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

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
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

IT Systems Business Analyst - Watford - £28k + bonus + benefits

£24000 - £28000 per annum + bonus & benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Business Syste...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Real Staffing

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: The SThree group is a world le...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Comission: SThree: The SThree group is a world lea...

Trainee Recruitment Consultants

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £Competitive: SThree: SThree Group and have be...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?