Examination of witnesses (Questions 140-159)|
TUESDAY 24 APRIL 2001
140. Can I ask you a few questions about, I
think you call it, your exciting development into the new Telecommunications
Act which put into perspective, I think I am right in saying,
is going to be about a quarter of your budget over the next five
years, the third largest slice of expenditure running at about
£148 million pounds, which I am sure is the sort of amount
needed to be spent to set up the sort of network which will obviously
make the Foreign Office able to fulfil its function that much
more effectively. Now my questions are really directed about the
procurement of the system and the maintenance of it as it becomes
more and more in place in your various posts. Now I notice this
is a partnership, a public/private initiative, and you have a
particular firm engaged. Can you tell me the method, the process,
by which you are procuring and installing the network in the various
posts around the world? I believe it is 50 so far have this.
(Sir John Kerr) Yes, I would like to call on Matthew
Kirk, Head of the IT Strategy Unit, who worked with me on the
contract which we signed with Global Crossing on 10 May last summer,
which is the biggest single contract the Foreign Office have ever
signed. The company contracted to provide the service over the
next ten years and we are buying from them a service. It is already
in operation in 40 posts who thus have network links back to the
UK. In Amman, where they were switched on the other day, they
described the feeling as like moving the embassy into King Charles
Street. The Service will reach up to 150 posts by the end of this
yearand this is a point not in the Departmental reportwe
have decided that it will be a false economy not to extend this
IT network to all but our very smallest post. So it will be out
to 210 posts, 99 per cent of our staff overseas, by the end of
next financial year. You are right, it is quite an innovative
financing arrangement as well as quite technologically innovative.
I would like to ask Matthew to describe it.
(Mr Kirk) As Sir John has said, what we are buying
is a set of services, a set of capabilities, if you like, to do
things over the telephone or using messaging, e-mail, telegrams
and so forth or data internet type services at each of our posts.
We are not buying either the technology with which Global Crossing
deliver this or a specific band width to the posts in question.
We specify a level of service that they have to provide and how
much band width is needed to be delivered to that post and the
means by which it is delivered is their decision. They are doing
it very largely by satellite because that is the only reliable
way to get dedicated telecommunications services into our missions
in most of the world. In Western Europe, North America and parts
of the Far East they are doing it by fibre optic cables because
that is a cheaper way of doing it in those parts of the world.
The advantage for us on the financing and procurement side of
this way of doing it is that the huge capital investment required
to lay out the network does not fall to us, it falls to Global
Crossing. We pay for the service as it comes on stream and included
in our service payments over the ten year life of the contract
is the capital investment that they are making very largely in
the last financial year and in this financial year. So at the
time that we are still running our existing communications so
systems that we can carry on working, our service payments to
Global Crossing are relatively small. At the time at which our
existing systems have gone, our service payments will have grown.
141. I understand that and I understand the
need to have a service contract to put this telecommunications
network in place. The point that captured my attention is that
you are talking about completing the installation of network industry
standard desk top IT facilities. In this day and age that is no
longer rocket science. I am particularly interested to know how
much of the procurement, the maintenance and the replacement of
equipment that may fail is centrally controlled and centrally
procured? The reason for asking the question is that it is the
case that in many of the posts that we maintain around the world
these sort of industry standard, bog standard if you like, IT
facilities can be readily procured from the equivalent of Dixons
to operate on the officer's desk. Not the clever stuff to communicate
secretly with London, I am talking about the basic stuff, the
tools that the officer uses here. It occurs to me from the reports
that I have had that officers find, and this is a fact, if they
have a failure or a requirement to replace a piece of standard
equipment they have to wait for it to come from London. That actually
is a financial disadvantage in the operation of an efficient Foreign
Office service. I am very curious to know whether it is the case
under the contract that you have that everything has to be centrally
procured, centrally supplied, centrally maintained, or are we
allowing our posts to exercise a little bit of initiative on industry
(Mr Kirk) I think we have to distinguish between the
network and the desk top IT.
142. Yes, I am making that point particularly.
(Mr Kirk) The contract with Global Crossing covers
the network and not the desk top IT, that is done by an inhouse
project group, Firecrest, at the moment. For network, Global Crossing
are required to supply large components of it through us in London
and it is shipped overseas through the diplomatic bag.
143. That I can accept.
(Mr Kirk) The reason for that is security, of course.
The same is true for desk top IT for most of what we do.
144. It is centrally supplied?
(Mr Kirk) It is centrally supplied for two reasons
145. Shipped out to wherever?
(Mr Kirk) Shipped out to wherever.
146. Even though you could buy it in a local
store in five minutes?
(Mr Kirk) There are two reasons for that. One is security
147. That is the software side, not the hardware
(Mr Kirk) You are just as vulnerable through what
is sitting on your desk as you are through
148. But that is through the software, not through
(Mr Kirk) That is the second reason. The software
and the boxes on the desk, while they may look the same in different
countries of the world and in different branches of Dixons, have
subtle differences in performance. One of the efficiencies that
we are trying to get through the network is central maintenance
of the system so that we do not have to have armies of people
deployed around the world conducting things which are relatively
small which people can do from the centre and maintaining our
stocks of data and so forth can all be done from the centre where
it is much more efficiently done. That can only be done if the
thing at the other end of the wire is recognisable to the system
that is running it from the UK.
149. There are standard specifications and industry
(Mr Kirk) There are indeed and, in practice, they
do not work. Compatibility is one of the great lies of the technology
150. You do realise the penalty that imposes
on the efficiency of operation of your officers if they have to
wait an inordinate amount of time for a replacement.
(Mr Kirk) We supply on-site spares, pieces of equipment.
151. I tell you, that does not always work.
(Sir John Kerr) You are right, Mr Chidgey, we are
in an interim period at the moment. We are introducing, in a series
of stages, Firecrest, which is on desks in all the embassies and
all over the Foreign Office. It is moving up the scale of sophistication
with each itercubion. As you travel around posts I am sure you
hear the complaint which you have mentioned with us.
152. Indeed I have.
(Sir John Kerr) It is inevitable in a transition.
It is crucially important not to go back to Dixons, that was what
we used to do. In America we had about 11 different kinds of non-compatible
stuff lurking around people's desks and in their briefcases; it
was a disaster.
Mr Chidgey: Sir John, I take the point exactly
but what I am trying to say is that the sort of equipment we are
talking about is the desk top level. It is possible to specify
precisely what meets the Foreign Office's requirements. It is
possible to do that and to give authority to local posts to work
to procure to that specification.
Chairman: Sir John, I am going to give you ten
minutes to think of an even better answer to that question.
The Committee suspended from 5.12 pm to 5.23
pm for a division in the House.
153. Dare I say that the smoking break is over
or whatever it is. You have now had sufficient time to reflect
on the excellent question from Mr Chidgey, would you please reply
(Sir John Kerr) Yes. We were on bog standard and Dixons.
I was talking about the need possibly at a cost, I accept that,
to standardise. The point I had not finished and Matthew had not
mentioned is security. If you are putting all that kit on desks,
if you are joining it up right across the world in a network,
then you need to be absolutely certain that every bit out on the
edge of the network is secure.
154. Tamper free, you might say?
(Sir John Kerr) Yes. Because if somebody can get into
one bit of your network he can get into all of your network. You
are right, there is a cost, but I think the value is worth it.
Mr Chidgey: May I pursue this line. I understand
perfectly what you are saying and we do have the benefits of our
own intranet within the Parliamentary estate so we have common
experience of some of these matters. What that experience might
be is a different matter but we have a common experience. The
essence of a totally centralised procurement and maintenance system,
in your case around the world, clearly is the ability and the
efficiency with which you provide the customer service to your
officers at their desks and their posts. Can anyone tell me how
quickly you are able to respond and by what method you respond
to a need for advice and assistance? How quickly can you respond
with replacement equipment and what level do you go down to before
you allow the officer to go and purchase something? Can he buy
his own floppy disks or do they have to come from London? What
have you done to address this particular scenario which is created
by your need to be secure and centrally controlled because of
the down side that creates to the efficiency with which you can
155. And the delays.
(Sir John Kerr) Can I give a quick answer on the network,
on the communications, and then ask Matthew to deal with the stuff
on the desk. On the network, we have our service standards laid
down in the contract and the company need to have their man on
the spot within a given time. The service standards are laid down.
I do not know the answer when it comes to the stuff on desks.
I know about 24 hour helplines at headquarters here and that sort
of thing, but I do not know the full answer to your question.
(Mr Kirk) I cannot give you a full answer because
it depends on the nature of the fault and where it is. The ability
to raise a fault, to log a call, is available 24 hours a day,
seven days a week. The ability from our technical installation
at Hanslope Park, outside Milton Keynes, to get into our IT systems
in our embassies overseas remotely and fix faults which can be
fixed by that means is also available 24 hours a day for posts
which have the right kit in place. This is where standardisation
becomes crucial. If the maintenance system at Hanslope Park cannot
recognise the bit of kit at the far end it cannot fix it. If it
can it can fix it instantly. We can instal software upgrades,
we can unfreeze systems, we can reboot servers and so forth.
156. That is through an operator in Milton Keynes
talking via a telephone link
(Mr Kirk) Talking directly.
157. Can I just finish my explanation? I think
I am with you. Usually talking to the person who has got the problem
whilst they actually shadow them on the screen, you have that
facility 24 hours a day?
(Mr Kirk) Yes.
158. That is common practice.
(Mr Kirk) We also have the facility to do software
upgrades while people are out of the office.
159. That is fairly standard. What about when
it needs an actual physical intervention, whether replacement
kit or whatever? What is the process? How long does that take?
What level do you have to go down to before you allow them the
freedom to do something?
(Mr Kirk) It depends on the piece of kit in question.
If it is a piece of kit which is linked to the network then it
has to have been supplied from the UK in origin.