UK gov't urged to drop multibillion pound IT plans

Gordon Brown was lambasted for the government spending billions on troubled IT projects while the country slips into recession, during Prime Minister question time Wednesday.

The debate came one day after the Home secretary Jacqui Smith revealed that technical work on creating a massive communications database has begun before ministers have created legislation to set it up. This is despite the fact ministers have only begun the consultation on the proposed parliamentary bill to gather communications data for policing and national security purposes. Smith told MPs during a Joint Committee on Human Rights on 28 October.

The database proposals will see records of phone, email and internet communications -- including VoIP -- kept for 12 months. The cost for taxpayers has not officially been set, even though there has been press speculation of up to £12 billion (US$19.7 billion) to set up and run.

But the cost of large scale IT projects came under fire during a heated prime minister's questions in parliament yesterday, where Gordon Brown revealed he did not recognize the multibillion pound IT costs associated with large IT programs.

Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrat party, called for an end to government spending on multimillion pound large scale IT schemes, saying the money would be better redirected towards helping individuals during a recession.

"[Prime minister Gordon Brown] does not seem to distinguish between good public spending and bad public spending," he said. "At a time when every penny of public money needs to be spent wisely, [Gordon Brown] he wants to waste £13 billion on an NHS computer system that does not work, £12 billion on a surveillance database, which will spy on everybody in the country, and billions more on ID cards."

The Liberal Democrat leader asked the prime minister whether he would reconsider spending the money on providing homes and childcare for poor families, as well as training for the unemployed.

Brown replied: "I do not recognize the figures that the right honorable gentleman gives us."

Large scale government IT projects include the NHS National Programme for IT being pegged at latest official estimates at £12.7 billion, by the National Audit Office. The scheme, to digitize the patient records of everybody in the country and provide online appointment booking, is running four years late and has separately lost two key suppliers, Accenture and Fujitsu.

The ID card program will cost £4.7 billion at the most recent estimates. But it is facing the threat of legal action, as airline pilots union Balpa said it was willing to take the necessary steps to prevent pilots from being forced to take the cards.

Defending the IT schemes and other plans to increase the spending on public sector projects during a recession, Brown said that cutting spending was the "wrong course" for the country.

Clegg replied: "This country is in much worse shape than I feared if it has a prime minister who cannot tell the difference between redirecting public money and cutting public money. Grandiose plans for public spending might work in the long term, but what British families need now is money in their pockets."

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