Liberal-Conservative coalition: What UK's new government means for tech

Death of ID cards, cuts to IT spending, superfast broadband, Digital Economy Bill and more...
Written by Natasha Lomas, Contributor

Death of ID cards, cuts to IT spending, superfast broadband, Digital Economy Bill and more...

After almost a week of negotiations following the inconclusive result of the UK's general election last week, a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has been formed with David Cameron as Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, as deputy PM.

The coalition agreement between the Tories and the Liberals has been published today - identifying the concessions made on both sides to get Cameron into Number 10. Areas of overlap are also evident in the two parties' manifestos - not least, shared opposition to key Labour tech projects including ID cards.

So what can we expect tech-wise from a Liberal-Conservative coalition?

Big IT spending cuts - plus key project culls and cut backs

The need to make major cuts in IT spending is an area both parties agree on and with the Liberal Democrats now backing Tory manifesto plans for £6bn cuts this financial year, there's fresh impetus to save big.

According to TechMarketView analyst Georgina O'Toole, tech is set to experience significant cuts thanks to the Lib-Con agreement.

"When it comes to investment in major IT programmes, we can expect far greater cuts under a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition than we would have had with any coalition involving Labour. This is likely to be bad news for some of the big IT services suppliers," she said in a research note.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg during the general election campaign
(Photo credit: Liberal Democrats via Flickr.com under the following Creative Commons licence)

The Tories have previously estimated that spending cuts of between £2bn and £4bn per year could be achieved by renegotiating IT contracts with suppliers, while the Lib Dems have predicted scrapping ICT schemes would save £3.37bn over five years.

Just one day into the official coalition and several IT schemes have already been earmarked for closure: the Lib-Con pact document confirms the ID card scheme, the National Identity Register (NIR), the next generation of biometric passports and the ContactPoint database will all be scrapped.

The Tories and Liberal Democrats have both long wanted to see the back of the £5.4bn ID cards project - with Conservatives dubbing it a "massive intrusion into privacy".

The Tories pledged to scrap the ID cards scheme for both UK citizens and foreign nationals in their manifesto - ditching the production of the cards and the central National Identity Register database too in a move that chimed with the Lib Dems' own pledge to scrap the whole scheme.

Meanwhile the fate of the...

...Intercept Modernisation Programme (IMP), which aimed to enable law enforcement and security services to better monitor internet comms, is in the balance too.

The Lib Dems have previously pledged to ditch it, while the Tories have historically taken a similar view: their manifesto said they would launch a review of IMP to determine its future - favouring "non-intrusive, targeted solutions" to plug any capability gap.

The Lib-Con agreement does not specify the scrapping of IMP but does state agreement on the "ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason".

Another policy philosophy the pair share relates to the national DNA database: both Tories and Lib Dems want to put an end to the indefinite retention of the DNA of innocent people. The coalition agreement notes the pair will be "adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database".

In Scotland, police must destroy the DNA records of suspects who have not been convicted of a crime - unless criminal proceedings were instigated against them for a violent or sexual offence. In that instance, DNA can be retained for a maximum of five years.

david cameron

Conservative Party leader David Cameron on the campaign trail
(Photo credit: The Conservative Party)

NHS IT - scaled back?

Not explicitly mentioned in the Lib-Con agreement document - but likely to be scaled back under the coalition government - is the National Programme for IT (NPfIT).

The £12.7bn plan to revamp NHS IT has been a Tory punch bag for years after a number of missed deadlines and delivery failures. Their manifesto pledged to widen the NHS' list of IT suppliers and do away with Summary Care Records, Labour's plans for patient electronic medical records to be held by the state.

A Tory review, published last year, recommended halting and renegotiating contracts with the two remaining key suppliers for NPfIT, BT and CSC, who are overseeing the implementation of new patient administration systems at hospitals across England - in order to "save further inefficiencies with regard to cost and delivery".

The Lib Dem manifesto said the agency overseeing NHS IT, Connecting for Health, would be one of the government quangos they would seek to get rid of. They were also keen to change the way the NPfIT project is run, and wanted to allow hospitals and GP surgeries greater freedom to choose their own software and systems, while safeguarding interoperability.

Despite no immediate strategy there's plenty of overlap for the two parties to work with here, such as their...

...shared emphasis on decentralising decisions and systems, as TechMarketView's O'Toole noted.

"The Tories have said they will 'halt and renegotiate' contracts and have also talked about dismantling The Spine [the central database patient records will be held on] as decision-making is moved to the local level. The Lib Dems are supportive of the Conservative view," she said.

"A Con-Lib Dem coalition would probably result in BT and CSC's NHS NPfIT LSP [local service provider] contracts being further renegotiated. BT is also the prime contractor on The Spine contract."

Support for next-gen broadband - but how to do it?

Supporting the rollout of next-gen broadband in the UK was on both Tory and Lib Dem election agendas.

The Tory manifesto pledged 100Mbps broadband for most of the population, using part of the BBC licence fee to fund part of the rollout, while opposing Labour's planned 50p tax on landlines to finance next-generation broadband.

david cameron

Both parties are agreed on the need for superfast broadband
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

The Liberal Democrat manifesto supported the use of public money for pushing out superfast broadband across the UK by initially targeting "areas which are least likely to be provided for by the market" - but it was less specific about how the party would pay for it. The Lib Dems previously said they would support Labour's landline tax plan but also said they wanted pensioners and the least well-off to be exempt from paying the tax.

The Lib-Con pact document is unsurprisingly silent on broadband. With both parties agreeing on the need to support a next-gen rollout, the Lib-Con coalition will need to hammer out a way to do it that's acceptable to both. However with deficit reduction front of mind, their immediate priorities are likely to lie elsewhere.

IT procurement - more open source and smaller contracts

The Tory manifesto was big on favouring smaller IT contracts - something TechMarketView's O'Toole said the Lib Dems also largely support.

"On some issues there seems to be broad...

...cross-party agreement - opening the way for increased adoption of open source software, moving towards software-as-a-service where possible, the consolidation and rationalisation of IT infrastructure, and opening up the government IT market to smaller providers," she said.

However again there are question marks over how the two parties' approaches will match up since the Lib Dems have typically been less specific about how they would achieve their policy aims in this area.

"For example, while the Liberal Democrats (and Labour) have been vague on the 'how' (with the Lib Dems simply saying that they would conduct a full IT procurement review), the Tories have been a little more forthright in stating pledges such as a £100m limit on IT projects," noted O'Toole.

"Such pledges will now be under scrutiny as Clegg and Cameron attempt to find common ground."

Digital Economy Bill - to fix or repeal?

The controversial Digital Economy Act - which sanctions the disconnection of internet users who are suspected of copyright infringement - was pushed through in the dying days of the last Parliament, with MPs on all sides of the House expressing misgivings at the lack of parliamentary time to scrutinise it.

The Lib Dems opposed the Bill which passed into law with Tory backing. At the time, Clegg described it as a "stitch-up between Labour and Conservative MPs" - and later promised to repeal the Act if elected. "It badly needs to be repealed, and the issues revisited," he said at the time.

Vince Cable

The Lib Dem's Vince Cable - the new UK Business Secretary
Photo credit: Liberal Democrats via Flickr.com under the following Creative Commons licence

Despite helping to push it through Parliament, the Tories also criticised the Bill and pledged to 'fix' any 'broken' portions of it, should they be elected.

As yet there's been no word on what the Lib-Con coalition plans to do about the Act - but with former Secretary of State for Business Lord Mandelson now out of government (replaced in the new cabinet by the Lib Dem MP Vince Cable) - the Bill has lost its architect and strongest supporter.

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