Third Standing Committee on
Wednesday 24 October 2001
[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]
Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 87), on 2001-02 Special Grant for Local Authority E-Government Pathfinders
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 87) (HC 220), on 2001-02 Special Grant for Local Authority E-Government Pathfinders.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Griffiths?
For once, the topic of our debate does not concern whether specific local authorities may or may not be given money, but how they may or may not be given money. This afternoon, hon. Members have the opportunity to make several local authorities extremely happy, and that is one of the highest callings to which a Member of Parliament can aspire.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): I am sorry to interrupt at such an early stage, but we have to get our steer clear. Annex A states:
``Grant is to be paid to the following receiving authorities''.
It does not say that it may be paid, but that it is to be paid. Will the Minister clarify which is meant?
Dr. Whitehead: Yes. The special grant report seeks to amend the method by which specific local authorities may have grant forwarded to them, in the form of a credit approval or a cash grant. The purpose of the report is to change the circumstances in which such money may be advanced to local authorities. The annex at the end of the report clearly relates to circumstances that would apply at present in general terms to proposed special grant approval or borrowing approval. The report will change the borrowing approval to a direct grant to local authorities.
Local authorities provide services directly to all people in the country at some stage in their lives. The number of public transactions that involve local authorities vastly exceeds those that involve central Government. The Government have set a target of ensuring that 100 per cent. of local authority services are capable of electronic service delivery by 2005. The good news is that local authorities are already making excellent progress towards that target.
E-enabling local government offers the opportunity to transform the way in which local services are planned and delivered. It could realise the vision of joined-up, responsive and accessible local governance. Citizens will have access, through different channels and at times that suit their individual needs, to all the public services that they require. To help local authorities achieve that challenging target, we have earmarked £350 million over three years between 2000 and 2003 for local e-government, and £25 million of that has been allocated this year. The allocations to local authorities will be found in annex A.
As part of the drive to meet the 2005 target, in February we asked local authorities and their partner organisations to apply to become e-government pathfinders. We received more than 100 applications that involved more than 140 councils. Some of those that applied did so in partnership with other local authorities that do not appear on the list but which are, nevertheless, partners of the authorities that are the main applicants for certain sums. We announced on 25 March that pathfinder projects had been agreed for 2001-02, supported by £24 million of local government online funding to 25 pathfinder authorities.
Pathfinders were selected to include a good spread of different types of authorities, located throughout the country and covering a balanced range of e-products, such as smart cards, e-procurement and digital television. The programme will provide, for a relatively small investment, a set of key building blocks that local authorities can use to construct their own approach to e-government without constantly having to reinvent the wheel.
Each pathfinder has agreed to success criteria and key milestones to be reported on every six months. The Government will publish an interim report on progress in January 2002 and a final report at the end of a dissemination programme later in 2002, which may help by setting out a couple of examples of the work carried out by pathfinders.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I do not intend to create any mischief, but the Minister has said on three separate occasions that 25 councils will benefit under the scheme. Annex A lists those councils; I have counted them and my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) has checked my calculations, but I can find only 24 councils. What is the name of the missing council and what has caused the error?
Dr. Whitehead: I cannot immediately provide that detailed information but I imagine that an answer will soon arrive in my hands by ordinary writing methods rather than e-methods.
Mr. Foster: It is coming now.
Dr. Whitehead: That is excellent news.
Although 25 councils were originally announced as pathfinder projects, annex A refers to only 24 councils because Norfolk county council, an authority originally included in annex A, is being funded by other methods. Therefore, that council does not appear in annex A of the report.
Mr. Foster: In that case, as the total sum of money available is £25 million, as the Minister has said on several occasions, and as only £24 million has been spent, what plans does he have to utilise the remaining million?
Dr. Whitehead: The Department has no plans to utilise that additional sum. The money allocated comes out of a larger sum for a longer period. Pathfinders do not necessarily have to be allocated money up to the totalit is simply a sum out of which a number of pathfinders may be allocated money. On the basis of the applications, 25 pathfinders were originally allocated money, but the total sum to be spent on the scheme was not predetermined. Therefore, if one pathfinder receives funds by other means, it does not mean that the unallocated sum is automatically taken up by another authority. The real issue at stake is the allocation of money to a number of pathfinder authorities for the purpose of trail-blazing the various projects and schemes that may lead to the achievement of local authority e-government by 2005.
Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth): Will Norfolk county council, which will receive its payment under another budgetary system, remain obliged to conform to the regulations set out in annex Cthat is, will it receive the money in arrears after conforming to the criteria?
Dr. Whitehead: Yes, the statement in annex C, which contains conditions for the payment of grants to pathfinder authorities, will be the basis on which those authorities receive their funding.
There is an additional sum from the pathfinder projects programme, which I intended to mention later, but I shall deal with it now in response to the question from the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). In addition to the pathfinder projects that have been allocated, a sum will also be allocated to a company called Vantagepoint, which is undertaking work to assist the pathfinder authorities in achieving the goals set out in their applications.
I trust that I have clearly explained the circumstances in which the grants will be provided. The programme overall will provide, for a relatively small investment, building blocks that local authorities can use to develop approaches to e-government. We can see from the proposed allocations that varying and significant programmes will be put forward. Those will provide, through the pathfinder schemes, various useful pointers for the wider roll-out of the programme in future.
I touched on the work that the pathfinders are carrying out, and would like to say more about that. The Welland partnership consists of several rural local authorities: South Kesteven, Melton Harborough, Rutland and East Northamptonshire. The partnership focuses on building community online portals around market towns and crossing traditional local authority boundaries. It has wide-ranging support from organisations and agencies, from the public, and from the private, voluntary and community sectors. The project also aims to provide an online planning service facility for viewing, submitting and tracking planning applications and for accepting cash payments. Access will be available via personal computers, from touch-screen kiosks, through one-stop shops and through the wide network of post offices via the Government's general practitioner project.
By contrast, Newham, a very urban borough, is a pathfinder for e-payment and e-procurement. A project will bring together a group of London boroughs, working together to develop the ability to buy goods and services electronically either on the web or via an intranet. That capability includes online catalogues, ordering and payment systems and interfaces into back office systems. The partnership will be developed so as to include large corporate suppliers, but will also have local community and business involvement.
Shared learning is a feature of the local government online pathfinder programme. I have mentioned the hope that a variety of projects will disseminate good practice to a wider group of local authorities in future. Each pathfinder will act as a mentor to a further three councils. Mentors will provide detailed support and advice to councils to help them in bringing about local government online, both in the round and in the specific aspects being explored by the pathfinder. In addition, each pathfinder will convene an action learning network, either on a geographical basis or on a particular issue. All councils have been encouraged to participate in the local government online learning network and the pathfinders will receive £50,000 each to support that aspect of their work.
Overall we are making available some £490,000 of this year's local government online resource to support the programme of shared learning. As I said in response to the hon. Gentleman's intervention, we have appointed a company called Vantagepoint to facilitate an e-learning programme, which includes a dedicated information dissemination website, a series of regional and national conferences and the collection, assessment and evaluation of quarterly monitoring data from each of the pathfinder projects.
The purpose of the special grant report is to examine the original proposition as to the total proposed funding after the removal of Norfolk from the equationjust over £24 million. That was originally in the form of supplementary credit approvals. However, representations from local authorities, particularly those that are debt free, made clear their strong preference for funding to be in the form of a grant. We therefore decided to seek the agreement of the House to enable the transfer to take place in that form. Given the key role of pathfinders in helping all authorities to meet the 2005 target, and the fact that they are in the vanguard, we want to provide them with every possible support. I therefore ask hon. Members to agree to the transfer of the £24 million from supplementary credit approvals to a form of special grant.
I should add, however, that the pathfinder programme is part of the Government's wider support for online local government. As part of that programme, my Department recently invited all local authorities to submit an ``implementing electronic government'' statement setting out their vision for e-government and how they aim to achieve it by 2005. I am pleased to say that 99 per cent. of councilsthat is all councils except threehave done so. The overall results of those IEG assessments are encouraging. Only 6 per cent. of councils have produced what could be regarded as an unsatisfactory IEG statement, and although there is considerable variation in the level of readiness, the good news is that all kinds of authorities plan to meet the 2005 target.
The Government are also supporting national infrastructure projects. Led by the Office of the E-Envoy, all authorities are being encouraged to participate in key initiatives such as the government gateway, the UK online portal and agreed data and technical standards. We have also identified and supported local authority participation in a number of national service delivery projects aimed at tackling the interface between local authorities and Government policy objectives and/or Government delivery agencies. Those include a planning portal, council tax valuation systems and the integration of health and social services records. The aim is to announce next year a national Government strategy informed by those statements.
To conclude, the Government's view is that, overall, authorities are making encouraging progress. Most authorities have made significant strides over the past year. The 25 pathfinder authorities have played a vital role in raising the profile of e-government, and are starting to show results in accelerated developments and in shared learning and product roll-out. We must do everything that we can to support them, and I therefore ask hon. Members to agree to this special grant report and to allow the £24 million of funding to be transferred from supplementary credit approvals to special grant.