Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 620 - 639)



  Q620  David Winnick:—If I may interrupt, Home Secretary, no one is asking for guarantees because guarantees do not work in this world but any sort of reassurance that this would really undermine international terrorists who will use every form of entry into the country if they are not here legally in order to carry out the attacks?

  Mr Blunkett: To use your words, any way at all, yes I do believe that. I have also made it clear this afternoon and it is on the record (I did an interview with John Humphries on 14 September 2001) that whilst I believe that such a card and register would help, it would not resolve the terrorist threat; it cannot. It can make a contribution, which is precisely what the head of the security service is saying, not simply because of the importance of the register and the fact that we would have a system that was verifiable but also because terrorist networks do go for weaker targets. The weaker we are, the less we are up-to-date with what is taking place across the rest of the world, the changes that they will be bringing in, the more vulnerable we become.

  Chairman: Mr Cameron?

  Q621  Mr Cameron: Do you think there is a danger that those in favour of ID cards can fall into a sort of excuse culture of saying, "There is a problem with illegal working but we are going to use ID cards to deal with it. There is a problem with illegal immigration but we are going to use ID cards to deal with it," rather than getting to grips with the issue itself?

  Mr Blunkett: There is undoubtedly a danger if people believe that ID cards themselves and the register itself solves the problem. I have never claimed that. I have always said that it will be a tool, a means to an end, and that the other actions we need to take in terms of overcoming illegal working, organised fraud and the rest of it that draw down on services to which people are not entitled, all that has to go along in parallel. It would be of assistance but it would not in itself be a panacea for all those ills.

  Q622  Mr Cameron: Those of us who are sceptical just listening to evidence sessions today and other evidence sessions believe that finding benefits of the ID card is like nailing jelly to the ceiling. Just when you think you have got a benefit and you think it is about terrorism suddenly it shifts and we are on to crime or illegal working. The last point we have heard from Mr Browne is that it is the database and being able to check against the database rather than the card. If we take the case of illegal working is not the problem at the moment nobody is checking? How many prosecutions have there been in the last few years for illegal working?

  Mr Blunkett: Partly because it is difficult for employers to check, partly because those inspecting and following through on enforcement have difficulty in proving that the employer did not take under the section 8 of the 1996 Act steps within the bounds of what is available to them at the moment to check whether the person was bona fide. The difference with a clean database and the ID system that we are putting forward is that there would be one clear, verifiable, reliable way of doing that and employers would not be able to say that they did not have it at their disposal.

  Q623  Mr Cameron: Would you not have the case of people saying, "I have only been here three months," or, "I have lost my card," or, "The dog has eaten it," or, "The database is wrong," or, "I am sorry, you will have to go and check." The last time we had ID cards there were half a million people who claimed to have lost their cards.

  Mr Blunkett: Yes, but no one would be able to claim they had lost their card and could not renew it simply by presenting themselves and having the verification of their specific biometric identifier to check that they are on the register and have a fresh card issued. None of "the dog has eaten this" or "the cat has messed on that" would hold up for more than a few days. In terms of the question you have put to me about employers, the employer would still have to require them to identify themselves whether they had a renewed card or not. If they have been here for less than three months they would be registered in terms of the right to work if they came from outside the EU and they would have to have a work permit to do so. The reason I am not saying that ID cards is solely for security in terms of terrorism, organised crime, illegal employment, illegal entry and residence, draw down on services to which people are not entitled and have not paid is because it is precisely going to contribute in its own way to all those things. The fact that it contributes to all but not to one so significantly that it eliminates it does not in any way reduce the validity of the card.

  Q624  Chairman: Could I pursue one point for clarification. Home Secretary, you said those who are here for less than three months have to be registered if they are working. Are you saying if somebody presents themselves within the first three months when they are in the country even though they would not have an EU card they would in some way have to give biometric information about themselves so that they were added to the register so they could not pop up somewhere else two months later?

  Mr Blunkett: There would be two things. Firstly, if they are from outside the EU and EEA area they would actually have to have a work permit if they were working. If they are from inside the EEA area then, of course, under the proposals that apply to accession countries they would register for work.[2] If they were coming for a short term from Europe that would apply after three months, they would register as an EU National and the ID card, instead of the piece of paper that we now give them, would become their registration.

  Q625  Mr Cameron: That is really what I am saying. If you have to have a work permit, is not the problem that we are not checking enough people's work permits? Have you done any analysis of the enormous costs of an ID card system against a modest investment in more people checking whether people have a work permit?

  Mr Blunkett: I do not believe we are talking about an enormous cost, I think we are talking about a steady state of around 200 million a year. The accumulated 13 years' roll-up of everything obviously frightens people to death and, in retrospect, perhaps that figure has misled people. In my view, the actual steady state is a very reasonable way, taken alongside biometric passports, because let me make it clear that I would not be advocating this if it were not that we were going to have to engage for international travel with biometric identifiers in passports and visas to ensure that those documents are secure and, therefore, be able to run the ID card and the secure register alongside that aspect which in itself will be the expense that has to be incurred by us whether we go for ID cards or not.

  Q626  Mr Clappison: Home Secretary, going back to the point of terrorism, I think the way you have put it today is that you are not looking for guarantees or panaceas but you see this identity card as an important help in the fight against terrorism. I think in your consultation paper you refer to this as being "vital" in order to help deal with the threat of global terrorism. We have to take that seriously if you are saying that to us, but would you accept that it might strike some people as strange that if you are making the case that it is very important to have identity cards to deal with terrorism, it is going to take such a long time to bring this project in and for identity cards to be compulsorily required. On the timescale which you have told us about, identity cards will not begin to be issued until 2007 and it would only be in something like 2013 that significant numbers of people will have them, but even then they will not be compulsory, and under your scheme it is at that stage that we will begin to have a debate on whether they should be compulsory or not. That is an awfully long time ahead, is it not? Is that not somewhat strange given that it is said to be vital to have them to fight against terrorism?

  Mr Blunkett: Let me take it in two parts. I am very happy to deal with the issue of incremental introduction. Across political parties and politicians of all persuasions there is an understanding of how vulnerable we are if we do not take the necessary steps that are required and, in my view, there is quite widespread understanding across political parties of this. Take one quote that I would simply put on the record for you. I do it because I think it is important to recognise the universality of this point. The quote is: "Britain is the easiest country in Western Europe in which criminals and terrorists lose themselves. If we are serious about tackling this problem there is one obvious remedy: identity cards." That was said by the now Leader of the Opposition just three years ago and I agree with him. I agree with him because as we build up this database and as we issue the cards, we gradually, incrementally, secure ourselves bit by bit. The reason it is incremental is, firstly, because I know of no technology that could allow us to do a big bang approach, ie that we could introduce it in three or even five years' time in one go. Secondly, because I think we have learnt the lessons, and goodness me there are enough of them from governments of all persuasions over the last 20 years, that technology, because it is a moving beast and because of its complexity, is extremely difficult to implement and if you are going to implement a substantial scheme you need to make sure you get it right. I share the public's belief that the most challenging part of this programme is to get it right. Having, in my own Department, a recent history of having to learn firstly from what happened with the computer at Croydon from 1996 and then the UK passports difficulty and then the Criminal Records Bureau, all of which are now correct and working properly, we need to make sure that we do learn those lessons so we get it right. Finally, in doing so we are able to take people with us, so because we are using the parallel process of biometrics for passports we can renew the passport and issue the card, we can take the biometric for the passport and use it for the clean database and the card and we can do so in a way which is acceptable in a democracy in terms of the speed and the compliability of the population. I happen to believe that once we have got this up and running, as with the pilot for biometrics that we announced a week ago, people will queue up for it and we will have to deal with the flow and the flood of people wanting it much earlier, wanting to renew their passport and get an ID card very fast. That is my belief, but I cannot work on that belief, I have got to work on a system which is manageable, and that is why it is taking a time.

  Q627  Mr Clappison: That will be for the people who actually want to have one of these ID cards, it will not have the full coverage so it will not give you the security that you will be looking for against potential evil doers, will it?

  Mr Blunkett: We have talked about moving to 80% of the economically active population and at that point delivering to Parliament a report on the technology, on the acceptability, on the financing and on the purposes and then being able to move to an affirmative order rather than having a whole session of Parliament to have to deal with the question of making this mandatory and, therefore, the registration compulsory. We believe that at the point that I have just described Parliament would wish to do it, and I hope that I am right. I certainly believe that we will then be able to implement the remaining phase which is for those who do not have a passport, who have not renewed or who have not wished to take up the card that they would not have to have. At that point it would be manageable technically, process-wise and in terms of public acceptability.

  Chairman: I am sure you will be pleased to know, Home Secretary, that some of us at least are going along to have our irises scanned on Thursday to see how the procedure actually works.

  Q628  Mrs Dean: How confident are you that your registration procedure will ensure that all entries on the National Identity Register are accurate and there are no duplicates or false entries?

  Mr Blunkett: The reason why starting from scratch and having a clean database is so important is that the moment someone presents the same biometric but with a different identity, a different name and presentation, that would automatically show up as already existing on the database. It would automatically trigger, if you like, just as even low level technology systems, like ANPR in terms of car registration do at the moment, on a central database. One of the other reasons why I do not believe that this scheme could ever have been put forward before is that even as late as the mid-1990s when the previous government were considering the issues around ID, the technology did not exist to be able to do just that.

  Q629  Mrs Dean: What sort of details will you be looking for as part of the "biographical footprint"? How will you check if they are correct?

  Mr Blunkett: We have got the three known biometrics but we have not gone firm on a decision as to which of those, or more than one, should be used. There are discussions taking place in North America and in Europe now about moving to biometrics in relation to visa and passport requirements and we are arguing that we should keep the door open so that it is not closed to using a combination. A chip in the future will be able to cope with that and it is very important that we do not have a situation where we make a choice that is not compatible in terms of other world developments but also that those world developments do not close down our ability to make a choice of our own internally which would still remain compatible. Did you want to add?

  Mr Browne: I just wanted to reinforce what you are saying, Home Secretary, by saying that while we have not yet decided exactly what checks we will make, and that is something that we will need to trial as well—Part of the reason why this is going to take such a time in our view is that we need to trial a significant number of steps in the process and a lot of them involve interaction with the people and we need to test in collecting the biometric information how the public will react to it, how long it will take us to deal with individual people and what that will cost apart from anything else, which is a subject we may well get on to subsequently in this session. We have not yet made up our minds exactly what we will check but we do have the Glasgow Passport Service pilot to call on where we checked against credit references, with people's consent, National Insurance numbers and the DVLA. We have improved our ability to be able to check against the possible abuse of using dead people's identities by collecting information from the registration process into our system. We have some experience of doing that.

  Mr Blunkett: I think you will be quite familiar with dead identities from your previous job.

  Mr Browne: We have some experience of doing that and we will build upon that. One of the big advantages that we have with this database, which will be helpful for all the purposes we have been discussing, is that we can hold this information forever and even after people are dead people will not be able to come and assume their identities because that information will be held there, it being a clean database and moving forward. Can I say something quickly in response to the two comments that were made by Mr Clappison and Mr Cameron. The point Mr Clappison makes is a point which is consistently made, which is that this is of no use against the baddies until we get compulsion. In fact, that is one of the reasons why we intend to build on the existing documentation, the passports and driving licences. I am certain from my previous professional experience that baddies both have passports and driving licences. 80% of people in this country are documented. By definition, we will pick up a significant number of people who may have bad thoughts or bad intentions by building on the existing documentation and putting them into the system, whether they like it or not, if they want their passports and driving licences. The second point I would make to you is I went through a very similar process to this in Northern Ireland when we were seeking to get photographic identification to secure the election and we discovered that the people who did not have existing secure photographic identification tended not to be the sorts of people who may have taken advantage of the existing system but they tended to be the elderly, not to be people who were active and about but people who we probably would want to have—

  Q630  Chairman: I am sorry, we will come back to this later.

  Mr Browne: In relation to Mr Cameron's point about—

  Chairman: I am sorry, I would like Mrs Dean to carry on. We do need to move through the questions and the Home Secretary was able to answer those.

  Q631  Mrs Dean: What estimates have you made of the numbers of registration centres you will need?

  Mr Blunkett: I am not giving a number at the moment. They would have to be accessible. We believe that there needs to be mobility. In terms of being able to provide mobile provision we are very mindful that we need specific support and help for the frail and those who would not be able to reach a centre and obviously we would have to make special arrangements with rural areas. Given that the process in future can be made as easy as having to take your photograph for the passport that we all hold at the moment, we believe that this should not be a problem.

  Q632  Mrs Dean: Thank you. In addition to the National Identity Register, there are plans for a Citizen Information Project. Departments and public bodies, such as the NHS, have their own separate databases. Can you be confident that they will all be maintained to the necessary standard?

  Mr Blunkett: The CIP—and I know Len Cook has been giving evidence to you about this—is about bringing together existing information. The reason why we are convinced that we have to have a clean database and start from scratch is that simply drawing together existing material, albeit that it can be used for back-up verification of identity, and will be, would be unsatisfactory because you would pull into the system mistakes and fraudulent identities that already existed. Whilst it can run alongside and whilst in the interim it would be helpful, they are two entirely different operations.

  Q633  Mrs Dean: The Office of National Statistics told us that it will not be possible to eliminate all multiple identities on the population register and their records will need to be authenticated from the National Identity Register. So each of you expects to rely on the other. Is that an example of the potential for muddle and confusion?

  Mr Blunkett: They will be complementary. Obviously this is something that has got to be worked through because the Citizen Information Project was a glint in the eye of the ONS long before people thought, believed, or were led to believe, that Government would actually take on the issue of a biometric ID card system and it was not all that long ago that I kept reading that we were not going to be doing it, it had all been overturned. I can understand why they had progressed in that way but obviously they will be able to draw down for a complete clean-up of the system from the ID Register, from the database, once we have completed it.

  Q634  Chairman: Can I be quite clear, Home Secretary. If I have successfully assumed a fake identity in this country, obtained a National Insurance number, somebody else's name, and perhaps I had done this a few years ago, can you be absolutely sure that I would not be wrongly issued with an identity card and able to register on the National Identity Register?

  Mr Blunkett: It would be possible for you to be issued an ID card on the identity that, to use your words, you had assumed some years ago, but that would be your identity for the rest of your life coming in or going out of the country. You would have adopted by your own actions an identity that you could not change.

  Q635  Chairman: Will that put a premium on people establishing false identities in the next few years before the register comes into play?

  Mr Blunkett: As we are moving, firstly, to ensure that people coming into the country—we had a long discussion about this earlier this afternoon—would be issued with a card, whatever method of entry they came by if they were staying and, secondly, that we are using the passport renewal system to engage with identity, I think it would be the opposite. I think people who have adopted a false identity will either return home or they had better get on to their true identity pretty quickly otherwise they are going to find themselves in a real mess in terms of what it is they think they have done to establish what would be an identity for life, including their family, their heritage and any other relationship they have outside this country, including inheritance.

  Mr Browne: It is also the case, of course, that background checks can go back quite far. There is absolutely no reason why background checks cannot go back quite significantly in the records and we have been discussing other government records that exist that can be checked, subject to the frailties of it. The important thing about this process is that if somebody takes an actual identity and does not make one up, but takes an actual identity, as the register builds progressively their chances of getting away with that will be reduced and eventually they will be discovered, and they may be discovered sooner rather than later.

  Q636  Mr Clappison: Can I ask you about the costings of this because your officials giving evidence to the Committee in December refused to be more precise about the costs of the scheme except to say that they would be between 1.3 billion and 3.1 billion, which may strike people as being a rather wide range. Is there any reason why you cannot give more details about that?

  Mr Blunkett: The figures that were given at that time related to the nature of the scope of the card and what was going to be required from it, particularly usages. If we take the figure, and I repeat this is the roll-up over the 13 years, then we do so in a way that does not allow us, ie all of us, to be ripped off by people being able to get into the detail before that commercial competition has taken place. Perhaps I can just spell out what we have done so that people can see that we take seriously the need to engage the commercial, the expert sector in this and to build up a picture of the total costs and to ensure that we get the best possible price for what we are asking. In May 2002, as I was moving towards making the first statement in the consultation to Parliament in early July, we started to engage with the private sector on a confidential basis. We have built up that relationship since then, and you are familiar with this because our officials have given evidence about it, in terms of the process that has been undertaken with the umbrella body. They would not describe themselves as representatives but they have got over 1,000 component parts in the Intellect group and we have been working with them. As part of their recommendations and as part of going through zero gateway we agreed to develop a development partner, which will be done this month, and will hold a seminar on 24 May with the sector to try to ensure that we now bottom this once and for all in terms of the ongoing costs, the technology that is known to be available, the challenges and the pitfalls. With a private development partner, which again has been done under proper competition rules, and this partner will not be seeking to win contracts, so they have won a contract to be the partner, they will not seek to be a contractor, they will be able to advise and helps us. That is a crucial part of ensuring that we get the final costings right given what we are demanding from the scheme. Of course, it can be as cheap or as dear as you like in terms of what you are requiring of it.

  Q637  Mr Clappison: Perhaps Mr Browne would be the right person to ask this question of. As far as you can say, what exactly is going to be included in the costing which you have just given? Does the costing include, for example, the biometric readers and equipment which is going to be installed in other Government departments, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, the Health Service and so forth?

  Mr Blunkett: It does not,[3] and the reason it does not, and this is another reason why taking this incrementally makes sense, is having made the decision, and it is only recently that we have decided this, to publish the draft Bill and to indicate that we will legislate and we are serious in going forward on this—it has taken me two years of very constructive discussion to get to this point—we are now in a position to say to department agencies and to the private sector that you will over the next ten years be in a position where if you choose to do so, or if we designate a service to do so, the technology that you are using for other purposes should now be presumed to have an appropriate reader for your proposes, depending on what it is. As with the Minister of State, who I think gave evidence to you last week, we would have a situation where as the electronic medical record programme is developed across the whole of the NHS, that it is done so in a way that the equipment they are using and the computers that they are operating can also build in this facility. That will be true of JobCentres, that will be true of GP practices, it will be true of the commercial sector. We are giving fair warning that we will be developing over the next few years the capacity of everyone to be able to build in. I think this would be a tremendous opportunity commercially in this country if we were ahead of the rest of Europe and North America. We know they are moving in the same direction and what a tremendous piece of enterprise and innovation can now be offered by British companies and by us in terms of delivering a set market for them to be able to determine their likely take-up, to be ahead of the game, and I hope that British enterprise will rise to the occasion.

  Q638  Mr Clappison: I do not want to probe you too much on some of the constructive discussions which you have had with other Government departments, and I know you cannot give precise details of them, but do you expect that the card readers which there will be in other departments and other Government organisations will be reading cards or biometrics? Do you have a view on that?

  Mr Blunkett: I think it depends on their particular level of identification required. Where there is absolute security required then it is important that they are able to read the biometric and not just the card. For other purposes, people would be quite satisfied to take alongside a credit card or whatever the card itself to be read. I think both the services and the commercial enterprises, who have great use of this, need to think this through and make decisions as to what level of verification they actually required.

  Q639  Mr Clappison: Are you proposing to have any further public debate, technical debate, about the architecture of the system?

  Mr Blunkett: Yes. Part of the process to be launched on 24 May is to be able to open this up, so all the experts, all the backroom experts, all the people who think they know it all, and I certainly do not, will be able to place their potential as well as their doubts on the table. I think this is going to be a really crucial three years ahead in getting this right.

2   Note by witness: This reference to the accession countries means the 8 Central and Eastern European states and does not include Cyprus and Malta. Back

3   Note by witness: Meaning the costs referred to in Q 636. Back

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