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
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
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: Digital Optimisation Executive - Marketing

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's fastest growing, multi...

Recruitment Genius: Financial Reporting Manager

£70000 - £90000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Financial Reporting Manager i...

Recruitment Genius: Payments Operations Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They win lots of awards for the...

Recruitment Genius: Telephone Debt Negotiator

£13500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This nationwide enforcement com...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific