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Mr. Drew: I do not know whether my hon. Friend read the answer that I received last week to a parliamentary question. It said there are currently 300,000 cases of passport theft a year. We did not touch on this matter in Committee, so will the Minister tell us who will pay if people lose their ID cards, or their ID cards and their passports?
John McDonnell: If the Government maintain that the costs of the scheme must be covered by charges, the general public will pay. The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) raised the issue of fraud. If it is as rampant in the use of ID cards as some people have suggested the public will be charged so that additional anti-fraud measures can be introduced. One criticism in the LSE report concerns the Government's inadequate attention to the danger of fraud deep within the system. In future, the Public Accounts Committee will have a field day with the scheme overall and specifically the massive computer project. The exercise will become part of the pantheon that includes the Millennium dome, the Dangerous Dogs Act and rail privatisation.
John McDonnell: Indeed. At the end of the day, they probably did not impose such a heavy charge on our constituents. Because the technology has not been tested the charges will go up. I am surprised that we have not built into the legislation further controls to prevent such increases.
Mr. Todd: I shall focus on the KPMG report, which has not been fully disclosed but makes reference to a weakness in sensitivity analysis on costs in the project. While giving a generally supportive nod towards the methodology used for producing the Government's estimated costs it refers to the huge unknowns that drive many costs on a project of this scale and length. Does my hon. Friend accept that that is a concern?
John McDonnell: The KPMG report is concerned that the project is an enormous leap in the dark. There are worries about implementation, technology and staff capability in the different Departments that must handle ID cards and the passport system together.
We are forcing the scheme on people, contrary to the Prime Minister's choice agenda. Many people will not wish to participate in it, and there will be refuseniks. If we hound them down resentments will build up. By introducing a charge rather than paying for the scheme through general taxation the burden will fall, as has been said, on those least able to pay. I have not heard any ministerial assurances about whether or not we will accommodate pensioners or people on benefits by
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ensuring that they will not have to pay. Perhaps there will be an additional one-off allowance for pensioners along with their Christmas bonus so that they can go and get their ID cards. However, there does not seem to have been any consideration of the cost burden that will fall on people who are least able to afford it.
Mr. Todd: If I understand the Bill correctly there is an assumption that take-up will not be 100 per cent., so the Minister will have the discretion to write off charges for citizens who, for one reason or another, fail to take up the card. Does that not suggest a major weakness? If that is known beforehand, people who do not wish to take part in the project can opt out knowing that they do not have to pay.
John McDonnell: My hon. Friend has spotted an incentive in the Bill for people to go into hiding and to refuse to pay. I am more concerned, however, about people who will struggle to pay the initial charge. If the project goes wrong and costs increase the charge imposed will have to go up. As a result, those people will not be able to bear that burden. I agree that resentment will build up. This debate mirrors debates about the poll tax in that it has been said that the present proposed charge is much fairer as it is a one-off cost that people will not mind paying. I think that they will. What happens if they refuse to pay? Do we really wish to go through the experience that we are now having with council tax of imprisoning vicars? Will bailiffs turn up at people's doors to take them to court or take away their goods because they cannot pay or refuse to do so?
The Government are digging themselves into a hole, so I shall offer them some friendly, comradely and constructive advice. To ease the passage of the Bill and make the process fairer it would be better to ensure that implementation costs are borne through progressive taxation. As a result, costs would not bear too heavily on those least able to afford them. That would prevent resentment at a one-off charge, especially if it increased beyond the £30 estimate as is inevitable if the cost of implementing the system rises. I urge the Government to reconsider their position. If they do not do so I wish to press my amendment to a vote. I repeat, however, that Ministers will live to regret association with the legislation. Apart from all the complications and the attack on civil liberties, what will stick in the public's mind is being forced to pay for something that they never chose to have.
We should be grateful to the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) for giving a speech in favour of identity cards, as it has reinforced many Members' opposition to them. We should also be grateful to him for reminding us of cost implications in the key recommendations from the Select Committee that he ably chairs. He gave three examples of things with cost implications: first, frequent changes
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of address, which was one of the issues that felled the poll tax; secondly, to use shorthand, the lack of technology proofing, despite the Select Committee's recommendations; and, thirdly, procurement and its bearing on costs. I thank him for one of the most succinct and lucid examinations of procurement problems that we have heard.
Given that the Select Committee identified three things that bear heavily on costs, I cannot believe that more than a year later, none of those things has been examined or dealt with properly. I have great regard and respect for the right hon. Gentleman, but his conclusion that the House of Commons should blunder on regardless, ignoring all the things that have not been done, the assurances that have not been given and the examination that has not been completed, is remarkable. Should we just cross our fingers and hope for the best?
Mr. Denham: The vast majority of people who oppose the Bill would do so whether or not there were issues of cost. The House would make an historic mistake if it did not proceed with legislation that enables ID cards to come into force, because there is a compelling case for such cards. It is perfectly reasonable to pass the legislation, but it is also important that we make it clear to Ministers that there are concerns about procurement, which must be set right in the following months.
Mr. Salmond: Someone with substantial parliamentary experience knows that the best way to ensure that such things are dealt with is to fire a shot, not just across the bows but below the water line, in the amendments. That would ensure that these matters would not be ignored, as has been the case in the past year. However, the House is being asked to vote for a pig in a poke and accept something that cannot possibly be quantified. The three issues that the right hon. Gentleman identified make it impossible to give any valid estimate of the costs of the ID card scheme.
In an intervention from elsewhere on the Labour Benches, we were toldI paraphrasethat the Minister had assured us that the cost would be kept as low as possible. Those of us who remember the poll tax debates in the House know that no Minister said, "We're going to make the poll tax as high as possible"on the contrary, the Government said it would be 50 quid or 100 quid and would be kept as low as possible. They said it would transform local government finance, but of course they could not estimate the cost of the poll tax because they could not estimate the cost of enforcement. In the famous phrase of Michael Heseltine, it was unenforceableunworkable. That is exactly what we are facing once again. The three issues that the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen so ably identified in his speech in favour of the Bill should reinforce substantially the opposition to it and our doubts about it.
There are two other cost issues that we must bear in mind. The first was raised in an earlier debate, when we heard a quote from Mr. Jerry Fishenden, the national technology officer for Microsoft, from The Scotsman this morning. As a high ranking official of Microsoft, he is presumably in a reasonable position to estimate the
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damage that the Bill could cause if it were not correctly handled. He said that it would lead to a massive fraud
Lastly, there is the question of opportunity costof what we might be doing with the billions if we were not pursuing this pig in a poke or buying these unfinished goods, this spatchcock legislation. I suppose the Government might fight another war. That would be another £5 billion
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