Official secrecy shrouds government IT, Identity cards and others

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Official secrecy shrouds waste of money on government IT

Official secrecy shrouds waste of money on government IT

Sir: I long since ceased to be amazed at the debacles that come with new government IT systems such as tax credits (letter, 27 June); this is because of my experience when working for a prominent business systems provider. About 20 years ago, the company I then worked for was asked to look at the possibility of providing a computer system for a quasi-government department. I had a preliminary meeting with their management, during which I was asked to look through a very thick document which purported to outline the department's requirements.

This document was, in fact, a report by a firm of consultants whom the department had previously contracted to investigate their IT needs, and put forward basic system design. As I read through it, I became increasingly aware of the fact that although this firm of IT consultants were probably technically competent they obviously had no in-depth knowledge of the type of work with which the department was involved.

I learned that the cost of this report alone was £200,000; no mention was made of the cost of providing the actual system! My company, having long experience in the field, could have provided an off-the-shelf, proven package, with a few tweaks, and included hardware, software, training and support for less than £100,000. After polite handshakes, I was asked to leave and I heard no more; perhaps if I had quoted a figure more in line with what they expected to pay, I might have got the business.

We have no way of knowing whether an efficient IT system was ever installed because it would have been used solely "in-house" and did not directly affect the public; how many other failing, over-budget systems are there that we do not get to hear about? I am unable to give any more detail of the people with whom I had the meeting because I was required to sign the Official Secrets Act.



Growing defiance over identity cards

Sir: The growing rumble in the unions against ID cards should not be treated lightly. As the author of the motion that won an overwhelming vote of support at the conference of Unison last week, I can assure those still wedded to the authoritarian New Labour project that the peasants are indeed revolting.

The hard-working Unison delegates included a majority of New Labour members and supporters. The top bureaucracy of Unison are even better known as stalwarts of third-term neo-labourism. Yet they supported a spirited motion condemning the Government's plans as against basic human rights. They went further, determined to join the campaign of opposition whatever happens to the current Bill.

The rest of this year's Unison conference debated attack after attack by the Government on public services to a point where the Welfare State will have been effectively dismantled by 2009. The jobs, pay, pensions and conditions of millions of workers in public services will be slashed.

ID cards become recognisable not as the safeguards against mythical "terrorists" and "illegals" but as protection for the Government itself in the event of civil strife.



Sir: Your correspondent Patrick Kyle (27 June) mentions the well-worn assertion "If you are innocent you have nothing to fear", a slogan which is always used by authoritarian governments when they introduce legislation to reduce our freedoms, and especially when the state apparatus decides to help itself to more of our personal information.

The assertion is logically false because personal knowledge held by the state limits the future legitimate actions of the citizen. For example, a future law might be proposed against which one might want to make a fair democratic protest. If our names, photographs and fingerprints are already on file then many will be afraid of making that protest. In this way, our democratic rights have been diminished. Without the feeling of freedom to demonstrate against our political masters, as distinct from the theoretical right to do so, we are not truly democratic.

Of course, those same masters will try to assure us that our rights would remain unchanged. Whether that is a cynical lie or an honest belief it is equally wrong. Even in the UK, with all its democratic traditions, there are many hardline authoritarians who are uncomfortable with the democratic process and would feel happier in a police state. Some of them even become cabinet ministers, MPs or chief constables.



Sir: We must identify people, to combat crime, terrorism, illegal immigration and benefit fraud, but identity cards are expensive, unreliable and forgeable and have to be renewed.

A modest proposal: each citizen be tattooed on the forehead with a unique bar code: cheap, reliable, difficult to forge, and stays for life.

Hiding the bars by hair or clothing would be illegal, so cameras could identify anybody at any time. Criminals, hooligans, speeding drivers, benefit claimants, accident victims and so on will be identified instantly. Your computer will only work once it has checked your code: hence identifying cyber-criminals and spammers.

Any loss of civil liberty would be a small price to pay for the huge benefit to society from the overnight elimination of crime. People without bars (such as foreigners) will be easy to spot, and treated with due caution.

If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. I appeal to the patriotic people of the United Kingdom to accept the severity of the threats that we face, and learn to love your bars.



Hare-brained way to heat up the planet

Sir: To help reduce the rate of global warming, we need to be more careful about conserving energy. Many of us are buying more efficient cars, installing double glazing, using low energy light bulbs etc. If we're cold, we wrap up warm, and conversely, we wear cool clothes in hot weather. This is common sense.

Why then has somebody thought up a hare-brained scheme to keep us warm when outside on cool evenings: namely, to heat the air around us with patio heaters? As they can use up to 14 kilowatts of power, their existence flies in the face of common sense.

By phone, I contacted six major stores that supply these heaters, to voice my concern. Only one, B&Q, bothered to get back to me. Surely, one of these suppliers could be the first to buck the trend and say, "We're doing our bit to reduce global warming; we won't sell patio heaters."



Sir: Stuart Thornley (letter, 25 June) is misleading when he states that during the 75 per cent of the year when we run central heating, leaving electrical appliances on standby will produce no net increase in consumption of power.

With electricity, though all the electricity coming into the appliance is indeed converted into heat, there are significant losses in getting the fuel to the power station, conversion in the power station and ultimate transmission to the point of end use, such that 2.8 units of energy need to be extracted to provide 1 unit of useful electrical energy. At the same time around 500-520gms of carbon dioxide are emitted with our present mix of generating stations.

Most homes have gas central heating and, even if old fashioned non-condensing boilers are used with a 75 per cent efficiency, this means that only 1.4 units must be extracted to provide one useful unit of heat. Thus at best the waste heat from standby appliances will be at least twice as wasteful compared with gas central heating. In terms of carbon dioxide, the emissions are less than 240-250gms or less than half those derived from incidental gains from standby appliances.

Comments such as those of Stuart Thornley are unhelpful in the discussion on climate change and are only relevant in the small proportion of houses which have electrical central heating.



Whom is Trident meant to deter?

Sir: It is to be welcomed that Julian Lewis has opened the debate on the replacement of Trident (letter, 21 June). In his letter, he exposes the paucity of arguments in favour of even retaining, let alone replacing, Trident.

The Tory policy is: we must have a nuclear deterrent as long as other countries have nuclear weapons. This is clear incitement to nuclear proliferation. If Britain, which faces no particular military threat, needs Trident because others have similar weapons, every other country can justify their need for them as well. Israel, Iran and North Korea all feel threatened; hence their nuclear programmes.

Britain's independent deterrent is an expensive misnomer. It is not independent; we rely on the US for the missile system and maintenance. Nor is it a deterrent; whom does it deter? None of the openly nuclear states is a threat to us, nor do the reputedly nuclear armed states pose a credible threat. Trident certainly does not deter terrorists.

So what is Trident for? The only other argument for its retention is that it buys us a "seat at the top table". Maybe it did in the Cold War era, but the world has moved on since then. Britain would command far more respect if we abandoned the hypocrisy of telling others to give up their nuclear ambitions whilst developing a replacement for Trident.



Malicious attacks on peaceful Muslims

Sir: Bruce Anderson's assertion in his article "This attempt to criminalise religious hatred is an absurd perversion of the rule of law" (27 June) that religious groups inspire hatred of others and that such "hatred" is acceptable is grossly inflammatory.

Mr Anderson ignores the fact that most of the world religions came with a message of peace, justice and morality. It is wrong to assert that Islam encourages hatred of Jews and Christians. In Islamic Law, they are referred to as "People of the Book" and enjoy a higher recognition than other non-Muslim groups. The Quran mentions that there are some good people in their midst. Muhammad sent a group of refugee Muslims to a Christian ruler whom he recognised was just and fair.

I agree that the proposed law against incitement to religious hatred needs modification. Obviously we need to protect the livelihood of comedians who are only able to earn a living from attacking mullahs and rabbis. But it seems hypocritical to me that whilst Jews and Sikhs are protected under existing anti-racial discrimination laws, Muslims - who are from a diverse range of ethnicities and are more likely to experience discrimination on the basis of their faith - have no protection when headscarves are pulled or graves desecrated or mosque windows broken.

Do the critics of the proposed law suggest that malicious attacks against the largely peaceful Muslim community are justified? I hope not.



It's time to kill off the idle apostrophe

Sir: Bravo for Professor Kate Burridge, who dares speak the heresy that the apostrophe should go (report, 18 June). I have entertained this thought for some years, and am always astonished at the passion the suggestion brings out in its defenders.

The apostrophe adds nothing to a sentence. While the comma will indicate pause and, therefore, rhythm, and where question and exclamation marks will show variety of intonation, there is no equivalent of the apostrophe in the spoken language.

All examples given to me to justify its retention have been on the lines of "the boy's books" and "the boys' books"; I reply that these phrases never occur without the context of a sentence, and, within that sentence the meaning would be clear to anybody. At this point, the apostrophe lover usually becomes violent.

Professor Burridge is right. Let it go. It's a good-for-nothing layabout that probably wears a hoodie and draws benefits it's not entitled to. (End sentence with a preposition! I can already hear the spluttering.)



Kubrick's finest

Sir: In a column devoted to correcting errors, Guy Keleny really shouldn't introduce another, nor should he advance his personal prejudices (Errors & Omissions, 25 June). Everyone knows that 2001: A Space Odyssey is the sainted Stanley Kubrick's finest work, not Dr Strangelove.



Patriotic appeal

Sir: May we hope that, as part of the celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, the BBC comes to its senses and restores "Rule Britannia" to its full glory during the last night of the Proms? For several years now I have had to play my recording of Bryn Terfyl's magnificent performance, in Welsh rugby kit, at that critical moment during the concert. And with Wales's success during the six nations competition earlier this year, I have already played this several times.



Lunar observations

Sir: A claim that "the size of the Moon does not vary" ("Has the moon got bigger", 24 June) had me reaching for the Nautical Almanac, an HMSO publication essential for sextant-wielding navigators. On a monthly basis, and due to the Moon's elliptical orbit around the Earth, its apparent diameter does vary, from about 29.4 to about 33.4 minutes of arc, that is by nearly 14 per cent.



The lonely columnist

Sir: Like Wendy Curtis (letter, 27 June), I too am drawn to Tracey Emin's column because of her candour and lack of pretentiousness. What I wonder is this: she's always banging on about not having had sex for two years (perhaps that's not quite the right expression) - so is she using your space as an elaborate lonely hearts ad?



Rustic civilisation

Sir: Andrew Buncombe's "The new Wild West" (27 June) brings a twinge of nostalgia. When we visited Pinedale in pre-boom (and pre-Bush) 1999, it proudly displayed the best small town motto I have ever seen: "Pinedale - All the civilisation you need". Now, it probably has less.