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House of Commons

Friday 10 February 1989

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


House Sales (Bradford)

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : I have much pleasure in presenting a petition signed by over 200 residents, and their friends and relatives, whose homes are under threat of sale by

Tory-controlled Bradford council. It calls for the homes to be held in public ownership and not sold to the private sector. It urges the Government to oppose Bradford council's plan to sell the homes. The petition is accompanied by 15 letters from residents and I shall quote briefly from one. It says :

"Dear Mr. Cryer,

I am distressed to hear of the privatisation of this home"

Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman is presenting a petition, not individual letters.

Mr. Cryer : Quite so, Mr. Speaker. When I received the petition, 15 letters accompanied it. I am not presenting the letters but showing that this 81-year-old person--

Mr. Speaker : Order. The rules lay down that the hon. Gentleman may only describe the petition.

Mr. Cryer : The petition says that the Secretary of State for the Environment has the power to stop the sale. I take the view that, if he had any decency or concern for the plight of the elderly, he would use his powers. I regard it, as do the petitioners, as a scandal that valuable public assets are being sold off complete with the people living in them, which is reminiscent of the slave trade. The petition says :

"To the Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled. The Humble Petition of relatives and residents of homes for the Elderly sheweth That the homes be held in public ownership and not sold to the private sector. Wherefore your petitioners pray that your Honourable House do urge the Government to oppose any measures by Bradford Metropolitan Council to sell the homes."

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I support the petition and have much pleasure in presenting it. To lie upon the Table.


Abortion (Right of Conscience) (Amendment)

Mr. David Amess presented a Bill to require doctors and nurses to give a positive indication of assent before being required to perform or assist at an abortion : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 28 April and to be printed. [Bill 71.]

Abortion (Treatment of Non-Resident Women)

Miss Ann Widdecombe presented a Bill to require, subject to certain exceptions, a medical practitioner treating a woman not resident in the United Kingdom for the termination of pregnancy to give notice of such treatment to a medical practitioner in the country in which she is ordinarily resident : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 7 April and to be printed. [Bill 66.]

Abortion (Amendment of Grounds)

Sir Bernard Braine presented a Bill to amend the grounds specified under the Abortion Act 1967 on which an abortion can be carried out : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 5 May and to be printed. [Bill 72.]

Abortion (Rights of Ancillary Workers)

Mr. Ken Hargreaves presented a Bill to require ancillary workers to give a positive indication of assent before being required to perform or assist at an abortion : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 21 April and to be printed. [Bill 70.]

Abortion (Financial Benefits)

Mr. Nicholas Bennett presented a Bill to amend section 2 of the Abortion Act 1967 : And the same was read a First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 14 April and to be printed. [Bill 67.]

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am wondering whether the five hon. Members who just presented those Bills are the same five hon. Members who not long ago were among a group of people talking about parliamentary skulduggery and blocking the Order Paper.

Mr. Speaker : I have no knowledge of the reason why hon. Members present Bills, but they were in order in doing so.

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National Identity Card Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

9.38 am

Mr. Ralph Howell (Norfolk, North) : I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker : I have been unable to select the reasoned amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett).

Mr. Howell : I thank my sponsors for all the help that they have given me in drafting the Bill. I also thank the Clerks of the House, the staff of the Library and several other people who have helped me.

The principal reason for introducing the Bill is that crime is increasing at an alarming rate despite all that the Government have done. This Government have done more than any previous Government because they have spent more money on improving police and prison officers' pay and recruiting more police and more prison officers, and we have the biggest prison building programme ever. Yet, year after year, crime increases ; and in the past 10 years, it has increased by an alarming 50 per cent.

Even more alarming is what has happened since an identity card system was abolished in 1952. The crime rate today is seven times as great as it was in 1952. The time has come when the people of this country have had enough of lawlessness. They want to be able to live their lives in peace and something more must be done than has been done so far.

We are having this debate today because a mistake was made in 1952. Although is is understandable that unnecessary regulations should have been abolished after the war, that provision should not have been abolished, and it is time now for us to correct that mistake. The Bill is based on the wartime measure. It is relevant to say that, after years of appeasement and failing to face up to the threat of Nazi Germany, the first measure presented to the House on 3 September 1939 was a National Registration Bill. It passed through all its stages on 4 September and 5 September and registration was effective from 29 September. We acted quickly then, and it gave a great psychological uplift to the whole country. At last we were galvanising ourselves into taking adequate action. Although that measure alone did not win the war, it would have been foolish to attempt to fight the war without such national registration. We are fighting a different problem now, but the whole country must be brought in to fight crime. We can increase the police as much as we like, we can increase prison building as much as we like, but, until the whole country declares war on crime, it will continue to rise. An identity card scheme would be the first and most positive step and would give tremendous hope to those who suffer so seriously, especially in inner-city areas, from present-day lawlessness.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howell : No.

Mr. Skinner : I have an important point to make.

Mr. Howell : I shall give way in my own time.

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The Government are taking a neutral attitude to the Bill, and that is something to be grateful for. At least they are not opposing it.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten) : indicated assent.

Mr. Howell : I am glad to see that my hon. Friend the Minister of State is nodding agreement.

However, the Government have proved the case for me. We have already introduced the Football Spectators Bill, which proposes indentity cards ; that proves that the Government believe that some measure of protection will come to law-abiding football supporters through indentity cards. I do not want to go into the matter deeply but my criticism of that Bill is that only 1 per cent. of the population attend football matches and they attend football matches for only 1 per cent. of the week. It seems hard on the other 99 per cent. of us who want protection from crime that no provision is made to help us by means of identity cards. Furthermore, although the Football Spectators Bill seeks to stop people going abroad to attend football matches, we are doing nothing about the lager louts on their way to Spain, who discredit this country.

The Government should recognise that public opinion is very much on the side of the Bill. A public attitudes survey, published this morning, shows that 57 per cent. of people support an identity card system, 37 per cent. oppose it and 6 per cent. do not know. It is not very dignified for the Government to be with that 6 per cent. of "don't knows". The Government should know one way or the other.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, despite the publicity, there has almost been an absence of protest from constituents? The matter received considerable publicity in a national daily newspaper in Northern Ireland, but there was not a single protest.

Mr. Howell : That is an interesting point, and the leading article in The Times bears it out.

There are other interesting points in the survey. Of those who have an opinion, 61 per cent. are in favour and 39 per cent. are against. Of those who support the Labour party, 47 per cent. are in favour and 47 per cent. against. The Opposition must take note of what is being said, because the reason why they are condemned forever to opposition is that they do not reflect the opinions of the great proportion of voters.

Mr. Skinner : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howell : I shall give way in a minute. The hon. Gentleman must be patient. The point that I want to make before I give way is that 53 per cent. of union members support an identity card scheme.

Mr. Skinner : It is quite conceivable that one of the reasons why there is a difference of opinion in the country and among political parties and why even the "don't knows" are concerned, is that people are worried about the photograph that would be needed for identity cards. Some people might think that others would submit their sons' photographs for their identity cards. In the latest issue of "Dod's Parliamentary Companion", it seems to me as if the hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Howell) has sent in his lad's photograph. If that is the case, no wonder there is confusion.

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Mr. Howell : In a few years' the hon. Gentleman may look as young as I do. But what a frivolous remark.

As I have said, the public at large support the Bill. Moreover, we are approaching 1992, when we shall have to do something about this matter. We are committed to the EEC and we shall remain in the EEC, and we know that the intention is to do away with passport control within the EEC. When that happens, it is not conceivable that other members of the EEC will operate an open-door system without any control, as we do for the Republic of Ireland, because that would open up the whole of the EEC and no one would know who was in the country and who was not.

Let me describe what the Bill is designed to do. It is intended that every person ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom shall have a numbered identity card and that there will be a register of all the persons who ordinarily live in this country. That is a necessary and important measure.

Clause 1(1) sets 12 years as the age at which a person must possess an identity card. Some people will think that the age limit is too low, and I am prepared to be flexible on that point, although to start with I was advised that it should be 10 because that is the age at which young persons are held responsible for their actions before the courts. Under the wartime provisions people were registered at birth and parents were responsible for children's identity cards until they reached the age of 16. The age of 16 is obviously too high today ; we have all witnessed awful scenes in which very young children have thrown petrol bombs in Northern Ireland.

At the age of 12, young people generally go to secondary school and are capable of looking after bus passes and rail passes. The other day someone telephoned the Jimmy Young show to say that it would be a positive advantage for children to have a form of identification as at present many of them have none, while the rest of the population carry large numbers of cards.

The fine for failure to possess an identity card will be a maximum of £400--level 3.

To those who think that the Bill would give the police extra power, I want to make it abundantly clear that that is not what is intended. Clause 1(4) says :

"A constable, if he has reasonable grounds for doing so, may require any person who is in a public place to produce his identity card for examination so as to enable the constable to ascertain its validity."

That leaves the law as it is. The sus laws passed in 1824 were abolished by this Government in 1981 ; all Labour Governments kept them in place. Under the Bill, the law will remain the same--

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, for a long time, the sus laws caused no problem but that towards the end their excessive use brought the police into a lot of disrepute in some areas? It was a very enlightened step by the Government to get rid of them, and the police have made no representations to the effect that the loss of the sus laws has caused them problems.

Mr. Howell : That is the very point that I am making. Under the Bill, that improvement in the law, for which the Government can take credit, will remain. The law will be exactly as it was before. The police will have no right to ask to see an identity card unless suspicious circumstances surround the person.

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Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth) : Does my hon. Friend agree that, in general, the police favour such a Bill? Will he repeat to the House the figures that he cited at the beginning of his speech, which show that public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of identity cards of the kind he has described? That gives the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) his answer.

Mr. Howell : I am grateful for those remarks. The Police Federation is firmly in favour of this measure and has been firmly in favour of identity cards for a considerable length of time. I am sure that we would find the vast majority of members of the Association of Chief Police Officers in favour if we knew that body's views fully, although the issue has been fudged and somewhat clouded, perhaps because the Bill is before the House.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke) : I do not follow my hon. Friend's reasoning. He says that the law will not be changed, but clearly it will. At the moment, we have no sus laws and a police officer may not stop a pedestrian in a public place and demand his name and address. The Bill would introduce such a provision and reasonable grounds would include the constable wishing to ascertain the validity of the card.

Mr. Howell : I realise that it would have been better to include the words, "to ascertain the identity of the person" rather than the words in the Bill. I accept what my hon. Friend says on that point. But he is completely wrong that the Bill will alter the law, except by requiring a person to possess an identity card. It is intended that there will be no change whatever in the power of the police to stop a person who is not considered to have done something unlawful or to stop a person who is considered to be about to do something unlawful. My Bill may not be drafted perfectly ; it is difficult to draft a Private Member's Bill perfectly. I am prepared to accept any amendment that will make matters clearer, but I repeat that the intention is not to give any extra powers to the police.

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West) : I am listening to my hon. Friend's explanation with interest. Does he agree that, no matter how the Bill is redrafted, the inescapable fact remains that it will be creating an entirely new criminal offence?

Mr. Howell : I accept that. I believe that we need an identification system and that we need a register of persons ordinarily living--that is, permanently living--in this country, and that everybody else in the country should carry a passport. That is the order of the day in practically every other country of the world. Why should we believe we are so different?

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne) : Will my hon. Friend please not be too contrite about any minor imperfections in the drafting of his Bill? It is not unknown for Governments, with all the vast resources at their disposal, not to get the drafting of Bills--even Bills presented from the Treasury Bench--absolutely perfect. Some of my hon. Friends believe that the Official Secrets Bill, for example, is not in every respect a model of parliamentary drafting.

Mr. Howell : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I would like to draw the House's attention to clause 1(5).

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) : It is to my hon. Friend's credit that he has given way so often. As a former police

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officer in the west end of London, who has used the sus laws many times, I can say that the objection to them was that people could be convicted of not even attempting crime, but of merely being a suspected person. Nothing in this Bill creates that sort of offence.

Mr. Howell : The sus laws are out and this Bill will not bring them back. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments.

It will not be an offence to be without the card on one's person when one is stopped, but one must possess a card. The law will be the same as that applied to the production of driving licences. A person will have seven days to produce his identity card to his nominated police station. If he cannot produce it, however, he will have committed an offence, which will be provided for in this Bill.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howell : No, I shall not give way. I should like to get on. Mr. Cryer rose --

Mr. Howell : Will the hon. Gentleman let me finish?

Clause 2(1)(c) says that we are instructing the Government to produce numbered identity cards. The card will include the name, sex, date of birth, residence, photograph and signature of its holder. I have been assured that cards with photographs and signatures are as safe as any card can be against wrongful use.

Those are the main points about the Bill. The remainder are concerned with forgery and false applications, which are quite obvious.

Mr. Gow : Will my hon. Friend accept my congratulations--and I am sure those of my hon. Friends--on the provisions of clause 6, which rightly, but unusually, extends to Northern Ireland? I congratulate my hon. Friend on that, because the more we can legislate for the kingdom as a whole, the better we shall secure the acceptance of Northern Ireland as part of this kingdom. Has my hon. Friend had any discussions either with the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary or any other of its officers to discover whether this Bill would be welcomed in the Province?

Mr. Howell : I have not had any consultations with police officers in Northern Ireland, but I too believe that it is important that the Bill should cover the whole of the United Kingdom. This is the first time that such a Bill has been proposed in the House in 50 years, although our former colleague the right hon. Enoch Powell suggested that there should be an identity card for Northern Ireland alone. It is important that this Bill, and all other Bills, should cover the whole of the United Kingdom, because we could then save valuable time.

An identity card would be a tremendous asset to every law-abiding person and it would be something of a hindrance--I make no apologies for this--to the criminal. If we are to restore a peace-loving country and have law and order, where people are not afraid to walk the streets, something must be done.

I received a letter from a gentleman of 93 years. He told me that he had been in some of the heaviest fighting in two

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world wars and he regretted the fact that he was now afraid to go out at night. That is a terrible indictment of our society.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate) : I have been following my hon. Friend's argument carefully. Can he tell us approximately how many cards would need to be issued, the cost of so doing and how the cost would be met? Many people will be concerned to know whether they will be paying for them or whether the cost would fall on the taxpayer.

Mr. Skinner : And who would get the contract?

Mr. Howell : I shall come to the main point about the overall cost, but the intention is that initially the card should be issued by the Government free of charge to every citizen over 12 years. I have not worked it out, but there would probably be 45 million cards. However, if one lost one's card--as happens when one loses one's credit card--a fee would be charged for a replacement.

I shall now cite the advantages of an identity card system. It would save police time. It is ridiculous that the police must ask all the questions that would be contained on an identity card--perhaps out in the cold and rain--when a parking offence or a speeding offence has been committed. They must write it all out in longhand, just as they did in Queen Victoria's day. We can imagine what would happen if every time we made a bank transaction, instead of using a credit card, we had to go to the counter and watch the cashier writing in longhand all our details. The absurdity of that system is obvious. Another advantage would be that it would help to detect crime, because many people would volunteer to show their cards. If there was a rumpus in a group of young people, there would be one or two ringleaders, but the more lawful people would be ready to show their cards and identify themselves. It would be a great deterrent to young people setting out on a course of crime for the first time. Let us imagine, for example, the case of a youth who had decided that the time had come to snatch a handbag. The first thing that he would do before he set out-- probably terrified himself, but being egged on by his mates--would be to empty his pockets so that he carried no form of identity.

Mr. Skinner : The first thing that he would do would be to empty someone else's pockets.

Mr. Howell : I am afraid I did not catch that.

I believe that that would be a deterrent, and some young people would never start out on a course of crime.

It would be of immense assistance in detecting social security fraud as well as other frauds. Our present system is archaic. We all have--if we are drivers--five sets of numbers. We have a national insurance number, a National Health Service number, a passport number and a driving licence number. As Members of this House, we must carry identification to enter this Chamber. Those cards to not deprive us of our freedom in any way.

An identity card would help the fight against drugs and against illegal immigrants. I believe that if the Bill had been in operation, the gentleman from Sri Lanka, Mr. Mendis, who was our uninvited guest for 13 years and who cost us a great deal of money, would not have been allowed to stay here for so long.

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The card would also help us to deal with the even more serious problem of terrorism. In recent months, we have had examples of such terrorist attacks, especially the awful Lockerbie disaster. I do not intend to talk about that disaster, but I am concerned about the two journalists who posed as cleaners to get on to the aircraft at Heathrow. That was most worrying. I believe that the identity card system would be a tremendous help in finding out who has access to such sensitive sites as airports.

The identity card system would be a much more practical and sensible approach to the problem of football hooliganism than that outlined in the Football Spectators Bill. I believe that some Ministers are not altogether happy about that Bill. An awful lot of parliamentary time and aggro will be expended before that Bill reaches the statute book. The identity card system will be 100 per cent. effective against under-age drinking. Although I have not spelt it out in the Bill, there will be one coloured card for everyone under 18 and a different coloured card for everyone over 18. Therefore publicans and club owners would be able to identify under-age drinkers immediately and in a much more effective way than at present.

Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley) : My hon. Friend says that he is concerned that two journalists and others had had access to London Airport and access to aircraft. He said that an identity card scheme would help to overcome such problems. I do not understand how. Is he saying that the information on such cards should be backed up by a lot of information held in some data bank? I do not see how an identity card would help without that other provision.

Mr. Howell : I am sure that the card would help employers to know more about the people they are employing. The fact that we would have a register of all persons "ordinarily" residing in this country would be an immense help.

An even greater problem than terrorism is the increased fear in which many of our citizens live. Crime has increased sevenfold. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people are living in fear. One of the most shaming things for this House and the country was the recent incident that occurred in Camden when a lady was burnt to death in her council flat because firemen were unable to get through the steel door that barricaded her home- -the rest of the flat was also barricaded. That lady had lived in awful fear because we have been unable properly to enforce law and order. Instead of the Englishman's home being his castle, that home had become a prison and, eventually, a hell. We should think just as much about crime as we do about even more dramatic events such as terrorist attacks. I have had little experience of inner cities, but I canvassed Bermondsey during the by -election there a few years ago. There I encountered the fear in which some people live in some of our housing estates. I did not feel comfortable all the time I was there. I believe that we must take this matter seriously because the time has come for positive action.

I believe that the Home Office has done some work on this card--I am delighted that it is thinking seriously about some sort of identity system. That is good news. It has calculated that such a system would cost about £350 million. I have no means of knowing, and I accept what the Home Office says. I believe that it would be the biggest bargain that we have ever had. One need only consider

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how much we are losing through social security fraud and all sorts of other fraud, such as tax evasion. Money is also lost through fraud because of the inefficient operation of other computers connected with finance. A national insurance card is issued to anybody over 16 which has a name and number on it--those of us who are more than 16 years old also have such a card on request. We can have three replacements before any questions are asked, and if that is not an open invitation to defraud, I do not know what is.

Mr. Cryer : As the hon. Gentleman is so keen on this matter, I wonder whether he can tell us whether Lloyd's, of which he is a member, and other financial institutions in the City of London have introduced such cards to stop the fraud that he has talked about? He knows that the City has been rocked by fraud and scandal month after month. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and his cronies would like to set an example for the nation. Have they done so?

Mr. Howell : I am here to advocate a Bill that I hope will help to stop fraud and tax evasion generally. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would applaud my efforts.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department has said that a voluntary system might be best, but how do we legislate for such a system? What possible sense could there be in it? My researchers and I contacted the French embassy to find out about the French system. Everyone from the ambassador downwards insisted that there was a compulsory system in France, but we eventually persuaded them that the system was voluntary. Everyone knows that the French identity card system is far more rigid than anything I am proposing. I think that it is ridiculous to argue that a voluntary card might be all right, but not a statutory one. The possession of a card would not take any rights away from law-abiding people. It would simply make things slightly more difficult for the rest.

In conclusion, the Bill would be the first really positive step to galvanise the whole nation into joining in a major attack on crime. Until we are all involved with reducing crime, it will never be reduced. The Bill would give tremendous hope to those who live in fear. It would improve our national security. Above all, if the Bill were passed, it would provide a great psychological uplift and the country would feel that it was doing everything in its power to help to improve the position. I commend the Bill to the House.

10.20 am

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Howell) on introducing his Bill. It will be extremely useful if the House has a thorough debate on the idea of identity cards because a lot of people feel--perhaps glibly--that they would solve many of the problems to which the hon. Gentleman referred. However, I believe that once people start to consider the full implications of the scheme, they will realise that such identity cards would do nothing to solve crime. Although they might--perhaps for only a brief time--reassure one or two people that it is safer to go out on the streets, once people realised what was involved they would lose that reassurance. Although the debate is

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useful fully to inform the House and the country, I very much hope that the Bill will be defeated when we come to vote on its Second Reading.

Mr. Cryer : Does my hon. Friend accept that the opinion polls that have been referred to would change radically after the first few cases of 12-year-old children being prosecuted because they had lost their card or because some other person has defaced it and they could not prove that they were not in breach of the legislation? The measure would potentially criminalise all children above the age of 12.

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