Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 660 - 679)

TUESDAY 4 MAY 2004

RT HON DAVID BLUNKETT MP, MR DESMOND BROWNE MP, KATHERINE COURTNEY AND STEPHEN HARRISON

  Q660  Mr Cameron: But it is a change to the current situation. At the moment, because there are no ID cards, if the policeman stops me and I say "My name is Des Browne" and he does not believe me, he cannot drag me down to the station to check my identity. You seem to be saying that in future he will be able to. That is quite an important change.

  Mr Blunkett: I am saying in terms of someone being asked to accompany them, as the police put it, to the station for further investigation on the presumption that there may well be an arrest, they can do that. It will make it a lot easier for them in terms of very rapid and verifiable identification but it will not change the nature of the law and the way that it is applied.

  Q661  David Winnick: Home Secretary, clause 6 of the draft Bill covers the requirements for a move to make it compulsory to have an ID card. This is going to be done through affirmative resolution procedure. Should not a change of this importance from voluntary to compulsory require primary legislation?

  Mr Blunkett: No, I do not believe that for a minute. I think that when we pass the substantive legislation, as I hope we will, we will be making a commitment in this country to developing the clean database with the identifiers and the card. It is the point of practicality and technology and funding and acceptability and purpose that will be affirmed following a report to Cabinet and to Parliament and then an affirmative order to be debated in both Houses. It is actually irrelevant whether it is an affirmative or negative order actually, let us be clear about that, the real issue is that there has been a report that the card system itself is agreed nationally to have been successfully implemented and is working and that both Houses of Parliament believe that, therefore, it should become mandatory and fully useable with the database completed. That is the issue at stake. I say it with all temerity; if people do not want to go down this road we will have the debate on the substantive legislation. To do otherwise is pure prevarication, to say on a wing and a prayer we think we would like to have this new database ID system but what we really want to do is put it off and, therefore, come back to the real decision on primary legislation at some unforeseeable date in the future.

  Q662  David Winnick: That will be the subject of a good deal of comment, I am sure.

  Mr Blunkett: It will.

  Q663  David Winnick: You have mentioned debate. Home Secretary, as we understand it there was quite a debate in Cabinet at various stages over having such a measure as an identity card. Would I be right in saying that the press reports were pretty accurate, that there were divisions of opinion in the Cabinet over the scheme?

  Mr Blunkett: No, not that we did not have vigorous discussion either. I am a believer in Cabinet Government and all those who preach Cabinet Government should welcome vigorous discussion and proper checking that when someone puts forward a very substantial change of this sort it stands up to scrutiny, that it has been thought through and that we have continuing scrutiny of the detail. I agree entirely with that. I would take with an absolute pinch of salt the people who have been named as for or against. You have had one or two of them in front of you already who were quite wrongly named as being against. Were it not for the fact that we get used to this, we would all be very aggrieved about it.

  Q664  David Winnick: When you say reports were wrong about those who were in favour and those not in favour, does that imply there were some in the Cabinet who were not overtaken, shall we say, by your enthusiasm for ID cards?

  Mr Blunkett: I have been absolutely clear about this for two years. There are people throughout Government and beyond, in Parliament and beyond, who are more sceptical than others about (a) whether we can manage the technology, (b) whether people will find it acceptable and (c) whether the modest combined claims that we make for the benefit will stand up to scrutiny. I think that is a perfectly reasonable stance in a democracy. The idea that I go on Radio 4 and do an interview with John Humphreys and immediately everybody agrees with me is a halcyon world about which I shall dream when I am old.

  Q665  David Winnick: Home Secretary, without sounding at all patronising, that was a very sensible answer because clearly you accept there is a division of opinion in the way in which you put it so diplomatically. Would you therefore accept that the debate over ID cards, certainly in the House of Commons, and for that matter in the Parliamentary Labour Party, is not over and a good number of people, including some of your own colleagues, have yet to be persuaded of the arguments that you have put forward?

  Mr Blunkett: I think the old adage is that the party is not over until the fat lady has sung and nothing is over in terms of Westminster until Parliament has voted and I take none of that for granted.

  Q666  David Winnick: Good answer.

  Mr Blunkett: Thank you, I am very grateful for that.

  David Winnick: I am sure you are.

  Q667  Mr Prosser: Home Secretary, you might be comforted to know that on the day you published your draft Bill I launched my local consultation in Dover and at the moment people are voting more than ten to one in favour, albeit on a very slow turnout.

  Mr Blunkett: Fortunately the turnout can be as slow as you like at the moment.

  David Winnick: You have won over Dover.

  Q668  Mr Prosser: I want to turn now to some of the impacts of identity cards. One of the concerns raised about identity cards by the Race Equality Impact Assessment is that they might be abused in some circumstances by the police, and you have agreed to study this during the consultation process. You have said that at the very least there will be a need for special training. Are there any specific safeguards that you have in mind to prevent this happening?

  Mr Blunkett: I think the phasing in of the new arrangements in relation to stop and search will help a lot. I think training needs to be sensitive to the particular areas that are being policed, the nature of what is happening. Over the last decade we have seen that, particularly in the Metropolitan Police area where there has been a different form of policing and people have learned enormous lessons since, for instance, the Macpherson Report. That is something we need to be mindful of in implementing any scheme of this sort.

  Q669  Mr Prosser: You say that before the move to compulsion you would want to be sure that there is "significant coverage" of the population and also that there is "clear public acceptance" of the principle. How do you propose to measure these two?

  Mr Blunkett: The first is easier than the second. We will know whether people wish to accelerate the renewal of their passports and the issuing of ID cards, the speed with which we get to the density of take-up that is clearly identifying the population as a whole. The report that I have mentioned to Parliament needs to deal not simply with the numbers but with the acceptability of the different usages and the way in which people are comfortable with what is happening and the technology that is available that we have discussed this afternoon. The report itself will have to be wider merely than whether people have enthusiastically taken it up, but how they have used it, how comfortable they have been with it, and I think that is quite important.

  Q670  Mr Prosser: There has been some discussion this afternoon about the passport pilot project. That was some months late in starting, we think that it will have less coverage than was anticipated and will be over a shorter period. In fact, three attempts by this Committee to meet with that group have been postponed because of all of those delays. What is that an indication of? Is it an indication of the complexities or difficulties of the technology behind the ID card or something else?

  Mr Blunkett: It is an indication, firstly, that there has been a change from previous methodology which was not as successful as the new programme. Secondly, that it is important to get it right rather than to get it quickly, which is what we have explored already. Thirdly, that it is the number in the pilot, not the time. I do not know where this differential of five or six months has come from. We want 10,000 people and, as was being indicated a moment ago by you, a lot of people are queuing up to be part of this right across the country, which is very encouraging, including parts of the country where there is not a pilot. We are enthused by that. It is the 10,000 pilot we are interested in rather than whether it takes five or six months. I hope very much that we can learn very rapidly from it. The whole point of the pilot, the whole point of this process, is to learn the lessons, and I do not mean just go through the motions but actually learn what it is, and the development partner and commercial consultation and the scrutiny by Parliament is all part of that same process.

  Q671  Mr Prosser: How thorough will the testing be? For instance, will there be attempts to deceive the system or to feed in fake and false information?

  Mr Blunkett: Yes. We already did that with the previous technology and one of the reasons why it is important to get this pilot right is that there has been enhancement having learnt the lessons from that. I think worldwide it has been known, and it is one of the reasons why it has taken until now to move to such a scheme, that it was possible in the past to be able to defraud the equipment. Do either of you want to say a word about this because you have been on top of it?

  Katherine Courtney: I think it is important to say that while the pilot itself is not really about testing the robustness and scalability[6] of the particular biometric technologies that are being deployed, it is about studying the enrolment process and the customer experience and being able to validate some of the assumptions that we have built into the business case around the time that it takes to enrol and the customer acceptability. I am pleased to say on the limited sample so far that is bearing out our assumptions. I am quite pleased about that. We will be attempting to re-register duplicate identities even with this technology, which is not being tested as the technology that we would expect to take forward, to gain some lessons from this experience about how robust this particular configuration might be. Also we are considering the security risks around the enrolment process, ie the environment in which people enrol, the process itself, how people arrive, how they go through having their fingerprints recorded, their irises scanned etc to ensure things are built into the system like the inability for somebody to replace themselves with somebody else half way through the process so that the application is actually reflecting more than one individual, that sort of thing. We are building those things into the pilot and gaining a lot of experience from that.


  Q672  Mr Prosser: Finally from me, how will you make your final assessment? How will you say, "Yes, this works well enough to go ahead"? Will any of that assessment be done independently?

  Mr Blunkett: Yes. Do you want to add to that?

  Mr Browne: The contract for this particular piece of work is a number of what are called deliverable milestones. Payment will be made on the contract on the basis of people reaching those milestones and there will be an independent element in the assessment of those results. Tony Mansfield from the National Physical Laboratory is an independent assessor of progress and outcome of the trial.

  Q673  Mr Singh: Home Secretary, my colleague's constituents were overwhelmingly in favour of ID cards, even more so than the recent MORI poll suggested, which was 80%. That is all very well for the moment but the MORI poll also showed that 40% are not confident that the Government can deliver the information securely and 60% have little or no confidence in the ability to introduce ID cards smoothly, maybe half do not want to pay anything for an ID card. Does that suggest to you that whatever the Mori poll shows now you could face resistance when the time gets nearer?

  Mr Blunkett: The first two are understandable in terms of the enormity of the scheme and the experience which I have mentioned myself earlier today, which is why we are doing this incrementally, why we are using the renewal of passports for domestic purposes initially. The third is a misunderstanding and the third is about understandable failures—not the public's fault but the way we have explained it and we were not able to explain this until we had agreement—that we would be using the renewal and the greater security of passport and visa requirements to develop the biometric. It is that which is the expensive part of the process. The vast bulk of the cost will be incurred irrespective of whether we move to the ID card and the clean database. I think once people understand that, that what we are being is transparent about the likely cost over a ten year period as the scheme builds up rather than simply increasing the price of a passport, which is how securer passports have been dealt with previously, then they will understand that the small additional amount for the use of the card and the secure database to be used in that way is worth it. A small amount, our estimate at the moment is an additional £4 over the ten years for those who have the passport and, if we use them in future, driving licences. That is not the case, of course, for people who have got neither, they would obviously be paying the substantive sum of around £35 over the ten year period.

  Q674  Mr Singh: Home Secretary, I understand that if somebody refuses to register they could face civil penalties of up to £2,500. Do you envisage a situation where taking that approach we might create ID card martyrs who refuse to pay?

  Mr Blunkett: It is precisely to avoid people being martyrs in relation to the ID card, if they get fined £2,500 for disobeying the law and not being able to correctly identify themselves then the consequent enforcement action would be on the failure to pay the fine. I think it is very important that we do not have martyrs; certainly I think if people were going back on an entirely different scheme 50 years, they certainly would not have got involved in the skirmish which led to the original post war ID card being abolished.

  Q675  Mr Singh: Finally, Home Secretary, at what age do you envisage a person should carry an ID card? I understand that National Insurance numbers, for example, are issued at age 16, how would that tie in with National Insurance cards? Secondly, do you foresee any exemption for the elderly, for example, who might be very worried about this?

  Mr Blunkett: We envisage that people on their 16th birthday would be issued with a card and the first card they would be issued with would be free. We envisage that those elderly people who clearly have established their identity would be issued with a free card at a particular point we have to decide which age group would be most appropriate. There would be a concession for those on lower incomes more generally and we built those costs into the totality of the scheme, as it stands at the moment. I am hoping that we will have satisfied the various requirements and demands on us. The issue about subsidised or free cards is actually one that also runs alongside the sensitivity with which cards are issued. There is no reason at all for people who are in long term residential care to have to have a biometric card, they could have a plain card which just indicated that we had issued it on the basis of knowledge about the person.

  Q676  Mr Singh: Forgive me if I missed it, Home Secretary, what about the minimum age of having to carry a card?

  Mr Blunkett: Sixteen.

  Chairman: Home Secretary, I know you have other commitments. We have just got three short questions if we could go through those please.

  Q677  Mr Cameron: Home Secretary, we had some very interesting evidence from a Professor Thomas of the UK Computer Research Council. I just want to put this point to you. It is a technical systems engineering issue which is captured in popular wisdom by the phrase "don't put all your eggs in one basket". I am just going to read you a little bit of what he said in his evidence. "If you create either a single card that has multi functions or a single database then you are adding to the nation's critical infrastructure unnecessarily and by doing that you are making a very large range of services, probably a growing range of services, vulnerable to a single attack, either a deliberate attack or a fault that arises as a consequence of misimplementation or accident. This seems (and undoubtedly is) an extremely foolish thing to do if you do not need to do it." We have not heard from the Home Office on that point and I wonder whether you can respond?

  Mr Blunkett: Is this the Foundation for Information Policy and Research?

  Q678  Mr Cameron: No. I am sorry for misdescribing, I could not read my own handwriting. It is the UK Computing Research Committee, Professor Martyn Thomas. It is certainly quite persuasive. Just on the surface it is quite a sensible point.

  Mr Blunkett: I am sure it is, except of course we do have these databases already and the fact that the National Insurance database is not clean does not actually reduce the salience of the same argument about having the National Insurance database or a social security database in the United States.

  Q679  Mr Cameron: I am sorry to interrupt but the point is he is saying this is not just the National Insurance database, you want to make it the database for driving licences, for passports, for everything else.

  Mr Blunkett: I want to make it the database for correct identification of those legitimately in this country, that is all. I am making no great claims for it, we have a database of 42 million people for passports, it is the highest density of take-up of passports in the world and it is used for passport purposes in terms of identification for going in and out of the country. The corollary of the card is the usage within the country and not just the coming in and out of the country or to use the DVLA, which has 38 million people on it, for actually being able to prove that you should be allowed to drive a car. The difference at the moment is that you can have it forged at the moment. I love academics when they get into these areas. I would be very happy to have a debate with Professor Thomas about this but the difference is that unlike the DVLA people will not be able to steal my identity, as they did in the BBC television channel one programme which managed to get a driving licence in my name, a very dangerous thing to do!

  Mr Browne: The assumption which underlies that opinion which, as you say, appears on the face of it very strong is that all the other databases disappear, but they do not. We are not getting rid of the passport database which David has suggested covers 80% of the population, we are not getting rid of the DVLA database which covers a significant proportion of the population and we will, of course, build into the structure of this database back up systems and recovery systems should anything happen, just as all those other databases have those systems too. We are not progressing towards one single database for all purposes and that is why for the purpose of services those who provide the services will have to opt in.


6   Note by witness: ie, how well the system works on a larger scale. Back


 
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