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9.2 pm

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): I put my name down to speak in the debate partly because, as mentioned earlier, I proposed the introduction of identity cards before it became fashionable on the Labour Benches. I benefited from the support not only of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) but from that of the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) and that of the distinguished hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). When the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) said that the Liberal Democrats had consistently opposed the policy, he was forgetting the record of his colleagues and his predecessor. However, I was not totally on message when I presented my Bill, and I will not be totally on message tonight either, because I think that there is a case for delaying the implementation of the card aspects of the scheme. I shall say more about that shortly.

One of the striking features of public opinion over the years is how stably it has remained in favour of this project, despite almost universal media opposition to it. Barely a single newspaper is prepared to put in a good word for the identity card scheme; the reason why support remains quite strong—significantly stronger than support for any of the three major parties, I would say—is that people feel, intuitively, that it makes sense.

I think that people should ask themselves two basic questions before deciding whether, in principle, they favour an identity scheme. First, they should ask how often they actually wish to pretend to be someone else. Secondly, they should ask how concerned they would be if someone pretended to be them. Most people would reply “I never want to pretend to be someone else, and I would be concerned if someone pretended to be me.” On the basis of intuition, it is still widely accepted that it is a good idea to have a way of verifying the basic claim that people are who they claim to be. We are one of the very few countries in the world where establishing someone’s identity consists in part of their producing a gas bill. There is a lot to be said for a verifiable approach.

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the public were in favour of ID cards when they thought they would solve terrorism, crime and illegal immigration, but as they are now
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realising that they will not do that, and also that they will have to pay for them, their satisfaction ratings are falling?

Dr. Palmer: As the debate has progressed, the satisfaction rate has not remained as high as it was, but it is still surprisingly high; it is about 50 or 55 per cent. depending on exactly how the question is put. I agree that there are concerns about aspects of the scheme, but I think the public are basically sold on the concept that it is a good idea to be able to identify people.

It is important to distinguish between the cards and the database, however, but we have not yet fully addressed that point. They are two completely separate issues. The hon. Member for Eastleigh touched on the matter, but I wish to explore it a little further, because in this context the difference between the Conservative motion and the Liberal Democrat amendment is particularly striking. The database is, and always has been, primarily for the purpose of law enforcement and official verification; that is what it is for. There might be doubt about the identity of someone who is under criminal or terrorist investigation or who is suspected of being an illegal immigrant, and it might also be necessary for an emergency identification to be made if, for example, someone is unconscious after an accident; for all those purposes, it is perfectly reasonable to propose that it would be good for the authorities to be able to check who people actually are.

On the other hand, the cards have always been primarily a tool for consumers. Several Members have asked, “Why would we have voluntary cards for crime prevention?” The answer is, “We wouldn’t”. Crime prevention is addressed by the database; the purpose of the card is to enable people conveniently to identify themselves without having to produce a gas bill, for example, or a set of utility records or mortgage statements. I have lived in countries that have identity cards, and people generally find it convenient to have them as a consumer tool.

There are, however, objections to the scheme to which we should be prepared to listen; and, to be fair, we are starting to listen to them.

David Taylor: My hon. Friend is very knowledgeable about these issues from his previous life before entering this place. Would he not acknowledge, however, that he is perhaps being a little disingenuous in trying to distinguish between cards and the register? Let us say there are 30 million cards out there; because they have been produced by the system, they would, de facto, be a register, whether in name or practice.

Dr. Palmer: I am not absolutely sure that I have followed my hon. Friend’s point. Is he saying that if we were to issue numerous cards, the record of those cards would in effect be a register?

David Taylor: Yes.

Dr. Palmer: Well, I am sure that is true, but my contention is that if we had the register without the cards, that would still fulfil the crime prevention aspect but it would not fulfil the consumer aspect.

The first thing to do, which we have got right, is to make it absolutely clear that the cards are not compulsory now and never will be. Several speakers have said that the Bill always stated that there would be the need for further primary legislation to make them compulsory,
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but we were ambiguous about whether that would happen. If they are intended to help the consumer, as I contend, the first step in building confidence in that objective is to make it clear that they are voluntary. If they are voluntary, the question of their being an imposition—something that restricts people’s liberty—does not arise, because if someone does not want one, all they have to do is say, “No, I will not have it.” The Government have taken an important step forward on that.

The next thing that we need to address is the audit trail, which has barely been mentioned this evening. One of the main objections of libertarians, including so many Liberal Democrat voters, even though the hon. Member for Eastleigh has not stressed this issue, relates to the audit trail, because they suggest that by keeping track of the number and type of organisations that have inquired about the identity of an individual, one can build up a picture of the kind of person that individual is and that that could be used against them to try to profile them as being a higher or lower risk. That genuine issue needs to be addressed, although I hope that such a situation would not arise.

The original reason why the audit trail was to be included was to protect people and give them the reassurance that they could see which organisations had been looking at their data. If we are serious about that and it really is the purpose of the audit trail, we should give the individual the power either to dispense with the audit trail or to edit it. By “edit”, I mean that if the trail records that I had visited a particular bank on a particular date, I would be able to look up the record to verify that, ensure that no entries had been made that I did not authorise and then choose, if I so wished, to say that I wanted the record deleted, and all that would then be left would be a note saying that I had deleted a record on such and such a date. If we were to introduce such a power, we would go a long way towards reassuring people who are afraid that the database will, in some way, be used to profile them. If the purpose of the audit trail is to protect people, we should be willing to introduce such a power. We need to distinguish between the urgent and the merely desirable.

David Davis: The hon. Gentleman has been making a thoughtful speech. One of the things that I object to about the national identity register is its sheer comprehensiveness. As the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) pointed out, it is one thing to have a register that, in essence, includes simply one’s identifiable aspects—one’s name and address, and biometrics—but it is another thing entirely for it to contain the other 49 elements. Would the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) be willing to countenance having a register that contains only the identity mechanisms, and nothing else?

Dr. Palmer: I would certainly be willing to countenance that, because a mature dialogue can include that kind of consideration. However, the basic concept of the scheme seems to me to be an objective that is close to being supported by all three Front-Bench teams; the differences are less large than the public may suppose.

The Conservative policy is becoming clear. It is to have the database—not the card, but the database—under a different name. That is a hypocritical attempt to steal
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Liberal Democrat voters without addressing the real concerns of libertarians and liberal-minded people who worry about a biometric database. I favour the basic concept, but I think that there is real scope to address those concerns in the manner in which I have suggested. If doing that and dealing with the current financial crisis means that things take longer, we should be willing to accept that the card aspect of the scheme is not the highest priority for immediate introduction. If our taking longer allows us to get a scheme that has wider public support, we should be prepared to listen and to amend the scheme. What I do not favour is a populist motion such as the one before us tonight, which simply says, “Scrap the cards and then let’s have a database by another name.”

9.14 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my neighbour, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer).

I wonder what the good folk of Manchester have done to have this wretched scheme visited on them. This whole argument bores me stiff, because I have been over-exposed to a policy and theory that should have been settled a long time ago. I have no doubt that Labour Members will point out my voting record, because I supported the proposals as a shadow Minister. At the time, we were broadly in support of the proposition. After the 2005 election, too, I sat through endless weeks of drivel, as the case was made time and again, in painful and needless detail, by which time we opposed the Government’s proposals.

This issue bores me because the Government will not come clean about it. The reason I and others supported the measure originally was not because it was claimed to be a particularly powerful tool against terrorism. I can see that there may be advantages to the scheme provided that it works, that we can afford it, and that the cards cannot be forged. However, I cannot buy the argument that the card would ever be able to control, or even deter, terrorists. After the 2005 election the Government changed their position, and the prevention of terrorism became the principal argument for the card. I could not understand that, which is why I voted against the scheme the second time round.

I am sorry if I am ranting, but I am delighted that the Minister is in his place—I know from his record and his conduct that he will listen carefully to what I have to say. I am probably the only person in the Chamber tonight who has seen an identity card scheme—although that is a slight misnomer, as I shall explain—being put into practice to try to counter terrorism. We have already heard that identity cards were in place in this country during the second world war and for seven years afterwards. That is not the scheme that I mean; I was not around then, although I may look old enough. The scheme I mean was the introduction of a driving licence in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. It was never claimed to be an identity card or a tool to counter terrorism, but it was described to the security forces—I was a serving officer at the time—as a crucial tool against, principally, the Provisional IRA.

The driving licence had to be carried in Northern Ireland, and it was not like the simple piece of green paper that we carried in England, Scotland and Wales at the time. It was a more complex bit of kit. Initially it contained a photograph, and then it was further improved
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to contain a thumbprint or fingerprint. For the first couple of tours I did in Northern Ireland, the card was not in being. As I recall, it was introduced in 1978, and by the time that I returned in 1979 we were told in pre-deployment training, “Gentlemen, this is the answer. The Provisionals in particular use vehicles in the day-to-day execution of their business. You will, as a result of this card, be able to clamp down on individuals. It is not easy to forge—you will be able to see forgeries—and you will be able to identify those who are opposing you.” Let us not forget that this was long before databases and computerised intelligence work.

We bought this argument hook, line and sinker, but the fallacy of it was brought home to me at about two o’clock on a rain-sodden night on a hillside in South Armagh, when any sensible Christian man would have been tucked up in bed rather than cuddling a rifle on the side of the road. We eventually saw a pair of headlights approaching us through a blackthorn hedge, and I sent two soldiers down to stop the vehicle and find out what was going on. They flagged the vehicle down and about three minutes later they came chasing back through the driving rain and said, “Right sir, he’s fine. He’s absolutely fine.” “How do you know he’s fine?” “He had one of these new driving licences—he’s got to be all right.” Suddenly, from being a tool to counter terrorism this driving licence turned into a pass that, in the eyes of the simple soldiers whom I was looking after, meant that that particular bloke was all right. Well, he was not.

Let me go on to give another example. In January 2006, in a mess hall of the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, just outside Baghdad, someone who was allegedly an Iraqi policeman came into the mess hall with a 100 lb device contained in webbing about his body and blew himself to pieces. He killed 17 American soldiers and injured about 35. When questioned afterwards about how this “alleged policeman” had got into the mess hall, the guard on the gate said, “Well, he had a pass on him.” He had an identity card on him. In other words, in the examples that I have just given the Minister, these various cards—far from fighting terrorism—aided and abetted terrorism. The Minister might well challenge me on the Northern Ireland driving licence scheme, and we can discuss it if he has time, but that was certainly my experience.

I also found it quite extraordinary, during the endless iterations of Committees that I had to sit through, that the Government made it quite clear—or at least implied—that the scheme was not going to be voluntary at all. Yes, the inception would be voluntary, but enabling legislation was put in place that meant that, at the drop of a hat, identity cards and the concomitant costs could suddenly become compulsory.

There were also howlers that came with that legislation that made no sense whatsoever. For instance, if someone was not resident in the United Kingdom for a period of more than three months, they did not need an identity card. How could that possibly match up to the Government’s claim that the cards would be an important tool against terrorists? Not all terrorists are home-grown. It is fascinating, for instance—as tomorrow is the anniversary of the bombings in 2005—that all four men involved in those bombings were home-grown passport-carrying Britons, yet they felt the need to carry multiple forms of identity on their bodies so that their dead bodies could be identified. In that case, had there been an identity card
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scheme in place, far from hindering those gentlemen, if that is the right term, in the execution—bad pun—of what they were doing to themselves, one of the documents that they would have carried would have been the very identity card that the Government have billed as a crucial tool against terrorism.

We will also find that that situation is impossible to solve if someone is a native or citizen of the Free State of southern Ireland. In other words, the southern Irish—people from Eire—living and working in this country will not be required to carry an identity card. We might think that it is all over in Northern Ireland and in Ireland as a whole, but, as the events of a few weeks ago at Massereene barracks and elsewhere showed, it patently is not.

I would suggest that there might be arguments for the card—theoretical arguments, in some ways—if, as I have already said, I thought that we could afford it, if I did not think that it was a gross intrusion on civil liberties, if I did not think that the cards could be forged, if I did not think that the Government were incapable of putting the scheme in place and, most importantly, if the Government would stop constantly shifting the ground on which they make their arguments. If they would come clean about the fact that the scheme is a menace, and not a nuisance, they could, in my eyes at least, recover some of the credibility that they had in the past. As things are, however, the scheme must be scrapped: it is expensive and a pest, and will aid terrorists rather than hindering them.

9.24 pm

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer). He gave me some information that I have never heard before, and some useful context to the debate.

My track record is that I supported the Identity Cards Bill on Second Reading, partly in deference to my party’s manifesto and partly because I do not have a deep-seated civil libertarian objection to the idea in principle. However, I withdrew my support on Third Reading, as I did not believe that the detailed design of the scheme was likely to be implemented satisfactorily, partly because the justification was muddled in the first place. We have already heard that idea set out by other hon. Members. There were claims that the card would be an anti-terrorism tool, that it would control illegal immigration or that it would prevent identity fraud. The ID card has virtually no role in dealing with the first two, and is effective in the third only if the citizen chooses to use it properly.

The only possible basis for the ID card would be if it were seen as a convenient proof of identity—essentially, a citizen’s tool. For that to work, that principle should have been the foundation of the argument in the first place. I have heard it many times from the industry in which I worked before first coming to Parliament that that should have been the basis of argument right from the beginning—but it was not. One must wonder, to be honest, whether we could possibly justify a scheme costing this much for the narrow purpose of providing a useful convenience for our citizens in demonstrating their identity and their entitlement to services.

Any project of this kind would have to be based on trust. The holding of personal data in one place has already prompted substantial public mistrust, and we
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have heard examples in the debate—I do not have the time to repeat them—but we all understand that human failure is an inevitable part of managing data, and that it is impossible to devise a system that wholly protects us against it.

Lack of trust is not merely an inconvenience; it is an entirely disabling impediment to success in a complex information systems project. The suppliers that have been called on to provide the system have made it quite clear that the project must be explained to citizens and that trust must be built. We have seen some frankly fatuous attempts to do that. The “yoof” attempt, via, which was aimed at youngsters, fell by the wayside extraordinarily rapidly under the ridicule that it attracted.

It would help in building trust if one could show functionality. We have drawn out the example of airport workers. That was one area where it was suggested that ID cards should be compulsory, yet those who might have an interest in the cards being introduced—the British Air Transport Association—clearly said:

Frankly, if that area was seen as the target for the initial compulsion but saw so little value in the scheme, one must take some heed of that. It obviously has its own way of establishing secure identity—it must have, to carry on its business—and felt that the scheme would add little or nothing.

There are also practical objections. The national identity register must include a person’s address. That is one of the elements within it. That detail will change frequently. It is not currently required for a passport. It is an offence for driving licence holders to fail to notify a change of address. Precisely the same sanction will apply to anyone who fails to update their address on the national identity register. We might assume perhaps that that is something that our dutiful citizens follow by rote. Well, the evidence suggests otherwise. In fact, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency estimates that 20 per cent. of the addresses held on its database are wrong.

Inaccuracy is inevitable and will be substantial, so what value will holding people’s addresses actually have? Even if we assume that everyone will attempt to notify changes of address, the cost and scale of the activity involved will be huge. The Home Office estimated, in an answer to me, that 14 per cent. of people change their address every year. We have not discussed, and I have not seen any information on, the ongoing cost of managing the national identity register. That cost will be huge, if the task is to be done reliably and is to fit the scale of the undertaking involved. It is far from clear whether the cost of data management and updating has been built into the costs that we have heard to date. I would certainly like the Minister for Borders and Immigration to set out his estimate of the cost, based on the data that his Department has provided to me.

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