HL Deb 28 April 1998 vol 589 cc143-6

2.46 p.m.

Baroness Sharpies asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to introduce a national identity card.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, we have no current plans to introduce a national identity card in the United Kingdom.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, though it was not entirely unexpected. Is he aware that a driving licence identity card is due to be introduced in July? That was proposed by the previous government and is very welcome. Following on from that, why cannot we introduce a national identity card to help prevent fraud within both the social security benefits system and in relation to prescription charges? Also, are we having discussions with our European colleagues? I understand that a number of countries in Europe already use national identity cards.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, as the noble Baroness pointed out, I am aware that there will be a photocard driving licence introduced in July. Its primary purpose is to be used as a driving licence and not as an identity document. The cost of a compulsory scheme in the United Kingdom would be £600 million, which is a vast sum to contemplate. Talks are held regularly with our colleagues in the European Union. Six countries—Belgium, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain—use compulsory card schemes; five countries use voluntary card schemes—Austria, Finland, France, the Netherlands and Italy—and four have nothing at all—Denmark, Ireland, Sweden and ourselves.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, can my noble friend assure the House that the Government have not closed their minds on this issue? Is he aware that if such a scheme had been running it would have been helpful in Question Time yesterday, because identity cards would help in finding bogus asylum seekers? Further, is he aware that the Police Federation of Great Britain is in favour of the scheme, the Select Committee for Home Affairs in the House of Commons is in favour and every national opinion poll showed that there is a majority in favour of at least a voluntary ID scheme? What is the stumbling block?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that we have not closed our minds to the scheme. We have no bias either for or against ID cards. The Association of Chief Police Officers is against compulsory cards. I repeat that the cost is vast. There is no dispute about that between the former government and ourselves—in fact the figure of £600 million came from them. There are benefits and disadvantages in such a scheme. But I must say, perhaps disappointingly to some noble Lords, that an early decision on the possible introduction of a national identity card is not likely.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, can the noble Lord give us a breakdown of the estimated cost of £600 million of introducing identity cards?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I cannot give a detailed breakdown. I have taken the figure from paragraph 7.12 of the 1995 consultation document put out by our predecessors, which indicated that the cost of introducing and administering a separate compulsory identity card scheme to cover the whole of the adult population could be in the region of £600 million, excluding enforcement and ongoing administration.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I can understand that the Government have a hang-up about identity cards, as the previous government had. But does the Minister agree that the important prerequisite is a single identity number? At the moment we all have an enormous number of different numbers, which is most cost ineffective and ineffective in terms of fraud, immigration and all the other matters for which a single number would make life a great deal easier for everyone. Will the Government at least consider trying to move to a single identity number?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, a single number would certainly be easy to administer. Whether or not it would be easy to bring into effect is another question. We all have a large number of different numbers relating to credit cards, national insurance and driving licences, to name but a few plucked at random. However, I take the noble Lord's point and shall transmit it to the Secretary of State.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some of us on these Benches do not believe all the figures that were produced by the previous government?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, that really is shocking!

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that having a national identity card would help in controlling under age-drinking?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, that is one possible use to which it could be put. I think it is well known that the industry itself is considering an extension of voluntary schemes relating to under-age drinking. I pay tribute to the industry for the constructive talks it has had with my honourable friend Mr. George Howarth in another place.

Viscount Chelmsford

My Lords, yesterday the Government announced legislation to support digital signatures, which are a form of identity. The Government's policy is also to support London Transport's prestige smart card, which is another form of identity. It is not a pass; it is a form whereby one is checked against a central register on a computer. Surely technology is allowing the Government, if they choose to pick it up, enormous savings which will counterbalance the large amount of money which apparently will be required for an identity card scheme. Will the Government please take technology into account?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Viscount makes a valid point. Technology is developing. We could consider linkage with smart card functions in this context. I repeat, however, because I do not want to be misleading, that an early decision is not likely and the present estimates of costs are vast.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that to make the carrying of identity cards compulsory would in effect mean that people would have to have a passport to step outside their front door or garden gate to post a letter or nip down to the corner shop? Is this not totally alien to our British traditions?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord's observation finds an echo with a large number of people. Fortunately, we have not had an authoritarian tradition in this country. We have not had the recent history of our colleagues on continental Europe. There are a large number of people who would share the unease which the noble Lord articulated.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that a number of us in this House spent six years carrying identity cards and did not find any problem at all?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I cannot myself remember that, but I am prepared to accept anecdotal and historical evidence.

Viscount Addison

My Lords, is it not the case that technology has moved very fast and that retina recognition is something that the banks in particular are very interested in? We all know that numbers and even signatures can be forged, so should not the Government be seriously looking at retina recognition and incorporating it into a whole host of different references?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, we shall certainly look retina recognition firmly in the eye. However, I am not sure that it would work for the kind of short journey to which the noble Lord, Lord Monson, referred; namely, going down to the shop to buy a paper.

Lord Elton

My Lords, if it is proposed that we should all have one number, will the noble Lord bear in mind that we all have one national insurance number and that it would be a pity if we then had to have two?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I mentioned earlier that we all have a national insurance number and I think I said that all these ideas in vacuo sound quite good at the time. However, it is the kind of administrative difficulty that the noble Lord refers to that makes us pause and be cautious about introducing a national compulsory scheme.