'Tell us the truth about ID costs' - Lords harpoon the ID Bill
Thrice, with more Government defeats in the pipeline
Peers last night voted by 237 to 156 for an amendment delaying the implementation of the ID Cards Bill until a full account of the costs had been produced. The Government defeat was the first of three inflicted by an alliance of Tory, Liberal and rebel Labour peers, and further defeats are likely when the Lords resumes discussion of the Bill on Monday.
Then, the Bill's opponents will attempt to make ID cards genuinely voluntary by removing the linkage between passports and ID cards. Currently the Government describes the initial phases of the ID card rollout as "voluntary", but as it will be necessary to accept an ID card in order to get a new passport, the voluntary nature is somewhat tenuous. This is the issue where the Government came closest to defeat in the Commons, where the combined opposition cut its majority to 25 and, as Neil Gerrard MP then argued, it is an issue where Labour MPs could amend the Bill without opposing a manifesto commitment (Labour was elected on a manifesto which promised that it would introduce ID cards).
Since last night's votes the Home Office has said that it intends to overturn the amendments when the Bill returns to the Commons, and if it succeeds in this, another cycle of 'ping pong' between the two Houses could commence. If this happens, constitutional niceties will have a considerable influence on whether the ID scheme lives or dies.
By convention, as the unelected House the Lords does not persist in opposing a manifesto commitment. The fastidious peers may ask the Commons to 'think again' by sending a Bill back once or twice, but if the Commons persists, the Lords usually gives in, perhaps to the accompaniment of loud tutting noises. But breaking the linkage between passports and ID cards does not, as we've noted, necessarily conflict with ID cards as a manifesto commitment.
Alongside this the Liberal Democrats now do not necessarily consider themselves bound by the convention, while new Tory leader David Cameron came out strongly against ID cards over the weekend. Cameron's predecessor Michael Howard took the messier stance of favouring ID cards while opposing the particular implementation, but new broom Cameron may see the ID scheme as an easy scalp, and be prepared to ignore Government huffing and puffing about unelected Lords and constitutional crises.
And given the Liberal stance it is significant that Liberal peer Lord Phillips, who moved the costings amendment along with Baroness Noakes for the Tories, referred specifically to the Government's withholding of financial information about the scheme as "constitutionally wrong" (he argued his case in detail in an opinion piece in yesterday's Guardian). This potentially sets up a battle where disclosure of costs is seen as a constitutional matter, and both sides claim the constitutional high ground. Given that Ministers of this administration now claim commercial confidentiality as a matter of routine when withholding information, the Lords would have a good moral case for standing its ground here.
This would of course be likely to trigger a real constitutional crisis, but as this Government has done so much to destroy the constitution already, it seems only reasonable for other people to be allowed to join in. ®