The past few days have seen much fanfare with the unveiling of US Diplomatic Cables by WikiLeaks. While they have certainly caused much embarrassment, as yet I’ve not seen any particularly revealing content, or indeed anything that would threaten the life of a source.
While I would suggest this is because those media organisations involved have performed a degree of pre-publication redaction, which is to be welcomed, I would certainly vehemently disagree with those who see WikiLeaks as perpetrators of a crime or - as one particularly bonkers American politician did - that WikiLeaks should be classified as a terrorist organisation. Nothing disclosed is untrue, which is more than can be said of many ‘official’ sources. (Imagine what would have happened if the day of the Parliamentary vote on war in Iraq, Wikileaks had released the real sources which had been spun and massaged by messrs Blair and Campbell.)
The debate takes on a particularly interesting angle when seen in the context of UK Internet body Nominet (they control the .uk domains) announcing it is to seek, at the request of the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, powers to shut down UK websites.
It should be noted, this does not include any need to seek the approval of a court.
When WikiLeaks released a video of an Apache gunship shooting dead innocent civilians - and two international journalists - they performed an absolute public service. A cover-up was exposed, and justice done.
Are we to trust the same people who deplored that release with deciding what should, and should not, be allowed to be online?
Fortunately, the same globalisation that means we can enjoy cheaper clothes and food, do business around the world and travel to far flung places for exotic holidays is exactly the same globalisation that means information is no longer containable. The two are mutually dependent - the flow of knowledge the life blood of a modern economy.
Simply, the internet is beyond the control of any Governments, without a total and unyielding control of all internet traffic. I hope that would never be allowed in Britain.
Sadly, Nominet’s proposals highlight a worrying naivety of cyber policy. It echoes the ignorance that drove the Digital Economy Act’s disconnection powers through the commons without proper debate.
I hope this proposal will be greeted with the disdain it deserves. If controlling the UK web ‘brand’ is so important, it should at a minimum be done with judicial oversight.
Personally, I think we could do far more good looking at what already goes on beyond the immediate vision of regulators and focus on supporting the real front line, fought in distant corners of the globe and anonymous cyber cafes.
Ever since it became clear that public spending was going to have to be reduced dramatically, I’ve been arguing that across the public sector ‘business as usual’ wasn’t going to deliver the needed savings.
Some departments, councils and quangos have singularly failed to evaluate how they deliver their services, simply opting to cut front-line services to deliver required reductions in cost. Those responsible for this mindset have seemingly escaped criticism, when they should be held to account for a mind-crunching lack of imagination, ingenuity or indeed talent.
One department that this criticism cannot be levelled is the Department of Work and Pensions. Under IDS’ leadership they are proposing a radical re-thinking of how benefits are delivered, with the universal credit replacing tens of other benefits as part of a massive simplification of the benefits system. (51 benefits to around 5)
Quite simply, the enormous costs of administering such a byzantine system (and the associated loss of £3bn+ in errors, treble the amount lost to fraud) is exactly the sort of spending that should be focused on as ripe for cutting. Whatever your views on the reductions in benefits, the fact the administration alone runs into billions should be reason to agree the status quo isn’t sustainable.
So, now the policy battle has been won, IDS needs to deliver the reforms. And here’s where I think an enormous political risk lies, for IDS personally and the coalition.
With the last Governments’ NHS IT debacle, the criticism was often an academic exercise around how much it cost. The ‘human cost’ was not reported, and beyond the hugely unfortunate staff trying to use the systems there were no perceived ‘victims.’
Benefits are quite different. Every IT failure, delay or error will lead to inevitable stories about families unable to feed or clothe their children, tenants being evicted and the disabled being abandoned by the state. If the error is big enough, there will be public outrage on a scale not seen since the Poll Tax. Those who are most likely to live hand-to-mouth will be left empty handed. Perhaps we might see the first deaths caused by a Government IT failure.
The systems involved are currently spread across a range of departments, from the DWP itself to HMRC, The Treasury, with probably others in Health, Education and Business. It’s a myriad web of awkward, old, complex systems many of which are utterly incompatible with others.
To deliver the needed cost savings, these need to be integrated, simplified and then a new system deployed. Not to mention the modernisation that will remove as much human administration as possible, which is where the greatest cost currently lies. As much paper as possible needs to be eliminated, preferably with online services hugely increased. This needs to happen quickly to deliver the required spending reductions this parliament.
And all of this when dealing with the most complex lives, in the most deprived areas, when many do not have internet access and of course not forgetting that many in the civil service have a vested interest in this failing, either at a high level enabling them to keep the armies of staff which have traditionally been the greatest measure of ‘status’ or on a lower level, their individual jobs.
Reforms of this type have long since been the cash cow of the major systems integrators, who have made huge profits delivering systems that rarely deliver their promised functionality and always cost more than expected. Britian has one of the worst track records in delivering IT projects, and much has been written on how this track record can be improved. (And sadly all too often ignored.)
IDS should heed the advice of Edward Leigh, then chairman of Public Account Committee (PAC), before embarking on the reforms. On the DWP’s project with EDS (now HP) in delivering the Child Support Agency’s IT, he said:
“The Department for Work and Pensions never really knew what it was doing in dealing with the contractors EDS and the system was a turkey from day one.”
This is exactly the kind of project for the coalition to set itself apart from Labour’s failures and ignite the British IT industry. The same approach will not work, no matter how much the likes of Accenture, HP or Capgemini promise it will “this time” and the cost could be catastrophic, both financially and politically.
Now is the time to experiment with innovation, run a series of real pilot schemes and open the doors to the best ideas in the country. If the doors remain closed to the same club, all of whom have a vested interest in blocking innovation to protect their own profits, the public will not afford the Coalition the same acquiescence afforded to Labour’s health IT boondoggle.
If the technological infrastructure is wrong, lives will be ruined. The same approach will not deliver – the choice is whether IDS allows those for whom failure is a profitable or personally preferable option to destroy the most important reform agenda for a generation.
IDS was given a huge political trophy, gift-wrapped by George Osborne and the Treasury. The question for IDS should be why it’s ticking.
Anyone involved in politics has heard tales of student sit-ins, demos and protests at times of great international unrest - from Mandela to the Cuban Missile Crisis, many an MP and Peer can recount tales of their own student activism and how the student movement played a major role in countless reforms.
Sadly, the modern NUS bears little resemblance to those ideals and finds itself a machine for wannabe Labour MPs, held hostage by hard-left factions. The events of the past two days have born this out, as President Aaron Porter struggles to play a reasonable card that won’t upset his potential boss Ed Miliband, while at the same time knowing his own power relies on the support of some in the hard-left who were on the front lines as Millbank Towers was disgracefully attacked.
As a former Student Union President, (2005-6) I had a front row seat for some entertaining NUS politics. I was on the last mass protest against top-up fees, watching in the chamber as Labour MPs tried to justify breaking a manifesto commitment (again) and meeting my own MP to lobby him on the issue. Then, as now, there remained a core of NUS activists - sadly the ones in control - to whom reasoned debate is alien. These are the students who boldly carried ‘F**k Fees’ placards, shouted abuse at the police and had no alternatives.
Yet there is one striking difference. When Labour twice broke manifesto commitments on fees, there was no mass riot outside their office, no reckless acts of violence and certainly no NUS officers baying the mob.
Sadly, the events at Millbank Tower bore out a painful truth for NUS. While its members care about the issue of funding, its organisation care about the politics. And in truth, that means they care about attacking the Tories.
Aaron Porter should bear responsibility for the chaos and mindless destruction that took place on his watch and resign - and call publicly for the resignation of every NUS officer who was part of the Millbank fracas. He should call publicly for the prosecution, for attempted murder, of the student who threw a fire extinguisher from the roof of the tower.
While I quickly realised that for the sake of my sanity (and indeed the chance to actually do something of use to the students who elected me) I was better off avoiding NUS, many students union officers see their office as a stepping stone to NUS office. Small cliques of obsessive activists dominate students unions, passing dogmatic motion after boycott, and the majority of students have their voice stolen by these small cliques, under the guise of the National Union of Students.
There is no option - ordinary students must reclaim their voice and take back their agenda, without NUS.
Posted: November 12th, 2010
Tags: National Union of Students
, nick pickles
Comments: 1 Comment
An election court has ruled - and the Labour party seemingly agrees - that Phil Woolas included in election material which breached the Representation of the People Act on two counts of making false statements about his Lib Dem rival.
The speed with which Woolas went from being a valued (and elected) member of Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet to enemy of the party Number 1 was quite remarkable. Even before a single appeal had been heard (and I expect several) Harriet Harman was desperate to make clear he had nothing to do with Labour.
Then something struck me that nobody seems to have reported yet - who else saw the leaflet? I doubt very much it was a one-man operation.
Here’s one option. Woolas’ local campaign manager drafts the copy, which is then read by Woolas and his agent (at a minimum). So there’s two more people, both party members, who also approved of the copy. The agent uses a design template and sends it to the printers, and it’s distributed by volunteers.
Alternatively, the copy could have been sent to Labour HQ, who then produce the graphics and send back a PDF to be printed as needed.
However, there is one wider possibility.
As a senior party MP and then Minister, I find it hard to think there was zero input from Labour HQ. I would expect someone took a look at his leaflet as part of a sign-off process, even if it was just a proofing exercise. Given Woolas’ leaflet essentially suggested a Lib Dem win in the seat was a victory for Muslim extremists, I would have thought even a lowly intern on proofing duties might have mentioned it to someone to check if that was the kind of thing that should be going out.
So, whereas in the Coulson affair, the ‘rogue’ explanation is entirely unacceptable, here it is absolutely the only option on offer.
Who else at Labour HQ knew about the leaflet, or indeed approved it?
When are we to expect they will be shown the door in the same ungracious manner as Woolas?
Or, as we’ve already seen with the Ken Livingstone/Tower Hamlets affair, is it a case of one rule for some, another rule for friends of Labour HQ?