This morning the prime minister went to Buckingham Palace, and asked the Queen to dissolve parliament ahead of a general election. In the coming weeks, ministers will now attempt to rush through a range of bills, including the controversial Digital Economy Bill, being debated today in parliament.
The government’s often-chequered procurement of IT has become a clear political issue. With the £12.7 billion NHS National Programme for IT hitting major contractual problems last week, the government is scrambling to find a solution. Health minister Mike O’Brien has lavished praise on the scheme, but the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have taken a different stance, saying centralised patient records needed to be scrapped.
Views on the election
Other IT-focused projects have also been met with political controversy. Last year the government backtracked on the £5 billion ID cards scheme, saying the cards will no longer be compulsory, but it pressed ahead with a biometric passport database that will store the same data. The Tories and Lib Dems have both vowed to entirely scrap even voluntary ID cards.
Labour has insisted it will cut £3.2 billion from IT spending by 2012, as part of an operational efficiency review. The Tories have said the cuts need to start immediately, and have insisted they would open the market to smaller IT suppliers, capping projects at £100 million. But no definition has been given so far on how having smaller IT projects would deliver definitive improvements.
Any party to win the election would likely focus on the use of shared services to cut costs. But successful examples remain scarce, so far, and the move has been described as a "massive" culture change.
There is also the issue of offshoring public sector technology work. A number of projects have been sent abroad in recent months, including a £600 million pensions processing deal with Tata Consultancy Services in India. The company already runs the new child support and maintenance scheme systems. According to public sector website Kable, Tory advisers have suggested the party outsource back office functions if it wins the election – and some of this could go offshore. But such moves remain controversial.
The changes come at a time when all parties have claimed they will support jobs in Britain. Labour has made a particular focus of what it sees as Digital Britain, pledging to support the IT industry including startup companies. But IT staff, on public and private sector contracts, have protested at difficult conditions as the struggling economy bites. Some workers have even gone on strike, with HP and Fujitsu seeing major industrial action on key contracts.
Last month’s Budget promised some support for workers, as Alistair Darling, the chancellor, announced funding for 20,000 higher education training places in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, and more support for small businesses and entrepreneurs. But it was met with a mixed response from the technology industry, as there was little clear specific aid for difficult times.
Whatever has been pledged, there is little doubt the IT industry will have to wait until several months into a new government before being able to judge what help, or lack thereof, will come its way. And will the pledges be adhered to anyway? That's another question.