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Chris Grayling: My right hon. Friend has raised a valid point that I had planned to come on to in a moment. The truth is that the national identity register
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establishes a level of data collection that goes far beyond anything that has ever been required for passports or that even needs to be required for a system of biometric passports. It remains our intention, as it was when my right hon. Friend was shadow Home Secretary, not to proceed with the national identity register. I see little reason why the rules that apply to the application for a passport should change radically given the current circumstances. To extend those rules to a national identity register such as that proposed by the Government at a time when the nation’s finances are straitened and when genuine questions arise about civil liberties seems to suggest that it is a project that we do not need to pursue.

We need clear answers to some of the questions that remain before the Government. The terms of the motion that we have tabled gives the House a clear choice to vote for or against the scheme. First, can we have some transparency about the existing contracts and the amount of taxpayers’ money that has been spent already? More to the point, how much public money has been committed to the scheme?

As the House will know, I have written to the contracting groups—as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) before me—to advise them that a Conservative Government will cancel the scheme. I repeat that warning today. One of the first acts of an incoming Conservative Government will be to cancel the ID scheme. The scheme and the register are an affront to British liberty, have no place in a Conservative Britain and are a huge waste of money.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he will also cancel the contracts that are in place to establish the centralised biometric database?

Chris Grayling: We will certainly cancel the national identity register. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we might be in a position in which, in order to allow people to travel to the United States, we need to process biometric data and to pursue the introduction of biometric passports. We have not backed away from the biometric passport option and, I understand, nor has he. Clearly, data collection will be necessary for biometric passports. However, it is not our intention to proceed with a compulsory national identity register.

What do the Government intend—this relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne)—to include in the national identity register? Section 4 of the Identity Cards Act 2006 gives the Secretary of State the power to designate certain documents under the Act, such as passports. As the explanatory notes to the Act make clear, that means that

The Home Office consultation on secondary legislation on ID cards, published in November, reaffirmed the Government’s intention to designate passports. It said that:

The Government proposed holding applicants’ referees’ details on the register, too. That is very different from the process of simply applying for a biometric passport, as the hon. Member for Eastleigh will, I am sure, agree.

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The Home Office’s spurious idea of what is voluntary was demonstrated when the consultation went on:

However, as we discovered this afternoon when my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) asked his question, it appears that one cannot “unvolunteer” for one of these passports. I would be interested to hear the Home Secretary’s confirmation of that.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): What will the hon. Gentleman achieve by abandoning the national identity register but maintaining a register, also maintained by the Identity and Passport Service, of those who have biometric passports? The information on the identity card is identical to that on the passport. It consists of only five bits of information: name, date of birth, place of birth, nationality and address.

Chris Grayling: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is wrong. He needs to go and look at the legislation and he will discover that nearly 50 categories of information need to be provided under the Act. That is a huge jump from the current means of applications for passports.

Martin Linton: I know that there are 54 places on the computer where the information can be put, but all the information other than name, date of birth, place of birth, nationality and address is identity information from other Government Departments—the national insurance number, the national health service number and so on. They are simply cross-references with other Departments. The only personal information on an ID card, as on a passport, will be name, age, date of birth, place of birth and nationality.

Chris Grayling: If that is the case, it prompts the question why we need a database for national insurance numbers. The current application system for passports seems perfectly adequate to me. If we had to have biometric passports, the data will clearly have to be stored. I see no need to create a much more substantial database containing 30 or 40 extra items of information that are not necessary in an application for a passport.

Chris Huhne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point, but I am not sure that I would accept that it is necessary to store biometric data. After all, the document would have the biometric data and it is an additional guarantee of veracity. Why is it necessary to go one step further and store it centrally?

Chris Grayling: My view is that we should do the minimum that we have to do. If data are submitted for a passport application, they will probably be retained in the passport database. We do not need to create a gargantuan list of items with biometric data attached. We do not need to store somebody’s national insurance number and biometric data side by side with all the other items to which the hon. Gentleman is referring on a national identity database. We need a passport system.

David Davis: The issue is about more than the fact that we do not need to do this. I feel sympathy for my hon. Friend in dealing with the slow learners on the Government Benches. We are talking about a risk. The Government have already lost 25 million records. What will happen when they lose every other record—when
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they lose the metadatabase with access to all the databases in the Government? This is a serious danger; it is more than an inconvenience.

Chris Grayling: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He is also right to point out the Government’s lamentable record of managing data. The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) asked why the Opposition have formed the view that we have. We have formed that view for two reasons. First, there are strong civil liberties arguments against an identity cards scheme. Secondly, we have no faith whatsoever in this Government’s ability to manage such a scheme on the basis of cost or data protection. They have proved to be systematically incompetent over the years in managing such a big scheme and they should not be trusted with one.

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): Is it not the case that the fundamental difference is that the biometric passport database is a static database—one submits one’s details, they are held there and they are effectively used as verification when one applies to update one’s details—whereas the national identity register is a live database? It is not only constantly updated with, effectively, one’s details, as one is obliged to do under the 2006 Act. It is also constantly updated every time it is interrogated by public service deliverers such as the NHS, and so on, and therefore forms a fundamental footprint of how one lives one’s life and how one accesses public sector services. That is the fundamental difference.

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. On many occasions over the years, we have seen the Government introduce something that develops mission creep. Step by step, something that was designed for a particular purpose becomes much more substantial. We are talking about the need to have a database for passports and for nothing else. The Government’s proposal for a national identity register is something that, as sure as night follows day, will develop an acute mission creep and will involve far more things than we would ever countenance as acceptable.

Martin Linton: The hon. Gentleman is very generous in giving way. But there we have it, do we not? The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) has identified the only difference between the passport register and the national identity register: the passport register is kept up to date when people change address. Is that the Opposition’s objection? The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) has not produced another difference between a list of passport numbers—people who have passports—and a national identity register. They are identical, except on that one point.

Chris Grayling: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is talking complete nonsense. He needs to go back and read the Identity Cards Act 2006 and look at the difference between the two schemes, one of which is a vast collection of personal data, as opposed to a limited amount of information needed to issue a passport. If he does not understand the difference between the two, I am afraid that I will not be able to help him.

Does the Home Secretary intend to press ahead with making it compulsory for passport applicants to be entered on to the national identity register? When will
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that happen? Can he give us an updated statement of the costs of the scheme? How much is the total bill? He talked about the scheme being self-funding. How long will that take? How many people will need to sign up for an identity card before the scheme becomes fully self-funding? Frankly, I do not believe that it is possible to make the scheme self-financing. That raises a third question—the subject of the motion tonight—straightforwardly, why cannot he just scrap the scheme now?

While the Government have been promoting a scheme that is becoming less and less substantial by the week, a considerable opportunity cost has been lost to the country. Although the Home Office’s considerable resources could have been devoted to sorting out the problems that we actually have, the Government have been concentrating on inventing the answer to a problem that we do not have. They could have been working on sorting out the asylum system and the immigration system, designing a better strategy for countering terrorism and dealing with policing issues, yet they have devoted eight years to a massive national folly.

I had hoped that the signals given out by the Home Secretary when he took office meant that he had brought a degree of common sense to his new job. How wrong I was. I should not have been surprised, though. The Government are no longer capable of taking clear-cut and straightforward decisions; instead, they just dither. If they are not sure about ID cards, they say, “We’re not sure if we can scrap them, so let’s have an unworkable, botched job instead.” That is no way to govern this country and no way to run the Home Office. They should either stand by their principles and believe that the scheme has a purpose—in which case, stick with it and get on with the job—or they should accept that they were wrong and make big changes. Sitting with one leg on either side of the fence is the most ungainly and painful of all options, but the Government have long since forgotten how to do anything else. So, tonight, we have given the House an opportunity to put the Home Secretary out of his misery and to give a clear answer on ID cards: get rid of what is a ludicrous fudge and scrap the ID card scheme once and for all.

7.42 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Alan Johnson): I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

My hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration is hotfooting it from Heathrow even as I speak, and will reply to the debate.

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Having spent my first few weeks as Home Secretary looking at this issue again from first principles, I am more convinced than ever that the national identity service is a sane and rational policy that needs to be implemented rather than scrapped, and accelerated rather than delayed. When I announced the results of my deliberations in a written ministerial statement to the House last week, it was reported in The Guardian as

and by The Independent as

The Guardian, as so often, actually got it right.

The policy was forged following full public consultation and a supportive report by the Home Affairs Committee in 2004. The former leader of the Conservative party, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) said in December of that year:

I was fascinated to hear in the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) supported ID cards. I have it here in front of me now: on 23 January 2002, under the heading “Identity Card—Motion for leave to introduce a Bill”, just 13 Conservative Members supported that Bill, one of whom was the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell. So we have a consensus, and his speech can be read as an effort to say, “We’ll introduce an identity card scheme,” because most of what he said related to what the Government could or could not do, and I suspect that we have found a covert supporter of the policy. Of course, he would not be alone, with so many other Conservative Members supporting the policy, too.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The right hon. Gentleman has just said that the identity card is about the safety of the British people, but one of the problems with the scheme is that it has become the panacea for all the Government’s problems, from benefit fraud to terrorism. Will he set out clearly what he believes the purpose of an identity card is?

Alan Johnson: I will certainly do that, but the hon. Gentleman will have to be patient for a while. I am going through the policy in chronological order. In 2002, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell supported identity cards. In December 2004, the then leader of the Conservative party supported identity cards. The following year, the manifesto on which my party successfully stood in the general election contained a commitment to introduce identity cards. There was no reference in that manifesto to compulsion and no mention of their use in fighting terrorism. So the manifesto made no spurious claims of what identity cards would do. We won the election. Parliament subsequently approved the legislation, and the Identity Cards Act received Royal Assent in 2006.

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman suggests that there was never any mention of terrorism. The Prime Minister described identity cards as an important weapon in the war against terrorism, and said that it was crucial to the destruction of terrorism that we should be able to spot quickly where multiple
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identities are being used. For the Home Secretary to stand there and say that the Labour party has never claimed that ID cards would be useful in the fight against terrorism is simply wrong.

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman is struggling a bit. The Prime Minister was absolutely right in everything that he said, as I was right in what I just said. Our 2005 manifesto—that is what I said—did not contain any reference to compulsion, or to ID cards as a weapon in the fight against terrorism.

Chris Grayling: The right hon. Gentleman suggests that I have changed my mind. He clearly voted for motions and supported policies on compulsion and the importance of ID cards in combating terrorism. When did he change his mind?

Alan Johnson: Let me say it one more time: the platform on which we stood at the 2005 election—the manifesto that said that we would introduce ID cards—made no mention of compulsion and no mention of terrorism.

Martin Linton: My right hon. Friend passes rather quickly over the vote in December 2004, but is he aware that all the Conservative Members here this evening voted for the Second Reading of the Identity Cards Bill, with—I must add, to be fair to him—the sole exception of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green)?

Alan Johnson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend: it gets better and better all the time. So why, given all this and the fact that every public opinion poll then and now shows substantial public support for identity cards, should we leave the path of good governance and common sense and wander off into the dense ideological undergrowth that the motion from Her Majesty’s Opposition tries to tempt us towards?

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): The right hon. Gentleman will know, because he pays great attention to such things, that the Scottish Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the concept of ID cards—not even one Labour MSP was prepared to support it. Will he respect that decision? Will he ensure that people in Scotland will not have to use ID cards, which no one in Scotland wants, to access public services?

Alan Johnson: This is not a devolved issue, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Of course, we have made it clear since 2007 that if people want to use their biometric passports, which all parties agree on, as their identity card, there is no need for them to get an identity card as well. Their passports will do to verify their identity.

As I understand it, three essential arguments are being deployed against the introduction of identity cards. The first is that they are unnecessary, the second is that they are too expensive, and the third is that giving people a single, safe and secure way to verify and protect their identity—for the benefit of the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir), I should explain that that is the justification for the cards—will damage civil liberties.

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