Mr. Blunkett: There appears to be a presumption by the Opposition that if they mention the word "spin", the whole world will believe that someone has been spinning. Although I specifically instructed all those around me not to spin, appeared on no programmesunlike the right hon. Gentlemanand kept away from saying anything about this over the last few days, I am accused of spin. I will tell the House what I am spinning. I am spinning the right of the British people to decide over the next six months whether they want a sensible way of confirming their own identity. I am putting forward a long-term debate about what is happening in the world around us.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who consulted only on benefits. His proposals were not linked to the organisation and distribution of identity for driving or for passport purposes; they would therefore have involved the establishment of a wholly separate bureaucracy and technical system, and concentrated only on those in receipt of benefits. I did not mention benefits once this afternoon.
Mr. Blunkett: Because benefit fraud is only a tiny part of the problem in the benefit system, whereas identity fraud is a substantial drain on the economy as a whole. The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) asked why the Home Office was involved. It is because the Home Office has responsibility for identity fraud, and for organised crime, and because on the streets at this very moment people are committing credit card fraud and automatic teller machine fraud to defraud individuals and businesses of large sums of money. Such people are often linked to criminal gangs involved in people smuggling. I have responsibility for people smuggling, illegal working and ensuring that people do not get into the country clandestinely.
That is why the Home Office is in charge of this policy[Interruption.] If Opposition Members were not so ignorant as to talk while I am speaking, they might learn a thing or two, such as why we need to consider this measure in the long term. It is because other developed countries are considering how to use biometrics to secure
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): I welcome the Home Secretary's assurance that there will be no compulsion, and acknowledge that there are some obvious benefits. May I ask my right hon. Friend, first, whether he accepts that it is for those who are in favour of the card to make out the case for it, not the other way round? Secondly, will he confirm that the card will be little or no use in combating terrorism? Thirdly, given the unhappy historyI put this as gently as I canof Government information technology projects, are we not entitled to be sceptical about some of the claims made for the card?
Mr. Blunkett: I can say yes to all three. Yes, I agree that those who wish to develop an alternative and simpler system to the multiplicity of cards must make the case. Yes, I agree that it is important to recognise the past failures of Government technology systems, which is why the massive update of the UK Passport Service and now of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency currently taking place should take account of any potential for the future. Yes, I accept that it is important that we do not pretend that an entitlement card would be an overwhelming factor in combating international terrorism. That is precisely what I said three times on the radio within a fortnight of 11 September, and I reiterated it this afternoon.
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The Liberal Democrats are happy to have a consultation. We have had consultations in our party over many years and have always come to the view that, on balance, such cards are a very bad idea. Does the Home Secretary accept that although superficially the proposal is potentially a good idea and popular, the more one considers the issues, the more complex it becomes and the more problems arise?
Does the right hon. Gentleman understand the scepticism and suspicion that many, including the Liberal Democrats, will feel arising from the fact that the Government do not have a recordto put it gentlyover the past five years of increasing the liberty of the subject, as against the state? The Home Office in particular has a record of taking liberties and increasing the powers of the state. The Government have said that they are so far neutral on the issue. Will the Home Secretary do us the courtesy of telling us what his personal position is? From all that I have heard him say, it appears that he has a strong presumption in favour the proposal. It would be helpful if he shared that with the House.
Simon Hughes: On this issue, our party will not be stopped easily. That is the answer to the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks). If the card is compulsory, like the one that the French have had, how has it been so unsuccessful at stopping illegal working in France, where huge numbers of people work illegally, even though under the system there, they must have cards and produce them? In relation to the police, surely the problem in Britain is not that the police, when they catch people, cannot identify them, but that they cannot catch them in the first place.
Lastly, will not the proposal be another way of dividing our society? Those who are less well off will have to have the cards. It will be the only way that they can use the social security system, the national health service and other public services. Those who are well off, who do not receive benefits, who do not have to use the NHS and who opt for private education will not have to have these cards. For them it will be an optional extra and available only if they want one. Is not that the real indictment? This is a system for the unfortunate many, and the elite few will be able to be comfortably exempt from it.
Mr. Blunkett: I am disappointed, because this is degenerating into a contest with intellectual pygmies. I did the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) the courtesy of ensuring that they had the document first thing todaynot an hour or two ago. The hon. Gentleman will therefore have read it, and will know that, far from the worst-off being penalised, there is a presumption that those who travel abroad and own and run a car, which is well over 40 million people, will automatically pick up the card, because they will need it to show that they are able and have permission to drive a car or are free to travel abroad.
Mr. Blunkett: I am glad that we have clarified that. There is logic in not wanting to belong to the Schengen information system if the Liberal Democrats do not want to share information on the ability to travel. A difficulty will occur with travel to the United States if we do not align what we are doing with the changes that are taking place around us.
The French do not pick up their illegal workers because they have what is called tolerated illegal presence. Back in February, we spent a whole day debating that at the behest of the shadow Home Secretary. I had hoped that the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), had picked up on that. I made it clear that an
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. In view of the potential benefits for the criminal justice system and for policing, I urge him not entirely to close his mind to the possibility of a compulsory scheme. May I make a suggestion put to me by a constituent? Will my right hon. Friend talk to colleagues in the Department of Health to see whether people could voluntarily include information about medical conditions, such as epilepsy or diabetes, that could be accessed by ambulance crews, which would be helpful?