HL Deb 02 February 1994 vol 551 cc1352-68

8.38 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their response to the growing use of identity cards within business, industry, local authorities and the Civil Service; and to the growing demand for the introduction of a national identity card scheme.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, since my interventions in your Lordships' House on 23rd June 1992 and 7th July 1993 on the need to introduce a national identity card scheme there has been a noticeable groundswell of opinion in favour. ID cards in various forms are being introduced in industry, business, banks, building societies and throughout the Civil Service. Undoubtedly there is now a growing demand in the country for a national identity card scheme—perhaps initially on a voluntary basis—allied with a "must produce" requirement similar to the system adopted on driving licences, although to be totally effective it should be a mandatory scheme. I believe there is a widespread call for a national scheme instead of this higgledy-piggledy development with a multiplicity of methods.

Opinions are changing. The public attitudes survey shows that within three years the proportion of those in favour of an ID card scheme has risen from 57 per cent. to 62 per cent. and the proportion of those against has fallen to 20 per cent. A survey by Leicester University Centre for the Study of Public Order last year revealed 78 per cent. in favour. The Police Federation favours compulsory ID cards. The Association of Chief Police Officers has now moved in favour of a voluntary scheme, and in a special report on the scheme submitted to the Home Secretary in May of last year it was stated that on the basis of a compulsory scheme: The introduction of an ID card system will have a significant impact upon crime in general and terrorism in particular". I would have hoped that the Home Office might be able to respond to that.

The House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs favours a voluntary scheme. The chairman, Sir Ivan Lawrence, said ID cards would, stop social security fraud practically stone dead". The Council of Mortgage Lenders has called upon the Government to introduce an ID card system to help its members vet all mortgage applicants. A review by banks, building societies and investment organisations is encouraging the cards as a 'way to protect themselves against fraudulent deals and money laundering by drug dealers and terrorists.

The director general of the Cleaning and Support Services Association said: ID cards should be widely welcomed. As an industry with many thousands of employees and a turnover of £1.5 billion per year, members of this association would welcome such an initiative". In just six months the Home Office received 511 letters son the subject, 499 of which were in favour, with just 12 against.

Is the Minister, and the Home Office in particular, prepared to look favourably upon the idea of introducing a national identity card? The Department of Transport is now examining the idea of a photo driving licence—an ID card for up to 32 million holders. The Department of Transport said that it was, to make law enforcement easier", and as an extra aid with road accidents.

The Department of Social Security, anxious about the extent of social security fraud, which is running at over £1 billion a year, says that the option of an ID card is being considered by a benefits agency. The Secretary of State says that ID cards for benefit claimants would prove, more of a help than a hindrance". Even the Department of Employment is considering the possibility of photo passes—ID cards really—for the unemployed claiming the new jobseekers' allowance. Above all, the Prime Minister has said: I am attracted to the principle of ID cards in order to combat social security fraud". I gather that Thorn Security Systems and Electronic Data Systems have been consulted. One estimate is that the operation may cost £100 million, but it could save between £800 million and £1 billion per year.

Scheme after scheme is under consideration. However, I stress above all what ACPO said to the Home Office. It warned that the Government should ensure control and compatibility at national level. Therefore the scheme should be a national one, with the Home Office in the lead. What other benefits are there? One is a tighter grip on the illegal immigrant problem: in 1992, 5,673 illegal immigrants were discovered in the UK; and thousands more may have gone undetected. That costs us hundreds of thousands of pounds. If they were only obtaining £20 a week, those caught were costing us over £½ million. As the Home Office knows, there is a profitable illegal immigrant racket in this country. Does not the Minister agree that an ID card with photograph, address, date of birth, sex and national insurance number would help to eliminate that racket?

If a compulsory scheme were to be introduced and it affected persons from the age of 16 years upwards, it would help the police cut back the rising crime rate. Crimes of violence against the person, sexual offences, burglary, fraud and forgery have all increased in recent years. Using Home Office figures, the proportion of the clear-up rate in England declined from 36 per cent. in 1980 to as low as 25 per cent. in 1992; hence the updated views of the Police Federation in favour of a national compulsory ID scheme which undoubtedly would curb many of those activities. Immediate identification would be the undoing of such offenders.

Identification is the friend of the honest citizen. He has nothing to fear. There would be a wave of national relief from all our elderly people, many of whom are living in fear and distress. What would be the cost? The Home Office says that it would cost £350 million to introduce such a scheme. In the meantime, the DSS alone is losing an estimated £1 billion to £3 billion a year through fraud, drug trafficking and illegal immigrants. They are costing us untold millions every year.

As the Home Office is aware, just two bombs in the City cost us an estimated £750 million. But what of all the damage caused by bombs and fire in other towns and cities where terrorists can roam free without instant identification? The City costs can be doubled, and so the Home Office's cost argument does not hold water. We know that 73 per cent. of all adults have some form of plastic card. It is accepted. Even photo cards are on the increase because of the thousands of travellers nationwide showing them on bus and railway passes.

In defending our freedom and maintaining our democracy, an ID card system could be for the greatest good for the greatest number. If voluntary, there could be no libertarian opposition, but a compulsory system would show benefits so considerable, according to the Police Federation, ACPO and now government departments, that I doubt whether it could be fairly challenged by Liberty. Indeed, there is no known national outcry in the six EC countries which have compulsory schemes.

Law-abiding citizens will not object to carrying an ID card. It would be reliable identification and it would reduce detailed checking by the police in a vast number of crime cases, leaving them more time to make the country safer for us to enjoy our liberty, and it might improve the quality of civil society. I believe that even British-born black people would welcome an ID card. They would be only too proud to own it and to show it, and therefore be better protected from alleged police harassment. An ID card removes anonymity from those engaged in crime: the crooks, the fiddlers and the fraudsters. They are the ones who would he apprehensive. Well, let us scare them. Let us force them to carry a photo ID card. Let us make their lives more hazardous and the lives of our decent citizens safer.

What reviews are taking place within government departments? What is the likelihood of a Home Office inquiry, as requested by ACPO? Can we have an assessment of the costs versus the benefits? A national ID card scheme is inevitable. More information from the Home Office would be helpful so that a proper judgment about a national system could be made.

8.48 p.m.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, we should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, for raising this subject yet again. When I asked the Library for some briefing, it produced an excellent selection of material which made one realise what an enormous amount of attention has already been paid to the subject: two Private Member's Bills started in another place; a Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry; endless reports from civil liberties and other groups; and, of course, the police advice about which we have heard.

I know that it takes the Government a long time to make up their mind. I am reminded of that famous letter from A.P. Herbert to The Times when some commission upon which he served had its recommendations ignored once again. He wrote: Sir, the Government is like an elderly hypochondriac: always asking for a second opinion, and never taking it". The sands are running out of the hour glass now. We have studied the issue for so long that the time must be coming when we can reach a resolution.

The argument dates back to the moment in 1952 when the old wartime identity cards were abolished in the famous bonfire of controls. Indeed, some Members of your Lordships' House refer from time to time with nostalgia to the delight in getting rid of the cards at that time. The situation has changed hugely. The "civil liberties" argument is either a general emotional one without any real substance—an uneasy feeling that Hitler and Stalin could supervise their people through devices such as identity cards—or a suggestion that the police would misuse them. In particular, it is argued that minorities in this country would suffer if they had to carry identity cards

The right way to deal with police misuse of weapons against crime, terrorism and fraud is not to deny them the weapons but to ensure that ethical standards within the police are good enough to allow them to carry such weapons along with monitoring of their behaviour to ensure that they are not misused. Most of us do not much like the idea of the police carrying firearms, but the fact is that an increasing number do carry them under extremely careful supervision. I am not aware of any occasion in recent years when there has been misuse by a British policeman of a firearm. Is the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, doubtful?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey


Lord Marlesford

I look forward to hearing the noble lord cite such cases. Firearms are weapons which sadly have to be used. I use the word "sadly" because the costs of not having identity cards are colossal. The noble Lord, Lord Mason, referred to the cost of terrorism. We have heard about the cost of social security fraud. Those costs far outweigh the cost of introducing identity cards. The introductory cost may be £350 million or £450 million, and the cost of running the scheme may be £100 million a year.

I see identity cards as a form of crime prevention. Prevention is better than imprisoning people. Your Lordships' House spent some time today discussing overcrowding in prisons. It costs about £2,000 per month (£4,000 a year) to keep somebody in prison. If one reduced the prison population by a mere 10,000 it would produce £240 million—more than half the cost of introducing identity cards. By making it less easy for people to commit crime, the criminal conviction rate and thus the prison population will fall.

Perhaps one of the strongest arguments is that sometimes those in Parliament generally, and your Lordships' House in particular, do not realise the agony faced by those who have to live in high crime areas. I suspect that nearly all of us live in conditions of considerable security in comparison with those who live in high crime areas. If those people felt that we were deliberately ignoring something that could help to make crime easier to detect and criminals easier to catch—most of all, perhaps, something that would act as a deterrent because of those two factors—they would not easily forgive us.

I believe that it was on 23rd June 1992 that the noble Lord introduced a previous debate on this subject to which I was able to make a contribution. I remember that in that debate my noble friend Viscount Astor on behalf of the Government referred to the fact that the chief police officers were not interested. He said that the advice received from the Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland had been sought and the Government had been told that there would be no clear advantage to the police. That was one of the central arguments used by the Government 18 months ago. I hope that at least equal weight will be given to the report of the Association of Chief Police Officers on a national identity scheme published in May 1993.

I do not believe that much else needs to be said. I beg the Government gradually to make up their mind and become a little less hypochondriacal.

8.55 p.m.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, the noble Earl who is to reply to the debate may feel that he has heard all of these arguments before—and more than once. It is true that we have had a number of Questions and debates on this subject in the past year or two. Nevertheless, I am grateful that the noble lord, Lord Mason, has put down this Question. I believe that there is a continuing interest in this idea and I suspect that the balance of advantage in favour of the introduction of a scheme of identity cards is changing all the time.

From my observations, I believe that there is now a considerable body of opinion in this country which would like such a scheme. It is possible to distinguish three separate groups of people: the commercial interests; private individuals; and some government agencies. To deal first with commercial interests, they need to have reliable information about the people with whom they do business. A client who is unknown to a firm may be asked to present some proof of identity before a transaction is concluded. That is a very desirable precaution where substantial sums are involved. Recently when buying a mobile telephone and seeking to pay by cheque I was asked for an identity document. This is an increasingly common request arid it has been common practice in the United States for about two decades. However, in America a driver's licence is acceptable—understandably so, because the licence carries a photograph of the bearer and is periodically renewable. That is not the case in this country. A driver's licence bears no photograph and is normally valid until the bearer's 70th birthday. A request made to show some ID is now quite common and cannot be met. The alternative—a driver's licence —is no certain proof of identity. If we had identity cards with photographs we would be able to prevent much fraud, particularly in those cases (regrettably common nowadays) where a woman's handbag or man's wallet is stolen and the credit cards and driver's licence are used to conduct fraudulent transactions before the theft is discovered. In those circumstances I believe that an identity card with a photograph will assist the struggle against fraud in a material way.

An individual also needs an identity card for another reason: travel to other countries in the European Union. Under European law and practice a citizen of one member state may travel freely to another on presentation of his official identity card. In those continental countries which have such a system it is commonly a small plastic card with a photograph which contains the address, personal particulars and name of the bearer. European citizens enter this country in their thousands every day on the presentation of such a document. Our citizens do not have that advantage when travelling abroad. Instead, they must apply for a passport which requires a lengthy procedure and certification by a number of persons known to the applicant. The cost of a small passport valid for 10 years is £18.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord will recognise that it is possible to obtain a visitor's passport for travel to Europe at any post office in virtually 10 minutes, and that the renewal of a passport no longer requires the certification of a third person.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I understand that there is objection to the British visitor's passport in a number of continental countries. They regard it as a document which can be obtained easily without proper proof of identity. I have read that it is the Government's intention to withdraw it in the near future.

I can illustrate the disadvantage of not having an identity card by citing a personal experience. A few years ago I was on a sailing holiday in the Hebrides. On telephoning home one evening I discovered that I was obliged to travel immediately to Italy to attend a meeting that had been called unexpectedly. I first had to return to London and thence travel 100 miles to my home in order to retrieve my passport. The journey took 24 hours longer, and possibly more, than it need have taken. Had I possessed a small plastic identity card I should have been able to fly direct from Glasgow, saving a great deal of time. We need to grow up and to accept the advantages of the identity card system for European travel for the benefit of our citizens. That is becoming, if it has not already become, a necessary consequence of our membership of the European Union and the freedom of movement which has become part of our lives.

The Government too will benefit from the introduction of such a system. Although they have not yet decided that they need the system I believe that they are bound to reach that conclusion. At present I observe the creeping use of the national insurance number, which is now used regularly by the Inland Revenue, for example. My national insurance number appears regularly on all my tax notices and I must quote it on a Revenue form when making charitable donations.

I have no particular objection to that, but I ask whether the use of national insurance numbers is being properly supervised and, if so, by whom; and where the central register of numbers is kept, and so forth. Is there a statutory legal base for this activity? Is the Data Protection Registrar content with this use of national insurance numbers? I ask those questions because a person of fraudulent intent might be able to discover a lot about an individual if he has knowledge of his national insurance number and access to government computers. We all know how difficult it is to block computer hacking. Such dangers arise because national insurance numbers are being used for a purpose for which they were not originally intended or designed. Also, in effect, the Government's own agencies are using them as a kind of substitute for identity numbers without allowing the citizen the benefit of a proper identity card. I do not much like this arrangement.

Then there is the criminal aspect to which the noble Lord, Lord Mason, referred. In a recent exchange on the subject in this House the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, asked whether the noble Earl could recall a terrorist offence which would not have taken place had the terrorist been obliged to carry an identity card. The noble Earl replied negatively, and no doubt correctly. The question was, I presume, asked in that form in order to elicit that answer. But surely a more relevant question might be: would the chances of apprehending a terrorist on the run be greater if we had a system of identity cards? To that the answer must surely be affirmative.

Discussions on the topic usually reveal a contrast between those who regard it, essentially, as a matter involving the liberty of the individual above all else and those who regard it as being convenient for the individual and society as a whole. I align myself emphatically with the second group. Of course, I have emotional sympathy with the traditional libertarians. But we now live in a society which has much greater freedom of movement and there is a vast variety of commercial transactions between people who do not know each other. Regrettably, we also live in a world where crime is steadily increasing and therefore the ability to show who you are and, even more important, who you are not acquires a new significance which simply did not exist previously. For all these reasons we need the identity card system.

I wish to say a few final words about the position of immigrants and the indigenous black population. Some organisations—notably the National Council for Civil Liberties—have claimed that the introduction of identity cards would be seen by such people as being deliberately aimed at them. On the contrary, I take the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Mason. The law-abiding citizen of whatever origin who has the right of abode in this country would surely find the identity card as the quickest and surest means of answering questions directed at him by the police or other authorities. The identity card should not be seen as a threat but as a reassurance. The easiest way of introducing the cards would be as a voluntary system. Mr. Douglas Hurd, when he was Home Secretary some years ago, made exactly that suggestion and I hope that we shall be able to return to it.

9.6 p.m.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mason, gave a full description of the advantages of the national identity card scheme and I wholeheartedly agree. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, I believe that a voluntary system would be more acceptable to the public.

The increase in fraud must be measured against the cost of the initial outlay of the introduction of a national identity card scheme. In answer to an Unstarred Question that I tabled on the subject in July 1993 my noble friend Lord Astor gave us some hope that the Government were seriously considering the matter. It has since been reported that the Prime Minister favours such a scheme. Could not the examination of the possible introduction of an identity card for social security claimants be widened to include investigation into the smart card technology of which we have read a great deal? Not only would that help to combat fraud but it would provide all the day-to-day information which we carry on our persons; for instance, bank and credit cards, donor cards and so forth.

I believe that it should be a voluntary scheme, as do most members of the police force. As noble Lords have said, those who have no criminal intent have nothing to fear from the cards and those who fall foul of the law will be far more easily identifiable.

The intelligence contained in the strip on those smart cards must be kept completely secret. I hope that my noble friend will comment on that. I presume that that is the main anxiety of those worried about civil liberties. But we should all be prepared to give up some personal freedom if, as a result, fraud in its many aspects is detected more rapidly. Our lives would be made simpler, as the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, said, by having only one card instead of the multitude of cards and documents which we carry daily.

Surely the Government should now move quickly to show confidence in this matter, especially as regards the expertise that we can provide. Can we not lead the way in Europe with that expertise? Although many countries in Europe have forms of identity cards, as I understand it they are much less sophisticated than those that we hope to be able to have in this country.

9.8 p.m.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, for giving us the opportunity to debate this subject for the third year in succession.

I am speaking this evening for the first time on this issue because I have been involved with various aspects of law and order in Northern Ireland over the past few years. Therefore, I hope that I may be able to contribute in a small way to the more practical side of the pros and cons of a person being able to prove his identity in a speedy and economical way, both in terms of man hours and financial cost.

I begin by saying that in the Province we are already a little closer to having ID cards, as we have, in addition to a paper driving licence, a plastic card with a photograph. Because that is issued by the Government through the DoE, it is generally accepted as proof of identity in quite testing circumstances.

Many of your Lordships may have business or association cards with photographs on them. Noble Lords may ask what is the difference. Take my word for it: my Northern Ireland driving licence is worth a dozen of the other more obscure IDs.

I believe that we should go down the road of having voluntary ID cards. That should not be considered to be the start down an uncontrolled slippery slope but rather a sensible first step on a ladder which we do not have to climb unless we see benefit in doing so. Each further step towards compulsory smart cards should require a positive decision and legislation rather than an inevitable slide towards goodness knows what.

There are many interesting developments in micro-technology which enable one to reduce the number of cards, such as donor cards and cheque cards, which would be beneficial. A great deal of important information can be put on a card; for example, blood group and many other facts. That information could be retrievable by confidentially held interpretation machines owned by the police and other legitimate organisations.

The question of civil liberties arises as an objection to an ID system. I venture to suggest that that is an out-of-date argument, similar to that raised by the firearms lobby in the United States. In the Province we have systems for monitoring persons and vehicles. The tangible results are beneficial, and not only in the fight against terrorism. The first such result is that we have, I believe, the lowest rate of ordinary crime in the European Community; that is, crime other than terrorism. That is attributable partly to our monitoring systems. It is often possible for authorities and people generally to prove very quickly that they were or were not at a given place at a given time. That saves time, man hours and a great deal of anxiety.

An extremely interesting by-product, depending on the extent of use in swipe machines, and similarly videoing of cars and vehicle registration numbers, which already takes place on motorways and in the city here, is the ability to recall information. For example, when a city was under threat from football violence, if everyone swiped an ID card on entry to an area, the authorities would have immediate access to people who had unknowingly observed something of importance post-incident. That is not an infringement of civil liberties; it is quite the contrary. It protects the civil liberties of the innocent. It is amazing how much people remember when they are faced with the fact that they were there at the time. That is not because they are guilty but because they are unaware of what they see in everyday life. However, when they are prompted, it produces results. We have experience of that in the Province, and we should know.

I should like to look very quickly at the Government's reasoning over in the past two years for not proceeding further with this matter. Cards were abolished in 1952 as a result of concern over police misuse of the facility. Are the Government really saying that in today's world they cannot devise safeguards? We have one of the best and most sophisticated police forces in the world. I do not believe that that is any longer a legitimate argument.

On the criminal side, I accept that most cards, without great sophistication such as DNA or fingerprinting, can be forged. The important factor in detecting crime is initial speed post-crime and any system which helps eliminate those not involved quickly is of the utmost value to the police. So far as concerns cheque, credit card and social service fraud, most of those involved will not have the ability to produce fake, even half smart cards, let alone high-tech ones. You will never stop the serious criminal, but even voluntary ID cards would help to deter many.

When speaking for the Government last year, my noble friend Lord Astor said that ID cards would not assist immigration control. I wonder whether he is right. I think not. If all British residents have ID cards and, as he said, non-EC nationals entering the UK are required to hold a valid passport and European Community nationals are required to have a passport or an ID card, then QED, those without ID cards and who are unwilling to show passports which cannot be traced would seem to be illegal immigrants.

I note that two years ago the Government said that the Association of Chief Police Officers saw no advantage in an ID card scheme. Last year, they admitted that the association had changed its mind. The Government said two years ago that they would listen to them. The police chiefs must feel a little let down at present if the Government are not going to consider such a scheme.

I should like to make one comment about the cost of the scheme. I know that it would be expensive. However, it is far too often said to be too expensive to help solve one of the problems—cheque or immigration fraud. That is a misinterpretation used by the "antis". A scheme would help in containment, though perhaps not elimination, of many problems. The cost should be considered in relation to the overall effect.

My final point is backed up by experience in Northern Ireland. Our security forces have the power to stop people in order to ascertain their identity, but it is not obligatory to carry identification. Yet most people carry something—a driving licence or some other document—to make life easier. They do not begrudge that. They do so to protect their civil liberties. I am quite sure that even a voluntary scheme would be gladly accepted in the remainder of the United Kingdom. Many more convenient uses could be found for such cards. I believe that the scheme, voluntary or otherwise, should be government led due to the wide support that it would lend to social responsibility in the country.

9.15 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, when the issue was last raised in the House in July of last year during the debate on an Unstarred Question tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharpies, I made it clear that I had no personal objection to carrying ID cards, even photo-identity cards. Indeed, after hearing the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, talk about United States drivers' licences having photographs on them, I was reminded that, when I first had a US driving licence in the mid-1950s in the state of Ohio, it did not have a photograph on it. Therefore, it was quite useless to me in attempting to prove that I was over the age of 21 in order to get drink in a bar. I would have been very much happier if I had had a photograph on my driving licence. My life would have been considerably simpler than it proved to be. I had to carry my British passport around with me whenever I was engaged in the pursuit of alcohol.

We must distinguish between the original proposal put forward by my noble friend Lord Mason for a national scheme —presumably, a compulsory national scheme—and the arguments which have subsequently been made for voluntary schemes. I have always made it clear that I believe there is a perfectly respectable case for a national scheme which would replace some other forms of identity which are required of all citizens of this country. However, what I am very much more doubtful about is a proliferation of voluntary schemes. I am doubtful about them both on technical and civil libertarian grounds.

On technical grounds, I am doubtful about the latter because, inevitably, such voluntary schemes will be subject not only to fraud but also to genuine error. They will contain information which the carrier of the card does not understand or know about. That is already true of the passport. There are hieroglyphs printed on a passport which are not adequately explained to the bearer. Moreover, it is already inevitably true of bank cards. We put up with that because we cannot manage without them these days. There is pressure, for example, from the mortgage industry, the banks and other commercial bodies for a wider use of voluntary, but still nationally recognised, cards, as opposed to cards which only they recognise. However, that will present very severe difficulties. People will be identified in ways they are unaware of. There is a fear that these cards will contain, for example, people's credit ratings without the knowledge of the person concerned. We know from debate in your Lordships' House that credit ratings are frequently inaccurate and the use of credit ratings for these cards would enshrine that inaccuracy.

If there is to be an extension of voluntary identification cards, severe preconditions would have to be set—no noble Lords have referred to those conditions—before information is inserted on those cards to enable them to be of any use. There would need to be much closer control as regards the information the cards contain. There would have to be rules about openness and rules to enable people to correct the data which are held on their cards. In other words, there would have to be a rewriting and an extension of the Data Protection Act 1984. That should be recognised by all those who support the growth of voluntary identity card schemes.

A number of arguments have been produced as regards the efficiency that could be derived from a wider use of identification cards. Some of those arguments are difficult to disagree with. However, I must tell the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, that, if he believes the extended use of firearms in the British police force has been without adverse incident, he really ought to think again. Only last year a young man attempted to rob a bank in Highgate High Street around the corner from my home. The police knew this was going to happen and they staked out the bank. The young man leapt into a Haringey Council dustcart and drove it away as fast as possible. However, he became trapped in a cul-de-sac off the Holloway Road and was immediately shot dead by two armed policemen. Even if he had succeeded in committing the crime, it was not one that carried the death penalty. I call that incident a dangerous extension of the use of firearms by the police. There are many other examples of such incidents that have taken place further from my home than the example I have mentioned.

Fundamentally, the problem is not really about the efficiency of these cards. I accept that many of the arguments that have been advanced for a national scheme at any rate concern efficiency. However, the fundamental objection to the cards is that it is assumed that everyone who is not willing to be identified on the spot by an authorised officer is automatically doing something wrong. The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, said that those without ID would seem to be illegal immigrants. I challenge that. I do not believe that those who do not carry identification with them at all times could seem to be illegal immigrants —even if there were a more comprehensive scheme in place than we have at the moment—or potential bank robbers, or even potential rapists, as my noble friend Lord Mason appeared to think. I believe the issues are a good deal more complicated. The civil libertarian arguments against compulsory identification have not been adequately addressed in the debate and I shall not be surprised or greatly disappointed if the Government in their reply resist the proposals which are implicit in the Question.

9.24 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, for having tabled this Question. He tables Questions quite regularly. It is a good thing that we should be able to discuss this matter because it is an important one. The noble Lord wanted to discover, in his very persuasive speech, whether the Home Office would look favourably on the introduction of a national identity card scheme. Most noble Lords were in favour of that, but I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, put the opposite view. He was something of a lone bird, but there is nothing wrong with that. I frequently find myself in that position. It is a very suitable one to be in.

This is a matter with which your Lordships are familiar. It is an interesting question and an important one. The question of a national identity card scheme is one which the Government keep constantly under review and to which they frequently address their mind afresh. Frankly, there is no easy solution and we welcome views on the matter. I have listened carefully to what has been said this evening and the persuasiveness and conviction with which your Lordships said it.

The noble Lord, Lord Mason, asked particularly about the Government's response to two specific issues. The first is the Government's response to the growing use of identity cards within business, industry, local authorities and the Civil Service. The second is the Government's response to the growing demand for a national identity card scheme. The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, said that there is a growing demand or willingness for the introduction of a national identity card. He said that that was the case particularly in the commercial sphere, among private individuals and in government agencies. I agree with the noble Lord. There is no doubt that there is a growing use of photo identity cards, in industry, commerce and banking in particular. If that is so it is perfectly reasonable to ask why we should not have a national identity card scheme which might serve just as well.

However, the purpose and the requirements of a national identity card scheme would be very different from those which apply to the use by business, industry and others of personal identification cards. As I understand it, such personal identification cards are used primarily for security purposes. Their main purpose in practice is not to determine who a person is but rather what a person is allowed to do. In those circumstances, what is of interest is not an individual's personal details, such as his name, address or date of birth, but rather an individual's status —in other words, whether he or she is an employee or has some other link with the organisation which makes it necessary or appropriate to enter the building or to use certain inforination.

I think such cards are used in addition to national identity cards in those countries which have a national identity card scheme, as well as being used in countries which do not have a national identity card scheme. The reason for that, I imagine, is that personal identity cards are not primarily identity cards, as we understand the expression, and a simple national identity card would not serve the same purpose.

In Europe, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain have compulsory identity cards. The rest either have voluntary identity cards or none. France, Italy and the Netherlands have voluntary identity cards. Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom have neither voluntary cards nor compulsory ones. Oddly enough, that is also the position in the United States. So there is not a common pattern throughout the Community.

Personal identification cards, of course, affect only certain aspects of people's lives—that is, their working lives. They are not associated at all with any form of statutory requirement. If we were to have a compulsory national identity card scheme, it would clearly require some statutory means of enforcement. That would mean that there would have to be some sanction against those who failed to obtain a card or who failed to carry a card, and new police powers would perhaps be needed to stop citizens in order to check whether they did—or did not —hold an identity card. Most of the cards which we presently carry with us—such as cheque cards and credit cards—have a defined and a specific purpose, and, of course, they are entirely free from statutory control.

Setting aside, for a moment, the question of a compulsory national identity card scheme, it is often argued—and my noble friends Lady Sharpies and Lord Brookeborough did so this evening—that new technology, in the form of the "smartcard", provides the opportunity for individual businesses and other organisations to incorporate all their different requirements on a single multi-purpose card, so why cannot the same principle be used for national identification cards, which would then incorporate everything? I am bound to say that that is an attractive proposition, and one with which I personally find some affiliation. But heaven knows what happens when you lose the wretched thing, because you then lose everything. What happens if the wretched thing is stolen? The thief has everything.

Who should have security passes, bank cards and other similar cards, what kind of cards they should be, and how such cards should be used, are matters for the organisations concerned. They are not matters for the Government.

The noble Lord, Lord Mason, referred to the question of public support for a national identity card scheme. He argued that there is a growing demand for such a scheme and wanted to know how the Government would respond. That there is interest in the subject is perfectly obvious even if only —but not only—from your Lordships' debate this evening. The Home Office has received a number of letters from the public on the subject. The majority of people have written favourably on the idea of introducing identity cards. But some people do oppose the idea. The noble Lord, Lord Mason, said that he was in favour of identity cards. The public response to an identity card scheme will depend on what it contains, and in particular whether the scheme will be voluntary or compulsory. Therefore I would be wary about reading too much into the results of opinion polls when people are asked about identity cards in a general way.

The police service has also shown some interest in identity cards. My noble friend Lord Brookeborough thought that such cards would help the police; indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Mason, said that the Association of Chief Police Officers welcomed such a scheme. I do not believe that that is completely accurate. The Association of Chief Police Officers published a report on the subject last year. The report made a case for a voluntary identity card scheme but said that the association had significant anxieties about a compulsory scheme. The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, my noble friend Lady Sharpies and others considered that there would be a benefit in having a voluntary card as an additional means of identification. People who support the idea of identity cards value it largely for the convenience which such cards may bring. For most people the interest lies not in the identity cards themselves but in the problems they think an identity card may help to solve, such as crime and illegal immigration.

A number of people are in favour of voluntary identity cards. I believe that my noble friends Lady Sharpies, Lord Brookeborough and Lord Marlesford were. However, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, was doubtful about voluntary schemes. I myself have never seen the value in a voluntary identity card. It may be true that such cards would not do much harm, but so far as I can see they would not do much good. They would not help fraud or immigration cases because those who are on the wrong side of the law would not have the cards in the first place and would not have contravened the law by not having a card.

We have to consider carefully whether identity cards would in practice bring the benefits for which people hope, and whether such benefits could be achieved better in other ways. Perhaps we may take as an example the question of illegal immigration. The noble Lord, Lord Mason, gave that as a strong reason for having identity cards. Many of our European partners use identity cards as a means of immigration control. The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, argued that identity cards could therefore be used equally successfully in the United Kingdom. However, other European countries rely heavily on in-country immigration controls. In other words, they control their immigration from within their own country. That is because they often have long land borders, sometimes going through mountainous country, which makes them difficult to police. Their geographical position therefore argues for in-country controls. In those circumstances, there are good reasons to establish an identity card scheme.

However, the United Kingdom is different. We are an island. It is relatively easy to discern when people come in and when they leave. That means that our most effective approach to immigration control is based on identity checks at the point of entry into the country. Those checks, as the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, said, are carried out by means of a passport or, in the case of European Community nationals, a passport or their own national identity card. In this system, a United Kingdom national identity card does not play much of a part.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Earl for giving way. The point of my argument was that, if a British citizen had a voluntary identity card, he would not need a passport when travelling abroad. That was the sole point I was making. At the moment, foreigners can come here with identity cards but we cannot go abroad; we have to have a passport. That is time-consuming, bulky and expensive.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that is perfectly reasonable and, if I misinterpreted the noble Lord's argument, I am sorry. It is a point which could be considered, but it would be difficult to replace a passport system with something which is intrinsically a voluntary system.

The noble Lord, Lord Mason, and my noble friend Lady Sharpies claimed that national identity cards would combat crime. Clearly, a compulsory national identity card scheme may have something to offer in helping to prevent the kind of fraud which is perpetrated on the basis of false identity, such as getting money under false pretences out of a bank, or going on a spending spree with someone else's credit card. A national identity card scheme is, though, only one option.

So far as cheque and credit card fraud is concerned, the view of banks and financial institutions is that the most effective answer is to improve the security of the documents themselves, rather than to introduce another one. One approach to that, which the Association for Payment Clearing Services is at present exploring, is the wider use of personal identification numbers. Careful thought also needs to be given to the best way of preventing social security benefit fraud, to which the noble Lord, Lord Mason, referred. He asked what were the losses. There are no firm figures that I can give; fraud arising from misrepresentation of identity is only one way in which losses occur. Other types of fraud such as misrepresentation of circumstances are much more significant.

Your Lordships will be aware that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Security has declared that one of his top priorities is the reduction of abuse of the social security system. The Department of Social Security is investigating a variety of options for preventing and detecting different kinds of fraud.

If we look a little more widely, it seems likely that identity cards could help to save police time by allowing the personal details of suspects, witnesses, victims of crime or those who are involved in accidents to be recorded and checked more quickly. That is clearly of some value. My noble friend Lord Marlesford said that if identity cards could prevent crime that would be a good thing. I believe he said that, if we could stop 100 people going to prison, we would have paid for half the costs of its use in a year. I am not sure whether it was 100 people or 1,000.

Lord Marlesford

It was 10,000.

Earl Ferrers

Then we are getting somewhere, my Lords. I am bound to say that I should need a lot more persuasion from my noble friend that giving people identity cards would save 10,000 people from going to prison. However, if he would care to write to me with the details, I should be fascinated and will give them my personal attention. The extent to which identity cards would help the police to prevent or investigate crime is less easy to determine. Any potential benefits must be set against the costs of introducing such a scheme. Those could be substantial.

The noble Lord, Lord Mason, referred to terrorism. Of course, no system can be absolutely secure. I should have thought that terrorists were among the most motivated and capable of falsifying documents of any people. Identity cards in themselves would not, I believe, do much to inhibit the activities of those who are not known to the security forces.

It is for reasons such as those that the Government have so far chosen the option of having other measures to tackle crime. Some people would simply like a card which would provide them with a convenient form of identity.

Your Lordships will be aware that we are planning to introduce photocard driving licences in 1996.

The new licences will contain much the same information as the present licences—name:, address and so forth. They are thought likely to be smaller and they will, therefore, be easier to carry than the present licence. They will also include a photograph of the licence holder. The new style licence will be much more convenient to use as a proof of identity than the present licence for those who see a need for an identity document of that sort. The majority of adults— more than 30 million of them—at present hold a driving licence.

The wider question of whether we should have a government-run national identity card scheme is one which we will continue to keep under review. It has some very attractive features in it to which your Lordships have drawn attention this evening. But we have no particular bias either for or against the idea at present. It is a question of assessing where the balance of advantage lies. I may well be—and if I were a betting man I would hazard a guess that it would be but, as I am not, I will not—that the balance may shift over time. But I can assure your Lordships that we shall continue to keep the matter under close attention. The noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, would like me to go further than that. I cannot do so this evening. However, I can assure your Lordships that the views expressed this evening will be enormously helpful to us in trying to determine which way the balance should shift.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, can he say how much it will cost to produce the new form of driving licence? Would it not be better to produce an identity card which could indicate whether the person was authorised to drive rather than to produce a more limited card at considerable public cost?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I cannot tell my noble friend what the cost of producing the new form of driving licence will be. All sorts of costs will go into it, not excluding how much cheaper it would be to do it the new way rather than the present way. But the argument my noble friend puts forward is perfectly reasonable and is contained in the argument that asks why we do not have one card to cover social security, Mastercard, Visa, driving licence and so forth. That is a substantial argument. But it is also a substantial undertaking.

House adjourned at nineteen minutes before ten o'clock.