I am grateful that you will be expertly handling our proceedings today, Mr Caton, and I welcome serving under your continued chairmanship. This is my first sitting in Committee as a Minister in the coalition Government and I am particularly pleased that we are discussing the scrapping of the identity cards scheme. Like the Minister for Immigration, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford, I have been a consistent critic of ID cards, and on Second Reading of the Bill I raised several serious concerns about the scheme. There were two key issues, the first of which was that it was too wide and not purpose-specific, and I was pleased that that sentiment was expressed by Liberty in its oral evidence to the Committee. The second issue was about security and protecting the information that is held. Clauses 4 to 6 deal with that important matter and I am grateful to have been allowed to speak to the three clauses together.
As the Committee will note, the provisions are taken from the Identity Cards Act 2006 and are proposed for re-enactment under the Bill. I hope that hon. Members will appreciate that the purpose of the Bill is to scrap the ID cards scheme and the national identity register. Its aim is not to dismantle parts of the criminal justice system that apply to other forms of identity and the offences relating to false and unlawful use of those forms of identity. We are simply re-enacting the offences as they stand.
Clause 4 covers the possession of false identity documents with improper intention, and re-enacts the offence under section 25(1) and (2) of the 2006 Act and the penalty for the offence under section 25(6) of that Act. Clause 4(1) provides that a person is guilty of an offence if that person is in possession of a document that they know or believe to be false, or of a genuine document that has been improperly obtained or relates to someone else. However, to be guilty of an actual offence, the person must have an improper intention, which is defined under subsection (2), for example, using the document for identity fraud. Subsection (4) sets out the maximum penalty for such an offence as 10 years’ imprisonment or a fine, or both. It is important to stress that the offences provide for an offence of being in possession of documents when such possession is for an improper intention or without reasonable excuse. Being in possession of an identity document for, say, an elderly relative in order to obtain health care or care services for them would not be an offence.
Clause 5 deals with apparatus designed or adapted for the making of false identity documents and re-enacts the offence under section 25(3) and (4) of the 2006 Act, and the penalty for the offence set out in section 25(6) of that Act. Clause 5(1) and (2) provide that a person is guilty of an offence if, with the prohibited intention, they are in possession of equipment that is designed or adapted for making false identity documents. Subsection (3) sets out the maximum penalty for such an offence as 10 years’ imprisonment or a fine, or both.
Clause 6 covers possession of false identity documents without reasonable excuse and re-enacts the offence under section 25(5) of the 2006 Act and the penalty for the offence set out under section 25(7) of that Act. Clause 6(1) provides that it is an offence for a person to have in their possession, without reasonable excuse, a false identity document, or a genuine document that has been improperly obtained or relates to someone else, or equipment used for making false identity documents. Subsection (2) sets out the maximum penalty for such an offence as a maximum of two years’ imprisonment on indictment or a fine, or both. On summary conviction, a person may be subject to a term of imprisonment up to a maximum period or a fine, or both. Subsections (3) and (4) set out the maximum period in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. So far as Scotland is concerned, the provisions reflect the effect of section 35 of the Criminal Proceedings etc. (Reform) (Scotland) Act 2007, which has increased the maximum term of imprisonment for an either way offence to 12 months.
There were almost 3,000 convictions last year under the provisions. The offences are used on a daily basis by police and other enforcement agencies. The provisions are important operational tools and we support their re-enactment. For those reasons, I recommend that the clause stand part of the bill.
Her Majesty’s Opposition welcome the re-enactment of parts of the 2006 Act. Identity fraud is growing and we know that criminals and terrorists frequently use false documents and false identities, as I have said in previous contributions in Committee. The security of identity documents and measures in law to ensure that people cannot produce fraudulent documents or use them for wrong purposes are very important. Of course, this does beg the question of why the Government are rushing into abolition of the whole of the Identity Cards Act 2006 without proper scrutiny of all aspects of the Bill, and we will touch on that in our discussions of new clauses.
However, we welcome this part of the Bill. It is the only area so far where the Government are not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The number of convictions demonstrate its use. One could argue, and I certainly do, that had other aspects of the 2006 Act been in use longer—namely, the actual use of identity cards—we would be seeing equal benefits, but in principle we have no practical objection to the re-enactment of clauses 4 to 6.
Having had some experience of the law-making process under the previous Government, I do not automatically assume that just because they created an offence it definitely needs to be re-enacted. We saw far too many offences created, and it is important to think carefully about every new offence that we create. In particular, we took oral and written evidence from Justice, which was concerned that clauses 5 and 6 might replicate previous legislation. I got the Library to do some research—the reference is 2010/6/223-HAS if anyone wants to look at it. They found that in this case the clauses do not entirely re-create the previous laws, so I am happy that they are in fact needed in this instance. However, it is an important principle to think carefully about creating new offences.
I echo those sentiments and welcome the provisions in clauses 4 to 6. When we debated previous clauses, I raised concerns about ID fraud and its being a growth area that needs to be addressed. When the Government get it right, as they have in these clauses, Opposition Members should welcome that. ID fraud is a big issue that needs to be addressed. There are a number of ways to do that and the clauses would help to reinforce the message that this is an area of crime that needs to be tackled in a positive way.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch for her understanding. This part of the Bill is a re-enactment, and it is important as it is needed to provide a gold standard against fraud. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge for looking into the issue of whether there was much difference between the re-enactment in the clauses and what was in the previous Act. I thank all Committee members for their comments.