HC Deb 05 November 2003 vol 412 cc291-317WH

2 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

I am delighted to have secured this debate because many hon. Members are interested in the consultation on an entitlement or identity card system for the United Kingdom, the cost of that system and the questions about civil liberties to which it gives rise.

It is curious that at a time when the Conservative party has dusted down a former, benighted Home Secretary, one of his more controversial and less successful ideas is similarly dusted down and taken off the shelves in Whitehall. Let me say at the outset that I am opposed to ID cards, both in principle and on grounds of practicality. To put it at its most brutal, I do not believe that the best way of remembering, as we do this week, those who gave their lives for freedom is to introduce the sort of society that would have had Saddam Hussein drooling. The apparatus of totalitarian repression depends on knowing who and where every citizen is and was, and which God they worship. The Government may have dropped the God bit, but the potential for all the rest remains.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the many western European democracies that have ID cards are totalitarian states?

Mr. Thomas

No, I am not saying that, but every one of those countries has a written constitution and this country does not. If the Government provide a written constitution that I can sell to my electorate, I might agree with the hon. Gentleman, but until we have that safeguard, we must bear it in mind that, without a written constitution, ID cards can be used repressively by totalitarian regimes.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Thomas

Not at this stage, but I will consider doing so later. As he is sitting next to me, the hon. Gentleman is in a position to catch my eye.

At the moment, we balance privilege with responsibility. It is a privilege to drive a car, and it is a responsibility to pass a test, hold a driving licence, and tax a vehicle and so on. It is a privilege to enter another country, but a passport is needed. Other forms of identity, including credit cards, party membership cards such as my Plaid Cymru card and parliamentary photo passes, are mere conveniences that we can opt to use. An ID card system tips that scale and reduces citizen to cipher. It forgets that the Government should be subject to the people and instead makes the people subject to the Government. The central tenet of freedom—for people to be able to move around as they please, live where they please and do what they want, as long as they do not harm others—is reduced to a nannying, bullying attitude that the Government must know where people are and what they are doing.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones


Mr. Thomas

I give way to my hon. Friend from Wales.

Mr. Jones

I thank my colleague for calling me his hon. Friend because we are friends and I respect his views. However, I would like an explanation of something. It is odd that the Member for Ceredigion, who is probably the worst-placed Member, in terms not of knowledge but of his constituency, to understand the need for ID systems, should be taking part in this debate.

Mr. Thomas

I must confess that I do not understand that intervention. Why am I any worse placed than the other 600-odd Members of Parliament who have a view on the matter?

Martin Linton (Battersea)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the sort of entitlement card system that the Home Secretary is likely to propose is a family of ID cards starting with the 40 million people who hold driving licences? They will receive an enhanced driving licence/ID card, and the 38 million people holding passports will receive a passport card. The entitlement card will be introduced along precisely those lines that he says he has no objection to—that it should be an enhanced passport/enhanced driving licence. When all those existing cards have been replaced by entitlement cards, precious few people in this country will not have one. What would be his objection then to the remaining few having one?

Mr. Thomas

I shall address that interesting point a little later when I discuss mission creep, but I say now to the hon. Gentleman that I do not know what the Government's plans are. There is a consultation and there are options, but we have not been told what the Government's thinking is. We do not know whether we will be forced to pay £40, £50 or whatever, or whether the cards will be compulsory or non-compulsory. We do not know whether the proposal will be, in fact, a backdoor tax on our identity. I am interested in those questions. One reason for initiating this debate was to find out precisely what the Government had to say on those matters. I look forward as much as the hon. Gentleman to the Minister's response.

Martin Linton


Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)


Mr. Thomas

I shall not give way just yet.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

The hon. Gentleman is only on page 1.

Mr. Thomas

Actually, I am on page 2. Of course, I am not reading my notes but merely looking at them, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam)

Order. May 1 be of assistance? Many hon. Members have applied to speak this afternoon. The more they intervene on the hon. Gentleman, the less chance they have of being called.

Mr. Thomas

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is a word to the wise, as we say in Welsh.

The Minister may say that the scheme is voluntary and that it is for an entitlement card, not a compulsory card. That is probably the worst of both worlds—a bureaucratic, expensive, nightmarish mess that would inevitably become a de facto, if not de jure, compulsory system.

Any kind of ID card will need a national database. No Government has a good record on creating national databases, and that applies to this Government. Nature abhors a bureaucracy. Child tax credits, the passport office fiasco, census figures, the Child Support Agency—all those major database projects have been beleaguered by problems. No, my mind boggles at the cock-ups that will surround the introduction of an ID card. Every time people lose it or change their address, they will have to report to the authorities, on pain of prosecution, and the potential for more mistakes and fraud, with which I shall deal later, will creep in.

The Government has already admitted that such a database would have to be collated from scratch. The Government do not take quite the line that the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) takes, that of merely bringing together current databases. A proper system will have to be underpinned by a new database created from scratch.

Martin Linton

For most purposes, the entitlement card would use existing public services databases. If someone wanted to check whether a person were entitled to go to a school or to use a library, they would access the database of the local authority or the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, rather than a new database. Like the hon. Gentleman, I question the usefulness of a central database. If there were to be one, it would consist only of the numbers of the cards issued, not information about the individuals. Such information would remain with the public service agencies, so there would not be a huge increase in central computer records.

Mr. Thomas

I would regard that situation with even more horror, because it would break the golden rule of data protection: information collected for one purpose must not be used for another purpose. I shall return to that shortly.

The Government has admitted that a national database would be required, whether for just one number or 1,000, but the Home Secretary has been uncharacteristically coy about the cost of establishing it. I asked about that last week in Home Office questions, but he refused to give me a figure. Legislation may be proposed in the Queen's Speech, but we do not know what it will cost. A sum of £1.6 billion has been hinted at, but some people estimate that an amount closer to £3 billion will be necessary. That is more than the entire NHS capital budget for 2003–04 or the cost of some 60,000 extra police officers.

Is it really a priority for the UK to spend billions—it would be billions, whichever way one looked at it—on ID cards? And to what would they entitle us? They would entitle us to things that we are entitled to anyway: the NHS, public education, pensions and benefits, all of which are paid for in trust by the public. It is true that many MPs, including some in the Labour party, opt out of such services, but the vast majority of the public do not. The only responsibility that people have when accessing such services is to prove their identity, something that is easily and cheaply done without an ID card system. Just 5 per cent. of benefit fraud is identity fraud. The vast majority of fraud involves the misrepresentation of circumstances.

I would like to tackle the Government's arguments head on. However, as I said earlier, the Government have not presented a unified argument in their discussion of a national ID card. They have been as convincing as they have been consistent. We were told first that ID cards would deter international terrorism and political violence; next that they would enable the Government to end benefit fraud; and then that they were the panacea that would stop illegal immigration, asylum troubles and illegal working in the UK. The Labour Government, much like the Tory Government in 1995, has used any justification for the introduction of ID cards. It is a clear example of a solution in search of a problem.

Looking at the arguments in turn, there is clear evidence that ID cards are not necessary to counter terrorism. Mr. Adrian Beck of the university of Leicester was commissioned by John Major's Government in 1995 to examine identity cards for use in crime fighting and prevention. After the attacks on 11 September, he said that there is a lack of evidence that an ID initiative would have a significant impact on the problem of terrorism, or indeed on more generalised crime…If one legitimate person has the technology to make an ID card then another (illegitimate) person can have it too". Regrettably, the twin tower terrorists had legal identification or acceptable forgeries, which is notable as the United States has a near universal identity system based around driver licensing.

The Government has adduced no evidence, and I have not been able to find any elsewhere, that ID cards directly relate to a reduction in the threat of terrorism. It could be argued that, in some cases, such as the Palestinian territories, for example, their abuse may exacerbate the situation.

The Government's shift from justifying ID cards as a weapon for combating terrorism to justifying them as a means of tackling benefit fraud is best seen through the official consultation paper. On 3 July, however, the Cabinet Office reported that social security fraud rooted in identity misuse amounted to between £20m and £50m per year. That is less than 1 per cent. of the welfare benefits budget and less than the cost of mistakes made by the Department for Work and Pensions.

Shortly after 11 September, I went to open a new bank account at my local bank. A member of staff who knew me greeted me in person, in Welsh, saying, "Shwd ychchi, Mr. Thomas," which means, "Come in, sit down." There are not many al-Qaeda terrorists who speak Welsh; there may be a few, but the staff knew me. I explained what I wanted to do and she explained that I could not do it without proof of identity. The problem is that a fake ID card can open a bank account, which may be used for money laundering, but my being recognised in person by staff at the bank could not.

Dr. Palmer

I apologise for the fact that I have to go to a Committee shortly; it is not lack of interest that will take me away.

Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that, given the many circumstances where he needs to identify himself, it is making a virtue of ineffectiveness to say that it is better not to have a card that identifies him beyond doubt?

Mr. Thomas

It is precisely the opposite. Anyone can identify themselves as somebody if they have the means fraudulently to identify themselves as that person. Any system is open to abuse, and it is no more reliable to require an ID card as the only system of identity than it is to require people to return to the bank with the usual identity paraphernalia. Just to let Members know, in case they need to open a bank account, my parliamentary photo pass was not sufficient ID for that bank.

The final argument that the Government advanced was about illegal immigration and employment. We already issue ID cards to refugees, who in the spirit of the times we call asylum seekers. The Government do not have asylum under control. They need to issue 15,000 amnesties on the basis of bureaucratic inefficiency rather than deal with bona fide refugees, and they now try to convince us that registering nearly 60 million people can be done efficiently and that it will be effective against a few thousand illegal workers or refugees.

Many of the complaints surrounding illegal immigration are about illegal employment. The alternative view is that such people should be allowed to work while they seek refugee status. There is little evidence that the introduction of ID cards would significantly hinder the black market in illegal labour. Does anyone believe that the gang masters who today take on illegal workers with no national insurance number and no right to work will be discouraged by ID cards tomorrow? They will continue to exploit the same desperate people in the same way.

As with terrorism, the real issue is intelligence and the tracking of criminality. ID cards might make the job of the police a little easier after apprehension and arrest, but in a world where young men without criminal records live as sleepers until they commit a terrorist act, ID cards are useless. There is no correlation between the use of ID cards and crime rates in western countries. There is, however, plenty of evidence that criminals already profit from forging identities. No matter how sophisticated ID cards are, they are always open to forgery.

Michael Levi, a criminologist and expert on fraud at University College Cardiff has remarked that the issue is really one of cost benefit analysis; crime prevention mainly consists of modest measures which make noticeable reductions in crime. Secure ID cards are one such measure, though whether, even at a pragmatic rather than a rights-based level, their benefits outweigh their costs to civil liberties is an open question". Identity problems are not a significant reason why prosecutions fail to stick. The idea that the police are unable to assess a person's identity is, in Levi's opinion, not plausible: In this situation, identity cards are an irrelevance, a tough soundbite that has no practical effect". I have not attempted to deal with the unfortunate history of the "sus" laws and the potential impact of ID cards on race issues. We can all imagine what those police officers in Cheshire who were filmed by the BBC would have done with ID legislation behind them when they faced black and Asian people on the street. We have only to look at the misery experienced by the civilian population in the Palestinian territories today to see the havoc caused by an ID system married to so-called profiling.

One important question, which the Government has in the main ignored, is what information will be available to Departments, and perhaps others, via an ID card system. Furthermore, what information will be kept on the card itself? On 16 January this year, the Home Secretary said that he wanted a simple card system to store a unique personal number that would verify the holder's identity and establish their access to public services such as healthcare, schooling and social security. The problem is one of mission creep.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is the nub of the issue? If the ID card has a unique number, it must be directly linked to an individual's identity, which cannot be forged or fraudulently obtained. That takes us back to biometrics and other ways of ensuring that the number relates to the person carrying the card.

Mr. Thomas

I agree with the hon. Gentleman in that regard, but he should take two other issues on board. First, that would entail a national database, where mismatching numbers with details would lead to mistakes. Secondly. Biometrics would not stop the fraudulent use of such a card system on a day-to-day basis. Someone could fraudulently obtain an ID card, put their identity on it—the technology will be available—and present it at the bank. A student in Swansea had his identity stolen by al-Qaeda—identity theft happens now, and it would happen under an ID card system.

Information is power. As a Government obtains more information on their citizens, they become more powerful. If information is used judiciously and tempered by clear limits and safeguards against abuse, the potential for unwarranted surveillance is diminished. However—this point was raised by the hon. Member for Battersea—no right to privacy is recognised in UK law, nor is there a general right to know about what is done or held in our names. We cannot check, as a matter of right, that what is recorded in various databases is accurate and that improper records are eliminated. No Department may be prosecuted for a data protection offence. The data protection registrar has warned that the Data Protection Act 1984 would not provide effective protection against the disclosure of information and cross-matching of files which might follow the introduction of a widely usable national identification system". We must take that warning into account.

We must also take account of the stigma and humiliation of constantly having to prove citizenship or legal immigrant status. In 1996, under the Conservative Government, the Home Office commissioned the Scarman centre to carry out research on the way that ID cards were used in other European countries. It found that identity checks carried out by the police were a significant source of tension for ethnic minority groups, and in France, Germany and the Netherlands, the police disproportionately stopped those groups. In the UK last year, while nationally the number of white people stopped by the police fell by 18 per cent., the number of black people stopped increased by 4 per cent.

Martin Linton

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the first sentence in the consultation paper states that the Government have excluded the possibility of a card that it would be compulsory to carry? With respect, his points are not relevant to his thesis

Mr. Thomas

As I understand it, it will not be compulsory to carry the cards but it will be compulsory to report to a police station later to be identified. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman.

There is potential here for misuse of personal information. Once all the information is stored in Government databases there will be no guarantee that its use will be limited. The golden rule of information privacy is that information collected by the Government for one purpose should not be used for another purpose without the consent of the person to whom the information pertains.

The central issue is one of trust, and I do not believe that people currently trust politicians or Governments of any political colour to maintain such a cumbersome system safely and effectively. We have to take it on trust that a massive identification bureaucracy would facilitate our way of life rather than undermine the freedoms that we take for granted, yet error rates in processing data are high. What impact could wrong data on one's card have on one's life? For that reason, a similar scheme in a similar country, Australia, modelled on a constitution similar to ours was abandoned after public opposition.

Faced with those problematic objections to ID cards the Cabinet is split down the middle. We have watched the Home Secretary do the hokey-cokey with his colleagues as a Bill on ID cards pops in and out of the Queen's Speech. We now come up against the final desperate argument, which we have heard from a few Members already in interventions: everyone else has them, so why should not we? I make this point. Of the 11 European Union countries that have ID cards, in only four is it compulsory to carry them, and all 11 have written constitutions. The Home Secretary wilfully ignored that point when I put it to him in the House last week, introducing the ridiculous canard of the new European constitution. I am talking about a written constitution for the United Kingdom, which has nothing to do with the European constitution.

We are back where we started, with privileges and responsibilities. If we ever agree to ID cards, we as citizens will be extending a privilege to the Government. It is not the Government's to demand, but it is ours as citizens to give. I urge the Government to reject ID cards as the expensive, unnecessary, illiberal and over-burdensome bureaucracy that they are. If they insist on them, and if we agree, they must shoulder their responsibility and renew their contract with the citizens in the form of a written Bill of Rights and constitution. Anything less, and ID cards will represent a real blow to democracy in the nations of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am delighted that a large number of Members have risen to their feet, but may I say that if they all take too much time, they will not all get in?

2.22 pm
David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) on securing the debate. I tried to do the same, without success, and I am pleased that at long last there is an opportunity to debate this subject. I note that a number of my hon. Friends take attitudes different from mine, but there is no reason why we should not have a good debate in the parliamentary Labour party. I understand from the press, and only from the press, that a good deal of discussion on the matter—friendly, I am sure—is going on at Cabinet level. It would be surprising if that were not the case.

I remain sceptical about identity cards, for some if not all of the reasons that the hon. Member for Ceredigion mentioned. There would be high expectations that such cards would deal effectively with various kinds of domestic criminality and terrorism as well as with illegal immigration. Should such cards be introduced, they might be seen in some parts of the country, although not by parliamentarians or Ministers, as a panacea for the matters that I have just mentioned.

Let us be clear about the compulsion element. As I understand it, it has been suggested that one would not always have to carry the card, but it would be compulsory to give details about oneself. Without that, the scheme would never get off the ground. It would be an offence not to give such information. Some people might want to break the law, and I do not condone that in any way. But we have to understand that that could well be the position.

As for not carrying the card—I accept that it probably will not be compulsory, as the Minister more or less nodded at that suggestion—it is inevitable that at virtually all stages of contact with officialdom and the police, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion mentioned, one would be asked to produce the card. There would be an inbuilt suspicion if someone did not have the card.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

The Government have said that it would not be compulsory to carry the card. Does my hon. Friend think that, once the cards existed, it would be long before carrying them became compulsory? The first time that there was a major terrorist incident there would be calls for that to happen.

David Winnick

I am sure that that would be the position. In time, it would be argued that since everyone had given information, because it was the law to do so, there was no reason why law-abiding citizens should not carry cards.

Does anyone seriously believe that terrorism would be undermined by ID cards? I want to make it clear that if I thought that terrorism would be more effectively dealt with by ID cards, I would be liable to change my mind. The security of our people and country must be foremost. However, let us consider 9-11—as it is referred to in the United States and elsewhere. Can anyone really say that the atrocities carried out by those criminals would have been avoided if ID cards had been introduced? The culprits were lawfully in the United States at the time. Would the 30 years of sustained IRA terrorism have been undermined and weakened by ID cards? When I was a member of the Opposition in the House of Commons, none of us suggested that ID cards would be useful and, to my knowledge, no Minister or Government Back Bencher suggested anything of the kind.

I do not wish to be misunderstood in saying this, but perhaps to curry favour the Home Secretary said that he had no idea how many illegal immigrants there are in the United Kingdom. Are we to conclude that his counterparts in those EU countries with ID cards could truthfully tell their people or their media how many illegal immigrants there are? It is wrong to say that we should have such cards and that, lo and behold, we will no longer be faced with the problem of people being in our country illegally, which we all oppose.

Identity fraud is undoubtedly a problem. It is interesting to note that, in its consultation paper, the Home Office conceded that ID cards could perversely result in an increased risk of…fraud. That is because various financial institutions may rely too much on such cards and not carry out the checks that are necessary to safeguard people's accounts. In the same paper, the Home Office accepts that ID cards could become a target for organised criminals". I accept that, with the latest technology, fraud would be more difficult, but international criminals would do their utmost to produce cards that may at first look genuine. As the Home Office conceded, it is right to recognise that international criminals are not going to give up if ID cards are introduced.

Martin Linton

Does my hon. Friend not accept that the ID or entitlement card, as proposed by the Home Affairs Committee when he and I were members, would contain only information on identity to link the holder to the card, and that to forge a card one would either need to forge one's iris or fingerprint, or the information in public service computers? I am not saying that that is not possible, but simply by changing the card one could not forge it in any meaningful way.

David Winnick

My hon. Friend is an enthusiast for cards. I have conceded that forgery would be difficult, unlike in the case of wartime cards. However, the fact remains that the Home Office itself, in its consultation paper, which I know that he has read, concedes that forgery is more than a possibility.

I am sure that the Home Secretary is putting great pressure on his Cabinet colleagues so that ID cards can come about. The latest thing that I have read in the press—true or otherwise—is that a draft Bill will be included in the Queen's Speech. I hope that those members of the Cabinet who have a number of reservations will be able to persuade the Home Secretary not to go ahead with the scheme. It will not produce what he believes it will produce.

I end on this note. For just over half a century, we have gone without ID cards. The decision to abolish them in 1952—and I am old enough to remember that—was the right decision, albeit one taken by a Conservative Government. I wish that it had been taken by the Labour Government before 1952. All kinds of reasons for cards are advanced, and I accept that ID cards would not make this country anything like a police state. I do not want to give such an impression because it would be nonsensical. As some of my hon. Friends have pointed out, EU countries that have ID cards are hardly police states or anywhere near them, but are as democratic as ourselves. However, we have a different tradition in this country. We have not had such cards except in wartime. As I said at the beginning of my speech, I would need a lot of persuading that ID cards were necessary to deal with the problems that face us, particularly terrorism. I hope that the cards will not come about.

2.31 pm
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) on securing this important debate, and I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) for his impassioned plea. I very much agree with their instinctive views, although I suspect that we shall see the other side of the argument paraded during much of the next hour before the winding-up speeches.

As an instinctive and rational libertarian, I oppose the notion of ID cards, either on a compulsory or voluntary basis. The hon. Member for Walsall, North and his colleague, the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), made the valid point that once a voluntary ID card comes into play there is a risk of a creeping sense of quasi-compulsion that will make it difficult to go about everyday life without such a card, particularly if one wishes to open a bank account or do anything else that requires a form of identity to be shown.

My main concern is that ID cards fundamentally shift the delicate balance between the individual and the state. They also bring about a reversal of the common-law presumption of innocence. That would be bad enough, but there are major issues in relation to the practicality of the proposals—or non-proposals—that may follow the Queen's Speech, such as the vast cost that a compulsory scheme would entail and the difficulties in policing and enforcing the scheme. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that. A failure to enforce such a scheme would make the entire thing redundant. As has been mentioned by other hon. Members, the likelihood of a determined policy of forgery and identity fraud would undermine the protection that would otherwise be afforded by such a scheme.

As has been mentioned, national ID cards were introduced in this country during the Second World War, and the Home Secretary has given a clear indication that they are back on the agenda as part of the Government's policy on asylum and their war on terrorism. My constituency, in the heart of London, stands to be most affected by the proposals. In addition to a residential population of 120,000, a further 800,000 people a day travel to work in the Cities of London and Westminster, and countless other tourists and shoppers visit attractions such as Westminster abbey, this place, St. Paul's cathedral and Buckingham palace. It is probably fair to say that the few square miles that make up my constituency superficially have least to lose from the implementation of a rigorously enforced compulsory ID card scheme, if only because so many of the landmarks in my patch are seen as high-profile targets for a terrorist attack in the UK. However. I believe that a national ID card scheme has less to do with keeping the population safe than it does with imposing control over people—a point that was alluded to by the hon. Member for Ceredigion in his introductory comments.

I accept that we shall have to grow accustomed to wider surveillance of certain groups in our country, but that does not justify a wholesale erosion of civil liberties. The introduction of ID cards will be a significant step towards dismantling the traditional democratic values of freedom and tolerance that have underpinned our open society and which so many of us hold dear to our heart.

Brian White

Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that at the moment he has to give information about himself in a variety of ways to a variety of organisations, which increases the risk that a piece of wrong data gets replicated in myriad databases? An ID card would simplify that and ensure that the right information was given every time.

Mr. Field

I shall come on to that point in a moment, because the fact that not only do we have a large number of forms of identification but they are all on computer lists is regularly used as an objection against those on my side of the debate.

My party has traditionally recognised the importance of fostering values of individual responsibility and self-determination in our fellow countrymen. I speak as the son of someone who came to this country from abroad—my mother was a refugee twice by the age of 15 and came here from central Europe. Many people come from nations where authority flows from a heavily centralised state. All too little reliance seems to be placed in those countries on the freedom of individuals to live their lives free from the demands of officialdom. A culture of freedom underpins our mature democracy which should not be undermined except in times of extreme national emergency, such as during a fully fledged world war, and I do not believe that the war on terrorism is such a time.

As the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) said, we all have birth certificates, driving licences and national insurance numbers, and an array of other information on each of us is held on debit, credit and store cards. The hon. Gentleman may well then ask what the objection is to another means of identification. In practical terms, however, any obligatory ID scheme is likely to take many years to establish and will cost the taxpayer an ongoing fortune both to implement and administer. In view of that expense, the very notion that ID cards could be introduced as a merely temporary measure is likely to receive short shrift from this or any Government.

In any case, experience tells us that the argument for restrictions on freedom being short term tends to disappear rapidly with the passing of time. I spent all too many days in Committee discussing what was then the Licensing Bill, and many of us will recall that a lot of our archaic restrictions on alcohol licensing were introduced as temporary measures during world war one. Even the commercial deregulation of the last decade or so has left some of those antiquated rules fairly intact.

In the feverish and security-conscious atmosphere that has inevitably been with us since 11 September 2001, the long-standing importance that we in this country attach to individual freedom from state intervention appears to have been swept away. It is therefore incumbent on the Government, and particularly on the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, to explain precisely how any new laws will protect us from the existing terrorist threat.

Let us not forget that this country has for many centuries been a safe and popular haven for migrants, precisely because of the knowledge that there is a reliance on the traditional values associated with freedom of the individual and the rule of law. The events of 11 September 2001 changed the general outlook of countless thousands, but if the rest of us really believe that those appalling outrages changed the whole world beyond recognition, we are tacitly accepting that the terrorists and terrorism itself have won.

Some serious practical considerations suggest that ID cards are likely to be ineffective in preventing terrorism. However expensive the technology that we use, an increasingly sophisticated network of international terrorists will find it possible, perhaps even easy, to forge or simply steal an identity. Next, we shall have to employ a vast army of public officials to administer and police the entire scheme. Short of there being almost continuous surveillance, those citizens, including, presumably, any would-be terrorists not wishing to co-operate in such a scheme, could go to ground with impunity.

Many civil libertarians have argued that the police will use the excuse of compulsory ID cards to target foreigners and demand their co-operation, which will make them feel even more alienated. To be honest, my fear is that the opposite will happen, especially in central London. I believe that the Metropolitan police, especially in the aftermath of the Stephen Lawrence campaign, will find that the culture of political correctness will make it less rather than more likely that a policeman will stop a prospective terrorist from an ethnic background and demand to see his ID card.

The Criminal Justice Bill, which is working its way through the Lords—I am sure that the Minister hopes that it will conclude its passage in the next fortnight—contains provisions to end the double jeopardy rule for murder. In addition to compulsory ID cards, we are promised a series of measures that aim to curtail the legal right of some criminal suspects. The important thing to remember with such new laws is that when the state adopts draconian powers against strangers today, it tends to use them against one's friends tomorrow and oneself the day after.

In times of national crisis, it is easy to dismiss a highbrow, and perhaps slightly academic, defence of the rule of law. The hon. Member for Ceredigion made such a defence earlier this afternoon, and I hope that I have made a similar defence of civil liberties. At such times, the Government inevitably face great difficulties, and I would not like to be in the Minister's shoes when trying to present a policy that will keep the citizens of this country happy and secure, but it is precisely during these times that the rights of the individual must be defended with the utmost vigour.

2.41 pm
Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

I apologise if I struggle a little today. I am getting used to wearing glasses, which is part of the ageing process, and I will probably look in the wrong direction.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. May I help the hon. Gentleman? It gets worse as one gets older. I note that several hon. Members rose at the same time as the hon. Gentleman. We can accommodate them all if they are brief, but we must remember that it is a matter for the Member who secured the debate to obtain a reply from the Minister.

Mr. Salter

Thank you for those wise words, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall try to be as brief as possible.

I speak as an instinctive libertarian—a child of the '60s—but as someone who has reached the conclusion that ID cards are not only inevitable but fundamentally desirable. In the Home Secretary's introduction to the White Paper, which I am sure hon. Members have read carefully, he says: There are strongly held views on all sides of the debate on identity or entitlement cards. Although many people have settled views on the principle of whether or not they favour them, I think it is important to rehearse all the pros and cons of a scheme even if this is seen as going over old ground. I now have a settled view, as do my constituents. I responded to the Home Secretary's encouragement for us to consult widely on the White Paper in our constituencies. If it will warm the cockles of the Minister's heart, I am more than happy to read out the results that I obtained from the consultation in my constituency. People had to take the trouble of returning a reply-paid form. I am sure that the process was not scientific, but the results are interesting.

Three questions were asked. The first asked people whether they agreed or disagreed that: ID Cards are an abuse of human rights; and invasion of privacy and their introduction should be opposed. Some 4 per cent. agreed; 89 per cent. disagreed. The second said: In this age of computers and credit cards, big business and other organizations already hold a huge amount of personal information and ID cards would not reduce a citizens right to privacy. Some 88 per cent. agreed; 6 per cent. disagreed.

The third question was the inevitable one asked in any pub or club, or at the many doors on which many of us spend our Sundays knocking. It stated: Only people with something to hide have anything to fear from ID Cards. Unsurprisingly, 95 per cent. were in favour; 3 per cent. disagreed. So my constituents have a settled view on ID cards.

I am also attracted to the notion of entitlement cards, although I would go much further. I was chairman of the leisure committee on Reading borough council and, as such, the politician who introduced the first entitlement card in Reading since 1952. We had a real problem with people from outside our borough using leisure facilities that were paid for by the council taxpayers of Reading, so I introduced a passport-to-leisure system. People had to prove that they were council taxpayers in Reading to qualify for preferential bookings and discount schemes. Some 40,000 people registered for the scheme. There was no customer resistance at all.

Mr. Gerrard

My hon. Friend has just quoted an interesting statistic. What checks were carried out to determine how many of the 40,000 were fake?

Mr. Salter

Nineteen eighty-six was a long time ago. I am certainly aware that proof of residence was required. Of course, there was a much more serious point, about which I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree, which was that it was particularly demeaning for unemployed people to have to turn up in front of a lot of other people with their UB4Os to get a free swim. The advantage of a card system was that it gave people a sense of dignity and hid the fact that they were unemployed from public view. There were many aspects of the approach that my hon. Friend could agree with.

The history of ID cards in this country is chequered. They were introduced in the National Registration Act 1915, when there was a requirement for people aged between 15 and 65 to hold a card. They were reintroduced in 1939 and functioned much as a "producer" does now; a person did not have to carry documents, but if they were caught without documents by a police officer they had to produce them within 48 hours.

The cards continued into the post-war period. They were a requirement to qualify for ration books. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) describes himself as a Bevanite—I assume that he means Aneurin Bevan—and, interestingly, it was Aneurin Bevan who famously said in 1947 that the ID card had become "almost a popular document". There are probably those who still regret that the requirement for ID cards came to an end in 1952.

One of the more bizarre points made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) was about ID cards heralding a repressive regime, rivalled only by that of Saddam Hussein. I understand that Sweden is one of the most progressive states in Europe, and it is about to introduce compulsory ID cards. Identity cards exist in one form or another in 11 EU states. None of those states has a tremendous history of repression. Cards are compulsory in Spain, Greece, Germany and Belgium. Interestingly, in nine of the 11 EU states with identity cards, the cost is nominal.

David Winnick


Mr. Gerrard


Mr. Salter

I give way.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Which hon. Member is the hon. Gentleman giving way to?

Mr. Salter

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I only saw my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North.

David Winnick

I am aware that my hon. Friend was not around at the time of the decision to abolish ID cards in 1952, but am Ito take it from his comments that he thinks it was wrong?

Mr. Salter

No, not at all. I only said that some would regret their passing. However, life has moved on.

Mr. Gerrard

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Salter

No; I will make headway if I can.

Five benefits would immediately flow from the proper introduction of ID cards. There has been much talk about the fact that our asylum and immigration system and our borders are not as secure as one would like; nor is the system as valid as one would want. My area is not known for intensive farming, but only the other week my local paper reported that a double-decker bus had crashed, and about 40 people were seen scampering into the fields. The police arrested 17 Polish nationals, all of whom had been working in this country for a year without any documentation. That leads to the conclusion that 23 have disappeared into the system; they are presumably illegally working elsewhere and probably being appallingly exploited by unscrupulous employers.

We know that a huge amount of fraud goes on. The consultation documents suggest a sum of £1.3 billion per annum for ID fraud. We know that we have pitiful outward border controls. An exchange that took place in the Home Affairs Committee led to The Times reporting on 22 October: The Home Office has deported only one of 63 Chinese nationals found working illegally in the summer". The report continued: Figures given to the committee show that of the 63 Chinese nationals found in the raids, four were failed asylum-seekers who should not have been in the country, 16 were asylum applicants, who are banned from working, and 10 had committed other immigration offences and should not have been working. There is an extensive, illegal black economy in operation even in relatively prosperous parts of our nation. The introduction of ID cards would be a useful control mechanism, not just against people who should no longer be in this country, but against those who seek to exploit the misery of asylum and refugee status.

Brian White

Does my hon. Friend accept that if ID cards were introduced, the organised criminals who bring such people in would provide them with fake ID?

Mr. Salter

I shall touch on that point shortly.

I do not want to dwell on health tourism, but we undoubtedly have failings and weak flanks in our NHS controls. I would like to touch on a far more friendly matter, and that is convenience. I am not a great man for carrying a huge amount of plastic, but I have just emptied the contents of my wallet and I see 16 different cards. First and most important is my Labour party membership card, followed by my trade union cards. Also, even in Liberal Democrat-controlled authorities one needs an ID card to get into the council offices. I would be interested to see what the Liberal Democrats make of that. We then go from the important, with a blood donor card, to the Caravan Club, an organisation that I commend to hon. Members. I envisage, in my lifetime, that an awful lot of the plastic that we carry will be rolled up, using the advantages of new technology, into one or two simple cards. That would be a lot easier for us all. I understand from the White Paper that some 137 million plastic cards are in circulation in one form or another.

I have categorised the objections to the proposals. Some people object on the grounds of civil liberties. I respect that view. However, with the amount of information that corporate Britain holds on us as citizens, for every time we use a credit card or a debit card, I wonder what is wrong with a democratically elected progressive state holding a portion of that information.

Mr. Paice

Can I confirm that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that an ID card will contain all the information that he has arrayed in front of him on all those cards? Does he believe the membership of those different clubs and organisations, his entitlement to enter Reading borough council offices and the rest will all be on that card? I do not see where his argument will take us, if not there.

Mr. Salter

I can envisage a time in my life when it will be convenient to amalgamate some of the information that we now carry on a lot of separate cards. I do not envisage that, in my lifetime, the Caravan Club, the National Trust or Johnson's dry-cleaning will appear on a national ID card.

I understand some of the objections to the introduction of an ID card scheme on the grounds of cost. However, we should weigh that against the cost of an asylum system that does not work, a benefits system that is subject to fraud and an ID system that is at least questionable.

The last objection to ID cards is that they could be forged. However, a lot of things could be forged. If we decide not introduce a system of ID cards because of potential forgery—and biometric technology makes that increasingly unlikely—why do we bother with driving licences, passports and all other documentation? Of course people will try to find a way around the system. On balance, if ID cards help the police and Customs, reassure the public and make us feel more secure, that is a price worth paying.

Far more significant than that, however, is that the real threats to the country arise from issues such as social cohesion, race relations, the rise of far-right, racist and fascist groupings and organised crime, particularly gun crime, which I have seen in the past few days on the streets of my constituency, and its connection to hard drugs, the smuggling of drugs and people, and prostitution. Those are the real threats to our civil liberties. If an ID card can deal with 5 or 10 per cent. of those threats it is a price worth paying.

2.53 pm
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

As I said in Home Office questions, I think that I am one of the few people who still has an ID card. I was issued with one 10 days after I was born in 1942, and I still have it. It has little rubber stamps on it, from when it was inspected.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. If it is any compensation, I think that there are probably three of us here.

Mr. Gerrard

Right. One of the difficulties in debating an ID card system is that we need to know what we are actually discussing, because the consultation paper opened up a range of options. In his response to that consultation paper, the Information Commissioner stated: I face a real difficulty in knowing what the scheme that is being proposed really amounts to because of the diverse range of options that have been proposed, and because the consultation paper asked for more suggestions. The Information Commissioner was saying, "I've got a real problem here knowing what I should be responding to," and that, before the Government go any further, they should produce something more focused and clear.

It is obvious from the debate so far that everyone assumes that the main purpose of ID cards is to deal with problems such as fraud, illegal working, and illegal immigration. Terrorism has been mentioned, but I do not think that the Government consultation paper suggested that ID cards could be used to address terrorism.

Three questions should be asked, all of which have been raised in the debate. Would ID cards work? Even if they were to work, would they be the best way to deal with the problems mentioned? Would they he acceptable? People may have issues with showing the cards. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) said, there is a different culture in this country about how to respond to the police when asked to produce papers than in those European countries in which such practices have been common for some time.

Another issue that has been discussed is that of illegal working. It is a criminal offence for an employer to employ someone whom they know is not entitled to work, but that does not stop them from doing it. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter), mentioned an incident involving a busload of people going to work illegally. I do not believe that their employer did not know that they were working illegally. Of course he knew. If an employer is prepared to break the law by not bothering to check whether someone can produce a piece of paper that states that he is entitled to work, would that employer ask to see an ID card? Of course he would not. Those employers who avoid making checks are the same type of people who are involved in large-scale fraudulent employment of illegal workers. I doubt whether ID cards would make any difference.

If we want to catch the employers who are illegally employing people, we should look at tax returns, VAT returns and national insurance claims. One can bet one's life that they will not be making those returns properly. I have mentioned that before in debates on this issue. We should remember that Al Capone went to jail for tax evasion. There is more than one way of getting at those who are involved in illegal employment.

As the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) pointed out, benefit fraud is more often about the misrepresentation of circumstances than the misrepresentation of identity. The police do not usually have a problem identifying who someone is. They have much more of a problem finding the evidence to tie them to the crime.

My main point is about how the system would be established. Without a national database, an ID card system would be doomed to failure. It would be a gift to fraudsters if ID cards were to become the ultimate proof of identity, as they might, and we did not have secure systems from the start. We know that systems such as those used by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the UK Passport Service are not secure. There are plenty of fake driving licences around. In the past month, I have dealt with three cases in which people were using fake driving licences in my constituents' names. That is probably happening across the country, because DVLA and passport records were not designed to establish identity. If we build on those databases, we will construct a system that is full of flaws from day one.

If we were to opt for biometrics based on those systems, we would still have a problem. Even if I produce a card with my iris data or my fingerprints, it proves only that I am the person whose personal data is on the card. It does not prove that I am who I say I am. It cannot do that unless we start with a secure database, but that has enormous cost and time implications, and it would affect how such a system was constructed and therefore how acceptable people would find it. Card readers would need to be connected to the database in hospitals, benefit offices and so on—an immense infrastructure would be needed.

Finally, I come to acceptability. I have heard many times before the argument that we are all used to carrying bits of plastic, but that is not so. For instance, only 50 per cent. of the population has a credit card. Even now, many people do not carry plastic. Those who are least likely to do so are to be found in the most deprived and marginalised communities, and they will become targets if they do not have ID cards.

I am not convinced that those who say, "I have nothing to fear. I wouldn't mind. I carry plastic anyway," would feel the same if they were stopped in the street or on arrival at hospital and asked, "Where is your ID card?" They would say, "Why me? Why are you questioning me? I have nothing to hide. I am innocent. I am a respectable person." People would not take it kindly.

I return to the Information Commissioner's response, which is worth listening to. He said: I am concerned that although there may be plausible arguments made for the introduction of an entitlement card scheme in the short term there is the potential for function creep as administrative and political priorities change or even just to maximise the use of a costly infrastructure. In other words, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West, there is not much doubt that if a scheme were introduced that, on paper, was voluntary, it would be compulsory within 10 years and people would be asked to carry their cards with them wherever they went. Whatever the Government may say—I do not disbelieve them—it does not bind future Governments. That is one of the greatest dangers.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I thought that the hon. Member was intervening. I am sorry, but it is time to start the winding-up speeches. I call the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten).

3.2 pm

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This has been an excellent debate. I am genuinely disappointed that we cannot hear from the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White). I am almost tempted to support the idea of ID legislation being mentioned in the Queen's Speech so that we can continue the debate and go on to defeat the measure. The arguments put forward today have been compelling.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) on introducing the subject. His arguments about a written constitution were excellent, and I entirely agree about the difficulties of previous attempts to administer such changes, particularly the chaos that we had with passports a couple of years ago. I, too, was in the ridiculous and embarrassing situation of having my bank manager ask for my passport for identification, despite the fact that we have known each other since I was 18—that was 20 years ago. The hon. Gentleman mentioned some excellent examples.

I agreed entirely with the hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick), who said that if he were convinced that the system would significantly help to deal with terrorism, he would be prepared to set aside some of his concerns. That is exactly where I come from, but neither of us is convinced. His example on Northern Ireland was a point well made.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) and I share common ground on the libertarian issue. I enjoyed his remarks about the need for a balance between the state and the individual, which were very well made. His arguments about the impact on terrorism carried even more weight, given his constituency.

I was disappointed in the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter). As a child of the '60s, he is normally quite liberal. I can put his viewpoint down only to the fact that his eyesight is failing. Now that he has glasses, he might be able to look again at some of the issues. I congratulate him on having his shirts and suits dry-cleaned for the rest of the year, given the number of plugs that he has given to Johnson's dry-cleaning.

Finally, the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) was right to talk about cultural differences. I welcome the fact that the relationship between the police and an individual in this country differs from the culture of fear that one sees in other parts of the world. His points about illegal working were spot on. If the argument for ID cards relies on an undercurrent feeling that things operate better elsewhere and that having an ID card will suddenly achieve that for us, it is nonsense.

I shall be brief, because we all want to hear from the Minister and the Conservative party. I have shifted my view. I was one of the rare Liberal Democrats who thought that it might be possible to make a case for ID cards along the lines of "What have you got to hide?". However, I have looked, listened and learned, and I have changed my view. I have concluded that we need to understand why the Government would want to introduce them. What is the purpose? Is it security, immigration or entitlement? I conclude that the reason is none of those, but that a focus group or some opinion polling has suggested that such a policy might sound tough and macho. The Government have not set out a genuine reason for it.

Let us consider some of the arguments. First, we have heard about the 9-11 terrorists—cards did not stop terrorism. One can almost gain a false sense of security by assuming that having a card in place can tackle terrorism. We have also heard arguments about the difficulties with rip-offs. The points have been well made.

On the issue of criminals and benefit fraud, surely the main problem for the police is not identifying the criminals, but catching them in the first place. If we were to spend the amount of money on identity issues that is being mentioned, we could start by giving the police a lot more technology with which to do their current job—fingerprint identification and such issues would be a good starting point and might make more practical difference than the introduction of ID cards. My understanding about benefit fraud is that the main problem is not the question of identity but that of individuals who misrepresent what they are claiming the money for.

Brian White

The hon. Gentleman mentions the fingerprint project. Does that not highlight the difficulties, in that if we wished to introduce one, its scale would be such that, given the history of projects to do with national fingerprinting that still have not been rolled out fully, the time that it would take to introduce a computer system would cause problems?

Mr. Oaten

We agree on that. According to the latest figures, there are only 176 automated fingerprint identification systems in the country. What hope have we of getting an ID card set up and running?

On cost, moving towards a nanny state system and then charging people £40 could well shift the opinion polls and the views of individuals, and given our ability to deliver the system, that could make the dome look like a tea party. I can envisage the headlines, the difficulties and the dangers involved. The project will cost a lot of money, and Governments—regardless of party—do not have a good track record when it comes to technology.

Who should hold the card at any given time? We would have difficulties, for example, with EU nationals who were in this country to work and people here on holiday. That could open a loophole that might be used by those who wanted to exploit the system. We could even have the perverse situation in which the people of this country who wanted jobs had to show an ID card whereas EU nationals did not.

If entitlement were the Government's only intention, and if I could be convinced that we would benefit in our daily lives—the hon. Member for Reading, West with all his different cards, and the rest of us with access to health services, benefits and going into post offices—I might see some merit in considering the system. However, if they were to introduce it, the only result would be an enormous burden for business. Government would impose on our public services a great deal of technology—not just that required to produce cards for so many people, but that needed to read them at local hospitals, in post offices and at different places.

Mr. Thomas

That is a point that we have not considered so far. Entitlement to health services is one of the Government's crucial arguments. Of all the services, the health service is the least automated, the one with the fewest records available in a digital format and the least prepared to take the system on board. Surely, on top of the existing crisis, the project would place an immeasurable burden on the health service.

Mr. Oaten

The point is well made. Coping with the production of some 60 million cards is one thing, but providing receiving equipment to do anything with them up and down the country, once we have produced them centrally, is another, and I just cannot see it happening. I do not understand what the entitlement will be if the idea is that if one goes into an accident and emergency department in a rush, one has to have a card and put it through a system. I cannot see what advantage that will bring.

I have changed my view. I had felt that if there was a compelling case I would be prepared to set aside some of my instinctive civil liberty and libertarian concerns, but there is no compelling case. A range of issues has been raised, which, in my judgment, mean that the Government should not introduce the cards. They should heed the consultation and listen to Labour Members and members of the Cabinet, and they should not proceed with this policy. It would be unpopular in the country and unworkable.

3.10 pm
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) on securing the debate. I share the view of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) that we could, and hopefully will, debate the matter for much longer. We may well then come to the conclusion that he wants.

Much of the debate is focused on liberty and civil liberties. The one aspect on which I dissent from the view of the hon. Member for Ceredigion is his point that this is a particularly apposite week for the debate because we are remembering 11 November and the sacrifice that people made for freedom. I think that that generation is generally the most supportive of introducing identity cards. That is not to say that I am swayed by that argument, but I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's argument flowed. There is much support for ID cards among the general public, particularly the older generation—of which, I hasten to add, I am not quite a member. There is also a lack of understanding of some of the technological and logistical issues to which several hon. Members have referred. I shall not spend much time discussing liberty, although that is not in any way to underestimate it.

I must look at what is happening elsewhere. Much mention has been made of other countries in Europe, and valid arguments have been made on both sides of the debate. It is interesting to know that of all the 11 countries in the EU that have an ID card, only Belgium uses any form of biometric information, which is the fingerprint system. The only three countries in the world to have the more comprehensive form of biometrics that we believe the Government envisages are Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. Despite being chairman of the all-party group on Singapore, I would not put forward any of those three as being among the most libertarian regimes in the world.

It is interesting that Australia, which has robust anti-immigration and asylum measures—the Minister is no doubt aware of them—has rejected the idea of ID cards being part of that system. Nevertheless, ID cards have some important protagonists, including the Police Federation, for which I have immense admiration, which supports the idea of a mandatory system of ID cards.

That brings me to the point that the hon. Member for Winchester just raised: what is the scheme for? What are we trying to achieve? Is this an anti-crime measure, aimed at trying to identify criminals going about their business so that they can be apprehended more quickly? Are we trying to deal with illegal immigration and asylum, or just with entitlement to public services? If we are looking at entitlement—the Government use that word, so let us assume that that is what they are considering—the need to be fraud and forgery-proof is critical. There is a huge industry out there forging all sorts of documents. In London and elsewhere, one can pick up a forged passport, a driving licence and a social security number for a couple of hundred pounds. All those means of ID are available, so to pretend that an ID card would not be equally forgeable is nonsense, unless we used biometric information. Even then, I would not be entirely convinced, although I am prepared to be persuaded that iris recognition, at least, is fraud-proof.

We then come, however, to the question raised by the hon. Member for Winchester. It is no use having a card with a unique number and a magnetic strip, or whatever means is used for Iris memorisation, if the place that a person has gone to has no means of checking their iris to see whether the person holding the card is the person on it. There would have to be an iris reader in every school, every library, every GP's surgery and, because of home visits, every GP's car and every accident and emergency department—the whole works. It is foolish to believe that such an array of technology could be rolled out in the foreseeable future.

Those examples concern public services, but we should consider banks, which are, of course, private institutions. This afternoon, there has been much discussion about the need for identification in banks, building societies and other financial institutions. Can such institutions install card readers and will they be allowed to do so? If the information concerns only iris recognition—leaving aside the question whether the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) is a member of his local Labour party, whether he is entitled to enter Reading borough council offices or whether he is allowed to have his suits dry cleaned—it will be pointless unless the location in which people are trying to use their cards has facilities for reading them.

Setting aside the simple issues of false identity and forgery, I shall turn to crime prevention. The Police Federation obviously believes that police officers should be able to identify people by checking their cards. However, the Government's repeated assertion that it will not be compulsory to carry an ID card nullifies any crime prevention benefit that the scheme might otherwise have. Imagine that a police officer stops someone and asks them who they are. The person replies, "I am John Smith". The officer asks, "Have you got your identity card?", and the person replies, "No. I do not have to carry it." The officer says, "Will you present it at a police station next week?" How can the officer know who has failed to turn up at the police station the following week if the person who was stopped gave a false identity? The situation is absurd. The job should be done properly by making it compulsory to carry an ID card, or the logic behind the introduction of ID cards breaks down entirely.

Let us examine the consequences of not having an ID card, even if it is only for entitlement. What happens when someone who does not have a card turns up at an A and E department? Will they be refused treatment? Will a GP or ambulance refuse to treat someone because they do not have a card?

Mr. Oaten


Mr. Paice

I would like to give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I am pressed for time.

What about housing? Will homelessness legislation apply to somebody who has not got a card? There are so many issues.

On illegal immigrants, I wholly condemn the bad practice and worse of gangmasters, examples of which have been mentioned by other Members. Gangmasters operate in my constituency—I hasten to add that all those of whom I am aware are entirely legitimate and operate properly. However, some gangmasters are criminals. In many cases, gangmasters are involved in big business. They will be able to access forgery systems to provide the necessary information.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that the majority of illegal immigrants who come into this country do so with the help, connivance and conspiracy of professional people traffickers. Those organisations will have access to the necessary technology to provide a good forged identity unless we use biometric information. Certainly, the idea of some sort of glorified driving licence is wide open to abuse.

As of next summer, the citizens of 25 different countries will be able to move freely within this country. It seems absurd that our residents might be expected to have an ID card while those of other countries are not. It has been suggested that the ID card will cost £40 per head, although it will be issued free to asylum seekers. How will that help to advance race relations or multiculturalism?

The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) raised the issue of a database, and he was wise to do so. I, too, take the view that in a system of ID cards that include biometric information, there must be a central database if the system is to work. A database is not essential to start with, but it is a logical progression. That takes us into the issue of the other information that may be on the database. A national DNA database has its advocates, although I am not one of them. There is also the question of who should be able to access that information.

Like the hon. Member for Winchester, I have become ever more sceptical the more that I have studied ID or entitlement cards. The Government have some huge questions to answer if they intend to proceed any further with this. What are the cards for? Will the system be secure and forgery-proof? Who will have access to the information that may be contained in the system, however much or little of it there may be? What will the cost be? What will happen to the refuseniks who will not carry a card? Without all those answers, and without a clear understanding of how the system will operate, I remain extremely sceptical, as does the Opposition. We are not at all convinced that the Government have thought the idea through.

3.20 pm
The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes)

We have had an excellent debate and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) and all Members who have contributed. Although it is clear that there is a wide range of views, right across the party, it is right that that is so, if the Government proceed on these lines. I appreciate the difficulty caused for Members by the fact that there is no specific proposal on the table—they know why. It is clear that there is a body of opinion, which varies in the degree to which it is well informed, to be expressed if the Government does propose a specific scheme. During any subsequent debates, there will no doubt be a great deal of interest and enthusiasm for grappling with some of the difficult issues involved.

I am not in a position today to give details or to make any announcement. Members know that the Cabinet is discussing the matter, and proposals will be made in due course. Although I will try to deal with some of the questions, one of the most helpful contributions that I can make in the short time available is to set out clearly for Members the developments in the use of biometrics and security of identity that will take place anyway. They are all in the public domain, but they may not have been set out together. Members' views on the desirability of ID cards should perhaps properly be informed by the context of what will happen anyway, both internationally and domestically.

We are not in the same position that we were 50 years ago. In today's world, correct identification has become imperative in a way that we could not have foreseen. We face new threats and increases in the scale and sophistication of illegal immigration, organised crime and terrorism, but there are also new opportunities and new improvements in the technology of biometrics. Crucially, such improvements offer the opportunity to link an identity record to an individual with a high level of security. That record can then be used to verify a person's identity and immigration status, show entitlement to work and do some of the other things on which Members have touched.

First, Members need to know that international developments will soon require us to upgrade the security of all our identity documents. The United States is requiring countries that wish to continue in the visa waiver scheme, in which we are included, to include biometric information in passports. Secondly, the European Commission is looking for a decision on including finger scans biometric information on EU common format visas. We must choose between continuing to respond in a piecemeal fashion to some of those external developments and playing a leading role in shaping the way the world responds to the challenge of secure identification in a changing world. Those developments will take place internationally and in the UK.

Thirdly, in May this year. the International Civil Aviation Organisation adopted a global harmonised blueprint for biometric information in passports and other travel documents. The agreed ICAO standard is the inclusion of a mandatory facial image biometric in a contact-less chip—the document would be placed on a reader—with the option of including a secondary biometric finger scan or iris scan in the future.

The 188 ICAO contracting states are now considering adopting that standard in their travel documents. As the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) mentioned, Australia looks like being the first to issue passports to that new standard, followed by New Zealand and the United States.

Although biometric documents are being introduced internationally, in the UK the Passport Agency has decided to include a facial image biometric on passports from 2005, with an initial pilot to develop that process. There are also plans for biometrically secure driving licences. We are piloting the use of finger scan biometrics in Sri Lanka for UK visas and extending iris scanning for many secure foreign visitors to allow fast-track immigration clearance.

Several international and UK developments are inevitable, and they include developing biometrics to secure someone's identity to a much higher level of assurance. Such developments will incur costs to individuals for a passport with a much higher degree of security and to the Government for the investment required to develop the technology. A lengthy time scale will be required for their implementation.

Is it sensible to make the investment in money, technology, time and commitment to secure developments that would take us to the point of an ID card system, but to have none of the additional benefits that an ID card system would bring?

Mr. Oaten

Will the Minister give way?

Beverley Hughes

I will, with reluctance, because many Members want to question me.

Mr. Oaten

The Minister gave the example of the technology available, but is she able to provide her own view on ID cards?

Beverley Hughes

I am personally convinced that ID cards are indispensable in addressing some of the issues touched on by Members, some of whom have been sceptical about the contribution that ID cards can make. They are not a panacea, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) said, but they are vital to progress on some of the serious issues faced by the UK and every country in the modern world.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) has graphically made clear, we are a nation of cardholders. People are used to carrying cards, and the results of our consultation process were very similar to those of consultation under the last Conservative Government, who proposed a voluntary scheme that would have been little more than a glorified driving licence.

An ID card scheme would give us an important means of responding to some of the external threats that we face, within the broader strategy of tackling illegal immigration and illegal working. ID cards could reduce identity fraud and sift out those not entitled to services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who talked about illegal working, must understand, as I am sure he does, that the difficulty is that there is no single document establishing an entitlement to work. The national insurance number does not do that; it is, and always has been, issued to people who do not have an entitlement to work. Employers have a statutory defence against prosecution if they can show that they have looked at a document. There is no single secure document so most prosecutions fail.

Terrorists also use false identities. Although I would not begin to claim that ID cards are a panacea in the fight against terrorism, they are an extremely important weapon, given that terrorists and organised criminals use multiple identities.

In the last few seconds available to me, I would like to make it clear that there would be a national register to underpin such a card scheme. Parliament would have to debate the questions about the information that would go on the card, the chips and the database. I recognise that if we were to go ahead with the scheme it would be a major undertaking, which would take six to 10 years. That is why we need to debate it now, and we need to consider not only whether we need an ID card system now, but whether we shall need one in 10 years' time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Could I ask hon. Members not wishing to stay for the next debate to leave quickly and quietly? It is likely that a Division will occur during that debate, so I shall set out my intentions now. There is the possibility of two Divisions; there may only be one. If there is one Division, we shall suspend for 15 minutes. If there are two Divisions, we shall suspend for half an hour.