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Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP):
I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones). Although as yet I have not reached any conclusionsI will explain why over the next few minutesI share some of the concerns that she expressed.
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My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and I, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), are having a little difficulty in orientating ourselves this afternoon. Over the past quarter of a century and more in this House, we have spoken on this issue perhaps five or six times. On those previous occasions, we got support from the Conservatives and a large dollop of scepticism from the party now in Government. However, we have maintained a consistent position.
If the Bill was a straightforward Bill on identity cards, my support and that of my colleagues would have been automatic. Having lived through decades of terrorism in Northern Ireland, we often found ourselves being asked by police chiefs and Army leaders to have a security provision such as this brought before the House in order to give them an additional element that they could use in the battle against terrorism. My hon. Friends and I raised the issue many times, though we never succeeded in getting an ID card in Northern Ireland. All the advice that we got in those days from the security forcesthe police force and the Armywas that such an initiative, while it would not in itself solve the problems that they faced, would be a valuable aid in identifying those who might require closer scrutiny and would quickly eliminate those who "checked out".
If all that we were doing, in the face of very real terrorist threats, was requiring people to have a card that proved their identity, I would not have any valid reservation about that limitation being placed on my privacy or that of my fellow citizens. I would not set such a limited curtailment of my civil liberties above the potential for safeguarding or saving lives. I appreciate that many hon. Members have genuine concerns on the basis of civil liberties issues, and I respect their views on that matter. I have to say, however, that having lived through the past 35 bloody years in Northern Ireland, I would not regard the use of a national identity card as a significant infringement of anyone's civil liberties when I consider the carnage that has been caused by terrorism. I place the value of human life far above the minor inconvenience that will come with an identity card.
At the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, we were accustomed to being searched going into shops and having our cars stopped. That was properly seen as a necessary measure to deal with a greater danger. The same is true of identity cards. Just as going through an airport nowadays involves a minor infringement of one's liberties, we are happy to trade that off against the greater feeling of security in the air. Identity cards will of course bring other benefits that will be useful and help to reduce fraud, but the fight against crime and terrorism must take precedence.
In Northern Ireland, we have some experience of using photo ID. It may not be compulsory for everyone, but it is required if one wants to drive a car or to vote. Our driving licences in the Province contain a photograph, and the new electoral identity card is used as one of a series of photographic identifiers in order to obtain a ballot paper before one can vote in any election. In many ways a national identity card is simply an extension of that, albeit, in this case, with potentially a
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much greater range of information. None of the personal identifiers already used has been a matter of controversy in the Provincethey are merely regarded as a sensible measure to enforce the law and to protect us from unlawful activity. A compulsory identity card would also have the advantage of providing a more secure electoral system here in Great Britain; by all accounts, that may become increasingly necessary. Incidentally, Members on both sides of the House were happy to legislate for the electoral ID card in Northern Ireland to ensure that those who claimed a ballot paper were those who received it.
If all we were doing today was passing legislation to enable the state to provide its citizens with a card that would prove their identity, how could any of us quarrel with that? It would differ little from using a passport or driving licence as evidence of who we are. In this House, as in thousands of business around the United Kingdom, we have our own ID card to identify ourselves to security personnel. If that were the beginning and end of the matter, I would not be soul searching tonight. However, this Bill is more than an ID cards Billit is, in its present form, an enabling Bill, and it is not yet clear quite what the end product will be. This much is already evident: it is more about building up and maintaining a national database of personal information on the citizens of this kingdom than about simply providing people with a means of identifying themselves. The scope of that information-gathering, the extent to which it can be accessed, and by whom, are but a few of my concerns.
The nature of the scheme is the first consideration, but soon after we have made that determination comes the equally relevant question, "Will it work?", followed quickly by, "How much will it cost?" There are relatively few debates in Parliament where the course of the debate, particularly the Minister's responses, can determine how Members will vote, but for me and my hon. Friends this is one such occasion. Some concerns may well be better tackled in Committee, but some fundamental matters go to the heart of whether the Bill should proceed even that far.
We have dealt with several issues in correspondence with the Home Secretary and I appreciate the detailed responses that we received. In the time available, I suspect that I can deal with only one of them: access to the database by Republic of Ireland authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim raised the matter in an intervention on the Home Secretary, who said in his communication:
"the Republic of Ireland is not a foreign country for the purposes of any law in force in any part of the United Kingdom . . . by virtue of . . . any enactment . . . whether passed or made before or after the passing of this Act".
In those circumstances, it is not sufficient for the Home Secretary to say that the information would not be available to a foreign Government because, under current UK legislation, the Republic of Ireland is not considered foreign. However, the Home Secretary went a little further in his oral response to my hon. Friend
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when he specifically said that the data would not be made available to the Government of the Republic of Ireland. I would be happy with that undertaking if it were included in the measure. However, I have been to the House of Lords on a previous occasion and, in a three-to-two verdict against us, we were clearly informed that what a Secretary of State or Minister says at the Dispatch Box is not binding.
Mr. Garnier: The hon. Gentleman correctly says that, under our law, Ireland is not a foreign country for several purposes. However, the Republic treats us as foreign. We are not allowed to vote in that country if we live there, although we let Irish citizens vote in our country if they live here. Is the hon. Gentleman content with the Home Secretary's assurance that there will be no swapping of information? It appears to me that the system can work with a common travel area only if the Irish Republic is given access to the hon. Gentleman's personal details and those of all other UK citizens.
Mr. Robinson: It is because I am not content that I ask the Minister to deal with the issue when he responds. Indeed, the Home Office was unable to direct our attention to a passage in the Bill that provided that information from the national identity register would not be given to any foreign Government. It simply indicated that the scope of the Bill rules out sharing information with the Irish Government. We need further clarification on that issue, which is critical for us all.
Mr. Cash: The Government made it clear that the Bill would be excluded from a draft regulation of the European Union because it was classified as a measure that built on the border provision of the Schengen acquis, in which the UK does not take part. Ultimately, the Government and the EU decided that we would not take part, and the hon. Gentleman is therefore right to ensure clarification in the measure.
I want to comment briefly not only on the potential access of another Government but on that of individuals to the information. There is a natural anxiety that the enabling powers allow the Secretary of State to add to the information that may be stored in the database, and that others may get possession of it. It is essential that we know the levels of security that will be placed on the information that might be stored. I am worried that the enabling power would allow the Home Secretary to add further identifiers through secondary legislation.
Secondary legislation would be most unsatisfactory for dealing with changes in such an important measure. It does not give the House the ability to amend; we would simply be asked to accept, on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, any package that the Home Secretary might introduce.
The Government could just about get away with charging for a voluntary identity card but none of us would accept having to pay for a compulsory card. If the Government expect the card to do everything that they hope it will do, that will not happen with a voluntary
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card. The Government must have a compulsory identity card if they expect it to have the range of impacts that they outlined. If it is compulsory, it must be free to the end user.
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