It is not the issues of principle that are a problem but the practicalities and costs. Sadly, as I have listened to Ministers talk about the Bill I have become less convinced about the practicalities and the costs, whether the system would work, and the security and safety of the database on which the system would run. Perhaps it is my Yorkshire background, but my principle concern is about costs. We must aim to get value for money and we must remember that whatever is spent on the ID card system cannot be spent on anything else. The cards will
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be paid for either by the taxpayer from general taxation or by what amounts to a special tax levied on those who want to be card holders. That is just the cost of the card.
The costs of the rest of the systemthe verification process, the scanners and readers, and the hordes of people who go round installing them, following up, mending them and running the systemwill undoubtedly have to be met by the taxpayer, either local or national. What would be the costs of all that? Estimates are, to say the least, many and varied. I do not challenge the integrity of Ministers and their advisers who have come up with the lowest estimates, as it was obviously a position of integrity to say that the estimate used to be £3 billion and now it is approaching £6 billion. Equally, I do not doubt the integrity of the opponents of ID cards, who have come up with the highest estimates. With respect to all those who have come up with estimates, however, they are not estimates but guesses, and even the lowest guess is an awful lot of money.
It is a major function of a freely elected Parliament and its Members to control the raising and spending of taxpayers' money and to see that it is well spent. Information technology is an area of grotesque failures, delays and overspends. That is not confined to the Home Office, this Government or the public sectorthere has been scandal after scandal across the board, probably because all concerned in making the original estimates are reduced to being dependent on such serial fantasists and failure-mongers as EDS, Siemens and others who have messed it up.
It might be that £6 billionthe latest official estimatewould be well spent, but is the ID card system the best way of spending the marginal £6 billion of Home Office money? If it is spent on that, it will be £6 billion less spent on more police or improving the immigration service. At £6 billion it might be a bargain, but if it is in excess of that there will be less and less value for taxpayers' money. Any excess has a double costit is not just the extra money spent on the ID cards and system, but that there is then less to spend on other things. If the excess is to be met from the Home Office budget, the currently intended investment in the police, immigration services and so on will be reduced. If it comes from the overall Government budget, we will have to face all sorts of cuts as a result of reductions in intended spending. That will mean taking away money from hospitals, clinics, schools, transport, environmental improvements, overseas development or making sure that our troops are properly equipped.
I could not support the Bill tonight unless it contained a provision for the Government to come back to the Housewhich is responsible for the raising and spending of taxevery six months to give us an up-to-date estimate of the costs. There should not be any problem if things are going well, and if things are going badly we would have the opportunity to say, "Cut the losses, we are not going to spend any more on this project." Were that to happen, we would have the opportunity to stop throwing good money after bad. Therefore, I cannot support the Bill tonight.
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con):
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) who has made a cogent case against many of the practical aspects of the Bill.
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One thing that is clear is that the Identity Cards Bill is not, as the Home Secretary would have us believe, a gleaming, new Labour modernising measure. I make no apology for reminding the House that it is a shop-soiled, tired old measure that had been hawked round Whitehall for many years before the Government even came to powerproposals for a compulsory, all-singing, all-dancing identity card with biometrics. It was then, and is now, a solution looking for a problem. When we tried to examine how effective it would be at solving the potential problems, we found that the police said that they rarely had any problem in identifying suspects, only in proving that they were guilty. We also found that terrorists normally conceal their intentions rather than their identities, that benefit fraudsters normally misrepresent their circumstances, and that less than 2 per cent. of benefit fraud is due to identity fraud. Furthermore, all illegal immigrants canmost do once they come into contact with the authoritiesapply for asylum, at which point they must have an identity card at present, complete with fingerprints on it. At that point, of course, they become exempt from deportation until their asylum claim has been resolvedif ever.
Therefore, the identity card would not help with any of the problems that it is put forward to help unless, possibly, it were made compulsory for everyone to have one and the police were empowered in particular to stop people who they thought looked or sounded foreign to identify whether they had identity cards or were possibly in the country illegally.
The Government say that things have changed since those days, and that they now have support from officials in Departments, the police and unnamed figures in the security services. That should be no surpriseGovernment employees are paid to support Government policy, and it is particularly of no surprise that the Government found people in the security forces who will say that the proposal is a good thing, as they were the people who told us that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Indeed, when I tabled questions trying to identify which of the agencies and who in the agencies endorsed Government policies, I found that the Government were very reluctant to give the identities of the people who are so keen to have us reveal our identities to themI suspect, of course, that the person is John Scarlett, but that is in the privacy of this Chamber.
The real test of whether Departments find the identity card useful is whether they are prepared to contribute from their budget to funding the proposal for a compulsory identity card system. Clearly, none is prepared to contribute, which is why the entire cost is to be borne by the ordinary citizen and user, who will eventually be compelled to have it, and certainly required to have it if they want a passport. We also know that the costs will rise. They have already risen, and the one thing that I learnt in Government is that the projects that are most vulnerable to running into difficulties and overrunning on cost are those with more than one user and client Department. This one has at least half a dozen user and client Departments. We know that the Government abandoned a project that I initiatedthe pathway project for a benefit payment card. After saying for two years that it was going splendidly, they finally said that they had to abandon it because they could not reconcile the conflicting demands of Post
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Office Counters and the Department for Work and Pensions, which were jointly responsible for it. If they could not reconcile the demands of those two bodies, how will they reconcile the demands that will arise when half a dozen different Departments seek to make the system work for their needs?
Let me give another concrete example. In America four years ago, Congress mandated the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to reconcile their different systems for collecting and computerising fingerprints. Four years and $40 million-worth of expenditure later, they can transfer the fingerprints of only 2 per cent. of people entering the United States so that they can be compared with and checked against the FBI register. It still takes a month for a new terrorist suspect identified by the FBI to be fed across so that they can have their fingerprints taken and be checked against anyone entering the country. So we know that these systems are very difficult and costly to get right. If America cannot get them right, even with its huge expenditure, there is no reason to suppose that we will find it easy to do so. This card has been said by some to be a plastic poll card, but it could be Labour's modern-day ground nut scheme. Either way, it will cost a lot of money and will probably achieve very little.
In addition to the involvement of a multiplicity of Departments, the Government have moved from prime reason to prime reason as to why they are introducing this measure. Before the election, the prime reason was combating terrorism. Incidentally, when the Government introduced their proposed entitlement cardas it was then calledand listed the 10 uses to which it would be put, they did not include combating terrorism. That was not thought a practical and useful thing to do. But if this card were really going help in combating terrorism, would we wait until 2013 to make it compulsory? We would surely want to do so now, just as ID cards were introduced immediately in the second world war. If this card were really going to help in identifying and checking out potential terrorists, would we not include within its provisions the 24 million people who come here every year on a visa for business purposes or as tourists for a short-term stayat least, that is what they say when they enter the countryrather than excluding them from any requirement to have one?
It is true that some years ago, when considering the terrorist problem in Ulster, I suggested that identity cards might be helpful, but I was persuaded by the powerful argument of the security forces to the effect thatcontrary to what the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) saidany benefits that they would derive in terms of combating IRA terrorism would be greatly offset by the problems they would face in enforcing compliance were a minority of the community to resist the use of ID cards. That is a problem that we may well face if we try to introduce this measure, particularly given thatas we now know, and as the Government acknowledgeits principal purpose is to deal with unlawful terrorism. That is certainly the principal demand of the public.
The general public mistakenly believe that most members of ethnic minorities are immigrants, which is not trueof course, most of them were born here and
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have British nationalityand that most immigrants came here illegally, which is not true either: most came here legally. The general public therefore believe that the police need to have the power to compel people to have these cards about their person at all times, and to have the right to stop and question anyone who looks or sounds foreign, in order to get them to justify their presence in this country. I find that abhorrent, and I am astonished that that there is any Member in this House who does not find it abhorrent that our fellow citizens, just because they are a different colour or have a different accent, could be constantly required by the policeand will be, ineluctably, if this measure is on the statute bookto justify their presence in this country, simply to satisfy the mistaken belief on the part of many people that such a requirement will help to control illegal immigration, which it will not.
This is a fundamental change in the relationship between the citizen and the state. Such a change has only ever been introduced in countries that had authoritarian, fascist or communist Governments. It has never been introduced in a country with a common-law system, and I hope that we will not set the appalling example of adopting that system here today.