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One year to go: Can Scotland really declare gov IT independence?

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'We'll be dependent on England for benefits for some time'

“Scottish ministers have accepted the recommendation of the Expert Working Group on Welfare that a transitional period of shared administration for delivery of benefit payments would be appropriate,” says the spokesperson. “As now, we would therefore continue to use the existing IT infrastructure during that transitional period while developing the appropriate delivery arrangements beyond such a transitional period.”

So an independent Scotland would remain dependent for a few years on the rest of the UK for its benefits system – although to be fair, rUK would probably continue to depend on Scottish civil servants for a while too. After that, Scotland would need to buy IT without the huge economies of scale that DWP and HMRC have used in setting up their existing contracts.

And then there’s GCHQ. After the detention of his partner David Miranda at Heathrow, the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, who as readers may have noticed has written a few articles on surveillance based on the leaks of Edward Snowden, said he planned to publish lots more about “the espionage system in England”.

While this may have been an example of the common American confusion between the UK and one of its four current member nations, calling GCHQ English is accurate in terms of its three disclosed UK locations. GCHQ HQ is Cheltenham’s largest employer, with a satellite operation on the Cornish coast north of Bude (also convenient for the many undersea cables that land in the county) and radio signals collection at Menwith Hill in north Yorkshire, a site also thought to act as the European base of the US’s National Security Agency.

None of these are in Scotland, so that would appear to mean starting from scratch. “An independent Scotland will have its own domestic security and intelligence machinery sitting alongside our police service,” says the Scottish Government’s spokesperson. “This would see Scotland's national security arrangements being legislated for, controlled, and overseen in Scotland, for the first time.”

It is not clear whether Scotland would be allowed to join the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand in the "Five Eyes" group of countries that extensively share their signals intelligence work. The Scottish government does sound keen to co-operate:

“We will work in very close collaboration with the remaining UK and with wider international partners on security and intelligence matters: it is in everyone’s interests to keep our islands secure,” says the spokesperson. “We would at all times ensure that this was done within a strict legal framework set by the Scottish Parliament and ensuring the constitutional rights of the Scottish people. The Scottish and UK Governments would engage closely as sovereign, equal and cooperative allies in tackling issues such as terrorism and organised crime.”

Whether or not Scotland became the Sixth ‘Eye’ (or perhaps ‘Aye’), building capacity in signals intelligence looks tricky. From a practical point of view, an independent Scotland would have very few undersea cables landing in its territory and would lack overseas islands to house forward surveillance stations. Scotland has also tended to take a less authoritarian line than England, Wales and Northern Ireland on civil liberties – permanent police retention of DNA samples, recently abolished across the UK, was never allowed in Scotland – so a ScotCHQ might anyway be less extensive.

Overall, an independent Scotland would have a varied outlook on government IT. In some areas, such as health, it is already pretty much independent, and in good shape. But on the welfare system, the Scottish government acknowledges the need for transitional arrangements over several years. In building what follows, it could counterbalance the UK’s economies of scale through newer, cheaper and better systems than the rUK legacy ones – its spokesperson talks of IT that is “secure, agile and adaptable”.

But building lean new IT systems from scratch ignores Scotland’s civil service data processing offices, which would be underemployed following the presumed loss of their English business. Some might find jobs at the new ScotCHQ, but the main impact of independence on Scottish government IT might well be a choice between replicating legacy systems and cutting some civil service jobs, or creating better IT – and cutting more. ®

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