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National Identity Scheme

Volume 495: debated on Monday 6 July 2009

2. What recent representations he has received on the introduction of the national identity scheme. (283785)

3. What recent representations he has received on the introduction of the national identity scheme. (283786)

Our research shows a consistent level of public support for the national identity service and, in the past six months, we have received more than 1,000 letters from the public about identity cards. More than 60 per cent. of these were in support, including many asking how to apply for an identity card.

The Secretary of State will note that his colleague made it clear in a Delegated Legislation Committee last week that this scheme, now revised, is not for the prevention of terrorism, the reduction of crime or the stopping of legal immigration, but it is claimed that it will derive £6 billion net benefit for our country. What is the purpose of the scheme, and how can that figure be justified?

When we stood at the last election on a manifesto that promised to introduce identity cards, there was no mention of tackling terrorism. Identity cards will have some benefit in that area, but that is not why they are being introduced. The reason, supported by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and the Opposition before the last election, was that it would be madness to introduce biometric passports, with all the information, and not use that opportunity to provide people with a convenient, safe and secure way to prove their identity in a world where the need to prove identity is a constant daily occurrence.

The Prime Minister claimed that he had scrapped the plans for the last general election, when he was going to call it, because he was going to win. It seems that the Home Secretary said that he is going to scrap compulsory identity cards because they are popular with the public. Does he not accept that all the arguments in the past by his predecessors that identity cards are essential to combat terrorism and to tackle crime have all been totally spurious?

No. The reasons that we set out to the British people—in an election that we won—on why we would introduce ID cards are exactly the reasons for introducing them now. We have not scrapped cards; we are accelerating their introduction—[Laughter.] It is absolutely true. We planned to sign a medium-term contract next year; we are now going to sign it in the autumn. We planned to trial the scheme just in Manchester this year; we are now going to trial it across the whole of the north-west. We planned to trial it airside at London City airport; we are now going to trial it throughout London. It will be welcomed by the population. We already have applications for cards and we have not even begun the process of distributing them.

I would like to press the Secretary of State on the issue of compulsion. The Government have always stated that ID cards can work properly only if they are compulsory. Does he still believe that?

I do not know when the Government stated that. The Government certainly did not state it in our election manifesto of 2005, when the British people supported us and elected us to government. There was no mention of compulsion in that manifesto. The Identity Cards Act 2006, which went through both Houses of this Parliament, had no mention of compulsion. This is a voluntary scheme. I happen to think that, in terms of airside workers, we will make much more progress and have many more people carrying cards if we remove the element of compulsion, explain the benefits and ensure that people sign up to them voluntarily.

The Prime Minister is having some difficulty in being clear, to put it charitably, about the level of public expenditure over the next few years. Will the Home Secretary do his bit by pledging to scrap the huge cost of ID cards in order to get the public debt and finances into a more stable condition?

We will have more time to debate this issue at 7 o’clock this evening, but I have to tell hon. Members, including Opposition Members—at my press conference I used the term diddly-squat, which is probably not recognised by Hansard writers, let alone by British journalists—that the idea that the national debt could be halved by the abolition of ID cards is simply ludicrous. The amount of money that has to be spent on a scheme where the recipients and beneficiaries of identity cards will pay for them is very small. Scrapping the scheme now will gain very little and waste an awful lot.

I opposed identity cards when some Tories wanted them before 1997, and I am pleased that they will not be compulsory. Will there not be a certain amount of suspicion on the part of various officials and authorities with a voluntary scheme if UK citizens do not have an identity card? Is not the whole idea of British citizens’ having such a card simply distasteful?

I recognise my hon. Friend’s long-held and consistent view on this issue. As he says, he held that view when the whole Conservative party was in a different place. I respect his position, although I do not agree with him on this point. There has been a voluntary ID card in France for many years. My French friends would look askance at any suggestion that that somehow breached their civil rights—

I know that that might not convince a lot of people on this side of the House.

I believe that a voluntary scheme can work. We had an identity card in this country at a time when we were fighting for our civil liberties—

A lot of people will sympathise with the Home Secretary, because he is having to cope with the denouement of a failed policy. This business goes to the credibility of Parliament. Why does he not face up to it, get up to the Dispatch Box and say, “Look, we really thought this. It was a silly idea, and we are going to start again to examine how we can promote security and individual identity?” That would be the sensible way forward. I realise that he cannot do that today, but I urge him to take the subject back to the Cabinet and the Prime Minister and to say, “Look, let’s get real, grand old Duke of York.”

My hon. Friend is already reverting to the French way in his questions. I fundamentally disagree with him. We are committed to a biometric passport. The Prime Minister said when he came to office in 2007 that that passport could be used as an identity card. People will have the choice of whether to get an identity card as well. I believe that my hon. Friend agrees that we need to have compulsory ID cards for foreign national workers. In today’s world, it is absolutely rational and sane to offer people a single system of proving their identity, which locks in their identity, using all the technology that we need to put in place for the biometric passport anyway.

I, too, welcome the confirmation from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the scheme will be a voluntary one, but what does he say to those people who suggest that, in some respects, the scheme will not really be voluntary? It is said, for example, that people will need an ID card to get a passport if they want to leave the country. Can he clarify the position as regards passports and ID cards?

The scheme is of greater use: if people want to use ID cards, instead of their passports, to travel around Europe, for instance, they can. Many people will find that attractive, particularly people who would rather pay the lower amount and only ever want to travel around Europe. Many other people will find it extremely convenient to take out an ID card, perhaps as proof of age, rather than taking their passports, which are more valuable documents, thousands of which get lost on Friday and Saturday nights in cities all over the country. This is a matter of pragmatic convenience, and I really do believe that, in terms of Labour party policy, my right hon. and hon. Friends are on the right side of the public argument.

Let us explore the voluntary nature of the card. Later today, we will debate a statutory instrument that sets penalties for failing to inform the authorities about changes in personal information on ID cards. If it is a voluntary card, why are penalties attached to failing to provide that information? What does voluntary mean in this context? Specifically, if someone volunteers for an ID card and has one for a period, can they then say, “I don’t want one anymore.”? If they can, those penalties are pointless; if they cannot, the Home Secretary should come clean and tell people that, if they volunteer once, the scheme is then compulsory for the rest of their lives.

That is a nonsensical position by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman. The simple fact is that the Opposition support the introduction of a biometric passport. The introduction of such a passport means that there will be a national identity register, which will contain people’s addresses. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head—so he would have a biometric passport, but no means of linking it back to the individual who took it out. That argument is absolute nonsense. Exactly as now, if someone changes address, they should inform the passport office, and if they do not, there will be a fine, because we want to ensure that the people who receive passports are the people who say that they want them. The nonsense of the Opposition suddenly turning into civil libertarians, which was news to many of us, and the nonsense that identity cards are somehow an Orwellian concept from “Nineteen Eighty-Four” would be a complete mystery to 24 of the 27 European Union member states that have them.

Can I have one, please? I should like the same rights as the majority of other European citizens. I should like to travel around Europe on an ID card. I am ready to be photographed now, before I get much older. I am ready to give my details; I have to give them to everyone in the House of Commons and in the newspapers. So can we have a privilege for MPs: an accelerated path for those who would like ID cards before the rest of the population gets them? I think that we would have a very good take-up.

I will consult the authorities to see whether a platinum identity card can be posted to my right hon. Friend straight away.