Welcome News: Dropping of IT Contracts

Among the plethora of quangos and IT contracts which blossomed under Labour and which the present government is determined (we think) to abolish, the decision to terminate the US Company Raytheon Systems’ contract to construct a so-called e-borders scheme at a cost of £750 million is particularly welcome news.

Raytheon has already spent £188 million and is already over a year behind on a 10 year contract due to be completed in 2014.  One wonders how Raytheon could plan to spend £75 million a year for 10 years on something relatively simple, namely recording machine-read passports and visas through our ports and airports, passing the data to a central database, highlighting over-stayers, and cross-checking with a criminal and terrorist watch-list.

What is urgently needed is a means of checking people into and out of the country, including EU nationals of course.  Visa over-stayers are the most numerous evaders of immigration controls, possibly of the order of 100,000 per year, and quite simple systems are all that are needed to detect these as Switzerland has had for decades.

The hardest demands of effective immigration control are not the border control systems, but the determination of the police and border authorities to track down the over-stayers and deport them.

The Raytheon contract has however the hallmarks of an all-singing and dancing centralised system which completely misses this point.  Basically we need to count around 200 million items – tourists, students, work permit holders – per year with perhaps 50 descriptor words each, easily storable on one or two hard discs and so simple to do.  This capacity could be supplied at each port with easy access to the watch-lists, copies of which themselves could be held at each port with automatic updating to a computer at the Home Office, GCHQ, Police National Computer and so on.

The idea of collecting information on visitors to Britain when they book travel tickets is a completely different if not nonsensical task, requiring the cooperation of travel agents world-wide, probably an illegal invasion of privacy, and easily avoided by anyone with any motive or none.

The fact is that British government departments, like the banks in the 1980s have long been in thrall to computer systems companies, especially American ones.  Senior civil servants are generally not systems people but, as bureaucrats, they are easily persuaded of the merits of centralised systems even when these are not needed.

They are also not very good at writing contracts, too easily accepting the phrase “this is what it costs” and being too easily fooled by a low price on to which “extras” may be loaded.  A particular instance is the still-running National Health Service’s project to put every person’s Health Record on a central database, which the documentation persuasively tells you “will be available to healthcare staff providing your NHS care in England” – potentially around 1.2 million people, not counting outside providers.  The claims made for this gigantic expansion of the patient-doctor relationship are that healthcare staff will get:

(1)        “a more complete picture of your health”

(2)        “quicker access to your records”

(3)        “information . . . when treating you ‘out of hours’ (sic) and in ’emergency care settings’ (sic)”.

GPs already have (1) and (2) on their own computers which communicate with local hospitals and laboratory services.  (3) is easily taken care of for out-of-hours services and emergencies by each patient being provided with one or more copies of an 8GB memory stick to plug into any other GP’s or A & E department’s desktop computer, giving immediate access to the patient’s record.  This distributed approach would bypass all the inevitable server overloads and crashes which plague any centralised system at some time or other.  On an 8GB memory stick bulk purchase basis, this would probably cost the NHS as little as £120 million for the whole population, or even less for 60 million smaller capacity sticks.  This should be contrasted with the mammoth £12,700 million which the NHS is being charged under the present project – which should be halted right now.  Francis Maude, minister in charge of contracts in the UK Cabinet Office, and government health providers in other countries – please note.

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