The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, it would be possible for the Government to establish a national identity number without first introducing an identity card scheme, but we have no plans at present to do so.
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the effect of having an identity card without an underlying secure number is that the card would be hardly worth the paper it was printed on? It would become a farce like the British Visitor's Passport, and an expensive mistake like the national insurance number. At a time when the state is handing out such large sums of money, does my noble friend agree that it is important that we should know to whom we are handing that money? Does my noble friend agree that it is necessary that we have a secure national identity number and that the National Health Service number, which is given to everyone at birth, would be ideal?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I do not accept that a successful identity card scheme must necessarily be underpinned by a national identity number. Many measures would make the card a safe card, such as ensuring security during its production. Another important feature would be the identification information on the card. However, we have not ruled out the use of a number. My noble friend is right that a number could be useful, but I do not believe that it is necessary to have such a number for the card to work.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, from the Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, I thought that he had thought carefully about its wording, but having heard the noble Lord's supplementary question I am not so sure. Is it not the case that a unique national identity number would be necessary only if the Government were to embark on a compulsory all-embracing single national identity card system which, we understand, would cost approximately £500 million (on probably out-of-date pricing) and that the path which the Government are likely to take--if they are to take any steps at all--is likely to be based
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. It would be a costly option. However, I understood my noble friend's Question to relate to the introduction of an identity number without the introduction of a card. We believe that that would be very difficult. Perhaps I may repeat the question. My noble friend asked Her Majesty's Government whether a secure multi-purpose national identity number could be established for all United Kingdom citizens without the introduction of a system of national identity cards. We believe that that would be a particular problem.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that my noble friend Lord Marlesford is not quite correct in saying that everyone is given a National Health Service number at birth because those of us who were not born in this country are given a National Health Service number labelled "NHS" on arrival in this country? Can my noble friend also confirm that if we were to have a national identity card system, which I personally favour, such a card could carry a great deal of valuable encoded information, including medical information, which could be lifesaving?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. There are problems and exceptions to the rule in almost any system. My noble friend has singled out at least one problem: not everybody who has a right of residence in this country was born here. My noble friend is also right in saying that because of new technology all sorts of information can now be carried on cards. Those who have read our Green Paper know that we have not ruled out the possibility of the wider use of such an identification card.
Lord Northbourne: My Lords, does the Minister agree that a secure multi-purpose national identity number would make an important contribution to reducing the amount of housing benefit fraud and other benefit frauds which are now reaching horrendous proportions?
Baroness Blatch: Yes, my Lords. There is an argument that such a number would be helpful in combating fraud. However, there is also another problem which cannot be ignored in all of this: if such a number was so widely used, so universal and applied to so many systems, the question of who can and cannot have access to it becomes very important. Furthermore, arrangements have to be consistent with the data protection regulations. Such a system would not be without complexity or problems.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, a good deal is going on to combat fraud, particularly social security fraud. We have a clear strategy for combating fraud in the state services. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Security has already announced the introduction of a plastic benefit card system which will commence in October. It will enable immediate checks to be made at post office counters against the Benefits Agency database.
Baroness Blatch: Yes, my Lords, I agree with my noble friend on that point. A unique number would be much safer. There is a great deal of replication of names and my noble friend is right. But, again, no ID card would carry only a name. It would have other verifiable information on it.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, there are many numbers: passport number; national insurance number; driving licence number, which indeed is unique; and NHS number. Behind my noble friend's point is the question: could we consider the possibility of having one single unique number to serve all those different purposes? I have said to my noble friend that we have not ruled that out.
Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell us whether the system of national identity numbers which apparently will be very useful in preventing people obtaining money from the state will be of any use also in preventing people keeping from the state money which is due in tax?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, we are talking about an identity card. Certainly, the Inland Revenue is a past master at chasing up those of us who do not pay back money we owe to the state. But the question underlying the noble Lord's point is whether such a card and number would help. I believe that the answer to both those questions is yes, it would.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, before we are carried away with enthusiasm for Big Brother and national identity cards, does the Minister agree that the case for a national identity card as a means of reducing crime has not been made, is opposed by many people in this country, and is a ridiculous measure?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I should like to hear from the noble Lord some kind of denial from his colleague in another place that it will not be Labour Party policy. Only this week the noble Lord's colleague suggested a much more draconian system: a genetic database and blood samples from babies and people applying to live in this country; as a back-up system, compulsory finger printing; in addition, a unique number which would tally with the genetic information; and on top of all that--the noble Lord looks a bit disturbed--a regulatory commission. Not only would that be expensive; it would also be incredibly complex. Nothing has been said about the cost, the complexity, the data protection issues or indeed the civil liberties issues. Do not blame this side of the House for draconian proposals!