Debate on Queen's Speech

- Sunday, 12th December 2004

 

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): It is always a great privilege and pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), not least given that his evolution through this House has ended with his making the sort of speech that went out of fashion at Conservative party conferences of the late 1950s, where speakers deplored the lack of respect for institutions among the young and cited the need for discipline. If he can learn to love his constituents and to believe in democracy, he will have made it to our Benches.

I want to draw the House?s attention to the similarity between policies and houses. When houses languish unsold year after year, it is almost certainly because there is something wrong with their foundations. I have to tell Labour Members that there is no policy that has been hawked, unsold, around Whitehall for longer than identity cards. When I was in the Cabinet, it was brought to us time and again, but every time we examined it?it was always brought to us as a solution looking for problems?we found, when each of the problems that it could potentially solve was identified, that it had no utility and its advantages evaporated. The police told us that they rarely had any problem in identifying people, only in demonstrating that they had

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done that of which they were suspected. The security services told us that terrorists rarely conceal their identity, only their intention?as was apparent in the case of those involved in the 9/11 tragedy, in Madrid and in Constantinople.

The immigration services told us that all illegal immigrants can, and mostly do, claim asylum. Once they have done so, they are given an identity document and fingerprinted, as has been the case since July 1993. That document now takes the form of an identity card. Without it, they cannot claim benefits or get legal employment. A compulsory identity card would therefore be of little practical use unless people were required to carry it and the police were empowered to stop and to require information from anyone who looked and sounded foreign. If the Government are proposing to introduce a system whereby members of ethnic minorities are required constantly to justify their presence in this country, they should stand up and say so; unless they are prepared to do that, the proposal will have no impact whatever in identifying and stopping illegal immigration.

It has been suggested that the identity card might be of value in curbing benefit fraud. As Secretary of State for Social Security, I was aware that the amount of benefit fraud that relies on false identity was, at most, 1 or 2 per cent. of the total. I proposed to introduce a benefit payment card, but that was to improve the security of payment and to replace the insecure method of order books and girocheques. Unfortunately, that system was abandoned by the Labour Government after a couple of years because they believed that they could not make it work. Even though it had worked in Ireland, they could not upgrade it from a system that covered roughly 1 million people there to one that would cover 15 million people here. How will they be able to make work an identity card system covering all 60 million people in this country?

When identity cards have been tried elsewhere, they have failed to prevent crime, terrorism, fraud or illegal immigration. Because systems that exist elsewhere do not work in practice, the Government propose to introduce a system that exists nowhere and hope that it will turn out to be wonderful. I have to tell them that there are plenty of reasons for believing that it is a racing certainty that it will not work. Previously, all such large projects have failed, as we know from the experiences of the Child Support Agency and of the Home Office itself. We know, too, that private firms such as banks and credit card companies have not taken the route of biometric identifiers, because they think that the benefits will be less than the costs and that the system will not work that well, and because they know that even on the Government?s own tests there is roughly a 7 per cent. incidence of false negatives. If each of us had to show our card once a year, that would mean 4 million false negatives. Are the Government prepared to accommodate that amount of accusation and suspicion of the general public, who would be falsely accused of not being who they are?

If the system is not compulsory, it is pointless. All the advantages that the public at least perceive as deriving from identity cards work on the assumption that people

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will have the cards on them when they are stopped by the police, who believe that they may be a criminal or an illegal immigrant and so on.

Today, the Home Secretary prided himself on the fact that the opinion polls show that 80 per cent. of the population are in favour of compulsory identity cards. That is the sole reason for their introduction. It is a focus group-driven policy.

Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab): Why did not you introduce it?

Mr. Lilley: Because we thought that it was a stupid idea.

Andy Burnham: You produced a Green Paper on it.

Mr. Lilley: And we decided not to introduce it?largely because I argued against it in Cabinet?on the grounds that I outlined.

The Home Secretary believes that the policy is a good idea because it is popular. When the Labour Government in Australia introduced a similar proposal, it had even greater support. However, as it wound its way through the Australian Parliament and the upper House, the mood changed, and eventually, according to the opinion polls, 90 per cent. of the Australian public were against it. The measure was defeated in the upper House and contributed to the defeat of the Australian Labour Government. I hope that the pattern is repeated here.

 

 

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