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Open Days

3. Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling): What plans she has to hold more open days in Government Departments. [106584]

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The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Graham Stringer): Open days are an important way of making Departments more accessible to people from all backgrounds. The Cabinet Office held its first open day in November last year. Other Departments have already held similar open days; some plan to hold their first later in the year. Achieving a dramatic improvement in diversity is a central plank of our civil service reform programme.

Mr. Coaker: Will my hon. Friend do as much as he can to encourage as many open days as possible in various Departments across government? Students attended the Foreign Office's many recent open days and they are a good way of encouraging diversity so that people from a wider variety of backgrounds enter the civil service.

Mr. Stringer: My hon. Friend is quite right: open days are a way of attracting people from all backgrounds, including ethnic backgrounds, into the civil service. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, GCHQ and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are to hold open days later this year and it is important to get across the fact that a person does not have to be a white male middle-class graduate of Oxford or Cambridge to get into the civil service.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): Will taxpayers be able to visit Departments on those open days to see whether they are getting value for money for the extra £4 million that the Government are squandering on armies of special advisers?

Mr. Stringer: The hon. Gentleman knows a great deal about special advisers. I think what he objects to is the fact that the Government are putting forward their policies effectively. If he looks at the figures on expenditure at the centre of government, he will find that in real terms there has been an overall reduction of 5 per cent.


4. Mrs. Sylvia Heal (Halesowen and Rowley Regis): What progress is being made in implementing the social exclusion unit's report on truancy. [106586]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Marjorie Mowlam): Good progress is being made in implementing the social exclusion unit's report and, as part of that process, the Department for Education and Employment recently launched "Tackling Truancy Together" for consultation. My right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards and I are monitoring progress within and across Departments in Whitehall and beyond.

Mrs. Heal: I welcome the action that my right hon. Friend and her ministerial colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment are taking to tackle truancy and exclusion, as about 1 million children are truanting and many thousands are excluded. There is no doubt that more has to be done to cut those numbers, so I am delighted that a new unit is to be established at Britannia school in Rowley Regis to tackle that very problem. The social exclusion unit has set out an action

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plan to reduce those numbers by a third by 2002. Is my right hon. Friend confident that we can meet that ambitious target?

Marjorie Mowlam: As chair of the ministerial network that exists to ensure that we meet our targets by working with Ministers across Departments, I firmly believe that we have a chance.

We have put an extra £500 million into the policy, so there is money "on the ground"--as with the unit that has been established in the school that my hon. Friend mentioned. We have introduced guidelines to help schools deal with truancy, and in April we will introduce a dowry system that will give children who repeatedly truant, or are socially excluded, grants to enable them to attend schools that will provide for their needs.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): I am glad that the right hon. Lady has taken responsibility for the social exclusion unit, thus ensuring that there is leadership at Cabinet level. I hope, however, that she will pay particular attention to the role of child mental health services in truancy cases. Truancy may be the beginning of a delinquent career, but it may also be an indication that things are seriously wrong for a child. There is a real problem here in regard to joined-up government--the problem of ensuring that the Home Office, education services and social services jointly fund child mental health provision. Will the right hon. Lady consider that herself, and also, perhaps, speak to representatives of Young Minds, which provides some of the most pioneering and effective services?

Marjorie Mowlam: I know of the right hon. Lady's interest in the matter. Let me reassure her that child mental health will be one of our considerations when a system is established--either in the form of units, or in another form that will enable us to deal with the specific question of educational health in schools--for repeated truants, and kids who have been excluded from school. That system will be cross-departmental.

As the right hon. Lady will know from experience, such a system will be particularly hard to achieve, but we think that the cross-departmental work that we are currently doing is quite successful in establishing joined-up policy-making. We hope that, following some of our submissions to the spending review body, we may even secure joined-up money, which would encourage still better co-operation. We are doing all that we can to bring that about through our links with local partnerships, local authorities, the voluntary sector and health departments.

News Releases

5. Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): If she will make a statement on her role in co-ordinating news releases from different Departments. [106587]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Graham Stringer): My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office has no role in co-ordinating news releases from other Departments.

Mr. Baker: That is interesting. Is the Minister aware that last year the Government issued 13,500 press

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releases--one every nine minutes? What was the cost to the public purse? Have there been any objections to the practice in the Civil Service? Does that explain why 16 out of 17 heads of information in the Civil Service have been replaced since the Government came to power? Perhaps the Government prefer heads of disinformation.

Mr. Stringer: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that Liberal policy is that we should not tell the people of this country what the Government are doing? That is how it sounded. As for changing heads of the information service, if the hon. Gentleman looks back to the period between 1979 and 1981 he will learn that 13 departmental heads of information changed over that time. It is not unusual for heads of information to change when Ministers change.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Will my hon. Friend confirm that, while the Cabinet Office has no role in co-ordinating the publication of news releases, the present Government have had more good news to release in two and a half years than the last Government had in 18?

Mr. Stringer: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. The basic policy of both Opposition parties is not to want the Government to spend money on informing people of rights that they--the Conservative party and the Liberal party--have opposed on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Does the Minister agree that civil servants should remain neutral and should not be politicised? If so, how does he reconcile that position with the recent statement by the head of attack at Millbank, the headquarters of the Labour party, to the effect that it has regular contacts with No. 10's press office?

Mr. Stringer: It is clearly the Government's policy that the civil service will retain, and does retain, its impartiality and integrity. The existence of special advisers whose responsibility it is to explain Government policy in a political context helps to retain the impartiality of the civil service.

Online Government Services

6. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): What recent discussions she has had with internet service providers on the provision of Government services online. [106588]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Ian McCartney): I began last year a series of quarterly meetings with a range of private sector colleagues, including internet service providers, about information age government services. This is in line with our strategy of: creating a platform of integrated service delivery, which would support a wide range of access technologies and partnerships with local government and the private sector; using the Government secure intranet to link up public servants and also establish how local authorities can interface with it; a common policy on authentication, smartcards and website navigation; and a strategic approach to data standards.

Miss McIntosh: Fresh from meeting Bill Gates last year, the Prime Minister said that Britain could lead the

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world in exploiting e-commerce. That is clearly not an ambition shared by the Home Office. Will the Minister confirm that 11 of 17 Home Office information technology projects have not been or will not be completed in time? If so, why, and what measures will the Minister and the Government take to improve their appalling IT record in this area?

Mr. McCartney: First, the vast majority of IT projects that have run into trouble, with which the Government are dealing, were procured under the previous Conservative Government. The Labour Government have had to clear up the mess that was left behind for us. Secondly, 55 per cent. of businesses in Britain are already using e-commerce because of the Government's activity. That is the highest use level in Europe. However, we will do more. We will ensure that in both the private and public sectors we will be leaders in e-commerce.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): My right hon. Friend will know that when we were dealing with the Y2K issue, we eventually published a sort of league table setting out where each Department was. Does he intend to do the same in regard to the electronic delivery performance of each Department?

Mr. McCartney: My hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce and myself and the e-envoy are responsible for ensuring that Departments reach the Government's targets. I assure my hon. Friend that all three of us are working with the Departments to ensure that they meet the target of 100 per cent. capability by the year 2008.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): The Government are keen on targets and have set one to ensure that 25 per cent. of dealings with government involve the electronic delivery of services by 2002. Will the Minister therefore explain why only 3 per cent. of such dealings were through the internet in 1999, and why the Government's figures project only 12 per cent. in 2002?

Mr. McCartney: We are the first Government to set any targets in this area. The previous Government did nothing to establish a platform for the introduction of e-commerce. I made it clear to my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) that the Government have targets and that we intend to reach them. We have the structures, policies and finance in place, and we will get training in place. We have the political leadership to do that.

Mr. Lansley: I have made it clear to the Minister that the Government admit that they will not reach their target.

With the advent of digital technology, many people will be hoping to use interactive television, which will be user-friendly to many who do not have personal computers. The Government's figures suggest that 0 per cent. of government dealings with the public will be by interactive television by 2002. Why so poor a performance?

Mr. McCartney: The hon. Gentleman must have been asleep last week--or else trying to keep his job in the shadow Cabinet. If he had been awake, he would have

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noted that we placed in the public domain a digital television strategy for the provision of government services. The hon. Gentleman is well behind the game. He should start listening, and catching up with what the Government are doing.

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the internet--and IT in general--offers the best means of restoring to isolated rural communities the services that they lost under the previous Government, and of providing many services that they have not hitherto enjoyed? Does he further agree that the provision of such services has the additional merit of reducing dependence on both public transport and the private car, because they reduce the need to travel? Will he ensure that the rural White Paper to be published later this year will place due emphasis on this issue?

Mr. McCartney: My hon. Friend is right. One of the key strategies that the Government have implemented was designed to save the rural post office network from privatisation by the Tories. That will mean hundreds of millions of pounds of new investment and will provide a technology platform for post offices in rural areas and for rural communities. At last, the rural community has a Government who battle for it.

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