Tomorrow the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, will present his Emergency Budget to Parliament. Given the chastening experience of several countries on the European continent, and the size of Britain's national debt, it has been widely recognised across the political spectrum that cuts to public spending are needed.
Big Brother Watch believes that if cuts have to be made, they should fall on the relics of the previous Government that are not only expensive, but also invade our privacy and infringe our liberty. With that in mind, below we have reproduced an extract from How to Cut Public Spending: (and Still Win an Election) edited by Matthew Sinclair, which sets out three major projects that could be culled.
These are by no means the only large state databases and authoritarian organisations we would like to see the back of. But they are a start that would help tackle the deficit and free the British people from overbearing government.
Curbing over-extended government
When governments attempt to do too much, the cost of failure is rarely just financial. Lives have been ruined by ineffective and intrusive databases, political responsibilities deferred to faceless bureaucracies. Driven by the pursuit of ‘efficiency’, Government has brushed off the implications for data security and personal liberty, centralising information and power in systems that it does not understand and cannot work. Over-ambitious, unnecessary and unpopular projects should now be brought to an end. Nannying government publicity should be curtailed.
Abolish Contact Point, the children’s database
£44 million from 2010/11 onwards
Contact Point is a database meant to contain the personal details of every child in the UK up to the age of eighteen, and is designed to reduce administrative burdens for people working with children. It has, however, been plagued by controversy, with data safety experts drawing attention to serious security failings. Some 390,000 people will have access to the details of eleven million children, including those whose families have never been in need of social care services. With access extended to so many people, proper scrutiny over use and retention of the data concerned is effectively impossible.
The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust has also found that Contact Point is almost certainly illegal under European human rights or data protection law, ‘because of the privacy concerns and legal issues with maintaining sensitive data with no effective opt-out', and because the security is inadequate (having been designed as an afterthought), and because it provides a mechanism for registering all children that complements the National Identity Register. Given the Government's appalling data security record, the children's database is an accident waiting to happen.
Abolish the NHS National Programme for IT (NPfIT)
£1,181 million from 2010/11 onwards
The NPfIT should be abolished for four reasons: first, it was never wanted by most NHS clinicians, and they remain opposed to it; secondly, it is running way behind schedule, and what has been delivered so far on patient care records doesn’t work properly; thirdly, there are major and unresolved issues over patient confidentiality; and fourthly, it is far too expensive.
The centrepiece of the NPfIT, the Detailed Care Record, raises particularly serious questions: First, there is a safety problem: if many different health professionals can write to a record, but none of them is responsible for curating it and maintaining its quality, it can rapidly become a mess. This is the wikipedia model of uncontrolled collective authorship, and it appears reckless for the NHS to embrace it for medical records just as wikipedia is moving to a more controlled model. Second, there are serious privacy issues: it has been reported that making GP records available to social workers has eroded trust in GPs and made low-income single mothers less likely to seek treatment for post-natal depression. Putting everything into one pot not only makes privacy compromises more likely (more users have access to a larger set of data) but also precludes careful consideration of context-specific information flows. It also becomes less clear who is the ‘controller’ of the data.’
It would be far better to allow local healthcare providers to use and develop the IT they have already purchased, and ensure that data can be passed from one provider to another when appropriate. With firms such as Google and Microsoft developing personal health records, this approach would cost the taxpayer very little. How much would cancellation of the NPfIT save the British taxpayer? The most recent Public Accounts Committee assessment of the NPfIT puts its total cost at £12.7 billion in 2004/5 prices. The equivalent cash figure today is £14.6 billion (due to the increase in the Retail Price Index since April 2004). Of that, £3.6 billion had been spent by March 2008, leaving around £11 billion to be spent over the next seven years, which is £1.6 billion per annum. This remaining spending will be split between the core IT contracts and local NHS implementation costs.
Of course, not all of that would be saved because the IT contractors would charge cancellation fees. It is not clear how big those costs would be, but it would be surprising (and scandalous) if they were more than one-third of the remaining £900 million annual value of the contracts, or £300 million a year. Cancellation would also entail some offsetting of NHS spending on alternative local systems. But since the Department of Heath estimates NHS savings from the NPfIT itself to be only £119 million per annum, cancellation should not entail much additional spending on alternatives. On a cautious basis therefore, net savings accrued from cancellation of NPfIT are estimated to be £1,181 million per annum.
Abolish identity cards
At least £55 million from 2010/11 onwards
The identity cards programme has always been a serious concern on civil liberties and privacy grounds, especially since there would be few safeguards in the UK, in contrast to other EU countries with identity cards but strong constitutional protection. Now that the government has decided to make identity cards voluntary, the programme will not even assist national security. Even if we accept the government’s own cost projections (which as explained above may be seriously underestimated), abolishing the programme could still save up to £1.3 billion over the next decade.
Expert analysis has concluded that the IPS’s projections for the costs of the identity card scheme (in isolation from the biometric passport scheme) are over-optimistic, and that identity cards will consume a larger proportion of the total budget for the two schemes than forecast by the IPS: ‘The splitting of the development of the ID card programme from the passport until 2011 hints that the actual costs required for passports over that period is just 23 per cent to 24 per cent of the total. This differs significantly from the government’s claims that 70 per cent of the cost of the ID programme would have to be spent on biometric passports in any case. The dramatic reduction of ‘common’ costs after 2011 and significant rise in both passport and ID cards costs in later years seems to confirm that the two are not as closely linked as has previously been claimed. The inclusion of reduced, but unspecified, ‘common’ costs provides an accounting mechanism for future cross-subsidisation.’
The annual £55 million saving cited above does not include the costs of biometric passports, nor the costs common to both biometric passports and identity cards. As the IPS does not provide an estimate of potential fee income, none has been factored in.