Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, perhaps I may respectfully remind noble Lords that we are looking to finish later than ten o'clock because we are taking longer than 10 minutes for our speeches.

6.7 pm

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, it seems to me that two debates are taking place on identity cards. There is a debate on the Bill as presented before your Lordships today and there is also a kind of fantasy debate which is posited on all kinds of "what ifs"—"What if the Government did this, and what if these circumstances followed?".

Like many noble Lords, I have received representations from individuals who are concerned about the possibility of, say, the pass laws of South Africa of old being introduced in this country. I received letters conjuring up images of Orwellian futures. I remember one in particular signed by every member of a family, although it was slightly spoilt by reference to George Orwell's rather less-known work "1994". None the less, it was clearly heartfelt and strongly felt.

I had slightly assumed that in your Lordships' House we would be engaging not in the fantasy debate but in a debate on the legislation before us today. But the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, in his usual erudite style, conjured up all the same "what ifs" as some of those letters. He used cliché, classical allusion and techno-speak. He talked about the slippery slope, a Pandora's box, function creep—looking not at the legislation presented to us but at what might be in some fantasy future. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, who is no longer in his place, created an even more vivid fantasy in which he talked about the Government knowing everything there is to know about us. Well, they will not be doing so as a consequence of this Bill because it sets out clear limits on what can be included in the register.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, also spoke as though somehow the Bill was exempt from the existing data protection legislation and that somehow the right to know what data were being recorded as part of this process was being taken away from us. But, apart from one very specific exclusion that is contained in the Bill, I am not aware of any such exemption from the data protection legislation. So we are again dealing with the fantasy debate on the Bill, not with the real Bill.

I hope that in the remainder of this debate and in Committee we can focus on what is before us because there are issues that need to be addressed and fully
 
31 Oct 2005 : Column 60
 
understood. It is made clear in the Bill that there will be no requirement for individuals to carry their identity card. That is clear and explicit. Yet we have heard fantasies about it, some from organisations that have made representations but have clearly not read the Bill. I am a great believer in the sovereignty of Parliament as, I am sure, are your Lordships. If we believe in the sovereignty of Parliament then the fact that Parliament would have to change the legislation is surely the safeguard that we are looking for. It is also clear from the legislation just how limited the data set contained in the national identity register would be. I shall return to that point in a moment.

We as citizens must all want something that deals with the problem of identity theft and enables us, as individuals, to demonstrate that we are who we are. My noble friend Lord Bhattacharyya has referred to the difficulties that exist in demonstrating who we are. I have been the victim of identity theft on more than one occasion as, I am sure, have other noble Lords. They were not major incidents as far as I was concerned. Although they were time-consuming, they were not major problems. But many people have been subjected to the most appalling difficulties as a result of identity theft. But at the moment proving one's identity is something of a nightmare. The production of a utilities bill is becoming increasingly difficult for those of us who pay bills online or by direct debit. But in my case, even if I do produce a bill, of the two major utilities that provide services, one is convinced that I live in an entirely fictitious flat—admittedly at the correct address, but in an entirely fictitious flat—and the other has persisted in reversing my initials for 20-odd years. These are not major problems when simply paying for my electricity or gas, but when trying to open a bank account or do anything else that requires such bills, they magnify the problem. The ability to be able to say, "Here is the proof of my identity" in a form that is recognised and secure will be a boon for many people.

Concern has been expressed about the accuracy of some of the biometric tests that will be part of the identity card. What people are doing is aggregating the possible chances of error whereas we should be looking at the combination of the different methods. So even if there is a problem in reading somebody's iris, it will provide a secure, defensible and robust proof of that individual's identity when combined with the record of his 10 fingerprints and his facial recognition. It is the combination of factors in a biometric test, rather than an individual factor, that is important.

I hope that we can spend some time today and in Committee on the real debate about the content of the Bill. It may be a consequence of responding to the fantasy debate that has been going on for some while, but in a number of respects the Bill is too restrictive on the information that identity cards can contain. For example, the blanket prohibition on including criminal records or linking them to the national identity register is not necessarily appropriate. There is a perfectly valid argument for linking the register of sex offenders to the national identity register. There
 
31 Oct 2005 : Column 61
 
might be benefits for the community if there were ways of flagging up such individuals through the use of the identity process. As a citizen, I would welcome the opportunity to register additional information about myself as part of the national identity register. For example, if I have chosen to be an organ donor, I would like that to be recorded and extracted at appropriate times. It would be in the interests of the citizen for insulin dependency or allergies to penicillin to be recorded, yet at the moment they would be precluded by this legislation. I would like to see a system that properly records next of kin and allows that information to be more readily available when needed. It would not be beyond this House to look at some of those exclusions and to set out some circumstances in which, either with the voluntary agreement of the data subject or because of the overriding public interest, those exclusions could be minimised.

I simply believe that this legislation, and the proposals for an identity register that would enable me, as a citizen, to be able to demonstrate who I am when I need to, will be a substantial advantage to us as individuals. It will also provide a substantial benefit to government agencies and allow them to establish the identities of those who are seeking services or presenting themselves for other purposes. There has been much discussion of the costs and I am confident that we will return to that subject at length. But let us be clear that for 80 per cent of the population all that is being talked about here is coming anyway because 80 per cent of the population already have passports. I suspect that in 10 or 20 years most of the remainder will have passports as well because international travel will become more, rather than less, common. Biometric data are already required for passports. The Passport Agency already has a computer database that includes all the people who currently have passports. So these are things that are going to happen anyway and I cannot believe that the incremental cost of moving from 80 per cent to 100 per cent—if that is what we are talking about—is so insupportable. If those technological changes are going to happen, let us turn them into a benefit for all our citizens, for government agencies and for society in general by making use of them and making sure that we have a robust system that enables all of us to be able to demonstrate our identity.

6.17 pm

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, I apologise to the House for being absent at the beginning of this debate, but I had an atrocious train journey. The train was three hours late because of Railtrack or Network Rail—I am having an identity crisis with them.

I get a little weary of hearing complaints about the erosion of human rights and the diminution of civil liberties. Before your Lordships cry, "Shame", and say that I would say that as I was a police officer for 35 years, I state at the outset of my speech that I speak as an individual with a family living in this country who has no interest in creating a police state.
 
31 Oct 2005 : Column 62
 

Let us look at civil liberties. All decent, law-abiding citizens in this country carry some form of identity, such as credit cards, driving licences or club cards of various types. What would be an infringement of my civil liberties would be for someone to steal my identity to access funds, services and facilities that I have worked and paid for all my life. Let us lay it on the line. An identity card scheme will give everyone legally resident in the UK a secure and reliable method of proving their identity. That is a real benefit because, as has been mentioned, identity theft is on the increase. I know that it is often argued that it is against British culture to have an ID card. That might well have been the case in the past, but we live in a global world that is getting far smaller. We have the ability to be at the opposite side of the world within hours, which is a facility that people with an ill disposition towards us, whether terrorists or just criminals, frequently take advantage of.

In view of this changing world, it seems to me to be common sense to have a national identity register coupled with a personal identity card. All lawful residents are recorded already on polling lists, national insurance registers, vehicle owner registers, driving licence records, passport records and so on. The problem at present is that the personal documents relating to these are all capable of being, and often are, forged.

The advantage of the proposed biometric identity card is that it does what the human brain has always been capable of; it identifies positively our human features. But technology allows us to go further by incorporating facial recognition with iris identification, fingerprints and perhaps—and this matter has been mentioned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lyell of Markyate—characteristics of our DNA. These are features that even the most imaginative criminal would have difficulty in forging. I see no reason why any law-abiding citizen should object to these attributes being harnessed to make Britain a safer country to live in. I am confident in saying that the technology for a large-scale national identity scheme is available and proven. There are at least 40 projects in 31 countries involving identity storage, the majority incorporating the use of biometric details. If the UK decides to pursue such a scheme, technology will not be a limiting factor.

In any event, we are being pushed by events. It will be an international obligation to have facial biometrics on passports by 2006. All passport applicants will be interviewed as an anti-fraud measure and it will be a European Union requirement for biometric residence permits and visas for foreign nationals by 2008.

We are told that Spain already has identity cards and it did not prevent the horrific Madrid train bombs. Spain of course did not have the 13 separate new biometric features proposed by the Home Secretary; and in any event no one is arguing—least of all me—that identity cards are the magic bullet to prevent all evil. It is simply one strand of policy, albeit an important one, to provide law enforcement with the tools to do the job of preventing the type of serious and organised crime and terrorism that we now face.
 
31 Oct 2005 : Column 63
 

The police are in favour of such a scheme and, having been in the police service for many years, I can well understand why. I can think of countless occasions when the use of false identity has allowed crimes to go unsolved and criminals to walk free to continue their lawless activities. I take the case mentioned previously in a question to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, of the Soham murders. Ian Huntley had changed his identity, which allowed him to obtain employment as a school caretaker. After the murders it allowed him to flaunt himself on television as an important "witness"—he was certainly that.

Detective Constable Stephen Oakes was stabbed to death by an Al'Qaeda member who was on the run and wanted by MI5. While on the loose the terrorist was arrested for shoplifting. He was fined and released without the connection being made to his real identity. It would be farcical if it was not so serious. The Times on 6 August revealed that four of the July London bomb suspects had had £500,000 in benefits. They had used multiple aliases and addresses in recent years. Some were shown to have claimed several nationalities, ages and national insurance numbers while in Britain. Two were alleged to have used bogus passports, false names and nationalities to obtain asylum.

I could go on, but I think that the evidence is overwhelming. Most major arrests of wanted killers on the run are made by routine checks by patrolling police officers, in which the quick establishment of identity is absolutely critical. I think of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper; Colin Jackson, who was arrested for drink driving but guilty of multiple rapes years earlier; Robert Black, the multiple child murderer; and Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber, who was checked afterwards by a traffic cop.

How often are we required to prove our identity? It has been mentioned already: it is a fundamental requirement these days when applying for a job, travelling, opening a bank account or claiming benefits. The systems currently used are not foolproof. We read about fraudulent transactions. Nearly all the supporting documents we currently use are easily stolen or forged.

The very high level of verification being proposed by the Government in important transactions involves something you have—the identity card; something you know—the PIN number; and something you are—one or more biometric features—facial recognition, iris scan and fingerprints. I have already said that identity schemes based on biographical details and documents are relatively easy to falsify. Nor are systems based on one biometric detail 100 per cent foolproof, as has been mentioned by my noble friend Lord Harris. But of course the use of a combination of 13 physical and biometric technologies increases the accuracy of the system by cross-checking one feature against another at each stage, thereby reducing the possibility of falsification or error. The cumulative effect should make fraudulent applications
 
31 Oct 2005 : Column 64
 
and transactions extremely difficult, if not impossible. I think that that answers the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lyell of Markyate.

In my judgment, people opposing this legislation are out of tune with the average person in the street. Most of us in this country are very proud of who we are, our names, our family history and our identity. Those who choose to change their identity may well have a legitimate and valid reason for so doing. Perhaps they do not like their name. However, those who choose to hide their true identity are the ones we need to know about. A foolproof identity card system will stop them in their tracks and allow us all to sleep safer in our beds.

In my view the arguments in favour of the Bill are irrefutable. I commend it to the House.

6.27 pm


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page