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Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) on his eloquent speech. I am sure that we will hear a great deal more from him in the months and years to come. I think that we all appreciated his kind remarks about his predecessor, whom we all remember with affection.
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who is temporarily out of the Chamber, suggested that the concept of ID cards came from No. 10 Downing street and he compared it with the millennium dome. I did two things soon after my election in 1997, when I was as new a Member as the hon. Member for Harwich: first, I urged the Government to drop their support for the Conservative dome projectthat did wonders for my career, I must sayand secondly, I introduced a Bill to provide for identity cards. I am happy to say that that Bill had the unqualified support of the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), so I am sorry that he has temporarily changed his mind.
We have had an interesting debate because, if I understood it correctly, both the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats gave a commitment to repeal the scheme if they were to win the next election, regardless of the money spent by that point and the benefits still to come. The hon. Member for Winchester demanded an assurance from the Conservatives that they would stop the scheme and I understood that the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), gave such an assurance, so we look forward to returning to that point.
Both in this debate and in the wider debate outside Parliament, there have been amazing examples of misleading or misunderstood information, so I would like to nail a few of the myths that we have heard. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) said that no country had introduced identity cards unless it had a communist or fascist regime. I hope that when he leaves the House he will write a book about the communist regime in Switzerland or the fascist regime in Switzerlandthat would be quite a revelation.
This week, The Sunday Telegraph devoted an entire editorial to the Government's proposition to make it compulsory to carry an ID card, but that is simply not the case. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, in his restful speech, suggested that it was necessary to make it compulsory to carry a card if identity was to be checked. He appeared to be unaware of the fact that the police can check fingerprints against the central database, regardless of whether the card is carried. In fact, that is the main point of the database, which can be used to check someone's identity, irrespective of whether the card is carried.
: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the police national computer already records biometric data? The hon. Member for Glasgow, South
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(Mr. Harris) referred to the current situation, in which someone's identity can be verified using biometric data on that computer.
Dr. Palmer: That is right, but at the moment it applies only to people who have previously come into contact with the police. Under the Bill, however, if I tell the police that I am the hon. Member for Broxtowe they should be able to verify immediately whether that is the case or whether I am fibbing. Making that possible is in my interest, and it is also in the interests of the police and society.
The hon. Member for Winchester said that people who were authorised to verify identity could see whether the person whose identity was being verified had had an abortion. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden even suggested that a virus could be introduced into the system. Both Members envisaged a programmable personal computer but, as someone who has worked in IT for most of my life, I would like to see the fingerprint reader that enables someone to introduce a virus. They do not understand how the system will work in practice.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) was genuinely concerned that free public services would pre-empt the vote on compulsion. He suggested that even though we are unlikely to decide to make the scheme compulsory until the next Parliamentobviously, we will do so only if the scheme has been successfulschools, clinics and other public services such as benefit offices could require the production of an identity card or proof connected to the identity register before agreeing to offer their services. He said, very reasonably, that it would become compulsory for people using those services to have an ID card, even if we do not vote on such a measure in this Parliament. Clause 15, however, states that public services can require such checks only on people who have been specified under clause 6 following votes in the Commons and the other place. An affirmative vote is needed in both Houses before any group can be required by any public service compulsorily to produce an ID card to confirm their identity.
The purpose of the card is simpleit is to verify that we are the person we claim to beno more, no less. It is proposed to store data that are already recorded in passport and other databases and link them to biometric data so that we can see that that information relates to ourselves, and not to someone else. I have campaigned for that for a number of years, ever since I first introduced the proposal in Parliament. I have rarely met constituents who do not regard it as a good idea in principle. They do not see a problem in using basic information already stored about us to verify that we are who we claim to be.
I agree with my hon. Friend. That summarises public opinion at the moment. Most people think that it is a good scheme that makes sense. They do not have much patience with the civil liberties argument, but they do not want to spend a lot of money. I am glad
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that the Home Secretary said that before the Bill leaves the House we will get firm figures on the likely maximum cost, as the public need to see those figures.
John Bercow : The hon. Gentleman seemed quizzical about, not to say astonished by, the idea that the Opposition parties might commit themselves to scrapping the scheme, even though the Government would have spent a substantial sum of money on it. Given rising costs, flawed technology and our perception of the erosion of civil liberties, why is he surprised by the idea that we might commit to abolish it? The reduction ad absurdum of his argument is that no successor Administration should contemplate changing anything because their predecessors have spent a lot of money wastefully and ineffectively. To me, that is where his argument breaks down.
Dr. Palmer: The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), with his customary acuity, detected my quizzical look. That had nothing to do with the principle that he suggested. It was purely because I have observed the random movements of Conservative policy on the issue over recent months and I am sceptical whether, if the scheme is seen to be reasonably successful, the Conservatives would go into the next election pledged to scrap it. I do not believe it, but we shall see.
The Criminal Records Bureau checks are a good example of what we are trying to achieve. At present, if I wish to teach in a school in Nottinghamshire, I have to apply to the CRB for evidence that I do not have a criminal record relating to offences with children and that I really am who I claim to be. That check generally takes about a month at present, although in the past it took longer. If I, as a supply teacher, then decide that I want to teach in Derbyshire, I have to do the same thing again and the CRB goes through the hoops again to verify whether I am who I claim to be. I am reliably informed that the CRB reckons that if identity cards were available it could process the application in a tenth of the time. Most of the time taken up by that check is to check whether I am who I say I am and whether I have an alias under which I might have a criminal record.
The introduction of ID cards is not some sort of revolutionary step. It is not a dictatorial step. It is merely a way of making life easier for the potential teacher, for the school that wishes to employ the teacher, and for society.
I want to be careful not to make exaggerated claims. Hon. Members have argued that ID cards would fail because they did not prevent the Madrid bombing. I do not claim that they are some sort of magical device that detects evil impulses in people's brains and alerts the police. ID cards are a practical tool that helps to identify the victims and the perpetrators, as they did in Spain. I do not claim that the police will never again make a mistake in identification. I say only that it makes sense to make that very much rarer than it is now. If one has
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been accused of something that someone else has done, it will be very much easier to demonstrate that one is not the person involved. That could save many hours at the police station.
I am also not saying the proposals are perfect. For example, the key issue for society is not the card, but the database. As we are not requiring people to carry the card, we can reasonably make it optional to take it, thereby reducing the cost and the perceived intrusion. Let us say that people must register, but whether they have the card is up to them.
The proposal is not a solution to everything. It is, however, a sensible, practical idea to make our society simpler and safer. It is also a manifesto commitment on which we were elected less than two months ago. Let us do it.
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