Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 140-159)



Mr Chidgey

  140. Can I ask you a few questions about, I think you call it, your exciting development into the new Telecommunications Act which put into perspective, I think I am right in saying, is going to be about a quarter of your budget over the next five years, the third largest slice of expenditure running at about £148 million pounds, which I am sure is the sort of amount needed to be spent to set up the sort of network which will obviously make the Foreign Office able to fulfil its function that much more effectively. Now my questions are really directed about the procurement of the system and the maintenance of it as it becomes more and more in place in your various posts. Now I notice this is a partnership, a public/private initiative, and you have a particular firm engaged. Can you tell me the method, the process, by which you are procuring and installing the network in the various posts around the world? I believe it is 50 so far have this.
  (Sir John Kerr) Yes, I would like to call on Matthew Kirk, Head of the IT Strategy Unit, who worked with me on the contract which we signed with Global Crossing on 10 May last summer, which is the biggest single contract the Foreign Office have ever signed. The company contracted to provide the service over the next ten years and we are buying from them a service. It is already in operation in 40 posts who thus have network links back to the UK. In Amman, where they were switched on the other day, they described the feeling as like moving the embassy into King Charles Street. The Service will reach up to 150 posts by the end of this year—and this is a point not in the Departmental report—we have decided that it will be a false economy not to extend this IT network to all but our very smallest post. So it will be out to 210 posts, 99 per cent of our staff overseas, by the end of next financial year. You are right, it is quite an innovative financing arrangement as well as quite technologically innovative. I would like to ask Matthew to describe it.
  (Mr Kirk) As Sir John has said, what we are buying is a set of services, a set of capabilities, if you like, to do things over the telephone or using messaging, e-mail, telegrams and so forth or data internet type services at each of our posts. We are not buying either the technology with which Global Crossing deliver this or a specific band width to the posts in question. We specify a level of service that they have to provide and how much band width is needed to be delivered to that post and the means by which it is delivered is their decision. They are doing it very largely by satellite because that is the only reliable way to get dedicated telecommunications services into our missions in most of the world. In Western Europe, North America and parts of the Far East they are doing it by fibre optic cables because that is a cheaper way of doing it in those parts of the world. The advantage for us on the financing and procurement side of this way of doing it is that the huge capital investment required to lay out the network does not fall to us, it falls to Global Crossing. We pay for the service as it comes on stream and included in our service payments over the ten year life of the contract is the capital investment that they are making very largely in the last financial year and in this financial year. So at the time that we are still running our existing communications so systems that we can carry on working, our service payments to Global Crossing are relatively small. At the time at which our existing systems have gone, our service payments will have grown.

  141. I understand that and I understand the need to have a service contract to put this telecommunications network in place. The point that captured my attention is that you are talking about completing the installation of network industry standard desk top IT facilities. In this day and age that is no longer rocket science. I am particularly interested to know how much of the procurement, the maintenance and the replacement of equipment that may fail is centrally controlled and centrally procured? The reason for asking the question is that it is the case that in many of the posts that we maintain around the world these sort of industry standard, bog standard if you like, IT facilities can be readily procured from the equivalent of Dixons to operate on the officer's desk. Not the clever stuff to communicate secretly with London, I am talking about the basic stuff, the tools that the officer uses here. It occurs to me from the reports that I have had that officers find, and this is a fact, if they have a failure or a requirement to replace a piece of standard equipment they have to wait for it to come from London. That actually is a financial disadvantage in the operation of an efficient Foreign Office service. I am very curious to know whether it is the case under the contract that you have that everything has to be centrally procured, centrally supplied, centrally maintained, or are we allowing our posts to exercise a little bit of initiative on industry standard equipment?
  (Mr Kirk) I think we have to distinguish between the network and the desk top IT.

  142. Yes, I am making that point particularly.
  (Mr Kirk) The contract with Global Crossing covers the network and not the desk top IT, that is done by an inhouse project group, Firecrest, at the moment. For network, Global Crossing are required to supply large components of it through us in London and it is shipped overseas through the diplomatic bag.

  143. That I can accept.
  (Mr Kirk) The reason for that is security, of course. The same is true for desk top IT for most of what we do.

  144. It is centrally supplied?
  (Mr Kirk) It is centrally supplied for two reasons—

  145. Shipped out to wherever?
  (Mr Kirk) Shipped out to wherever.

  146. Even though you could buy it in a local store in five minutes?
  (Mr Kirk) There are two reasons for that. One is security again—

  147. That is the software side, not the hardware side.
  (Mr Kirk) You are just as vulnerable through what is sitting on your desk as you are through—

  148. But that is through the software, not through the hardware.
  (Mr Kirk) That is the second reason. The software and the boxes on the desk, while they may look the same in different countries of the world and in different branches of Dixons, have subtle differences in performance. One of the efficiencies that we are trying to get through the network is central maintenance of the system so that we do not have to have armies of people deployed around the world conducting things which are relatively small which people can do from the centre and maintaining our stocks of data and so forth can all be done from the centre where it is much more efficiently done. That can only be done if the thing at the other end of the wire is recognisable to the system that is running it from the UK.

  149. There are standard specifications and industry standards.
  (Mr Kirk) There are indeed and, in practice, they do not work. Compatibility is one of the great lies of the technology industry.

  150. You do realise the penalty that imposes on the efficiency of operation of your officers if they have to wait an inordinate amount of time for a replacement.
  (Mr Kirk) We supply on-site spares, pieces of equipment.

  151. I tell you, that does not always work.
  (Sir John Kerr) You are right, Mr Chidgey, we are in an interim period at the moment. We are introducing, in a series of stages, Firecrest, which is on desks in all the embassies and all over the Foreign Office. It is moving up the scale of sophistication with each itercubion. As you travel around posts I am sure you hear the complaint which you have mentioned with us.

  152. Indeed I have.
  (Sir John Kerr) It is inevitable in a transition. It is crucially important not to go back to Dixons, that was what we used to do. In America we had about 11 different kinds of non-compatible stuff lurking around people's desks and in their briefcases; it was a disaster.

  Mr Chidgey: Sir John, I take the point exactly but what I am trying to say is that the sort of equipment we are talking about is the desk top level. It is possible to specify precisely what meets the Foreign Office's requirements. It is possible to do that and to give authority to local posts to work to procure to that specification.

  Chairman: Sir John, I am going to give you ten minutes to think of an even better answer to that question.

  The Committee suspended from 5.12 pm to 5.23 pm for a division in the House.


  153. Dare I say that the smoking break is over or whatever it is. You have now had sufficient time to reflect on the excellent question from Mr Chidgey, would you please reply to that?
  (Sir John Kerr) Yes. We were on bog standard and Dixons. I was talking about the need possibly at a cost, I accept that, to standardise. The point I had not finished and Matthew had not mentioned is security. If you are putting all that kit on desks, if you are joining it up right across the world in a network, then you need to be absolutely certain that every bit out on the edge of the network is secure.

Mr Chidgey

  154. Tamper free, you might say?
  (Sir John Kerr) Yes. Because if somebody can get into one bit of your network he can get into all of your network. You are right, there is a cost, but I think the value is worth it.

  Mr Chidgey: May I pursue this line. I understand perfectly what you are saying and we do have the benefits of our own intranet within the Parliamentary estate so we have common experience of some of these matters. What that experience might be is a different matter but we have a common experience. The essence of a totally centralised procurement and maintenance system, in your case around the world, clearly is the ability and the efficiency with which you provide the customer service to your officers at their desks and their posts. Can anyone tell me how quickly you are able to respond and by what method you respond to a need for advice and assistance? How quickly can you respond with replacement equipment and what level do you go down to before you allow the officer to go and purchase something? Can he buy his own floppy disks or do they have to come from London? What have you done to address this particular scenario which is created by your need to be secure and centrally controlled because of the down side that creates to the efficiency with which you can operate?


  155. And the delays.
  (Sir John Kerr) Can I give a quick answer on the network, on the communications, and then ask Matthew to deal with the stuff on the desk. On the network, we have our service standards laid down in the contract and the company need to have their man on the spot within a given time. The service standards are laid down. I do not know the answer when it comes to the stuff on desks. I know about 24 hour helplines at headquarters here and that sort of thing, but I do not know the full answer to your question. Matthew?
  (Mr Kirk) I cannot give you a full answer because it depends on the nature of the fault and where it is. The ability to raise a fault, to log a call, is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The ability from our technical installation at Hanslope Park, outside Milton Keynes, to get into our IT systems in our embassies overseas remotely and fix faults which can be fixed by that means is also available 24 hours a day for posts which have the right kit in place. This is where standardisation becomes crucial. If the maintenance system at Hanslope Park cannot recognise the bit of kit at the far end it cannot fix it. If it can it can fix it instantly. We can instal software upgrades, we can unfreeze systems, we can reboot servers and so forth.

  156. That is through an operator in Milton Keynes talking via a telephone link—
  (Mr Kirk) Talking directly.

  157. Can I just finish my explanation? I think I am with you. Usually talking to the person who has got the problem whilst they actually shadow them on the screen, you have that facility 24 hours a day?
  (Mr Kirk) Yes.

  158. That is common practice.
  (Mr Kirk) We also have the facility to do software upgrades while people are out of the office.

  159. That is fairly standard. What about when it needs an actual physical intervention, whether replacement kit or whatever? What is the process? How long does that take? What level do you have to go down to before you allow them the freedom to do something?
  (Mr Kirk) It depends on the piece of kit in question. If it is a piece of kit which is linked to the network then it has to have been supplied from the UK in origin.

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