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House of Commons

Wednesday 24 April 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

PRIVATE BUSINESS

Mersey Tunnels Bill (By Order)

Order for Second reading read.

To be read a Second time on Wednesday 1 May.

Oral Answers to Questions

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State was asked—

National Child Care Strategy

1. Caroline Flint (Don Valley): If he will make a statement on his Department's role in relation to the cross-cutting review of the national child care strategy. [49343]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): I am a member of the interdepartmental review of child care, which is developing a 10-year strategy for quality, affordable and accessible child care. My noble Friend Baroness Ashton is leading the review, and it is being managed by the performance and innovation unit.

Caroline Flint: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I was pleased last week to lead the applause from these Benches for the child care measures in the Budget, especially the provision for those who need child care in their home, such as shift workers, to have access to our very generous child care tax credits. However, given that the review looks ahead 10 years, we need to see where to plug the gaps and better direct the mechanism's delivery on the ground. Will there be a debate in the House on the findings of the cross-cutting review, will there be a report and when will it be published?

Mrs. Roche: We certainly hope that Parliament will have the opportunity to discuss the conclusions of the review when it considers the 2002 spending review. I know of my hon. Friend's work and expertise in this field; she is right that we need to look at the gaps. Affordable high quality child care is extremely important for children and for working parents, particularly women, and we want to encourage women's progression in the labour market. My hon. Friend is also right to refer to the Chancellor's Budget and the welcome that it has received.

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The tax credits in particular will provide an additional £2.7 billion to support families with children and low-income households.

Government Services (Electronic Delivery)

2. Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Government's targets for the electronic delivery of Government services. [49344]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie): More than half of the Government services that can be delivered electronically have been, and I expect around three quarters to be e-enabled by the end of this year. We are well on the way to meeting our 100 per cent. target by 2005.

Mr. Tredinnick: Given the enormous improvements that broadband can bring to the distribution of Government services, what actions are the Government taking to speed up that service? What is the Minister doing to make sure that the service is available in the east midlands? Has he received correspondence from the boat builders Savage Marine Lighting in my constituency, which complains that its attempts to export worldwide are severely threatened by the lack of broadband facilities?

Mr. Leslie: It is true that we need to ensure that we are on the cutting edge of broadband availability. I will raise the hon. Gentleman's points with the Department of Trade and Industry, which takes the lead on e-commerce issues. Broadband is a much faster internet service which offers a lot, not only for commercial purposes but for the way in which we deliver services to the public. I will certainly look at the correspondence that he mentions.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): I congratulate the Minister on the Government's achievements in delivering according to the targets set out. Is he confident that sufficient security measures are in place to ensure that there cannot be external interference in the delivery of electronic Government services?

Mr. Leslie: As technology and public services develop, the Government need to ensure that the public can have trust and confidence in new electronic means of delivery and interface. The office of the e-envoy is very concerned about those matters and is looking into them. We need to build up confidence so that security issues can be overcome and people can transact Government business in the same way as they transact commercial business.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): Does my hon. Friend agree that, although we have made progress on the number of websites offering services, the key issue is one of take-up. Low-income groups, in particular, need internet access in libraries. The take-up issue applies to transactions as well as information. People use the internet to get passports, pay their income tax and get grants, so we are making progress in those areas.

Mr. Leslie: That is right. Not everyone owns a computer so we must ensure that there is wider access, particularly for lower income groups. The UK online

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programme has been working in that regard, looking at libraries and community centres and making sure that there is free internet access for all those who want it.

There has been a great deal of success so far. My hon. Friend mentioned passports and I can tell him that, to date, more than 16,000 people have applied online for passports, and NHS Direct online has 1 million hits a week. Many services are becoming mainstream with the public's use of the internet.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Does the Minister still think that the Government are online for their target of 2005 for the provision of all internet services? More to the point, is he aware that some forms are hard to complete in the old-fashioned writing way, such as care allowance forms, which are especially difficult for older people? Will he be able to tell other Departments to simplify their existing forms so that the online forms are also simpler to complete?

Mr. Leslie: The Government calculate that about 521 public services can be enhanced through electronic delivery; that has already been done for 264. We recognise the virtue in releasing much of the regulatory burden—by simplifying many of the forms and so on—but we must make sure that there is access for people who may also have to deal with services face to face. We cannot neglect that. We use technology only where it brings extra added value.

Departmental Accessibility

3. Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): If he will make a statement on the progress made in making offices in his Department accessible to people with disabilities. [49345]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): The Cabinet Office has undertaken accessibility audits of its estate. Works arising from those audits have, where possible, been undertaken.

The Cabinet Office also continues to take significant measures to ensure that its buildings comply with the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Mr. Clarke: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Will she share with the House any plans that she and her colleagues have in mind for future improvements in access for people with disabilities? That would influence both the public and private sectors, and—crucially—other Departments as well.

Mrs. Roche: As the House will know, my right hon. Friend is an expert in these matters so he is aware that there is much good practice throughout government and also in the private sector. For example, the Government buildings at 67 Tufton street, 35 Great Smith street and the Cabinet Office all have ramps and lifts to assist access for physically disabled people, as well as induction loops in meeting rooms and reception areas. In other buildings it may be possible to put braille signs in lifts. That is

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extremely important. Looking beyond that, colour coding can also be helpful in ensuring visibility. It is important to use good practice and we are committed to doing so.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): I congratulate the Minister on what she said about the commitment of her Department. I further congratulate the Government on the creation of the Disability Rights Commission, which is a genuinely constructive way forward.

In the Minister's capacity as a member of a Department with a co-ordinating role across Whitehall, will she have a word with her colleagues in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to see what she can do to increase the access of disabled people to polling stations in all areas—rural and urban? The local government elections will take place next week, so it is important that, however people choose to vote, they should be able to go into a polling station and cast their vote, if that is what they want to do.

Mrs. Roche: Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right. I join him in his tribute to the Disability Rights Commission.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. Whichever party people support, it is right that proper access is provided. I shall certainly ensure that his comments are passed on. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman—who is a fair sort of chap—would agree that the Government have done a great deal on this issue. Obviously, the wider use of postal votes is helpful and some of the pilot schemes for alternative voting arrangements have also been helpful. I shall ensure that his remarks are taken into account.


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