Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I shall join the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) in the Lobby tonight to vote against a bad idea in a worse Bill, introduced for the worst possible motives. This idea has always been a solution looking for problems. When the Government were under attack for waste in the public services, they said that this would be an entitlement Bill, frankly admitting that it would have little role to play in combating terrorism. When they were under attack for their failure to control immigration, they said that the Bill?s prime purpose would be to control illegal immigration. When the focus groups told them that they were lagging behind the Conservatives on crime, they said that the primary issue was to control crime. Now, because they want to frighten us with the threat of terrorism ahead of the election, they have again raised the issue of controlling terrorism.
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The Bill is a solution looking for problems, and when we examine the problems, it turns out to be a pretty illusory solution to them. The police rarely have a problem in identifying suspects, only in proving that they did what they are suspected of. Terrorists rarely conceal their identity, only their motives. Benefit fraudsters rarely adopt a false identity, they merely misrepresent their circumstances. All illegal immigrants can, and most do, claim asylum. They are then automatically given an identity card without which they cannot claim benefits, and such cards already show their fingerprints and their photo.
The Government have managed to come up with some helpful comments from Departments suggesting general support for the scheme, and saying that it might be beneficial to them. It is always possible to get civil servants to say that sort of thing; their job is to support the Government. It was not too difficult to persuade the security services to come up with evidence that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Departments are saying that the Bill would be useful to them?but the acid test of whether a Department really thinks that a proposal will be useful to it is to ask whether it is prepared to contribute a slice of its budget towards the costs. My first question to Ministers is: has any Department indicated a willingness to contribute to the costs of the scheme?
We know that the scheme originally proposed, for a voluntary card, was going to cost ?1 billion. When that became an entitlement card, the cost went up to ?3 billion. When the first draft Bill appeared, the scheme was going to cost ?4 billion. Now it is supposed to cost about ?5 billion. I know of no experience that does not suggest, and no outside expert who does not expect, that the eventual cost will be at least twice what the Government now say.
The Government say that a card will cost ?85 a head, and that the cost will be borne not by Departments but by individuals. Everybody will have to pay that sum, even the 20 per cent. who never travel abroad and cannot afford a car. I ask the Minister: if the cost is double the present estimate, are we going to charge double that amount?a sum greater than the poll tax?to every inhabitant of this country, simply to prove their existence and justify their presence here?
The problem is that the system almost certainly will not work. We have heard about the difficulties of getting IT systems to work, but what about the biometrics on which this system is intended to rely, which have never been tried out on any scale? Indeed, the Government?s own small-scale pilot trials had to be postponed because, as the Passport and Records Agency says,
“a series of hardware, software and ergonomic problems”
caused delays. It continues:
“Remedial actions to cure these problems continued for several weeks when, after further tests, the system was given back to the suppliers for further development and reconfiguration”.
If these problems occurred during a small-scale trial, what possibility is there that the Government can get the system to work for 60 million people? A Cabinet Office study concluded that biometric tests will wrongly conclude that between 10 and 15 per cent. of those tested are not who they actually are. Are the Government really happy with that level of misidentification?
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My next question for the Government is: why has no bank, supermarket or credit card company introduced this technology? Could it be that they believe the costs too great, the benefits too small and the danger of alienating their customers too high to risk undertaking a project of this nature? But the arguments against ID cards are not just practical. They would increase the power of the state and change the relationship between it and the individual. Does it not give Labour Members some pause for thought that compulsory ID cards have never been introduced in peacetime in any country other than a fascist, communist or totalitarian state? They were introduced by those countries precisely to increase their Governments? power to control their citizens. I am not accusing Ministers of sharing the malign nature of those states?at least, I do not think that I am?but they are creating an apparatus that could be misused. Does it not give Ministers pause for thought that no common law country has ever introduced such a system, and that those that started to do so?such as Australia and New Zealand?were persuaded by the reaction of their populations to back off and withdraw the proposal?
A number of Members have made it clear?I share their view?that the system will serve practically no purpose unless carrying the card, as well as having it, is made compulsory. Ministers say that that can be done only through further primary legislation. Given that this Government introduce three or four police Bills every year, the fact that such an initiative would require further primary legislation will be precious little defence once the apparatus is in place. We may take it for granted that once the system is in place, it will be compulsory to carry the card and to present it when required. Indeed, most of the services and most of the public think that carrying such a card ought to be compulsory. So every time that we leave home without it, we will be liable to a penalty. Even under this Bill, every time that we fail to notify the authorities of a change of address, we will be liable to a penalty of up to ?1,000. Every time that we fail to report a lost or stolen card, we will not only be unable, so they say, to access all the services; we will also be liable to a penalty.
This project will cost huge sums and it may not work. It will damage our liberties, and I hope that this House rejects it.