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Is the UK.gov IT gravy train heading for the buffers?

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Comment Some of the world’s biggest and best known purveyors of IT services to the UK government could soon be feeling rather sickly, as IT contracts totalling several billion pounds may well be up for review within the next 12 to 18 months. A source of considerable revenue for the likes of EDS, Cap Gemini and PA Consulting – the usual suspects – could be about to dry up overnight.

For we are now entering the twilight zone, that peculiar place that government and civil service decamp to the moment it becomes clear that a change of party and ideology might be on the cards. It happened in 1991 and 1996, when informed opinion expected a change of administration, but not in 2000 or 2004, when it didn’t.

The next election could still be 18 months away, but as of today, bookies have the Tories as clear favourites to be the largest party in the next parliament and to form the next government. Failing that, the smart money is on a hung parliament, with the Lib Dems finally coming in from the cold.

Convention already requires that the Prime Minister authorise senior civil servants to speak to the opposition in advance of a poll, to ensure a smooth transition if they win power at the election. This time, Senior Liberal Democrats will also be invited to hold talks with the heads of Government departments, suggesting that the civil service are taking their prospects seriously.

So what might a change of government mean for some very expensive IT projects? The current ID Cards scheme and National ID database, estimated as likely to cost some £20bn, seem unlikely to survive, given the very public opposition to both by Lib Dems and Tories (and SNP).

Also up for the chop are likely to be the ContactPoint project, which pulls together data on every child in the country in one single central repository and the Central NHS Spine. Both look likely to be replaced under a Conservative administration by a series of more decentralised initiatives, although to date the Lib Dems have been somewhat woollier on what they would do about the NHS scheme.

The Vetting Database, due to go live this year, may prove a little harder to kill. Tory Education Spokeswoman, Maria Miller MP has said that she considers the system to be flawed, in that it will not catch migrant workers who might only be in the UK for a few months. That is, it will identify UK citizens with criminal records, but not foreign citizens who have committed crimes abroad.

The problem with killing this system is that it plays to public fears about child safety. It adds to the CRB checking system, and does away with the cumbersome current requirement for multiple checking. Expect this system to be slimmed down – but not scrapped entirely.

Also unlikely to find favour with an incoming Tory/Lib Dem administration is the £12bn Interception Modernisation Programme, which aims to centralise all electronic communications in a single place.

So, is this bad news for the big IT providers and good news for taxpayers? Not necessarily. We spoke with the Cabinet Office and the Department for Children Schools and Families. Both gave approximately the same answer – which was that contracts would be honoured. A spokeswoman for the DCSF said: "the Department would take into account the rights and responsibilities contained within the contract along with any relevant break clauses and negotiate an appropriate exit."

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