My Lords, in 2010 the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition decided to scrap the identity card scheme and the associated national identity register because it was expensive and represented a substantial erosion of civil liberties. The Government have no plans to revisit that decision.
My Lords, a very interesting question was asked on 3 May by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who is a convert to ID cards. Recognising the possible difficulties post Brexit for unionists in accepting a de facto border with the rest of the UK at Northern Irish ports, would the introduction of biometric ID cards, across the UK—which includes Northern Ireland—further emphasise their identity and entitlements as UK citizens and help alleviate unionists’ concerns by underscoring their national identity within the United Kingdom? In a way, passports in Northern Ireland will not always be able to do that in the future.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his Question. The status of Northern Ireland’s citizens will remain the same post Brexit and they will still have access to the same identity documents. The Government are committed to protecting the Belfast agreement. One of the successes of that agreement, and the peace process, was to protect the ability of the people of Northern Ireland to identify as British, Irish or both.
My Lords, the last time this question came up, last year, we were told that this was 20th century stuff, not 21st century. I have never personally met a police officer who does not feel that identity cards would be more than helpful. I am of an age to remember them during the war. There is another factor which all in this House are interested in. Last week, the Office for National Statistics brought out the results of their “surveys” about what the future will be. It would undoubtedly consider that identity cards would be a huge improvement in enabling us to forecast the future more accurately. That would be in all our interests: might the Minister consider it?
I thank my noble friend for that question, and for forewarning me of it. I have talked about cost and civil liberties but, in addition to the things which my noble friend talked about, I draw attention to the fact that an increasing number of transactions and interactions, including the majority of identity frauds now occur online, where documents are far less effective in proving identity. I will take back what my noble friend said, but we should recognise that there is now a thriving market in fraud with actual, physical documents.
My Lords, in 2005 experts at the London School of Economics estimated that the introduction of an ID card scheme would cost up to £18 billion. Taking account of inflation and the total absence of any Brexit dividend, does the Minister agree that £26 billion would be better spent on the National Health Service?
The quite swingeing costs were certainly a consideration when the coalition Government decided to scrap identity cards or take them no further. I do not know about the £20 billion figure, but abolishing the scheme saved the taxpayer at the time £86 million and removed the need for a total investment of £835 million. What the Government choose to spend the money on will be a collective matter for the Government.
My Lords, this is not a question about identity but identification. Is it not quaint that we still have people who imagine that ID cards are a threat to civil liberties, who walk around with mobile phones, which constantly give away far more information than any ID card I have ever heard of? When will the Government recognise that being able to show who one is is seriously important, matters particularly for people who may not be entirely sure about their place of birth, and is necessary for people in Northern Ireland?
I hope that I have just addressed the Northern Ireland point. However, I totally concur with the noble Baroness that with mobile phones and on forums people give away information about their personal identification that they would never dream of telling the state or their banks. That is why I pointed out the more serious development of online fraud and the importance of proving identity in a lot of different situations. Whether it is proving your age in a nightclub or proving the right to rent or work, they all need different solutions.
Has the Minister noticed, over the period of time when questions on the subject have been repeatedly raised—by, to his great credit, my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours—that the mood in this Chamber, if not more widely, has tended more towards recognising the necessity of ID cards? Has she noticed that no one these days defends it on grounds of principle—not even the Liberal Democrats—
Yes, we are!
The question from the Liberal Democrats was entirely on an issue of cost, which is not irrelevant but not an issue of principle. To clear this thing up, and in the interests of transparency, can the Minister tell us, as this was done during the coalition Government, which party in the coalition she most blames for the decision to scrap the scheme?
My Lords, I do not blame either of them. However, I do not disagree at all with the noble Lord when he says that the issue of proof of ID and identity assurance is becoming more and more important. I am making the point that different identity assurance proofs are required in different situations. One would not expect to go into a nightclub and have to prove one’s immigration’s status, and similarly, in other situations you might not have to prove other things. Therefore we are trying to get to both a proportionate and reasonable proof of identity.