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Standing Committee Debates
Identity Cards Bill

Identity Cards Bill

Standing Committee B

Tuesday 25 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


[Derek Conway in the Chair]

Identity Cards Bill

Clause 8

Issue etc. of ID cards

Amendment proposed [20 January]: No. 44, in clause 8, page 7, line 4, after 'issued', insert 'free of charge'.—[Mr. Malins.]

9.10 am

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 186, in clause 37, page 31, line 24, at end insert—

    ''but no fee shall be imposed for a card issued in consequence of an order by the Secretary of State for compulsory registration.''.

I wish to explain matters to members of the Committee who were not privy to what happened before they came into the Room. There has been a meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee, as a result of which I am required to finish the business under consideration when the Committee adjourned on Thursday evening, which is the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins). When we have disposed of the amendment, the Committee may consider the proposals of the Programming Sub-Committee for up to half an hour. We shall then return to the business on the amendment paper.

The Clerk has helpfully put copies of the Programming Sub-Committee's resolution on the Table, so that during the debate on the amendment, but before we deal with the amendment to the programme order, colleagues will have an opportunity to see where the knives fall. Members of the Committee might wish to familiarise themselves with that.

We return to amendment No. 44, with which we are considering amendment No. 186. I think the Minister had concluded his remarks.

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Mr. Desmond Browne): Yes, I had.

The Chairman: So, it is now a matter of whether any other member of the Committee wants to contribute before Mr. Malins replies. I call Mr. Mercer.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Conway, and I welcome you to the Chair. I shall try to finish the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking on amendment No. 44 about the cost of the identity card. The identity card must first be constructed for individuals to buy and cost is one of the most important aspects of identity cards. We need to consider the issue of the opportunity cost in respect
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of what the card can and cannot do and whether the sums raised to purchase the card might be better spent elsewhere.

On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), the shadow Home Secretary, said that this test is one of the most important of the five that the Opposition have identified to see whether the card will be useful, whether it will be practical—despite the fact that we support the idea of the card—and, when the card is available for use, whether it will be more or less useful than other measures that might be purchased rather than the card.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woking was keen for the Minister to outline precisely how the card would be funded, asking whether the majority of the funds used to create it will come from taxation or the individual. He asked precisely how the card is meant to operate, in terms of counter-terrorism and assistance with the issue of illegal immigration, or whether it will simply be an entitlement card. He also asked whether, in all those cases, the money raised could be better spent.

There has been a great deal of talk about the efficacy of the card and whether the biometrics of it mean that it will be sufficiently well developed to be effective for the price it will cost us. On top of that, every Government programme on means of identification leads to cost overruns. An example is the difficulties that the Government faced with the Passport and Records Agency. Therefore, I would like the Minister to be clear and furnish us with the details. What does he believe the card will cost in the first place? What will be the cost of setting up the construction of the card? How long will that process take and is the cost of the card likely to overrun significantly? There is no doubt that it is likely to overrun, because every other piece of Government legislation on identification that we have considered—whatever the political colour of the Government—has overrun.

We have to ask whether the money used for identity cards will be wisely spent. Would it be better to say, ''No, we can use this considerable sum more profitably to buy other means of security.''? Would it be better to use the money to supplement our intelligence-gathering agencies, such as the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service? From that point of view, would the money be better spent in providing the operatives whom we have been told, ever since 11 September, we are woefully missing?

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I am following my hon. Friend's arguments with care. Is he aware of any studies that tell us what could be purchased—in terms of extra police, security services and the like—for the same amount that will be spent on identity cards to fight the battle against terrorism?

Patrick Mercer: I am grateful for that helpful intervention. To address my hon. Friend's point, the Government, the Home Office and the Foreign Office have said consistently since 11 September 2001 that it is crucial that more specialist operatives be added to MI5 and MI6 to take forward, in particular, the
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gathering of human intelligence, the interpretation of technical means and the interception of evidence and the like, which has become so important in the war on terror.

I am sure that all members of the Committee will have heard the ceaseless calls from the security services and will know how undermanned and under-resourced they are. The difficulty, of course, is putting a price on such a problem.

Mr. Malins: My hon. Friend is at the nub of the issue. I pay tribute to his background in these matters and to his personal knowledge of the armed forces, intelligence services and the like. I would be interested to hear him develop his arguments on the direct usages of the security services in reducing terrorism and on the cost involved.

Patrick Mercer: Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I thank him for his kind words. The fact remains that it is extraordinarily difficult and expensive to add to the assets of the security services and to put a price tag on so doing. The difficulty is that such assets cannot be added overnight; those agencies cannot simply advertise for a new intelligence agent or a new spy. One of the crucial elements is that people must be properly qualified, particularly in languages and the assessment of intelligence coming in from abroad. That is not cheaply bought or created and it takes time and money to establish a fully effective member of those services. I would not care to put a price on what it costs to recruit and train an operative for either of those two services.

Committee members have to ask themselves, ''What else might we spend the money on?''. There is no doubt that MI5 and MI6 have been extraordinarily helpful in the war on terror, but ought we to consider, for instance, the suggestion from those on the Liberal Benches of creating a force to try to secure our borders more effectively? I do not know whether a price has been put on that, but it will not come cheaply. Should we be considering other methods to secure our borders, increase our intelligence-gathering capacity and enforce our laws, rather than spending this vast sum, which is unpredictable in terms of cost to the nation and whose direction is unknown?

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for mentioning some of our policies, but I urge caution. It would be wrong to assume that many such policies could or would be funded directly from any savings from an ID card proposal, because the card involves a levy on individuals that would have to be either replaced or imposed and transferred. Any development of alternative policies must include details of how they would be funded, because that could not be done just by replacing the ID card scheme.

The Chairman: Order. Before the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) is sucked too far down the road of discussing what is Liberal Democrat or Conservative policy, I must tell the Committee that we need to stick to the terms of the amendment and
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discuss whether the card should be free, rather than take a broader view of what else the money might pay for.

Patrick Mercer: Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Conway. I shall briefly answer the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten). I take his point. However, the Government have yet to explain precisely how the card will be funded, why there should be a levy raised on individuals, why it should not be funded entirely by the Government and what is the opportunity cost of the card, which is the nub of the point.

Can the Minister convince us that this is the most effective means of spending money to achieve the aims that he has set for the card? I look forward to the answer to that question, because it is, as I said earlier, one of the crucial tests that my party has set for the card. With the sums of money that are available, particularly with our police forces in such a parlous state, there might be other ways in which it could be spent, such as in respect of illegal immigration.

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Prepared 25 January 2005