think that my hon. Friend is right. This Government have produced two publicity-driven cheerleaders to tell us what they think about ID cards, but I do not recall them producing a single piece of evidence between them. If I remember correctly, the lady from Liberty did not know the details of the database for her own organisation. She was not what I would call a reliable witness. [ Interruption. ] I simply make the point that the lady was asked in good faith to give us details about her organisation’s database and she could not. That is simply a fact. We know she spends her time touring the TV studios promoting her views, but I do not think that is the same as evidence.
The point I was making was that the Minister is prepared to spend a great deal of money abolishing the scheme; he is treating the people who bought cards in good faith shabbily. He is creating a rather dangerous precedent. If the assumption in the future is to be that, because a party in opposition says that it may do something if elected, no action should be taken to support measures that the Government of the day ask for, we are in very dangerous territory. We have a Government at the moment who have broken every single promise that both coalition parties made before they were elected. For example, VAT. Do not pay VAT because they said they were against it. Now they are for it. We should be careful about the precedent. The Minister is now reading his comment in the background there.
With regard to Equitable Life, I am amazed that the Minister supports compensating the people who inadvertently bought Equitable Life policies—
I apologise. I was simply making the point that it is wrong for any Government to punish individuals who acted in good faith on the basis of the information they had from the previous Government. No one is saying that an incoming Government cannot change policy; we are saying that decency should be a standard. The Minister is a decent man, so I am surprised that he is prepared to take these steps. I am happy to accept that he is not responsible; someone else has probably put him up to it. If he wants to tell me who, I will be happy to attack them rather than the decent gentleman opposite me.
I was struck that the Minister seemed to have no response to my hon. Friend the Member for Easington on the issue of identity fraud. Everyone knows that that is a major problem in this country. There cannot be a single Member of the Committee who has not come across a constituent who has suffered—[Interruption.] From a sedentary position, my hon. Friend suggests that the coalition is an example of identity fraud. I am not sure if that is true but I can see why he said it. It certainly is for the people who voted Liberal Democrat.
Identity fraud is a major issue for every single person in the country. I am amazed that the Minister has nothing to say about that. He has no proposals and no suggestions. No one is suggesting that the scheme proposed by the previous Government was perfect, but it was an opportunity to address some of the issues of identity fraud.
I raise two simple questions. Should the people who were given their identity cards receive reimbursement? I am presuming, no, if they were given them. Secondly, are the Government expected to seek back from Manchester airport the hundreds of thousands of pounds of benefit that it received?
The issue of compensation seems to be quite straightforward. Government Members are setting a dangerous precedent; the hon. Member for Hexham gave a particular example. I am thinking of a situation where an incoming Labour Government may decide, for example, to nationalise the train operating companies. Would we do that without compensation? Is that what the hon. Gentleman is advocating? Would we say, as he has, to Manchester airport, “We want back the subsidy that we have given you”?
My hon. Friend is right. I remember Conservative Members’ outrage when Railtrack, a failed company that exploited people left, right and centre, was taken back into public ownership, so he makes an absolutely good point. We are concerned about the precedent, and we are coming to know the spiteful nature of the performance. I think the hon. Member for Hexham wanted to make a further point.
I do not need to make a detailed intervention; I can deal with this in two ways. The answers to Questions 52 and 76 that I asked a couple of days ago provide evidence that Manchester airport received well in excess of £100,000 for 2,400 cards, on top of the cards given to London City airport. The benefit, which I specifically put to Mr Fazackerley in Question 76, was well in excess of £100,000.
I am grateful. We will get to discuss the detail of the matter under new clause 2. Perhaps it is new coalition economics, but “in excess of £100,000” is not quite the same as “hundreds of thousands”, but I will not dwell on the point.
In fairness to the coalition, both parties had said in the run-up to the election that were they elected—or, were they able to form a Government, as neither of them were elected—they would do away with ID cards. However, I do not recall at any stage in the process that they stated that they would do away with biometric passports. I understood, in the hours that I have spent in this Committee Room listening to the Minister in his previous incarnation, that he was a fan of biometric passports. However, listening to the news this morning, I was struck by the fact that the Foreign Secretary will announce that there will be a set of new relations with countries across the globe. I think he is making a speech somewhere this morning, where he will outline Britain’s new future and our new relationships. I would like to know how that will work if we are not able to travel. Countries across the globe will insist on biometric passports, and Britons who try to participate in that scheme will be completely caught up in exhaustive visa applications. Rather than having new relations, we will end up being the poor relations when it comes to travelling. Whatever the coalition’s desire to do away with ID cards, I cannot see why it makes sense to make it difficult for Britons to participate in a scheme that will be adopted by countries across the globe—it seems entirely pointless.
When the Minister used the evidence of Angela Epstein—[Interruption.]. I am delighted to hear the Under-Secretary speak; I thought that she had taken a vow of silence when she joined the coalition Government. The Minister said that the evidence demonstrated that Angela Epstein had not found any use for the ID card at all, and that that was a total vindication of his position. She actually said:
“the fact is that the scheme was in its embryonic stage, and I have not had a chance to use the card properly, so I can neither prove nor disprove the arguments about ID cards. That is the flaw in where the Bill is at; it is a knee-jerk response to a scheme that has not had a chance to prove what it could or could not do.”––[Official Report, Identity Documents Public Bill Committee, 29 June 2010; c. 32, Q86.]
That is slightly different from the impression that the Minister sought to give the Committee this morning. I do not want to accuse him of misleading the Committee, but I certainly think that he is guilty of misinterpreting a reasonable piece of evidence from someone who described herself as an honest and willing member of the public.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will remember how forthright and confident Ms Epstein was in giving evidence to the Committee. Would he accept, though, that at certain points it was difficult for her to give that evidence and to make her point clearly, given the often discourteous behaviour of some of the Government Members who at times shouted her down, laughed and sneered? She came as an individual, as member of the public, to give evidence to the Committee and it is not unreasonable to expect her to be listened to courteously.
Angela Epstein said:
“I have not had enough time to use my card yet.”––[Official Report, Identity Documents Public Bill Committee, 29 June 2010; c. 39, Q114.]
That answer is clear. It is from the first person to have an identity card and I think it says how useful it was.
Again, I am always grateful for academics. Angela Epstein was the first person to receive a card—perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to tell me how he stumbled on that bit of information.
How would the hon. Gentleman know whether that was actually the case? She may have felt that she was among the first people. Unless the hon. Gentleman has access to the database, how could he know that?
I am suggesting that the hon. Gentleman cannot say that with certainty, because one of his points was that we do not know and we do not have access to the database.
Okay, Mr Caton. I am always happy to take your advice. Thank you very much. The Minister rather dismissively commented on a question he was asked about Home Office polling. Perhaps he could actually answer this question: was he suggesting that the Home Office will not engage in any polling in the future? Is that a coalition commitment? I am happy to hear that that is the case, but it is an astonishing announcement from any Government. I do not know how many jobs that will cost and how much money it will involve. Is the Minister suggesting that on this issue, there will be no further polling, or was that a commitment about the Home Office position in the future?
It is always open to the hon. Gentleman to listen to what I say. I said that we were not going to waste money polling on this issue. Incidentally, if he wants to do some homework, he can see an interesting page on polling evidence in the very good document produced by the House of Commons Library, which shows a steady decline in support for the ID card scheme, particularly when people were asked how much it cost.
I always listen to this Minister. I have said that I think he is a thoroughly decent man; I just cannot understand how he has got in with such a bad crowd. I accept that the issue of cost has always been a factor, but there is also considerable polling that shows that when the issue of cost is extracted from the debate, people are in favour of ID cards.
On the point about the data produced in the very useful document to which the Minister refers, it in fact shows that there was a majority of approval in the country for the ID cards and that that dropped only when members of the public were asked whether their opinion would remain the same if the cost was £100. We all know that the cost of the ID card was not £100, so the data to which he refers do not show what he is saying.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. Perhaps if people have money to throw around, they can afford to sit there and snigger about these things. I think that it is a fair point that people have demonstrated in poll after poll that they support ID cards whenever the question—[Interruption.] Would the hon. Member for Cannock Chase like to intervene or is he just having a private conversation? I am not sure. Poll after poll has demonstrated that people support ID cards. It has been abundantly clear that they have been concerned about the question of cost, however. That is why the previous Government took steps to reduce the cost as much as possible and to make the scheme self-financing, so that we did not waste taxpayers’ money.
I think that it was the current Home Secretary who described this legislation as symbolic. If it is, it is symbolic of a coalition that has no respect for ordinary taxpayers who in good faith spent money on purchasing the cards. It is symbolic of a Government who have no plan to deal with identity fraud. It is symbolic of a Government who may make it more difficult for Britons to travel abroad and it is symbolic of the spiteful nature of the Government that we shall have to deal with in the years ahead.