Stephen Timms — currently the government minister in charge of Digital Britain — spoke to ZDNet UK to explain how the Labour Party stands on strengthening the digital economy, using open source in government IT and protecting consumer data, among other issues.
The interview is part of ZDNet UK's Tech election 2010 series, where we ask the nation's parties to outline their technology policies in the run-up to the May general election.
Labour has been in government for the last 13 years, during which time it has heavily revamped the IT infrastructure of government departments ranging from health to defence. Most recently, it has pushed through the Digital Economy Bill. In the interview — conducted before the bill was passed — Timms discusses what the IT industry can expect if Labour is elected to power again.
Q: What would your party do to promote and strengthen the UK technology industry?
A: We set out our vision in our Digital Britain white paper and more recently in the Digital Economy Bill. The UK's digital economy is worth around eight percent of our GDP. Under Labour, Britain's creative industries have become number one in the world as a proportion of GDP.
Our approach has been to use open source where it gives best value for money for the taxpayer.
Labour wants Britain to be the world leader in the digital economy, which will create over a quarter of a million more skilled jobs by 2020. We are providing £30m to support the creation of a new institute — the Institute of Web Science — based here in Britain and working with government and British business to realise the social and economic benefits of technological advances.
Digital Britain set out the key importance for the UK technology industry of increasing UK capability in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Recent increases in the take up of these subjects at degree level are particularly welcome.
What is your long-term strategy for the digital economy?
There are currently 12.5 million people not online in the UK, including 10 million who have never used the internet. Labour launched a National Plan for Digital Participation to get 60 percent of those people online by 2014 — over 5,000 people online for the first time, every day. Older people and those less well-off are our priority. These groups are at risk of being left behind in 21st-century society.
To maintain our global position, we need to take advantage of new technologies, like super-fast broadband. Faster speeds bring higher productivity, increased innovation and business opportunities created by e-commerce, greater consumer choice and easier and quicker access to e-government services. In addition, they improve reliability and consistency in connections. Access is needed urgently in rural as well as urban areas.
Labour plans universal availability of basic broadband — at 2Mbps — by 2012. The advisory body on broadband, the Broadband Stakeholder Group, has said that rolling out next-generation broadband, especially in rural areas, will require public intervention. The Conservatives have said they would only offer funding once a new BBC licence fee settlement is in place — in 2013.
We can't afford a three-year delay. Labour will therefore introduce a small, 50p-a-month levy on fixed telephone lines to establish an independent national fund, amounting to £1bn over seven years, to be used to extend next-generation coverage to at least 90 percent of UK households by 2017.
What role should technology play in government transparency and interaction with the public?
At the heart of Labour's Making Public Data Public project — being led by Sir Tim Berners-Lee — is not so much a technology change as a fundamental culture change in Whitehall and local government about public access to data.
Stephen Timms at the Open Age centre. Credit: BISGovUK
It is a shift from government believing it knows what information should be made available to one where the public can access and interrogate, easily and intelligently, all information which government collects for its own policy and delivery purposes, as long as individual privacy is not compromised.
The very level of commitment to publish large quantities of data and the ability to interrogate it easily and intelligently does imply an important technology component with rapid broadband and powerful semantic search tools, and Labour has decided to strengthen UK capability by supporting Centres of Excellence in this field. But it also has a more prosaic aspect, namely information managers publishing data in a linkable format to enable whole new insights to be drawn from a range of complex and related datasets.
Labour's Smarter Government white paper set out our intention for more and more public services to be accessible online. In time, we envisage non-online access to some services being withdrawn.
What role should open-source software play in local and national government use, and what would you do to promote its use over that of proprietary software?
Our approach has been to use open source where it gives best value for money for the taxpayer. We intend to publish general-purpose software as open source where it is appropriate to do so. There are obvious cases where it is not in the public interest to do so, including some security-related software and fraud prevention and detection code.
Open-source components are used in major mission-critical systems such as Directgov. Fifty percent of the main departmental websites use Apache as the core web server.
The NHS 'Spine' uses an operating system based on open source. At least 35 percent of NHS organisations covering almost 300,000 users are supported by Linux infrastructure. GP applications running on Linux are being deployed — these are 'black boxes' that will handle key functions in GP surgeries. Hundreds of desktops across the NHS are running Linux.
How would you balance citizens' online privacy against protecting commercial interests? The cases of Phorm and the Digital Economy Bill's copyright clauses are relevant to this question.
Our Digital Economy Bill will tackle unlawful peer-to-peer file-sharing by placing obligations on internet service providers to...
...work with copyright owners, notify infringing subscribers and enable copyright owners to target legal action against the most persistent infringers.
Our proposals provide for consultation and full parliamentary scrutiny. We hope these measures will be sufficient to bring about the 70-percent reduction in unlawful peer-to-peer file-sharing that is our aim. If they are not as effective as we expect, then — at least a year after the code for the initial obligations comes into effect — we will have the power to order ISPs to take further action, which may include bandwidth capping and — as a last resort for persistent offenders — temporary account suspension.
Suspension is a serious issue, so the identification process will have to be robust. There will be a range of safeguards. These include a clear and effective appeal mechanism, including appeal to a First-tier Tribunal. And no technical measure can be imposed on a subscriber until any appeal has fully run its course.
The bill contains separate powers to enable regulations to be introduced — after widespread consultation and with a high bar for the parliamentary approval — for a rights holder to apply for a court order to require ISPs to block websites with material which infringes the rights holder's copyright.
We understand that no UK ISP currently plans any deployment of Phorm. If one did consider it, the Information Commissioner would first need to satisfy himself that data protection regulations would not be breached.
What is your e-health policy and will it include contracting patient data out to third parties? How would you rescue the National Programme for IT (NPfIT)?
The National Programme for IT is a key building block of Labour's NHS reform. It is aimed at providing ubiquitous and effective IT systems and services that will enable patient and other service information to be used to reform the way the NHS operates and improve services and patient care.
Many of the programme's systems have been successfully delivered along with most of the key infrastructure. The new NHS broadband network and central databases are in place, as are Pacs systems and choose and book. All acute trusts and over 90 percent of primary care trusts in England, and all GPs, are using systems delivered as part of the National Programme. The NHS in England could not now function without the systems the programme has delivered.
The NHS in England could not now function without the systems the NPfIT has delivered.
We announced in December that the programme would identify savings of £600m over its remaining lifetime. These are intended to be achieved by reducing central costs by £200m, and £400m from local supplier future contract values.
We see the use of IT — and online delivery of services — as key to being able to deliver health and other public services more efficiently and to a higher standard.
Which major government IT projects would you drop or change, and why?
The Labour Party did not answer this question.
What measures would you put in place to ensure that businesses and organisations better protect their customers' data and inform customers of data breaches?
Labour takes information security extremely seriously, which is why the cabinet secretary's review of data handling introduced a series of tough new measures to keep personal data as safe as possible. This includes extra training for more than 400,000 civil servants and the encryption of data on thousands of laptops and other devices. We have ensured that government suppliers are aware of their responsibilities in protecting personal data that they may handle on behalf of government.
What is your policy on new or existing measures to protect the critical national infrastructure?
The Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) has an important role. It runs CSIRTUK (the Combined Security Incident Response Team UK), which advises on protection of the UK's national infrastructure and how to manage the response to incidents.
Additionally, CPNI regularly provides threat-based protective security advice to UK companies in the critical national infrastructure, which includes protective measures aimed at reducing vulnerability to electronic attack. The majority of attacks are defeated by firewalls, up-to-date antivirus software and other 'good practice' security measures.