HL Deb 05 April 2000 vol 611 cc1300-3

2.51 p.m.

Baroness Sharples

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will consider the introduction of a national identity card.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we would consider introducing a national identity card only if we were satisfied that the potential benefits outweighed the drawbacks. Although we are continuing to look at the issues involved, we are not convinced by the arguments in favour of a compulsory national identity card.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. I have spoken to the police; they approve in principle of a national identity card. With the rapid advances in technology, why can we not consult our European partners and produce a smartcard, which would prove identity not by a photograph but by a thumb print and would contain a great deal of information, such as the holder's blood group, details regarding organ donation, and so on?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the issue of smartcards was looked at closely in the Modernising Government White Paper and we continue to give careful consideration to it. It may well be that smartcards are the way forward in the future. We are keeping that issue under review and shall consider it further.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, why does the Home Office dither so much on this question? Is my noble friend aware that in every national poll that has been taken on this the majority favour an ID card system? The Police Federation favours one. Indeed, the majority of letters that go to the Home Office are also in favour. The Select Committee on Home Affairs in another place has also recommended it. So why does not the Home Office recognise that the majority of the nation are in favour of an ID card system? Would it not help to cut crime? Would it not help to deal with the illegal immigrant problem? Why, therefore, does not the Home Office act?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the question of identity cards has been looked at by both parties in government. Indeed, members of the Opposition will recall that during their time in government they issued a Green Paper on the issue in 1995. They took the view that a voluntary ID card would be preferable and, as I understand it, that was the view of the Home Affairs Select Committee. There are some drawbacks. Civil liberties and the potential costs are very important considerations. I am sure that those issues are very much in your Lordships' minds. My noble friend referred to the police. I understand that the Association of Chief Police Officers is particularly concerned about national identity cards, first, because the police might end up with part of the responsibility for enforcing their use and, secondly, the association felt that it might well lead to a deterioration or perhaps a breakdown in trust and confidence between the public and the police service.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency is issuing photo licences, the DSS is thinking about issuing photo cards and the Passport Office is proposing to issue photo identity cards, is there any chance of the Government being "joined up" in this respect?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a useful contribution—

Noble Lords


Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord does make a very useful contribution. He always does. I have always enjoyed his contributions. If I may develop the point, "joined up", yes, but there are some practical considerations about which Members of the House may wish to think. If we were to have a passport card which also had on it a driving licence and perhaps details about social security, the card might have to be given out but also withdrawn fairly frequently. What would happen if someone was disqualified from driving but required that same card for passport purposes? Those are technical issues—and difficult ones to resolve. Those are precisely the kinds of issues about which the Government are concerned.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate

My Lords, modern smartcards can contain a tremendous amount of information. The police would find them extremely helpful, provided that they were not made compulsory to the extent that it would be an offence not to carry one. That would be a problem for the police in terms of community relations. However, because of the wealth of information that such a card could carry, would it not also help to identify at least who can play rugby for Wales?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord's final point is the killer one. But, generally, smartcards are to be welcomed. They will begin to develop. As I said earlier, in the 1999 White Paper Modernising Government, we recognised their value, particularly as new technology continues to develop in this field.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, the driving licence, which is already a voluntary identity card, in effect, for most Members of the House, has in the corner the flag of the European Union. Can the Minister assure us—or assure certain Members of the House—that this is not an attempt by the Government to smuggle us without knowing it into carrying the identity card of a European superstate?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we have no plans in that direction.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, can the Minister tell me what is the difference between wartime, when we all had identity cards, and now? What are the practical difficulties about which he spoke?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I may not be the brightest historian but I think that we were at war during wartime.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, when can we expect to be able to get the voluntary identity card to which the Minister referred?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I have to confess that I cannot advise the House of when we might get a voluntary ID card. But it is something we are keeping under review.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, although the Minister is perfectly correct in saying that if one has too many things on a card the card will perpetually be being sent in to be updated for one reason or another, that does not mean to say that an identity card itself is not a valid thing to have. Can the noble Lord say why we should not have identity cards when our identities are already known in so many different ways, as has been explained by other noble Lords?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I did not say that we should not have identity cards. I tried to indicate that the Government, as with the previous government, have a very open mind on the issue. The previous government consulted in 1995. They had not made up their mind by the time they left office. The noble Earl should know that better than most because he was a Minister in that government. We are giving the matter careful consideration. Certainly, a voluntary national identity card may have benefits. We have discussed this afternoon the value of smartcards. I have no doubt that when we finally conclude on this issue we shall, of course, come up with the right answer.

The Earl of Erroll

My Lords, would it not be useful to tie this in with a digital identity so that people can be identified for transactions on the Internet, where there is growing e-commerce?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, that is one of the considerations we shall actively pursue.

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