HL Deb 17 May 1994 vol 555 cc132-4

2.59 p.m.

Lord Marlesford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will now set up an independent inquiry to examine the case for the introduction of a national identity card.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, we have no plans to set up an independent inquiry but we continue to keep the question of the introduction of a national identity card under review.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, may I take it that my noble friend agrees with my right honourable friend the Prime Minister when he said on 28th April that there is a strong case to be made for the introduction of identity cards and when he said on 5th May that there is now widespread public support for the introduction of those cards? Does the Minister recognise that, nevertheless, there are those who would be apprehensive and concerned about that development? It would be extremely difficult for those people to be reassured if the matter is left to Whitehall. It would be far better to have an independent inquiry which could hope to take on board and satisfy the doubts.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I share the anxiety of my noble friend Lord Marlesford about those who may be apprehensive about the introduction of ID cards. He will be glad to know that I agree wholeheartedly with what my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said—as I do on all occasions. He was right in saying that there is a strong case to be made for identity cards. I understand my noble friend's view that if one sets up an independent inquiry everyone can speak and their views can be considered. It is one route but it is not the route that we intend to take. This is a complex matter and would require huge upheaval. However, it is a matter which we think it right to consider carefully.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Department of Transport intends to introduce a photo ID card scheme for 32 million motorists, while at the same time industry, banks, Whitehall and Parliament use different ID card schemes? Does not that seem a ridiculous, higgledy-piggledy development and should we not have a national ID scheme?

Secondly, is the Minister aware that the Downing Street efficiency unit has recommended an ID pilot scheme based on a report that it received dealing with security, fraud and benefit expenditure? Is the Home Office giving the scheme its support?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mason, has always had a great interest in ID cards and I admire him for his interventions on this matter. I would not say that the approach is higgledy-piggledy. It is true that the DVLA will introduce driving licence cards which will eventually have photographs on them. That will take some time. Furthermore, there will be a European Community common format for driving licences. The incorporation of that with all the other facets of government—for instance, social security—is a major problem at which we are looking. However, it is right that there are many advantages to be obtained.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, in view of the public apprehension about this issue, before proceeding further would it not be wise to have a public inquiry at which all points of public view could be ventilated, not in Whitehall but before a distinguished independent body? Furthermore, is not the case for identity cards somewhat strengthened by the worrying growth in the number of illegal immigrants in this country?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I understand my noble friend's point of view about the virtue of an independent inquiry. I shall consider what he and my noble friend Lord Marlesford said. However, that was not the route that we intended to take.

With regard to illegal immigrants, my noble friend is right. If everyone had to have a card, someone arriving illegally without such a card would be more readily identifiable. However, our view is that because of our island location it is easier to have immigrations checks at airports and sea ports rather than to have an identity card system for that purpose, which some other countries in Europe have.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the anxiety shown by a number of people is in respect of compulsory identity cards? Does he agree that voluntary identity cards would be more acceptable?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, a voluntary identity card falls between two stools. Those whom my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter might like to see with identity cards probably would not have them. If the cards were to be full identity cards, possibly operating with a smart card, the cost to the individual would be enormous.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, will the Minister answer the second question that I posed? What is the reaction of the Home Office to the Downing Street efficiency unit recommendations for a pilot scheme?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, we are considering that scheme and we find it a matter of interest.

Lord Carr of Hadley

My Lords, is the review that is being carried out in respect of this matter active or passive? Does he agree that, as a result of the questions that have been asked today, there is on the one hand increasing awareness of the potential advantages and on the other hand a residue of fear? Therefore, is it not exactly the kind of subject that should be aired in public? That need not necessarily be done by an independent inquiry but could be done at least by a discussion paper produced by the Government.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that this is an active review—the matter is under active consideration. He is right to draw attention to the fact that many noble Lords and others feel strongly in favour of identity cards, but there are those who feel great apprehension. The Government would not wish to issue a consultation paper until they have done more research and discovered exactly what their own thoughts are.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, referred to the strength of public opinion in favour of ID cards and of the fears in the public mind about them. What evidence do the Government have on the public view of ID cards, either for or against?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the public have a curious capacity to write and to give their view. The majority of the views that we have received have been in favour of identity cards. Of course, those who are in favour of a change are usually those who write, while those who are in favour of the status quo tend to remain more quiescent.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are problems associated with the suggestion? Clearly, there is a case for the introduction of identity cards and that has been made clear today. However, does the Minister agree that one of the problems is that high quality, professional criminals will have no difficulty in obtaining bogus identity cards, just as they can obtain bogus passports?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Harris, is, as so often, wise to draw the attention of the House to that matter. It is true that if one tries to find a way of getting round professional criminals, they will find a way of getting around that. There is an argument for having ID cards, which could operate on the smart card principle where a great deal of information is contained on a chip. In the view of many people, that would solve a lot of problems. However, the trouble is that the chip must be constantly updated; for instance, on a change of address or a driving licence being out of date. However, the noble Lord is right.