Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, the concept of identity cards is so alien to British history—for several of us, it is extremely offensive—that I hope that eventually the legislation will be repealed and cast into the dustbin of history. It is therefore extremely difficult to trust a Secretary of State in an Administration that has had, and continues to have, such a cavalier attitude to our historic liberties, or to trust a government not to do what my noble friend Lord Crickhowell says they will do. As my noble friend says, it is Parliament—or should be—that defends our historic liberties. We should certainly trust Parliament more than the executive, however supine it sometimes is in the face of the executive. Therefore, on the basis of old-fashioned British liberty, I support the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Crickhowell 100 per cent.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I rise briefly to support the amendment wholeheartedly. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, for not adding my name to it. Every word that he said I believe to be right. The arguments that I adduced in moving the amendment to have the appointment of the commissioner made a Crown appointment apply equally here. I remind the House that we had a tussle over the same issue when we debated the creation of the interception commissioner under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. I think that the House decided to make the report of the interception commissioner one that went to Parliament. For all the reasons that noble Lords have given vent to this afternoon, we should insist on the amendment.

The Earl of Erroll: My Lords, there is an old saying that just because you are paranoid does not mean they are not out to get you. Some of us feel that that could arise with ID cards and the national identity register. The easiest way to allay this—I hope unjustified—paranoia and to believe that everything is all right would be to ensure that there is an independent check so that the report does not go through the very person who controls the national identity register. It is illogical that a person's employee, effectively, or someone within the same department, should report to the person on whom they are having to report. Instead, the commissioner should report directly to Parliament where liberties are, we hope, safeguarded. I very much support the amendment.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, as a former Member of the other place, I should like to say a couple of words in support of the excellent amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell. The way in which Parliament is being ignored and sidelined is increasingly worrying to me and to many other people. The great benefit of this amendment is that it will introduce a concept that, in matters of such import as the identity card register or the identity card itself, the
30 Jan 2006 : Column 53
commissioner should be responsible through his report not to the Home Department but to Parliament. That is an altogether sensible proposition.

The Government ought to show goodwill by accepting the amendment. In so doing, they may very well restore confidence in the belief that the Government continue to believe in Parliament as the true representative of the interests and freedoms of this country and not simply as the servant of the political party that happens to be in power for the time being.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I strongly support my noble friend's amendment, to which I have added my name. The Constitution Committee's third report made a clear recommendation that the commissioner should be able to report directly to Parliament. The amendment would achieve that objective, while also ensuring that a filtering mechanism would enable material to be excluded from the public report where there was a good reason to believe it would be prejudicial to national security or to the prevention or detection of crime. Despite the fact that the commissioner is appointed by the Secretary of State—although, fortunately, if the Government accept the decision of the House, he will be appointed by the Crown—we believe that he is carrying out a public function for which he should be accountable directly to Parliament.

As we have remarked in the past, the Bill's provisions mark a completely new departure in the relationship between the state and the individual. Parliament has a vital role to play in the system of accountability for the oversight of the operation of the scheme. Amendments Nos. 85 and 85A broaden the commissioner's powers by ensuring that that reporting takes place directly to Parliament. They provide a filtering system; we believe that the way in which a filter is provided to ensure that sensitive information is not included in the report that goes to Parliament fully meets the arguments put by the Minister when we debated these matters in Committee. I hope that the Government are now able to accept the amendments.

5.45 pm

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I have listened very carefully to the arguments in support of these amendments. However, as I stated when we discussed these issues in Committee, the Government consider it necessary for the reports to be addressed to the Secretary of State with the potential for parts of them to be excluded from the report laid before Parliament.

I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, says about that contention; he suggests that it is bizarre that we should so decide. However, this situation has prevailed in a number of other positions. I have already made it clear that there are precedents for the removal of sensitive aspects of the reports of statutory commissioners before they are laid before Parliament. For example, similar mechanisms to the one in this clause
30 Jan 2006 : Column 54
apply in relation to the Surveillance Commissioner, the Intelligence Services Commissioner and Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary.

Clause 25 contains safeguards to ensure that there is sufficient scrutiny of the commissioner's reports, because all reports prepared by the commissioner will be laid before Parliament. I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, says about his experience. The views that he expresses reflect the feeling almost of awe in which the Home Office was hitherto held. I can assure noble Lords that there is an appropriate degree of vigour and scrutiny when it comes to the Home Office of today. There is no longer any such imbalance.

In addition, there are only two reasons why matters may be excluded from the report that is laid before Parliament. Those are if the publication of the material would be prejudicial to national security or to the prevention and detection of crime. A precedent for reporting directly to Parliament is, for instance, the Information Commissioner; he has very wide enforcement powers, but they are unrelated to national security matters. The Immigration Services Commissioner is a regulatory commissioner of immigration services providers who reports directly to Parliament. We have to look at each commissioner and the role that they are to perform, and then decide where the appropriate reporting responsibilities should lie. We believe that they lie in the way that we have outlined. This is not, as the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, would cast it, a cavalier attitude; it is a very careful and balanced approach to the way in which reporting should be dealt with.

Under Amendment No. 85A, the commissioner would have the final say over which matters would be excluded from his reports. We do not think that the commissioner is the right person to make that decision. The Secretary of State, by virtue of his overarching responsibilities, has a thorough overview of issues affecting national security and the prevention and detection of crime. For this amendment to be workable and for the National Identity Scheme Commissioner to be capable of making an informed decision about what should or what should not be excluded from the report, he would have to be briefed on national security and crime in the way that the Secretary of State is. Aside from being an illogical and disproportionate way of ensuring that certain sensitive information does not get into the public domain, that would significantly change the nature of the commissioner's role. I hope that that is not something which noble Lords would easily contemplate.

The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, talked about access to the register. In case noble Lords are under any misapprehension about that, I reiterate that a number of organisations which he suggests would have access to the register will not. I hope that I can reassure noble Lords that the Bill allows the Secretary of State to provide information in particular circumstances to those authorised—for example, to the police or security services. However, provision of information that has been requested is very different from unfettered access, which this Bill does not allow.
30 Jan 2006 : Column 55

The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, may well be right that this is a sign of paranoia. I hesitate to suggest that noble Lords are paranoid, but, for the purposes of this argument, I can certainly accept that the noble Earl may be right. Let me assure them that the Bill is not out to get anyone. It is delivering a fair, proportionate response, and the commissioner will have an extremely important role, which can properly be discharged in the way we have indicated. I hope that I have persuaded noble Lords to be a little more moderate in the way in which they consider the Government's proposals and not to press these amendments.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page