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Patrick Mercer: This simple amendment provides that an identity card issued to an individual must be free of charge. Ministers will not be surprised by the amendment, because we have already debated the point in Committee and will no doubt talk further about it tonight. The cost of the card is one of the most crucial elements of our debate. If we believe that the card is right and will, in due course, have to be possessed, if not carried, by everybody in the country, how on earth can we make the sort of charges for it that we have heard about in the past few months?
The identity card will come in a package with the passport. I shall come to the combined cost of the card and passport in a moment, but we have heard already that some 20 per cent. of the population never need to have a passport. How much does the Minister propose to charge those who do not want passports, only cards? It is the nation's job to support its citizens' travel abroad, but why should a fee be charged for ID cards?
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In Committee, the Minister was chary of allocating a cost to the card. He skirted around questions about how much the card alone would be and whether it would be possible to issue a card without a passport. He gave us the tantalising figure for the cost of the passport of some £63. By a simple process of subtraction, the card would therefore cost about £30, but the Minister was hesitant about agreeing to that sum. However, now we hear from the Government that the figure is about right. I would be grateful if the Minister explained why he was so reluctant to talk about the cost of the card alone.
The costs of the card alone will not be confined to compiling the register and then issuing the cards, with all the associated equipment necessary. Some reference has already been made to the article in The Scotsman, which claims that ID cards will lead to massive fraud. It states:
"Jerry Fishenden, the national technology officer for Microsoft, says the proposal to place 'biometrics'or personal identifiers such as fingerprintson a central database could perpetuate the 'very problem the system was intended to prevent'. He says Ministers 'should not be building systems that allow hackers to mine information so easily'."
As we asked about an earlier amendment, if rubbish is put in, what rubbish will come out? If the scheme will be wide open to fraud, as the article suggests, how will we offset the costs? Will a margin be included in the charge for ID cards and passports?
Dr. Palmer : The hon. Gentleman is sliding back and forth between the issues of cost and charge. The amendment relates to the charge the user will pay for the card to be issued. It is reasonable also to discuss the cost to the country, but that is not the subject of the amendment.
Patrick Mercer: As always, I am grateful to my fellow Nottinghamshire Member of Parliament for his observations. If he will allow me to develop my argument, I am sure that he will receive full satisfaction[Interruption.] Yes, for less than £30, I expect.
I would be interested in the Minister's view on how fraud will be offset in the charge for issuing cards. "The Identity Project" goes on at length about the cost projections for the cardwhat it will cost individuals, and what it will cost the nation. It talks of the costs of issuing cards over a 10-year period, based on passport service figures; of card readers for the public sector, as envisaged in the Bill; of the national identity register; of the total cost of the national identity register infrastructure; of managing the national identity system; and of specific other staff costs over a 10-year period. The lowest estimate in the report is more than £10 billion. I shall not exacerbate the situation by mentioning the higher costs, because they are difficult to quantify, but
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£10 billion is already a massive sum. How can the Minister expect the nation, and the individual, to foot the cost for the register and the card?
Patrick Mercer: As usual, the hon. Gentleman makes a useful and helpful intervention. Perhaps the Minister would be kind enough to outline exactly how much this scheme has already cost us, even before it has been approved by Parliament. How much of the national treasure has been invested in something that will I hopelead nowhere?
What will be the cost to the individual? If the Minister tells us that the package comes to just under £100, will everyone have to pay that? Are those who are on benefits likely to be asked for the same sum? If so, where will that money come from? How will they pay? Is it more likely, as I suspect, that those who are better off will end up being asked to subsidise those who cannot afford either passport or card? I should be very grateful to the Minister if he made it clear to me how that lies.
I appreciate the point made by the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer), but I cannot close on the amendment without mentioning opportunity cost. In my view, even I were persuaded of the need for both a register and an identity card, I would question very carefully whether we are putting those massive sumsmost modestly assessed at £10 billion and probably much moreinto the correct place if we want to stop the sort of ills that we have heard about, not least of which is terrorism, a subject in which I clearly have a great interest. Is the money being spent in the most efficacious fashion? Is it likely that a register and a card will have the effect that we hope to achieve? I suggest that the opportunity cost of the register and the card is absolutely out of proportion to the perceived benefits that either or both might deliver.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that I am very keen to know what the amendment would cost. He suggests that the Government will charge £30, but has he calculated what the cost would be if the card were given free to whoever wanted it? What does he imagine the overall cost would be?
Patrick Mercer: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not surprised if I say that I have done no such calculation. As far as I am concerned, the scheme is not a starter. I have moved the amendment simply to challenge the Government and to make them explain how they can request such sums. I believe that if these cards are issuedif we ever get to that dreadful and parlous statethey should be free to those who will be forced, first, to hide them in the bottom drawer of their wardrobes and, in due course, to carry them.
Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab):
I have not spoken in the debates so far today, and this seems the most appropriate debate in which to make a few comments about the costs of the scheme and its procurement because those factors directly
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reflect the issue raised by the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer). I strongly support ID cardsmy Select Committee produced a report on them a year agobut believe that costs must be contained as much as possible and that we must procure effectively.
On the issue discussed in the amendment, the Government's approach is okay. In practice, despite the blood-curdling rhetoric of an earlier debate in which reference was made to the prospect of people being frog-marched 80 miles to have their heads measured and then charged 100 quid for the privilege, a certain amount of sheer politics rather determines that that is not likely to take place. So making provision for a charge is reasonable, but it is important that the overall cost of the scheme is contained. I have concerns about some elements of the approach that the Government are taking to the procurement of the scheme. Those issues were raised by the Home Affairs Committee well over a year ago, and I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister that progress has been a little disappointing until now. I should like to reinforce a few of those points.
First, there are some elements in the design of the scheme that I suspect will not turn out to be cost-effective. Some of those elements were referred to earlier. In particular, the cost benefit of including addresses in the scheme may well turn out not to be that good. It is an irony that one of the advantages of moving to a biometric national identity register is that someone's address becomes a less important part of their identity than in the current system, where their address is an important statement about who they are and how to prove who they are. The ability to strip out of the system the cost of constant re-registration in cities such as mine where 25 per cent. of the population move every year would be of enormous benefit. The Minister will need to return to that issue in practice. That does not necessarily affect the detail of the legislation, but it is an important issue.
The second issue relates to procurement. Biometrics were discussed earlier this evening. One of the recommendations made by the Home Affairs Committee more than a year ago was that Sir David King, the chief scientific officer, should be invited to oversee and judge the preparedness of biometrics. I was pleased that that recommendation was accepted by the Government a year ago. However, a year later, the committee that Sir David was to be invited to lead has not yet met. Some of the problems that the Government are having with the debate about systemsthose that suggest that wrinkled, bald-headed men have their faces on upside down and all the other issues that we have heard about todaywould be put on one side if we had the simple assurance that the chief scientific officer was going to do what the Select Committee recommended a year ago and give the green light, or the red light, to the preparedness of the technology. That would be an enormously important step. The Government agreed to it in principle more than a year ago, but no action has yet been taken. That is a shame.
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