Cut bureaucracy and build for the future

In the first of three articles by the major political parties, the Conservatives explain their stance on IT issues and how they...

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In the first of three articles by the major political parties, the Conservatives explain their stance on IT issues and how they would help our industry



Communications networks have a role in the 21st century as important as railways in the 19th century and roads in the 20th century.

The last Conservative government planned a period of regulated duopoly to enable the cable companies to build alternative infrastructures before BT was unchained in 2002 and Oftel wound up. Then Labour was elected. Within months Oftel had been transformed into a pension plan for civil servants, regulating access to the BT network until their dotage.

But as Labour fiddled with stakeholder groups and burdensome regulation, our overseas competitors forged ahead with their plans. From Brussels to Beijing, from Stockholm to Seoul, home-workers have bandwidth not available in the UK outside a few science parks, and the elderly can see their grandchildren play when they go online for a video gossip.

On 11 April, the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao met his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh in Bangalore and said their two countries must make use of their complementary IT skills, China's hardware expertise and India's software know-how, to make the 21st century the "Asian century of the IT industry". We need to recover Labour's eight wasted years and deliver internationally competitive bandwidth to work and home so that you can network interactively with your customers and suppliers on the same terms as your competitors in Belgium or the Netherlands, let alone those in Japan or Korea.

For the UK to be a location where information age businesses can flourish, not just a declining centralised, socialist state, fit only for planners, regulators and bureaucrats, we need to bring the growing army of regulators under control, ensuring their ongoing operations are effective, efficient, affordable and properly assessed.

In e-government, the UK has gone from near pole position, in 1997, to middle of the pack. The sixth annual Accenture rankings place the UK above France but behind Germany in internet usage, and behind both when it comes to online dealings with government. Labour is locked in a time warp of centralised command and control programmes that take little account of the people who are to run them, let alone the needs of those they are supposedly to serve.

The national programme for IT in the NHS is a classic example. The centralised patient records system is part of a genuinely transformational agenda: to complete the transfer of control over health care from clinicians to politicians, begun in the 1940s but put on hold by all subsequent governments. This is to be achieved by centralising bookings as well as records so that performance against target and contract can be monitored and rewarded.

It is not merely the largest IT programme in the world but the largest change programme in the UK since the post war nationalisations, and it is being implemented to tight timescales with strong penalty clauses.

Already major suppliers are warning shareholders (under Stock Exchange rules) of penalties incurred for non-performance. The Conservative Tech- nology Forum has suggested ways to greatly reduce the risks while improving security, resilience and the likelihood of success.

A similar confusion of objectives, compounded by the track record of failure in the implementation of Home Office information systems, lies behind the mix of support and scepticism over ID cards. Most citizens want to be able to deal with government via a single point of contact (Citizens Advice Bureau, post office or community centre). The main barrier is the failure to share information between departments, even when citizens request it.

Meanwhile, there is a tangled web of powers to demand information, confusion over governance and a common lack of control over the contractors and temporary staff who enter or retrieve publicly held data.

The pressure from voters to see joined up government is paralleled by massive scepticism in the competence of government and its suppliers to deliver the savings and efficiency improvements being promised.

And e-crime is not "just" phishing, spam, denial of service and child pornography. Half of all theft and fraud now involves computers. Law enforcement is well short of the skills and resources necessary to keep abreast of the criminal use of technology.

We therefore need co-operation across the boundaries between law enforcement and industry (protecting both itself and its customers) as well as between agencies and regulators.

One of the keys to that co-operation is to update the Computer Misuse Act, particularly to make the offences extraditable and thus within mainstream routines for international co-operation. All parties are in agreement on this and I hope that Computer Weekly will continue its campaign and ensure that whoever is home secretary on 6 May puts this well above the many issues on which the parties differ.

Michael Fabricant is the Conservative shadow minister for industry and technology

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