In the press today, it was suggested that, in the event of a ‘yes’ vote for Scottish independence, then ‘Independence Day’ will be 24th March 2016, 18 months after the referendum in September 2014.
I don’t want to go into my views on the pros and cons of Scottish independence here or of the conditions that might be negotiated with the UK government. But, as a concerned Scottish citizen with a wee bit of knowledge in this area, I want to focus on is the unreality of this timetable, as far as providing IT systems for the Scottish Government are concerned.
There seems to me to be two separate situations to be considered:
1. Assuming that there will be no effort to develop ‘separate’ IT systems for the Scottish Government before ‘independence day’, then UK systems will have to be changed to recognise payments made to and from Scottish citizens so that the appropriate sums can be remitted to the Scottish Government.
2. Once a new Scottish Government has been established, they will have to procure separate IT systems that reflect the policies set out by that government. Given that the point of independence is to have different policies, then it is clear that at least some existing UK systems cannot be used so there is no option of paying for a service from the UK.
In the transition period, before new systems are available, modified UK systems will have to be used with payments for these services made to UK agencies. The current Scottish Government have no right of access to these systems so cannot do preparatory work in advance of the referendum and there is no reason for the existing agencies to do so. Therefore, there will be only 18 months to make the required system changes.
There are thousands of government IT systems, many of which are large, complex and poorly understood. The notion that a radical change can be implemented in such a small time across all systems is simply ridiculous. I recall seeing somewhere that simply changing the HMRC PAYE system to reflect a different tax rate in Scotland (allowed under existing devolution) would take 3 years. Much more radical changes, across possibly hundreds of systems, will surely take much longer. I simply cannot see any way in which changes in the critical systems can be delivered by March 2016.
Post-independence, the need for new government IT systems is both an opportunity and a threat. It offers the opportunity to discard the huge IT legacy of the UK government and to develop modern, fit for purpose systems that are cheaper to develop and operate. However, to do so requires both stable policies to be implemented and an extensive period of analysis before starting systems procurement. It is hard to know how long this will take but let’s say 2 years, followed by a 3 year system design and deployment phase. This means that it will take 5 years before new policies can be implemented – almost 7 years after the independence vote. Will Scottish voters be willing to wait that long?
My other concerns are the cost of making system changes and the expertise required. We can’t know the costs until we work out what changes need to be made but, for sure, it will be tens (maybe hundreds) of millions of pounds across all systems. Who will pay for these – certainly not the UK taxpayer. I don’t think that any UK Government could justify the costs to Tonbridge or Tewksbury taxpayers of changing systems to suit the Scots. So, clearly, the costs will fall on the Scotttish Government. We have no welfare or tax collection departments who can be tasked with this, so clearly these costs will have to come from other areas of government expenditure. Which Minister will be the first to volunteer their budget?
The most urgent critical systems on ‘independence day’ are the tax and welfare systems. A Scottish government needs to be able to collect tax to fund its activities and needs to meet the needs of its needy citizens. These are reserved matters so there is little or no Scottish government IT expertise in these areas. So, to implement new or changed systems will require either expensive consultants who, in my experience, are sometimes neither knowledgable or competent of new in-house staff. There will need to be a major recruitment programme to appoint senior IT specialists in government. Are such people available – I don’t know, but I do know that there is a worldwide shortage of qualified IT staff and I’m not too sure that the best people would necessarily be attracted to such posts in Scotland.
Maybe my concerns are unjustified and all these issues have already been considered and planning is well underway? But if not and Scotland votes ‘yes’, the problems on March 25th 2016 are going to be enormous.
Note added on 25th November
A reader has pointed out that The Register has also covered this issue, in a bit more depth than I have. Personally, I don’t think the point they make about GCHQ is that big a deal (there is no need for Scotland to spy on either its own people or its allies) but they have not recognised that borders systems are shared. If Scotland has a more open immigration policy along with open borders with England, then this really is a big deal.
We shall see tomorrow when the White Paper is published if there is any recognition of these problems.