HC Deb 17 December 2002 vol 396 cc689-90
36. Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

What progress he has made in implementing his Department's policy for open source software. [85937]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Douglas Alexander)

We have jointly established a group to raise awareness of the policy and to build expertise in software procurement. The Cabinet Office effectively promotes and is active in its deployment of the open source software policy.

Some recent examples of public sector usage of OSS include the Department of Trade's Small Business Service, the Meteorological Office and West Yorkshire police. Those organisations are either using or piloting open source software for their operational use.

Mr. Allan

The Minister deserves credit for his open source policy. Will he confirm that it will apply in full to the national health service, which is a major purchaser of IT services and could benefit from acquiring the rights to bespoke software and deploying it openly among the developer community? Has he been able to reach agreement on his policy of using open source software as the default exploitation route for Government-funded research and development software?

Mr. Alexander

I welcome the hon. Gentleman, who is now dealing with these issues, to his new position on the Front Bench. I shall make a couple of general observations and then address the specific question of the health service. We always maintain an interest in best value for money solutions, be they OSS or other types of software. We are also determined to remove reliance on individual IT suppliers, and the Office of Government Commerce is taking forward a range of work in this area. The hon. Gentleman may also be interested to know that I discussed IT matters with the Secretary of State for Health this morning.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

One perception about open source software is that it is less secure than proprietary software, but that is not true. What steps is the Minister taking to promote the security of IT systems across government, particularly those using OSS?

Mr. Alexander

I know of the expertise of my hon. Friend in this area, and it goes without saying that the security of Government systems is vital. We are taking active steps on a monthly and ongoing basis to keep appraised of the latest IT security challenges that we face. Properly configured open source software can be at least as secure as proprietary systems; in fact, at the moment OSS is subject to fewer attacks than are alternative forms of software. However, this is an area of ongoing work for the Government.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

Has the Minister examined the use of open source software to solve a very big Government problem: their inability to answer letters in anything less than two or three months? Would it not be a good idea to examine how to get much better standards of performance in serving us and our constituents?

Mr. Alexander

One of the challenges relating to software systems is the legacy issue, and one such legacy that we encountered after 1997 was the slowness of Departments in responding to letters. Work is now being undertaken by each Whitehall Department to ensure that letters are responded to at an appropriate time.