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. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester): The hon. Gentleman's point is well made, and I know that he has some expertise in the field. He is talking about the need for people to be familiar with the technology that is used, and that is the key. More people would use SMS messaging in an e-voting environment because they are familiar with handsets. Likewise, broadband was mentioned earlier, but we will see a greater yield with the switch to digital television between 2006 and 2010. As one of my hon. Friends muttered earlier, one needs a computer to have an e-mail address, but access to all the technology will be available through digital television.

Mr. Allan: I know that the hon. Gentleman is informed on these matters and makes a good point. I am not sure that today is the day to talk about the bright future for digital television, given what is

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happening with ITV Digital. My suspicion is that the Government's target may slip, or that they will meet huge public resistance, unless they can get out free-to-air boxes very quickly. That will be difficult for them and they will face the tough decision of whether to spend money giving away free-to-air boxes. However, with the problems of ITV Digital, that is a long way off.

The hon. Gentleman is right that one needs to use the access methods with which people are familiar. Some years ago, no one would have thought that SMS messaging would take off. If someone had said, ''We are going to allow people to send e-mails limited to 256 characters and charge them 10p for each e-mail they send'', they would have been told that they were mad, yet billions of e-mails are sent every day at 10p a time because the access devices suit people and they carry them in their pockets. We cannot predict fashion, but it is critical that the Government use systems that fit in with what the citizen wants and do not try to make citizens fit in with what we want.

Some important lessons are being learnt from pilot schemes. In our e-voting pilot, Ken Bellamy, the information and communications technology manager at Sheffield city council, strongly pushed SMS voting because people already use the technology. It is more difficult to make SMS voting secure, but he felt that it was important.

We have developed kiosks to overcome some of the digital divide problems mentioned by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North. I would go further and suggest that we should think about using community buildings, libraries, lottery terminals or any appropriate environment. We should even think about the role of sub-post offices. We need to use the technology that the people adopt, rather than telling them what technology to adopt.

I turn to the Government's targets for getting services on-line, and I am particularly interested in the targets on voting. The reform refers to the fact that the strategy is to prepare for a general election, sometime after 2006, using electronic voting. I am interested to know what the Government's target is for enabling all local authorities to use e-voting. Does the assumption that there will be a general election using electronic voting after 2006 mean that electronic voting is now excluded from the Government's targets for getting all services on-line by 2005? I do not have a problem with that because to set a flat target is not necessarily the best approach.

I would prefer us to get the most important services properly on-line by 2005, rather than have everything on-line badly. However, it would be helpful to know if we were setting a target for the introduction of electronic voting in general elections post-2006, and whether the time frame for local government voting will be the same. Or is the expectation that we could have a universal electronic local election before 2006?

11.24 am

Mr. Allen: I shall be brief because there is an incredible amount to say on this topic. I want to leave one thought with the Minister, which I hope he will carry with him as he considers the issue over,

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hopefully, many years to come in his ministerial capacity. It is abbreviated in the term ''the Sharon test''. My constituency of Nottingham, North contains the most educationally deprived area in the UK. It is not in Glasgow, the east end of London or Manchester but Nottingham. The two wards of Broxtowe and Aspley have the lowest educational attainment in the UK.

One character in that area—we will call her Sharon—is a single mum who lives on her own, looking after her baby. She loves the baby but feeds it potato crisps because she does not know any better. I would ask the Minister to bear Sharon in mind when we are discussing interfaces and using the jargon and nerdspeak that infects this area. What will the measure do for Sharon?

We can bring to bear a public service ethic through information technology, if Sharon can access information. I take my cue from my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), who talked about having such information at the end of a TV zapper. Everyone understands how to make the TV work. People should be able to get information through a television set, which is not beyond our technical capability.

Will Sharon, in five year's time, be able to access the information that she needs about local child care so that she can end her isolation? Will she be able to access information about parenting skills, in case she has more children? Will she be able to access information about nutrition so that she can look after the child and love it and meet its needs? Will she be able to access local information about training so that she can work or learn her way out of her current situation and into being a wage earner? Finally, will she therefore be able to access job opportunities and skill development?

I put those tests bluntly to the Minister, because if all we are doing is allowing the director of finance to talk via e-mail to the director of works, when they are two minutes down the corridor from each other and would be better off talking face to face, this initiative will have failed. It is not doomed to failure; on the contrary, it is a bright initiative and extremely welcome. However, will the Minister, as he implements the measures, bear in mind the Sharon test at all times?

11.27 am

Dr. Whitehead: We have had an excellent and informative debate. That is a reflection of the relevance and the salience of the issues under discussion to the future of local government and particularly to the future of the accessibility of services, which is a key concern. The debate has also reflected the variety of ideas and initiatives in this field. As hon. Members have pointed out, it is important to consider those ideas in ways that relate to people instead of pursuing them simply because of their own interest. It is only by relating services to people and what they require from local government and from government services in general that we can firmly nail some of those ideas into future reality.

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Hon. Members have raised a number of points that I have endeavoured to respond to. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire pointed out that previous electoral pilots had in general failed to increase turnout, although postal voting pilots have been the exception to that general rule. Initiatives such as voting on Saturdays and in supermarkets did not particularly increase turnout, but postal voting did.

The pilots in the grant report are not just intended to increase turnout, although all democrats should be concerned to address that. They are about increasing the accessibility of the system to people with lifestyles and assumptions about their lives and working practices that no longer conform to the idea that one should go out of one's house to a particular place at a particular time, put a cross on a piece of paper and put it into a box. We now have technology that enables us not to have to do any of those things, yet that is essentially how our electoral system still functions, by and large. Perhaps that is a sign that it is right for us to seriously consider changes. Turnout may increase as a result of the changes, but that is not the only reason for undertaking the pilots.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire and others raised the issue of a possible increase in fraud. It is right that attention should be paid to the possibility of fraud in electronic voting. One issue that we must confront is that the public is comfortable with the present voting system, because it has been around for a long time. Despite that, in principle, it is not actually very safe. If one is very determined, it is possible to undertake fraud on a reasonable scale. The fact that that does not usually happen, as far as anyone can determine, and that the electoral system appears to be straightforward and large numbers of people do not go around impersonating others, collecting votes and trying to influence elections, is probably more an indication of the robustness of the assumptions underlying our electoral system, rather than the method by which we cast our votes.

Since we are suggesting that this is a new way of casting votes, it is right that people should have assurances about the robustness of the new system. Such assurances may go beyond the assumptions that we have made for a long time about the previous system. In anticipation of a later question from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam, I should say that one of the things that the Electoral Commission will examine is the safety of the system and the extent to which fraud is possible within in it. It is right that that should be done.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire questioned the fact that, of the £2.5 billion going into e-enabling local government, the Government have put forward funding of only £350 million. I emphasise that IT enabling in local government is not a new process; clearly, it has been going on for a long time. Already, all but five local authorities have some form of website up and running. In case the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam asks me which five authorities, I cannot tell him, although I have the information somewhere. No grants were available and, by and large, local government has already made substantial

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investment in IT using its own resources, because IT helps the process of local government.

The Government investment is designed to move the process to avoid—as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam said—the question of take-up, access and differential access for those who do not have their own personal computers being a substantial barrier to the next phase of the development of e-enabled local governments. The investment is in the process rather than the totality of the process.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire asked a pertinent question; whether broadband capacity will be sufficient to take all the changes. There is no magic wand to deliver a step-change in broadband use in the UK, but the Government are actively stimulating a virtuous circle in which demand and supply grow in parallel and reinforce each other.

 
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