Previous Section Index Home Page

9 Jun 2010 : Column 357

Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is making a customarily amusing yet powerful contribution to the debate. He is wise to accept the mandate of the coalition Government, whereby they believe that they have a right to dismantle their version of the surveillance state. Does he agree, however, that the Bill does not remove any obligation on any Department to verify people's identity, so there will be no less identity verification going on? If the Government really want to reduce the surveillance state, they should give citizens ownership of their data so that Departments do not continually data-share-there might be more of that as a result of the Bill-and have a transparency register that means that every occurrence of data-sharing that goes on between Departments is in the public domain so that people have the right to challenge it?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point; he has a good track record in this area. He is highlighting the real issues of civil liberties, which are not only to do with a simple identity card to prove and protect identity but a whole range of other issues that I shall come to in a moment.

Conor Burns (Bournemouth West) (Con) rose-

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Alan Johnson: No, I need to make some progress.

If we want to travel abroad, take an internal flight, open a bank account, take up a new job, register with a doctor, get a driving licence or get married, we need to prove our identity. No one would dispute that it is perfectly reasonable to have to provide proof of identity in such circumstances. For those who voluntarily acquire an ID card, it enables them to prove who they are quickly, easily and securely. It provides a universal and simple proof of identity and a convenient end to the disorganised use of a year's worth of photocopied bank statements that people have to hand over-phone bills, birth certificates and so on, all copied to numerous different places because of the ways that people have to prove their identity. The Conservatives agreed about that almost unanimously in 1996 and again in 2004. For those lucky enough to be blessed with youthful good looks-like you and me, Mr Deputy Speaker-it also provides proof of age. For those who are less well-off, it provides a cheap and convenient alternative to a passport for European travel. It enables people easily to access the services to which they are entitled. The fact that a robust and trusted form of identification can be a tool for empowerment is something that the Government have ignored in all their posturing on civil liberties.

Mr Buckland: The right hon. Gentleman talked about other countries in Europe and gave us a long list without deviation, hesitation or repetition, but can he say whether one of them introduced a national identity register? That is unique to this country, and an unprecedented complete disaster.

Alan Johnson: Yes--France.

There was nothing Big Brotherish about the system that we were implementing. We already have the NHS database for those registered with GPs. Incidentally, I note from yesterday's Independent-I do not know whether it is true, but if we have read it in the papers, it probably
9 Jun 2010 : Column 358
is-that the Government have reneged on their pledge to scrap that database. We already have the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency database for those with a driving licence and the passport database with information on 80% of the people in this country-exactly the same information as is on the ID card.

All that we want to do is make it easier for banks, GPs and employers to verify someone's identity and thereby make it much more difficult for people to create multiple identities and commit identity fraud. That crime costs our economy £1.2 billion every year and has increased by 20% in the first quarter of this year alone. Combating identity fraud protects the security not just of individuals but of all of us collectively. Drug dealers, people traffickers and terrorists depend on access to false documents. Having no simple method of establishing and recording someone's identity simply plays into their hands, as the police have said in numerous submissions, as the Conservative party stated in its pronouncements before the 2005 election and as the public have said in every consultation held by Governments of both persuasions over the past 14 years. The introduction of ID cards was linked to the switch to biometric passports, with all the costs intertwined. The national identity register is crucial to both, for reasons that I shall explain in a moment.

Conor Burns: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the scheme would be successful on none of those points unless it were, in time, to move towards being compulsory? People who are going to commit crimes would not participate in a voluntary scheme. During my early years in Northern Ireland, people were compelled to carry photographic driving licences whether they were drivers or not. That fundamentally altered the relationship between the citizen and the state, in a profoundly detrimental way.

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which has rather bedevilled this debate, as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden well knows. There was a confusion among the public and politicians about whether the scheme would be compulsory or voluntary, and the whole debate in 2004 and subsequently was about whether future Parliaments would have the opportunity to declare the scheme compulsory. It would have taken a vote of Parliament, but yes, that was implicit in the legislation.

In the debate on 20 December 2004, Charles Clarke, who is sadly no longer in the House, said in his very first address to the House as Home Secretary, "Don't vote for this Bill if you don't want to see ID cards become compulsory." The current Home Secretary voted for the Bill. I can only imagine what she would say if we proposed a compulsory ID cards scheme, having heard her rhetoric about how a voluntary scheme is the end of civilisation. However, she voted for that scheme on the clear statement of the then Home Secretary that Members should vote for it only if they wanted it to become compulsory. I disagree with a compulsory scheme and believe that we can have simple proof and protection of people's identities without it becoming compulsory.

Second-generation biometric passports, planned to commence in 2012, would provide a crucial additional level of security, enabling verification that the person presenting a passport had the same fingerprints as
9 Jun 2010 : Column 359
those encoded on the chip. Amazingly, the Liberal Democrats appear to have convinced the Tories in their political pre-nup to scrap second-generation passports.

Robert Flello: There were appalling events fairly recently involving British passports being used in state-sponsored terrorism. Would not that extra layer perhaps have prevented that atrocity?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend pre-empts a crucial point that I shall come on to in a moment.

There was no mention of scrapping second-generation biometric passports in the Conservative manifesto. In fact, the Tories have not only been in favour of biometrics but wholeheartedly and enthusiastically in favour of them. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr Garnier) summed up the matter in 2007 when he said:

The Prime Minister himself has admitted that

Why the change of heart when we know that by locking people to one identity using advanced passport technology, we would help protect our country against the use of multiple identities by criminals, illegal immigrants and terrorists? Why, given that updating our passports would bring us in line with the rest of Europe, which has already set minimum passport standards to include facial and fingerprint biometrics, do we intend to allow our country to become an easy target for illegal immigration and our citizens to be subject to onerous checks at airports and ferry ports around the world? We had already introduced facial recognition image biometrics in British passports in 2006, but now the countries in the Schengen agreement are going further and the US has already imposed a fingerprint requirement on all visitors who have not historically required a visa-in other words, those from the UK.

I turn to the important point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South raised. In March, when I was Home Secretary and sitting alongside the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband), the House heard about the inquiry carried out by the Serious Organised Crime Agency, at the request of the Dubai authorities, into how 12 people with joint UK-Israeli citizenship had had their passports cloned without their knowledge. Those were pre-biometric passports. Second-generation biometrics would make such cloning impossible. Indeed, the current Foreign Secretary, who was then shadowing the position, when that statement was made, said:

No, there was not such a suggestion then, but there is now that, amazingly and incredibly, this Government are planning to abandon second-generation biometric
9 Jun 2010 : Column 360
passports and leave our country more vulnerable to attack. It is beyond me to understand how the new Home Secretary could have been lulled into that decision. Identity fraud, illegal immigration, terrorism and organised crime are international problems, and it makes sense for Britain to continue working with our international neighbours to tackle them. Biometric passports are part of an international drive to make travel documents more secure. Their electronic security features, including fingerprints, are a significant impediment to forgers and counterfeiters, and we need to keep pace with our neighbours if the UK passport is to continue to be recognised as having the highest integrity.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): I, too, congratulate you on your illustrious elevation, Mr Deputy Speaker.

In Dover, people are concerned that border security has been lax for years. Why did the right hon. Gentleman not put more energy into dealing with the security of our borders? If he had done that rather than dealing with ID cards, maybe we would have had less illegal immigration.

Alan Johnson: That intervention was not worth waiting for. We put considerable effort into securing our borders. As he represents Dover, he will know that the chief constable of Kent has seen the number of illegal immigrants roving around the county reduced by 92% since my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) went over and did a deal with Sarkozy, who was then the Interior Minister, and shut down Sangatte. We have taken every measure possible. If the hon. Gentleman is interested in the security of his constituents in Dover, I tell him that I am talking about the current Government abandoning second-generation biometric passports, probably on the basis of a decision at the hippy commune known as the Liberal Democrat conference. That is an incredible decision.

On funding, the Government claim that scrapping the scheme will produce an initial £84 million in savings in the next four years. I would be extremely interested to learn how the Home Secretary came to that figure. On none of the statistics I saw when I was doing her job only three weeks ago does that make sense. Seventy per cent. of the start-up costs for ID cards are linked to first-generation biometric passports, to ensure that they fall into line with international standards. Those costs are unavoidable and the money is committed, so where does the £84 million come from?

Steve McCabe: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Home Secretary needs to publish the detail of those alleged savings? All we have heard today is how she is going to rip-off 15,000 people who have already paid for the card.

Alan Johnson: Indeed-and for the grand sum of £1 million, which she will save by not giving pensioners and students their money back on the cards they acquired because they had the temerity not to forecast a Conservative victory at the general election. We will question that more closely in Committee.

Paul Goggins: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way; I was unfortunately unable to persuade the Home Secretary to take an intervention on refunds.
9 Jun 2010 : Column 361

I am seeking my right hon. Friend's support for a suggestion made to me by one of my constituents, and perhaps the Government will also consider it. If the Government are unwilling to refund those who applied for a passport and paid the £30 in good faith, perhaps they would consider giving a credit to all card holders for the next time they apply for a passport.

Alan Johnson: That is a sensible suggestion, except that some people who have ID cards do not have passports. They are part of that 20% of the population who generally will not have a driving licence or bank account. We used to call them the socially excluded-indeed, the Government are supposed to be wedded to the idea of helping them-and many of them will not have that facility because they do not have a passport, but my hon. Friend's point is relevant, and I shall address it further shortly.

Roberta Blackman-Woods: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Home Secretary must also cost in the additional cost in unemployment benefit that must be paid to my constituents if they do not manage to secure alternative employment when they lose their jobs because of the Government's decision?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend might get an answer to that from the Home Secretary. Perhaps those staff should not have had the temerity to take those jobs, because they should have known that the Conservatives were going to win the next general election. This is the new, bizarre world in which we are living.

Abolishing the national identity register would save very little for three reasons: first, all the information held on our existing passport database will continue to be held; secondly, that information will need to be held securely, as it is now; and thirdly, we will still need to collect and securely hold the fingerprints of foreign nationals on a database.

The Government's claim that scrapping ID cards will save £800 million in operating costs over the next 10 years is utter fantasy. We always proceeded on the basis of full cost recovery and made it perfectly clear that over 10 years, the operating costs of ID cards would be recovered through fees, so there would be no charge on general taxation over that period. However, if there are no ID cards, there is no charge for ID cards, and therefore no way of recovering the costs. By cancelling the scheme, the Government remove the income stream but leave the cancellation costs, which the taxpayer will be forced to pay, and let us not forget the continuing cost to the economy of fraud, abuse of the NHS, illegal immigration and unauthorised working. By cancelling the scheme, the Government will make not a saving, but a substantial loss.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that our black and Asian British constituents will come under suspicion, because some in authority will assume that they ought to have the card that foreign nationals must carry? We will have a return of the sus laws, because there will be double standards: one towards black and Asian migrants and British citizens who might be suspected of being migrants, and another towards other British citizens. Can the Home Secretary or a Home Office Minister assure us that there will be no increase in stop-and-search or sus law-type provisions against black and Asian British citizens?

9 Jun 2010 : Column 362

Alan Johnson: That precise point has been made by Liberty, which opposes ID cards- [ Interruption. ] An hon. Member says that Liberty does not make that point, but it does, on the basis that ID cards for foreign nationals will be compulsory. Although it is a card with fingerprints and biometric identification, we cannot now call it an ID card, which is really silly-it must be called a "permit" or "warrant" or some such thing. Liberty says that either everyone should have a card, which is novel for Liberty, or no one should have one.

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD) rose-

Alan Johnson: I will not give way because I am about to conclude.

My final point is that the Government intend not only to stop issuing cards, but to make the 15,000 already in circulation illegal. I find that despicable, and I do not think that that is too strong a word. How can any Government seek to punish hundreds of thousands of its citizens for having the temerity to take advantage of a scheme that was pledged in a manifesto, supported in law and introduced in an entirely legitimate way? [ Interruption. ] The Home Secretary is chuntering from the Front Bench, but I will gladly take an intervention.

Mrs May: If I heard the right hon. Gentleman correctly, he claims that somehow we are going to punish "hundreds of thousands of citizens," but actually, fewer than 15,000 people hold those cards. Perhaps he would like to correct the record.

Alan Johnson: Fifteen thousand is a significant number of people- [ Interruption. ] On Monday, the Deputy Prime said that he had made a slip of the tongue when he told one of my hon. Friends that the Government will certainly campaign for a yes vote in a Welsh referendum to devolve powers to Wales, and I think I am entitled to make a similar slip of the tongue. Of course I am talking not about hundreds of thousands of people-it would have been if the scheme had gone on a few months longer-but thousands, and 15,000 is a significant number of people.

Those in possession of identity cards ought to be able to continue to use them as a legitimate form of identification, and to travel in Europe and access services. At the very least, they should receive a refund, or the Government should take up the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) and offer a discount off future purchases. The Government should be ashamed of themselves for even thinking that they could treat people with such off-hand arrogance, and they must look again at that aspect of the Bill.

The Opposition remain unconvinced by the Government's arguments for scrapping ID cards. The money saved will not pay for 3,000 extra police officers, as the Lib Dems claimed. In the long term, the proposals will cost us more money, hamper the efforts of the police to tackle identity fraud, and weaken rather than defend civil liberties. Illegalising cards that have already been issued will penalise those who bought them in good faith, including pensioners and students. Scrapping second generation biometric passports will threaten our borders and encourage illegal immigration, because our passport technology will lag behind that of our European neighbours. I urge the Government to rethink this expensive, misguided and spiteful little Bill.

9 Jun 2010 : Column 363

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. A limit of 12 minutes on speeches has been applied by Mr Speaker.

Next Section Index Home Page