HC Deb 22 June 1994 vol 245 cc238-42 3.38 pm
Mr. Harold Elletson (Blackpool, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for a national identity card scheme, and for connected purposes. I congratulate you, Madam Speaker, on your 21st anniversary.

There is overwhelming public support for the idea of a national identity card. Millions of people were accustomed to carrying national registration cards before their abolition in 1952, and the citizens of most other European democracies carry national identity cards. In this country today, millions of people possess a range of different cards which identify them for a variety of purposes. There is nothing alien, sinister or fundamentally un-British about the concept of an identity card.

The Bill is very simple, and merely requires the Government to co-ordinate a national identity card scheme. It does not state that possession of a national identity card should be compulsory or even specify the circumstances in which its possession would be required, although I shall suggest some areas where that would not be unreasonable.

A national identity card scheme could be entirely self-financing and, far from being a threat to civil liberties, would be positive enhancement of them. The Government currently issue a number of identity documents to individual citizens for various purposes. Apart from the passport—which, incidentally, is self-financing—the most obvious of those is the driving licence, which is issued to some 32 million people. It contains a large amount of personal information, but as proof of the identity of the bearer it is virtually useless, and it is often used fraudulently in mainland Britain.

In Northern Ireland—where the driving licence contains a photograph—their fraudulent use is much less widespread. It is not surprising that the Government are actively considering the inclusion of photographs and possibly also fingerprints in such documents. After all, there seems to be little point in issuing documents which purport to identify the bearer if they are patently unable to do so.

There is currently a similar need to update and replace the British visitors passport, as the Home Affairs Select Committee recently recommended and as has been recently demonstrated by one of our EC partners, Spain, which has said that it will no longer recognise it in the future. It seems clear that there is a window of opportunity for the Government to use new technology to create an identity card which would be of enormous value to individual citizens, the Government and private sector organisations.

I am sure that what we need, and what would catch the public's imagination, is a national identity card based on smart card technology. Smart cards are extremely difficult to forge. They are the size of a credit card, but can store images of palm prints, fingerprints, eye retina patterns and photographs, as well as a large volume of other information. They can also ensure that the data is separated and can be accessed only by a series of different codes.

It would thus be possible that an identity card, driving licence or passport could also contain entirely separate banking, medical and social security information if, and only if, an individual chose to store it there. The advantage obviously would be that, instead of carrying a wallet full of cards, an individual need carry only one. It would be a secure and convenient system which would be much more difficult to use fraudulently, and would in fact soon virtually wipe out credit card fraud and theft.

I am surprised that Opposition Members apparently appear intent on opposing the motion, since it is primarily designed to stamp out credit card fraud and theft. That is not an insignificant consideration because it is primarily as a means of combating fraud, rather than other types of crime, that a national identity card scheme is necessary. The police currently admit privately that more than 200,000 plastic cards are lost or stolen every week. Card fraud cost banks £192 million in 1992, which is three times as much as in 1989.

Many banks are now considering the possibility of introducing laser-etched photographs into their cards. The Royal Bank of Scotland recently had a pilot scheme which showed that it was a highly effective way of tackling fraud. The scheme cut the bank's losses through fraud by 98.9 per cent. in 1993. I believe that the Government should now be working with the banks to develop an identity card scheme which would be mutually beneficial.

There is no doubt that the Government also are losing billions of pounds every year through fraud of one sort or another, much of it due to false identity. Social security fraud costs the taxpayer £4 billion every year. The savings which the Benefits Agency was recently able to achieve of £558 million in 1992–93 and £654 million in 1993–94 are merely the tip of the iceberg. It is hardly surprising that the Government are losing so much, given that only recently it was revealed that unemployment benefit had been successfully claimed by M. Mouse, D. Duck, S. Stallone and, I believe, J. Major.

It is clearly nonsensical that that sort of widespread organised fraud, in both public and private sectors, should take place largely because of false identities. Credit and cheque-card fraud should be dealt with alongside social security fraud, by the Government in partnership with the banks. The Government should insist that all benefit claimants provide proper proof of identity by participating in a recognised national identity card scheme. Ordinary citizens should be able to rely on a secure banking system that protects them from forgery and fraud. There is no infringement of civil liberties in that; it is simple common sense. Decent people are fed up with paying criminals to defraud the system, and it is time that we stopped doing so.

While I am sure that the major advantage of a national identity card scheme would be the elimination of fraud, it would have other significant benefits, even if it were purely voluntary. For example, landlords would be able effectively to check the identity of short-term tenants, thus contributing significantly to the prevention of terrorism.

I do not accept that the costs need be prohibitive. In fact, I am sure that the scheme would be self-financing—not just because of the well-known generosity of the clearing banks, which might be expected to participate, but because of the substantial savings to the Treasury that would be achieved.

The Bill is not about restricting the freedom of the individual; it is about enhancing it. I do not see how anyone, particularly Opposition Members, can object to a voluntary scheme of this type on "civil liberties" grounds. After all, which of us here would be prepared to stand up and say that he would fight for the crimes of the fraudster to go undetected, or allow the terrorist to continue to go about his murderous business hidden behind a cloak of false identity for fear of abusing his civil liberties? Our concern should be not with the civil liberties of fraudsters and terrorists, but with their victims; not with the rights of con men and criminals, but with the security of decent, law-abiding people.

We are now faced with the need to tackle crime, fraud and abuse of trust, not because the Government wish to monitor or limit the movement of our citizens but because criminals have impinged on our natural assumption that all our citizens are decent and honest. Unlike the infamous three-card trick, in which the con man always wins, this one card—a national card—will ensure that the winner is the decent British citizen.

3.47 pm
Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West)

I shall be brief, because I do not want to impinge on the time allowed for the important debate that follows; nor, however, do I want the complacent statements of the hon. Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) to go unanswered.

The hon. Gentleman slipped very easily into talking of a voluntary scheme, and trying to avoid the costs of a national identity card scheme. According to an answer given to me by his colleagues in the Home Office, setting up such a system would cost £475 million, while the annual cost of running it would be between £50 million and £100 million. Those are huge sums, and I am sure that we can all think of much better ways of spending the money.

Many of the arguments being advanced about the ease of running such a scheme are similar to the arguments about the ease of running the community charge, or poll tax. We were told that that, too, would be a simple scheme that would commend itself to all concerned. What we encountered, however, was one of the problems that any identity card scheme would pose. In reply to a question to the Department of the Environment, I was told that there was a 34 per cent. annual turnover in the community charge register across the country. When I checked with my own borough, Sandwell—a fairly stable community —I found that it had a 40 per cent. turnover. Then there are the inner London boroughs. Camden, for instance, has a 60 per cent. turnover—and its turnover is not one of the highest. Those figures come from the Department of the Environment. That is the level of change that would take place, so many of the advantages of identifying and keeping track of people start to fall down.

The hon. Gentleman claimed that social security fraud would be a main target. He should have taken note of the words of a Minister in the other place, who said that the problem was not false identity but false statements of a person's circumstances. The hon. Gentleman mentioned terrorists. Another Minister said that he could not recall a terrorist offence that would not have taken place had people been required to carry identity cards. The same applies to burglary. I doubt whether the average burglar will pack his ID card when he goes out to commit an offence.

The proposed measure is a gimmick. It is an attempt by Conservative Members and the Government to reassure ordinary citizens that they are doing something about the problems that concern people so widely. Such matters can be dealt with in other ways. Further checks should be undertaken to deal with social security fraud and, on income tax, it would have helped if the Government had not encouraged the explosion of self-employment and the massive fraud that has taken place in exemption certificates —[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman believes that income tax exemption certificates can be counterfeited, how can he not believe that identity cards could be duplicated, resulting in fraud?

The Bill is no answer to dealing with many of those problems. It would be a leap in the dark and enormously expensive. That is why it should be opposed.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No.19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):—

The House divided: Ayes 89, Noes 113.

Division No. 271] [3.51 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Hendron, Dr Joe
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Alton, David Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Ashby, David Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Batiste, Spencer Johnston, Sir Russell
Biffen, Rt Hon John Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr)
Bowden, Sir Andrew Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Brazier, Julian Kilfedder, Sir James
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Lamont, Rt Hon Norman
Budgen, Nicholas Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Butcher, John Lidington, David
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Lynne, Ms Liz
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry) Maitland, Lady Olga
Carlisle, John (Luton North) Marland, Paul
Churchill, Mr Mates, Michael
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Colvin, Michael Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Day, Stephen Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Deva, Nirj Joseph Pawsey, James
Dicks, Terry Porter, David (Waveney)
Dover, Den Rooker, Jeff
Duncan, Alan Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)
Dunn, Bob Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Durant, Sir Anthony Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Elletson, Harold Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield) Speed, Sir Keith
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) Spink, Dr Robert
Faber, David Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Fenner, Dame Peggy Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Stephen, Michael
Flynn, Paul Sumberg, David
Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley) Thomason, Roy
Gallie, Phil Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Garnier, Edward Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Gorst, Sir John Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Grant, Sir A. (Cambs SW) Townend, John (Bridlington)
Hannam, Sir John Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)
Harris, David Trimble, David
Haselhurst, Alan Tyler, Paul
Hawkins, Nick Viggers, Peter
Walker, Bill (N Tayside) Tellers for the Ayes:
Waterson, Nigel Mr. John Sykes and
Whittingdale, John Mr. Andrew Robathan.
Abbott, Ms Diane Litherland, Robert
Adams, Mrs Irene Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Barnes, Harry Loyden, Eddie
Benton, Joe McAvoy, Thomas
Bermingham, Gerald McFall, John
Blunkett, David McNamara, Kevin
Bradley, Keith McWilliam, John
Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E) Madden, Max
Burden, Richard Mahon, Alice
Byers, Stephen Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Callaghan, Jim Meale, Alan
Canavan, Dennis Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Chisholm, Malcolm Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll Bute)
Church, Judith Miller, Andrew
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Morgan, Rhodri
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Morris, Rt Hon A. (Wy'nshawe)
Corbett, Robin Mullin, Chris
Corbyn, Jeremy O'Brien, Michael (N W'kshire)
Cousins, Jim O'Brien, William (Normanton)
Cummings, John O'Hara, Edward
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE) Olner, William
Dalyell, Tam Parry, Robert
Davidson, Ian Patchett, Terry
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral) Pickthall, Colin
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly) Pike, Peter L.
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l) Pope, Greg
Dixon, Don Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Dunnachie, Jimmy Primarolo, Dawn
Etherington, Bill Redmond, Martin
Fatchett, Derek Rendel, David
Foster, Don (Bath) Roche, Mrs. Barbara
Foulkes, George Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Gapes, Mike Sedgemore, Brian
Gerrard, Neil Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Godman, Dr Norman A. Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Simpson, Alan
Gunnell, John Smith, C. (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
Hain, Peter Soley, Clive
Hall, Mike Spellar, John
Hanson, David Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
Hardy, Peter Steinberg, Gerry
Hill, Keith (Streatham) Stern, Michael
Hinchliffe, David Stott, Roger
Hodge, Margaret Strang, Dr. Gavin
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Sutcliffe, Gerry
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Timms, Stephen
Hughes, Roy (Newport E) Tipping, Paddy
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Watson, Mike
Illsley, Eric Wicks, Malcolm
Jamieson, David Wigley, Dafydd
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW) Winnick, David
Jowell, Tessa Worthington, Tony
Kennedy, Charles (Ross, C&S)
Khabra, Piara S. Tellers for the Noes:
Kilfoyle, Peter Mr. Dennis Skinner and
Kirkwood, Archy Mr. Andrew F. Bennett.
Lewis, Terry

Question accordingly negatived.