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Identity Cards

November 5, 2003

Identity Cards

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) on securing this important debate, and I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) for his impassioned plea. I very much agree with their instinctive views, although I suspect that we shall see the other side of the argument paraded during much of the next hour before the winding-up speeches.

As an instinctive and rational libertarian, I oppose the notion of ID cards, either on a compulsory or voluntary basis. The hon. Member for Walsall, North and his colleague, the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), made the valid point that once a voluntary ID card comes into play there is a risk of a creeping sense of quasi-compulsion that will make it difficult to go about everyday life without such a card, particularly if one wishes to open a bank account or do anything else that requires a form of identity to be shown.

My main concern is that ID cards fundamentally shift the delicate balance between the individual and the state. They also bring about a reversal of the common-law presumption of innocence. That would be bad enough, but there are major issues in relation to the practicality of the proposals?or non-proposals?that may follow the Queen’s Speech, such as the vast cost that a compulsory scheme would entail and the difficulties in policing and enforcing the scheme. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that. A failure to enforce such a scheme would make the entire thing redundant. As has been mentioned by other hon. Members, the likelihood of a determined policy of forgery and identity fraud would undermine the protection that would otherwise be afforded by such a scheme.

As has been mentioned, national ID cards were introduced in this country during the Second World War, and the Home Secretary has given a clear indication that they are back on the agenda as part of the Government’s policy on asylum and their war on terrorism. My constituency, in the heart of London, stands to be most affected by the proposals. In addition to a residential population of 120,000, a further 800,000 people a day travel to work in the Cities of London and Westminster, and countless other tourists and shoppers visit attractions such as Westminster abbey, this place, St. Paul’s cathedral and Buckingham palace. It is probably fair to say that the few square miles that make up my constituency superficially have least to lose from the implementation of a rigorously enforced compulsory ID card scheme, if only because so many of the landmarks in my patch are seen as high-profile targets for a terrorist attack in the UK. However, I believe that a national ID card scheme has less to do with keeping the population safe than it does with imposing control over people?a point that was alluded to by the hon. Member for Ceredigion in his introductory comments.
I accept that we shall have to grow accustomed to wider surveillance of certain groups in our country, but that does not justify a wholesale erosion of civil liberties. The introduction of ID cards will be a significant step towards dismantling the traditional democratic values of freedom and tolerance that have underpinned our open society and which so many of us hold dear to our heart.

Brian White : Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that at the moment he has to give information about himself in a variety of ways to a variety of organisations, which increases the risk that a piece of wrong data gets replicated in myriad databases? An ID card would simplify that and ensure that the right information was given every time.

Mr. Field : I shall come on to that point in a moment, because the fact that not only do we have a large number of forms of identification but they are all on computer lists is regularly used as an objection against those on my side of the debate.

My party has traditionally recognised the importance of fostering values of individual responsibility and self-determination in our fellow countrymen. I speak as the son of someone who came to this country from abroad?my mother was a refugee twice by the age of 15 and came here from central Europe. Many people come from nations where authority flows from a heavily centralised state. All too little reliance seems to be placed in those countries on the freedom of individuals to live their lives free from the demands of officialdom. A culture of freedom underpins our mature democracy which should not be undermined except in times of extreme national emergency, such as during a fully fledged world war, and I do not believe that the war on terrorism is such a time.

As the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) said, we all have birth certificates, driving licences and national insurance numbers, and an array of other information on each of us is held on debit, credit and store cards. The hon. Gentleman may well then ask what the objection is to another means of identification. In practical terms, however, any obligatory ID scheme is likely to take many years to establish and will cost the taxpayer an ongoing fortune both to implement and administer. In view of that expense, the very notion that ID cards could be introduced as a merely temporary measure is likely to receive short shrift from this or any Government.

In any case, experience tells us that the argument for restrictions on freedom being short term tends to disappear rapidly with the passing of time. I spent all too many days in Committee discussing what was then the Licensing Bill, and many of us will recall that a lot of our archaic restrictions on alcohol licensing were introduced as temporary measures during world war one. Even the commercial deregulation of the last decade or so has left some of those antiquated rules fairly intact.

In the feverish and security-conscious atmosphere that has inevitably been with us since 11 September 2001, the long-standing importance that we in this country attach to individual freedom from state intervention appears to have been swept away. It is therefore incumbent on the Government, and particularly on the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, to explain precisely how any new laws will protect us from the existing terrorist threat.

Let us not forget that this country has for many centuries been a safe and popular haven for migrants, precisely because of the knowledge that there is a reliance on the traditional values associated with freedom of the individual and the rule of law. The events of 11 September 2001 changed the general outlook of countless thousands, but if the rest of us really believe that those appalling outrages changed the whole world beyond recognition, we are tacitly accepting that the terrorists and terrorism itself have won.

Some serious practical considerations suggest that ID cards are likely to be ineffective in preventing terrorism. However expensive the technology that we use, an increasingly sophisticated network of international terrorists will find it possible, perhaps even easy, to forge or simply steal an identity. Next, we shall have to employ a vast army of public officials to administer and police the entire scheme. Short of there being almost continuous surveillance, those citizens, including, presumably, any would-be terrorists not wishing to co-operate in such a scheme, could go to ground with impunity.

Many civil libertarians have argued that the police will use the excuse of compulsory ID cards to target foreigners and demand their co-operation, which will make them feel even more alienated. To be honest, my fear is that the opposite will happen, especially in central London. I believe that the Metropolitan police, especially in the aftermath of the Stephen Lawrence campaign, will find that the culture of political correctness will make it less rather than more likely that a policeman will stop a prospective terrorist from an ethnic background and demand to see his ID card.

The Criminal Justice Bill, which is currently working its way through the Lords?I am sure that the Minister hopes that it will conclude its passage in the next fortnight?contains provisions to end the double jeopardy rule for murder. In addition to compulsory ID cards, we are promised a series of measures that aim to curtail the legal right of some criminal suspects. The important thing to remember with such new laws is that when the state adopts draconian powers against strangers today, it tends to use them against one’s friends tomorrow and oneself the day after.

In times of national crisis, it is easy to dismiss a highbrow, and perhaps slightly academic, defence of the rule of law. The hon. Member for Ceredigion made such a defence earlier this afternoon, and I hope that I have made a similar defence of civil liberties. At such times, the Government inevitably face great difficulties, and I would not like to be in the Minister’s shoes when trying to present a policy that will keep the citizens of this country happy and secure, but it is precisely during these times that the rights of the individual must be defended with the utmost vigour.