Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1180-1199)


14 JUNE 2006

  Q1180  Margaret Moran: The Gateway Review has been completed but that focuses on process. Could you tell us whether you are prepared to undertake a gateway review on the practical and technical feasibility of the project and make that available?

  Joan Ryan: I would have to ask to write to the committee on that. I would need to understand the gateway review process and how it has been applied so far to this process and also to biometric residents' permits. I do not feel I can answer that at the moment.

  Chairman: That will be acceptable.

  Q1181  Dr Harris: You said you are not aware specifically and you will let us know of any specific changes that have been made following social science research. We are told in your evidence, and I quote, "the mechanism for incorporating the results of social science work into the programme is predominantly a robust change control process". Do you know what that means because I do not, I am afraid.

  Joan Ryan: I think it means exactly what Margaret was saying. We undertake this research and from it we are able to acquire information about how best to do things like enrol people and deal with people's issues. One of the things we were interested in finding out from people was whether they felt that giving fingerprints meant that in some way that you are a criminal. There is a lot said about people's perceptions being that if you are asked to give your fingerprints, there is some notion of criminality and people would be very resistant to do this. We discovered through the research that that is not the case at all. People's attitude was pretty much: if you have nothing to hide, why would you be worried? We also discovered, through things like the biometrics road show, that people quite like testing out the technology and that, far from it being a barrier, the only times when it hit the barrier might be when there are physical reasons why it is difficult for people to use the technology. There are other issues as well, cultural issues. We have seen these through the roll-out of the passport as well and the new photograph in order to get the facial biometric; for instance, the wearing of head wear for certain groups is an important issue. Social science research has helped inform us about to how to deal with and approach those issues. It is not so much making a complete change from one idea to another but it is informing us about how to approach and handle these issues.

  Q1182  Dr Harris: Can I ask you about costs? To what extent would costs be a driver in choosing the technologies, or indeed the functionality? How do you balance costs?

  Joan Ryan: I suppose we would want what is called best value in that the cheapest will not necessarily be our choice because it might not be able to deliver what we need to see delivered. Our business case has been seen by KPMG. It has been through the Office of Government Commerce gateway. It has had approval at many levels. We are confident that we have the funding and the costings, that they are robust, and we have built in contingency, optimism and bias. We feel we are going to be in a strong position in relation to cost and procurement, but clearly the priority is that we are confident we are (a) getting value for money but (b) that it will deliver.

  Q1183  Dr Turner: Could either of you tell us something about the "joined-upness" of working between government departments on the ID scheme, both on the technology development and making sure that other departments can use it without any operational difficulties. Obviously the Department of Health is going to have an interest in this; DWP is going to have a considerable interest. What can you tell us about that aspect?

  Joan Ryan: We have undertaken a great deal of work on what we call stakeholder engagement, which is what I think you are referring to in terms of the development of the identity card. We have also undertaken work with our delivery partners and then with other groups as well, such as industry groups and a technical group. Across government, the ID card programme managers are key stakeholders who may expect to realise benefits from the introduction of the scheme. We have account managers and they have been in place since 2004. They each have a key contact person at strategy board level. We draw in from that DWP, Department of Health, CRB, the police, and the Department for Communities and Local Government.

  Q1184  Chairman: Are these contacts at ministerial level?

  Joan Ryan: No, these are at civil servant level. Through that work, obviously we are attempting to get this cross-departmental recognition of benefits, the buy-in and working together. We also do that through working on our building blocks.

  Q1185  Dr Turner: You will have taken steps to ensure that the technology is compatible across the whole piece?

  Joan Ryan: Yes, it is absolutely crucial that interoperability exists. We have a number of ways in which that is being approached. We also ensure that with all other schemes we have the technical specification whereby everybody is going to be able to speak to each other.

  Q1186  Dr Turner: One of our witnesses suggested that there has not always been the coherence that there might have been. Specifically they referred to the e-Borders programme where it is suggested that there has been a lack of sharing of evidence, a duplication of effort and a general overlap. There is a specific claim that there has been little coherence between the programmes, particularly in the early stages. What comment do you have to make on that?

  Joan Ryan: In terms of interoperability, we have common technical standards as a start point. We have the e-Government Unit and the Government's Interoperability Framework. We work within that. Across departments, we have our stakeholder groups and our expert assurance groups to make sure that is all working together. You brought up the example of e-Borders. The e-Borders Programme has its own timetable. Although we would look to learn from particularly Project Iris for instance and issues around iris scanning, e-Borders and iris scanning do not actually have a card that relates to the database in that way. It is not perhaps as close a building block to the ID card scheme as some of the other building blocks I have mentioned. It would not be correct to say that there is no interaction between our e-Borders development team and the ID card scheme because there is and it is very important. I am not sure the relationship between what is being developed in both these things is as close as the relationship with UK Visas and biometric residents' permits.

  Q1187  Bob Spink: Given the technological implementation uncertainties and the massive IT infrastructure requirement, procurement will, I guess from your answers, be a developmental process. Will it therefore be on a fixed-price basis, or are you returning to the old cost-plus contract basis for this procurement? Both of them have their problems.

  Joan Ryan: I am loath to delve into talking about the cost issue at the point where we are about to go to procurement because I do not think that would be most sensible. At the point where we talk about that, we would want to discuss it.

  Q1188  Bob Spink: I think that we as a committee and Parliament generally have a duty to hold the Government to account. If the Government is going to return to a cost-plus rather than a fixed-price contracting basis, then I think that is something of public concern.

  Joan Ryan: We have given quite detailed information as far as we are able, without breaking commercial confidentiality or going outside the scope of the committee, on the business case. That is in the public domain. You will also know that we have undertaken every six months, subject to commercial confidentiality, to submit a report to the House of Commons, and that was agreed at the Lords' Amendment Stage.

  Q1189  Chairman: It was and we are content with that. Joan, thank you very much indeed for answering all these questions. We will have further questions later in the session. Can I briefly ask you this? Last week we had Paul Wiles in front of us, the department's Chief Scientific Adviser. We specifically asked him whether he had responsibility for ICT in the department and he said "no". Neither he nor in any evidence we have received from the Home Office have said who is responsible for ICT. Do you know who it is?

  Joan Ryan: Could I ask to write to the committee on that point to confirm who I think it is?

  Q1190  Chairman: That is interesting because it is actually Vincent Geake. What we would like to know is why in fact he has not been mentioned in any evidence at all and why you as the Minister did not know and neither did the Chief Scientific Adviser. Perhaps you would write to us on that issue because IT seems to be incredibly important to this project.

  Joan Ryan: Obviously he is the Chief Information Officer. I was just a bit thrown when you said "technology". I do in fact know that that is his job. Also, he is newly appointed and so I was struggling to find his name, but I do in fact know it is him.

  Q1191  Chairman: It was not a trick question but just that it is an important issue. Thank you very much indeed, Joan. We will return to you. We move on to Vernon Coaker and the issue of drug classification. Could I launch in straight away, Vernon, and say that the Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council described the current classification system, and I quote: "It is antiquated and reflects the prejudice and misconceptions of an era in which drugs were placed in arbitrary categories with notable, often illogical, consequences". Do you agree?

  Mr Coaker: No, I do not agree with that.

  Q1192  Chairman: Why not?

  Mr Coaker: I think it is a fairly extreme view and I am sure it was meant to actually put a point of view. I think the classification system has generally served us well. There is a basis for the classification of the drugs. I think it is a system that is understandable to people and has credibility with the public.

  Q1193  Chairman: You would defend it, as the Minister responsible?

  Mr Coaker: I would defend it. That is not to say it is perfect.

  Q1194  Adam Afriyie: Could I go back one step? What do you consider to be the aim of the UK drugs policy and the classification system in particular? Obviously we want to see drug use stopped. Is the policy to stop the users, is it to stop dealers, or is it to stop the suppliers? What is the aim of the policy of the classification system?

  Mr Coaker: That is a very good question. It is not either/or. Sometimes, in these debates about drugs strategy, we get into an either/or situation. As an overall strategy, it is about tackling drugs, dealing with the street, trying to tackle that in terms of crime on the street and doing something about some of the problems that people see on their street. It is about getting more people into treatment, trying to do something about those people who are misusing drugs, and trying to support them. If you look at the numbers going into treatment, there is a record number of people going into treatment at the present time. It is about breaking that cycle. Alongside that, it is also about education and changing attitudes. I think the classification system helps in the sense that it identifies those drugs which are potentially harmful.

  Q1195  Adam Afriyie: I am somewhat surprised that you argue that the classification system has been helpful when drug use has increased enormously since the introduction of the classification system. What does that say about the classification system when in other countries like Sweden drug use has virtually gone?

  Mr Coaker: We have a situation where we have a drugs strategy that is tackling drug use out there; it is tackling the prevalence of drugs on the street and drug use. If we look at some of the statistics, in terms of the drugs strategy, we are seeing a degree of success with 16-24 year-olds. The 2004-05 British Crime Survey compared the present situation to 1998 and for 16-24 year-olds the proportion that reported that they had ever taken any drugs had fallen by 15%.

  Q1196  Adam Afriyie: If we go back to when the classification system was first introduced, then I think the picture would be very different. It is easy to point at a graph, take a couple of dates and make a case. If you look at the overall picture since the introduction of the classification system, the evidence is completely the other way round, is it not?

  Mr Coaker: If you go back to '71, we were in a different type of society. We are dealing with society and the community as it is now. I think in that sense we have a situation where there is an overarching drugs strategy, which is not just based on the classification system but on education; it is about changing attitudes and it is also about enforcement of the law. It goes back to what I said earlier. It is not one situation or the other; it is a package of measures trying to deal with the problem we have.

  Q1197  Adam Afriyie: What precise or specific evidence is there that putting a drug in a higher class actually has a deterrent effect? From what I can see, sometimes it even seems to have the reverse effect.

  Mr Coaker: I think that people out there—if we talk about the population in general, the public at large—if we have classified a drug as a Class A drug, realise that it is a serious drug; they realise that it is a drug that is harmful. It is a drug that has a particularly—

  Q1198  Chairman: Where is the evidence? I am not doubting that you believe that, but where is the evidence to demonstrate your response to Adam's question?

  Mr Coaker: The evidence is in the survey that we have taken recently where we have looked at drug use, and the statistics that I have just given out, where we have seen a reduction in the use of drugs.

  Chairman: The point of Adam's question, if I get him right . . . . I am sorry, Adam, perhaps you should ask the question.

  Q1199  Adam Afriyie: The point of the question is this. What specific evidence is there that when you move a drug to a higher class there is a deterrent effect on its use? Where is the evidence for that?

  Mr Coaker: We take the advice of the ACMD; we take the advice of the police. The ACMD has scientific representatives on it. They are people who are professors of pharmacology, and so on. They advise us on that, and they advise us on the class of drug, where a drug should be classed, and we take evidence from them. Then that gives us the opportunity, as I say, to reflect on the impact that has on the public.

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