HL Deb 20 April 2004 vol 660 cc153-5

3.1 p.m.

Lord Janner of Braunstone asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will introduce compulsory identity cards as a matter of urgency.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that the Government are committed to the introduction of an identity card scheme as soon as is practically possible. The Cabinet agreed in November last year that legislation would be brought forward to build a base for a compulsory scheme. The Government will publish a draft Bill and consultation paper.

Lord Vinson

My Lords—

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, perhaps there should be a compulsory card to wait.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer, which is very helpful. But how long will we have to wait? Does she not accept that it is vital that we move as fast as possible—at the very least to introduce identity cards to help our security services in their vital efforts to root out and deal with dangerous terrorist elements in the United Kingdom? Why are we waiting when already 10 European countries provide such cards? Belgium, Germany, Greece and Spain make them compulsory. We already have compulsory cards for driving and for travelling abroad. What is the delay? Why is it happening and when will we see results?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I reassure my noble friend that there is no undue delay. As I said in my Answer, the Government have made their commitment clear about identity cards. We hope shortly to be able to publish a draft Bill, where the matter will be clearly set out. The timing of my noble friend's Question is helpful but, he may find, unfortunate in terms of the answer that I can give him today.

Lord Vinson

My Lords, forgive my earlier impulsiveness. Does the Minister agree that this is a bit of a Morton's fork? If it is made compulsory to carry the new identity card at all times, millions of absentminded and forgetful citizens will be criminalised. If, on the other hand, it is not compulsory to carry the identity card, it is difficult to see what benefits it will bring.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, perhaps I may disabuse the noble Lord on the first issue. It will not be compulsory to carry the card. Noble Lords will know that it is proposed that there should be a two-stage system, one stage of which would involve the creation of a register. Although we believe that people will want to carry their identity card with them for the purposes of ordinary, everyday conduct of business—in the same way that we currently use driving licences as proof of identity—we do not think that the system will be undermined if people are not made compulsorily to carry the card. We think that the system that we propose will work well.

Lord Monson

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that 60 or so years ago, British prisoners of war with only the most rudimentary tools at their disposal managed to forge identity documents that successfully fooled the Gestapo?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I am so aware, and I see in his place the noble Lord who could perhaps give us some graphic examples of that. However, we are seeking to change the nature of those identity cards, because biometric data, by their very nature, are difficult if not impossible to replicate.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that an Answer in another place from Beverley Hughes MP to my honourable friend Mark Oaten MP states that 23 civil servants, three full-time secondees and six external part-time consultants are currently engaged in the identity card programme? What is the cost of that large workforce working on a project which, I believe, does not have majority Cabinet support and certainly does not have overall political support?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, perhaps I may disabuse the noble Baroness on her last point, because it has total Cabinet support. I have said unequivocally that the Government are committed to the introduction of a compulsory scheme. I am sure the noble Baroness will well remember that that was made plain last November.

I cannot give the noble Baroness the precise figures for the cost. The Government are learning from past experience of large IT projects. The Office of Government Commerce completed its gateway review in January 2004 and assessed the programme as ready. Your Lordships will know that for a number of reasons it is difficult for me to give the figures today.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that it is more than 10 years since I started asking a similar question? Do the police now accept that a compulsory card is necessary, when 10 years ago and since they did not like the idea of a compulsory card, only a voluntary one?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I have no indication that the police are anything other than supportive of this venture. Noble Lords in this arena have heard much that has been said by ACPO about terrorism and the need to identify those who seek to take advantage of our current system. It may well be that time and experience have changed a number of people's minds on the issue.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree

My Lords, is it the case, as has been reported, that every holder of the card will have to pay £70? If they refuse to pay £70, will they go to prison? Is some arrangement to be made for those who cannot easily afford £70? If so what will it cost?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I straightaway reassure the noble Baroness that the figure to be charged for the card has not yet been determined. Noble Lords will know from our debate on the matter late last year that the whole scheme will take place in two tranches. The first tranche will be the introduction of biometric data both for passports and driving licences. In accordance with the normal way, there will be an assessment of how much that will cost. There will then be a second stage when we roll out the compulsory scheme, when Parliament will have an opportunity to debate the issues in great detail. Some have described the procedure that has been specifically adopted for that as a super-affirmative procedure. At that stage, we will know more precisely how much the cards are likely to cost. We also made clear that provision will be made for those who are disadvantaged financially.