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The Last Refuge of the Scoundrel

I’ve a confession. I’m being steadily drawn into politics.

Last week I was elected vice chairman of a re-launched Conservative Technology Forum (CTF), the President being Michael Fabricant, MP, the Shadow Minister for Economic Affairs and the Chairman MEP, Malcolm Harbour.

I’ve spent twenty years in IT and have tried to remain apolitical, even as an advisor to The Office of the e-Envoy but now I find myself assisting the Westminster Front Bench in the preparation of policy and the materials needed to support technology-related debates in Parliament.

Just over a year ago, I realised that it would be nearly impossible for me to set-up any of the small and successful IT businesses that I had done in the past. That favourite Microsoft expression ‘agility’ might be true of software but it no longer appears to be a commodity available to smaller IT companies. Legislation, as my overworked friends tell me, makes running an SME a full-time burden and the entrepreneurial flexibility that once made our IT sector a vibrant place to work has been all but suffocated by red tape a cumulative cost to business of £20.6 billion according to the British Chambers of Commerce, with IR35 alone costing the economy £465 million since 2000.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s eGovernment and eCommerce and how ‘Big’ technology can be used to save money and not waste taxes in areas such as central Government procurement and at Local Authority level, to improve services and not simply duplicate them.

My task is to come up with ideas and proposals and my well-known cynicism as a Computer Weekly columnist may be an advantage. I’ve been asked to listen to business, both large and small and invite those that are interested to join the CTF and map out proposals that might one day become policy if there is a change in Government.

If you look back to the last decade, one of the foundations for the UK’s economic future was seen to be a strong IT services and software development sector. What worries me most in 2004 is how much of this will be left by the end of the decade? I have seen three UK businesses with good, innovative technology go to the wall in the last eighteen months and I see evidence of much of our software development leaking offshore. What does the future hold for the UK IT industry? Will innovation thrive and survive in the present political climate or will we be relegated to the role of a channel for foreign-owned software, hardware and services businesses with our economic fortunes resting on decisions taken on the other side of the Atlantic?

Now we are a triumphant broadband society, what are we going to do with the results beyond visiting each one of a thousand government websites? Can technology make a real and positive difference to the quality of life and the health of the economy instead of adding further to the layers of expensive bureaucracy - the £4.6 billion cost of data protection legislation since 1998 - and the speed at which jobs in the IT sector are being moved offshore?

You tell me.


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