Friday 18 October 1996

18-oCT-1996 - UK Politicians embrace information technology

UK Politicians embrace information technology

Computing magazine (October 18th) 1996 reported on how IT featured at the political party conferences.

Politics has dominated the news over the past month as the party conference season came and went, with each party promising that the country was only safe in its hands. Each also tried to show that it had a handle on information technology.

For many politicians, IT has extended no further than the Internet and there was little to suggest that this has changed. It seems the politicians peppered their speeches with IT references just to make themselves appear up-to-date.

Liberal Democrats in Brighton spoke of getting Internet providers to exclude child pornography from the Net, and Labour reiterated its commitment to increased use of IT in education in Blackpool.

But this year has seen a number of government plans which rely heavily on IT. One such scheme is the benefit payment card to tackle benefit fraud, announced by secretary of state for social security Peter Lilley, in early spring. With it came a huge IT contract award to an ICL-led consortium to develop and install the systems in Post Offices around the country.

Lilley told Tory conference delegates in Bournemouth last week that the card will eliminate order book and giro fraud. 'Before the month is out I will launch the first cards in the Post Offices,' he said. These cards will be for child benefit payment - the easiest for a young system to handle, because it is universal and standard.

Lilley also announced plans for a Fraud Bill to extend the capabilities of those fighting benefit fraud. 'A Fraud Bill is on the way in and fraudsters are on the way out,' he sound bit. New powers would allow for cross checking information on different databases, and data-matching to highlight cases worth investigation.

This week, the Government took delivery of Lord Cullen's report on firearms control. The report is expected to call for a centralised database of firearm owners - a move which would meet both pan-political and gun club approval.

The British Shooting Sports Council (BSSC) has not only called for the database, but also for better information flow between the police and gun clubs. But firearms dealer John Hoare, a member of the BSSC, claimed laws covering firearms records are archaic. 'Firearms records or transactions can't be kept on a computer,' he said.

Civil servants in fear of private sector encroachment on public sector IT jobs were dealt a blow when Ian Lang, trade and industry secretary, said he would penalise trade unions for public sector strikes. His timing was impeccable. Last week the Public Services, Tax and Commerce union began the ballot procedure for industrial action among its DSS IT Services Agency members. They are unhappy with some of the terms and conditions which they feel have been unreasonably forced upon them, and plan an overtime ban.

The Tories have realised the value of trumpeting IT achievements, and are scrambling to claim to have presided over major technology leaps this century. At least, at the Parliamentary IT Committee (Pitcom) fringe meeting, science and technology minister Ian Taylor gave a modern view, claiming that Labour is only comfortable when 'cuddling up to a monopoly'.

'I'm not prepared to let a Johnny-come-lately take the credit (for advances in technology),' he said of labour leader Tony Blair. He was, in part, referring to last year's BT and schools announcement by Blair.

Education was a dominant theme in his speech. As technology improves, online teaching will be used more widely, Taylor predicted. He said schools lacking skills in a particular subject could borrow an online teacher - a prospect which filled the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) with horror.

Taylor left his biggest shock until last, and slammed the door shut for IT analysts who have been calling for a moratorium on whether European monetary union should be dropped in favour of the millennium issue. 'The idea that we can stop one doesn't correspond with reality. So it's "heads down and get on with it" time,' he said.

Taylor emphasised the need for Government to be seen to be promoting IT. He said. 'We must not be on the back foot. It's our revolution and if we're defensive, it will be picked up by the public and they will worry about their jobs.'

It is hard to escape the conclusion that since then some elements remain unconcerned at the failure and delay of large Government IT projects.

More recently Transport Secretary Alistair Darling has floated his vision to deliver road pricing and reduce traffic congestion using satellite technology and a sophisticated database of all Britain's millions of vehicles. Tony Blair is pushing for the introduction of Identity Cards - requiring another massive real-time database.

Such schemes seem pie in the sky given the following:

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