Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, it was but I shall develop why I say that. We inherited a position of some difficulty which has taken a little while to sort out.

Noble Lords will remember that the UK Passport Service, for example, was a particularly challenging service, about which there were a number of justifiable complaints. We now have a UK Passport Service that achieved a 98 per cent satisfaction rating from its customers in 2001–02—something that would have been undreamt-of before. Also, UK work permits are now issued within 24 hours. So we are getting better and learning all the time. It is for that reason, in part, that we perfectly understand that we shall have to tread carefully. Technology is developing very rapidly; we are reaping the benefits of that technology, and will continue to do so.

The noble Lord also said that there was difficulty and opposition. However, we should recognise that, on all the surveys of the wider public, there is 80 per cent support for what we are trying to do. There are clear benefits. I take issue with the noble Lord when he says that the benefits are not clear, because we believe that there are major benefits in identifying fraud and limiting the opportunity for others to steal identity. Noble Lords will know that that has been a real difficulty. Although the issues are very difficult, we believe that the benefits are very clear indeed. I hear the noble Lord's scepticism, but we do not believe that that scepticism is justified when one considers the facts.

We must give a clear message, and identity cards will enable us to do that. We shall have to combat terrorism and take arms against those who wish to take adventitious advantage of the current system, making it much more difficult for them to do so. We believe that identity cards will help us to do that. Terrorists will try to use false identities in the same way as organised criminals, to help to finance their activities in the United Kingdom and abroad. Organised criminals use false identities to launder money, to abuse the immigration system through people trafficking, and to facilitate drug smuggling. Disrupting their activities is a key priority, which also has a direct effect on the crimes that cause the most misery in our community, such as drugs, trafficking women for prostitution and/or people working illegally in unsafe and crowded conditions.

Identity cards will also be a major help in tackling clandestine residence and illegal working, making it easier for employers to check a worker is here legally. Residence permits, issued to foreign nationals, will state whether they are free to work in the United Kingdom. It

11 Nov 2003 : Column 1228

is planned to arrange for a call centre to answer any queries from employers and for that to be backed up with enforcement action targeted at those employment sectors most at risk from illegal employment. Those are very profound advantages. Therefore, I cannot accept the assertions made by the noble Lord in that regard.

There has been a debate on the principle. Noble Lords should be in no doubt that the expression now contained in the Statement is the view of Her Majesty's Government, and the Cabinet has endorsed that view. We have made a decision that, in principle, it is something that will inure to our long-term benefit. However, we are being utterly sensible. We understand that there are hurdles that need to be overcome—first, the practical hurdles. We must demonstrate the utility of what we wish to achieve and that the same is achievable. We believe that that will take a little time.

It is true that the costs will be greater than those currently envisaged for passports or driving licences, but there is a reason for that. The technology—biometrics—that we shall introduce will be more expensive, and has to be paid for. A full driving licence will cost 38 to obtain from next March, and the minimum passport fee is now 42. Under the proposed scheme, we estimate that the enhanced fee for a driving licence will be 73, and for a passport 77. However, holders of both documents will pay the enhanced fee only once, and for the first document they renew. We have made it plain that we shall seek to cushion the burden of the costs for those who are less able to pay.

The Government should be congratulated on finding a sensible and balanced way forward, which will enable Parliament to have its say once those practical hurdles have been overcome, so that if and when the debate is heard, all Members of your Lordships' House and the other place will have their say.

3.45 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords—

Baroness Sharples: My Lords—

Lord Barnett: My Lords—

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I believe that it is this side.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I agree in principle with my noble friend the Minister about the need at least to examine how we should move towards a form of identity. I confess that I must have missed the long-standing concern about civil liberties on the part of the Opposition. However, I am concerned about the overall cost.

My noble friend and the Liberal Democrats referred to some figures. There is concern about the widespread nonsense being put about relating to total costs. As my noble friend rightly said, we are moving into an advanced technological era. In those circumstances, will she ensure that figures are published giving an analysis of potential total costs so that we can see

11 Nov 2003 : Column 1229

where there might have been waste? The Public Accounts Committee might at some point in time examine those figures.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I have tried in my response to give an indication of what we currently believe to be a relatively robust estimate. We have tried to err on the side of caution. One of the realities with which we have all had to deal is that, as technology advances, the costs have come down. We can see that things have changed dramatically if we compare the costs of a computer five years ago and the costs of a computer now, and the size of the computer and the extent to which we are now able to use it. We all know that almost as soon as something comes off the assembly line it is already obsolete, because something faster and better is coming through. Therefore, the figures that I have given are the figures at today's date; I would reasonably anticipate that they may change, but I personally would very much doubt that they will go up. However, we shall obviously have to look to see what the reality is.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, I should like to congratulate the Minister on her Statement, with which I agree a great deal. Candidly, I am completely at odds with my Front Bench. The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, may be aware that I began to raise the issue some nine or 10 years ago and got nowhere, but I am delighted that we are now getting somewhere.

We must obviously weigh the cost of fraud against the cost of the cards. I am very glad that the cards will not be made compulsory, as that point was made to me over many years by the police, who felt that that would be confrontational. That may alleviate the problems referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. Will the Minister confirm the timetable for the production of the cards?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, it is very difficult to be certain. We hope that we shall be in a position to move to the biometric cards for ID, passports and driving licences by 2007–08. Noble Lords will know that that is the first stepping stone to getting all the technology right. Obviously, we do not know how long it will then take to move that forward. Realistically, we are looking at the end of the decade, but I cannot give noble Lords a fixed period, as the most important thing is to get the measures right.

Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, am I right in understanding that, even when the cards become universally compulsory, there will still be a charge for them? What possible justification is there for that? If I want to travel with a passport or to drive with a licence, all right, I must pay. But what justification or precedent is there for saying that you must pay a compulsory fee if you wish to exist? Or is the Minister's simple answer that if I do not wish to pay I am perfectly at liberty to commit suicide?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: No, my Lords—the noble Viscount will, of course, be greatly missed. The most

11 Nov 2003 : Column 1230

important thing is to move to a stage when the biometric facility is generally available. Noble Lords will know that more than 40 million people currently have a passport and, I believe, more than 30 million already have a driving licence. The bulk of our nation already has some form of identification available to them. We will build on that, because biometric technology will have to be made available if we are to be consistent with our international partners. That is the reality of our position.

There is a question about how we move forward. We anticipate that, as the facilities become available, more and more people will choose to use them because they are beneficial. Obviously, we will need to cushion those who do not have the facility of large sums of money or who are financially stretched. We will also have to look at provisions relating to groups with other forms of vulnerability and try to manage those costs.

Before we move to a compulsory system, there will be a proper opportunity for us to have what undoubtedly, if we continue to hold our current views, will be a very robust debate on whether we should move from a voluntary scheme to a compulsory one. Parliament will have an opportunity to have its say and so will the people. We believe that, by then, people will have a proper understanding of what they are agreeing to or disagreeing to.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page