Too much information? One day the state might be selling the family data

 

Westminster Outlook Appropriately for a man whose greatest achievement/failure in the coalition so far has been the privatisation of Royal Mail, Michael Fallon spent his final hours as a business minister announcing a sell-off. The proposed privatisation of Constructionline, though, was rather lost in the reshuffle excitement as Mr Fallon reached the top rank of government with a promotion to Defence Secretary.

As well as business, the 62-year-old had held an extraordinarily broad, not to say dysfunctional, brief that also encompassed energy and reviving the fortunes of Portsmouth as BAE Systems winds down shipbuilding in the city.

David Cameron’s go-to fixer has also served as an MP for 26 years over two spells since 1983, so the former director of the inter-dealer broker Tullett Prebon has been rewarded for persistence if nothing else.

Constructionline is run by one of the Government’s favourite contractors, Capita, but has been owned by the state since it was set up in 1998.

Basically, it is an online database of 22,000 vetted suppliers to the building industry. Data such as health and safety certificates and financial information is updated and independently validated every year. More than 2,000 organisations use the database, confident that the suppliers – half of which are small construction firms with a turnover of less than £1m – meet their minimum requirements, such as being solvent and properly equipping workers with hard hats.

These firms do not face the bureaucratic burden of having to fill in pre-qualification questionnaires (PQQs) time and again with this basic data, and that reduces the time and cost of bidding for contracts. Every one of the PQQs is estimated to take up to four and a half hours to complete and, so Capita said last year, Constructionline has generated annual industry savings of £165m.

This is all straightforward, sensible stuff, even though Building magazine was asking as far back as 1999: “Constructionline: Is it worth it?” Then, contractors and consultants signed up the service were concerned that it didn’t provide value for money, with many councils, for example, running their own lists of suppliers. Amusingly, the article warned that to use Constructionline “you need a computer and modem”.

But the internet has moved on from that sepia-tinged, cave-dwelling, prehistoric era of dial-up. Online databases have cropped up all over the place, making the need for a state-run list all but obsolete.

In his last written statement before skipping across Whitehall to take up his post as the protector of these shores, Mr Fallon said: “A number of potential opportunities which would allow the scheme to grow and to offer additional services for the benefit of businesses have been identified.

“The exploitation of these opportunities is best served by a new owner within the competitive tension imposed by the market.”

Ignoring the point that privatisation enthusiasts do themselves absolutely no favours with a cynical public by using words such as “exploitation”, this seems like an eminently sensible sale.

Certainly, selling such an obscure service is not going to result in the sort of bloodletting caused by Royal Mail’s flotation on the London Stock Exchange. The clue here was the way in which political hacks missed the announcement as they furiously hammered their calculators in the wake of the reshuffle to work out what percentage five women represented out of 22 Cabinet members.

However, there are wider ramifications.

What this is about, in essence, is the sale of data. Central government has been fairly woeful at collating its sky-high piles of information, but from the road-closure history of the Highways Agency to computer modelling forecasts at the Met Office, this could all be worth a fortune.

Although I doubt there is any developed strategy as yet, the Constructionline sale might in future years be seen as the moment when our political masters realised they could make a fortune out of the information their civil servants were sitting on.

Anyone who wants to know the number of potholes found on the M25 over the past decade, or how many horse-riders use level crossings, might soon be able to buy that information with a few clicks of the mouse.

This might sound like quite an extrapolation, but I am aware that some MPs are quietly looking at this very issue of monetising public sector information, even if they haven’t got a clue what Constructionline might be.

The service could, ultimately, take on far greater meaning than simply representing a tiny speck in the continuing ideological war between state-stripping zealots and public sector apologists.

Instead, Mr Fallon’s last, overlooked act as a business minister could one day be seen as an achievement or failure second only to the sale of the five-century-old postal service.

twitter.com/@mleftly

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Direct Marketing Manager - B2C, Financial Services - Slough

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity h...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - North West London - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Selby Jennings: Corporate Communications & Marketing Specialist – Geneva

120,000 - 150,000 chf + bonus: Selby Jennings: A leading Swiss Private Banking...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser