What with the all the furore over the petrol crisis earlier this month, you would have been forgiven for not noticing a series of important government announcements about IT.
A shame because they make interesting reading. And this combined with a similar set of ecommerce announcements from the Tories only the week before means that the industry now has some idea of what carrots the two biggest political parties will use to win its vote at the next election.
The first political appeal to the IT sector came in the shape of a Tory mini-manifesto, Believing in Britain, which outlines the party's IT plans and contains a pledge to reform the IR35 tax plan.
"The Conservatives believe [the UK] must take full advantage of our tremendous assets, and make sure that we establish ourselves definitively as Europe's New Economy capital," it quotes Tory leader William Hague as saying.
Labour's policy statements, meanwhile, comprised a speech from Prime Minister Tony Blair on the need for everyone to have internet access and Home Office minister Barbara Roche's address to delegates at an immigration conference run by the Institute of Public Policy Research.
Reversing the decline
As has now become customary, Blair once again hit the button marked 'ecommerce'. "If we modernise our economy, we can reverse the decades of decline that we suffered in the 20th century, and become one of the world's most successful economies in the 21st," he said.
In March, the Prime Minister said he wanted to provide all government services electronically and ensure that all UK citizens were able to access the internet by 2005. On 11 September, he announced how he plans to achieve this: by investing £1bn in the scheme over the next three years, with £250m of this put aside for community learning. The latter programme will kick off with the creation of 600 internet training centres in deprived areas, rising to 6000 by the end of 2002.
IT training will also be made available to individuals and small businesses, with 1000 facilities due to open by next April. The government hopes these commitments will be viewed as a sign that voting Labour next time will be good both for the country and for IT.
But some industry experts are warning that it's still early days to decide which party is more pro-IT in its approach.
"Until this announcement, there's been many promises made. Unfortunately, the amounts of money we're talking about here just won't cut it," said Alexander Drobik, vice president of business strategies with analyst group Gartner.
"It's very important that the UK doesn't develop into an information have and have-not society," said Steve Rist, chief executive of online estate agent easier.co.uk. He was referring to the efforts that have been made to ensure the socially excluded have access to the internet.
Meanwhile, Roche's speech raised the ticklish issue of immigration. She speculated about the possibility of allowing more foreign IT staff into the country in an attempt to combat the skills crisis.
"The evidence shows that economically-driven migration can bring substantial overall benefits for both growth and the economy," she claimed, pointing to the US as an example of this.
Although she made no firm commitments, her speech contrasts sharply with the tough talk from the Conservatives on 'bogus asylum-seekers' - also known as economically-driven migrants.
So what does the UK information systems community think? "We want the best people to work in this industry - wherever they come from," said John Higgins, director general of the Computing Services and Software Association.
He feels, however, that the cautious line taken by Roche is essential because, although the IT industry understands the concept of people moving around the world for work, "that's not necessarily true for the population at large, so there needs to be a sensible and sensitive debate".
"It's very hard to find the right people," said Neil Mackwood, co-founder of property information site 08004homes.com. "I'd probably applaud opening up our barriers."
But shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe countered that the priority should be to train up UK citizens rather than call in foreign help, although she admitted that immigration had a role to play.
As Labour strives to win over hearts and minds with pledges to move the UK populace online and solve the skills crisis through immigration measures, policies such as the IR35 contractor tax have caused much unrest in the industry.
Earlier this month, William Hague said the Conservatives would reform IR35 if they were voted in, claiming that the Act is driving freelancers out of the country. But he backtracked on earlier promises to repeal the tax.
Although IR35 generated real outrage a year ago, ecommerce minister Patricia Hewitt last week dismissed the issue as a "damp squib" that had been blown out of all proportion.
And it seems that many in the IT industry agree. "I think share options have more impact," said Higgins. "To some extent, our feeling is that IR35 is done and dusted."
Another unpopular Labour scheme, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act, is descended from an even tougher Tory version, and so, unsurprisingly, the opposition has said merely that it would review it if it got back into office.
So despite disquiet over IR35, RIP, and share option taxes, it seems that the majority of the industry still favours the government. But as the oil refinery blockades have shown, a week is a long time in politics. Which means it's anyone's guess how things will pan out between now and the first election of the 21st century.
|Which party has done the most for the IT industry and will win your vote at the next election?|
Barbara Roche, immigration minister, earlier this month called for a debate on increasing immigration to ease skills shortages and spoke warmly of the economic benefits of such a policy. Fast-track work visas for IT staff and entrepreneurs are already in place.
Ann Widdecombe described Roche's suggestions as absurd due to IR35. The Tories are particularly hard on economic immigrants - for example, the party plans special squads to remove 'bogus asylum-seekers' from the country.
|Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act|
Passed the legislation in July to enable the security services to intercept internet traffic. Currently consulting on how the Act will be implemented.
|Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act|
"We will review the Bill when we come to office," said the Tories. However, they introduced a harsher, earlier version of the same legislation as part of the Electronic Commerce Act.
|Government services online|
All available electronically by 2005. Some £1bn funding announced by the Prime Minister last week.
|Government services online|
The government was criticised by Tory MP Andrew Lansley in February for including phone calls in the definition of which services should be delivered electronically, and for not making it a priority that customers are able to choose which channel they use.
|National Insurance on share option gains|
"The Treasury and the DTI are going to keep this very closely under review," said ecommerce minister Patricia Hewitt this week.
|National insurance on share option gains|
No commitment to change. "We will continue to put pressure on the government to give this matter urgent consideration," said shadow paymaster general Richard Ottoway.
"Big fears of a huge exodus of subcontractors really does not seem to have taken place," said Hewitt.
"We will... reform the tax on IT consultants known as IR35, which has created a brain drain of our brightest and most productive workers," according to Believing in Britain.
Everyone by 2005. Some 6000 UK Online Access centres to open across the country at a total cost of £330m. Training to be offered for individuals and businesses.
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