My Lords, the Government have no plans to reintroduce identity cards. Identity cards were abolished in 2010 as part of the Government’s commitment to restore personal freedoms and curtail unnecessary intrusion by the state.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I declare an interest in family investment companies which own a few residential properties. Bearing in mind that the forthcoming Immigration Bill will impose major responsibilities on private landlords, the NHS, GPs, banks and even the DVLA to undertake the virtually impossible task of verifying the immigration status of individuals, is it not clear that the existence of some self-funding, authoritative and official identity card, paid for by those who volunteer to acquire it, will be of considerable benefit?
I am grateful to my noble friend for her helpful suggestion, but the Government do not believe that a voluntary identity card would help in the Immigration Bill measures. These will be implemented via a range of administrative processes, including through existing documents such as the biometric residence permit and with support from Home Office services.
My Lords, does the Minister not agree that, as we move forward using ever more online facilities within government, there will be a need for chip and PIN-type cards for people in this country to ensure their security with all the threats that there are from cyberattacks? People have passports and driving licences. The expression “identity card” is rather pejorative, but we will all end up having to have something because we will otherwise be very vulnerable.
The noble Lord is very well briefed as a result of his previous involvement in the Home Office on this subject. He will know that the Home Office takes great interest in this area. The whole question of identity and how we can establish it lies at the core of an awful lot of policies. I accept what the noble Lord says; the work is actively under review. However, we do not believe that an identity card has a part to play in that.
I wonder whether my noble friend would be kind enough to look at this again, simply because the proposal here is for a voluntary card and it would help people. Could we not draw a line under the political arguments which preceded this and accept that many people would like to have access to such a card and that we should provide it at their cost? Surely there is no skin off anybody’s nose for doing so.
My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s reply on this. Of course it is part of the coalition agreement that we do not introduce ID cards. We have the citizen’s card, which is mainly available for retailers to decide on the age of those who want to buy tobacco and so on, but we also have 45 million passport holders and 43 million driving licence holders. Surely this is enough. I was really surprised that this might be linked to the Immigration Bill that is coming before us. I think we must look very warily before we even think in this direction.
My Lords, surely the point is that the Government opposed the previous identity card on the basis that it was compulsory. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, is suggesting a voluntary arrangement, one which would cost the Government nothing but would bring great convenience to many people including the carriers of such a card and those who wanted an authoritative proof of identity. Surely this is something that the Government should consider again. The ability to assure one’s own identity is increasingly necessary.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that identity cards are dangerous things because they can be forged but the state does have the right and the need to be able to identify its own citizens? What is needed is at least a unique number. The national insurance number would be an obvious one but you do not get it until you are a certain age; probably the national health number, which you get at birth, would be the sensible one. Would he consider the possibility of amalgamating those two numbers to a number given at birth which could then link citizens to the state?
I am sure within your Lordships’ House there are plenty of people who can recite their national service number. I am not entirely sure that I agree with my noble friend on this. However, the Government are well aware of the importance of being able to satisfy identities in the modern age. The noble Lord, Lord West, referred to the modern age in his question. The Home Office is well aware of this and is looking at ways in which this can be done.
My Lords, the uniqueness of the previous identity card is surely the fact that it was biometric, which identified the person who was attached to the identity card very clearly without any doubt at all. In this case it is suggested that it should be voluntary. What is wrong with this idea?
My Lords, although I do not always agree with my noble friend Lord Deben, his logic this afternoon was impeccable, as was that of my noble friend Lady Miller, who asked this Question. This is a voluntary scheme and—in an age when identity theft is becoming an ever increasing problem—why cannot the Government accept a scheme that is both voluntary and costs the public purse nothing?
I think the noble Lord weakens his argument by that last phrase. It would cost the Government money. It could not be set up in a way whereby the issuing of such cards could be done outside the authority of the state. Given that the authority of the state requires the Government to police the issuing of these cards, then—voluntary or not—there would be an expense to the Exchequer.
Does the Minister not agree that it is ludicrous to believe that the people who create difficulties with security, problems with immigration, difficulties with claiming benefits in certain areas, and who abuse the NHS and claim benefits from it when they should not are the kind of people who—on a voluntary basis—are going to take out an identity card? As the Government present different pieces of legislation to us where they are trying to track people, does the Minister not see increasingly that they made a major mistake in abolishing the previous Government’s policy of introducing a compulsory card? Does he not see that in due course they will have to return to this and will have to do it? Would he not reflect on the silliness of the position they now find themselves in?
I do not consider that the Government’s position is silly. The noble Lord himself says that the problem with the voluntary scheme is that people would not take it up if they had something to hide. That is quite clear. All I can say to him is that I am quite content with the Government’s position and content to defend it at this Dispatch Box, because it has saved the Government and the country as a whole a considerable amount of money for what would have been very dubious benefits.
My Lords, in that case, will the noble Lord reconsider his answer to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack? He said that he could not agree with him because there would be a charge on the Exchequer. Passports are already paid for by individuals on a basis that covers the costs. So are visas. If we can cover the costs for passports and visas, why could we not do it for an identity card? Will the Minister please reflect on the answer that he gave to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack?