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8.13 pm

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): I welcome the Opposition’s motion on identity cards and have only one key point to make: the ID card scheme is not just about the cards, but about the national identity register. That is why we tabled an amendment, which is on the Order Paper but was not, unfortunately, selected, calling explicitly for the abandonment not just of ID cards but of the centralised biometric register.

I shall deal with the Home Secretary’s point about the need for the register, because I simply do not see it. I was even more astonished after hearing his replies about costs than I was at the beginning of the debate. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) calculates that 35 million people would need to apply voluntarily for ID cards to make the scheme self-financing. A back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals that the figure is certainly about 30 million or 35 million.

The House should duly note, however, that we face the gravest crisis in the national finances that anyone can remember for generations, that we have a public
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sector deficit of more than 14 per cent. of GDP, and that the Home Secretary is unable—completely unable—to tell us how many people have to sign up for his voluntary scheme to make it self-financing. I hope that he has not had his first meeting with the Treasury, because when he does he will be completely shredded by it.

Rob Marris: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I have re-done the figures on my calculator and they come to 36.67 million. That is based on 70 per cent. of £4.9 billion, which is £3.43 billion, the foreign national stuff and the division of the resultant figure by £30, which comes to about 36 million. I may be wrong by a million or two, but it is a very big number.

Chris Huhne: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, with whom I had the pleasure of serving on a Finance Bill Committee a number of years ago. I can certainly testify that his figures on the issue are a good deal more credible than those that we have been offered by Treasury Ministers. I find it absolutely astonishing that the Home Secretary has come to the House today to defend a project that amounts to a menu without prices. We are being asked to buy a pig in a poke, and we have no idea of the ultimate cost. The changes that he has announced have serious cost implications, yet he has no estimate to give the House.

Mr. Weir: The figures from the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) are based on the Government’s cost of £4.9 billion. Alternative figures from the London School of Economics have put the cost as high as £10 billion to £19 billion, and, on those figures, more than the entire population would have to have identity cards before the scheme broke even.

Chris Huhne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing that out, and I simply return to the point that I was trying to make. When I was shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, I looked at Government IT schemes and found that more than four in five such schemes right across the government had exceeded their original budget. If the Home Secretary believes that he is going to stay within his budget, he is living in cloud cuckoo land.

The Home Office has already pushed a substantial part of the scheme’s cost beyond the planning period, so we do not really know whether the cost that the Home Secretary has mentioned is the full cost or merely the cost as currently shown in the planning period. I notice that nobody from the Treasury Bench is attempting to clarify that point, but I should be pleased if they did.

Chris Grayling: They do not know.

Chris Huhne: I agree.

The Government have rightly climbed down on applying for cards, and airside workers will no longer be forced to have them. Indeed, no British national with a vote in the forthcoming general election will need to have an ID card, and that perhaps tells us just how popular the Government really think this laminated poll tax is going to be. But that is only part of the argument. If people want to travel, they will need a passport and their biometric data will be entered onto the national identity
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register. They will be subject to penalties of up to £1,000 in fines if they do not keep the register up to date, for example, with address changes.

The Government have merely devised a new route by which they will collect the data of four in five of the population who have a passport: have passport, will travel, will be registered on the identity database. If that is choice and if that is voluntary, it is the same choice that the taxman gives the taxpayer. The Treasury says, “Pay taxes or go to jail.” The Home Office says, “Join the national identity register or give up foreign holidays.”

Rob Marris: It is a green measure.

Chris Huhne: Quite.

The database fundamentally reverses the relationship between the individual and the state. The Government helpfully tell us that identity cards will make asserting our own identities more convenient and affordable, without addressing the fundamental question of why we should be required to do so and why they seek to establish a national identity database in the first place. During questions today, the Home Secretary was asked about the point of biometric data if they were not on the database, and on that issue we have an important point of difference with the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). The answer is easy: biometrics enable the authorities to check that the holder of a passport—or, indeed, a card—is who they say they are. Biometric data such as fingerprints are much less easy to forge and equipment enables them to be checked; we do not need to put the data back on a database to make them useful. A central database is another logical step—a disproportionate one, in our view—in achieving higher security against identity fraud.

Dr. Palmer: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman accepts that fingerprints would be a good way of verifying the identity of a passport holder. As I understand it, his party would abolish the holding of such data on a database. How would he prevent people from applying for multiple identities?

Chris Huhne: The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next comment. The database would provide a check against the issue of duplicate passports or ID cards with the same biometric data. However, the Government have not provided any evidence that there would be a substantial problem. Nothing in what the Home Office has proposed indicates that it would be worth paying £5 billion for that benefit—let alone the £20 billion that the LSE estimates the project will ultimately cost us.

Other states do not think that there would be a substantial problem. Those lucky European states that we inoculated after the war against nanny state intrusion, such as Germany—not Sweden, I should say to the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton)—do not allow such centralised databases, and for very good reason. They know how databases can be abused; they suffered from them during the Nazi period and under Vichy France. That is why we should not begin to go down this route.

Martin Linton: I ask the hon. Gentleman, in a genuine spirit of mystification, whether he is suggesting that the Passport and Records Agency should issue passports, but not keep a record of the people to whom it has issued them. If he is suggesting that it should keep such
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a record, what would be the difference between that and the national identity register, other than the fact that there would be a duty—as there already is for those with driving licences—to update the information when a person changes address?

Chris Huhne: The key point about the national identity register is the access that other agencies will eventually have to it. That is why the database becomes a tool that is much more than just a static record of people who have applied for a passport. Clearly, it is normal for a person’s name, date of birth and so forth to be recorded. But we do not need to centralise the collection of biometric data on that record, because the next time the person applies for a passport their fingerprints will be the same and they will be able to be checked. Why is it necessary to have them on the database merely to issue the passport?

The truth is that national identity cards and the national identity register are a technological solution in search of a problem. When will Home Office officials and Ministers learn that just because we can do something does not mean that we should? The concept is not difficult to grasp. We might be able to clone humans, but we have rightly decided that we should not; we can run an Orwellian database, but we do not have to do so. George Orwell wrote “Nineteen Eighty-Four” as a warning, not as a blueprint. Ministers should read it again and not park their democratic values when they do so.

Martin Linton: I have heard some more well-turned phrases, but I still do not understand the distinction that the hon. Gentleman is making. He seems to support a database of people who have biometric passports. He is not against biometric passports, fingerprints or the recording of facial images—he just does not want to call the database of people with biometric passports a “national identity register”. The only real difference is that it is now to be called that. The police and the security services already have access to Passport and Records Agency information—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. That was a very long intervention. Front Benchers have not been quite as bad in this debate as they were during the previous one, but I should say that time is running out and a large number of Back Benchers are seeking to catch my eye. Interventions are part of debate, but they take time out of it.

Chris Huhne: The hon. Member for Battersea is much more intelligent than he is letting on. The key problem is the document. Does the document attest that the person standing in front of the passport official is who they say they are? If it is to do so, we need a record of the person’s biometric data in the document, but we do not need the same record back at the UK Border Agency. That logical step is entirely different, because it enables other agencies to begin to abuse the situation.

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) is no longer here. He said that 25 million items of data were lost, but the number was 28 million—in the one year of 2007. There were a further 17 million items of lost data in 2008. Do I trust even someone as competent and charming as the Home
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Secretary to keep my personal data safe? No, I do not—and the Government’s whole record suggests that I should not.

The slipperiness of ministerial justifications for the scheme is extraordinary. When the ID card scheme was launched, the cards were heralded as the solution to the problem of terrorism. It might not have been in the manifesto, but in 2007 the Prime Minister stated that they formed the backbone of any anti-terror policy. That was always nonsense, and was demonstrated as such not least when every one of the Madrid bombers was found to have a legitimate Spanish ID card.

The current Home Secretary seems to be singing from a different hymn sheet. He says that ID cards are no longer integral to the fight against terrorism, but that they are necessary to protect us all against identity fraud. I can see the argument that it is useful to take biometric data when issuing a new passport so that the new document contains those data. However, I say again to the hon. Member for Battersea that I do not accept that a centralised database is necessary.

The advocates of ID cards, including those on the Benches of the official Opposition, said that the cards would be of use to the police in fighting crime, but that does not bear a moment’s examination. If it remains voluntary to carry ID cards—as the Government, to give them credit, have always said it would be—ID cards essentially become akin to a driver’s licence. If a person does not have it on them when challenged by the police, they are asked to produce it in short order at a police station. If the person involved is a gangster on their way to the costa del crime, I doubt whether they would bother to turn up later to produce their ID card. Very few countries make carrying an ID card compulsory, precisely because it is so draconian to lock up forgetful students, disorganised journalists or amnesiac grannies. [Interruption.] Yes, I was speaking very much for myself.

Another argument is that ID cards and the database will somehow prevent illegal working or illegal immigration, but employers in sectors with known high levels of illegal working are already required to check identification and eligibility documents for foreign workers. The problem is not the fiddling of identity, but that the UK Border Agency does far too few checks and does not prosecute enough of those illegal employers. Only 114 employers have been prosecuted for employing illegal workers since 1997, yet that is the main way of enforcing immigration control in a country with 7,723 miles of coastline and 192 million air travellers coming in and out every year.

Keith Vaz: One of the problems is that the UK Border Agency has been targeting the wrong employers and the wrong people. It turns up with great drama at a factory or other enterprise, gets all the workers together, and ultimately finds out that none of the people is here illegally.

Chris Huhne: I am grateful to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee for that observation, which reinforces the point I am trying to make—that ID cards are a sideshow set against the lamentable failure to investigate and prosecute firms that hire illegal workers.

Liberal Democrats believe that the register would be a terrible mistake. People need not just take our word for it. A recent report for the Joseph Rowntree Reform
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Trust, “Database State”, gave the national identity register a “red” rating, meaning that the database

If anyone has an unnerving sense of déj vu, it is probably because we have heard this all before. The Government’s national DNA database was also given a “red” rating in the report, along with eight others: that makes 10 Government databases that are barely legal, let alone reasonable or effective. Yet the Government continue to fiddle around the edges instead of curbing this illiberal and illegal obsession with databases.

I have mentioned our concerns about criminal and civil offences relating to the national identity register in the Identity Cards Act 2006. It is worth reminding the House of those offences and their penalties, so let me spell them out: a penalty of up to 10 years in prison for tampering with the register; a civil penalty of £2,500 for failing in the duty to register on the database when required to do so under the Act; and a penalty of £1,000 for failing to inform the register of a change in personal details of those held on it, such as an address. The practical application of these penalties is likely to be that the innocent student will be pursued and fined for failing to update their address every time they move house, while would-be terrorists will happily keep police informed of their name and address. The most dangerous terrorists are so-called “clean skins” with no criminal record or contact with the security services. They have no problem declaring their identity because what they really want to hide are their intentions.

Would those penalties and civil liberty infringements be tolerable for the sake of increased identity security? I would argue not, given that the Government have never provided figures on the suspected duplication of identity documents. The total estimated cost of identity theft to the UK economy is falling. In 2002, the annual cost to the economy was £1.3 billion, whereas the most recent estimate conducted by the then official identity fraud steering committee in October 2008 put the figure at £1.2 billion: a substantial fall in real terms over a six-year period. In fact, a centralised database may attract identity fraudsters.

Martin Linton: For the illumination of the House, will the hon. Gentleman add the estimated industry figure for the amount that the ID card would save in terms of ID fraud?

Chris Huhne: I do not know which industry figure the hon. Gentleman is citing, but I am happy if he wants to intervene to give its source.

A centralised database will not lead to these potential gains; indeed, it may well attract identity fraudsters. The Government believe that they can create an un-forgeable database using advanced technology, but history tells us that that is completely misguided. The Pentagon thought it was hacker-proof until it came across Gary McKinnon, who proved otherwise. Technology moves at a frighteningly fast pace. Even if something were un-forgeable today, it almost certainly would not be in six months’ or a couple of years’ time.

Martin Linton: The industry estimates published by the Home Office a couple of years ago were £1.1 billion for the total quantified financial benefits, including the
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impact on ID fraud, with the impact on ID fraud itself being £570 million. Has the hon. Gentleman seen those figures?

Chris Huhne: I certainly have, and I have taken into account their source. Could it be the same source that predicted that we would have little more than 50,000 immigrants from central and eastern Europe, and then the figure ended up at 750,000? The source that the hon. Gentleman is quoting is responsible for the worst Government forecast on record; if he is happy with its authority, all I can say is heaven help us.

I fear that the Government may try to deprive us of access to public services unless we sign up to ID cards. The cards may not be mandatory in legislation, but they may increasingly be required to access possibly every type of public service, including health care, education, leisure facilities and public transport—the list is potentially endless. In the Government report entitled “Safeguarding Identity” published last month, officials state that the ability to provide high-quality public services efficiently

I do not understand why biometric information needs to be stored on a national centralised database in order for me to tell a doctor or a nurse who I am. On a practical level, making ordinary life dependent on the reliability of a complex administrative system makes the inevitable myriad small errors potentially catastrophic.

At every level and every turn, the entire national identity register scheme, including ID cards, is flawed. It will not prevent terrorism, illegal working or crime, and it will not protect us against identity fraud—it might even make the problem more difficult to disentangle. Why are we doing it? I am forced to conclude that Ministers have no real grasp of why they want ID cards and the database, other than that it can be done.

Dr. Palmer rose—

Chris Huhne: I am winding up now, and you have quite rightly told Front Benchers to keep it short, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall no longer give way.

The Liberal Democrats have consistently opposed the introduction of ID cards for everyone, regardless of nationality. We would scrap the entire national identity scheme immediately and spend the money on putting more police on the street. The people of this country and our visitors should not have to justify themselves or their identity to the state when going about their lawful daily business. We should not have all our most personal data stored on a central database. This insidious scheme is based on a fundamental flaw in ideology—the idea that we are servants of the state. We reject that view. The state is the servant of the citizen and must not be allowed to get above itself.

Although we would like the motion to be crystal clear about the issue of the database, I was reassured by what the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell said, so for the reasons I have given we shall vote in favour of it.

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