Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 105) On Invest to Save Budget Round 4 Projects and Local Government On-line

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful for your patience, Mr. O'Hara, in dealing with my points of order. I am sorry to have had to raise them with this most courteous of Ministers, and I take seriously his comment that he will do his utmost to ensure that we have documents in a timely fashion in future, so that our scrutiny of statutory instruments can be more effective. I am sure that he will do all he can.

The Government have two published aims. The first is in the UK online strategy published by the office of the e-envoy:

    ''To make all government services available electronically by 2005''.

The second—it has three parts—is in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions consultation draft on the national strategy for local e-government, published in April 2002:

    ''Create an environment within which local public service providers can develop their own local e-government . . . Identify what Government, and others, need to put in place nationally for local strategies to flourish . . . Identify the common priorities for developing e-government technology or joined up delivery—and allocate resources where necessary.''

The report is a welcome step towards meeting those targets.

The Conservatives welcome anything that streamlines the delivery of central and local

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government, and we believe that the increased use of e-technology will enable that to happen. We want to hold the Government to account to ensure that they meet the targets. Two thirds of councils that identified the Government's 2005 target to get all services online as an important measure are confident that they will reach it, but the laggards are a problem. A fifth of councils are still planning activities rather than delivering them, and the same proportion of e-champions say that they have had no success to date. The report should promote that part of the strategy.

A recent survey of IT trends in local government by the Society of Information Technology Management examined whether local government is on target to meet its deadline of putting 50 per cent. of services online by the end of this year and all services online by 2005. The problem is that the Government seem to have moved the goalposts slightly, because a fifth of councils are planning activities but not delivering them, a third of chief executives and e-champions say that the scheme is too broad, and a fifth of e-champions say that they have had no successes. The Local Government Commission report dated 18 July says that all councils are struggling to deliver an e-business case for e-government, so we have worries about the Government's ability to meet the targets.

There seems to have been a subtle shift in the Government's targets, as the original strategy and the 2005 target, to which I referred, state that ''priority services'' should be concentrated on first. That appears to be an admission that the 2005 target might not be met. The current targets are as follows: 29 per cent. e-government by March 2001; 45 per cent. by March 2003; 73 per cent. by March 2004; and 100 per cent. by March 2005. They are extremely over-optimistic, and it is felt that local authorities should concentrate on getting online those services that their communities most need, rather than dogmatically trying to meet the Government's targets.

That is not the only worrying report. I discovered an especially worrying quote from the Albany, the software provider to local authorities, whose chief executive, Adrian Stafford-Jones, said:

    ''It is high time for the government to take a reality check. The 2005 deadline for getting local government online is unrealistic. The e-government target date is a noose around the neck of every local authority, representing a deadline that heralds sceptical whispers even within government circles.''

Another report says that an overwhelming 90 per cent. of town hall information and communications technology heads believe that their departments lack the skills to meet the e-government agenda. Perhaps unsurprisingly, but none the less relevantly, many also cite lack of funding as a further obstacle. We are most concerned about that lack of skills.

I want the Minister to say more about how the targets will be met and how he can help local authorities to develop the skills that they need. For example, I note that Haringey will outsource at least 3 to 5 per cent. of its financial e-government to private firms. Outsourcing might be one way for the

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Government to encourage local authorities to meet their targets. Another might be dissemination of best practice through the Government's beacon council scheme, putting those councils that are exceeding their targets in touch with those that are well behind.

I wonder whether the Government are producing sufficient information on best practice. Are they collecting data from those councils that are well ahead of their targets and distributing it to the least effective councils? Are the Government running seminars or conferences to help those councils that are lagging behind?

We support measures that encourage innovation in local government and act as a catalyst for effective e-government locally. High quality e-government is essential for effective local government. Innovative local services and electronic delivery can help to maintain a strong relationship between local authorities and local people, opening up new channels between local government and the citizen. However, we are concerned that local authorities will struggle to meet the targets under the local e-government strategy.

A critical aspect is the roll-out of broadband. We cannot sensibly disseminate a huge amount of information by e-government unless we have a national broadband mechanism and network. I have raised that in the House before, using the phrase ''technological apartheid'' to describe the situation that we are creating. Areas with broadband will encourage high-technology firms to locate there while those that are unable to get it for a number of years, particularly rural areas such as my constituency, will be avoided by high technology firms or any firm that relies on a large amount of information being shifted electronically. Such firms will simply move to areas with broadband. That is unfair, and the Government should do more to ensure that broadband is rolled out to rural areas. [Interruption.] Does my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) wish to intervene?

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I agree with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am pleased that my hon. Friend agrees so strongly, because we represent similar rural constituencies.

Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend is right, and his point applies in many other examples, too, such as BT exchanges. Broadband is one of the worst examples of technological apartheid. The problem will further widen the gap between those who have and the poorer rural areas that do not.

The Chairman: Order. Before the hon. Member for Cotswold continues, I should say that I have been listening carefully and I understand what he is saying. For example, in my own local authority area there is a lot of communication, including e-communication, with industry, often relating to inward investment. However, the statutory instrument is about communication with residents.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Indeed it is. It is twofold in its concerns, as it involves a flow of information not only

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to members of the public, but within local government and from central Government to local government. For the Government's target to be met, a large amount of data will need to flow between all those bodies. The statutory instrument provides the funding for that, but the targets will not be met across a large swathe of the country unless the broadband network is established. I ask the Minister to communicate with his friends in other Departments, particularly the Department of Trade and Industry, to find out how the roll-out of broadband can be speeded up.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury mentioned BT. I gather that local loop unbundling in the exchanges is the technical problem with extending the network. BT is not moving fast enough and it needs firm encouragement from the Government.

I have a number of questions for the Minister and I shall be grateful if he answers as many as he can today. If he cannot answer, I shall be grateful if he writes to me and other members of the Committee, and perhaps puts a copy of the correspondence in the Library.

Is the Minister concerned that the recent Audit Commission survey suggests that a third of councils are not confident of reaching the 2005 target? Does he expect that target to be fully met? Is it realistic to propose moving from 28 per cent. of services e-enabled to the 100 per cent. target by that date?

Did not the April consultation document mark a subtle shift from the original aim of getting all services online to merely getting priority services online? How are the Government ensuring that any funds granted genuinely deliver benefits to local people? I notice that the Minister said that 11 out of 39 projects in the second round are behind with delivery. The Government need a stronger mechanism to ensure that those councils that bid for the money under the statutory instrument deliver, and do so on time.

The Audit Commission report published last Friday suggests that many local councils lack the critical combination of the information and communications technology skills and the business skills needed to develop e-government successfully. Could greater and more targeted Government support be given to them?

To what extent do the Government plan to extend their assistance to councils? I have already suggested a number of mechanisms for that. Is the Minister concerned by the recent Society of Information Technology Management survey, which says that 90 per cent. of town hall ICT heads believe that their departments lack the skills to meet the e-government agenda?

To what extent will the Government encourage local authorities to use external consulting services, contracting out and outsourcing to meet e-government targets? Will the Government encourage local authorities to work together to pool skills? That should involve not just one local authority that has exceeded the targets working with one that has not, but neighbouring authorities, or even clusters of authorities, working together. There is a good case for them getting together to find out how each can develop its skills and meet the targets. To what extent

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does such information sharing already happen? What special characteristics do funding recipients have that improve e-government effectiveness?

What factors were taken into account in whittling down the 144 local authorities that expressed interest in the invest to save budget round 4 grants to the successful 23? Will the Minister give us examples of those that were successful and those that were not? Are there criteria for what is innovative and more efficient, as mentioned in the statutory instrument? How many of the 23 have substantial e-government targets? Do they all? If not, why were they granted the money?

Will the Minister give further details of the extent of the problems faced by projects from invest to save budget round 2 that forced an extension of the existing grant—presumably, that involved many of the 11 that did not meet their targets under round 2—and when does he expect them to meet those targets?

What is the funding situation for those local authorities that were not given grants for e-government purposes in this round? That question is particularly important because the authorities that have not been successful in this bidding round are, presumably, not on the ball as to rolling out e-government and need extra help. Otherwise, they will be the ones that do not meet the targets. How will the pathfinder projects encourage effective sharing of best practice?

I shall be grateful if the Minister answers some of or all those questions, and perhaps writes to us. Those are important matters and this has been a useful opportunity to debate them. There will be many more such debates, and we shall watch carefully to see whether the Government meet their targets.

As an aside, it is worth pointing out that local government is working on delivering e-government in elections. A recent paper from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister says that the Government, through the DTLR, the Electoral Commission, the office of the e-envoy and the Local Government Association, are working together, adding:

    ''The Government's aim is to make it feasible to conduct an e-enabled General Election some time after 2006.''

Can we take it that we are going to have another general election in 2006 when the—

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Prepared 22 July 2002