HC Deb 14 June 1999 vol 333 cc2-5
2. Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

If he will make a statement on the Government's policy towards the use of identity cards. [85565]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

I see no arguments to convince me in favour of compulsory identity cards whereby a failure to carry a card in a public place would become a criminal offence. Subject to that caveat, we keep under review the balance of advantages and disadvantages that national identity cards could bring.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

My right hon. Friend will know that there is wide support among the general public not only for the introduction of compulsory cards, but for voluntary cards to be used as an interim measure. Why does he not now put that matter out for national consultation, through our access to local authorities, to the police and to Departments of State and also by using focus groups, in order to establish the demand and with a view to the early introduction of that excellent system?

Mr. Straw

Experience in other countries, particularly in Australia, shows that, although the public concerned may, in theory, be in favour of a compulsory card, when they are faced with the consequences of compulsion—namely, that it becomes a criminal offence not to have a card with them—there is immediately the potential for substantial and gratuitous conflict between the police and individual members of the public whose crime has been to forget their wallet. At that point, support for a compulsory card tends to wither away rather rapidly. I am open to argument over the matter, but I see no argument whatever that would convince me in favour of such compulsory cards. I fully understand the arguments in favour of voluntary identity cards; such cards are different and all of us carry a large number of what amount to voluntary identity cards. There is a case for bringing together such cards, and we are considering it.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

Does the Home Secretary agree that the law-abiding have nothing to fear from the introduction of a national identity card? As he has expressed support for a voluntary identity card, why do the Government not get on with putting one into public use?

Mr. Straw

I was making exactly the point that the law-abiding have nothing to fear from a voluntary card. However, I believe that they would find it rather oppressive if, simply as a result of forgetting their wallet, they were faced with the fact that they had committed a criminal offence. The police were hardly in favour of the idea of such compulsion when the matter was raised by the previous Government. As for the hon. Gentleman's encouragement to me to get on with it, we are indeed considering the matter; we do not need many lectures from a supporter of the previous Government, who published a consultative document in 1995, but did nothing thereafter.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that to focus on compulsion might be the wrong approach? Many people would like to have an identity card issued by the Government that authenticates one's age and identity—first, for the purposes of age identification and, secondly, to facilitate travel. People in the rest of Europe travel on ID cards without having to wait for a passport—something which many of my constituents tell me is a problem at the moment. Given that 30-odd new Tory Europhobes are now to be going to and from Europe, would it not be helpful, before they go native, to give them an ID card to remind them that they are still British?

Mr. Straw

Yes—and we would make sure that it had the Union flag on it.

Turning to the 99 per cent. of my hon. Friend's question that was serious, I think he is right to say that, in many ways, the debate about whether cards should be compulsory is a diversion. I see few merits in making failure to carry a card a criminal offence; if that is accepted, we can move on to a serious debate on the circumstances in which a general identity card could be introduced.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I welcome the Home Secretary's recognition that there are strong objections to making the rights of citizenship dependent on carrying a particular Government identity document, but does he also recognise the practical difficulties? Is the Government machine capable of issuing large numbers of identity cards, given that there are thousands of people queueing in the streets of Liverpool and tens of thousands who cannot obtain a passport in time to go away on holiday? What would such problems be like if they were all waiting for an identity card?

Mr. Straw

Let me make it clear, as has the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), that I greatly regret the administrative problems that have arisen in respect of the issue of passports following the introduction of the new information technology contract. We are working hard to clear the backlog: many hundreds of thousands of passports have been issued, and the introduction of a fast track has been almost completely successful in ensuring that people receive their passports, if they put on the application form the date by which they have to travel.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

Is not the Home Secretary being somewhat complacent about the question of passports? Is not the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) right—uncharacteristically and in only one respect—to say that it would be a matter of concern if the Passport Agency were to be responsible for the administration of identity cards? Will the Home Secretary give a guarantee that people—especially the people of Liverpool—will not be put through the trauma and worry of waiting for their passports to be returned by that agency? Have not the Government managed to isolate British citizens who want to travel—isolate them from Europe and from anywhere else—through their incompetence in the administration of the system?

Mr. Straw

No, I do not accept that. I am not in the least complacent about the problems that have arisen and there was no suggestion of complacency in my answer to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). I deeply regret the fact that the administrative problems have arisen, and we are doing all that we can to overcome them. Sadly, the introduction of large-scale IT contracts in both the public service and the private sector is all too frequently followed by such administrative problems. The agency is recruiting 300 additional staff to reduce the arrears, and we hope to overcome the problems shortly.

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