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Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is right, of course, to set out the attitude previously taken by the Tories—or at least, by quite a
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large number of them—towards identity cards. However, on Tuesday it will be four years since 52 people were slaughtered by murderous psychopaths. Will my right hon. Friend accept, as his predecessors did, that no identity card scheme would have prevented the terrible events of four years ago?

Alan Johnson: We will indeed mark four years since 7/7 tomorrow. I was on “Any Questions?” on 8 July 2005, the next day. The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) was on the panel as well. I was a member of the Cabinet, and at no time that evening, in that very sombre debate, did I claim that identity cards would have stopped that dreadful attack. Nor have I ever heard one of my predecessors, or anyone on the Labour Benches, claim that. It is a complete fallacy to suggest that anyone ever did. The one thing that united all the people on the panel that evening—people of all parties—was our abhorrence of the outrage, and our absolute determination to ensure that we do all that we can to prevent such a thing from happening again. I have not used that argument in putting the case. Nor did my predecessor or her predecessor, so I think that it is a spurious argument.

Several hon. Members rose

Alan Johnson: I shall give way to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) first.

David Davis: I thank the right hon. Gentleman—and friend. The simple truth is, of course, that the then Home Secretary said that identity cards would not have prevented the outcome, but the Prime Minister subsequently said that they would be a help in defeating terrorism. The Home Secretary has to deal with that. Let me bring him back to the issue of improving the security of our identities. His Government have had the misfortune to lose the records, including bank account details, of 25 million people. When the Government lose someone’s bank account details, that person can change their bank account. What do they do when the Government lose their fingerprints?

Alan Johnson: That is obviously an issue in the debate. The simple fact is that the information that went missing was downloadable. The information on the national identity register will not be downloadable. It is as safe and secure as it could possibly be—as safe as any system that we could possibly devise. According to the right hon. Gentleman’s argument, at no time in future could the Government have any databases, because some Inland Revenue records were lost. We have a huge database in the NHS, at the Department for Work and Pensions and at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. It is nonsense to suggest that the knock-down argument against identity cards is that future Governments of all political persuasions should never set up such a database.

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood) (Con): May I bring the Home Secretary back to the subject of the efficacy of identity cards? I accept that he has not claimed that identity cards would have prevented 7/7. The challenge for him is to identify any criminal activity that the introduction of a voluntary system of law enforcement
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would have prevented. Unless he can do that, he cannot demonstrate that identity cards would be efficacious in delivering the public policy objectives that the Government claim.

Alan Johnson: I will come on to that in a second, but the right hon. Gentleman cannot suggest that identity cards would not make a contribution to tackling identity fraud, benefit fraud, money laundering, people-trafficking, or a whole range of other problems. Incidentally, they would make a contribution towards tackling terrorism; as I have said, identity cards are a tool, not the toolbox. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell—my new friend as a supporter of ID cards, I discover—says that he has never spoken to anyone in the security services who says that ID cards would make any difference. In the five weeks that I have been in this job, I have not spoken to anyone in the security services who says anything other than that they would make a valuable contribution.

I set out the three principal arguments against identity cards: they are not necessary, they will cost too much, and they will interfere with civil liberties. I shall now take each of those in turn. Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House will, I am sure, recognise that people traffickers, drug dealers and, indeed, terrorists depend on ready access to bogus documents. At present, there is no single effective way of recording or establishing someone’s identity. That makes people more vulnerable to identity fraud, makes the job of the police and others in tracking suspects more difficult, and makes proving one’s own identity, or verifying someone else’s identity, a laborious and complex process. It puts us in stark contrast to other European countries, most of which have a central and secure way of registering and tracking people’s identity.

There are numerous databases that hold personal details of people living in this country, but none of them exists purely to verify someone’s identity. Personal information on anyone who holds a driving licence is held on the DVLA database. The NHS holds personal details of everyone who is registered with a general practitioner and allocates them a unique NHS number, which apparently used to be their identity card number before identity cards were scrapped in 1952.

Chris Huhne: I am grateful to the Home Secretary for mentioning the NHS database, because it is a rather good example of the sort of problems that we may have in store. It was originally estimated that the Spine system would cost £2.3 billion, but the National Audit Office now puts the figure at £12.4 billion and rising. What assurance can he conceivably give the House that the identity card scheme, and the national identity register, will not have a similar catastrophic effect on the public finances?

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. The assessment in 2003-04 of how much the NHS database would cost was £12.3 billion. Its cost now is assessed at £12.4 billion. It has gone from £12.3 billion to £12.4 billion; that was always the cost. The problem with the NHS database is that we have not been able to spend the money that was originally put
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aside, because it has been too slow in being constructed. It is not a problem of spiralling costs; the hon. Gentleman is absolutely wrong on that.

Several hon. Members rose

Alan Johnson: I want to make progress, but I will give way one more time, to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris).

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I remain a supporter of identity cards: in the context of illegal immigration, identity is a huge problem. However, I have to say to my right hon. Friend that several Labour Members have concerns about the technology and the cost. As he just pointed out, the NHS computer system is years behind schedule. Will he assure me that that will not happen with the national identity register? I am pretty dubious about both the technology and the cost.

Alan Johnson: I do not want to get on to the subject of the NHS database, although I am tempted. The simple fact is that the identity cards system is on time and on schedule. It has been on schedule from the time it was set up. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell asked me for a report on the costs: we give one every six months and the most recent was in May, so I believe that I can placate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West on that point.

Several hon. Members rose

Alan Johnson: I will give way to the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benchers, and then I will make some progress.

Chris Grayling: I have a simple question for the Home Secretary: how many people will have to volunteer to take up an ID card, and will have to pay their £30, before the scheme breaks even?

Alan Johnson: I do not know the answer to that question, but I will let the hon. Gentleman know. The point is that we have always put forward a voluntary scheme. We said in the manifesto that it would be voluntary. It was in the Bill that we took through Parliament that it would be a voluntary scheme. We want it to be universal, just as it is voluntary to carry credit cards and they are universal, and just as it is voluntary to have lots of other items that are universal. We have never based our assessment of the costs on the ID cards being compulsory.

Chris Huhne: I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way again, but I am slightly astonished by that reply. He has just announced a change in policy as regards airside workers, for whom identity cards were to have been compulsory. The key point that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) makes, which I think is absolutely correct, is that as soon as we make the scheme voluntary, we spread the substantial overhead cost of the scheme among fewer and fewer people. One then cannot raise the amount of money that one expected, and the cost to the Exchequer is substantially higher. The risk of the cost to the Exchequer will be dramatic. What does the Treasury think about that?

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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May I ask Members who make interventions to be brief? There is a limited amount of time left for Back Benchers’ speeches in this debate.

Alan Johnson: I shall come to cost in a moment. As for airside workers, we expect that ID cards would be made free to them for the next 18 months. We expect that removing the argument about whether identity cards are compulsory and ensuring that those workers get the same benefit as all other British citizens from a voluntary scheme will mean that we can speed up the process and get much wider coverage over the next 18 months.

The details of the 80 per cent. of people who have a passport appear on the UK passport database. The DWP allocates national insurance numbers and holds personal details and benefits records. The upshot is that whenever a GP surgery, employer, job centre, bank or passport agency tries to verify someone’s identity, they have no foolproof way of doing so, which makes it both easier for people to create multiple identities and more burdensome for people to prove their identity.

Identity fraud has grown, not diminished, since the debate began in 2004. The UK’s fraud prevention service, the credit industry fraud avoidance system—CIFAS—estimates that the incidence of fraud whereby someone impersonates a victim in order to take over their bank account more than tripled between 2007 and 2008. A study in the US has ascertained that each time an identity is stolen it takes the victim, once they are aware, an average of 330 hours to sort everything out and claim back their own identity.

The question is: do we need to deal more effectively with the problems of identity fraud, which is a feature of illegal working, benefit fraud and terrorism? The answer must surely be yes. Will a national identity register help? Of course it will. The introduction of fingerprint biometric passports from 2012 will secure identities much more effectively for 80 per cent. of the adult population. The details of everyone aged 16 or over who applies for a passport will no longer be held on the passport database but on the national identity register, and will be linked to their unique biometric data.

Just like the current passport database, the national identity register will record someone’s name, date and place of birth. It will also record their current address. It would not hold details of any criminal record or any medical information. Like the DVLA database, it will require people to update their details when their name or address changes. It will be overseen by an independent identity commissioner, and all arrangements for sharing data will be subject to parliamentary approval. Unlike any other existing databases, any unauthorised disclosure of information in the national identity register will be a specific criminal offence that could lead to two years’ imprisonment. Tampering with the register could lead to a 10-year sentence.

The second argument is about cost. If identity cards were scrapped today, it does not follow that the Government would save any money at all. Of the total cost of £4.95 billion, 70 per cent. is for the systems to produce the new biometric passport, which the Opposition support. A further £379 million is for the compulsory scheme for foreign nationals, which the Opposition also support.
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Over 10 years, the operating costs of identity cards will be recovered through fees, so they are not a charge on general taxation over that period. Any initial savings from scrapping identity cards would be offset by the loss in fees that they would generate, which would make a significant contribution to the costs of technology and other systems necessary for the introduction of biometric passports.

The third argument is the civil liberties argument, which unites the Liberals with the libertarians. Holding an identity card is not a new concept for people in the UK. In the second world war, all British citizens were issued with an identity card that showed their name and address and an identity card number, which was held on a national register. When this requirement was abolished seven years after the war ended, the national register was transferred to the newly formed NHS. Identity cards do not create or extend the Big Brother society; they are an attempt to control it— [Laughter.] They are also an attempt to give every individual a greater right to determine the use of their own identity, where so many wish to abuse it. I presumed that was why the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell supported the concept in 2002. I do not know why he is laughing now.

In today’s world, people invariably carry a range of plastic cards because they are required to prove their identity regularly. We need them to get into our place of work, to access cash, to pay our bills. Everyday events such as signing a tenancy agreement, starting a new job, or registering at a new doctor’s surgery require people to produce not only their passport but a selection of any number of other documents to prove their identity—utility bills, driving licence, payslips, birth certificates, six months’ worth of bank statements, all carried around by people in an attempt to prove that they are who they say they are. Many people would much rather produce their biometric passport or a credit card-sized ID card that fits easily into a wallet than waste time trawling through their personal paperwork, and many are likely to choose the £30 identity card over the £72 passport.

It is wrong to suggest that identity cards will make it possible for the Government or other bodies to repress or restrict liberty in any way. The Leader of the Opposition recently used an argument as spurious as his cod German accent when suggesting that it would. As is set out in law by the Identity Cards Act 2006, it will never be a requirement to carry an identity card at all times, and the police will have no new powers to stop people and demand that they produce their papers.

Private organisations will be able to access any information held about an individual on the national identity register only with that individual’s consent. Police and security services would be able to do so only under specific provisions approved by Parliament. There is no question of the national identity register being used to compile information about people’s political or religious beliefs, or their criminal or financial records. It will hold only the most basic, personal details, and substantially less than the personal records held by the NHS, the DVLA, or the Department for Work and Pensions. Everyone will have the right to see the information held on their record, and the names of any organisations that may have checked their identity against that record.

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I point out again that the Opposition parties support the introduction of biometric passports, which will necessitate a register and will be available from 2011. They support our policy of compelling foreign nationals from non-EEA countries to have an identity card. Apparently, they do not think that the arguments of necessity, cost and civil liberties apply in the areas where, as I have explained, the majority of the costs are incurred.

Martin Linton: On that point, can my right hon. Friend see a difference between the official Opposition’s policy on biometric passports and the data that would need to be kept on those, and their view on the subject of identity cards? From what my right hon. Friend has just said, it seems that there would be no difference between the information on the credit card-sized identity card and that on the biometric passports, which the Opposition support.

Alan Johnson: It is a puzzle why Opposition Members support not just the passport but the necessary register of information. There seem to be some differences between the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), who has now left his seat, and the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell. There is certainly a difference between the two Opposition Front-Bench teams. I respect the fact that the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) has been consistent, but the official Opposition accept the need for biometric passports, and therefore must surely accept the need for a register of who has those biometric passports. They argue that, having established a system to lock in a person’s identity in that way, we should not give our citizens the option of a card rather than a passport. That is the argument. Our argument is very clear: people do not need to have an identity card if they wish to use their biometric passport as their form of identity. Her Majesty’s official Opposition say, “No, no. If they want to take a more convenient route and have a card, they shouldn’t be allowed to do it.”

Rob Marris: On the question of having a card instead of a passport, and the figures that my right hon. Friend has given to the House tonight, I would say that if the scheme is to be self-financing at £30 a shot for an identity card, 35 million of them will have to be taken up in the next 10 years. Does he think that that is going to happen?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend, unusually, has made a bit of spurious calculation; usually we leave that to the Opposition Front Benchers. The simple fact is that 70 per cent. of the costs are for the biometric passport, which all parts of the House support. A further £349 million of the cost—

Rob Marris: A further £379 million.

Alan Johnson: A further £379 million of the cost is for the compulsory identity card for foreign nationals, so I cannot see any way in which my hon. Friend’s figures add up.

Rob Marris rose—

Chris Huhne: The Home Secretary should give way to the hon. Gentleman.

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Alan Johnson: I would prefer not to, just for the last few minutes of the debate, because my hon. Friend is a great supporter of the scheme and will want to discuss the issue in detail with me afterwards.

Chris Grayling: Will the Home Secretary give way?

Alan Johnson: No.

Any sensible pragmatic Government would take advantage of the passport scheme to introduce a more convenient, voluntary alternative—a convenient piece of plastic to match all the others that people carry, rather than a valuable booklet. As I announced last week, I shall accelerate the roll-out of identity cards so that as many people as possible are able to access their benefits. Beginning in the Greater Manchester area, we will quickly move to the rest of the north-west and roll out the measure throughout London. There will be a focus on the most vulnerable in our society: those who not only do not hold passports, but do not have bank accounts or credit cards either—the socially and financially excluded.

But identity cards will not be compulsory for British citizens, and as I announced this week, that includes airside workers. After listening to unions and others in the airline industry, I believe that under a voluntary scheme, we can better explore how ID cards might simplify and make more secure the current arrangements at different airports for airside staff to verify their identity. My view is that, given the practical benefits, take-up will be high.

There is not one convincing argument for scrapping identity cards. It would not save money; it would, in the long term, cost us more, hamper the efforts of the public, the police and the security services to tackle identity fraud—which not only costs the economy £1.2 billion every year and causes considerable personal distress to those affected, but is the bedrock of much serious and organised crime in this country—and weaken, not strengthen, the defence of civil liberties. To scrap the scheme now, as the motion demands, would be an extremely expensive mistake that would deny the British people the practical and pragmatic step that they voted for in 2005 and have supported ever since. That is why I commend the amendment to the House.

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