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Election 2001: Lib Dems say Labour's IT strategy is not working

Not pushing BT hard enough over local loop unbundling is one failure, claim the Liberal Democrats, as is not providing a lead in the tricky issue of mobile phone masts

The Labour Party must take a much more active role in the issues of broadband rollout, mobile phone masts and government IT procurement if it wins a second term, the Liberal Democrats said yesterday.

The Lib Dems say they are disappointed by what they see as Labour's failure to combat Britain's digital divide during its first four years in office.

Speaking to ZDNet UK, Liberal Democrat IT spokesman Richard Allan criticised the government for not moving faster in creating new legislation to regulate the communications industry -- a mistake which he believes is partially responsible for the problems that have hit local loop unbundling and broadband Internet services.

"It's very disappointing that the Communications Bill is only at the white paper stage, now that the government has reached the end of its first term in office," said Allan. "If these regulations had been implemented earlier they would have driven the government to intervene more in issues such as local loop unbundling, forcing it to push BT much more."

Under the Communications Bill, the broadcasting and telecoms industries will be monitored by a new regulator called Ofcom. Allan believes that the government must ensure that Ofcom can adapt to future technologies, which he admits will be difficult to legislate for. He'd also like to see licences issued to telecoms companies that force them to provide "broad access" to technology, in other words not limiting it to people in certain areas or those with more money.

Allan said he would also like to see a government-run Web site that tells consumers exactly what high-tech services are available to their homes. "I'm not surprised that ZDNet's Broadband access guide has been successful, but what's really required is a regulatory body that tells people what cable, Internet and broadband services they can get at their address," he said.

The Liberal Democrats manifesto contains few direct references to the IT sector -- an omission Allan attributes to the fact that all policies must be approved by the annual party conference. One area that the party is keen to see government take a more active role in is the contentious issue of mobile phone masts.

"There is a lot of local concern about the siting of mobile phone masts, and nearly every constituency in the country will have seen at least on dispute. There isn't a strategic approach to the issue," said Allan.

He believes that the current planning rules encourage mobile operators to build masts near local communities. "Applications to erect a mast on a hill are often turned down because it will be a blot on the landscape, so operators end up putting masts near houses and even playgrounds," Allan said.

"At the moment we have different companies taking different approaches, and local people are concerned. The government should be taking a lead by locating suitable sites, encouraging companies to use then and also by encouraging mast sharing."

Other Liberal Democrat proposals include making government IT procurement more effective and accountable. Allan believes that it is necessary to bring in help from the business world, although he realises this could be expensive in the short term.

"There's a salary gap between what IT professionals are paid in the private sector and salaries in the civil service. I still think it's cheaper to take that pay hit now than to suffer when a big project goes wrong," Allan said, citing the debacle when a new computer system was installed in the passport office in 1999 as an example of government getting an IT project badly wrong.

The party is also keen to amend IR35, although it would rather see the tax abolished.

Liberal Democrat MP Paul Burstow accused Labour on Monday of stealing his proposal to criminalise the online solicitation of children in the run-up to the general election. Burstow claims that the Home Office has made a U-turn on its decision to block his "grooming" proposal that was tabled for inclusion in the Criminal Justice and Police Bill two months ago.

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