HL Deb 23 June 1992 vol 538 cc398-416

4.10 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have plans to introduce a national identity card scheme.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in relation to the advent of the free movement of Common Market nationals under the Single European Act, the Commission contends that the Act will make it illegal for governments to check people coming from other Common Market countries from 1 st January 1993. If that principle is violated by the United Kingdom, we are likely to be taken to the European Court. Quite recently the Foreign Secretary said: We accept that Common Market citizens should travel freely but obviously we have to check that they are Common Market citizens". He was making the point that it is essential to screen out drug traffickers, criminals, suspected terrorists and illegal immigrants. During the past year police raids discovered 400 illegal immigrants. It is estimated that hundreds more are breaching the immigration laws: they have outstayed their time, are working without permission or have entered the country by deception.

There may be a legal wrangle about border controls between Her Majesty's Government and the Commission. But constant pressure on border checks highlights the need for an EC mandatory identity card scheme. Most European countries have some form of such a scheme. Senior police officers in this country are convinced that before border controls are relaxed, voluntary ID cards should be introduced. They believe that such cards would be universally accepted and, that if border controls are abolished altogether, a mandatory ID card system should be introduced.

The seventh report of the House of Commons Select Committee on European Legislation records that the police service said in evidence that, if controls were to be reduced, it would like ideally to see the introduction throughout the European Community of identification cards in a common format. One reason for that is the rapid changes in Eastern Europe, which have intensified the problem of illegal immigrants—economic migrants, many of whom live by crime.

Sir Leon Brittan, Vice President of the Commission, addressing a police gathering, said: There is one simple step that Britain could take to ease the task of controlling illegal immigration. This would be the introduction of optional identity cards…In the age of the credit card, is it really so unthinkable that British citizens should be given the option of an identity card, which would bring such advantages? Indeed, in December last year, the then Home Secretary said: There is much less hesitancy by people being asked to identify themselves. So there is a voluntary system of identification building up". The issue of ID cards and the European Community will rumble on and keep alive the need for an ID card system. There are constant pressures on the Home Office. Within Europe, already Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain have either voluntary or mandatory national identity card systems. I understood that one of the controlling concepts behind the single market idea was harmonisation—harmony in manufacturing standards, environmental regulation, industrial regulation and so on. All governments were trying to achieve parity and uniformity. In a few years' time, the European citizen moving freely throughout the Community (just like goods and services) will need to know that what works or protects him in one member state will also work and protect him in another. In that context the lack of a national ID card scheme seems especially illogical. It could be a recognised passport, a Community card of recognition. The Government will have to face up to all that in due course.

At home there is undoubtedly a growing demand for a national identity card scheme. On 10th February 1989 an independent research company, Public Attitudes Surveys, published its findings from a survey which asked who was for and who against a national identity card for everyone in the United Kingdom. Of those questioned, 57 per cent. were in favour and 37 per cent. against. Of trade unionists, 53 per cent. were in favour. A person's political allegiance may determine his attitude to this matter: 65 per cent. of Conservatives were in favour; Labourites were split 47 per cent. to 47 per cent.; and Social Democrats (Liberals) were overwhelmingly in favour.

The most recent survey by Public Attitudes Surveys took place in March this year. It found that there were 62 per cent. in favour, 20 per cent. against and 15 per cent. "don't knows". So public opinion is increasingly in favour of the ID card. The Home Office has admitted that the majority of letters and representations to the Home Office are also in favour.

It is important to note the police evidence to the Select Committee. The question was put to the police service: Are you now saying that the police are moving to a more favourable view of a national EC identity card? Mr. Evans, Chief Constable for Devon and Cornwall, replied: Yes, we are". Mr. Hayward, of the Police Federation, said: Yes, it is the policy of the Police Federation that we would support a mandatory ID card". To Mr. Hadfield, Chief Constable for the West Midlands, was put the question: You have always said in evidence in the past that it did little to assist in the prevention or detection of crime. What has changed? He replied: Two things: one, we were persuaded by the argument and that argument was four years ago. We have listened to what people have said. Secondly, we have listened to the public". Mr. Evans said: There is a third aspect. Two we have heard, hut the third is the massive rise in crime. It is another means we have to look at properly and seriously to see if it is a weapon in our armoury to try to tackle rising crime".

The annual abstract of statistics for 1992, which publishes notifiable offences recorded by the police in England and Wales, shows that in every category since 1980, year after year, violence against the person, sexual offences, burglary, robbery, fraud and forgery have increased noticeably. They are disturbing increases—hence, the police services' updated attitudes.

A number of major national organisations call for an ID system. Three years ago the Townswomen's Guild passed a resolution stating that ID cards should be introduced to combat the increasing problems of law and order. At that time a conference of old age pensioners similarly echoed that call: for the elderly crime is a very great cause of fear; fear is a killer and imprisons pensioners in their homes; something must be done to make them feel safer.

I believe that there is a major groundswell of opinion in favour of an identity card system. One has become conditioned to card use. The Association of Payment Clearing Services estimates that in 1991 39 per cent. of all adults in the United Kingdom had credit cards and 73 per cent. had some form of plastic card—credit card, store card, cheque card and so on. Many major companies already operate an ID system. The Civil Service has 554,000 card carriers, Barclays head office and Shell UK head office each have 5,000, British Gas has over 80,000, and so on. Most people accept such cards. We are now conditioned to them and are not affronted by them. In the Houses of Parliament 12,392 persons carry cards of identification. Even the Government encourage and participate in the use of such cards.

On 4th November 1991 the Department of Transport announced that photographs would be included on British driving licences. A total of 150 organisations were consulted. Of those responding, 86 per cent. were in favour of photographs on licences. One major reason was in order to tighten law enforcement and to help prevent much misery and suffering caused by theft. Indeed, a foolproof photo-licence system could deter much car crime activity. How much more effective it would be if we had a national identification card system. All self-employed building contractors working for the Government must have an identification pass with their national insurance number, name and photograph. The pass has to be regularly checked by inspectors. I refer also to the vast numbers of Army, Navy and Air Force personnel, policemen and firemen who all have photo-identity cards.

The ID card could be a simple version containing basic facts for easy identification: name, sex, date of birth, residence, photograph and signature. Alternatively, it could be a high-tech, smart card containing basic information plus fingerprint, blood group, medical history, work history, financial state and so on. However, I am sure that the nation is not prepared to accept such a card.

I should like to see the introduction of a mandatory, simple identity card scheme. The voluntary phase is over. The vast majority of our people are so accustomed to carrying some form of identity card that I am sure the nation is ready for the next phase. If the starting age for carrying a card were 16, it could help deter young people from starting out on a course of crime. It would be easier to control truancy. In some London schools truancy among fifth formers approaches 50 per cent. of pupils. An identity card scheme would reveal persons involved in under-age drinking. It would certainly identify youngsters who tend towards criminal activity. The requirement for an ID card could instil in our young people a greater respect for citizenship and the responsibility that goes with it.

What else would such a scheme achieve? Obviously, it would make identification easier and more immediate. It would ease the policeman's lot, especially in accidents. It would be a further aid to law and order. The most overriding benefit would be the improvement of internal security. It would be an added weapon to help check social security and tax evasion and credit fraud. Police and special branch officers would welcome such a scheme in their constant endeavours to detect drug smuggling and illegal immigrants. It would help them to check the movements of suspected terrorists and give a tighter control over Irish republicans who flow into Great Britain for social reasons and for aiding and abetting the Provisional IRA.

A national identity card scheme would help many elderly people, including those living on estates which are gaining "no-go zone" reputations, since the police could more easily and quickly identify the regular trouble makers and ring leaders. Finally, it could help to lift the veil of fear from many people and allow them once again to walk our streets in safety.

What a reflection that is on our present-day society. Such a scheme might help to clear our city streets of beggars and layabouts. Identity cards would reveal their real residences. I refer especially to the professional scroungers. The saving of police time in many instances would be considerable.

The introduction of a mandatory scheme of identification cards to be carried at all times, just as one carries a credit card, would be a deterrent. It would have a successful impact on all forms of minor crime. It would be a positive aid to the police in the checking of major criminal activities. Its introduction would be an act of the greatest good for the greatest number. Those who might be apprehensive would be the crooks, the criminals, the fraudsters and the constant fiddlers within our society. A national identity card scheme removes anonymity from those engaged in crime. The law-abiding citizen on lawful business has nothing to fear. I believe that our country now has the need for a national identity card system that will make the life of the criminal more hazardous and the life of the ordinary citizen safer. It is urgent that we begin that process.

4.25 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, a former Lord Chancellor would use a building conveniently sited half way between this building and the Inns of Court for the purpose of relieving himself on his way to the Woolsack until it was pointed out to him that he may have been misled by the Victorian tiling of the internal arrangements and that he was in fact in the National Liberal Club. A plaque by the smoking room fireplace in that building commemorates a member of the club who 40 years ago tore up his national identity card and started the train of events which led to the courts declaring that there was no longer a state of emergency and that identity cards were illegal. He was an archetypal Liberal, and it was an archetypal Liberal action. I believe that he was right then. I do not believe that he would be right now if he were to oppose the suggestion raised in this important debate.

The law to compel citizens to have a national identity card with a name and number centrally registered lives in the dangerous no-man's land half way between Kafkaesque bureaucracy on the one hand and the uncontrolled jungle where criminals can disappear, frequently laden with ill-gotten gains, to the danger and impoverishment of Her Majesty's lieges. My blood slightly froze as I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Mason, refer to the scroungers and the beggars on our streets. Most of them do not have homes to go to or jobs to fulfil. However, I entirely agree with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Mason, said, when referring to the criminal element.

In war time the case for identity cards was overwhelming and we had them. In the immediate post-war world the need grew weak and we did away with the identity card system, thanks to one Liberal. I believe that today, not least because of the apparent appalling inability of any government to deal with the problems of the under-class, there is again a strong need.

The case against such a scheme is based on the healthy distrust of giving power to a centralised state. However, although it is true that the state becomes ever more centralised, it is not true that that is a threat to civil liberties. The recent reversals of court convictions, horrifying though they are from some aspects, are reassuring from others. The rule of law appears to be firmly established in our society. In no society in which that did not obtain could such reversals of verdicts and sentences have taken place. The rule of law appears to be firmly established. Society no longer views those who wish to uphold civil liberties as dangerous Lefties, which was the atmosphere 20 or 30 years ago.

Of course, circumstances can change. But abuse of a universally accepted identity card system would be unlikely to be a danger in itself. The abuse of an identity card system would come only at a late stage in an attack on the civil liberties of citizens. Now is the time to produce an identity card system because our feelings of democracy and our understanding of what is happening are running at high levels. A period of respect for human rights is the best possible time for the introduction of an identity card system. It should not be left until another time.

The obvious advantages of an identity card system lie in its evident utility in fighting crime and in dealing with the problems raised by the European dimension. A less obvious but nonetheless real advantage is its nature as a universal and useful system for combating the growth of an under-class. It will enable people to be helped not by chasing them but by making it possible for voluntary societies to assist. How often is the Answer to a Question in this House—not least when the Question is put by someone such as my noble friend Lord Russell—that the Government "do not have the information in the form that is required?" The danger in our society is not that there is too much information in the hands of the state but that often there is too little.

I believe that an identity card system is inevitable. The noble Lord, Lord Mason, has underlined the fact that it is already prevalent and that many members of society must have such a form of identification. It is important, however, that a system should be brought into force as a whole and in a planned way. It must not be allowed to creep in by the back door. Only if a system is brought into force in a proper way by a government who believe in it and who know what they are doing will the necessary safeguards be built in. I am sure that there are a number of safeguards which must be built in; my noble friend Lord Winchilsea will, I believe, deal with that problem.

I do not under-rate the dangers of a national identity card scheme but I believe that the advantages are much more important. The dangers can be negated by the Government taking firm action and by Members of both Houses of Parliament processing the introduction of a scheme. I thank the noble Lord for introducing the debate, and I support the main tenor of his remarks.

4.33 p.m.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I too am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Mason, has introduced a debate on this important subject. I speak as a newcomer to this House, but I believe that it is appropriate to debate the subject in this House. Here it is possible to do so in a more calm atmosphere than is sometimes possible in another place. There all too often those who take part in debates on what are to some extent moral issues must appeal to and appease party factions.

I start from the premise that in Britain the onus of proof must be for the introduction of a national identity card scheme. It is not something which should in any sense be introduced by a unilateral diktat by a government. There should be the fullest discussion in Parliament before proposals are brought forward, and among the population as a whole after the proposals have been brought forward.

I believe there are two criteria for testing the need for identity cards. First is the prime obligation that there must be on any government to maintain law and order and to protect the population against terrorism with the least hassle to the citizen and the lowest cost to the taxpayer. Second is that in so doing government must make the best use of modern technology.

The time has come for serious thought to be given to the introduction of an identity card scheme because technology has advanced greatly in respect to the possibilities of such schemes. Furthermore, there has been an increase in the level of crime, particularly and sadly in relation to terrorism.

We now all have to endure a much greater security intrusion in our daily lives than was the case when I was young. People put up with that willingly when they see it to be necessary. I must admit that I never thought the time would come when I should not be allowed to dismount from my bicycle in Whitehall; but I am prepared to accept that there may be good reasons why I may not, and therefore I do not. We must now consider better methods for improving general security but with a lower intrusion or hassle level for the citizen.

If an identity card were introduced, several questions must be asked. First, would it be practical to have a voluntary card scheme? The noble Lord, Lord Mason, referred to the countries which have identity card schemes, and it is interesting to note the difference. As regards EC countries, it is mandatory to hold identity cards in Belgium, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg and Spain; and it is voluntary in France, Italy and Portugal.

If it is mandatory to hold a card, should it be mandatory to carry it? The only countries in the EC in which it is mandatory to carry a card are Belgium and Greece—a curious pair. Furthermore, who should pay for the cards? Should they he paid for by the generality of taxpayers or by those to whom they are issued, as in the case of passports and driving licences?

I now turn to some of the reasons why I believe we need to move towards a national identity card scheme. I accept that the noble Lord, Lord Mason, was putting forward the broadest case; but I too found myself shrinking a little at the reference to beggars and scroungers. To put them forward as a justification for the introduction of cards would disadvantage the case.

In the acts of terrorism it is necessary for the police to be able to ascertain the identities of as many people as possible who might be useful as witnesses in inquiries, not as suspects. After a terrorist incident it would be possible for the police to surround an area and record by the use of machine-readable identity cards the people who were there. It may be totally irrelevant, but it may be useful.

Secondly, there is a need to help police work in general crime and suspects. Already we have in Britain centralised computer records which not only cover criminals but also motorists with the vehicle and driving licence registration systems. We all know that those are effectively used by the police and probably save a great deal of police time, which is extremely expensive. My noble friend who is to reply may correct me, but I believe that the working figure for the cost of police time is £25 a hour, including overheads. Computer records already save police time and make checking easier.

I was troubled to hear that it is proposed to incorporate photographs on driving licences. That would be an expensive project and an example of going off at half cock. I hope that it is not too late to at least delay consideration of the reissue of everyone's driving licence containing a photograph until the bigger question of identity cards has been more carefully considered.

Thirdly, the question of credit fraud. I am sure that my noble friend can give me a more accurate figure, but I understand that a conservative figure is in the region of £200 million a year arising from cheque and credit card frauds. We are aware that there can be extremely rapid misuse of stolen cheque and credit cards. Often little care is taken by shops or banks in checking the use of stolen cards.

It is possible for people to choose to have incorporated on their cheque or credit card, the letter "I". That could be done on a voluntary basis. Then when the card is presented in person, there would be an obligation on the person accepting it to make also a print of the identity card—they would thus check that the identity card was held by the person presenting the card. If that check was not made when the card contained an "I" then there would be no recourse for those accepting the card. If it were done then the person holding the card would have a smaller obligation in regard to restitution in the event of misuse of the credit card. That would be a fairly simple system.

There is then the question of serious and violent crime. I should like to refer specifically to sex crimes and offences such as rape, and mention the possibilities raised by the use of the DNA profile. That is something further in the future than identity cards; but is closely related to it. As your Lordships are aware, the DNA technique produces a relatively unique profile of any individual. It is only likely to be repeated in the case of identical twins.

Forensic scientists do not claim more uniqueness than one in several thousands. But shortly, with the fuller DNA profiles being produced, that figure will be one in several millions. In any case, in many criminal cases one only needs a probability factor of one in several thousands for the evidence to be crucial in deciding whether or not a person is guilty. It is interesting that in December 1990 the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons said that a DNA database for the whole male population, would provide considerable benefits for the police". The present cost of carrying out a DNA test is around £160. It is likely to fall to below £50 within the next two years with the introduction of new techniques known as polymerase chain reaction techniques for taking DNA specimens. The specimen required is small. Blood does not need to be taken from a vein; a small prick in the thumb is sufficient.

There is no doubt that such a database would make rape, at least, almost certainly detectable in terms of knowing who had committed it. That would be a significant deterrent for many would-be rapists. It is a factor which we should hesitate to ignore in the context of the obligation of the Government to fulfil law and order and to protect the citizen.

We have heard civil liberties arguments—but not in this debate—against the use of identity cards. One would expect them because the onus is to show the need for cards. However, I believe that there has been a considerable change of view. I have spoken to many of my friends, some of whom in the past would have been strongly opposed to the idea. One such person will be known to many noble Lords and is the kind of person who, some years ago, I would have expected to oppose the concept. I am speaking in preparation of a debate in your Lordships' House. I refer to Ben Whitaker, a former Labour Member of Parliament. He was active in the whole civil rights area and has authorised me to refer to his view as an example.

There are other advantages to identity cards. Travel has been mentioned and is extremely relevant. Already we have free access to this country by Community countries with identity cards, and for many people cards would make passports unnecessary. For many people travel within Europe is all that they may wish.

As we have already heard, public opinion is in favour of the cards. That is important. I was disappointed, as no doubt were other noble Lords, at the reaction of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in a recent response to a question on identity cards. That is why I mentioned the different atmosphere when these matters are dealt with in another place.

All I ask of my noble friend when he replies is that at least he indicates that the Home Office and the Government be willing to study the issue carefully, and that the time for such study has come. We should not introduce such an identity card in a rush; it must be done carefully with full consideration and public debate. The time has come for the Government to undertake such a study and perhaps publish the findings as a Green Paper.

4.47 p.m.

The Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham

My Lords, I too favour the introduction of a mandatory national identity card and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mason, for introducing the subject for debate. But I say that with certain reservations. Other noble Lords have expressed their fears and worries and some of their thoughts on the subject. I shall confine my remarks to a few points that perhaps have not been mentioned.

The first point that concerns me is how the cards will be used. Presumably they will be used to check on immigrants. A number of people feel that the word "immigrant" is a code word meaning "black" or "Asian". If so, it may be those groups which will be stopped and checked and their right to be here challenged. It will not be the white group. That is one of my anxieties.

Another is how ID cards can be made counterfeit-proof. I suspect that there is no easy answer. I ask also whether it will be an offence not to carry an ID card were they to be introduced. I understand that within the EC the only country in the Schengen Agreement which does not have ID cards is the Netherlands. I understand that they are working on that.

Provided that strict controls limit the information about individuals to the barest minimum, I should have no objection to the introduction of ID cards; in fact, I can see benefits resulting in, for example, the identification of accident victims or the identification of missing persons, and in the possible reduction of retail fraud—an important subject mentioned by the previous speaker. I should not object to carrying an identity card at all times. But I can see how such a national compulsory scheme may be abused. It may be helpful for the card to carry the individual's blood group; to state whether he or she is allergic to, for example, penicillin; and also for it to state whether or not the bearer was on regular medication, in addition to the basic information it already contains.

4.50 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, we on this side of the House are grateful for the opportunity given to us by my noble friend Lord Mason of Barnsley to discuss the question of national identity cards. The subject has been discussed in recent months. The Government's present thinking is still by no means clear to us on these Benches. So this is an excellent occasion to elicit from the noble Viscount a clear and unequivocal response on the Government's thinking on this issue at this time. I look forward to hearing that.

I speak as XGAQ 122/3, which was my national identity card number achieved at the age of eight. I suppose that, theoretically, I did not relinquish that appellation until 1952 at the age of 21. But by that time I had already become 22128477 on my AB64 when I commenced National Service, and later 412291 upon receiving my commission in the 41st and 69th Regiment of Foot. It has been pointed out that the average citizen of today is perfectly accustomed to using a wide range of identification documents for special purposes. On that my noble friend has spoken most eloquently and he is obviously quite right. I suppose that most of your Lordships commonly carry credit cards, bank cards, store cards and travel passes, and possess driving licences, passports and security passes which are often worn like ties or jewellery closely around one's throat.

The onus of proof might seem to lie on those who would claim that one more card would make a significant difference and that the remembrance of it would be grievous unto us and the burden of it would be intolerable. Recent parliamentary attempts to place this additional straw on the camel's back do not give aid and comfort to those who now propose it. Mr. Tony Favell's Bill in 1988, which claimed, inter alia, that identity cards would control football hooliganism, was notably unsuccessful. In February 1989, Mr. Ralph Howell introduced a National Identity Card Bill, but the data protection registrar then issued a strong statement opposing it on the grounds of data protection and the safeguarding of privacy. That seems to have been influential in persuading Her Majesty's Government to oppose it as well and so the matter proceeded no further.

Yet the issue seems reluctant to go away. My noble friend Lord Mason of Barnsley has this afternoon made a most cogent and powerful case in its favour. He seems to have received support from all those who have spoken. One preconception and prejudice can, I believe, be cleared away to advantage before we weigh the true arguments. It is fallacious to propose that, because we all now carry certain identification documents, a national identity card would be no great additional burden. It is fallacious because the common feature of the cards we commonly carry is that we have voluntarily chosen to apply for them in order to obtain some benefit or service. Nobody forces us to have a Visa or Access card or one of those cards which allows us to get money from a hole in the wall. That would not be true of a national identity card. Any voluntary scheme would obviously be likely to develop into a de facto compulsory one, and the individual citizen would not be free to remain anonymous when he or she chose to be so. There are times when to be anonymous is good and helpful.

The Labour Party is not as yet wholly and completely convinced that a national identity card scheme, as my noble friend has proposed it, would solve the problems of terrorism and crime which, it has been suggested, could be controlled by such a scheme. Our notion of individual liberty is so strong that it applies even to my noble friend Lord Mason, who has a perfect right to express an opinion which is contrary to that of others of his political party. It is individual liberty which we believe might conceivably be threatened here. Nobody in the Labour Party needs an identity card to express contrary views.

We have a proud tradition in this country of protecting and supporting civil liberties in certain senses: that of the citizen, sitting in his or her house; walking down the local street or driving a car. They cannot now be tapped on the shoulder and asked to verify their identity unless they are suspected of committing an offence. We have an equally proud tradition of harbouring and giving succour to those of other countries where such rights are by no means self-evident. We should think hard before we sacrifice any part of it.

Yet, in recent years, and, it must be said, under a Conservative régime, we have seen a growth in the questioning attitude towards such freedoms. The Asylum Bill has attempted to restrict the rights of asylum seekers under international law when they apply for asylum here. Many influential figures in the Conservative Party have called for national identity cards. During recent years we have seen the Data Protection Act come into being, yet the same Government have tried to crack down hard on those who attempt to bring the public such truth as they see it about our secretive governmental processes. I think of such people as Clive Ponting, Sarah Tisdall and Peter Wright. We have seen the Government pay lip service to the idea of opening up the processes of Government. We applaud their decision to publish the names of those who serve on Cabinet Committees.

Yet at the same time we have witnessed the Government's centralisation of power in a way which we consider as quite often threatening individual liberties. We on these Benches hope that the Government will unequivocally state their commitment to civil liberties now and at every conceivable opportunity in the future. But we fear that perhaps they will be more reluctant to do so than we would like. For that reason we find it difficult this time to support a national identity card scheme.

Perhaps I may now turn to the present proposal as it stands before us. As I have said, Britain had one experience of identity cards during the Second World War. These cards continued in use until 1952, I believe officially as an aid to rationing. But we had to produce the identity card for post office transactions. Quite often, rightly or wrongly, it was demanded by the police. I refer to those of your Lordships who are of an inquisitive nature to the book written by C. H. Rolph and Michael Joseph called Personal Identity. It points out: If you picked up a fountain pen in the street and handed it to a constable, he would ask to see your identity card to record your name as an honest citizen. You seldom carried it: and this meant that he had to give you a pencilled strip requiring you to produce it at a police station within two days". The system was finally abolished when it had been seen to be properly absurd, after a motorist point-blank refused to show his identity card or to take delivery of that wretched slip.

The one great difference between those days and these is the existence of the European Community and the much greater movement between states, which will increase even more next year. There lies a strong case for the proposal which my noble friend is putting forward. However, we believe that at present frontier controls are very much preferable to identity cards. Internal checks—which we accept might have to be carried out if there were no border controls—would, in our opinion, lead to unnecessary tensions and in the long run probably to identity cards. We would reject any accusation that we are woolly-minded liberals, with a small "l", who are soft on crime and terrorism. We are none of those things.

However, we believe that there are better ways of combating crime than a general, national, compulsory, identity card scheme. We have consulted with the organisation Liberty on this matter which, as noble Lords will know, is opposed to national identity cards. We are in agreement with that organisation. There are very prescient reasons for not introducing them, at least yet. In this regard we should compare ourselves with other European countries. It may be that tomorrow when we read the account of what we have said at some speed this afternoon, we will detect some variation in the countries which various Members of your Lordships' House have said do or do not have compulsory, voluntary or no identity card schemes. That will be interesting to see.

As I am informed, there are no identity cards in Denmark. Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden or the United Kingdom. There are voluntary schemes in Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy and Lichtenstein. Cards are compulsory in Belgium, Cyprus, West Germany, Greece, Iceland, Luxembourg, Malta, Spain and Turkey. I hope that between us we shall arrive at the truth.

There is strong opposition, I believe, in the Scandinavian countries to the idea of identity cards, as there is in the Netherlands. Human rights workers in Belgium, where one must carry a card, claim that black people there are often stopped on suspicion of being illegal immigrants. There are fears expressed quite widely in Germany that the machine-readable cards used there will increase the use of state surveillance. In Turkey, Kurds, who are neither Moslem nor Christian, claim that they are harassed —if your Lordships will permit that old-fashioned pronunciation of a word that seems to be going the way of all flesh—because their cards indicate that fact. In France, the law relating to cards was changed in 1986, giving the police more rights to demand proofs of identity, and the police have quite often been accused of abusing their powers to harass young or black people.

Although this evidence may be somewhat piecemeal, we feel on these Benches that identity cards seem to create or exacerbate tensions implicit in society. One is forced to ask: how would the police use their powers in, for example, Brixton if they had the right to demand to see a proof of identity? In areas where the police are already mistrusted, what effect would such powers have on community policing policy? Sadly, it is widely accepted that serious criminals, bent on committing serious crimes such as terrorism, will forge identity cards—and there is no scheme which is forge-proof. This, I think, must be borne in mind when one thinks of the effect of an identity card scheme in the war against terrorism.

God forbid that anyone should accuse us on these Benches of being soft on terrorists who have no compunction about murdering and maiming the innocent. It is a great pleasure to me to pay tribute to the work of my noble friend Lord Mason of Barnsley whose career is living proof that he is no soft-headed woolly-minded liberal on matters of defence and terrorism. But we must approach terrorism pragmatically and logically. How best should we combat it? Powers already exist under the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act for the police and the Army to require proof of identity at any time. In Northern Ireland the driving licence has become a de facto identity card in any case. Would it really be any more use to national security to set up and run—at great cost—a national identity card scheme for the whole of the United Kingdom when a de facto one seems to function perfectly well in Northern Ireland already and is threatening enough to civil liberties for the innocent civilian population?

As Liberty comments: The onus should he on those who propose a scheme to show that it would benefit society as a whole: the liberty of the individual should not be curtailed, unless it is necessary for the preservation of others". I submit that the case has not been proven that such a scheme would crush terrorism. It might even serve to alienate the very people one needs to help in defeating terrorism.

Many countries do well without an identity card scheme. It is not good for democracy for the state to have unnecessary powers over its citizens. It has not been demonstrated in any evidential way that such a scheme would stop terrorism, and at present United Kingdom laws are barely adequate to safeguard the privacy of personal information.

Seldom has XGAQ 122/3 found himself arguing the case that a proposal is unnecessary because its objects can best be achieved by existing means. I normally leave that to Her Majesty's Government. Seldom have I argued from this Dispatch Box that the time is not ripe for a radical change but on balance and with reluctance—with real reluctance —I find myself unable at this time to support my noble friend Lord Mason of Barnsley in this matter.

5.4 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, for giving us the opportunity today to debate this issue which is of considerable interest to the public as well as to your Lordships.

Some people of course object to an identity card system on principle. It seems to be a manifestation of the police state—Big Brother and all that. However, Her Majesty's Government do not take such an ideological position and nor do we agree with those who take the contrary line and believe in identity cards precisely because they would tend to increase the power of the state over the individual citizen.

We have no bias for or against identity cards. Our view is that the introduction of a system of identity cards would inevitably involve a number of costs, both financial and social, and in return might offer a number of benefits. It is a question of assessing where the balance of advantage lies.

There is also the view that if one has an identity card one is numbered or marked and that authority knows about you. However, whereas that view might have been tenable 25 years ago, it is not the case now. We all have national insurance numbers, passport numbers and driving licence numbers and there are numbers on one's gas account or credit card. It goes on for ever and ever. Therefore, I do not think that a rational argument can be mounted that it is against the natural liberties of the individual to have a number. We all have stacks of them—and I never manage to remember any of mine.

Perhaps I may summarise the present position. A national system of identity cards could be either compulsory or voluntary. Either system would cost a great deal to set up and maintain, given the need for a high degree of security. It could be argued that a compulsory system might be advantageous for the state in a number of ways, but it would also have significant disadvantages which in our opinion might outweigh the benefits. A voluntary card would be a convenient means for the individual citizen to identify himself in a variety of situations, but it would have far less to offer to the Government and to the police—not enough in our view to justify the expenditure of public money.

I am bound to tell your Lordships that we therefore have no plans at present to introduce an identity card —neither a compulsory one nor a voluntary one—but we intend to keep the matter under review.

I have listened with interest to the views which have been expressed in this debate. Many of them recall the points which were made in a debate in another place on the Second Reading of a Bill which was introduced by my honourable friend the Member for North Norfolk, Mr. Howell. Some of the points that we have heard today are new, in particular those which relate to immigration, which I shall come to shortly.

But, first, let me dispose of a red herring—the suggestion that our Western European neighbours have identity cards and that we should therefore follow their example. As the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, pointed out, we are not alone in not having identity cards. Ireland, Denmark and Sweden do not; and nor is there a uniform system in those countries that do have identity cards. Some are compulsory; some are voluntary; some are highly secure and sophisticated, while others are frankly very rudimentary.

Perhaps I may explain our position in more detail, beginning with what one might describe as the traditional justification for identity cards—that is, that they would help the police to deal with crime. It was on this basis that the wartime system of identity cards was retained until 1952, as we were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. By that date there was a widespread public perception that the police were using the powers which had been conferred upon them in an oppressive fashion to demand and check identity cards. The system was therefore abolished and it proved to be then, I think, no great loss. I do not think that any noble Lord who has spoken would disagree with that statement of the position in 1952.

It was many years later, in 1988, that the idea of identity cards as a possible weapon in the police armoury was revived. The advice of the Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland was sought. It told us that there would be no clear advantage to the police. It pointed out that, if police officers were empowered to require citizens to produce their identity card —and without such a power, cards would be of limited value —there was a risk of creating the same kind of bad feeling which had existed up to 1952. The risk was particularly high in the case of young people and ethnic minorities, but it was not confined to them.

Your Lordships have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, that the police have changed their minds since 1989. I would make two points. First, although we are aware of the evidence which the police service gave to the home affairs committee's inquiry into external borders, we have received no advice from the Association of Chief Police Officers to supersede that which it gave us in 1989. If it were now to express a different opinion, we would of course consider it carefully.

Secondly, the arguments which were put to us by the Association of Chief Police Officers three years ago are cogent arguments which do not rely for their force on the fact that it was that association which expressed them. We could not disregard arguments which we have up to now considered powerful, simply because the police decided to abandon them or to change their view. In these circumstances we should need to take account of why the police had changed their view. Was it because they now thought that the advantages of identity cards were greater than before, or the risk of abuse less, or both?

This may be a convenient point to mention terrorism, a subject raised by my noble friend Lord Marlesford. It is sometimes argued that identity cards would be of value in combating terrorism. We have considered this aspect very carefully, but our conclusion was that they would not. I hope that your Lordships will understand if I do not go very much further on this subject.

It has also been suggested that identity cards would help to control illegal immigration. That is a perfectly tenable point of view, although the Government do not believe that the case for it has yet been made out. Unlike most of our Continental European Community partners, the United Kingdom maintains a mainly frontier-based system of control. The fact that we are an island, with limited points of entry, makes this feasible.

It is much easier, of course, to turn away ineligible people at the frontier than to find them and to remove them once they are here. I accept that there is a perfectly valid argument that there are, as we know, people here who should not be here and that is why the immigration service continues to be active. But, at the moment, there is no evidence to suggest that a system of identity cards would help in this effort. A voluntary card, or a card which is issued without checking people's nationality and immigration status, would not help immigration control.

The most important question, which would have to be addressed should we wish to introduce identity cards, is: what new powers would have to be created for enforcement agencies, for employers and for others in order to require people to identify themselves? We would have to assess how effective those powers would be. What implications would they have for people? Will people be stopped in the street and asked for their identity card or will the police officer have to have some reason to ask for an identity card? Will it be an offence not always to carry one --some might feel that that would be a tough imposition on the citizens of our country—or will one be able, as with a driving licence, to present it at a police station within three days, or, as used to be the case, within two days, as the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, reminded us. If you were an illegal immigrant without an identity card, you would presumably vaporise rather quickly rather than go to the nearest police station.

What new bureaucratic structure would be necessary to supply identity cards and control their use? Would they have our DNA profile, as was suggested by my noble friend Lord Marlesford? What huge cost would that involve? It would be impractical to check the bearer's identity directly against his DNA profile. A DNA profile on a card raises difficult legal and ethical questions. My noble friend Lord Marlesford objected to the idea that driving licences should have photographs on the grounds that it would be expensive. This subject, about which a consultation paper was issued last year, is undergoing a feasibility study, but it is important not to confuse a driving licence, even one bearing a photograph, with a proper identity card, which would need a higher standard of security and would be much more expensive.

Several of our European Community partners have identity card systems. But I think that the experience which other countries have, although valuable, may not be directly relevant to this country. Countries with long land borders do not have the same opportunity as we do to maintain a strict entry regime. They have little alternative other than to rely on in-country controls.

The Netherlands is an example. Their government has proposed an identity card system to be backed by new police powers which will require people to identify themselves in certain circumstances. But the Netherlands, unlike the United Kingdom, is committed to the abolition of its internal border controls. The Government, of course, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister reaffirmed recently, do not intend to adopt a similar course of action. We do not accept that having internal border controls is incompatible with the completion of the single European market.

This point was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley. We do not agree with the view of the European Commission that Article 8A requires the removal of all controls on persons at internal frontiers. The United Kingdom secured amendments to the article in 1985 to ensure that it applied only to EC nationals and a general declaration annexed to the Single European Act makes it clear that member states retain the right to take such measures as they consider necessary for the purpose of controlling immigration from non-EC countries and to combat terrorism, crime and drug trafficking. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made the Government's position on frontiers abundantly clear. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, seems to support our view.

We also need to look at the foreign experience in some detail. To what extent do the identity card systems of other countries actually contribute to immigration control; and how successful are those countries at detecting and removing illegal immigrants and overstayers? On the present information which we have, we see no reason to believe that the level of illegal immigration in this country is on the same scale as that which seems to exist in many other European Community countries.

Policing, immigration control and counterterrorism are the arguments which are most frequently put forward in favour of a compulsory system of identity cards. But there are other arguments for such a system. It would, for example, help to discourage social security fraud and tax evasion. But these advantages have to be considered against the cost—and the personal intrusion—of such an identity card.

Three years ago, the cost of issuing a compulsory card, which the taxpayer would presumably have to meet, was estimated at £350 million in the first year, and there would be substantial running costs thereafter. Government departments, such as the Department of Social Security and the Inland Revenue, which would be the most likely beneficiaries of the introduction of a compulsory card, told us, when this matter was last considered, that the advantage to them would not be worth the expense. The main problem in the Department of Social Security is not someone assuming a false identity but someone making false statements as to his circumstances. That could not be covered by an identity card.

There is a variety of functions, though, which could probably be performed by a compulsory card if one existed, but there are more arguments for a voluntary card than for a compulsory one. It is said that a card would be useful to the individual as a convenient travel document; for personal information such as certain medical details; as a means of establishing one's identity in cheque and credit card transactions, so helping to reduce fraud. In short, it could replace the assortment of cards and other documents which many of us carry with us. If that is so, then one has to ask two questions: who pays for it: and why should the Government be involved?

It may be that such a voluntary system would help to curb cheque card fraud. But the banks themselves are active in this field, and your Lordships may feel that that is as it should be. The idea of a card as a travel document, or as a replacement for one's bus pass, or whatever, may seem attractive, but it would not be possible to keep all the information on one card. One can imagine the chaos which would arise from putting on one card your Lordships' pass to come into the House, credit card details, a library card, a medical card, and so on. Even if we had an identity card I am sure that we would probably still be carrying around all the other cards that we carry around at the moment. It is clear that a heavy charge for identity cards from which the taxpayer would derive no commensurate benefit would still fall on the Exchequer.

Despite what I have said, the Government still have a relatively open and, of course, clear and unequivocal mind about the matter. I have addressed some of the questions that would need to be addressed if we were to move to an identity card system. Your Lordships have provided very helpful views on the arguments involved. As the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, said, the issue will rumble on. It is certainly interesting to note that most noble Lords who spoke today were in favour of identity cards—except, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, who had to be the odd man out. He, indeed, has reservations about identity cards and I believe was not in overall favour of the idea.

However, to return to the issue. I have to say that we shall consider the arguments carefully but that, at present, the Government are not persuaded that the case for an identity card—whether a compulsory or a voluntary one—has been made.