Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): As politicians, we always have to make judgments before supporting any measure. We need to be convinced in the first place that we understand and agree with the purpose of legislation; then we have to believe that the costs are not excessive either to society or the individual. Thirdly, we need to be convinced that any measure can work and be effective. Finally, and most importantly for Liberals, we need to be convinced that the impact on society and civil liberties will not be extensive. On all four counts, we believe that the Identity Cards Bill fails. I want to explore some of those issues in greater detail.
Let us first consider the Bill's purpose. The Government keep changing their mindsevery time that they advance an argument and it is knocked down, they have to find a different argument in favour. They started off with terrorism, before moving to health tourism; then it was benefit fraud; then illegal working; and now, finally, they are going for ID theft. On each occasion, the argument is put forward and then defeated.
Dealing with terrorism is the first justification. Liberal Democrats never underestimated the need to put forward measures to make this country safer in respect of a terrorist attack. However, as we have already heard in the debate, the issue of whether a terrorist identity is critical is, in fact, a false argument. We know what happened in Madrid and New York, and we know from the cases of David Copeland and Richard Reed that those individuals made no attempt to disguise their identities. The Home Secretary mentioned Madrid, but I specifically went there to speak to the authorities in order to ascertain whether ID cards would have made a difference. The authorities were very clear indeed that they did not believe that having an ID card would have made any difference; it would not have helped to stop the terrorist attack. To put it bluntly, a
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determined suicide bomber or terrorist will not be deterred by such a card. The problem of identity is, in most cases, simply not an issue.
Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, South) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman nevertheless accept what my right hon. Friend said in his statementthat even if ID cards could not have prevented the Madrid atrocities, they certainly helped the authorities to track down the culprits?
About a third of terrorists use multiple forms of identity, so the Government have claimed that ID cards would help in tracking down terrorists. Once again, that is a false and a dangerous argument. Nothing in what the Government have suggested would prevent international terrorists from coming into this country with false documentswhat are known as seed documentsand registering under a different name for an ID card with their biometrics on it. Indeed, that highlights the danger of ID cards providing a false sense of security. Unless an international system is put in place, and countries such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia all signed up to the same form of biometrics, there is no reason to assume that individuals could be stopped from moving around with different identities in different countries.
Kali Mountford : I shall put to the hon. Gentleman the question that I put to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis). I accept the argument that someone may register under a false identity in the first place, but how does that person then obtain five or six more identities in order to evade justice?
Mr. Oaten: That is what people are doing already. They will be able to move from country to country because the biometric systems will not be available in those countries. It is a fundamental flaw in the terrorist argument.
The final argument on terrorism is simple. If it is so urgent, and if the threat from terrorists in this country is so compelling, why will we have to wait 10 years for the system to become compulsory? If we need it for that reason, surely we need it now.
The next argument the Government made was on benefit fraud. The Home Office and other Departments' figures on benefit fraud show that only 5 per cent. of cases of benefit fraud relate to people pretending to be somebody else. That equates to some £50 million of fraud a year. The vast amount of benefit fraud involves individuals pretending to have something wrong with them when they do notit does not involve issues of identity. Therefore, ID cards will do nothing to help tackle that problem.
Then the Government raised the issue of health tourism and health fraud. However, the Home Secretary did not clarify how ID cards would be used to combat that problem. What would happen? Would I have to have my iris scanned or fingerprints taken before I could see my
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GP? Would every post office have a reader in place to prevent benefit fraud? If someone wants to access emergency health care at an accident and emergency department, would they have to have their iris scanned? Who will manage that process? Would we ask front-line professionals in the health service to take decisions about who they scan? If the programme is not to be rolled out nationally, would the Government suggest that certain health authorities in areas with certain types of ethnic communities should be encouraged to implement that programme?
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): During the course of taking evidence on laser surgery, it became clear to me that most consultant optometrists agreed that accurate information would not be available, even with modern techniques. They made it clear that they thought that the system would not work.
Mr. Oaten: I am grateful for that intervention and I shall deal shortly with the failure rate of iris scans in the Home Office's own studies.If the reason for ID cards is health fraud, it obviously has not been thought through and it is hard to see how any system would operate.
Martin Linton : Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the national health service makes no checks on identity before providing emergency treatment? Does he suggest that the NHS should make no checks on entitlement to free treatment when it has such checks at its disposal?
Mr. Oaten: When the hon. Gentleman went into an accident and emergency department to have his arm treated, would he have liked it if a front-line professional had had to ask for his identity before that could be done? How would such a proposal operate in reality and how would we fund having iris scanners or other biometric equipment in every department in the health service? It is not workable.
Martin Linton: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is NHS policy not to make any identity checks when people come into accident and emergency departments, but only after the emergency has been dealt with?
Mr. Oaten: It makes no difference at what point identity is checked. The point is whether we should ask the health service to fund the checks or ask health professionals to take decisions about whether to ask for the information. I do not want to live in a society in which I have to have my fingerprints or other biometric information taken before I can be treated.
I wish to move on to the Government's next argument, which was about tackling illegal working. This is one of the Government's most disingenuous arguments. We all want to tackle illegal working, but we already have a system in place where individuals who come into this country as asylum seekers or workers have to possess a form of identification. It is possible for the police or the gangmasters who employ such people to check those working documents. What difference will it make if those individuals have to have an ID card?
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Will the police carry out more checks than they do at present? Will the gangmasters suddenly demand to see ID cards before they employ those people? Sadly, the kind of people who employ illegal workers will not take part in that process. The idea that ID cards will tackle illegal working can be dismissed.
What about the Government's latest suggestion that the card will deal with identity theft? Again, they have got it wrong. The Government argue that about £1.3 billion of identity theft takes place in the UK, but a vast amount occurs through the internet or with credit cards, so I fail to understand how an ID card will tackle that problem. The Association for Payment Clearing Services says that only 36 million of the 500 million cases of plastic fraud are classified as identity fraud. The association is not convinced that an ID card will help in tackling those issues, especially internet fraud. The Government have put up an argument about ID theft, but in reality the ID card will not help to tackle that issue.
Mr. Marshall-Andrews : On that interesting issue, the document notes that £400 million of that £1.3 billion related to money laundering. In 2001, such cases involved people going into bureaux de change with suitcases full of old, mainly Scottish, notes. That is where the money comes from, so how will the situation be improved by an identity card?