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I fear that the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, and others suggested—although I am sure that they will tell me that I misheard the point—that we can switch—

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, is the implication to be drawn from what the Minister said that, if the United States pursues a course of action which violates public international law, this Government will similarly defy public international law?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, we shall never defy public international law. If it is implied that, as the Liberal Democrat Front Bench said, that was what happened, I simply do not accept it. The point I wanted to make was that we cannot switch in and out of alliances. It is a characteristic of fashion designers that they follow fashion. I do not think that it is an appropriate way for a political party to work.

We have changed the way in which this country conducts its bilateral relationships, and we can see that with many of the significant relationships that

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have been built with India, Brazil and China, which are very important countries on the world stage. We do it both bilaterally and, rightly, with Europe as well, and I do not see a conflict in doing so.

We have constructed strategic platforms which are resilient and strong to allow us to pursue our foreign policy priorities. Those priorities provide the benchmarks against which we should be judged. Of course we have put energy and climate security at the heart of the international agenda as core foreign policy priorities. Our advocacy in the European Union has paved the way for the European Union to become the world’s first competitive, energy-secure and low carbon economy. Margaret Beckett led an unprecedented debate on that issue in the Security Council.

Things do change. No one predicted in May 1997 that an underground terrorist group would be able not just to commit an atrocity on the scale of 9/11 but to use sophisticated communication devices to undermine Governments, create friction in communities and subvert local grievances into a unified Islamist struggle. Al-Qaeda is the first multinational terrorist network of this kind, and it demands a complex and multifaceted response. We share strategies, intelligence and practical advice with our allies, which reduces the ability of terrorists to strike at us. But any permanent solution needs to tackle al-Qaeda’s success in developing a broad appeal for its ideology; hence our policy of engagement with the Islamic world, which is just as important as anything else that we undertake. I am afraid that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry cannot persuade me that bin Laden’s international ambitions started with or grew from our intention to defend ourselves.

Our 1997 manifesto promised to reverse the decline in UK spending on development aid. We set out our clear moral responsibility to combat global poverty. The millennium development targets focused that work, which has been significant for this country’s foreign policy. Through Tony Blair’s chairmanship of the Commission for Africa, Gordon Brown’s work on health education and investment, and our presidencies of the G8 and the European Union, we have built a platform for Africa. We have, through our international development Secretaries, reversed the old belief that development is a form of charity. African Governments are no longer our clients; they are our partners. Mugabe is no partner in this equation. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, that this Government have taken no step to release anyone from their obligations under the common European position on travel for Mugabe. I want that to be clear and on the record.

Lord Blaker: My Lords, is the noble Lord saying that the statement by Chancellor Merkel was wrong?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, others will answer for their statements. We say that the common European position has to be observed. It is a unanimous position of the European Community.

The noble Lord, Lord Luce, asked what we are doing in other regards. We work bilaterally with every SADC Government on this question. The African

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journey is not easy; there are no quick fixes, but there has been progress. We need renewed efforts, for example, on the long British tradition of liberal trade policies, and with good reason, because open markets help lift peoples out of poverty. Globalisation has to be understood and has to be compatible with social justice, because not everyone has benefited from trade and investment liberalisation.

Multinational negotiations can be difficult, but we must continue to have them. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, that I am not disturbed that trade has moved into financial sectors and other leading sectors in the world economy. That is the nature of the world economy. The noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, expressed her dismay, if I can put it that way, at the cuts in our network, and the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, also mentioned that. It is true that in the current financial circumstances we do not have embassies everywhere, but our network is effective and is in the front rank worldwide. As the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, mentioned, underpinning everything must be the proper focus on human rights. People must expect their Governments to be accountable, to protect them and to respect the rule of law. That is fundamental, as is the work on corruption.

I want to say a few words about some of the global aims that perhaps do not strike people as immediate. Our military interventions in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq have been motivated by the need to protect populations. We have to explain that and describe why we think it is important, and those issues will still be with us over some time. Some issues, such as energy supply, on which we are making progress, will be with us for a very long time. That is helped by the completion of the Langeled gas pipeline, which is a great benefit to all of us for the reasons stated by the noble Lord, Lord Howell.

In the midst of all that, the FCO is well and thriving. Like many foreign ministries around the world, it has had to adapt to new realities. In 1997, most British embassies still had no desktop internet access, no e-mail and certainly no BlackBerries. Prime Minister Pitt would have been utterly confounded by the technologies of this age. We live now in an open society, where there are few secrets and where we have to have a vital and dynamic relationship with everyone.

As my noble friend Lord Giddens said, foreign affairs do not simply happen somewhere else. All the impacts are with us all the time. We adapt to these realities, and we have not compromised the FCO’s quality. We have brought our policy and research departments closer together, as the noble Lord, Lord Luce, was calling for, to give more intellectual depth to our arguments and maintain an historical perspective. We are more efficient while maintaining a greater commitment overseas. I say to the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, that we are trying to build up areas such as trade in a more coherent and joined-up way.

We have pioneered a number of innovations which have been important in the past 10 years, such as those in consular and visa work and trying to respond to the vast number of people who travel overseas. We

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are using our new expertise to deal with subjects such as forced marriage, which were not so much on the agenda or at least not so visible 10 years ago. We are learning all the time.

We are not awkward isolationists. I do not think that anything in the past 10 years represents a worsening from the 10 years before, and, as many noble Lords have said, things are very much better. We have changed because the world has changed. Foreign policy lives in our ministries but also sweeps through the stock exchanges, science labs and NGOs. It is also in everything domestically. Tony Blair has created a platform for progress and dignity for our country. I applaud that achievement over the past 10 years, and if anyone weighs it honestly and dispassionately they will feel that the gains have been significant.

2.57 pm

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, it remains for me to thank all those who have taken part in this very good debate. Frankly, I did not expect my initial comments to go unchallenged, nor have they been. There have been some rather fascinating common themes weaving through the debate. First, we must reassess our relations with the American Government, who have made errors. They cannot go alone. The noble Baroness, Lady Symons, who has defended government policy with enormous ability down the years, made that point in her excellent speech. I regard that tradition of ability as fully carried on by the noble Lord, Lord Triesman.

There was a general feeling that we should make more of the Commonwealth; that would be a wonderful achievement, if nothing else, of this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, said that he was going to disagree with me, but on most things he did not. He said quite rightly that domestic and foreign policy are really all one, and that is the central point. Foreign policy, when clearly set out, defines who we are and holds our nation together. Clarity without is solidarity within. If that message gets over from this debate, that will have made it worthwhile. On that note, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

Public Sector: IT Projects

2.59 pm

Lord Lucas rose to call attention to the management of information technology projects by government and public agencies; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am extremely flattered by the quality of noble Lords who have put their names down for this debate. I am looking forward to it, although I suspect that what I say will be challenged quite heavily by some.

Let me start by saying that this Government have much to be proud of in what they have done in the field of government IT. They have seen through some very successful projects: the DWP payment

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modernisation system, Consumer Direct, pension credit, Warm Front from Defra and NHS Direct. I could have given a plethora of examples; those who want to know about them may turn to the e-Government National Awards or TickIT for a list. The Government have also made a number of structural improvements in how IT is dealt with in the Civil Service. The gateway reviews are an excellent innovation. Senior responsible owners, chief information officers and the Office of Government Commerce all speak of a Government who have at least an understanding of what is required to make a successful IT project. So why oh why are we faced with the likes of ID cards, the firearms licensing system, the rural payments system and the current mega NHS project? Why are we faced with failure and catastrophe on that scale?

In my preparation for this debate, I have concluded that there are four underlying themes. This Government have a fondness for centralisation, a lack of trust in professionals and others, a tendency to undermine rather than strengthen the Civil Service and a lack of openness. Although that could also have been said of previous Governments, I suspect that these are ineradicable qualities of this Government. However, I have hope for a future Conservative Government. That is what moves me to speak today; I am speaking as much to my own Front Bench as I am to noble Lords opposite in the hope that I can convince them that there are ways to avoid these problems in the future.

I shall not spend too much time dealing with the detailed problems of individual systems. My noble friends Lord Howe and Lady Byford will do that for me, and they will do so much better than I ever could. I want to focus on thoughts about what we should do to make things better in the future. First, we should take the attitude of strengthening rather than undermining the Civil Service. Civil servants are the people who have to see these projects through. My experience of the Civil Service is that the focus is much more on policy origination than on policy delivery. That is how civil servants gain credibility and move their careers on. I have seen this particularly in the context of my wife’s charity, which works for the Prison Service. She and her colleagues have been steadily in post for 13 or 14 years now, but I doubt whether any civil servant whom she has had to deal with in a serious way has been in post for more than 13 months.

The business of high-flyers rushing around like demented bees is no friend to policy delivery. It destroys the whole basis for it. We have to develop within the Civil Service a career stream that is motivated by and rewarded according to policy delivery. People will stick with projects from the beginning to the end and their kudos within the service will be based on that. There are many such posts within commerce, but while the Civil Service does the chief executive officer position well, it seems not to do so with the chief operating officer. These are and should be well rewarded people in the Civil Service. If we can get that going, we will find a much better relationship developing between the Civil Service and the users of government services.

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Policy origination often tends to be quite antagonistic where existing users are concerned—we need only look at the relationship between the DfES and teachers. There is a perhaps unnecessary degree of opposition and argument. If you want to be effective in policy delivery, you need to build strong relationships and good communication with users. Those are among the fundamental principles underlying good IT project delivery. Similarly, if we went down that route for the Civil Service, we would find that relationships with providers became much better.

The procurement side of many government departments is less than satisfactory, to put it mildly. Procurement staff tend not to be valued by their colleagues and not really to have the interests of the rest of the department at heart; rather, they focus on their own ways of doing things. Indeed, many instances can be found, particularly in IT projects, where those bidding for a contract are not allowed access to the users of the service. How on Earth can you design a system without being allowed to talk to the users? How can you put in a decent proposal, or innovate or find new ways of doing things, if you are restricted to talking to procurement specialists and do not talk to the users?

That sort of problem arises because of the lack of value placed on this function within the Civil Service. Again, the people heading up these functions in major departments should be well paid. In commerce, they would earn £250,000 a year to head that sort of department. I doubt very much whether that sort of status is accorded within government procurement departments. As we know from our debates on the salary to be accorded to the Lord Speaker, salary and status are closely linked.

Secondly, we need to put much more emphasis on trust. The people who can really make a difference to an IT system are the users. To make something successful, you have to engage the knowledge and commitment of a user group. The buzzword term is “federated systems”. In other words, you do not design a mega-project, because it never works. Instead, you look at individual user groups and give them a mandate to design systems that suit themselves. You then put the central work into making sure that those systems have standards, specifications and interfaces that make it possible to work with the wider IT designs.

That is such a basic principle, and so well known, that it is astonishing that systems such as ID cards and the big NHS project appear to have ignored it entirely and as a result have fallen flat on their faces. It must be the absolute centre of all IT development. Trust the professionals, the people doing the job, and then work with them to produce a really effective system. Beyond anything else, systems developed in that way can continue to innovate and evolve of their own accord. Something that is designed centrally gets stuck and in five years’ time it is out of date. No one knows what to do with it any more because there are no mechanisms for making it fit with changed circumstances.

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The third underlying problem is centralisation, which is where politics comes into it. Politicians like things big and they like things fast. They are not around for long. Some Ministers stay in post for two or three years, but that is nothing in terms of the length of a big IT contract. Mostly, they want announcements and results very fast.

If we want to achieve something in our political lives, and it is only natural that we should, we must have in the Civil Service a real expert resource against which those ideas and ambitions can be tested. We need a real understanding of the technologies and their possibilities and of the principles for the development of good IT contracts. If we have such a resource, it must clearly involve a lot of people from outside the Civil Service, but it must also take in IT and delivery specialists from other government departments and give them some experience of real IT professionalism. If we had had that, I do not believe that we would not have been lied to in the way that we were when the ID card proposal was going through Parliament. I do not think that the Government saw it as lying at the time, but they must look back now and realise that what they said about the big centralised database, and about iris and other recognition technologies, was a lie. They were misinformed and misled because they did not have within government the ability to challenge what they were being told by a relatively inexperienced consultant.

If we were to design such an expert resource, I would put it in the Treasury, because, first, the Treasury has a natural power and involvement in almost any major project and, secondly, the problems with, and a quantity of the expenditure involved in, a federated system arise at the interfaces between individual departments or elements of them, and no budgets exist for them. A lot of the problems that have been occurring in police systems, notably the firearms licensing system, seem to have arisen because no one focused on the requirements of those interfaces. In case the firearms licensing system has not surfaced on noble Lords’ radar, I inform them that the problem with it is that it takes more than a minute for a simple drop-down menu to appear on a screen. If you want to transfer a firearm from one force to another force, the process on a computer takes a day. That is entirely due to the lack of bandwidth in the system and the mis-specification of the interface between one system and another. If you have not planned it right, that has devastating consequences, but it is simple to get it right if you think of it first. We need to make sure that this does not happen, because it has happened in other instances.

I turn lastly to openness, the lack of which has certainly been a besetting sin of the Civil Service since I encountered it in a non-IT context when I was on the Front Bench. Bad news does not travel well in the Civil Service. There is a tradition of shooting the messenger. Certainly, Ministers do not want to know bad news. That leads to a tendency among civil servants to say, when a project is going wrong, “Give us another month and we’ll get it right”, and it leads

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to the building-up of an irrational exuberance that they will be able to solve their problems in the end.

I remember this particularly because I was my party’s agriculture spokesman in the Lords when the BSE crisis broke. It exactly characterised what had gone on in previous years. Everything was focused on the hope that the disease would not infect humans. Every little bit of evidence that it might not was grasped, while there was a lack of questioning about what was really going on underneath, where the evidence was moving and whether the actions that we were taking would really eradicate the disease. When the crisis broke and we were forced to be open, everything changed. We gave all the data that we had to independent experts and, a month or so later, we understood what had been going on. They looked at things differently and could suddenly see what was happening. If we had had that openness earlier on, we would have avoided a lot of the problems.

This Government have had a similar experience on the IT front with the NATS contract, which noble Lords may remember ran many hundreds of millions of pounds over budget and about five years late. It was not until we brought in Arthur D Little to review it and find out what had been going on that all the obfuscation and difficulties were cleared away. Indeed, we have ended up with a successful system. Openness can make an enormous difference to how successful an IT project is, because it focuses people on what is really happening and allows difficulties to be admitted early rather than covered up. I know that that is difficult for civil servants—it is very difficult for politicians—but it is great for making things happen.

If I urge the Minister to do one thing, it is to drop the Government’s opposition to making gateway reviews public. It is like jumping into a cold swimming pool—it will be wonderful when they are in, as it will make such a difference. There is so much good news there, beyond anything else; there are so many things going right. It will make it much easier to catch the problems when they are going wrong, and much easier to admit it.

When there is a real problem, as in the NHS, the Government must—for goodness’ sake—do what they did on NATS and call in an outside consultant. The National Audit Office is just too much part of government to do these things well. The Government must grasp the nettle and do what was done before with such success. It is possible to get these things right, but I do not have a lot of hope that this Government will; their underlying tendencies prevent them. I look forward to my noble friend confirming my beliefs that we shall be much more successful at it. I beg to move for Papers.

3.14 pm

Lord Warner: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for starting the debate; it certainly provides me with an opportunity to describe the reality of the Connecting for Health IT programme, and to contrast that with the fantasy and exaggeration presented by its extreme critics—parliamentary and otherwise. As the House will

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know, I was the Minister responsible for the programme until January, and I will draw on that experience.

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