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Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): I believe that the country needs an identity card system and a national identity register and I will vote for the Bill. I want to spend most of my limited time on the way in which the Government may find a way forward after tonight's vote, so I do not want to rehearse all the arguments for the principle of an identity card scheme.
However, the critics of the scheme overstate the amount of intrusion that it implies. The register will carry less information than private companies. For example, the amount of information held on those who have a Nectar card is far greater.
The cost or risk of failure has been overstated even if something went wrong with the system. Too much of the argument has concentrated on the view that, because the scheme will not solve problems absolutely, it is not worth doing. Many opponents, especially the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, simply fail to understand the extent to which many public and private systems in our society depend on proof of identity and are weakened because we do not have an adequate system of proving identity.
All the pressures that have led the Government to introduce the Bill will be more intense in 10 years. There will be more movement in and out of the country and greater pressure to secure the integrity of expensive public services. There will be increased opportunities for identity fraud and more entrenched international terrorism. If the Bill fails in the months ahead, I honestly believe that our successors will rue our lack of nerve and principle.
The Government are clearly in a spot of bother over the Bill, however. It saddens me to say that the problems were not only predictable but predictedin the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs last year. The Government's case is not helped by continually switching their argument for the scheme every time a new spin doctor enters the fray.
We should admit that the scheme is a state project and there should be no shame in saying so. The state proposes to introduce the scheme because citizens expect it to be able to tackle illegal immigration, crime, terrorism and identity fraud, and to secure the public services. The state needs the co-operation of citizens in that enterprise. The citizen will benefit in many ways but presenting the scheme simply as a benign act of Government to help us to sort out our problems if someone goes through our wheelie bin and steals our identity is disingenuous. The Bill is not about that. Perhaps it could have been, but it is not.
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The Select Committee was in favour, by a majority, of an identity card scheme, the register and the then draft Bill. However, we made several sharp criticisms of the management of the project, procurement and the Bill. Although the Government have responded to some criticisms, they have not responded to many. I believe that they should have done.
We cannot expect every dot and comma to be spelled out at this stage, but we should be able to have confidence that all the major decisions about the scheme will be subject to proper public scrutiny and debate before they are made irrevocably. I am not yet sure that we can have that confidence.
Much attention has been paid to the LSE report. I am not inclined to give it huge weight. One of those most closely associated with it gave evidence against ID cards to our inquiry. Hon. Members can read the transcript of his evidence and judge the extent to which his views could be described as independent.
The Government, unfortunately, have opted for a closed procurement. The LSE report may well be wrong, but it is the Governmentmy Governmentwho created circumstances in which anyone's guess is as good as anyone else's when it comes to the cost.
Public confidence in the scheme and its costings is critical. I can tell the Minister that we will find it hard to generate that confidence without switching quickly to a much more open procurement process on the basis of section-by-section discussion of every part of the system. That is true of many aspects of the system. The decision on what type of card should be used is a decision of the same order as the decision on the architecture of the database. It will have consequences for issues such as how the card will be used, the number of readers and the infrastructure needed. We warned that
The same is true of card readers and verification. It is no good saying, as the regulatory impact assessment says, that the Bill imposes few if any costs on the private sector. That is true, but unless use of the system by the private and public sectors achieves critical mass it will not operate effectively as a system to verify identities. The Government must say when they will produce their assessment of use by both sectors. I say that as a fervent supporter of the ID card scheme, and one who does not want it to fail because of the way in which the Government have gone about procuring it.
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Lynne Jones: On the radio this morning, the Home Secretary said that he would consider committing the Bill to a Special Standing Committee. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the programme motion, which allows for only three weeks of Committee deliberation? How will he vote on the motion?
Mr. Denham: I hope that the Minister will imply some flexibility. The present timetable is unfortunate, because of the time being taken to establish Select Committees. The Commons Committee stage will have been completed before any Select Committees, including the Home Affairs Committee, have been formed and can carry out further scrutiny. I think that further scrutiny of the Bill would be useful.
The Government need to do something about what still appears to be the lack of a cross-Government approach. Rightly or wrongly, we are left with the impression that the Bill is a Home Office project that the rest of Government has agreed not to block, rather than a project taken on enthusiastically by Government as a whole. One of the symptoms is a failure to grasp the opportunity, identified by the Home Affairs Committee, to use the ID card as a way of joining up and simplifying access to public services. That leaves us with the risk of inefficient use of the investment in the system and later, perhaps, the rather expensive job of adjusting what is now being done to provide what many citizens would likea card providing easy access to a number of public services.
Mark Fisher: I am listening to my right hon. Friend particularly closely, because he chaired the former Home Affairs Committee that produced an excellent fourth report containing a huge amount of expert data. It worries me all the more that he has referred to the use that the private sector would make of the system. I understood the Home Secretary to say clearly that the private sector would have no access to the register, but my right hon. Friend seems to suggest that it would.
Mr. Denham: It is quite straightforward. The private sector will not be able to get its hands on the national identity register. However, at present when people ask a solicitor to do their conveyancing, they must go through a sheaf of documents to prove their identity under the money-laundering legislation. In future, they will be able to use their identity cards, and it will be possible for their identity to be verified against the register. I think that wholly acceptable, and a great convenience to citizens. It is entirely different from making the register available to private sector companies.
I have expressed concern about the procurement process and cross-Government commitment. My third concern relates to the Bill itself. I have not yet managed to obtain a copy of the criticisms made by the Information Commissioner, so I am relying considerably on media coverage and the commissioner's evidence to the Select Committee last year. I think that if his full critique were taken on board, it would be impossible to have an ID card scheme at all. It cannot just be a way of making individuals prove their identity. There are occasions when the state
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needs to identify the individual. There are security arguments in favour of an audit trail of access to the register, as well as arguments against it. Nevertheless, as well as radically changing their approach to the procurement of the scheme, the Government could make changes to the Bill that would address many of the points made by the commissioner and others.
The purpose of the scheme could be much more tightly defined. There need be no requirement for an ID card for use of a public service; public services merely need to be permitted to use the card for that purpose, which would leave much more power in the hands of the individual. Access for the police and other services to the information for crime-fighting purposes could be more tightly circumscribed. Under clauses 19 and 23 in their current form, the Home Secretary could personally authorise all access to the audit trail, as is now the case with telephone-tapping. They could also be used to give that power to any individual police constable. It should be possible to amend them to raise the threshold and establish proper safeguards. Oversight could be strengthened, and brought under a single, publicly accountable commissioner rather than being unhappily spread between two.
I presume, at the moment, that the Government will win the debate and the vote this evening. I certainly hope that they will. Our present circumstances, however, bear some similarity to a situation that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will recognise from a year or so ago, when the Government's discussion of tuition fees began. At that stage, the Government's proposals were not at all bad in principle, but they needed a fair bit of work in the House to be pushed into an acceptable form, which I think we finally achieved. I believe that the ID card scheme is in a similar state. The Government need to make changes both in the way in which they plan to deal with the legislationthere have been welcome indications today that it is open to amendmentand, fundamentally, in the way in which they are attempting to procure the project. There must be proper, independent, technical public debate.
Finally, let me say something about the scope of the Bill. We hear a good deal of talk about "function creep". That will result largely not from the desires of an overbearing state, but from the desire of members of the public to use the information to fight crime. I think it would be more prudent for the Government to recognise that, and not to leave powers in the Bill that might be handy at some point in the future but to limit the powers tightly, confident that the Bill can return to the House of Commons in the future if public arguments favour broader legislation.
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