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Government Data Network

Volume 128: debated on Thursday 25 February 1988

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lennox-Boyd.]

10.43 pm

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the question of the Government data network. I begin by declaring an interest, as a consultant to the Electronic Engineering Association. It was through my work with that body that I became aware of the existence of the project, although I should add that I have no connection with any of the companies bidding for the contract. Indeed, I am sure that the EEA is strictly neutral and simply takes a benevolent interest in the project as a whole.

Having become aware of the project, I was surprised to find that the reaction to it in certain parts of the House and the media was rather negative. When I understood the concept, it struck me as having exciting rather than frightening potential. It also appeared to be an example of how a Government decision could be directly beneficial to British industry.

I take this opportunity to look at the matter in a more positive light. Obviously, I should like to examine with my right hon. Friend the Minister the doubts that have been expressed and to probe the Government's commitment to the project.

I had better confess that I am not a technical expert, far less a computer wizard. I can only try to explain in lay language what I understand the Government's data network to be — that is, a new and advanced communications medium. I understand that one should try to imagine a system of pipework, perhaps reminiscent of some examples of modern architecture, through which information invisibly flows.

Secondly, it is a medium that several Government Departments can share. I understand that the initial thinking is that four Departments would be involved—the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise, the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Security. But the network would have the potential for others to be incorporated in due course.

The third feature of the GDN is that it would be supplied and serviced by an independent contractor. Discussion and examination of the project has advanced to the point where there are three contenders. In no particular order, they are the Computer Sciences Company working with British Telecom, Racal-Scicon Ltd. and Cable and Wireless working with ICL.

In simple broad terms, that is what GDN is all about. It is not somehow the apparatus of a police state, of which we should beware. It is plainly and simply an up-to-date means of conveying information. Nor is it an arrangement that poses an inherently greater threat to privacy, about which, naturally, we should have some regard. It is just as easy to pass a manilla file of information at the moment, and no greater ease is provided by going for a sophisticated electronic network of this kind.

There are a number of important advantages in the Government contemplating this step. The first is that the GDN implies a large network with a considerable capacity. It could probably support, in the early stages, as many as 100,000 terminals. Such an installation would enable the Government to cater for their communications needs for some long way ahead.

By the very nature of things, demand will inevitably rise. The GDN will give the Government the basics of a system capable of almost limitless expansion and with considerable built-in versatility. In the future, one simple connection point could serve all the communications needs of voice, computers, telex, facsimile machines and video conferencing. All the things which today require separate and therefore more costly and less flexible circuits will be linked to just one all-purpose communications medium.

The second advantage of GDN is adaptability. The Government have already made a commitment to an international standard known as open systems interconnection, which offers the means of connecting a whole host of information technology equipment from different suppliers on to one single communications system. Therefore, GDN offers a unique opportunity to put this commitment into action.

Thirdly, GDN offers the Government the prospect of considerable cost savings. The Government would be avoiding a huge capital outlay by utilising private sector investment in the implementation and operation of the network. They would be equipping themselves with a service which is expected to be cheaper to use.

The Government are already heavily involved in using publicly available services for transfer of information. My right hon. Friend the Paymaster General will probably be able to confirm that the costs to Government have been rising remorselessly as the volume of transactions has increased. It is probably difficult for an exact cost figure to be estimated at the present time, but I noticed that a figure of £300 million over 10 years was mentioned in a discussion on the "World at One" programme on BBC Radio 4 on Monday.

It is not really fair to apply that figure to the Government data network. I believe that the figure originates from a guesstimate by the Treasury's Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency of what it might cost the four Departments that could be linked in a GDN, if they were to go about making their own individual provision. The essential point to remember in trying to understand the scale of cost is that the Government would be procuring a service rather than a system.

The fourth advantage for the Government to proceed down that road is that there would be a saving in the problem of attracting skilled personnel into the Government service. The Government service would find it difficult to compete on salary scales with the private sector. The approach of a privately implemented GDN overcomes the significant skill shortage in Government, especially in telecommunications design and network management. Equally, I understand that the adoption of a GDN would not pose any significant threat to existing jobs in the Government service.

Fifthly, there is a positive attraction to the Government in having private sector input. A major advantage, therefore, would be the fulfilment of one of the Government's prime objectives — to encourage private sector investment in public service. There would also be a competitive element, and not only now when the project is at the tendering stage; if it comes into being, there would still be a competitive element in operation because Government Departments would not be forced to use the service, if it did not yield a cost advantage over already publicly available alternatives.

A less direct but none the less important benefit to flow from the Government's adoption of a GDN is that it would give a tremendous boost to the information technology industry in this country. We have some very good companies which would claim to have a leading edge in technology at the present time. We have some fine technical minds working in the information technology industry in this country, and it would be a great opportunity to exploit that fact at the present time. Therefore, it would be a significant uplift to the industry if the project were to go ahead.

Allied to that would be the importance for export potential. I am given to understand that there is vast export potential for such technology. If the Government were to show their confidence in the system, that would be a demonstration to the rest of the world that Britain can make innovative use of advanced technology and much good could flow from that.

Finally, in a more prosaic manner, it could be shown that the GDN would allow an all-round improved service. It means quicker access to information for those who operate the systems and are entitled to that information. If hon. Members took up a constituency case with the Department of Health and Social Security, they would not be told that there was a delay because the file would not be found as it travels between Newcastle upon Tyne or Blackpool and the Department in London. Such information could be retrieved much more quickly. Perhaps it is not too much to hope that the system would evolve to become even more customer-friendly by providing a better service in the delivery of benefits to members of the public.

I referred to the fact that disadvantages have been perceived by some people in their examination of the project. There is a worry that what it really means is the transfer of data between Departments. This seems to be an abiding fear of the National Council for Civil Liberties. As I understand it, the information of each Department involved in the GDN would travel separately in the system, with electronic protection built in. I believe that the jargon is that each Department would be a closed user group. Nevertheless, it is inevitable that there should be worries about privacy. I hope that my hon. Friend can offer assurances about the relationship of the Data Protection Act 1984 to GDN and also say whether the Data Protection Registrar is satisfied that the GDN creates no new loopholes.

As I have already mentioned, if there is a deliberate intention in some part of the Government service to transfer information, almost no method of data storage and transfer is proof against it. But taking information out of GDN in an unauthorised manner or passing a document would arguably be more difficult than anything else one could think of. Banks use data communication systems, and they have great regard for privacy.

Security is the allied problem. It raises the wider question of whether people outside the Government service could tap into information. I believe that that risk can be countered by messages being scrambled within the system. However, I imagine that security forms a major part of the specification that the Government would insist that tenderers should meet before taking the project further.

Then there is the question of a strike threat to the system. Again, I understand that, once the network has been created, it is difficult to pull the plug, so to speak. In any case, as the network does not hold information but is a means of transferring it, there would still be other ways of communication if for any reason something went wrong with the GDN.

Looking at the balance of advantages and disadvantages, I believe that the Government should go ahead with the GDN when they are satisfied that adequate safeguards are in place. Generally speaking, the Government should take advantage of modern technology where they can, especially if they can back a significant portion of British industry at the same time. My impression of Government Departments over the years has been that they are often reluctant to embrace new technology and that they trail behind others in taking it on, when Government ought to be in the van, setting an example.

The GDN seems to present a golden opportunity for the Government to place their internal data communications on an advanced footing. I am encouraged by the news that invitations to tender have been issued today, I understand. I hope that my hon. Friend will confirm the Government's commitment and enthusiasm for the development of the project and promise an early decision when the tenders have been returned and examined. I believe that this is an opportunity which we should not throw away.

10.58 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) has done the House a service in raising the subject of the Government data network tonight, and I am grateful to him for the opportunity to discuss what I shall henceforth call the GDN. It is a major and innovative project. If it goes ahead, it will bring widespread benefits both within Government and, I believe, in the private sector.

Yet, regrettably, there has been a great deal of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the project in the press and elsewhere. My hon. Friend is very well informed on the technical and policy aspects of the project and has given me the opportunity both to explain the project to the House and to set the record straight—a process to which he has made his own contribution.

The GDN is an exciting project, and my hon. Friend's speech was a bullish one, full of enthusiasm. I share that enthusiasm, but it is also the lot of a Treasury Minister to point out hard realities. So, before we all get carried away with euphoria, I must make it absolutely clear that at this stage the GDN is a proposal, and no more.

There is a clear need for data communications within Government, and I shall say more about this shortly. The GDN looks to be a good way of meeting this need. We now know that it is a technically feasible route. The four Departments—Customs and Excise, the Department of Health and Social Security, the Home Office and the Inland Revenue — and the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency have recently signed memoranda of agreement with the three potential suppliers, identified by my hon. Friend: Computer Sciences Company with British Telecom, Cable and Wireless with International Computers Ltd. and Racal-Scicon Ltd. This is basically an agreement that each supplier's offering meets at least the minimum requirements set out by the Government.

But the acid test is financial. The Government have clearly stated that the final decision on whether the GDN goes ahead will be made on the basis of whether it offers better value for money, over the life of the project, than the alternatives. As my hon. Friend said, invitations have been issued to the three potential suppliers to tender for the GDN. All are well aware that if they are to succeed they must produce bids which are keenly priced, and which take full advantage of the growth potential of the GDN. They are also quite clear about the risks involved in bidding for a project that has yet to be approved. It is now up to them to ensure that the GDN moves from being an attractive technical proposition to being a commercial reality.

Why do we need a GDN at all? To answer that question we need to look at what the future holds. Information technology is now being used to support a much wider range of tasks, and that will increase in the future. In 1987, the number of terminals in Departments was about 65,000. Their plans indicate a figure of 155,000 by 1992, with a likely growth to 240,000 by 1995. By the turn of the century, possibly 350,000 terminals could be in use on desks in Government Departments. This huge and sustained investment is directed to one purpose: improving the quality and efficiency of Government business.

However, effective data communication is an essential part of achieving this progress. It provides the bridge between geographically dispersed offices—for example, in the Inland Revenue—and central processing sites. It also provides the means of communicating between the many different computer systems within each Department. Often, to do a job effectively, an individual will require access to data from a variety of different systems within the Department. Data communication makes it possible for that individual to access those systems from a single terminal on his or her desk, rather than having to peregrinate using a multitude of different pieces of hardware. That objective is clearly reflected in the IT strategies of Departments, particularly those, such as the DHSS, with large dispersed organisations dealing with members of the public.

A GDN is one way of providing that data communications infrastructure. Its attractions are that, first, it makes the best use of scarce technical skills within Government; secondly, it shares circuits and switches to minimise capital costs and to make the best use of capacity; and, thirdly, by placing the implementation and operation of the network within a private sector supplier, it avoids distracting Departments from their mainstream objectives to the provision of services which, though essential, are incidental to the work of Government.

The role of Government so far has been to set out their requirements, and to encourage suppliers to come forward to meet those requirements. I know that all three potential suppliers believe that the GDN makes sound business and commercial sense for Government. I think that they also have an eye to the wider commercial opportunities, both in this country and abroad, that successful implementation of a GDN would open up for them. That is why they have all invested so much time and effort in preparing to bid for the project. It is now up to them to translate the potential advantages of a GDN into bids that make convincing economic sense for Government.

I mentioned a few moments ago the advantages of sharing circuits and switches. That brings me to an area that has caused much confusion and misunderstanding —that of security and privacy. My hon. Friend rightly spent much of his time on this, and invited me to deal with it in my reply. I am happy to do so.

Let me make one point absolutely clear at the outset. The GDN project provides for the sharing of circuits and switches because this makes economic sense. It does not provide some huge computing facility for the whole of Government; and it does not provide open access by Departments to each other's data. I will return to this later.

The importance of security for GDN was recognised at an early stage of the project. Consultations took place with the relevant bodies, such as the Data Protection Registrar, and with computer security experts within Government and from the IT industry. The security policy for the network, together with the implementation plan, has been established using specialist advice.

Security of data transmitted over a network is basically concerned with three things: first, data must arrive where it is intended to arrive, and nowhere else; secondly, it must arrive as it was sent, and not be corrupted in transmission; and, thirdly, it must not be accessed in transit by unauthorised people.

No system can be completely secure; absolute security would be both prohibitively expensive and impractical to use. The security planned to be built into the GDN is designed to provide adequate protection for the applications likely to use the network, but it is not designed to handle nationally classified data.

The responsibility for determining whether security is adequate for any particular application rests with the owner of the data in the Department concerned. If a Department considers that the GDN does not offer sufficient security for a particularly sensitive application, it must consider additional security measures, such as encryption. Conversely, any Department connecting to the network must have in place adequate security measures of its own to ensure both the integrity of its own data and that it will not put at risk the data of other users. There will be clear guidelines about the level of security required of departmental systems before they are allowed to connect to the GDN. It will be a central responsibility to ensure that these are respected.

Privacy is a related issue. It is about avoiding unauthorised access to data. This can occur through unauthorised access — commonly known as hacking —into the network and the systems using it; but it can also occur as a result of access to data by authorised users of the network who are, however, not entitled to have access to those particular data. The owners of data must ensure that all access to their data is properly authorised.

As I have said, a GDN does not involve sharing of data between Departments. Nor does it affect the srrangements for controlling and authorising access laid down by statute or regulation or in the form of undertakings given to Parliament. In fact, it strengthens those arrangements in two ways.

First, it will require Departments to write down clear rules on what authorisations may be given, who is empowered to give them, and the audit trails to record access to any particular data. One recent example, which my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary announced to the House in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. Mackay) on 27 October last year, was the compilation of access rules for the Inland Revenue's new computer system to modernise and improve tax collection, known as the BROCS project.

Secondly, it will provide information on connections and traffic volumes and maintain control over who is allowed to connect to which computer. These two factors apply whether the access is to data within a Department or to that held by another Department.

I can understand fears of the "big brother" syndrome, though I do not agree with them. For this syndrome to occur, there would have to be a wilful disregard of parliamentary control by users of the network, which I, my Government colleagues and, I believe, the civil servants who work in Departments would not be prepared to tolerate for one instant. This is true whether we have a GDN or not, or indeed whether we use computers or not.

In designing the arrangements for security and privacy for the GDN project, we have drawn on the most appropriate technical expertise available in both Government and the private sector. We have also fully involved the Data Protection Registrar. I met him personally last year to discuss these issues, and have ensured that he is kept fully in touch with our plans, and is content with them. In this field, I believe that the GDN project is setting standards for other networks that we can be proud of.

As my hon. Friend said, the GDN is an exciting project. I have been very impressed by the way in which the companies involved have come forward and addressed its technical and commercial challenges. On the technical side, the proof of this has been the signing of the memoranda of agreement on 11 January. The invitations to tender went to all three consortia today, as my hon. Friend said.

The ground is now set for a good commercial competition. I look forward to the outcome, and hope that the results allow the GDN to go ahead by showing that it provides value for money in meeting the Government's data communication needs.

Finally, I thank my hon. Friend for possibly having contributed to the creation of a parliamentary record by allowing me to speak. In the past three parliamentary days, all five Treasury Ministers have spoken from the Dispatch Box without taking part in a Committee and without answering oral questions as a Department. That might possibly be a record.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Eleven o'clock.