Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, as someone old enough to have grown up in the company of what seemed a useful and quite friendly wartime identity card, I had not until now worried too much about the Bill. At the various stages of discussion of the Government's plans, I thought, "Oh well, this is inevitable" and did not even worry too much when my party changed its point of view on the subject. Now, however, having read this Bill—particularly the part relating to the register—I am deeply anxious. If more of the 70 per cent of people who, the Minister told us, are happy about the Bill read and understood the section about the register, they too would be anxious.

I want to speak, perhaps rather more innocently than speakers to date who have been great experts on the subject, about how I suspect the public will feel about the system as it develops. The trouble, as so often, is that we have had an over-use of spin. The Government, having been persuaded that modern living and protecting our shores requires a Bill such as this, have produced a draconian set of proposals, doing so with the soothing, reassuring spin at which many of them are so expert.

There is not much new here, we are told. Our names are already on all sorts of computers in the public and private sectors. We do not mind registering births, deaths and marriages. This will simply be an extension of that sort of system. We have heard a lot about how almost all the European countries have such a system. We do not know whether they have measures like the
 
31 Oct 2005 : Column 45
 
register, but we are told that they have cards. In any case, it will begin as a voluntary affair. It is only an enabling Bill, a small step in modernisation; we have heard all that.

The Quakers have a motto: "Tell power the truth". During the Bill's passage through another place, honourable Members—including, to their enormous credit, many on the Government Benches—tried to tell the Government the truth about the Bill, but the Government succeeded, just, in whipping the Bill through. Now the responsibility passes to noble Lords. I just hope that those on the Benches opposite—those who are with us now and those who will be thinking about the Bill—will have that courage, if they feel as I do and as their colleagues did in another place. The truth that the Government must be told is that the Bill as it stands is not a small step, as they claim, but a huge one, which, if taken at all, must be taken with enormous care and many safeguards, which are not in the Bill at the moment.

People will be very surprised when their fingerprints are taken and their eye characteristics are photographed. They will not be surprised at an ordinary photograph of their face; they are used to that. They will be surprised when they find that they are all going on to a central computer to which many people will have access, and that that record on the computer belongs to the government of the day, whatever sort of government they are. They will be surprised when everyone is obliged by law to keep that information up to date, and, if they forget to do so, there are heavy penalties to be paid. They will be very surprised when it turns out that some will be asked to give information about other people for the purposes of the register.

They will be surprised that the Government will be able to change the personal details that will be required and that that can be done without all that much discussion in Parliament. They will be pretty surprised when they find that, eventually, they absolutely have to buy an identity card, particularly if they do not have a passport. And they will be surprised when they have to produce that card. They may not have to carry it—we are told that they will not have to—but they will have to produce it as you do a driving licence and that may happen quite often. I think that they will be surprised when they discover that the identity card does not belong to them although they bought it. It will belong to the Secretary of State and the government of the day and will go on belonging to that government, whatever sort of government they are.

People are going to see this as a huge step. It is of a completely different order from going along and registering births, deaths and marriages. Incidentally, when the Government tried to put births, deaths and marriages on computer, they tried to do so not by going through all the stages in Parliament but by a regulatory reform order. The two committees in another place and in this House that are responsible for scrutinising those orders came to the conclusion that even the computerisation of births, deaths and
 
31 Oct 2005 : Column 46
 
marriages was not a simple matter. They sent those orders back to the Government, and the Government are presumably now wondering what to do about it.

We all know how unsettling and even threatening it can feel if a computer makes a mistake and it is claimed that we do not exist or that we have given wrong or insufficient information. Computers do make mistakes, and government computers seem to make rather a lot of them. Imagine thousands of people—hundreds of thousands of people—whose honesty is questioned or whose benefit or hospital place is questioned because a Secretary of State is apparently doubtful whether they exist at all or are being truthful. That is how it will be seen. It happens now, and it will be even more threatening when it happens under this system. We shall wonder whether it is true that we are a country where one is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

It is not surprising that the Scots Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have decided for the moment that they do not want to use identity cards as the means of admission to the services for which they are responsible. The Scots Parliament has accepted that it is a reserved matter, but it affects its services and it does not want identity cards to be used for those services. Whether that will continue to be Scottish opinion remains to be seen, but I do not think that it is at all surprising. I know that my noble friend Lord Northesk will have more to say about that.

There is plenty of detail to be examined in the Bill, but there is one major change that I feel we must make in this House—it was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Holme. His committee, the Select Committee on the Constitution, has suggested that the register, the identity cards and the operation of the system should be taken out of the Government's hands entirely and given to an independent body—an independent registrar or whatever. That would do an enormous amount to comfort the public about the rather threatening nature of what they are going to discover they have to do under the Bill. I do not think that it will do the whole trick, but it would certainly help. The Government and Parliament would still control what the system was, but the operation of that system—the voice of the computer and the querying of one's integrity or one's very existence—will be the voice of an independent registrar. If the Government cannot see and agree to that, I hope that Parliament as a whole will insist. I hope that this House and another place will be very strong on the issue.

The Quakers are right: in this matter Parliament must tell power the truth, and the truth is very worrying.

5.19 pm

Lord Giddens: My Lords, I begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Soley, on his maiden speech. It was delivered with such ease, fluency and panache that one could only sit there in awe. I cringe with embarrassment when I remember the halting affair that I gave about a year ago in my maiden speech. I suppose that in my defence I could say that I have never been a political masochist, as he seems to be.
 
31 Oct 2005 : Column 47
 

Three main objections could be made to the introduction of identity cards, and they have been very well aired in the debate today. They are cost, technology and civil liberties. I say nothing about the first two of those except to make the important point that, in looking at cost, one should not just look at gross cost but at net cost. Net cost is the cost of introducing identity cards minus the savings that would accrue from the cases of fraud and other criminal behaviour that they would prevent. All the evidence shows that those savings would be considerable.

I believe, somewhat differently from my noble friend Lady Henig, that the main objections to the Identity Cards Bill are objections from the point of view of civil liberties, and that they are objections of principle rather than of practice. I wonder how many of my noble friends sitting here might feel a certain frisson of unease—although they do not seem to feel it—defending a principle that seems illiberal, as identity cards seem part of the authoritarian or totalitarian state. They carry the flavour of a society in which a policeman can stop you on the street and utter the notorious words, "Show me your papers". They carry the flavour of the secret policeman who knocks on your door in the middle of the night and carts you off to some unknown prison in the remote wastes. In eastern Europe before 1990 there was quite a good joke about that; it was not so much a joke as a pithy observation—Hansard reporters please note that I said "pithy" observation: "What is the definition of a democracy? A democracy is a political system in which someone knocks on your door at the dead of night and you think it is the milkman". We do not have milkmen any more, or most of us do not, but noble Lords will get the gist.

It is incumbent on anyone who would defend the Identity Cards Bill and who would assert the importance of identity cards to show that the range of substantive freedoms and forms of social protection that we expect from the state would be greater with the introduction of an identity card scheme, especially a compulsory identity card scheme, than they would be without it. I believe that it is possible and necessary to do that.

The backdrop to this is changes in our society which, as a sociologist, I feel reasonably competent to comment on. The big change of our times is the impact of globalisation in our lives. The Prime Minister in his speech to the European Parliament last week spoke of the need to respond to the challenges of globalisation. Indeed, the European summit was about that same issue. Globalisation is the most signal set of changes affecting our lives in contemporary times and has completely transformed our societies over the past 20 to 30 years. What does it mean concretely? Concretely, it means an enormous flow of electronic money, information, people and goods across state boundaries. Globalisation means that our society is penetrated by the outside world far more deeply and
 
31 Oct 2005 : Column 48
 
more frequently and enters more fully into the very detail of our lives, as other noble Lords have said, than was true for any previous generation.

As we know, such amazing changes bring many advantages. One of those advantages is travel. There is such a difference between the generations in that regard. My parents went abroad only one day in their entire lives, and that was a day trip to Ostend. They made sure that they got back before darkness fell. Last year, it is reckoned, 185 million people passed through airports in the United Kingdom. That is an extraordinary influx of human traffic, but the most important traffic is electronic traffic, computerised traffic, as my noble friend Lady Henig said.

Globalisation has those advantages, but it also has an inherent dark side that bears very much on the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Stevens. The global drugs trade, for example, costs the global community as a whole $450 billion a year, which is more or less equivalent to a medium-size economy such as Spain. The money-laundering market costs $2 trillion a year. Most of that money belongs to us, the taxpayer, the citizen, or the wider society; it has simply been appropriated. Most recycled money in money laundering should have been going for tax purposes across the world.

Then there is the impact of international terrorism. In other speeches that I have made in your Lordships' House, I have tried to stress the essential difference between global terrorism and the sorts of terrorism that we have been familiar with in the shape of the IRA or the terrorists in the Basque country. The most important difference is that we are dealing with global networks; a vast flow of people using modern technologies. Al-Qaeda has cells in something like 80 countries and, according to the 9/11 report produced in the United States, it has some 8,000 people across the world who are prepared to act as suicide martyrs. It is simply a different scale and intensity of threat than anything that we have faced before, especially if you add on the possibility of the use of weapons of mass destruction.

I have no doubt that, when surrounded by an appropriate framework of policing and safeguards for our civil liberties, identity cards will help us do two things. First, as other noble Lords have said, they will help us to assert our identities, which is important in a fast-moving, much more impersonal, information-driven environment than anyone has had to live in before. Now when you buy a house you must show a passport, although we have heard that passports can be fairly easily forged. It is important that you show a passport because of the problem of money laundering and the pouring of money into property in London and other areas of the country.

Secondly, I have no doubt that identity cards will be an important protective device against the dark side of globalisation, which I have mentioned and which no one should assume can be easily managed. It penetrates to the very heart of our lives. The most important civil liberties issue concerns compulsion, and the Bill supposes that compulsion will at some
 
31 Oct 2005 : Column 49
 
point become part of the framework of law within which it is applied. The organisation Liberty recently produced an interesting pamphlet In Freedom's Name, which discussed the principle of compulsion. One of its main arguments is that 44 million people have data on a centralised database controlled largely by the Government for driving licences, credit cards, or passports. However, they are voluntary not compulsory, and the pamphlet argues that the compulsory principle infringes on civil liberties.

The argument is specious. You could, of course, choose to live a life where you never drove a car. You could choose to live a life where you did not use anything other than cash; and you could choose to live a life where you never went abroad. But that is not the kind of life that most of our citizens want to live. They want to take advantage of the very freedoms that the opening up of our society and the extension of the information bases in our society make possible for us. It is extremely important to argue that the assertion of identity is a mechanism of freedom, not simply a mechanism of repression. That is more and more the case the more we deal with a whole range of informational databases that circulate in and out of our lives.

The Bill is necessary, but of course it must be surrounded by democratic safeguards. Those safeguards are not primarily provided by lawyers or by judges. Any authoritarian state will find means of controlling its citizens whether or not they have identity cards or internal passports. A democratic state, by contrast, will look first to the liberty of its citizens, to the protection of its citizens and to the empowerment of its citizens. Having studied the Bill in detail, I am convinced that it will lead to those things and that therefore the net balance of substantive freedoms is a positive one.

5.30 pm


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page