Opposition politicians are lining up to promise to scrap major IT projects as the full scale of the coming public spending squeeze becomes apparent.
But home secretary Jacqui Smith has indicated that the government plans to press ahead with plans to store communications data and make it available to the emergency services, health and other public bodies.
Liberal Democrat Vince Cable wrote in the Independent last week that his party would scrap “the NHS IT project” alongside ID cards and other projects, in order to save money.
And Conservative party leader David Cameron told his party’s spring conference that he would scrap NHS Connecting for Health’s “electronic patient record system”, the children’s database ContactPoint, and ID cards as part of his party’s plans for “a new age of austerity”.
In his speech, Cameron, who had previously pledged to “scrap the NHS supercomputer” made a distinction between CfH and its role in delivering ‘strategic’ electronic patient record systems to the health service.
“Look at computerising the NHS,” he said. “Labour say: let’s call in the expensive consultants. Let’s commission a massive IT project. Let’s make the state more powerful with a new, centralised computer to store everyone’s health records.
“The result: NHS Connecting for Health, costing over £12 billion. One part of it is the electronic patient records system – a central state-run database designed to let GPs, hospital doctors and nurses share your medical notes.
“We would have said: today, you don’t need a massive central computer to do this. People can store their health records securely online; they can show them to whichever doctor they want.
"And when they’re in control of their own health records, they’re more interested in their health, so they might start living more healthily, saving the NHS money.”
Cameron also argued that the Google Health and Microsoft Health Vault personal health record platforms would “cost virtually nothing to run, so this is where some really big savings could be made.”
Despite the turn against large IT projects, the Home Office yesterday launched its promised consultation on the storage and use of communications data.
Although the consultation insists that the government has no plans for a “centralised database to store all communications data” it also says “doing nothing is not an option” and that a “middle way” is needed.
As a first step, it says communications service providers based in the UK will be required to keep “all the data” that public authorities “might” need, including third-party data that crosses their networks.
The consultation also raises the possibility of requiring communications service providers to match their own data to this third party traffic, so public bodies could more easily retrieve the information they wanted.
Both options would include significant extra costs – put at £2 billion by the consultation document.