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
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
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

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisors are r...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: SThree were established in 1986....

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Manager

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Compliance Manager is require...

SThree: Talent Acquisition Consultant

£22500 - £27000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Since our inception in 1986, STh...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most