Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): I am slightly puzzled by the contribution of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten). Either he has not read the Bill and does not know what is in it, or he has done so but has not understood it. In either event, he seemed to be talking about something entirely different from the Bill.
When members of the Conservative party cry freedom, as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) did earlier, we know that one of two things is under way. Either France is about to invade or there is a leadership contest. In this case, we know which test was met. [Interruption.] Perhaps both were metI have to admit that I had not allowed for the possibility that both events were going on at the same time.
There are two things that we must determine on Second Reading. First, is an identity card scheme right in principle and, secondly, is this particular scheme, given the consequences that will follow, the right one? I believe strongly, and have done so for many years, that a
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national identity cards system is right, for all the reasons that have been stated. The arguments against such a system, particularly the argument about the erosion of freedom, are bogus. What is the freedom about which we are so concerned? Is it the freedom not to have to prove that one is who one says one is? One would have the freedom to pretend to be someone else, but I do not think we should defend that in the House. Alternatively, would one have the freedom to evade demonstrating who one is?
The issue of which freedom is being taken away from whom has not been properly addressed so far, and I have yet to understand it fully myself. The issue would be more clear-cut if from the outset it was made explicit that the scheme should be compulsory. In those circumstances, the arguments about whether someone who had to apply for a passport would face a requirement not faced by people who chose not to have passportsessentially, those arguments are about the fair treatment of different individualswould not arise. Nevertheless, for understandable reasons, the Government have decided to do it this way, and I am prepared to accept the principle behind what they are trying to achieve.
Three issues need to be addressed as the legislation progresses. Rather than deal with them exhaustively, I shall be brief. First, the issue of cost has been repeatedly raised. It is crucial to maintain the high level of public support for the principle of ID cards. If costs at the end of the process are too high, the value of having an identity card system would have to be demonstrated or it would rapidly become unpopular and lose the public support required for its introduction. Secondly, people must be satisfied about security and the safeguards in place to protect information held on the central register. They have legitimate concerns about who will have access to sensitive information about them and for what purpose. We have not satisfied that concern entirely. Perhaps the Information Commissioner went further than he should have done, but his intervention must be addressed. The Government have to do more to convince people that all the necessary safeguards will be put in place so that such a scheme could be used only in appropriate circumstances and for appropriate reasons.
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Finally, I have not had the opportunity to examine in detail all the evidence about the accuracy of any given system. If we are going to use biometric measures as the Government propose we must all be convinced beyond reasonable doubt that the most accurate recognition possible of biometric data is achievable. I am encouraged by the Cambridge university study that was mentioned but, to be honest, I have not had the opportunity to read it. [Interruption.] Opposition Members seem to think that that is amusing, but they cite studies by various academic bodies with abandon, never having seen them, let alone read them. At least I am honest enough to admit that I have not read that study, and several Opposition Members would have been more honest if they had made such an admission. It is important, however, that that issue is debated thoroughly and that it is demonstrated conclusively that the recognition techniques available are adequate and accurate enough to make the project feasible.
Those are very much issues for the future. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary started to address them today, but we are not there yet. I am happy, however, to give the Bill a Second Reading in its present form. It is necessary that concerns are addressed adequately over the coming weeks and months but, subject to that caveat, I am happy to vote with the Government tonight.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): If the Labour Government are in office when the Bill's provisions bite on the public their reputation will suffer serious and, I hope, terminal damage. Those of us who oppose the Bill are therefore acting in a singularly disinterested manner. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) acknowledged that a number of benefits could flow from an identity cards scheme. I share that view, but those benefits are very much less than the scheme's proponents have argued. It is no coincidence that the advantages that they proclaim have developed while proposals, starting with an entitlement card scheme that made precious little reference to terrorism, have been under discussion. I have a very strong feeling that what we are seeing now is a project seeking a justification, rather than a policy for which there is a self-evident and clear requirement.
Let me say a word or two about the alleged benefits. I have practised criminal law off and on for many years, and of course I have read many law reports. It is extremely rare that one finds a case in which the existence of an identity card scheme would prevent or lead to the ready detection of crime. The same is true of terrorism. It is no coincidence that the Madrid bombing happened in a country where the mandatory carrying of cards is a part of policy. Let us not forget that Spain has been suffering from ETA terrorism for years and years, or that most of those who carried out the bombing of the world trade centre carried valid identification cards. When one deals with terrorism, the problem is not so much the concealment of identity as the concealment of intent, which is a wholly different matter.
The same is true also of fraud. Most fraud does not involve a false statement as to identity. It involves a false statement as to intent, or a concealment or misrepresentation of relevant facts as to entitlement.
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Identity cards do nothing as to that. Even if identity was a factor, I should be extraordinarily surprised if that problem could not be got around by forgery or by a change in the modus operandi.
It is ironic that the one area of policy in which identity cards might be significant is in the control of illegal immigration, but only on the basis that the mandatory carrying and production of cards is made part of the policy. That is precisely what would be excluded by the Government proposals.
Mrs. Dunwoody: Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman's experience at the criminal Bar not suggested to him that the only people who will efficiently and quickly produce identity cards are the criminal classes?
Mr. Hogg: Indeed. The point has been made that once an identity card scheme is set up as a gateway, all the fraudsters of Europe will be devising ways to use the key into the gateway, and they will succeed. The hon. Lady is entirely right.
To the extent that there are benefits, they have to be weighed in the balance of cost and disadvantage. As to cost, none of us can be sure what the cost will be, least of all Government Ministers, but I suspect that there are very few Members of the House not sitting on the Government Benches who would place much reliance on the Government's current projections. Almost every Government procurement project that I have ever heard of has grossly overrun its initial budget, most notably the Ministry of Defence with the technology programmes of the kind that we are now contemplating.
Built into the scheme are factors that will almost certainly escalate the cost considerably. We can be sure that there will be gold-plating on a massive scale. There will be huge staff requirements. The proposal, after all, is that everybody in the country should present themselves at an appointed place at an appointed time to give appointed particulars and answer questions. That has huge staffing implications.
The Treasury refuses to subsidise the scheme. It will be free-standing. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) will remember, that was the Treasury's initial position when the community charge was introduced, and we all remember what happened to the costs in that scheme. There will be hard cases. Millions of people will assert that they cannot afford ID cards and the cost of subsidising them will fall on other card holders. Also, as the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) pointed out, there will be renewals and changes. Every time there is a renewal or a change, there will be a charge. Built into the system there is huge pressure for increased cost.
Will the technology work to an acceptable level? Again, I doubt it. History and common sense argue otherwise. All of us can keep in mind the Child Support Agency and the problems that it has had with computer systems. Those of us who deal with the Criminal Records Bureau know how very slow and incompetent that is. The early stages of the Passport Agency were a calamity. The family tax credit scheme, which depends upon computers entirely, has proved a continuing calamity. We are entitled to say that history and common sense suggest that the technology will frequently fail.
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When the technology fails, ordinary citizens will suffer considerable inconvenience because they suddenly will not be able to assert their personality and will not be able to get the kind of benefits of which the Home Secretary spoke. That is a serious prejudice. A related question is what happens if a card is lost or will not work. Again, people will have to go to an appointed centre at an appointed time with an appointed cheque and give appointed particulars. At some time in the uncertain future somebody might sent them a card. What do they do in the interim if they want access to the public services that the Home Secretary mentioned? Citizens will suffer serious prejudice, on which I hope the House will ponder.
I have two final points. First, the policy is too intrusive and therefore is wrong in principle. I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden on that point. The policy imposes obligations on the citizen and gives rights to the state, which should happen only when there is a dire and dark emergency, such as in war. I do not believe that there is a justification at this time.
Finally, I return to a point that I made to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden about the duty to carry and to produce. I know full well that the Bill as it stands does not incorporate within it any obligation to carry at all times or to produce at all times, and Ministers have given us reassurances on that. But the reassurances of the Government are not a commodity that currently stands in very high esteem. We should not forget that the National Registration Act 1915 also did not provide for any duty to carry and produce; it was amended in 1918. This Bill will also be amended.
Down the track, when people realise that the Bill, if enacted, is not producing any significant benefits, they will say, "The only way we can make it produce significant benefits, especially in the field of immigration control, is to require people to carry identity cards and to produce them on demand." To make that policy practicable, it must be backed with a power of arrest. I want nothing to do with such a policy. It is wrong in principle. It will produce discord between the societies that we live in and the police. Above all, it will bear heavily upon the ethnic minorities.
When I first came into the House in 1979, there was a huge debate about the impact of the old sus law. It caused immense dismay among the ethnic minorities. The Bill, if it becomes an Act, will have precisely that consequence, because it will bear heavily upon the ethnic minorities. I do not often give Labour Members disinterested advice, but my strong advice on this occasion is to destroy the Bill before it destroys them.