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House of Commons

Monday 19 February 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Identity Cards

1. Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): If he will make a statement on his policy for the introduction of identity cards. [121290]

The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality (Mr. Liam Byrne): The Government remain committed to the introduction of identity cards, which are essential in combating identity fraud and illegal immigration and in disrupting organised crime and the continued threat of terrorism. We shall start introducing biometric immigration documents for foreign nationals from 2008 and ID cards for British citizens from 2009.

Mr. Whittingdale: How much do the Government intend to spend this year on the introduction of ID cards, and what is the latest estimate of the total cost of the scheme? Will the hon. Gentleman not accept even now that this enormously expensive and ineffectual scheme would be much better scrapped and the money spent on building prison places so that he does not have to go on releasing violent offenders to commit still more offences?

Mr. Byrne: Three points are relevant. First, 70 per cent. of the costs of identity cards will be spent anyway on introducing biometric passports. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would want us to scrap biometric passports, because 53 of the 55 major passport-issuing countries propose to introduce those documents. I am sure that, like me, he would not want a British passport to become a second-class document in the world.

Secondly, we will present costs, as we are required to do, in April. We present an updated cost report every six months, as is required under the Identity Cards Act 2006. Finally, let us consider the alternative. If we cancelled the system that underpins ID cards, we would be cancelling the system that underpins biometric visas, ID cards for foreign nationals and biometric passports. That would render us defenceless in the war against illegal immigration.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I surveyed my constituents on the issue and received more than 700 responses. Of the people in East Dunbartonshire who responded, 87 per cent. said that they would rather the money was spent on more police in their community than on the Government’s ID cards project. When will the Government realise that their plans for ID cards are unnecessary, unwanted and undeniably a complete waste of money?

Mr. Byrne: I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to a slightly wider-ranging survey than the survey that she conducted in her constituency—the British social attitudes survey. According to that survey, over the last couple of weeks, 71 per cent. of the British public have said that ID cards are a good idea. I am with them. I am one of those who think that if a person has nothing to hide, they will not be worried about ID cards.

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Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): The Government say that they believe that ID cards will help in the fight against terrorism. Spain has ID cards, yet it became the victim of the atrocious bombings that took place in Madrid. What is the compelling case for the use of ID cards in the fight against terrorism?

Mr. Byrne: We have always been clear that the role of ID cards will be to disrupt terrorist activities. The hon. Gentleman will know, because it has been said in the House before, that al-Qaeda training manuals specifically encourage terrorists or would-be terrorists to adopt as many identities as possible to hide themselves from the security services and the law. Biometric ID cards carry a single important advantage, which is that they lock the individual down to a single identity, so that such fraud becomes harder, if not impossible, in the future.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): The Minister said that 70 per cent. of the costs of ID cards would be covered by biometric passports. How is it possible to make that assertion when we still have no information from the Government on the technical costs of the ID cards project and when there is still a vast discrepancy between the cost estimates? The estimate from the Government is £5.4 billion and up to £19 billion is estimated by the London School of Economics. Does that not give rise to the suspicion that the costs of biometric passports are being artificially inflated to give an impression that the cost of the ID cards project is lower? When will the Minister publish a full comparative analysis of the costs of both projects?

Mr. Byrne: The hon. Gentleman would be wise not to pray in aid the LSE report, which ignored research from the National Physical Laboratory, exaggerated the cost of verifying identity information and had some pretty basic problems with its maths. It overstated the number of people who might have problems giving biometric data by an extraordinary 1,800 per cent., so I am not sure that that is the report to pray in aid in support of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. We publish reports every six months. It is absolutely right that we bring such accountability and transparency to the project. We will publish the next report in April.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): En passant, I notice that not a single Labour Member has stood to support the Minister, despite his comments about the support for his case.

In December, the Home Secretary announced that the ID card system was to be based on the Department for Work and Pensions customer information system database. That is the national insurance number system. There are in existence 76 million supposedly valid national insurance numbers—29 million more than there are eligible British citizens in the United Kingdom, which is more than the population of Romania and four times the population of Bulgaria. How does the Minister think that that flawed database is a suitable foundation for an ID card system, which is, after all, supposed to prevent identity fraud?

Mr. Byrne: I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman started with a survey of the support that there is for the scheme— [Interruption.] Well, let us talk about the
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support on each side of the House. Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, who chairs the Conservative policy review group, said:

We will put in place two systems in order to underpin the national identity register. One is the DWP’s CIS index, which is a tried and tested system and operates at very high volumes. The second is the new biometric warehouse. The link between the two will establish one single record in both systems. That is the right approach because it is lower risk and will make it possible to bring in the project in a shorter time. The system will use tried and tested technology. I repeat: to shut down that system will render us defenceless against tackling illegal immigration. We will use the same system to process biometric visas, tougher checks for people abroad and ID cards for foreign nationals in the United Kingdom.

David Davis: Answer was there none. The Minister described the database as tried and tested. The Government themselves have already admitted that they have issued up to 300,000 national insurance numbers to foreign nationals every year and that over 98 per cent. of those are issued without any check whatever on immigration status. That is part of the reason why, under that so-called tried and tested system, we wrongly spent £4.5 million in tax credits to immigrants in one year alone. Rather than protect against identity fraud, is not there a real risk that the ID card will legitimise existing identity fraud?

Mr. Byrne: Absolutely not. What is clear is that the right hon. Gentleman has not looked at the report that we published before Christmas, which set out exactly how these matters would be addressed. It is tried and tested technology. It uses the same biometric technology that is going into passports, of which there are 2.5 million already in circulation. I come back to the point that, if we were to shut down those systems and cancel the contracts, as he proposes, we would render the country defenceless against illegal immigration just at the time when the pressure on our borders is going to grow, if anything.

Asylum Seekers

2. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): What recent discussions he has had with the Scottish Executive on the removal of failed asylum seeker families. [121291]

The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality (Mr. Liam Byrne): I have regular conversations with the Scottish Executive about matters relating to the removal of families who are appeal rights exhausted. In addition, our regional director for Scotland has regular meetings with his officials.

Mr. Carmichael: I thank the Minister for that answer and welcome his recent acceptance that the practice of removals using dawn raids has a traumatising effect on children. When can we expect to see published a full agreement between the Scottish Executive and the
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Home Office on the practice of removals? Can he commit in principle to having as part of that agreement the appointment of a lead official, perhaps from social work or education, to ensure that the rights of children are always protected and heard in removal cases?

Mr. Byrne: I am grateful for that question. Our immigration officers in Scotland do an extremely difficult job under very difficult circumstances. I am particularly grateful to Glasgow city council for its work to ensure that when people have broken the law and an independent judge has passed a verdict, it is possible to remove them in the most civilised fashion. We are proposing a number of changes in Scotland. One is to ensure that there are teams that are responsible for a case from the beginning to the end, so that the decision is made entirely in Scotland. I think that the First Minister was right to propose that. Agreement has now been established in principle on the appointment of a lead professional to ensure that there is the right liaison on matters that relate to health and education when children are to be removed.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I am sorry to be a dog with a bone, but the Minister has not answered the question that I asked on 5 February during the debate on the UK Borders Bill. Why do clauses 1 to 4 and, I think, 21 exempt Scotland? The hard-working immigration officers in Scotland, to whom he has just referred, will not have the power to detain, but that power will be extended to England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Will he take this opportunity to explain the logic of that? What special arrangement has he reached with the Scottish Executive? Immigration officers in most of the United Kingdom have to be given in legislation powers to detain and powers on forfeiture, but apparently it is not necessary to apply that to Scotland. I simply do not understand the logic. Will he explain it to me now?

Mr. Byrne: As ever, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, as I was last week. As I promised him last week, I furnished him with the relevant advice that afternoon, and I have ensured that copies of it will be placed in the Library. I will happily review it with him if parts of the letter and the supporting advice are unclear.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): As I am not at present entirely comfortable about the dependability of executives, can the Minister assure the House that we truly do have a uniform policy throughout the United Kingdom and that the Scottish Executive are doing precisely what they should be doing?

Mr. Byrne: My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary urges me from a sedentary position to pass on to the hon. Gentleman the best wishes of Labour Members. I am happy to be able to give him the assurance he asks for.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): There is no doubt that the longer a family remains in Scotland, the harder it is to remove them if their application is unsuccessful, as roots are put down and children develop relationships at school. What is my hon. Friend doing to ensure that, in Scotland, removals, and
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decisions about them, are made as swiftly as possible? I understand that there are some quirks within the Scottish legal system that mean that certain kinds of decision are not made as quickly in Scotland as they are in England.

Mr. Byrne: My hon. Friend is right that there are aspects of the Scottish judicial system that lead to decisions being made more slowly: for example, when there are judicial reviews, they are not processed at the same speed as in England. However, the First Minister made the crucial point that it is important to have teams that are based in Scotland that are responsible for decisions from the beginning to the end. It is important to make sure that decisions are both taken in Scotland and as swiftly as possible. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary last year set a target of ensuring that 90 per cent. of decisions to grant, or to remove and deport, are taken within six months. We are now able to move towards achieving that in Scotland, as faster decisions are often fairer decisions.

Police Recruitment

3. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): If he will make a statement on police numbers. [121292]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): The capacity of the police service remains at an all-time high. At the end of September 2006, there were 140,005 police officers in England and Wales, an increase of 14,236 since 1997.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Of course I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply, but as there is increasing concern throughout the country about the funding that police forces might receive in future, not least in my county of Cheshire, and as—despite what the Home Secretary has just said—police officer numbers are falling for the first time since 2000, and also as the Government are scaling back on community support officers, is it not now clear that it is important that the Chancellor of the Exchequer reviews his decision to freeze the Home Office budget until 2011?

John Reid: As I said, in fact there are 14,236 more police officers than there were in March 1997, just before this Government came to power. In Cheshire, there are 6 per cent. more police officers—124—in addition to which there are 77 extra police community support officers, which did not previously exist, and there are 437 additional support staff. That is because of the massive increase in resources that we put into policing in Cheshire and throughout England and Wales, all of which was opposed by the hon. Gentleman and his party.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): On police numbers, the Home Secretary will be aware that one of the responses to the recent tragic wave of gun crime in London has been increased numbers of armed police patrolling the streets of south London. He will also be aware that gun crime is not just an issue for south London, but a huge issue for Hackney and Harlesden and even for the shire counties. Does he agree that stemming the tide of gun
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crime is not just a question of increased numbers of police patrols—although that is welcome—or even of changes in the law, but of doing more to stem the catastrophic educational failure of many of our young men, including black men, and more to support families and communities?

John Reid: First, may I express my condolences and those, I am sure, of the whole House to the families and loved ones of those who so tragically died recently through gun crime? I agree with my hon. Friend that this is an important issue, which is why so many of our London colleagues attended a meeting that we held last Friday on this very subject. I also agree that although extra police numbers and the roll-out of neighbourhood policing is of course an important issue, there are others that are important. We require more powers for the police, and we will review how we can do that. We obviously require an adoption and acceptance of personal responsibility, which we try to assist by intervening through parenting orders and the many other facilities that are provided to help parents. We also provide empowerment in a range of areas, including education, which is undoubtedly an important issue. Although I would argue that much has been done in all those areas—that is why crime and serious crime, including gun crime in London, has fallen—there is nevertheless a great deal left to be done. We have called together representatives of the communities, Ministers, the police and experts in a summit, which will be held this Thursday, in order to explore what further police action, powers and empowerment, or interventions in the local community, might be necessary to help tackle these awful crimes.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Because Milton Keynes is expanding so quickly, police numbers per head of population have actually fallen in recent years. Perhaps that is why crime went up in 2005 by 27 per cent., and by 23 per cent. last year, according to the Government’s own figures. Bearing that in mind, is the Secretary of State prepared to look again at funding formulae that seem to discriminate against areas with high population growth?

John Reid: I do not know where the hon. Gentleman gets his figures from, but in fact there are now 223,061 police service personnel, of whom 140,000—approximately 14,500 more than when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in power—are being devolved to neighbourhood policing, so it is not just a matter of more numbers: there are more police visible on the streets. Moreover, resources have extended considerably over that period. On the British crime survey, to which he referred, again, I do not know where he gets his figures from. There has in fact been a 34 per cent. reduction in violent crime, compared with the 100 per cent. increase that occurred under the previous Government. The most recent figures, from September last year, show that more serious violence is down by 19 per cent., other offences against the person involving injury are down by 7 per cent., and firearms offences have fallen by 14 per cent. None of that is a ground for complacency, but it shows that the provision of police and the reduction in crime is considerably better than anything that we saw under the last Government.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley South) (Lab): I congratulate the Home Secretary on the increased resources for the police that have undoubtedly been
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provided—not least the support officers, who work very effectively with the police in the Knowsley command area. However, I ask him to look forward to 2008, when Liverpool will be the capital of culture and extra demands will therefore be placed on policing in Liverpool. Will he make sure that he finds the formula to ensure that Merseyside is adequately policed to meet those demands?

John Reid: My hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety has already met Liverpool representatives and he has agreed to meet them again. In fact, only last Thursday or Friday night, I, too, met them. This matter was raised in the course of our discussions, and I referred them to my hon. Friend the Minister.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Is the Home Secretary aware, from his present job and his previous job, that the Ministry of Defence is cutting the number of its police officers, which is having an impact on the civilian police force? For example, Colchester garrison has seen a 40 per cent. cut in MOD police numbers. Will he investigate that?

John Reid: I regard those figures with a degree of scepticism as I have not seen them verified, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I will look into the matter and discuss it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Since 1997, Durham has had an increase of more than 300 police officers, but if the police authority precept increase is capped at 5 per cent. this year, it will mean a loss of 100 officers next year. I am told that when the police authority sets its budget this week it will consider breaching the cap to solve the structural problem with the precept in Durham. I urge my right hon. Friend to consider Durham as a special case when considering the precept increase.

John Reid: I am sure that Durham is a special case, along with every other police authority in England and Wales. Happily, capping is a matter for the Department for Communities and Local Government, not for me.

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