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Identity Documents Bill
|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 2nd July 2010|
Publications on the internet
Identity Documents Bill
Identity Documents Bill
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Alan Sandall, Annette Toft, Sarah Thatcher, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): Again, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. We had a good debate this morning about some of the wider issues of the Bill, and touched on some of the issues that clause 2 raises. Our contention remains that people who paid £30 in good faith should not lose out as a result of the Government’s action. Many people share that concern. Michael Turberville, a gentleman living in Reading, wrote to me and, having thanked my colleagues and me for standing up for citizens who purchased the card in good faith, said:
Now I find that with only a few months of use, my durable convenient travel document is about to be scrapped with NO refund! Never in the history of the world has any country ever issued a Government Document that was then retracted with no refund or replacement, etc.
I have had to let Mr Turberville down, in that we are not killing the Bill as a whole, because we recognise the democratic process, but that is just one of a number of letters that I have received. I could read out many more, but I shall save the Committee from having to listen to similar points from other people. There is a real sense of injustice among those who have paid £30 and will not be able to use the card.
We propose amendment 1 because we believe that there is no reason why the card cannot remain valid until its expiry date. We recognise that the coalition Government have the view that no new cards should be issued. That was the one bit of current Government policy that I was clear about—they would not be keen to issue new cards—but to scrap, spitefully, the existing cards seems ridiculous.
I am not the Minister, and it is for the Minister to say how this might be done, but given that we have a system of passports and a passport database, and given that
People have already got used to using the card. If those who have had to prove their identity with the card are asked to prove it again, they will have to get another form of ID, which can cause great difficulty. Those who have been using the card—of course, not everyone who has one will use it regularly—will find that quite challenging.
No doubt people have written to all hon. Members, but certainly those who have written to my hon. Friends and me have made it clear that those who have been using the card for travel have found it very convenient, not only as a travel document but as a proof of identity abroad. Expats in Spain have been able to apply for a card, and a number of expats—not that many, because we had not at that point rolled the scheme out more widely—will have one. In some European countries such as Spain, people are required to provide a form of ID every time they use their credit card, so individuals there who have an ID card will be keen to see it continue to be valid.
As I mentioned in this morning’s sitting, the Bill is worded in such a clever way that it is impossible for us to ask, through an amendment, for individuals to get their money back, but the relevant points and the principle were well articulated earlier. We think that what is proposed in the amendment is a reasonable compromise—the cards already out there should be allowed to continue, essentially as passports-lite.
Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): Given that some of the cards would, under the hon. Lady’s proposals, have nine and a half years or so to go, is she not concerned at all that if one were to follow her suggestion, people would be expected to recognise one of these identity cards in nine years’ time, know what it was and know that it was one of the few hundred still in circulation? Is she not concerned that that would be extremely bad with regard to security, and that it would open up a lot of fraud possibilities?
Meg Hillier: I completely disagree, and I shall explain why. Many documents in this country are issued in small numbers. An example is the Glasgow citizen card. Other documents produced are specific to cities or uses, and they are often used as ID. There is a famous story that when Michael Foot turned up to Brezhnev’s funeral and was asked for photo ID, he showed his London bus pass, which was accepted. I jest, but in all seriousness, there are an awful lot of documents out there that are not made in great numbers but are still recognised.
In particular—we have in front of us the Immigration Minister, who will know this better than most of us—there are a lot of different documents and visa vignettes issued by both the British Government and other countries. There are companies that employ swathes of people just to recognise those different documents. One additional,
If there were issues, they would have been raised, but there have been no problems with recognition of the few cards issued so far. There was one problem with a national company, but that was dealt with; the company said that it was an error on the ground. People have been using the cards in small numbers, and the cards have been recognised. I hope that that addresses that point.
It seems unjust and unfair—it is a bit sad, really—that this new Government, who talk about a new politics of coalition and a different way of listening to people and doing things, are saying that the little man or woman who bought the card in good faith will not get any compensation or further use from the document, while the big companies and corporations, as my hon. Friend the Member for Easington said earlier, will receive large amounts of compensation. The large companies, such as IBM or Thales, will presumably not be out of pocket—opportunity may be lost for British business at a time of recession, but that is another point—but individuals will be. In exchange, we will have to find another form of identity document, for which they will also have to pay. One appeal of identity cards, without repeating the argument for them, was that they were a different form of identity document that people could have even if they did not need to drive, or did not need to use it as an international travel document.
Amendment 2 is fairly self-explanatory; if amendment 1 is accepted, clearly amendment 2 follows. I have summarised the issues involving the card’s validity. It is a question of natural justice. If any of us were to buy a consumer good and a similar situation arose, we would expect some recompense. Various consumer protection Acts protect the consumer in this country. It ill behoves this Government, with their professed new agenda of openness, listening and being a Government of the people—well, that is not quite the phrase that they have used; a Government of “big society”, whatever that might mean—to deprive the British public, through their first Act, of money, a product or both.
Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, in my first Committee. I have a few comments to make, particularly as some of my constituents have applied for identity cards.
The world has changed during our lifetime. My dad did not have to pass a driving test, because there were none when he started to drive. He did not have a cheque guarantee card, because when he got his first chequebook, his word was sufficient proof that he was a person of enough substance to guarantee the amount written on the cheque. Times have changed. We must now prove our identities often and in depth. I have had to hire a car on two recent occasions, and I had to produce not only my driving licence, but the paper part of the licence showing whether I had any convictions, plus two recent utility bills in my name. I could produce them, but many people cannot—married women and people who cohabit may not have bills in their own names, and young people and a range of others may have similar difficulties.
Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): On the point about the number of ID cards out there and the variety of uses that they have, I had a conversation with someone last night, a retail newsagent’s representative, regarding the citizen card and proof of identity card. That is another area where a national ID card would have provided some coverage.
Julie Hilling: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Indeed, there has been a proliferation of cards. The idea with the identity card was that there would be one card, which was recognised, and which would allow young people to produce proof of age and of who they were.
The witnesses from Liberty and Justice acknowledged that people would need some form of identity card, but could not say what sort of form it would take. There was concern about having a huge database, but they acknowledged that poor people in particular would still need some form of identity. It is easy for us to pay, but not for everyone. People ask why they should have to pay £77 or whatever it costs for a passport if they never travel, or why they should have a driving licence if they never drive. Many people cannot get a driving licence, perhaps because they have a visual impairment or epilepsy, or some other medical condition that does not allow them to drive.
There is a lack understanding of what is it like for the poor to be disfranchised, to a certain extent. I do not know whether other Members have been involved in elections for those who might be signatories to group bank accounts. It is not about whether someone would be a good treasurer of an organisation, or would be a good person to be signatory to a bank account; it is about whether a person can prove their identity at the bank—whether they can take a passport or utility bills with them. If they cannot do so, they cannot even sign for the local community association account.
The Minister accuses Labour Members of synthetic indignation. I therefore assume that the pilot scheme did not take place in the constituencies of Conservative members of the Committee. The Minister’s comments are extremely insulting to those of my constituents who have written to me saying how upset they are that the card is being halted and that they will not get their money back. Indeed, two pensioners were moved to write to The Bolton News yesterday to explain that they had chosen identity cards rather than renewing their passports, and were disgusted that they were not getting their £30 back. I have to say that £47 may not be significant to people in this room, but it is extremely significant to pensioners and others with low incomes. Adding it up, the difference between the cost of an ID card and a passport would be enough for a holiday for many.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch spoke about consumer protection. That means expecting satisfactory quality, and goods that are fit for purpose and that match the description given. When purchasing something from the Government, one would expect those standards to be maintained; a card purchased from the Government should do what it says on the tin—it should be valid for 10 years, and it should prove your identity. The assumption is that people should have known that the identity cards would go. However, people in Bolton West and most of the north-west
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): The hon. Lady said that some people wanted ID cards because they did not have utility bills and so forth, but as with applying for a passport, surely when one applied for an ID card, one would need to show some identification, and that includes utility bills. If the last Government cared so much about people on low incomes, why did they make them pay £30 for a card in the first place? Why did they not let people on low incomes pay nothing?
Julie Hilling: My understanding was that during the pilot phase, people had to have a passport in order to have an identity card. We are talking about the very first stages of an identity card. We were running pilot schemes in the north-west, for young people in London and for Manchester and London City airports. The whole of the scheme had not been rolled out. The hon. Gentleman asks a pertinent question: is £30 too much for the low-paid? But when one looks at alternative forms of identification, one sees that perhaps it is a price worth paying. Clearly, had we continued with identity cards, and had there been a Labour Government, I might well have argued in this place that we should reduce the cost of the cards for some people. However, the guarantee was that the cards would pay for themselves over a 10-year period. It was important to establish that.
Dr Huppert: The hon. Lady made the point that the people who applied for the first cards—about 15,000 of them—already had passports, so it is really entirely synthetic to complain that they do not have an alternative form of identity.
Julie Hilling: What the hon. Gentleman did not hear me say was that the scheme was at its first stage. I am sure that the shadow Minister will be able to answer these points better than I can. At the first stage, there was the need for that arrangement, but the Government are talking about getting rid of identity cards and halting them for ever. In terms of the roll-out, we are saying that those people who are currently disfranchised will not have the opportunity to join the scheme, and we do not know what opportunity they will have in future.
Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South) (Lab): I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that the hon. Member for Harlow expressed an admirable sentiment when he said that it might be difficult for those on low incomes to purchase cards. Does she think that the Government should consider means-testing passports? I do not know whether the Government are considering that in these difficult economic circumstances. Admirable though the hon. Gentleman’s comments were, I am not aware that such a scheme is forthcoming. Would she like to comment on that?
Julie Hilling: As a new Member, I am not sure that I am able to comment on some of the points made. However, on the point about the passport, yes, those applying for cards had to have a recently expired or current passport.
Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): I am getting a sense of confusion; the hon. Lady makes a powerful argument for keeping ID cards, but she is now abstaining for a second time on the Bill to repeal them. We are debating an amendment on the issue of whether the cards in existence should be allowed to continue. I am not hearing much support for that from her.
Julie Hilling: It seems that the hon. Gentleman has not listened to the points that I have raised. As you rightly pointed out, Mr. Streeter, we should be debating the amendments. If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, he would have heard about the comments in my postbag from constituents who are extremely angry and upset that they will not get their £30 back from the Government. They purchased cards in good faith from their Government, expecting that their Government would then do what was said on the card and provide them with a travel card and identification card for the next 10 years. The Government have been mean—that is the best word that I can think of—not to allow people a refund. I urge them to reconsider that point, and to refund people their £30 or, at the very least, allow the cards to continue to be used.
Grahame M. Morris: It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I fully recognise that there is a mandate to scrap ID cards, but although the Minister is carrying out his manifesto promise, it is a great shame that he is unable to do so in a manner that is fair and decent to people who acted in good faith and took up the previous Government’s offer of the personal security of a biometric identity card.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West pointed out, the ID card scheme is in its infancy. Unfortunately, the coalition Government have decided to kill it off before giving it the chance to prove or disprove its value. However, some people decided that they wanted to protect their identity, or simply wanted a form of identification, perhaps to prove their age. I mentioned the citizen card, a proof-of-identity-type card. Many young people have found the benefit of such cards. Those who got the ID cards entered into a contract with their Government, regardless of political affiliation and party, and that contract is now being torn up by the coalition Government. Those people who acted in good faith might feel let down, particularly given that the whole idea is mean-spirited.
Offering repayment to people who purchased cards would be a welcome gesture. Alternatively, the cards could be allowed to run their full term of 10 years. The decision to terminate current, in-use cards only one
Shabana Mahmood (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that citizens of a country are entitled to hold their Government to a higher standard than a private enterprise? We expect more of our Government than we do of private companies.
An ordinary citizen entering into a contract expects it to be honoured, particularly a contract with the Government. In fact, surely people would think slightly more of the Government and have more trust in them than they would in Tesco or Sainsbury when purchasing a store card. Perhaps the Minister should think a little about his actions as it really surprises me that he wants his first Act of Parliament to break the bond of trust between the citizen and the state. We have not heard any serious arguments from Government Members about why it is such a good idea for the Government to break the contract and make all ID cards void in one month, as clause 2 will do. Do they not expect people to feel entitled to a refund?
Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): When the policy was originally drafted, it must have been presumed that the companies involved would insist on a contractual indemnity, hence the reason why they are being repaid. The previous Government could easily have inserted a clause into the ID card scheme that would have required repayment in the circumstances that it was cancelled, something they knew was a possibility.
Grahame M. Morris: I am not a contractual lawyer, but a general principle applies. If we go back to some of the issues that were raised this morning in respect of the comparison with large companies and the large corporate interests that were involved in providing the IT infrastructure, it seems that their interests are well safeguarded.
Grahame M. Morris: May I just finish this point? Those bodies will receive full recompense and compensation under the terms of the contract. They have no doubt paid an expensive lawyer a great deal of money for advice to protect their interests. An ordinary citizen would anticipate a degree of fairness from the Government, and when there is a change of Government, there is a responsibility for that to continue.
Shabana Mahmood: Does my hon. Friend agree that, in 2006, the date of the Act that is being repealed, it would have been ridiculous for the then Government to put in a cancellation clause on the chance that they would lose the next general election? Why would they undo what they were putting forward as their policy?
Government Members are sneering at the amount of £30 as if it were a measly sum and would matter little to anyone. Coming from a community in the north-east, my experience is that £30 is a significant sum. Apart from being a matter of principle, it matters in practical terms. The Minister said this morning that people would not be scraping around for the last £30 to spend on an ID card. Perhaps he and his hon. Friends are highlighting their detachment from the real lives and everyday hardships experienced by ordinary people.
Robert Halfon: The hon. Gentleman casts aspersions on Government Members and has said that they do not care about £30. The position is quite the opposite. I did not want anyone to have to waste £30 on an identity card because such action would be completely unnecessary and that is an extortionate sum.
Grahame M. Morris: A simple solution has been highlighted in the debate and indeed came out during the witness evidence that was taken on Tuesday. If the Government feel strongly about such matters, there is an opportunity to introduce a system of means-testing to make travel documents or passports available at a lesser charge or even free to disadvantaged groups. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman pursuing that policy with his Government.
As for the impact on employment, the Minister said that 60 temporary jobs were at stake and that they were temporary short-term contracts, as if a temporary or an agency worker is a second-class citizen. That is not a fair assessment. It creates a bad impression. Those involved have families and financial commitments, and if the scheme is discontinued without personnel operating the system, that will have an impact. An ID card is perhaps the cheapest form of identification for someone looking for supplementary identification without the need to carry a passport.
It would therefore be likely that those on low incomes or indeed young people needing regularly to prove their age would opt for an ID card. A provisional driving licence commonly used by young people to prove their age would cost £50, so we should assume that someone on low income or with modest means would be most likely to purchase an ID card if they were looking for a simple form of identification. We heard that view from at least one witness on Tuesday.
How does the Minister intend to word his letter to those people whom he is so plainly swindling? I recommend that he start and finish with a sincere apology. If I were treated in such a manner by a high street store, I would not shop there again. Any benefits of the ID scheme proposed by the previous Government have been ignored by the new coalition, and it is a shame that the Minister has not provided a clear and consistent message about why he is so keen to kill the scheme at this early stage.
Government Members have also highlighted the costs of the ID card scheme; they must know, however, that the start-up costs of any scheme are significant but that they start to be recovered once the scheme is rolled out completely.
Fraud and identity theft—from which I have suffered—greatly concern many people the length and breadth of the country, and for those who have been targeted, it is a terribly worrying time. Any Government should be concerned with addressing benefit fraud and more sinister things, such as people seeking to be involved with terrorist activity, and the ID cards are a method of doing that.
Grahame M. Morris: The hon. Gentleman, or one of his colleagues, raised a similar point earlier. I still come back to the original reply: this is a relatively early stage. The card has been operational for less than a year—[ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman is asking me a specific question. Does he want me to answer it?
Grahame M. Morris: There have been a number of examples in only the past few months of false British passports being used across the world, and it is essential that we have a gold standard of identification, not for the benefit of Government but for the benefit and safety of our citizens.
I am sure that Members have noted the evidence provided to the Committee by David Moss. He raised a number of concerns and pointed out some of the pitfalls that the Government might face. Is the Minister retaining the safeguarding identity strategy, which focused on the huge importance of individuals’ identity information and included plans to streamline information use across a number of Departments? That strategy, which was launched only on 23 June 2009, involved many Departments and Government agencies and was designed to deliver a common framework across Government.
David Moss also stated that if ID cards were cancelled the strategy would collapse and the improved efficiencies in Government that were to be delivered would be lost. The Minister has failed to address in the Committee any of the concerns about the effect that cancelling the ID scheme will have on the delivery of public services. In direct contradiction to the Minister, David Moss stated that the Bill will have a considerable impact across Government, yet the Minister continues to deny that the impact will be measurable.
As we move into the future, we must surely have a sensible strategy for protecting the identity of individuals and for ensuring that Government services are efficient and effective. We have also heard that the coalition Government are halting the next generation of biometric passports, in an attempt to save money. We will lose all
Shabana Mahmood: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, on what is my first ever Public Bill Committee. I will be reasonably brief because many of my points have already been made my hon. Friend the Member for Easington. I want to pick up on the point that my hon. Friend the shadow Minister raised about fairness, which is at the heart of the amendment. I have been reading what Government Members say about themselves, and apparently we are all progressives now. If that is true, we should recognise that fairness is at the heart of what it is to be a true progressive.
On the point of fairness, people bought the cards in good faith. An earlier intervention referred to card-holders having a passport at the same time—people were eligible to apply for a card if they had a passport or a recently expired one—so some of the people who now have identity cards will not have an up-to-date passport that is within the Identity Cards Act 2006.
Having bought their cards in good faith, people have a legitimate expectation that the Government will honour the expiry date of the identity cards. The Minister and some Government Members suggested this morning that the public should have known that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were going to form a coalition at the May general election and shelve the policy. That suggestion and the idea that the public should therefore not have bought the cards is arrogant and insulting, and it treats the electorate with contempt. It beggars belief that that can be a suitable argument to put forward for not adequately compensating people who did something that was perfectly legitimate, within the law and passed by an Act of Parliament. It is extremely unfair.
If the Government are going to send out a message to members of the public that they should look at what parties say when they are electioneering, and then act accordingly in terms of the decisions that they make in their personal life, I would tell them to look at what those same parties do when they get into Government. We have the recent example of the reversal of the position on VAT taken by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. Mrs Epstein and other members of the public should draw the conclusion that they should listen to what parties say when they are electioneering and then assume that they are going to do the exact opposite. From the Minister’s case this morning, Mrs Epstein and the other 12,000 or 13,000 people who paid for ID cards could have formed the very reasonable conclusion that, even though they were saying that they were going to get rid of ID cards, they are in fact going to keep them.
Grahame M. Morris: On that point, in relation to the witnesses that we heard on Thursday, particularly Mrs Epstein, is it not conceivable that a group of people could get together in a class action and sue the Government for breach of contract, and would the cost not be more than the estimated £400,000 of making repayment to the people concerned?
Shabana Mahmood: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I confess that even though I was a lawyer in my previous life, contract law was not my specialty—it was professional negligence—so I cannot verify the accuracy of that statement. However, it is certainly something to consider.
Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): Pertinent to that point, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Easington earlier in the debate, the two letters that the relevant Government Department will have to send out to each of the card-holders about the cancellation of their ID cards will involve significant costs, although we are awaiting confirmation of what the costs will be. Does that not indicate a certain—[ Interruption. ] Were they confirmed this morning? Given that, does it not indicate a disregard for the electorate also, and for the ID card users who would like to maintain their cards in use?
Shabana Mahmood: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. That is an important point of principle. We would have liked to have tabled an amendment about compensation and repayment of the £30, but as other hon. Friends have said, that is not possible because of the way in which the Bill is worded, so this is effectively the next best or alternative option. As my hon. Friend the shadow Minister said earlier, we already have in circulation a number of different cards. They are small in number but they are still legal tender when it comes to proving identity. I submit that continuing that in relation to these ID cards would not be any more troublesome than the list of other ID proofs already in circulation.
I simply end on this point. It is extremely arrogant to put forward an argument that people should have guessed and known—effectively have behaved like Mystic Megs—what the Government would do as soon as they got into power. That is very unfair. The tone of this morning’s point seemed to suggest that the people who bought the ID cards, even though the Tories and the Lib Dems were saying that they would get rid of them, were somehow idiotic to have done so. I find that insulting. I do not know whether any of my constituents have bought ID cards, but if they have, I would feel extremely insulted on their behalf. That point needs to be made publicly and put on the record. It is only fair for people to be allowed to retain their cards and use them until the expiry date. That is not too much to ask, and the Government should look into that.
Bridget Phillipson : It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, in my first Public Bill Committee. On the point that has already been raised regarding the amendment and the compromise that we have had to reach, my preferred alternative is for people, who bought the cards in good faith, to be refunded. Unfortunately, seeing that the Government have ruled that out, and in such a mean-spirited manner, the only option we have is to look at whether the card can be continued.
We talked this morning about costs, and I am glad that the Minister has clarified what the cost would have been, which is, I think, £400,000. I am a little sketchy on some of the specifics on that point and on the question of what the cost would be if the cards were to remain valid. Would it be cheaper simply to refund, or to
There has been much discussion on whether £30 is much money or not. As my hon. Friend the Member for Easington said, that is a considerable amount of money. As many of my constituents who might have wanted to apply for an ID card know, £30 is half of what they might claim every week in benefits from the Government—half of their income. One might say, and my hon. Friend made this point, that perhaps £30 is too great a sum of money. Perhaps he makes a valid point; I am open-minded on that subject. However, people have paid out that sum of money. If we are looking to cancel the card, the options that we have are either for people to be given their money back, which has unfortunately been ruled out, or allow the cards to remain valid, which I argue for.
People without photo ID experience many difficulties. Photographic ID is required for a whole range of things these days, not simply from Departments, but from many private companies—if one wants to sign for a house, hire a car or open a bank account. We can argue about the rights and wrongs of whether that should be the case, but it is the case; many private companies require it. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West also made a good point in saying that although driving licences provide an alternative, it is not open to everyone. Those with specific health problems are not be able to apply for a driving licence.
Additionally, for many people to whom I have spoken in my previous career in managing my own refuge, where identity was important, having proof of identity was vital. One simply could not do certain things without identity. It significantly slowed up the processes of moving on with one’s life, renting a house and claiming state benefits. Identity cards would have been of great use, and it is a real shame that people in that situation, who could have applied for those cards as the system was being rolled out, find that the system has been prematurely ended in a mean-spirited manner by the new Government. When I spoke to those people, I would often suggest that they could apply for a driving licence, as it is a cheaper alternative to a passport. What they rightly ask is why they would apply for a driving licence if they do not have the money to learn to drive, and that is a good point.
Irrespective of the views on ID cards, the pros and cons of which we have touched on broadly, those who are on lower incomes, are transient and will not apply for passports could have found an alternative here. For example, those in the Traveller community, who have great difficulty in proving identity and perhaps do not have utility bills, could have obtained and used photo ID cards under the new system. The problems that I often saw people experiencing included having bills that were not under their names. Often they had fled from other parts of the country. The protection of identity and securing that information is very important. One may argue that delay was inevitable, that perhaps it was just meant to be. Luckily, the people I worked with were in a position to advocate for them and make a case to the housing association, the benefits department and the banks that the people were who they said they were. After all the difficulties that
My hon. Friend the Member for Easington made a good point when he touched on expecting more from the Government. We do expect more from the Government; I certainly would have expected more. I am delighted that the Minister has such great foresight that he was able to predict the outcome of the general election and the formation of the coalition Government. I hope he will use that foresight in his ministerial career as time progresses.
Unfortunately, many people who bought identity cards—as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood pointed out earlier—are not perhaps such avid followers of politics, or perhaps they just thought it was a good idea and that the Government, irrespective of political persuasion, would act in good faith and honour those cards. It is shameful that the new Government, apparently in the spirit of new politics, will neither offer a refund nor allow the cards to remain valid, so that people can honour the contract that they entered into with the Government. We face a compromise here. We are not opposing the vast majority of the Bill, but this is an important point. We accept that the two coalition parties are committed to the Bill; all we ask is a simple compromise that those who in good faith bought the cards are not left out of pocket because the Government have acted in such a mean-spirited manner in denying them access to either a refund or a valid ID card.
Catherine McKinnell: I am grateful for the opportunity to explore some of the issues relating to ID cards and, in particular, to debate clause 2 with regard to members of the public who in good faith purchased the national identity card and, it has been suggested, should have that right removed with no compensation. I appeal on a common-sense basis. I am sure that for many who bought a national ID card, it was a common-sense approach; a secure and easy way in which to identify themselves when required.
I went to collect a parcel from the security depot where I live and on the wall was a list of possible identification that ran to 10 to 15 items, including passport, driving licence, utility bills and various other forms of identification. From a common-sense point of view, I wished I had a national ID card, because I had little on me in terms of ID. I did manage to provide a copy of my lease and a credit card in order to prove my identity. It struck me that a national ID card could be added to the list of viable forms of identification.
Catherine McKinnell: To be honest, I did not study the list. I could not confirm for sure whether it was. I might go back and suggest it to them. Anybody issued with a card through the London City airport scheme might want to use an ID card, if we are successful in arguing for the amendment.
Robert Halfon: Does what the hon. Lady just said not prove why the ID card was unnecessary? Having a lot of different options—utility bills or other forms—makes it easier. Rather than having to carry one official ID, people can carry all sorts of things, thus making it easier to show identification.
Catherine McKinnell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for an intervention that proves the opposite case: why should someone be required to carry multiple forms of inconvenient identification, when to carry one card in a wallet would be a common-sense solution? That highlights the lack of common sense in the Bill, which would eradicate this sensible approach to identification for those who require it.
Meg Hillier: My hon. Friend makes a good point, because anyone who ever studies the list at the post office would see that it includes some very insecure documents. It would not take much for someone to find, typically, a handbag with a credit card in it. There is also the hassle of carrying a utility bill. With those two things identity fraud is extremely easy. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that a secure form of identity would be better all round.
Catherine McKinnell: I just want to clarify that the postal service that I referred to earlier was not a post office, but simply the depot of my residence. Therefore it was not an official, Government-operated post office. I imagine that at a post office a national ID card is probably listed as a form of acceptable identification. I would be surprised if it were not.
The point that I am making is that for the 15,000 people with national ID cards—and I wish I was one of them, after this morning and other occasions, and generally in the light of all the identification processes that we go through daily—it is very unfair that, apparently from bad will, the cards are to be abolished overnight by Act of Parliament. They were purchased in good faith and I am sure that the 15,000 people who have them would like to continue to use them.
Grahame M. Morris: Ms Epstein raised an option on Tuesday—and ruled it out—of providing a credit that would allow the ID card to run its natural life for 10 years, with a £30 credit on the cost of a new passport. I wonder if my hon. Friend thinks that that would be a reasonable compromise.
Catherine McKinnell: I think that that would be a reasonable compromise and that it should be considered if—and this is the point that I want to deal with first—those 15,000 cards in circulation are not allowed to be used. As a reasonable compromise there should either be a full refund or credit towards the purchase of a passport which, as we explored earlier, will be an issue for quite a few of those people who have national ID cards that will be abolished.
The Government, apart from displaying great lack of respect for the people who decided to purchase a national ID card, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham,
Bridget Phillipson: On the point about compensation, does my hon. Friend think that it will set a worrying and dangerous precedent if the Government do not honour a previous commitment, and that people expect a little more from the Government than they do from a high street retailer, for example, as my hon. Friend the Member for Easington has already suggested? It may be all very well on this occasion, but what is to stop the Government in future saying, “You should have known better. We all knew this was going to happen. It’s your fault.” That is what Government Members are saying to people who purchased ID cards.
Catherine McKinnell: I absolutely agree. That goes to the crux of the matter. Government Members appear not to understand that the British public do not look at the Government in terms of party colours. They might go to the polls and vote on the basis of partisan interest or belief, but it is not by party or composition that they hold the Government to account. To the majority of the British public, the Government owe a duty and a responsibility to their citizens. It will come as a great shock and a great insult to anyone who holds an ID card that the Government feel it fair and just to abolish the scheme, without any recompense to people for whom £30 is a significant sum of money.
I appreciate that the future of biometric data and passports is not necessarily covered by the clause, but it is a subject which the Minister has shed little light on today. I am genuinely concerned, as are my hon. Friends and many members of the British public, that simply to abolish identity cards and the national identity register, which supports the biometric data held on those cards, is short-sighted.
The Chair: The point being that the hon. Lady is supposed to confine her remarks to the amendments that we are discussing. She can catch my eye when we come to clause 3. Do you have any more to say on the amendments?
Catherine McKinnell: My final point is on clause 2, and it relates to card-holders being allowed to hold on to their identity cards until their expiry date. The amendment raises the compromise that the Government could make to allow the national identity database to remain in place—to hold the identity of those 15,000 individuals in abeyance—until the Government finally decide their policy on biometric data.
Damian Green: First, I congratulate all the hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches in Committee today. I also congratulate you, Mr Streeter, on your characteristic generosity of spirit in allowing the debate to range heroically beyond the limits of the amendments. In the spirit of general helpfulness, I warn hon. Members that on future occasions other Chairmen may not be as generous.
The hon. Member for Bolton West made a point, which other hon. Members also brought up, about those who are genuinely economically struggling, for whom £30 is a significant sum of money, which is a serious point. I point out that the scheme was introduced by the Government in the Identity Cards Act 2006, which the new Labour Members presumably supported from outside the House—the scheme was eventually introduced in 2009, so their Government had three and a half years to think about it. Far from implementing means-testing, as the hon. Member for Easington has suggested, they decided that there would be a flat fee and that everyone would have to pay. On top of that, they decided that they would give away thousands of these cards for free, in an attempt to foist the scheme more quickly on to the unwilling British public. They did not, however, choose people who were particularly short of money. They chose people who worked at airports, so I will not take any moral lectures about how the poorest people are being deprived. We have discussed somebody scrimping and saving to put their last £30 on an identity card. My point is that no one in this country would think that that was the most essential use of their last £30, if they were genuinely struggling—it is an absurd argument.
Grahame M. Morris: On the pilot scheme that took place at Manchester and London City airports, my understanding is that the aim was not to identify a group of poor people. That was an air gate. The measure tried to address—[Interruption.] The scheme was multifaceted. It addressed the integrity of the security of the country. Given that the scheme was being grown sequentially, that was a sensible starting point.
Damian Green: The hon. Gentleman has made my point for me. The previous Government did not care about any of that and Labour has dug up this argument in desperation. His other quasi-valid point is whether we will lose anything by implementing these measures. At our second oral evidence session, Mr Fazackerley, who was representing Manchester airport, said:
Mr Fazackerley is on the record as a fan of the scheme, and even he admits that all of the scheme’s security benefits, which are what he cares about—airports need to care about security—may be achieved by other means. That is an eloquent point made by a fan of the scheme about how pointless it is.
Damian Green: I do not mean to detain the Committee unnecessarily, but I suggest that the hon. Lady reads the exchanges that followed Mr Fazackerley’s comment. It occurred to me at the time, as it occurred to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, who asked the following question, that, as Mr Fazackerley went on to say, airports may easily achieve the same objectives by using passports and other such documents. If the hon. Lady reads the evidence again, she will see that Mr Fazackerley was eloquent on that point.
On the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, I particularly enjoyed her introduction, in which she said that it is not her job to provide solutions to the problems. I thought, “Welcome to opposition.” Many of us were in opposition for many years. She has accepted that her proposals may not be practical or workable, but she made them anyway. The amendment seeks to retain the last vestiges of the costly ID card scheme, but in doing so would impose further massive expense on the taxpayer. That point was raised by the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, who wants more detail on the cost of carrying on with the scheme.
If the Committee accepted the amendments, what would be the cost? The amendments would require the taxpayer to meet the cost of maintaining the identity card infrastructure for the next 10 years for fewer than 15,000 card-holders. The current operation costs about £5 million a year, plus administrative costs, which suggests that the amendments would require the taxpayer to spend between £50 million and £60 million over 10 years for fewer than 15,000 card-holders, 3,000 of whom got the cards for free.
Meg Hillier: I grant that what the Minister says would be the case, if that approach were the only solution. We Labour Members recognise that such schemes need to be run in the most cost-effective and simple way. It is easy for the Government to come up with the most expensive method of implementing the amendment, but we believe that there are cheaper alternatives, such as migrating data to the passport database or allowing the cards to remain valid without the back-up of a database; that would make them far less useful to card-holders, but it would at least give some recompense. It is not for me to work up that detail—that is the Government’s job—but coming up with one expensive solution is disingenuous.
Damian Green: I am glad that the hon. Lady admits that the provisions outlined in her amendments would be colossally expensive. She has said that we might therefore implement them by removing the database, so that the card effectively becomes a piece of plastic with no back-up at all. Several times today, I have distinctly heard her talk about the importance of security and how the cards would support it. She must admit that having a national identity card without any back-up would be pointless. That would be a less secure means of identifying someone than a photographic driving licence, and certainly less secure than a passport, or anything such as that. The identity cards would not be practical in any way.
If we wanted to retain the national identity register, we would need to continue holding the fingerprints of 15,000 randomly selected, innocent people. We would also run the risk of seeing diminishing use by the small
There are practical points to consider, such as what would happen if someone lost their card and asked for a replacement. Presumably, in order to replace it effectively, we would need to keep the national identity register.
Meg Hillier: The Minister is now straying into the realm of fantasy. The amendment states that existing cards should remain valid until their expiry date, and there are ways in which that could be achieved. He is now suggesting that we discuss replacement cards—something that is not in the amendment and is not a proposal—and I would be glad if he were to respond to the point about migration to the passport database, which is sensible.
Damian Green: I have responded to it. There are two ways in which such a proposal could proceed: either it would be fantastically expensive and an appalling waste of public money, or it would be completely pointless, because the card would be a piece of plastic that did not relate to anything else.
The hon. Lady wants to relate the card to the passport database, but as she knows, the vast majority of people who have identity cards also have passports, so that would be completely pointless as well. We would be doing the taxpayer a major disservice, as well as giving card-holders false hope that the ID card would serve some useful function, or that they could reasonably expect their cards to be recognised by anyone who wanted to verify their identity in nine or 10 years’ time, although so few had been issued and they had never become part of national life. Anyone going into a post office in 2019 and saying, “Do you remember the national identity card? Here is mine—can I take this parcel away?” would find it difficult, and it would be much easier and more practical to use their passport, driving licence, or utility bills, or any of the other options.
As the Opposition have sensibly decided not to oppose the Bill in principle, we have to assume that it is likely to proceed through its remaining stages and reach the statute book. The amendments represent slightly desperate attempts to cling to the vestiges of the scheme for the best part of 10 years. That would be completely unrealistic and would not even serve the interests of those who have bought the cards. For those reasons, I urge the Committee to reject the amendment.
Meg Hillier: The debate has been interesting, and we have heard good arguments from Labour Members about basic issues such as fairness and decency—things that I mentioned in my opening comments. It is sad that the Government take that attitude. We have heard about the people—pensioners, non-drivers and disabled people—who would have benefited from the scheme and who will suffer because the scheme is likely to be scrapped. Some of the 15,000 people who have the cards now may be in those categories—I am not in a position to know exactly who took up the card—and the Government should not treat people in such a way.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood, who was rightly indignant about the Government’s attitude to a number of our
Guy Opperman: I am delighted to respond, nodding or otherwise. Will the hon. Lady answer the question that I raised earlier about why the previous Government did not insert a clause into the application form for an ID card that provided for repayment on cancellation? The contract between the previous Government and the companies that are being reimbursed must contain a contractual indemnity.
Meg Hillier: I have a little lesson for the hon. Gentleman: when one implements an Act of Parliament—I was a Member in 2005 when the legislation was discussed in Parliament; it became law in 2006—legally it is not permissible to tie the hands of a future Government, which clearly we have not done. The Government do not think “Ha, how can we tie in this legislation for ever and ever, in case any future Government want to change it?” Nor do the Government assume that their policy will be junked at the first available opportunity in such a brutal fashion, which is the key point. As the hon. Gentleman raised that point, I shall alert my colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench to the fact that we should seek to insert a similar clause in any Bill before the House over the next five years, which would ensure that the Government were tied in to their own suggestion. It is an interesting point which, in debate, may well be opposed by the Government, and for good reason.
We have heard a lot about how useful the cards could have been, and the existing cards would have continued to be useful to the 15,000 people who had them. What we are asking is limited; Labour may not be in government, but we are tabling an amendment to allow the cards to continue. If the Government were minded to do that in a cheaper way than the Minister has proposed, that would be possible. It is sad that he has added up the biggest figures that he could find to come up with a big demand, so that it seems as if the Opposition are insisting that this large amount of public money is spent. That is not the point. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North talked about common sense, and that is what the amendment is all about. Some 15,000 people have cards that they paid for in good faith, and our proposal is proportionate.
The Minister has stated that we are not going to vote against the Bill in its entirety, and that is because we have taken a reasonable view. The new coalition
There are those who did not have the foresight to come along to the debate at University college, where a room of some 30 people heard what the Minister had to say, or to any other debate in which he took part; they chose to get on with their lives instead. Perhaps new Members have come here under the impression that people on the street recognise shadow Ministers and rush up and ask them, “Shadow Minister, what will your policy be when you are in government again?” I hate to disabuse the Minister, or any other hon. Member, but it was not the case that the Minister was so well known and his words so well weighed by the average citizen in Manchester, or London. I would love the Minister to disprove that point, but we must not get an over-inflated sense of our individual importance, or our importance in the Government. Many of our constituents are far less politically engaged than we are, which is understandable, but some are very detached. As has been said, why should people have to be so involved in the political process that they know every word that the Minister said when he was a shadow Minister, and make their assumptions accordingly?
The Opposition are in favour of fairness and decency, and we want to support those who took up cards. We do not like and we regret the “I told you so” attitude of the Minister. He may have been in opposition for 13 years—he has been champing at the bit to become a Home Office Minister—but it is in his power now to do something positive for the British public that reflects the trust that he would like to build with them. It is important that any Minister in the Home Department has a relationship of trust with the public. As my hon. Friends have said, this measure would break that bond.
The Minister discussed the airport pilot scheme, but we should not conflate that with other issues, because that will be discussed under new clause 2. However, a number of points were made on that. I refer the Minister to a speech that I made at the Social Market Foundation, in which I talked about the 20% of people without passports or identification, and how we should tackle that issue. There was work under way to look at support for those people, and discussions were held with several bodies representing, for example, ex-prisoners, women victims of domestic violence, and people who have no biographical footprint. Those discussions were held to see how the identity card could best be used to support them and to reach the people who do not have a form of ID—the 20% or so of people who are dispossessed and who cannot get bank accounts and so on. That is the world we live in. The Minister may not like it; I know that, from his civil libertarian point of view, he would love to return to the 1950s, when ID involved photographs, maybe the odd signature here or there and the trust of the local beat bobby, who would know who you were. We do not live in that world now, and the Minister needs to wake up to that fact.
Damian Green: The hon. Lady is right: I am a civil libertarian. I read her address to the Social Market Foundation, and she makes an interesting point. There are people in society who clearly find it more difficult than most to establish their identity to the outside world. It always struck me that addressing that problem would have been a much more sensible and creative thing for the previous Government to have done, rather than their saying that the way to solve the problem is to make sure that 100% of British citizens have to pay a sum of money for an intrusive database. In a sense, she has solved her own problem, and shown where her Government went wrong originally.
Meg Hillier: We are in danger of straying from the amendment, but as the point has been raised, it is important to stress once again that the scheme was not compulsory—we never mentioned 100% of people. It was a case of, “If you want to pay, you get the card. If you don’t, you don’t.” It is important to look at what benefits a scheme can bring when it is up and running.
The Minister spoke, quite personally, about synthetic indignation. There is nothing synthetic on Labour’s side of the Committee. We are here representing our constituents, and we have the privilege of challenging the Government on behalf of the people of Britain, even if it is a small number of people who are affected—later we will discuss clauses that affect even fewer people—by the mean way in which the Government are demolishing the ID card policy.
In our consideration of clause 2, the Minister has discussed the lack of security. He mentioned halting biometric passports; once again, I am not clear how he proposes to replace the security of fingerprints in documents. The Minister’s answers have been poor. He has backed up his own arguments, rather than genuinely looked at the facts. I think that the British public will see that, and I am sad that the Government will not move a centimetre, or even a millimetre, on that point.
The clause sets out the timeline for scrapping the ID cards scheme and recognises the need for a practical approach that gives existing card-holders sufficient notice of the cancellation of the card. It provides that cards will no longer be issued on or after the day on which the Bill is passed. As I have indicated, we have already taken steps to minimise future demand for cards, and we have put new applications on hold pending consideration of the Bill by Parliament. The clause will enable the entire process to be dismantled by removing the statutory requirement on the Secretary of State to issue ID cards.
The clause also provides that existing cards will no longer be valid one month after enactment. That is a sufficient period of notice for card-holders, who will be notified in writing at the enactment of the Bill. Existing card-holders have already been notified in writing, at their registered address, on the introduction of the Bill. The Directgov and Identity and Passport Service websites have been updated to reflect the current position.
We are not proposing that after the scheme ends the existing cards have to be returned, which would be costly and unnecessary. The card will have no legal status, so requiring its return would be only a bureaucratic exercise. Card-holders will be advised to destroy the card safely, as with an expired bank or credit card. If the card-holder chooses not to destroy the card, they should keep it in a safe place. The card will not be valid for travel purposes, and no verification services will be provided by the IPS following enactment. The decision not to recall the cards will not create any significant risk. If such a risk existed, it would be outweighed by the cost, bureaucracy and inconvenience to card-holders of returning the cards.
In writing to card-holders about the introduction of the Bill to Parliament, we have advised those who may travel on their ID card to use their passport instead, and to consider renewing their passport before travelling, if it has expired. Although there are fewer than 15,000 cards in circulation, we want to avoid potential travel difficulties for card-holders who may travel in Europe over the coming months. The IPS is in contact with key stakeholders in the travel industry and with national and international border agencies, and it will continue to keep them informed of progress.
If an ID card-holder is unable to return from abroad once their card is cancelled, they will have to obtain a valid passport or emergency travel document from the British embassy or consular post. As is the case now, UK Border Agency staff will exercise discretion when someone with a cancelled ID card turns up at a British port. Just as if someone arrived with an expired passport, the immigration officer has the discretion to admit that person, provided that the officer is satisfied about their identity.
The Minister has not explained why the period of one month was chosen. That seems a short time in which to get out information—it could easily cut across someone’s holiday. I am slightly reassured by his suggestion that some flexibility may be shown at the border, but that is inconsistent with the chosen period of one month, as the card scheme might have been wound down over a year. Someone might have travelled abroad on their card—having left before the election, indeed—to live or work in Europe, and they might not travel back until next year. It may be the first time that they do that. I forget the figures, but certainly many young people travel and live abroad, and expatriates in Spain might actively have sought a card and might be in such a position. They might not visit their UK address, and one can see how letters might go astray when they are forwarded to an address abroad—notifications have to be sent to the UK address, because only that information is held on the database.
I am only slightly reassured by the Minister’s comments about flexibility, which seem a bit vague and worrying. If someone turns up at a port and finds that they cannot use their card, they have to go to the embassy, which is incredibly cumbersome. What measures is the Minister putting in place to ensure that that process is made easy? Will he explain why the period of one month was chosen? I know that he, personally, is in a tearing hurry to become the poster man for all the people who want ID cards to be abolished; perhaps, it will be his epitaph—sooner rather than later, if the rumours we hear are true. Some card-holders may, for whatever reason, put the letter to one side and not appreciate its meaning, or may just try to use the card once the system and the database have gone. What sanction will the Minister apply to someone who tries to use a card after the scheme is over?
The Minister touched on some of the costs involved in cancelling the scheme. He indicated that the IPS was in touch with ports, carriers, and others who might need to see or use the card. Having recently been in a position similar to the Minister’s, I know that the system is not cost free. Only a few months ago, we were alerting ports and carriers to the validity of the card, and it will be expensive to go through a similar process again. Will he give us—as we are at only the Committee stage—a broad-brush costing, with the details to follow? He may well say that the measure will be part of ordinary, everyday business; it will not be, because it is a new instruction that will not be part of the usual business of the IPS, and it will cost money.
That covers international travel, but other areas will be affected. For example, I deal with the National Federation of Retail Newsagents and its London committee. Such bodies provide information to their members about the ID card. They will not look at the Home Office website to find that the card does not exist; they will still have leaflets in their shops and buildings; and they still want to recognise the scheme. Cancelling the card after a month will cause a muddle, so will the Minister consider introducing the measure more slowly and, therefore, more surely? That would ensure that there is no confusion about whether the card still holds. Our position remains that we want to amend the clause, but sadly we lost that vote. As that failed, we will not formally oppose the clause. I am sad, however, that the scheme is being strangled at birth, before it has had a chance to prove itself.
Damian Green: I detect the clutching at straws. I do not think that anyone who has become an expatriate in Spain since last December will not possess a passport, and they will therefore be able to get back into this country.
The hon. Lady has asked the reasonable question why the cards will be cancelled within one month: clearly, the longer the cards remain valid, the greater the potential for confusion when they are abolished. It serves everyone’s interests, not least the few people who have the cards, to scrap the scheme as soon as possible. People will not, therefore, get into the habit of using the cards. We also chose the period of one month, because the Office for National Statistics publication on the travel arrangements of UK citizens in the EU shows that the average travel arrangements are for 15 days, which is the standard length of a holiday. Even if someone went on holiday during the passage of the Bill, the overwhelming likelihood is that they would return before its completion. Even if they were using their ID card to get them back, they would not be affected by its abolition. I am grateful that the hon. Lady was reassured that we are giving discretion to UK Border Agency staff at ports in the unlikely event that some of the scare stories that she has described come to pass. As a former Home Office Minister, she will recognise that such discretion exists in the UKBA’s operations in any case.
Meg Hillier: I am happy to be the first to speak to clause 3 and give the Minister a rest. The clause represents the crux of the long-term issue facing the British public. It will destroy not only the data on the national identity register, but remove the well and slowly built IT system that would have securely held fingerprints. The Minister has talked about halting biometric passports, and the clause indicates that, not only is he halting that process, but he is telling the British public that fingerprints will no longer be included in passports. That point is pertinent to the clause, so will the Minister return to it?
Destroying all the information sounds easy, but how does the Minister plan to do it and how much will it cost? He and this Government are keen to talk about transparency—an issue close to the Minister’s heart—and fairness, although we have knocked a hole in the suggestion that this is a fair Government. How will he ensure that people who are sceptical of Government, such as some of the witnesses from whom we heard evidence, believe that the data will have been destroyed? He can hardly
My big question is: why can the information not be migrated to the passport database for those who wish to keep their card? I have already touched on that point, but the key thing is that the register would have set up the most securely proposed and built databases in Government, close to the standards required for defence databases and so on. This country has a secure passport database and the previous Government’s aim was continually to increase it and stay ahead of the curve on new technology to ensure that our passports remained secure. Part of that meant having a clear register that held biometric data—in this case, fingerprints and facial images—in one database, biographical data similar to that already held in a passport in another, and a third piece of technology to link them. That was much more secure than the existing passport database, which is reasonably secure. It would have been accessible to very few people—not to people with PCs at a desk—and would have provided something to verify information against. I believe that it put the citizen in control of their data and identity information in a far stronger way than paper documents and less-secure databases. How will the destruction of the database, which has taken time and money to establish, benefit the British public and the security of the British passport?
Damian Green: The beginning of the hon. Lady’s speech, when she said that the destruction of the national identity register is at the heart of the Bill, represents a rare moment of agreement between us. She is absolutely right, but her questions illustrate the difference between our respective points of principle. She has made it clear that she believes that it is somehow reassuring for the state to collect large amounts of information on every citizen and store it. I find it profoundly non-reassuring. The clause is about halting the ability of the state to hold large volumes of biographical and biometric information indiscriminately on every one of us.
Of course the state holds information on its citizens and we recognise that, when there are legitimate and proportionate reasons for doing so, it can be justified on the grounds of national security, public protection or preventing and detecting serious and organised crime. The ID card scheme, however, was always about asking innocent people to pay for the privilege of the state building up a huge database of personal information and then placing a statutory requirement on them to ensure that the database was up to date.
Damian Green: No, if one does not sign up to the iris recognition scheme or any of the other e-passport schemes, there is no law on the statute book that says not keeping personal information up to date would make one liable for a fine of up to £1,000. The Identity Cards Act 2006 has that requirement—not just for biometric recognition, but for biographical information as well. The best part of 50 different pieces of information were required, including pieces of information that will change quite rapidly throughout people’s lives, where there was a legal obligation to keep it up to date.
I am afraid that throughout the course of the debate I have seen no evidence to support the benefits of sustaining this enormous and intrusive database, unless the architects of the scheme suggest that anyone who volunteers for an ID card presents a particular risk to society over and above any other group. The point, made by one of my hon. Friends, is that the exact opposite is the truth. The shadow Minister says that the scheme was always meant to be voluntary—my memory of the debate suggests that that is not true. As a concession at some stage, the then Government said that they would stop making it compulsory and that Parliament would have to make it compulsory at some stage in the future, but it was always the intention of the originators of the ID card scheme for it to become a compulsory, universal scheme. If it was just a voluntary scheme, it was particularly pointless—the last people ever to sign up to this wretched scheme would have been the terrorists and criminals who we might feel we want to keep information on. That illustrates the morass into which the previous Government trod when they tried to get the scheme through. This is a matter of principle—we do not believe that the Government should hold all that biometric data on innocent people.
To return to the specific point made by the hon. Lady, migration of data to the passport database would breach the Data Protection Act 1998. It would process data for a purpose other than that for which it was obtained. I am afraid that what she is urging me to do is illegal, so I propose not to take her advice on that point.
The hon. Lady has made a wider point in several debates on this issue and I should deal with it. She is trying to muddy the waters and say that to get rid of the national identity register will in some way compromise the passport database. She knows, as well as I do, that those are separate databases.
Damian Green: At the moment, yes they are. Therefore, destroying the national identity register will have no effect on the passport database. To suggest that the Bill will in some way make our passports less secure is not just wrong, but irresponsible. I hope that the hon. Lady will avoid doing so in the future.
Robert Halfon: What is my hon. Friend’s view about the professor from the UK computing committee who said that having one national database would be extremely vulnerable to attack—that having one database only would be very dangerous.
Damian Green: I agree with him. One interesting development during the course of the debates on this matter in the previous Parliament was the emergence of many serious IT experts—far more expert, certainly, than me and, I expect, hon. Lady. They made the point that creating that kind of database would be a honeypot for every hacker around the world—for those just doing it for fun, or for those doing it with more serious and unpleasant intent. We would be betting the whole house on the British Government’s security measures always being better than the most innovative hacker around the world. That would be a huge risk for the security of all our data.
Grahame M. Morris: Further to the point about the security of the database and the argument that it would be an enticement for hackers to try and break into the system, because of the proposals for ID cards for foreign nationals—or whatever name they are finally given—surely some form of secure ID database will have to be operated by the Government. Whatever the concerns about this database, presumably those security measures will have to be implemented in any case. It is a false argument to say that we cannot ensure the integrity and security of the system. We must be able to do that.
Damian Green: Governments will hold various databases. The argument in this Bill is that creating a wholly unnecessary, hugely expensive database with dozens of pieces of information about every adult in the country is not only intrusive and unnecessary, but an added security risk. The information is being collected pointlessly and put on a database. Let us hope that it would be secure. Let us hope that the database that has existed for the past few months is secure. However, we cannot be sure, and because the new database is pointless, it would be counter-productive to hold it.
Damian Green: It is not a big box with flashing lights; there are various pieces of information. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that it can be removed in one go. That is a legitimate question that people have asked about.
Bridget Phillipson: The issue is about databases that hold large amounts of information on particular groups of people. Does the Minister not have confidence in other Government databases, such as that on child benefit, for example, which theoretically includes the details of every child who lives in this country? Another database could include the national insurance number of every person who lives in the country. Surely the Government have the facility to safeguard that kind of data where information is held about great numbers of people or particular groups of people.
Damian Green: I sense that others have had the same thought as me. The hon. Lady mentions child benefit, but that was precisely one of the pieces of information that went missing—I think that that information was on
Julie Hilling: I am slightly confused about the questions surrounding the national identity card database. We currently have a passport database that has 80% of people on it—we have been told that 80% of people own passports—and I assume that that database contains some biometric information or signatures. I am making assumptions, so I ask the Minister to explain that great difference. If the ID card database would be so vulnerable, why is our passport database not equally vulnerable?
Damian Green: As the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South has just illustrated, perhaps accidentally, all databases contain a degree of vulnerability. The differences between the passport database and the national identity database are instructive and lie at the heart of the matter. I am grateful to her for raising that matter because the two databases are often confused. Of course there are some similarities. Certain common information is collected and held on a passport application in order to confirm that the person making the application is who he or she claims to be, and to ensure that they are entitled to a British passport. We will, of course, continue to gather that information.
We do not, however, intend to introduce the requirement that a person must notify us in case of a change of address, for example. That was a requirement for the national identity register. We have already stated publicly that we will not require a second piece of biometric data to be provided in the form of fingerprints. One of the basic differences between the passport database and the national identity register is that the national identity register was more overarching and contained much more information, and that information was very likely to change. A legal obligation was put on the citizen to inform the state every time that information changed. Inadvertently, we would be creating hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of accidental criminals every time people forgot to inform the Government of a change. If a student, for example, changed flat for a few weeks, they would have to register that with the Government as it happened. It would have been massively intrusive into people’s private lives.
Steve McCabe: My hon. Friends the Members for Bolton West and for Houghton and Sunderland South asked about the insecurity of other databases. Is it not the case that the databases covering the national identity register would have been infinitely more secure than any others because the number of staff who would have had
Damian Green: The national identity register, as devised by the previous Government, would have required lots of bodies, both public and private, to have electronic access. That is not true of other Government databases. The hon. Gentleman was wrong when he said that the national identity register would be infinitely safer than other Government databases.
Steve McCabe: My point is that the number of staff who would have direct access to the national identity register was restricted and the staff themselves would have been fairly strongly vetted. The number of staff who have access to, for example, the child benefit database is much larger, so it stands to reason that the national identity register was a more secure system. If the Minister is worried about that and the risk that that poses, why is he not giving us a list of the actions that he will take on the other databases that he and his Government are responsible for?
Damian Green: The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch took the opportunity to plug the lecture that she gave last year to the Social Market Foundation. I refer the hon. Gentleman to my lecture last year to the Centre for Policy Studies on the issue of databases. It is a classic, and he will see what I think about the Government’s use of databases. It also covers the point that was made earlier by the hon. Member for Easington about the ability of Government databases to talk to each other and about their effect on the delivery of public services. By making the delivery of public services dependent on technology rather than on the needs of the citizen, the previous Government were going down the wrong route, but that is a matter for another day.
Bridget Phillipson: On the requirement to update information and details, it is my understanding that that remains the case at the moment with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency database. A person faces a fine if they do not update their details with the DVLA. Is there a difference between those two databases, or are we talking about a fundamental matter of principle?
Damian Green: The DVLA database and other such databases require people to notify them of changes. Some things need to be changed on passports and other things need to be changed on driving licences. All that information was used and a lot more was added on the national identity register and the ID card scheme. The register went way beyond any other database, so it was much more intrusive. Moreover, it was on top of everything else that a citizen needs to do. If the ID card scheme had come into operation and been in operation for a long time, people would rapidly have found out how intrusive it was in their daily lives.
Catherine McKinnell: Is the Minister saying—I apologise if this is the case—that other than information that is volunteered to the national identity register by those who bought a national ID card, there is additional information that those people would be unaware of?
Catherine McKinnell: The Minister said that much more information is added than what is supplied to the national identity register—I do not know whether he said “infinitely” more, but dozens more pieces of information are added. I wish to clarify whether that is in addition to the information supplied to the national database by the volunteers, the innocent people mentioned.
I return to the point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak. The access of Government staff to databases is limited, but, in the case of the national identity register, banks and other private sector agencies would have access to information held on the register. Opposition Members and others have been arguing that they trust the public sector more than the private sector. I am not at all sure that I share their view, but it is theirs and it has been eloquently expressed by many of them today. They should be more worried—many private bodies would have access to the national identity register.
Steve McCabe: I am grateful to the Minister for making that clear, but am I right to think that those organisations have to notify the individual that they intend to ask for information on that basis? Was that not intended to be covered by the Identity Commissioner, who was to report to Parliament on what happened? The Minister seems to be overlooking the safeguards intended in the scheme.
Damian Green: I am not overlooking the safeguards. No one sets up a database with the idea of it being porous, but experience and common sense tell us that accidents happen, people make mistakes, CDs with information go missing and, occasionally, malevolent individuals penetrate systems. My basic contention is that creating unnecessary databases is particularly dangerous because of the problem of security, and there has never been a bigger and more unnecessary database than the national identity register, so that in itself would be a good reason to abolish it, quite apart from all the other reasons.
I will move on to second-generation biometrics in passports. The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South made a reasonable point which is relevant in the general context of proportionality and the privacy of the individual, which are at the crux of the Bill and therefore of the clause. We have halted second biometrics
The British passport is recognised nationally and internationally as a gold standard. We shall continue to ensure that necessary improvements are made when required to maintain that standard. UK passport holders are not disadvantaged in their ability to travel by the absence of a second biometric. I will monitor that situation and ensure that our citizens have the same freedom and ability to travel as any other EU citizen. At this stage, we have no evidence to show why the state should gather fingerprint biometric data from those wishing to apply for a passport to travel overseas. We already issue facial-image biometric passports, using a secure chip, and that will continue.
I now turn directly to clause 3. Our commitment is to destroy all personal information recorded on the NIR. That will include information held for administrative purposes, for example on those who expressed an interest in mailing lists for informing card-holders of the cancellation process or requests for verification. We have made clear our commitment to scrap the whole ID card scheme and, therefore, the national identity register. That means removing the information-gathering process and the information gathered by that process.
Meg Hillier: I am a little disappointed. The Minister now has access to one of the best civil services in the world but, with all the information that he could have chosen to provide, instead I heard a speech that I have heard a few times already—surface-deep, to say the least. Of course, the state holds information on us in many places. I am unclear why he describes the national identity register as indiscriminate. Those on the register now, including me, chose to be so. We made that decision. It was not indiscriminate. Individuals on the street were not randomly picked to put their data on the register. Those data were given voluntarily and clearly laid out under the law. People knew what they were walking into, and such action was taken with enthusiasm. It was nothing to do with guilt or innocence. What does the Minister want? Only guilty people on the register? Most databases held by the Government do not have anything to do with guilt or innocence, and those that do are rightly held by the police. We do not have a problem with that, but we are hearing an interesting mix of points.
Iris scanners and other recognition gates at airports are popular with people. They are willing to pass over their biometric data. I do not suppose that a lot of people ask exactly where the information is held and what is done with it, but it has been a practical issue and raises the wider point about biometrics which I shall touch on in relation to passports.
What is happening is so important. We are losing the ability to provide a secure storage place for biometrics. I could have understood putting such a proposal in mothballs, but scrapping it is part of the Armageddon approach that the Government are taking.
It is interesting that most of us went into politics—certainly my hon. Friends and I did—to do things that benefit the British public, to do things positively and to change things for the better. The present Government seem to be halting, reviewing or destroying things. I am
I have heard the Minister talk many times about the civil fine for not updating an address being a problem, so why not adjust it? It is simply mirroring what happened with the driving licence. There is precedence for the Government to provide incentives to ensure that people maintain information. It is important that we lay the myth that 50 bits of information were secretly put on the database. People volunteered that information. Some of it concerned whether someone paid by credit card or the day that they did so. Frankly, if I could only remember the date that I turned up for my identity card, I would share it with the Committee and the general public through Hansard. I am trying to think what security questions I was asked.
We have heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) that he gave the name of his first pet. I have forgotten such details. Obviously, they were significant to him and his personal security. Yes, those pieces of information are on the database. I would happily share such matters with the public, but people would become bored if I started going through my security questions now. As I have said, if people did not update the information, that would not have been a criminal sanction. It was a civil sanction.
The Minister s arguments about the database are easily solved. If he were minded to ensure that he safeguarded opportunities for the future, he could have chosen a different approach. If I had closed my eyes, it would have been like hearing a sixth-form debate that was pro and anti-ID card. He is now the Minister and he is responsible for the safety of the British public. We were never talking about a compulsory ID card scheme—that was not the proposal.
Let us be clear, for the benefit of hon. Members who were not present at the time. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough first mooted the matter for debate in Government, he talked about compulsion, but that was in 2002. Subsequently, there was a lot of discussion and it was decided that it was not a sensible approach, so the Bill that was passed did not include compulsion. When the previous Government listened, they were criticised for raising the point in the first place. They did listen and the proposal did not seem to make sense. If we had continued on that path, we would still have been criticised, so it is important that we make it clear that compulsion was not part of the 2006 Act.
Dr Huppert: Can the hon. Lady explain why, even after that point, the previous Government kept using advantages for identity cards that pertained only if they were compulsory? We discussed terrorism and identity fraud earlier. That is only stopped with a compulsory card.
Meg Hillier: Once again, the hon. Gentleman is bending the facts to suit his argument. More secure forms of ID help to protect the individual citizen against such measures. A constituent went to the DWP a little while ago and found that someone had been claiming benefits in their
Biometric data is held in a number of places. Schools regularly take fingerprints of children. [ Interruption. ] Perhaps the Government have plans there. It happens. Young people themselves do not worry and many parents do not either. The fingerprints are kept and an algorithm is made of them. It is not the case that pictures of fingerprints are left lying around, although I do not know what one would do with them. The police obviously hold biometric data, usually of criminals or those who have been arrested. But we do not have a problem, on the whole, with using fingerprints and other data such as that relating to irises.
In many ways the Government will be even more behind the curve. It is always hard for Governments to catch up with technology and it is quite right sometimes that they do not go too far ahead of the curve. Things need to be tested elsewhere. But across the world and across different areas of business we see examples such as with laptops where fingerprints are used. We give that information away knowing that it will help to make our lives easier and now that is being denied.
The proposal on the National Identity Register and passports is completely wrong. I am glad to see that the Minister has left the door slightly ajar and that we have made some progress on passports since this morning. He said that there was no need to do anything yet but that the necessary changes would be implemented. That is good if it proves to be the case. If that happens, he will have to rebuild something very similar if not exactly the same as the National Identity Register—a secure storage place for that biometric information. As the Minister well knows, the database was designed to be able to include all that passport data from 2012.
The security of the database is important. That is something I took very seriously. If we take the Minister’s argument to its logical end, we would have no databases at all because there is always a risk when any data is held, whether it is on paper or microfiche, whether it is digitised or online. The Minister deliberately misunderstands this point and it is important to get it on the record that the data was not downloadable and could not be mined. I could not have looked up an individual called Damian Green on the database in any circumstances and found out information about him. It would have to have been a verification against information done remotely or by the handful of people who had direct access.
Things may have changed in the last few weeks. The Minister can certainly tell me if that is the case, but I feel that he is speaking without the deep understanding of how the database was put together and what it meant. Yes, we would agree and it is not responsible in government to say that there would never be any risk. We are a responsible Opposition. We know that there is always a risk in holding data but there are ways of mitigating those risks and there is a balance to be struck between the risks and the convenience and security of
The Minister described the passport database as being very different. It includes our photographs and if you, Mr. Streeter, were to apply now for a driving licence you could link to get your photograph from the passport database all via your home PC. The Minister may have that in his sights now I have alerted him to it. We already do so much more than the National Identity Register would have allowed us to do, but it would have been a secure store. Over time it would have meant, if we had chosen to go on it, that we had to give far less information to other organisations because the basic identity information could be verified very quickly and in an automated fashion against the register. It could not be downloaded, but it would have been verified against the register. That technology would have made life much easier and would have meant that I did not need to give out information to all those other organisations that regularly want to know about me. I could prove the core stuff and only the extra information would need to go to any other body.
In these straitened economic times it is important to ask whether the Minister has given any consideration to the costs—not just in opportunities, but financially—of not allowing this scheme to extend. When I went up and down the country talking to people on councils and other places who were providing services, they saw the benefits, as this would have rolled out, of automated identity checks. At the moment, Mr. Streeter, if you take your passport into a bank, they will take it to a backroom, along with your various utility bills if you are fortunate enough to have one in your name, photocopy it, and if they are in any doubt, ring the Passport Agency and have it verified. Essentially the National Identity Register would have allowed that process to be automated in a secure way and would have saved costs. We are now seeing a massive reduction in public sector and other jobs, and the long queues, which will no doubt exist as people have to deal with the various transactions, would have been eased by the technology. As more than one council chief executive has put it to me: “Great. We could do things quickly for most of our residents and then spend more time on those with great need.”
The Minister has painted the register as some terrible wicked Big Brother thing but, potentially, it was a useful tool for making life more convenient for the citizen, in a secure way. It would have been far more secure and far less clunky than the passport database. I can only conclude that the Minister would rather return to a bygone era, when we were all known in our village and could not get away with anything because the local police beat officer knew our mum and dad. Can you picture, Mr Streeter, the halcyon days when no one travelled?—[ Interruption. ] You might be too young to remember them, Mr Streeter, as am I. I can only imagine what it must have been like. We now live in a world in which hundreds of thousands of people move around far more—internationally and from town to town. We do not live in a world where everyone would know that Meg Hillier really was Meg Hillier. We are always being
I think that the Minister is living in a different era. He is Minister for the Home Department in this era of terrorism and identity fraud risk, an era in which the database would have protected the British public. I would like him to think seriously about what he plans to do to protect the British public in the future. Rolling back the state is all very well; it sounds an appealing gesture. However, we should not roll it back to such an extent that it causes inconvenience and reduces the security of the British public in their day-to-day existence. Things that most of the time will not happen but could happen are an issue. The Minister’s decisions might win him brownie points with certain lobby groups, but I think that in five or 10 years’ time—I cannot say when—he will not be so popular, because people will realise that, having proceeded with the clause, he has thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
Steve McCabe: I do not want to detain the Committee for long, but I have a query about clause 3, which I do not think the Minister addressed. I do not doubt the Minister’s intentions or sincerity in any way, and I am sure that if clause 3 stands part of the Bill it will be the Minister’s intention to comply with it. However, during his fairly brief contribution on the clause, he told us what he was going to do, but not how.
It probably does. Could the Minister give us that further clarification? Otherwise, we will pass a clause without any knowledge of how it will be transacted, and that is not exactly the purpose of scrutinising a Bill.
Damian Green: The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch set up a whole gallery of straw men, which she then attacked. Her worst point—I normally try to start with the best point—was when she went off on the subject of how I was putting the county’s security at risk. That is a hugely serious accusation to make about any Minister. About 10 minutes previously, she admitted that a voluntary ID card scheme would have no effect on security at all—and she insisted that it would have been voluntary. I therefore urge her to drop the line of argument that suggests that abolishing the ID card scheme puts the security of the country at risk. If she will not take that from me, let me give her a quote:
“Perhaps in the past the Government, in its enthusiasm, oversold the advantages of identity cards. We did suggest, or at least implied, that they might well be a panacea for identity fraud, for benefit fraud, terrorism, entitlement and access to public services. In its enthusiasm, the Government had over-emphasised the benefits to the state.”
That was from Tony McNulty, who was then the Home Office Minister responsible for policing, crime and counter-terrorism. [ Interruption. ] If the hon. Lady says, as she just did from a sedentary position, that she has in her time said the same thing, she should stop trying to say the exact opposite in this Committee.
Meg Hillier: The Minister needs to be clear that I have never said—nor, as I recall, have any of my colleagues—that identity cards or the register would be a panacea for terrorism. If only any Home Office Minister, Minister or Member of Parliament had the ability to create a panacea for terrorism. That would be fantastic. Let us repeat the simple point that terrorists and criminals use multiple identities. Anything that makes it harder for them daily to go about that business is a help. Anything that protects an individual from others taking their identity helps. Those are important points and the Minister should not just dismiss them.
Damian Green: Those were not the points the hon. Lady made in her previous speech. I agree with her, when she stops knocking down straw men, that the essential point is the proportionality of risk and reward from the ID card scheme, but it is on whether there is that proportionality that we disagree fundamentally. She thinks the rewards of the ID card scheme are huge and the risks low. I think the rewards are very low—if any—and the risks are very large. That is just a straightforward difference between us.
Damian Green: It is on the record that when Michael Howard was leader and the Conservative party went through a phase of being in favour of ID cards, I voted against the idea. Someone earlier said that they were getting inconsistent messages from me. I can happily assure Members—particularly new ones, as I think it was a new Member who said that—that I have been entirely consistent on the subject. The only time in 13 years of opposition that I ever rebelled against a three-line Whip was over ID cards. I am entirely consistent on this measure.
There are disagreements within parties. There are plenty of people in the Labour party who, very honourably, have always stood out against ID cards, even when under extreme pressure from Whips such as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak. Parties have moved on. Just as the Conservative party, under its current enlightened leadership, has moved on—and now has a very sensible attitude to ID cards—so I hope that in the new era that will perhaps dawn under a new Labour leader, the Labour party will rediscover the bit of its tradition that cares about civil liberties.
It would be better for politics in this country if the Labour party rediscovered some kind of commitment to civil liberties. If there are hon. Members in the Labour party who think they could go out on a limb and do that, I commend doing so. Five years ago, I rebelled against my party to vote against the Identity Cards Bill. I am now standing at the Government Dispatch Box to get rid of it. If one does something one believes to be right, occasionally in politics the wheel turns and one gets to achieve one’s aim.
The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch had the cheek to talk about costs. She will know as well as I do that the principal cost that we are saving through
Meg Hillier: I cannot let the Minister get away with the idea that there is £800 million waiting to be spent on more useful things. That is in individual people’s pockets at £30 a time. Unless the Government are proposing a flat-rate £30 tax on anyone who might have got an ID card, that is not money available to Government. We should be clear about that.
Damian Green: Exactly. That, again, is the difference between us. I know that the money is not available to Government, but it is available to citizens, and I do not think that the Government should take £30 out of citizens’ pockets. I regard money in the hands of citizens as at least as valuable as money in the hands of Government, if not more valuable.
Moving on to the national identity register, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, is right that it is not a single, bleeping box with the information in it; the information is around various databases. We are in discussion with the contractors who operate all those databases on how to remove individual pieces of information without removing all the information. It is not hugely difficult technically, and the contractors are working on the matter.
Steve McCabe: I do not mean to sound uncharitable, but am I right to conclude from the Minister’s words that he does not know how he will do that? He is asking me to approve something without being able to tell people exactly how it will happen. Is that a fair conclusion to draw?
Damian Green: The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a fair conclusion to draw. Otherwise he would not be drawing it. [ Interruption. ] That was a compliment. At the moment the technical matters are being dealt with by the contractors who operate the various databases. It would require a long technical paper, not an explanation at the Dispatch Box, to set that out. If he wants that paper at some stage, I will happily provide him with one.
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