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8.36 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne). I will probably have to continue to do so as Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs.

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It is a pleasure to participate in this debate. In fact, this is the first time that I have been able to participate in a debate on ID cards since I became Chairman almost two and a half years ago, which shows that the House has not had the opportunity to discuss the matter in great detail since the Government decided to pursue the policy. I therefore welcome the fact that the Opposition have chosen to have a debate on the subject and that we are able to discuss it so soon after the new Home Secretary has taken over and made his first statement on the matter.

I will obviously be brief, because we are on a time limit and I know that a lot of right hon. and hon. Members wish to participate. I am not at the moment absolutely convinced that the Government have got it wrong, but I am working my way to that position. That is partly because there have been so many changes to the original policy enunciated by the Government, so many reviews and changing nuances, that I wonder whether they are as committed to the concept of ID cards as they were when they introduced the original Bill and had the support of so many Members of all parties.

The problem that I have is that when I look at the reasons why the cards were originally introduced—one has only to look at the Home Office website to see the six key reasons—I wonder whether the practical implication of them meets the Government’s criteria. The website says that they are intended to

and finally

The history of ID cards has proceeded since the Government introduced the concept. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) for reminding the House that the introduction of the cards had broad support throughout the House. Some Opposition Members even voted enthusiastically for the concept, which I did not know until he raised it today. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) clearly spends most evenings poring over the Division lists to ascertain how we all voted. I am nervous about how I vote now in case, in five or six years, my hon. Friend points out that I voted a particular way. However, my hon. Friends have helped identify the broad agreement in the House about the need to do something. Whether introducing identity cards is what we must do is another matter.

The Home Secretary is perfectly entitled, as a new Home Secretary, to examine a policy and consider whether he wishes to continue with it, even though it is in the manifesto and a measure on it has passed through the House. If a Government believe that a policy that they are pursuing is wrong or that its practical implications go against what they perceive to be right for the country, no Member would hold that against them.

For example, we last participated in such a debate when we discussed the Gurkhas. I agreed with everything that the hon. Member for Eastleigh said then against the Government’s views, and Parliament decided that
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the Government were wrong. The Minister for Borders and Immigration is in his place after his day trip to Calais—to do important business, I am sure. The Government entrusted dealing with the aftermath of the Gurkha vote to him, and he devised a good solution to the problem: to accept Parliament’s will and grant the Gurkhas the right to remain in the country. It is therefore possible for Parliament to deliberate in such debates—the Gurkha debate was on a Liberal Democrat Opposition day motion—and convince the Government that they are wrong.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend and I are both admirers of the new Home Secretary, but was it not a tad misleading of him to suggest last week that he had decided that identity cards would be voluntary from now on, when the Identity Cards Act 2006 already makes them a voluntary tool, and altering that status would require primary legislation? The announcement was bigged up, as they say nowadays.

Keith Vaz: My hon. Friend puts that well. I cannot answer for the Home Secretary, but I am sure that the Minister for Borders and Immigration heard what my hon. Friend said and will comment on it later.

I am worried that we will have a position whereby different people hold different sorts of identity document. Foreign nationals resident in this country will have to have an identity card; they are obliged to have them. Others, in the north of England, starting in Manchester—even though only 3,500 people said that they wanted an identity card—and now in other northern parts of the country, will be entitled to apply for identity cards. However, people in the rest of the country, if they choose not to do so, will not have such a card. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) pointed out, having an identity card will become compulsory only when a certain percentage of the population has opted for one. Before that happens, primary legislation is required in order to be in a position to make them compulsory. That is the first practical problem.

Although one takes an intellectual position about whether one supports the concept of identity cards, the practical implications, especially given the Home Secretary’s actions last week, mean that some residents in this country will have identity cards and others will not, and some citizens will have voluntary cards because they happen to live in Manchester or Newcastle, while others, for example in Leicester, will not. We therefore have not a fudge, but a bit of a shambles.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Could the problem not be overcome simply by giving every adult in the country a biometric passport? All the other arguments would then disappear. That is the simple answer; I do not know why the Government do not get on with it.

Keith Vaz: That is, indeed, a simple answer. We have paid for the infrastructure and technology to ensure that that happens, but I am not sure that my hon. Friend’s solution deals with those who do not want to travel and therefore do not apply for a passport. I do not know what the figures are—I am sure that my hon.
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Friend the Member for Battersea would give them to us if he were here. However, there are simpler methods of dealing with the matter.

My second point is about cost. I was present when the former Home Secretary challenged the Opposition spokesman about cost, but I am not sure what the cost is. We have been given the figure of £4,785 million and told that cards for foreign nationals would cost £326 million, but perhaps the Minister can confirm those figures when he replies to this debate. I have also heard anecdotally that one of the reasons why the scheme cannot be scrapped is that the contracts have been signed. With the contracts signed, it is not possible to renege on them, because the Government are bound by them. [ Interruption. ] I welcome back the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), the Minister for identity, even if briefly for today.

If those contracts are signed, what would be the cost of cancelling them? Would it be more than the cost of doing what the hon. Member for Eastleigh has suggested it would be better to do, which for policing would mean putting the money into front-line services? As we all know, budgets are not overflowing with money. There will be a debate over the next 12 months about the possibility of police forces throughout the country wanting to cut the number of front-line officers because—they claim—of the money that the Government have given them over the past year and a bit. We need to know a figure for the total cost and it is extremely important that we have it as quickly as possible.

The House will know that the Home Secretary has agreed to give evidence to our Committee next week. A large portion of our questioning will focus on ID cards, because we are concerned to know precisely where the Government stand. We will want to know facts and figures from the Government, particularly how much the scheme will cost and how much it would cost if the Government decided not to proceed with it.

We have heard in interventions by Opposition Members that the Opposition have written to the suppliers and made it clear that, should the Conservative party win the next election, it will not proceed with the ID card scheme. I am not sure whether, should the Opposition win a general election, they would be in a position to cancel a contract that the Government had signed. If such a contract were binding on this Government, I assume that it would be binding on a future Government too. If that is the case, we have a right to know whether what the Opposition have said will make any difference.

My penultimate point concerns the security of the database. We have had assurances from this Home Secretary, as well as from the previous Home Secretary and others, that the database is secure. I will not make the point that other hon. Members have made about the security of databases at the moment—I know that the Minister for identity also has responsibility for databases—but the fact remains that we have a security problem. It is a good job that we have not had many losses this year compared with the end of last year, but once we have the information proposed, we will have the mother of all databases. Therefore, we will need to be absolutely secure in the knowledge that that information will not leak out or be lost or sent anywhere in error. I am sure that the Government will try to reassure us on that point.

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My final point is about the third category on the Home Office website, which says that ID cards will

It is therefore good that the Minister for Borders and Immigration is answering this debate. That problem will not be solved by ID cards. The Mayor of London estimates from reports that he has commissioned that the number of illegal immigrants in London alone is probably 861,000. The Minister has been very honest, fair and open with our Committee: he has never put a figure on the amount, because he once did that about another matter and we kept hounding him over it. Very cleverly, therefore, he will not give us a figure this time, but the fact is that there are a lot of illegal immigrants. I do not believe that they will go to Manchester or Newcastle, now that the scheme is being extended there, and apply for a voluntary identity card.

Unless we secure our borders, we will get a lot of illegal people in this country. At the moment—subject to any announcement that the Minister responsible for immigration has made in Calais today about securing our borders even further; I know that that is one of the great templates of his mission—those people are already in the country, whether they are in the bogus colleges that we have heard about in our inquiries, coming in on the backs of lorries, or whatever. There are probably hundreds of thousands of illegal people already in the country, and I do not think that the scheme will deal with that problem.

I am still with the Government on this issue, but less enthusiastically so than I was 12 months ago. They will need to keep making their arguments very clearly on this point, and they will need to put facts and figures before the House if they are going to convince me and other right hon. and hon. Members to continue to support them in the Division Lobby on this and future occasions.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. In order to try to get everyone into the debate, I am going to put a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches after the next speech.

8.50 pm

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood) (Con): I listened with considerable care and interest to what the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) had to say on this subject. I thought that I was going to agree with virtually everything he said until he concluded that he was with the Government, although he might be about to peel off. I am not with the Government on this issue, but I absolutely share the right hon. Gentleman’s sense that this is a policy in search of a problem. Every time I hear Ministers explaining why it should be supported, I sense that the problem that it was intended to solve has changed since the previous time I heard them justifying it.

I have always taken a reasonably relaxed view of this policy. I have not objected to it in principle from the beginning, based on civil libertarian propositions. There are clearly civil liberties issues at stake in relation to identity cards, and particularly in relation to the national identity register, but I was, and still am, prepared to concede in principle that arguments could be made to justify introducing such measures that would outweigh the civil liberties issues involved.

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However, as the arguments have been made, I have become less and less convinced by the merits claimed for ID cards and the register, and more and more concerned, partly about the cost implications—I will come back to that—but mostly about what we are learning about the culture of the Government and their attitudes towards the civil liberties involved. They have not been consistent in their development of the arguments for the merits claimed for the policy, and they have demonstrated a cavalier attitude towards the civil liberties issues that leaves me very worried about the weight attached to those issues in the mind of the Government in assessing the balance of the benefits.

Let us begin with the specific benefits that have been claimed for the policy during the time that the Government have been advocating it. It was introduced by the former Prime Minister, and it has been followed up by the present one. It was said to be the key element in the Government’s fight against terrorism and benefit fraud, and in the enforcement of proper immigration controls. All those claims have been made for the introduction of ID cards, but as each claim has been made and challenged, the argument has moved on. We have not heard any justification of the claim that the policy will deliver significant benefits in terms of counter-terrorism or benefit fraud, or in terms of other, broader aspects of law enforcement.

The point of my earlier question to the Home Secretary was that I would like to hear a Minister talk me through the logic of having a voluntary system of law enforcement that will provide a vigorous means of enforcing laws that we cannot currently enforce to the standard that we would wish. If it is voluntary, I do not see how it can become the cutting edge of law enforcement. I have never heard that flaw in the logic explained.

The claims that have been made for the ID card have made anyone interested in public policy sit up—they have also been directed at voters and designed to make them sit up—but those claims have never been substantiated. What we then need to do is to look at the costs in the cost-benefit balance that are undoubtedly involved in the development of this policy, costs both literal and metaphorical.

First, as to the costs literal, it is unclear from the figures bandied about by the Government, by the Opposition Front Benchers and by various interested IT experts exactly how many thousands of millions of pounds this scheme is going to cost. But even if we take the Home Secretary’s most modest interpretation, we are talking about £1,000 million, which is going to be recovered at £30 a head from people buying voluntary ID cards. In his days as the Health Secretary—I speak as a former Health Secretary—I suspect that the current Home Secretary could have found quite a lot of attractive uses for £1,000 million beyond giving people a piece of plastic that will allow them to identify themselves as aged over 18 when they go into a bar. This seems to me to be an essentially frivolous use of a significant level of resource as we go into a recession—and this, as I said, is to take the Home Secretary on his own terms.

The reality is that almost all independent parties think that the scheme will cost significantly more than the Home Secretary acknowledges, and whether it is a charge made on ID card users or on passport users or
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paid by taxpayers, it is unarguably a cost that is not currently borne by the economy but which the Government intend the economy to bear in the years ahead at a time when fewer resources will be available. The Government’s decision to impose those costs on the economy will necessarily squeeze out other expenditure that seems to me to have higher benefits attached—or, of course, deny the possibility of reducing the tax burden in order to promote the more efficient development of economic activity in Britain. The Government have made no convincing benefit claims for this policy and have not seriously addressed the pounds cost that they are imposing on the British economy.

That brings me to my next point, which I believe is the strongest argument against the policy that the Government are pursuing because it tells us about the culture in Government in terms of the importance that they attach to the privacy of the citizen and the maintenance of citizens’ defences against the developing power of the state. The power of the state is enhanced, of course, by the power of modern information technology.

I believe that among the responsibilities of those elected to this place is our responsibility to seek to insist that the Government should account for increases in the power they wield over the private citizen. We, as Members of Parliament, should be jealous of the privacy of the people who send us here, and we should be concerned to restrain the ambitions of Government to invade the privacy of the people who send us here. What concerns me most about the policy is that it demonstrates that the Government do not observe those same instincts. The national identity register is already subject to inadequate control. What information are we going to be obliged to contribute to this register? The answer is that it is defined by secondary legislation and we are already hearing that extension of the scope of such information is anticipated.

David Taylor: The right hon. Gentleman is making a fair case in saying that a large, centralised register of this kind is innately vulnerable to unauthorised access. Over the weekend, his party announced that a future Conservative Government would flog off health data to Yahoo and Google. Does he support that policy? Does he fear that such a system would be less secure than a centralised system operated by the present Government, or does he believe that it would be more secure?

Mr. Dorrell: I would apply the same strictures to information held by all parts of the public sector, such as the national health service and the education service. I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s innate suspicion of private as against public. Indeed, I suspect that recent experience suggests that the public sector has been a less effective guardian of the privacy of the individual than the private sector.

The key point, surely—I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and I can agree on this—is that information should not be held on databases unless there is a serious reason for it to be held there, and unless there are serious safeguards in relation to what information is collected, the way in which it is held, and the people to whom it is made available. What worries me about this whole policy area is that the Government have been too free and easy, that the burden of proof has been too easily discharged over the development of the database and the extension
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of the uses to which it can be put, and that, when we analyse the supposed benefits of a serious increase in the scale of information available for manipulation in the totally technical sense of the word—information available for use by the Government—the Government’s policy has not been given sufficient weight in the cost-benefit analysis.

I believe that the Government’s approach to this policy has been fundamentally frivolous. It has been policy by press release, not policy driven by a desire to deliver hard results. What we have learned about this Government as the policy has evolved is that they do not possess the instinctive understanding that I believe a British Government ought to have of the importance of the privacy of the private citizen. That is why I will support my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Lobby tonight.

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