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House of Lords

Monday, 2nd December 2002.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford.

Identity Cards

Baroness Sharples asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What progress has been made towards introducing a national identity card scheme.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, the Government published a consultation paper on entitlement cards and identity fraud on 3rd July of this year. The consultation period will end on 31st January 2003. We have received over 1,500 letters and e-mails with the majority of respondents who expressed an opinion being in favour of some form of national identity or entitlement card. The introduction of a national entitlement card scheme covering everyone in the country would be a major undertaking. The Government will consider the views expressed very carefully before reaching a decision.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that reply which, for the first time in eight years, I am actually very happy to receive. Does he agree that there is increasing fraud in this country in every aspect of life? Especially disturbing is the fact that illegal immigrants have been using the identities of 1,000 deceased babies to gain entry to this country.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I agree with those remarks both in relation to identity fraud and the issue of illegal working in this country. As the published consultation document indicated, an entitlement card would be a useful means both of dealing with identity fraud and helping to reduce the amount of illegal working. The paper made it clear that a scheme would not be a complete answer to either of those issues but in certain respects, depending on the scheme, it could help.

Lord Mason of Barnsley: My Lords, will my noble and learned friend explain to the House how long it might take for an identity card scheme to be introduced if next month the report suggests that that will be so?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, it would take a period of time—

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: —which noble Lords might think is obvious. The consultation document

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refers to an initial period of three years and a subsequent period of about seven years in which one would have to introduce the appropriate technology, issue everyone with the card and introduce schemes to enable government departments to deal with the matter.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, later today we shall discuss the Crime (International Co-operation) Bill. As part of that exercise of extending co-operation between member states, has the United Kingdom discussed the matter with other countries of the EU?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, there could be a role for an entitlement card in that respect although the detail would obviously have to depend upon negotiations with other countries.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, the Minister said that to introduce the measure we are discussing would constitute a major undertaking. However, during wartime it did not seem to take all that long to get identity cards under way. I do not quite understand—perhaps the Minister can explain this—why it constitutes such a major undertaking now.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the measure constitutes a major undertaking because for it to be useful it would have to be universal, it would have to be capable of being used by government departments and it would have to be capable of being used by other organisations that might find it useful. It would take time to introduce a scheme that meets those objectives. The scheme would also need to take advantage of any new technology that might become available, for example, in relation to identity. To suggest that such a scheme could be introduced in a short period of time is to overstate what is achievable.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that every government department appears to have a different identity card at the moment?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I accept that a range of cards are used by individual departments but one of the purposes of the scheme that is outlined in the consultation document is to determine how one introduces a card that would be accepted universally and therefore have real value in providing better services for the system.

Baroness Greengross: My Lords, does the Minister agree that there are at present many partial identity cards? To obtain a very simple permit you have to send in all sorts of original documents which are often lost. The process is cumbersome and difficult. If there could be harmonisation of those cards it would make life much easier as regards travel and a whole range of other aspects of our lives.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, that is very much the case. That is one of the benefits of the

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universal entitlement card to which the consultation document relates. However, it is important that there be widespread acceptance of it as an entitlement card for it to have the kinds of benefit to which the noble Baroness refers. That may be why it cannot be introduced, as it were, straight away.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, does my noble and learned friend recognise that there are strong civil libertarian arguments in favour of the introduction of a national identity card? What does my noble and learned friend think of those arguments?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, there are real benefits in civil liberties terms in regard to the introduction of an entitlement card. My noble friend will know, however, that some civil libertarians take a different view. It is worth pointing out that the consultation document makes clear that we are not considering a scheme that will require compulsory carrying of the card. All that we are talking about is a universal entitlement card for which people should perhaps register. We believe that the ability to prove one's identity easily without being compelled to carry a card has real benefits in terms of establishing one's position, sometimes against the state. That is a real benefit.

Lord Howe of Aberavon: My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that if he takes account of the average age of noble Lords and the date on which the identity card was abolished, he may still be confident for about a decade ahead of a majority in this House? Would it not be wise to take advantage of that?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am not clear in what respect I would be taking advantage of that. I have never dared try to calculate the average age of noble Lords. I imagine that that is beyond mathematical calculation. The matter goes back to the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, in that one has to be realistic about the time-scale of the introduction of such a scheme as we are discussing. We all know from previous experience that one should do it in sensible stages so that it works when it is introduced.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, does my noble and learned friend the Minister recall that the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer of Leeds, asked a question back in March about the number of national databases held on the average citizen in the UK? On the eve of the Recess the Government said that they could not answer that question. Will my noble and learned friend indicate whether when the consultative period is concluded the Government will at last be in a position to answer that question and, if not, why not?

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Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I do not recall the question asked in March by my noble friend Lord Woolmer. This is an important issue. I cannot give any undertakings about whether we will be able to answer the question by the end of the period but we shall certainly try.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, when can we expect the decision to which the Minister referred in his Answer? Will he also say to what extent and how the Government's thinking is being affected by the huge influx of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the consultation period ends on 31st January 2003. We will obviously need a period in which to consider the responses to the consultation and work out the right response. I am afraid that I cannot give any indication of how long after 31st January that will take. On the noble Lord's second question, as I have made clear in relation to a number of questions, the consultation document clearly sets out what the benefits would be of a universal entitlement card, in particular when dealing with illegal working. That connects with the noble Lord's question.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, is the Minister aware that I sat on a European committee with the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia? We dithered over the decision. Only the Government can decide. Half of the committee was for an identity card and half of the committee was against it. It is no use the Government fiddling around. Will the Minister assure us that he is prepared to make a decision?

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