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Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): As many hon. Members are still seeking to catch my eye, in accordance with the Order of the House of 26 October 2004 on shorter speeches, it has been decided that, between 8.40 pm and 9.40 pm, the limit on speeches will be reduced to five minutes.

8.40 pm

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): The more I consider the Bill, the more I am convinced that the problem is not the identity card but the database that lies behind it. It is inevitable that registration on the database will become compulsory. There is no prospect of that not happening. Once that has happened, it is again inevitable that it will become compulsory to produce the card, at least for specific processes, such as access to some public services. We are then likely to reach the point when it is compulsory to carry the card. If that happens—I believe that it will, in those stages—it will fundamentally change the relationship between the individual citizen and the state. If is futile to pretend otherwise.

We are being asked to approve the specification, commissioning and construction of probably one of the most complex databases that has ever been built. There is no international experience of building such databases. The system will involve three biometrics and a large population database, which will be used for a multiplicity of purposes. Hon. Members who spoke both in favour of and against the proposals have missed some of the points about what the construction of such a database means.

The database will be different from those with which we have already had to deal. Many of the databases that exist now do not have to cope with the problem of people who do not want to be on them or who fail to register for them. Some people will not wish to register on the proposed database on principle. Others, such as those with chaotic lifestyles, will fail to register. As we have heard, that also applies to people with some disabilities.

Millions of non-British citizens will be on the database. It must be permanently accessible from a wide range of public and private locations for it to perform any of the functions that are claimed for it. It is simply not comparable with existing systems.

If I were asked to propose an organisation to produce such a structure, the Home Office would not be high on my list. There has been no proper explanation of the construction of the database. If we are to have a clean database, which will be the gold standard, I want to hear how the information will be validated and verified. I have not heard that. I want to know how the enrolment centres will conduct the process. If faulty data appear from the beginning, the database cannot work from day one.
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The Bill is a recipe for disaster. Some of the myths of what it is supposed to achieve have already been discussed this evening and I shall not repeat them, because of lack of time. They include tackling terrorism, benefit fraud and identity theft, which is not clearly defined. Claiming that the answer to identity theft is an identity card is a non-sequitur unless one specifies what identity theft involves and how it is carried out.

We are told that the police want identity cards. I do not believe that they do. They want a national database, which will become a national biometric register. That will allow them to check up not only on those who have been involved with crime previously but on anyone on whom they wish to make any sort of check. These are ill-thought-out proposals.

I have no objection to passports and biometrics, but I want the database to disappear. I cannot support the proposals otherwise. It would be possible to produce an ID smartcard that would perform a good many of the required functions and would also be much more secure. Any IT expert will tell us that putting all our eggs in one basket will not work.

The Government have said that they want to listen and want to talk to us. The programme motion does not convince me of that. If we are really to have a debate about the evidence and the detail of that evidence, we cannot do so in three weeks.

There is no way I can vote for the Bill, and I will certainly vote against the programme motion, because it will kill the possibility of the genuine debate that we ought to have.

8.45 pm

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): Last year, in the last Parliament, I voted against the Bill content in the knowledge that I was doing the right thing, but a little unsettled in the knowledge that I was rebelling against the party line. Tonight I will vote against the Bill, still content that I am doing the right thing and delighted that I am supporting my party, since wisdom has settled on our Front Bench.

Some Members have objected to the Bill on principle, others on practical grounds. In the short time available to me, I want to begin with the principled objections. The longer we consider this proposal, the less attractive it becomes.

As a Conservative, I regard the defence of individual freedom as a core part of my political beliefs. As a lover of freedom, however, I am genuinely delighted that a distaste for state intervention is also present on the Government Benches. I hope that the rebels on those Benches keep their nerve. I encourage them to do so not from our partisan viewpoint, but from their long-term partisan viewpoint. Let me take them back to the 1980s. The phrase "poll tax" has been used frequently this evening. It would certainly have been embarrassing for Lady Thatcher's Government in the short term had the Conservative rebels succeeded in voting down the poll tax then, but it would have been a great deal less embarrassing than what happened to that Government after they failed to vote it down. I urge potential Labour rebels to hold their nerve. Not only will they be doing the right thing; they will be doing their party a favour in the long term.
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The hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) said that he could not understand what freedoms were being lost by the Bill. The main principle at stake is the basic relationship between the citizen and the state. Democracy makes the state answerable to the citizen; compulsory identity cards do the exact opposite. The freedom that is lost is the fundamental freedom to have a private life, because of the national identity register. It is not necessary to be a criminal to want some privacy. I agree with Liberty, which says

Liberty believes that we are moving away from a position where information is not given to Government and shared among Departments unless that is necessary

That is indeed a fundamental shift, which I think breaks a fundamental principle.

It has been said that no other common-law country has an identity card scheme. That is extremely important. With a written constitution and a code specifying what is legal and what is not, it is possible to protect privacy. Under a common-law system, once it is assumed that it is a Government's right to have private information about citizens, we have lost an essential protection that all citizens of a democracy deserve.

It is clear that in practical terms the Government cannot be confident that all the problems that they say the identity card will solve will indeed be solved, but we need only look at the history to see that Ministers have for ever been adept at providing ridiculous reasons for why identity cards are necessary. The House of Commons Library note tells us that, in the 1950s, just before identity cards were abolished, Ministers argued that one of the main reasons for retaining them was the prevention of bigamous marriages. I am not aware that the 1950s saw a huge upsurge in bigamy as a result of the abolition of identity cards, and some of the scares being put forward by Ministers today are about as valid as that one.

The final word should go to Mr. Harry Willcock who, in 1951, challenged the police and took his case to court. He argued that he should not have to carry an identity card, and he won. The Lord Chief Justice said that compulsory identity cards would

Those words showed great wisdom. We should also reflect that the last word of Harry Willcock—a difficult man who liked to argue—was "freedom". That should be our final word when debating this wretched proposal.

8.50 pm

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): I do not intend to debate the principles of this proposal. ID cards are commonly used in democratic countries, and the Bill will give the Government no more access to personal data than they already hold through items such as passports and driving licences, and significantly less than most of us freely give to banks, supermarkets and insurance companies.
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