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Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): I am honoured to present a petition initiated and organised by my Woking constituent, Mrs. Eriksson-Hills, of Goldsworth Park, Woking, to whom many congratulations are due. This petition has been signed by more than 3,000 people and, in the petition, they request a change to legislation to allow free prescriptions for all transplant patients to fall into line with other patients who receive free prescriptions.
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): I would like to use this debate as an opportunity for the Minister to update the House on where the UK Governmentand its wholly-owned subsidiary, the UK Parliamentare on the exciting but dangerous road of e-democracy. Access is the key to e-participation. Just as the majority of people in the world have never made a telephone call, so the majority of my constituents have never sent an e-mail. They are in the poorest third of our community in the UK, with only one in nine households having access to a personal computer. However, one of the answers to that, and to participation in democracy, is not ownership of a PC but access to one. Involvement through a group is just as valid. Indeed, arguably, in the practice of democracy, it is more effective than one of the atomised.
The Government have produced many initiatives in this area, including the wiring up of schools, the development of UK online and the setting of targets for online Government services. However, I hope that the Minister will tonight report to the House on the latest progress of the e-democracy Cabinet Committee. I hope that that Committee is not limiting itself to the nerdy issues, but will take head on the key problems of access, especially pricing and restrictive practices. It is no good wishing the ends and then dodging the means. The Committee must take a view and act on some serious issues.
BT and the cable companies should make all local calls free to give a massive boost to internet usage. Some 90 per cent. of the cost of a local call is either in billing or in metering. Broadband technology, which allows extremely fast internet connectivity, is becoming increasingly affordable but has to be more so. Even those who want broadband in most rural areas cannot get access to it. If the Government are serious about access, they must ask Oftel to examine and, if necessary, restrict BT's sale of lower grade ISDN lines, so as to boost broadband.
The Office of Fair Trading should investigate the BT monopoly of leased lines, especially outside the major cities, so that we can open up those systems. The Government must be far more creative in providing computer access for poorer families. The computers within reach scheme was confined to a few small local pilots, because of underfunding. If Microsoft Windows changes versions again, it may be highly profitable for the company, but it will mean the replacement of perfectly adequate computers by faster ones and the further purchase of expensive softwareand that often excludes poorer people.
The piece of kit that most people are familiar with and find easy to access is the television. I hope that the Minister can tell us if interactive digital television will provide access for those parts of British society that are currently on the outside but who need public e-services the most.
The e-democracy Cabinet Committee was charged with producing a consultative paper last summer and I hope that it tackles the supply and access issues that I have mentioned. I hope that the Minister will give us a date for the publication of that long-anticipated consultative paper.
Given the shortness of the debate tonight, I shall concentrate on only one areathe impact of e-democracy on parliamentary democracy. As much is expected of the new digital technologies as was expected of television in the 1930s, and rightly so. The e-revolution, if it is to mean anything, must deliver for our democracy. It must produce ambitions that match the reach of that technology. It must be bold enough to strike at the heart of political cynicism. It must create something that revives our tired, downtrodden Parliament and makes us, once again, the forum of our nation. It must make quake the rotten duopoly of the media and an over-centralised Executive.
That is a tall order, but there is a way to deliver all the above. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has pushed forward the concept of pre-legislative scrutiny, in which the principles and practicalities of a Bill can be examined for, say, eight weeks by a group of Members of Parliament taking evidence openly and without votes. It is a brilliant innovation, worthy of my right hon. Friend, which will transform Members of this House from rubber stamps to something almost akin to real legislators.
However, we can take the proposal one step further, and invite the publicour electorsto the party. If the proceedings of those Committees are webcast, with the schedules known well in advance, any group or individual with a PC will be able not only to see live TV coverage, but to respond to the evidence or the debate by e-mailing the address running across the bottom of the screen as the sitting is televised. That could be done immediately, or after reflection and consideration.
Such thoughts and insights would be e-mailed back to the Committee and go to a mediator. His or her task would be to filter out the e-garbage familiar to all hon. Members, and distil the essence of the responses, the bright ideas and the experiences of those responding. The mediator would then report to the Committee, which would consider the responses and, where convinced by them, incorporate them in its report, and then perhaps in legislation. As knocking on doors and passing resolutions fade into political history, democrats can use the new technology to realise a dreamthat electors can help make better laws.
I led for Labour on the Bill establishing the Child Support Agency. All parties agreed on the principles of that Bill, but the absence of an effective parliamentary or public process put into law an insensitive, unamended, Whitehall Bill. It caused suffering and suicide, as many hon. Members know. Online pre-legislative scrutiny would have prevented much, if not all, of that anguish. It would have meant that we listened to the right people before deciding the contents of the Bill.
Such scrutiny must be undertaken seriously. Respondents must be acknowledged, given feedback and referred to relevant parts of the final report. Some respondents should even be personally acknowledged and publicly recognised for especially useful or insightful contributions. The result will be better service delivery, more value for money, healthy participation in our democracy, and better law.
However, if the process is not undertaken properly, or if the House merely goes through the motions, it will add to, rather than diminish, cynicism about our politics. Members of Parliament may be content to be rubber stamps, but the public will walk away from such a charade, and from us. It is possible, too, that they will walk away from our democracy.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say that we should seize the moment. If we can overcome the electorate's fear and take people with us, we will be on the edge of a new era of genuine participation in our democracy. Using new technology in the way that I have described would strengthen our democracy and be a bold and creative step. The UK Parliament could be the first parliamentary institution in the world to meet that challenge. I hope that my hon. Friend will tell me when we can make a start.