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Session 2004 - 05
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Standing Committee Debates
Identity Cards Bill

Identity Cards Bill


Column Number: 155

Standing Committee B

Thursday 20 January 2005

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Jimmy Hood, Derek Conway, †Janet Anderson

†Allan, Mr. Richard (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD)

†Browne, Mr. Desmond (Minister for Citizenship and Immigration)

†Casale, Roger (Wimbledon) (Lab)

†Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey (Cotswold) (Con)

†Curry, Mr. David (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)

†Hoey, Kate (Vauxhall) (Lab)

Jones, Mr. Jon Owen (Cardiff, Central) (Lab/Co-op)

†McCabe, Mr. Stephen (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)

†Malins, Mr. Humfrey (Woking) (Con)

†Mercer, Patrick (Newark) (Con)

†Mole, Mr. Chris (Ipswich) (Lab)

†Mountford, Kali (Colne Valley) (Lab)

Oaten, Mr. Mark (Winchester) (LD)

†Prosser, Mr. Gwyn (Dover) (Lab)

†Robertson, John (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab)

†Russell, Ms Christine (City of Chester) (Lab)

†Ryan, Joan (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

†Salter, Mr. Martin (Reading, West) (Lab)

Taylor, Mr. John (Solihull) (Con)

†Tynan, Mr. Bill (Hamilton, South) (Lab)

Colin Lee, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee


[Janet Anderson in the Chair]

Identity Cards Bill

Clause 5

Applications relating to entries in Register

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 79, in clause 5, page 5, line 12, leave out paragraph (b).—[Mr. Allan.]

2.30 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following amendments: No. 80, in clause 5, page 5, line 12, leave out

No. 152, in clause 9, page 8, line 28, after 'allow', insert 'all of'.

No. 97, in clause 12, page 11, line 2, leave out paragraph (b).

No. 98, in clause 12, page 11, line 2, leave out

No. 106, in clause 14, page 13, line 20, leave out paragraph (a).

No. 107, in clause 14, page 13, line 21, leave out paragraph (b).

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): On behalf of those on the Opposition Benches, may I offer you, Ms Anderson, the warmest of welcomes to the Chair and all our best wishes? I hope that I can be forgiven for saying that our earlier debates have been constantly good humoured, which is always a bonus. We are delighted to see you in the Chair.

The amendment that was being referred to is the critical one in relation to biometrics and the Government's capability to carry out their functions under the clause in a mechanical way. I had rehearsed the arguments and was just concluding my remarks. I was saying to the Minister that it would be helpful if he could, subject to the normal rules of commercial confidentiality, give some indication about which great players in the field might take under their wing this huge enterprise of the technical side of creating the register. I also wanted to know what some of the considerations might be.

I do not think that I am breaching any confidential commerciality when I say that I have received a briefing from one of those who briefed this Committee saying that a company called Atos has reportedly expressed interest in running the national scheme. Two other major providers of outsourced services, Capita, which runs the London congestion charge scheme, and Serco, which runs the UK's ballistic missile tracking
Column Number: 156
and warning system are understood to be cautious about bidding for the contract. Misgivings are believed to relate to security, civil liberties and reputational risk.

I simply ask the Minister to tell us as much as he can on that very important area which came under the second test, to which I referred earlier. Although amendment No. 152 is not the lead one, subject to any guidance from the Chair and depending on the way the debate goes, I might seek to press the matter to a Division later in the day.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I join in welcoming you to the Chair, Ms Anderson. Things have been light-hearted so far. The proceedings have been extremely efficient, and I have no doubt that they will continue in the same vein.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) is not in his place, because a number of his interventions in earlier debates were telling. He expressed grave concern about the need for identity cards being associated with needs other than those purely of counter-terrorism. He mentioned control of illegal immigration, assistance to track down criminals who are about to commit, or are in the execution of, serious crimes, and money laundering.

Terrorism and all those subjects are inextricably linked. That is why I want to echo the words of the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis). He talked about the need for two tests, as exemplified by amendment No. 152. The first is whether the biometrics of the card will work. The second is whether the Government, and, therefore, the Home Office, can put these things in place.

I will not talk about biometrics, but about previous examples where technology has either failed or been introduced too early. I will use historic examples, because that is what I am familiar with. I am not talking about biometrics, but the technology in question was the biometrics of the day. I am talking about the Northern Ireland driving licence, which was used as a form of identity card in Ulster in the '70s, the '80s and indeed the '90s. We were promised that the card would help considerably in countering terrorism. I mentioned in an earlier debate how the card came to be seen more as a pass than anything else, perhaps abetting terrorism rather than countering it.

There were practical issues with the biometrics of the day—namely, the technology of the day—which made sure that the card did not work. First, the card was extremely shoddily produced—it was not waterproof. That meant that after two or three exposures to the driving rain of Ulster the thing started to fall to pieces. Secondly, the licence was desperately easily faked. The photograph contained inside it could be levered out, replaced with another and sealed up in such a way that the card became completely meaningless. Again, that assisted terrorism rather than thwarted it.

Are the biometrics on the card that the Government are talking about going to be successful? Again I take the point that the hon. Gentleman made—when are we going to indulge in biometrics? Are we going to wait
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for them to be perfect or are we going to use them now? I thought that that was a persuasive argument. The fact remains that we must not try to use a technology of biometrics which is in any way less than feasible, if not perfect. If we do, the scheme will be worse than useless. If we do, we will be making a stick with which to beat ourselves rather than an asset for our security forces.

Let me give another example. Again, I am talking about the use of technology to combat terrorism in Northern Ireland. In the late '80s it was decided that a plate checker would be introduced for service, a piece of technology that would assist by automatically reading the number plates of cars as they passed through permanent vehicle checkpoints. It was introduced prematurely; it did not work. It did not work to the detriment of that particular brand of terrorism. Cars were able to pass unchecked. Plates were easily faked. The terrorists became used to what was required of the plate checker. In other words, the technology—for which we might substitute biometrics—was not up to it.

On the point about fingerprints mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), serious and organised crime in Ukraine has put a finger—forgive the pun—on the fact that fingerprints can be removed. The process is painful, but can be done. If we are going to have fingerprints on the card, then all eight fingerprints will have to be on there, as discussed. At this point, are we in a position to say that biometrics are useful, that we can make them work and underlie the utility of this card?

Secondly, there are the logistics of the card. We have had many examples so far showing how difficult it will be to get software and other computer programmes physically to ensure that these cards are correctly configured and distributed.

Sticking to the subject of terrorism, the Government told us last year that households were going to be warned about the threat of terrorism and how to cope with that threat. A leaflet to tell every household was produced. There are 1.5 million households that have yet to receive that leaflet—that is 1.5 million households that have yet to understand what message the Government are trying to put across. That is relatively simple stuff.

What chance do we have of ensuring that such technical details for identity cards—with all the biometrics required on them—are going to be feasible? I would be grateful if the Minister responded to those two challenges, in terms not only of the technical aspects that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) and a number of my hon. Friends have outlined so clearly, but of the straightforward, practical elements of historical examples that I have seen fail.

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Mr. Desmond Browne): I add my warm welcome to that of the hon. Members for Woking and for Newark (Patrick Mercer), Ms Anderson, and I look forward to this afternoon's sitting under your guidance. I am sure that our sittings will continue to be as good humoured
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and inquisitive as they have been until now, and hopefully we will make significant progress on the work before us this afternoon.

As I expected, we have had a wide-ranging debate on these amendments about a number of issues to do with biometrics. In the spirit of my contributions thus far, I shall seek to respond to the degree that I can, subject to the general caveat that if I am unable to give detailed information that is available to be given, I will ensure that it is provided to Committee members at some time in future.

In essence the contribution from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam raised a question of principle: why are we planning to have a biometric identity card scheme? The answer is twofold. First, the international developments, which were alluded to in interventions and responses during the course of our short debate, mean that there is a move towards document security through the introduction of biometrics. We in Britain have already agreed to be part of that drive and development across the world, and that process has the support of all the parties represented in this Committee and the House. For example, the introduction of a facial image biometric in British passports starts in about a year.

The inclusion of fingerprint biometrics in visas, which has already started, means that we need to develop biometric enrolment for other purposes. The United States US Visit biometric scheme is already in operation and means that every British citizen who wants to visit the US will need to enrol their fingerprints in anticipation of it. That measure does not affect British citizens immediately, but it will progressively do so. A substantial number of British citizens travel between the UK and the US.

Secondly, the inclusion of biometrics will allow a step change to be made in our ability to identify individuals precisely and to combat identity fraud. That means that we will be able to prevent people enrolling on the system twice and that the biometric will help to link the person to an established identity when using public services, or in commercial transactions. I use the term ''established identity'' carefully, because although the biometric is important, we need to consider its use in the context of the whole scheme. We need to combine that technology with reliable checks on an individual's identity to ensure that the identity established is the true one. That is why I am contextualising the debate. We could debate the possible flaws of biometrics in any number of circumstances until the cows come home. However, most importantly, and as the Bill spells out, the scheme is designed to operate on the basis that the biometrics are collected personally from the individual who is present. Checks will circumvent a lot of peoples' concerns about biometrics, and all the problems that others can identify will be overcome, because the person will be present and the biometrics will be taken by a trained operator.

The hon. Member for Woking quoted the National Physical Laboratory report on the use of biometrics, which is a substantial document of about 38 pages which has, appropriately, been published. That report
Column Number: 159
was commissioned by the Government to inform the discussion and to lead to informed decisions that needed to be made. It would have been inappropriate for anyone to quote from it at length, because we can all read. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to refer to it, but, of necessity, if we choose one or two sentences from it, they must be contextualised.

2.45 pm

The report was produced specifically for the Home Office, the UK Passport Service and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to consider the feasibility of using biometrics as a means of establishing a unique identity. My argument is that the report answers many of the question asked by hon. Members about the feasibility of the use of biometrics. It concludes that, in principle, fingerprint or iris recognition can provide the identification performance required for the unique identification of the entire population. I stand by that conclusion and pray it in aid in support of the argument for continuing down such a route.

The report recognised that the system would be groundbreaking, certainly in scale and for the United Kingdom. It would be one of the largest biometric schemes to date. The report recognised the differences between a scheme for general civil application and one that was used for storing criminal data, which is the difference between the existing fingerprint database to which the police refer constantly and what is proposed under the Bill. It acknowledged that there would be cost implications, especially because of the need for personal enrolment and interaction to collect the data securely.

The National Physical Laboratory recommended that we undertake a large-scale biometrics enrolment trial. We did exactly that, which is why the Government set up the UK Passport Service biometric enrolment trial of some 10,000 people. The collection of data has recently finished. The trial tested the process of enrolling biometrics and customer experience with different user groups. The report is not available yet, not even in shortened form, but its principal conclusions will be published later.

One of the initial messages that we have gleaned from the trial is that the volunteers saw no particular problem with enrolling three biometrics and, if they were enrolled at the same time, the cost of so doing would clearly not be three times the cost of enrolling a single biometric—the implication of the short arithmetic of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam when he suggested that the cost would be £500 million or £50 million to collect a biometric, but that it might cost three times that sum to collect three.

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Prepared 20 January 2005