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Identity Cards

Volume 457: debated on Monday 19 February 2007

The Government remain committed to the introduction of identity cards, which are essential in combating identity fraud and illegal immigration and in disrupting organised crime and the continued threat of terrorism. We shall start introducing biometric immigration documents for foreign nationals from 2008 and ID cards for British citizens from 2009.

How much do the Government intend to spend this year on the introduction of ID cards, and what is the latest estimate of the total cost of the scheme? Will the hon. Gentleman not accept even now that this enormously expensive and ineffectual scheme would be much better scrapped and the money spent on building prison places so that he does not have to go on releasing violent offenders to commit still more offences?

Three points are relevant. First, 70 per cent. of the costs of identity cards will be spent anyway on introducing biometric passports. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would want us to scrap biometric passports, because 53 of the 55 major passport-issuing countries propose to introduce those documents. I am sure that, like me, he would not want a British passport to become a second-class document in the world.

Secondly, we will present costs, as we are required to do, in April. We present an updated cost report every six months, as is required under the Identity Cards Act 2006. Finally, let us consider the alternative. If we cancelled the system that underpins ID cards, we would be cancelling the system that underpins biometric visas, ID cards for foreign nationals and biometric passports. That would render us defenceless in the war against illegal immigration.

I surveyed my constituents on the issue and received more than 700 responses. Of the people in East Dunbartonshire who responded, 87 per cent. said that they would rather the money was spent on more police in their community than on the Government’s ID cards project. When will the Government realise that their plans for ID cards are unnecessary, unwanted and undeniably a complete waste of money?

I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to a slightly wider-ranging survey than the survey that she conducted in her constituency—the British social attitudes survey. According to that survey, over the last couple of weeks, 71 per cent. of the British public have said that ID cards are a good idea. I am with them. I am one of those who think that if a person has nothing to hide, they will not be worried about ID cards.

The Government say that they believe that ID cards will help in the fight against terrorism. Spain has ID cards, yet it became the victim of the atrocious bombings that took place in Madrid. What is the compelling case for the use of ID cards in the fight against terrorism?

We have always been clear that the role of ID cards will be to disrupt terrorist activities. The hon. Gentleman will know, because it has been said in the House before, that al-Qaeda training manuals specifically encourage terrorists or would-be terrorists to adopt as many identities as possible to hide themselves from the security services and the law. Biometric ID cards carry a single important advantage, which is that they lock the individual down to a single identity, so that such fraud becomes harder, if not impossible, in the future.

The Minister said that 70 per cent. of the costs of ID cards would be covered by biometric passports. How is it possible to make that assertion when we still have no information from the Government on the technical costs of the ID cards project and when there is still a vast discrepancy between the cost estimates? The estimate from the Government is £5.4 billion and up to £19 billion is estimated by the London School of Economics. Does that not give rise to the suspicion that the costs of biometric passports are being artificially inflated to give an impression that the cost of the ID cards project is lower? When will the Minister publish a full comparative analysis of the costs of both projects?

The hon. Gentleman would be wise not to pray in aid the LSE report, which ignored research from the National Physical Laboratory, exaggerated the cost of verifying identity information and had some pretty basic problems with its maths. It overstated the number of people who might have problems giving biometric data by an extraordinary 1,800 per cent., so I am not sure that that is the report to pray in aid in support of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. We publish reports every six months. It is absolutely right that we bring such accountability and transparency to the project. We will publish the next report in April.

En passant, I notice that not a single Labour Member has stood to support the Minister, despite his comments about the support for his case.

In December, the Home Secretary announced that the ID card system was to be based on the Department for Work and Pensions customer information system database. That is the national insurance number system. There are in existence 76 million supposedly valid national insurance numbers—29 million more than there are eligible British citizens in the United Kingdom, which is more than the population of Romania and four times the population of Bulgaria. How does the Minister think that that flawed database is a suitable foundation for an ID card system, which is, after all, supposed to prevent identity fraud?

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman started with a survey of the support that there is for the scheme—[Interruption.] Well, let us talk about the support on each side of the House. Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, who chairs the Conservative policy review group, said:

“Identity theft is a significant area of crime and the measures we have of establishing identity are inadequate. We should not be stupid about that.”

We will put in place two systems in order to underpin the national identity register. One is the DWP’s CIS index, which is a tried and tested system and operates at very high volumes. The second is the new biometric warehouse. The link between the two will establish one single record in both systems. That is the right approach because it is lower risk and will make it possible to bring in the project in a shorter time. The system will use tried and tested technology. I repeat: to shut down that system will render us defenceless against tackling illegal immigration. We will use the same system to process biometric visas, tougher checks for people abroad and ID cards for foreign nationals in the United Kingdom.

Answer was there none. The Minister described the database as tried and tested. The Government themselves have already admitted that they have issued up to 300,000 national insurance numbers to foreign nationals every year and that over 98 per cent. of those are issued without any check whatever on immigration status. That is part of the reason why, under that so-called tried and tested system, we wrongly spent £4.5 million in tax credits to immigrants in one year alone. Rather than protect against identity fraud, is not there a real risk that the ID card will legitimise existing identity fraud?

Absolutely not. What is clear is that the right hon. Gentleman has not looked at the report that we published before Christmas, which set out exactly how these matters would be addressed. It is tried and tested technology. It uses the same biometric technology that is going into passports, of which there are 2.5 million already in circulation. I come back to the point that, if we were to shut down those systems and cancel the contracts, as he proposes, we would render the country defenceless against illegal immigration just at the time when the pressure on our borders is going to grow, if anything.