Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 97) (HC 721), on Local Government On-Line Funding to Local Authorities

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Mr. Allan: Will the Minister inform the Committee which authority has not submitted a satisfactory IEG?

Dr. Whitehead: I probably could if a piece of paper came my way.

Mr. Allen: While the Minister is waiting for guidance, could I urge upon him that the ability to e-vote should be seen as an addition to, rather than a replacement for, the existing means of voting. There have been pilots for postal votes in which that has been the only option, whereas a lot of people like going out to vote. It might be convenient for some to either e-vote or postal vote. Can we make those weapons in the armoury of local politicians to get people involved, rather than excluding some who do not want exclusively to e-vote or p-vote?

Dr. Whitehead: Yes. The intention of e-voting pilots is to look at ways in which methods of voting other than going down to the polling station and marking one's cross on a piece of paper and putting that into a box can be available, secure and useable. However, it is not the Government's intention to replace the method of voting by ballot paper with the alternatives. As hon. Members will know, the intention of a number of the experiments is to add to the variety that is available to people and to give them access to forms of voting that suit their changing

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lifestyles. The aim, among other things, is to ensure that access to the democratic process is more readily available to people, thereby increasing turnout. That seems to be a positive way forward.

Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West): Will the Minister clarify for me a note in items ii and iii on page 6 of the report that the general grant will go to all authorities? If it is for e-voting pilots and to improve turnout, why is it going to authorities such as the GLA and county councils, which are not electoral registration authorities?

Dr. Whitehead: The £200,000 that will be made available to local authorities relates to the IEG submitted by those authorities—that is, the local authorities' proposals and their progress in implementing electronic governance generally. They are not made specifically to enhance e-voting, although some local authorities may choose to consider it as part of their function. The pilot grants that have been made available to authorities on e-voting pilot schemes, which are set out in annexe A, are exclusively for authorities that have electoral duties, and they will be using the funding and the support that goes with it specifically for pilot electronic voting.

As I anticipated, Mr. Benton, information has now come my way that will allow me to address the question raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam. The authority concerned is North Dorset, and it has not so far provided an IEG to the Government.

The national park authorities, too, received a grant of the same amount, but they are not listed in the report as the Secretary of State has already existing statutory powers to pay grant to them without including them in a special grant report.

The third purpose of the report concerns the ongoing funding of the 25 pathfinder projects. The e-government pathfinders have had great success in developing new products and spreading best practice among other authorities and partner agencies. They will provide a platform of nationally available solutions to all local authorities over the next 12 months—for example, the development of smartcard technology, e-procurement solutions or customer relationship management software. However, as is often the case with pioneering work, there have been some delays in the achievement of key milestones for some projects.

Rolling forward to 2002–03, any unspent grant from the £24 million already allocated to the 24 funded pathfinders in 2001–02 will enable projects that are behind schedule to carry on past 31 March 2002, which will ensure that they have time to complete their groundbreaking work. I should point out to the Committee that there is an additional pathfinder project, which is funded through a private finance initiative, but which draws its dissemination funding through our e-government programme, and therefore through this report. In total, there are 25 pathfinder projects.

The final purpose of the report is to enable the Government to provide a dissemination grant of £50,000 to each of the 25 e-government pathfinder authorities to support best practice and the necessary

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learning process to ensure that best practice can be passed on to other authorities. The report will enable the Government to implement a key part of its overall strategy to e-enable local authorities, and to deliver better, more accessible services and e-democracy for their communities. I therefore commend it to the Committee.

10.53 am

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): It is a pleasure to serve yet again under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton.

As the Minister pointed out, the special grant report allocates funding to certain councils to implement e-voting powers and fund e-government pathfinder projects. We understand that the funding that we are discussing today is not new money but is part of the £350 million that the Government have already announced—the Minister nods—for local government on-line programmes.

We shall be studying those pilot projects carefully. In principle, we support any means of seeking to increase voter participation and turnout through innovative election schemes. When debating these issues previously, we have expressed concern that some election innovations may be ineffective—for instance, the earlier voting in the Greater London Authority elections in 2000 failed to increase voter turnout. However, the new innovations may increase the potential for fraud.

For example, the increased use of postal ballots during the general election was accompanied by media reports of insufficient checks on fraudulent voting. In an article on The Guardian website, Guardian Unlimited, only a few weeks ago, the Minister's colleague, the Minister for Local Government, was quoted as saying that he was laying down special safeguards for the trial scheme in the London borough of Hackney amid growing concerns about fraud in the forthcoming elections on 2 May, which will take place through a purely postal ballot.

Mr. Allen: Were any of the media reports about postal vote fraud in the general election ever substantiated?

Mr. Moss: I am not aware that they were, but as the hon. Gentleman is aware, it is difficult to pin down just what goes on. During my time in Northern Ireland, accusations were frequently being made of irregularities in certain areas, but they were never proven. Similarly, e-voting could be greeted with apathy or open the door to fraud. Important information, such as PIN numbers, will still have to be sent to voters by post. Under the present Government, the postal system has become more unreliable. On average, something like 1,500 items of mail are lost every week in every constituency. That information was cited by the independent watchdog, Postwatch, in January 2001.

Ultimately, creating new ways to abstain from voting will not tackle the general problem of growing voter apathy. The Government would do better to give greater autonomy back to local councils and reverse the growing centralisation. Only if we believe that

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councils have the power to make a difference will voters start to vote more often in local elections. We also maintain that the Government's increasing propensity to use ring-fenced funding, such as special grants, which often involve a bidding process, is a symptom of that centralisation.

Concerns have also been raised by local authorities about not being properly and adequately compensated for their e-government costs. In April, the Local Government Chronicle reported that councils will spend about £2.5 billion on meeting their targets, presumably by 2005, but, to date, the Government have decided to allocate only £350 million. That could be another Whitehall-imposed burden on local council finances, and given the Government's record on grant allocation, it will simply push up council tax.

Local authorities have also criticised the Government's local government e-strategy for coming too late to be of any real use. The Local Government Chronicle of April reported that the Society of Information Technology Management remarked,

    ''It would have been useful to have this two years ago.''

So, in its opinion, the Government's strategy comes two years late, and that will feed through in some way to the Government's targets for 2005. Those targets require all local authorities to be capable of electronic delivery by that date. However, many of the targets are arbitrary. Geoffrey Filkin, a director of the new local government network has remarked:

    ''Making existing services available on the internet is not, by itself, a sufficiently meaningful boost to services . . . the really important steps are when we actually add value . . . to the nature of the services themselves.''

That is a quote from Public Finance, from March last year.

We are concerned that the targets are expressed in terms of capability rather than take-up. That theme was raised early in our discussions by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, who asked about participation by the people receiving the services rather than the targets set for availability. The take-up is what we should focus on to achieve the interaction to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Targets should be designed to ensure that the public receive the service that they want. The Government are ignoring the needs of the public by ensuring that the floor targets are easy to meet.

The public remain sceptical about the Government's rhetoric on e-government. Many members of the public would prefer better quality telephone and face-to-face services, through which they could make their point and get the service delivered to them, rather than be offered yet another means that will not be available unless they have PCs in their homes. PCs could be provided in central places, but people would have to make the effort to go to those places when they might rather use the telephone.

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Prepared 23 April 2002