One year to go: Can Scotland really declare gov IT independence?
Get ready for Hadrian's partial firewall
In one year’s time, the people of Scotland will vote on whether to leave the United Kingdom. They will vote yes or no for numerous reasons … and the viability of Scotland’s government IT is not likely to be one of the most prominent.
But the problems a newly-independent Scotland would have extracting its state-sector tech from the rest of the UK – known as rUK to referendum fanbois – are, in miniature, a demonstration of the work ahead if Scotland votes yes.
In some areas of government, Scotland is already effectively independent from rUK. Along with Wales and Northern Ireland, Scotland has run its own health service since devolution in 1999. Avoiding England’s disaster-prone NHS National Programme for IT, Scotland set up relatively modest central systems including an Emergency Care Summary, a patient record containing vital data, which covers everyone in the country except those who refuse it.
Meanwhile, social care is run by Scotland’s 14 health boards, and it has single police, fire and ambulance services, with policing and legal IT systems tending to be Scottish rather than UK-wide due to its separate legal system. While its blue light services are users of the UK’s Airwave deal for emergency radios and data terminals, this is a contract shared by dozens of organisations rather than a single system run by the government.
But the three biggest British government IT departments – HMRC, DWP and GCHQ, all believed to be spending at least £500m a year – are all currently UK-wide. Carving out Scotland would present interesting problems for each.
With regard to the tax system run by HM Revenue and Customs, following a vote for independence the Scottish government would set up Revenue Scotland in April 2015.
“In an independent Scotland, we would implement effective IT systems to support tax collection. We are still scoping the details of such systems,” says a Scottish Government spokesperson. There is more information available on welfare, which covers the Department for Work and Pensions and some HMRC functions. Pro-independence group Yes Scotland is bullish about running a separate welfare system:
"If Northern Ireland is able to administer the welfare state, so too can Scotland,” it argues.
While it is true that DWP itself covers only England, Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland’s Social Security Agency uses several DWP contracts and systems including its Central Payment System, and has been criticised by both the Northern Ireland Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee for having poor IT. It is not the ideal model for independent government IT.
A more nuanced view came from the June report of the Expert Working Group on Welfare, set up by the Scottish government to examine how the benefits and pensions system would cope with independence. This found that, in terms of human processing capacity, Scotland punches well above its weight: DWP offices in Scotland not only deal with all the jobseekers allowance, employment and support allowance, income support and incapacity benefit claims from Scotland, they also spend more than 40 per cent of their time processing English claims. Two of DWP’s nine regional pension centres are in Scotland, in Dundee and Motherwell – both of which deal with English as well as Scottish work. The report reckoned it would be rUK, not independent Scotland, which would have to splash out on new administrators. (The prospect of privacy activists raising a fuss over transferring rUK citizens' personal data to what would now be a foreign country doesn't appear to have occurred to anyone.)
But on management and IT, the group found the reverse was true: corporate functions are largely based in England, including the people running IT. There are some big UK-wide databases, including the DWP’s Central Payment System. And the two organisations have big UK-wide IT deals: DWP with HP for a wide range of hardware, software and services and BT for data and telephony networking, and HMRC’s wide-ranging Aspire deal, with Capgemini as prime contractor. Some of these contracts do not expire until 2017.
Faced with this, the Scottish National Party-led government commissioned another report, but has also accepted that this will take time.
'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. ®