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Motion to Take Note (Continued)

Part of Comprehensive Spending Review – in the House of Lords at 7:36 pm on 1st November 2010.

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Photo of Lord Allan of Hallam Lord Allan of Hallam Liberal Democrat 7:36 pm, 1st November 2010

My Lords, I thank all those officials and Members who have helped our class of 2010 to have such a smooth and warm introduction to the House. I wish the officials in particular well with the class of 2010B, which I understand may soon follow.

In choosing this debate for my maiden speech, I am conscious that I have to work to two constraints: first, to be concise, a quality which I am sure is always appreciated in debates in this place but especially when so many noble Lords wish to speak; and, secondly, to avoid being too contentious on a subject that naturally arouses strong opinions when it is so important to so many citizens of this country, as has been demonstrated by the many interesting and powerful speeches already made today.

Mindful of those constraints, I want to make a few short remarks on the way in which the Government have been opening up their vast store of data about the workings of the public services and how that is having an impact on the spending decisions that we are considering today. First, I declare an interest when speaking on information technology, as my employment outside this place is with the company Facebook. Although Facebook is not generally directly involved in public sector IT projects, some parts of the company have had commercial relationships with the Government. I hope that that position will equip me with up-to-date knowledge of trends in the information technology sector that will prove valuable to this House, as it informs my contributions to your Lordships' work.

I turn to the agenda of opening up government data in the context of the spending review, which has very much been a cross-party agenda. In the last Government, it had several champions, most notably Tom Watson when he was a Minister in the Cabinet Office, and the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, when he was in another place and very much engaged in that agenda. It has been enthusiastically taken forward by this new coalition Government, and has also engaged many experts outside the party political realm, notably Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Professor Nigel Shadbolt, Tom Steinberg and Rufus Pollock. A common objective shared by all those contributors may not necessarily be to support directly the Government's policies; it may be to ensure that this is not an esoteric exercise for those in the technical community but an exercise that realises the potential of information to transform public services more generally.

I believe that that process is impacting the spending review in several important ways. First, the Government decided to release a database from the Treasury called the combined online information system, or COINS, proving that some in the Treasury clearly have a sense of humour, contrary to public perception. The COINS database provides a wealth of data to anyone interested in modelling the country's finances. It means that more people than ever before will have the key data that they need to analyse the Government's spending decisions and performance.

Secondly, decisions have been taken in both local and central government to publish information about individual items of public expenditure. This will dramatically increase the level of scrutiny of purchasing decisions and allow many minds to take a view on whether value for money has been achieved.

Thirdly, there is a significant opportunity for growth in the UK economy-again, something we have heard about in the debate tonight-by building services based on the data provided by government. Rufus Pollock, in a study commissioned by the Treasury during the time of the previous Government, calculated this value at £6 billion per annum.

Fourthly, public services can be enhanced through innovation around these data. For example, anyone who has used a Boris bike to get around London will know that apps for the iPhone and Android phones, which let you see how many bikes are free in any location, are a real and often necessary complement to the bike service itself. This is a small example of how data around public services can both contribute to significantly enhancing economic efficiency and, in the case of transport services, to minimising environmental cost.

Finally, new online channels provide ever greater scope for people to engage in debates on such policy issues as the spending review. This is not a substitute for the process of policy deliberation in Parliament but, handled correctly, can be a valuable complement to it as a broader range of well informed citizens can bring their perspective directly to our policy debates.

In closing, I refer back to the fact that outside this place I work with many people in their 20s and 30s who are building great technology businesses and creating significant new economic and social value. To me, this is a reminder that while technology projects can and do sometimes go badly wrong and end up costing the taxpayer more than they are supposed to save, we should certainly not turn our backs on the transformative power of technology-led innovation. The question for the public sector should not be whether technology can make its services both more cost effective and better for citizens-it certainly can do this, just as it has transformed many other parts of our lives-but how to realise this potential most effectively. This is a much bigger subject than I can cover today, but it is one to which I have no doubt that I will return during my service in this House.