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. Allen: There is a magic wand, as those of us who received a letter this morning telling us about free international calls to be made by hon. Members abroad will understand. It is to ask BT not to charge for local calls, not least because nine tenths of local call charges are now due to metering and billing. That would give the step-change that we all want. Perhaps the Minister will undertake to drop a line to one of his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry asking whether that might be possible in the near future.

Dr. Whitehead: I thank my hon. Friend for that suggestion. I could telephone that colleague, or send them an e-mail or text message. There are many ways to pass on a message.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There are methods by which market demand can grow, and supply can then grow in parallel. Market players may therefore be the main drivers, but the Government can influence the pace of change. We are encouraging the roll-out of broadband in areas unlikely to be immediately commercially viable. With that view in mind, we have provided some £30 million to regional development agencies and devolved Administrations to enable them to extend broadband networks in their areas.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire also mentioned targets. He is right that take-up is important, and that targets should add value to services, not simply provide a platform that no one will use, which, as other hon. Members said, would be good news for certain offices but not for the public. Clearly, targets should be concentrated on adding value to services. There should be enhanced accessibility when the targets are achieved.

Having said that, we do not intend e-government to replace telephones or face-to-face contact. Hon. Members made the point that people will choose different methods for different purposes. People will almost certainly want to continue paying their rent to a person, so that they can see that the money has gone, and so that it can be recorded and a receipt can be handed to them. However, they will have other methods of doing other tasks relating to their rent.

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Telephone communication counts as a target if that communication is e-enabled—that is, if the officer who receives the information via the call centre can, as a result of receiving that information, access electronic information online, and can respond to the telephone complaint, query or request as a result of being e-enabled. A simple telephone transaction would not count as a service, but an e-enabled telephone transaction would.

My hon. Friend asked why the e-pilots extend to July 2002 when the elections are in May. The funding for the pilots will be spent on both preparing the schemes and moving towards a time when the Electoral Commission can evaluate them. An hon. Member stated a concern that the evaluation would be held this year, next year, sometime, never, but that is not so. The Electoral Commission will report, and will do so in July. The report on the evaluation will closely follow the elections, and we will then draw out the lessons to be learned from the pilots.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire asked why there is such variation in funding for e-pilots. That is down to the nature of each pilot; funding is given according to what each pilot claims to do. The St. Albans pilot, for example, is running trials of relatively ambitious schemes such as internet, telephone and electronic kiosk voting. On the other hand, Broxbourne is piloting a simple electronic counting system. The pilots will be fully evaluated for value for money, but that value will vary according to the proposals suitable for the pilot project.

The total grant for IEGs and the money going to local authorities is £160 million over two years—£80 million this year and £80 million next. The dissemination grants for the pilots amount to £1.25 million, which, as the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire says, comes out of the total that we are considering.

Mr. Allen: One of the comments of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire that I thought apposite was that however much we do in the field of new technology to improve people's facility to vote, one of the main things is to ensure that they are motivated to vote. He asked what proposals the Government have in store to restore powers and authority to local government. Perhaps the Minister will touch briefly on that before he finishes discussing the comments of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire.

Dr. Whitehead: My hon. Friend invites me to touch on the matter far from briefly, but I shall try to be extremely brief. The recent White Paper on the future of local government has at its heart a change in the axis of the relationship between central Government and local government and the proper sphere for national framework decision-making and for local autonomy in decision-making. The boundaries of those two spheres have been subject to debate for some time. The suggestion that local government has been subject to centralism and excessive second-guessing of its decisions has been around for a while. The White Paper responds to some of those suggestions by proposing placing several new

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freedoms, autonomies and initiatives in the hands of local government.

Effective e-enabling of local government will enhance that process by ensuring, in principle, much better access between local government and its citizens. If the Government are backing that up by ensuring that local government has the decision-making authority to make that relationship work, that will be another virtuous circle of governance.

I said in response to questions asked by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam that the Electoral Commission will evaluate pilots. I must be perfectly correct in making the point. The Electoral Commission will evaluate pilots by the end of July. It is under a statutory obligation to report within three months; that is, by 2 August. Therefore, if the report arrives on 1 August, that will not be a dereliction of the Government's duty; it will be pretty good.

The Electoral Commission will examine all aspects of the pilots and matters relating in particular to fraud, which I have already mentioned, and will draw out lessons for the future. I believe that the response to the pilots will be not only speedy but comprehensive and will draw out several important lessons for future consideration. As I said, it is important that the public perceive the new systems to be secure—as well as that the systems are secure—and I am sure that the evaluation will consider that.

The hon. Gentleman asks what will happen if things go wrong. The Department has made it clear that it would support a decision by a returning officer to withdraw a pilot if it is perceived before the election that things are seriously awry. However, to date, there is no evidence that any of the pilots are seriously awry, and no returning officer has notified the Government to that effect. We can therefore conclude that to date everything seems to be on track in respect of the pilots.

The hon. Gentleman also raises wider questions about the evaluation of IEGs and the judgment of process. IEGs will be considered in terms of progress, but progress will generally be judged in terms of what the IEG itself states. The issue is not a central formulaic determination of what a local authority says or does. Although IEGs have—with the one exception that we identified—been submitted and deemed satisfactory, as the hon. Gentleman will understand, local authorities are taking a variety of approaches, and there been no central check-list determination of what constitutes a satisfactory IEG. It is a question of encouraging the local authority to be innovative in proceeding with its enabling programme.

The hon. Gentleman also asks whether some of the programmes could be enhanced by consortiums. It is the Government's intention in the White Paper and elsewhere to encourage strategic partnerships for procurement and purchasing. Interestingly, in the strategic partnerships pathfinders that are already under way, with the support of officials in the Department, partnerships are not only between local authorities and the private sector but between local authorities themselves, and between local authorities and other public agencies. Several partnerships are

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concerned with enhancing the electronic delivery of local and public services.

Mr. Allan: One of the Government's more positive moves on the broadband front was to encourage the joint purchasing of broadband services, which would, necessarily, be across local authorities, health authorities and other public bodies. I would encourage the Government to remove all existing barriers to that. I understand that, although the will is there, at a legal level it can be difficult to engineer the contracts and expensive for the bodies involved.

Dr. Whitehead: I take the hon. Gentleman's point. The Government should ensure that such processes are supported. As part of the programme, we invited partnership proposals to bid for up to £75 million in additional resources over the next two years. So far, we have received 109 proposals, many of which are for shared delivery as well as shared procurement. That is encouraging. We are not aware of any problems relating to consortiums, and are encouraged by the applications.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the dissemination of the pathfinder projects in terms of the e-enabling of local government. Twenty-five pilots were previously in place and received the first tranche of money available for e-governance, although more than 25 authorities were involved. On the question of the dissemination of the electoral and wider e-government pilots, we want to ensure that the dissemination occurs in terms of mentoring and wide and pre-availability of information. It is not the Government's intention for people to corner, as it were, intellectual property as a result of the measures. Rather, the information should be widely available and those authorities that have taken part will have their roles positively enhanced by mentoring and expanding on the processes that they have undertaken.

I emphasised that there is no intention to replace existing services as a result of e-enabled governance. However, value will be added as a result of the e-enablement of local government, which may free-up resources to provide better non-electronic services. Having a palette of services will enable those who might otherwise undertake their communication with the council by non-electronic means to move to electronic means, freeing-up local government face-to-face services to a greater extent.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam asked about e-voting in general elections. I understand that the target for e-enablement of local government is 2005, which would suggest that, in principle, local government would be sufficiently e-enabled to launch electronic voting. Clearly, local government would need to be e-enabled prior to e-voting in a general election, because that would be the method through which the voting would take place. It is conceivable that one could have a huge central voting bank, but that method is unlikely to recommend itself to the public.

Beyond 2006, it is important not only that local authorities are e-enabled, but that the system is robust and works across the country. That is the opposite of the case with the pilots. For an e-enabled election, we

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would have to ensure that the weakest element of the system was as good as the best, unlike the pilots in which only a few things might work well. The idea that there might be an e-enabled election after 2006 gives us time to ensure that the systems are robust.

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Prepared 23 April 2002