Nick Clegg: LibDems would scrap ID cards, biometric passports and child database

Liberal Democrats won't use technology to limit freedom. We will use it to promote fairness. It's a different approach, and one I hope the readers of Computer Weekly will support, writes Nick Clegg…

A few weeks ago, I was struck by just how much developments in communications technology have changed political campaigning, writes Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats.

It was when I was being filmed for the Liberal Democrats' election iPhone app, which is being launched when we publish our manifesto. Gone are the days when leaflets were the only way for hopeful candidates to reach out to people. There is now a whole range of ways to get your message across, whether it's tweeting, facebooking, e-mailing, or popping up on people's phone screens.

But making use of these technologies is one thing. Voters, including readers of Computer Weekly, have a right to ask politicians what our vision is for the IT that is revolutionising modern life.

Fairness and freedom

How a government approaches technology tells you a lot about its values. Liberal Democrats will use ICT to promote fairness. We won't use it to limit freedom.

Fairness first. British society is, still, deeply unfair. Too many people remain on the margins, and a child's life fortunes are too often determined by their parents' bank balance. But any drive to open up opportunities across society must include those opportunities that new technologies present. There are 10 million people in the UK who have never used the internet. And many of them are financially disadvantaged too. These people are missing out: on saving money with internet shopping, on being able to apply for jobs online, and on having easier access to government services, which can all make a real difference. According to some research, if the 1.6 million children whose families are not online got a home internet connection, it could boost their lifetime earnings by around £10bn.

And for many people, ICT is a door to previously unthinkable experiences. I can't help but smile when I remember that last month it was Louie Sulcer, a 71-year-old from Georgia, who won Apple's ten billionth download competition with 'Guess Things Happen that Way' - and not just because I'm a Johnny Cash fan.

So the Liberal Democrats will create a digitally inclusive society. We will roll out next-generation broadband networks throughout Britain - and we will target money at the communities who would otherwise be left out. Where markets won't deliver, like in many rural parts of the country, we will step in.

We also have to target people on the wrong side of the digital divide, helping them engage with new technologies. Like in Milton Keynes, where the Liberal Democrat council set up a company offering wireless based broadband services, with good speed and quality, at reasonable rates. The company lent 1,000 computers to residents living in deprived areas - for just £1.50 a week.

High price of government snooping

So new technology can help deliver fairness. But if we have learnt anything from Gordon Brown's Labour government, it is that it can also be used to limit freedom. Britain has 1% of the world's population, but 20% of its CCTV cameras. Every minute, some bureaucrat gets access to information about our personal communications, and now the government wants companies to store information about our internet and e-mail use too.

Labour's passion for intrusive technology has cost us billions. Huge IT commissioning disasters, which go over time and over budget, are a familiar story, like Connecting for Health and C-Nomis. The government's attempt to hide the details of ongoing public sector IT disasters by shredding Gateway reviews was nothing short of scandalous.

Full review of government IT procurement

We will take a totally different approach. We will end the disasters with a full review of government IT procurement, looking, for example, at the potential for cloud computing to save money, and at more use of open source software too. By reducing the size of public sector contracts we can limit the damage if mistakes are made, and by making it easier for smaller IT companies to bid for contracts we can give the industry a boost.

Crucially, we won't push through mammoth IT projects that curb people's freedom. Pointless ID cards are a prime example. We will scrap them to put 3,000 extra police officers on the street - a much better way to catch criminals. We will halt plans for second-generation biometric passports - we don't need them. We will stop children having their fingerprints taken in school without their parents' consent - it isn't right. And we will scrap ContactPoint, the children's database - it won't make children safer.

Liberal Democrats won't use technology to limit freedom. But we will use it to promote fairness. It's a different approach - one based on our values, and one I hope the readers of Computer Weekly will support.

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