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

  • @MLeftly

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.