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Westminster Hall

Thursday 16 January 2003

[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

2.30 pm

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Douglas Alexander) : I welcome this debate on the e-transformation of public services. It offers the House an opportunity to discuss an important aspect of the Government's work in investing in and reforming our public services. It further provides an opportunity to hear the views of hon. Members, several of whom present today have particular expertise and experience in this field. I therefore propose to limit my opening contribution to setting out the context and scale of the Government's work, before responding in my concluding remarks to the contributions made by other hon. Members.

Over recent years in the marketplace we have seen the spectacular rise and fall of the NASDAQ, with an international decline in share values and significant global job losses in the technology and communications sectors. Against that turbulent background, it has been recognised that the laws of supply and demand still matter to the corporate bottom line, and that much of the initial hype surrounding the dotcom boom has obscured the true significance of the telecommunications and computing advances that we are witnessing today.

More than 600 million people globally are now online, and 140,000 more people connect to the net every day. In the past 30 years, the price of a transatlantic telephone call has fallen to a tiny fraction of its original level, and there are already more mobile phones in the world than traditional telephone landlines.

Against that changing backdrop, some commentators have asked whether the Government's enduring focus on the importance of electronic service delivery is misplaced. I believe that the answer is no—indeed, an emphatic no. Electronic service delivery remains an integral and expanding part of our reform and modernisation programme for public services. The e-enablement of public services, with the citizen at its core, is central to our strategy of transforming the interaction between state and individual. It is surely not contentious to recognise that experience of the private sector increasingly shapes the citizen's expectations of public services.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so early. I just wanted to draw his attention to a company called Opportunity Links, in which I have a registered, although non-financial, interest. That company helps people to change their lifestyle and to get back into work, and has assisted

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the Department for Education and Skills in spreading the national child care information strategy. It demonstrates what a real difference electronic—

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. This is becoming a speech, and interventions should be brief. I should be happy for the hon. Lady to bring her comments to a quick conclusion.

Mrs. Campbell : Is my hon. Friend aware of that organisation? If not, will he ensure that he finds out something about it?

Mr. Alexander : That was an endearingly brusque end to an interesting intervention by my hon. Friend. It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to her work in this field, not least in representing the constituency of Cambridge, which shows world leadership on 3G technologies. I also pay tribute to the work that she has undertaken on e-representation. She is a pioneer in the House in advancing online surgeries, which provide an interesting opportunity that we could consider later.

I must confess that I am not over-familiar with the company that my hon. Friend cited, but I am certainly aware of the great deal of work that is being done on child care and the intermediate labour market in making those who have particular needs aware of the opportunities available. I would be more than happy for my hon. Friend to write to me to follow up her point about that company.

It is clear that people already use certain electronic services and that there are real successes that we can learn from, such as the company in Cambridge that has just been described. At national level, NHS Direct Online receives 500,000 hits each month. Last year, Learn Direct reached more than 245,000 people, who enrolled on more than 57,000 educational courses. UK Online is the Government's fastest-growing website, with an average of 119 per cent. growth per month. More than 500,000 people use it each month. If websites are user-friendly, reliable, secure and effective, people will use them. That is the lesson from websites in the commercial sector, such as Amazon or easyJet, to name just two successes in recent years.

Our e-transformation policy aims to meet the needs of the citizen, not just by tacking online capabilities on to old systems, but by developing new, creative, easy to use sites that are designed, end to end, around those needs. We are working to get Government services to the citizenry online by 2005 and we will, as the Prime Minister made clear at the e-summit on 29 November, also focus on driving up access in key areas, such as the NHS, education, transport, benefits, tax and criminal justice. For example, some services will enable drivers to conduct all their dealings with Government online, including those relating to tax discs, vehicle registration and driving licence applications.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): How often, on average, are the Government's websites updated? Is there a best practice rule on that? If not, should there be one?

Mr. Alexander : The right hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. I have already made it clear that

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information contained on websites should not just be of interest to the customer, but should be kept up to date. A range of work, which is led by the Office of the e-Envoy, is taking place to ensure that Government sites reflect the developing practice in the private sector, and that they capture essential information for citizens to access. Perhaps the best recent examples of that are the UK online site and the ongoing success of NHS Direct Online. Even the private sector has recognised that that is a genuine, pioneering initiative from the British Government. Such sites are increasingly popular with the citizenry, and could be a model for the services that we will need to develop in the years to come.

We will invest in the NHS to create a national integrated care record system, an electronic prescription service and an electronic appointments booking service. We already know what can be achieved. During recent Cabinet Office questions, I mentioned that the transfer of pathology information in a Stockport general practice has already reduced the average time taken between requesting tests and receiving the results from 12 working days to three. Those results are automatically incorporated into patient records.

There are considerable opportunities for the criminal justice system. We are building a future in which victims of violent crime may participate in a trial through video-conferencing, and witnesses and police officers may be called to give evidence by text message, pager or e-mail, rather than have to wait at court for days at a time until they are called to give evidence. That could free up thousands of police days that are currently wasted in waiting to give evidence, and it could save millions of pounds by reducing the number of trials that need to be reconvened after witnesses have given up and gone home, or back to work, thereby causing original trials to be abandoned.

To achieve such a transformation in service delivery requires work from the Government in three areas. First, on investment, I shall inform hon. Members of the scale of the resources that we are committing to this endeavour. Under the spending review settlement, £6 billion will be invested in information and communications technology throughout the coming years. Some £1 billion will be invested in networking our public services. That applies to every primary and secondary school, and it means broadband connectivity for every GP practice, hospital and primary healthcare trust in the country. That will provide higher bandwidth throughout the entire criminal justice system and across the network of offices that forms the Department for Work and Pensions.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): I am buoyed by the Minister's figures, but I seek an assurance that when he talks about linking every school he means the whole United Kingdom, not just England and Wales.

Mr. Alexander : It would be a rare debate indeed if my hon. Friend did not rise to his feet immediately the word "broadband" was uttered to ensure that Scotland was duly represented. He knows that I have a strong family connection with the policy of the Scottish Executive. My sister formerly served as the Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning and she led on the issue of broadband roll-out in Scotland.

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My hon. Friend is right to identify the fact that we face particular challenges in certain localities in the central belt and in rural areas of Scotland. The approach that the British Government have adopted, which has been echoed in the approach adopted in certain initiatives of the Scottish Executive, is correct and will help to maintain platform neutrality on the issue of broadband connectivity.

I shall explain what I mean by that by offering an example. Some areas of the Scottish highlands and islands do not currently have the infrastructure that we would like, and there are a diverse range of primary schools many of which are in remote locations. There may be an argument for using satellite technology to provide broadband connectivity rather than a simple ADSL or cable modem connection.

The virtues of the spending review decisions were that they allowed for decisions to be made within Departments—the constitutional reality is that judgments on educational policy and the networking of educational institutions in Scotland rest with the Scottish Executive—and they ensured that we did not create a broadband fund that is separate from mainstream education or health expenditure, for which some hon. Gentlemen would certainly have argued for. I strongly believed that we needed to maintain an open and competitive marketplace in broadband, and we are currently driving up the number of connections that we are securing from individual subscribers in the UK month by month. I also believed that we needed to ensure that broadband became a central part of the thinking of each of the main Government Departments, and that is undoubtedly true of the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Health—and, I am glad to say, the Scottish Executive, as a report by Digital Scotland Task Force makes clear.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Does my hon. Friend accept that many businesses in rural areas in England, such as those in my constituency, are having to move from their current locations because broadband is unavailable to them, so they are now uncompetitive? Such businesses in my constituency welcome the East of England Development Agency's lottery—they want to see whether they can get some additional profile for their broadband needs—but the idea that they might eventually get a satellite link fills them with horror.

Mr. Alexander : My hon. Friend clearly articulates the views of constituents and business organisations in his constituency. I suggest that it might be of interest to those businesses if they were to study the example that is already developing in Northern Ireland. In conjunction with the Northern Ireland Executive, a satellite project has been developed whereby satellite links have been offered to small and medium-sized enterprises. The reports that I have received—partly in my previous incarnation as a Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry, but also as a result of the ongoing work of the Northern Ireland Executive—suggest that, if an appropriate pricing mechanism can be found, satellite can provide an appropriate and useful technology for remote and small and medium-sized businesses that are spread across a geographic locality.

My hon. Friend made an important point. We must continue not only to drive up the numbers of subscribers to broadband, but to drive outwards the range of

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networks that are available. One of the legacies of my time at the DTI was a broadband development fund that was specifically charged with supporting the work of the regional development agencies, because often RDAs best understand the particular needs of their localities. I was keen to ensure that we were not overly prescriptive on how that money should be spent. The challenges that I set for the regional development agencies at that time were to identify how they could drive up levels of usage and drive outwards the networks in their localities, and to ensure that the solutions that they individually devised were scalable nationally. We are still on a learning curve with broadband, and there is a genuine and exciting opportunity for the best practice that is developed in places such as Scotland, Northern Ireland and Yorkshire to be learned in the east of England, and vice versa. One of the interesting developments of broadband is that, as we continue to drive up the numbers who use it and widen the extent of the networks, there will be increased opportunities for best practice to be shared between RDAs. If my hon. Friend has particular enduring concerns about the work that is being undertaken in the east of England, it might well be worth him raising them with my hon. Friend and colleague the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness at the DTI.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): I am grateful for my hon. Friend's answers—in particular to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty)—and I appreciate the Government's neutrality as regards the platform. However, I wish to press him a little on ADSL, which is in the forefront of many of our constituents' minds. Is he entirely happy with the current commercial strategy of BT, which has a trigger mechanism of 400 in both Wemyss Bay—which is a very small village that he knows well—and in Greenock, which is many times larger? Does that not disadvantage people who live in smaller communities?

Mr. Alexander : An interesting point has been raised by my hon. Friend, who represents a neighbouring constituency to mine. As he may imagine, I have a particular interest in broadband roll-out in the west of Scotland. I would first pay due tribute to the work of BT, because for several months, and indeed during most of my tenure at the Department of Trade and Industry, I was one of the sternest critics of the pricing strategy that it was adopting on broadband. In the light of some of the comments I shall make in due course, it would only be fair to acknowledge that progress has undoubtedly been made. As for the pricing strategy to be adopted, I wanted fair but competitive and lower prices, and I think that real progress has been made on that. I was also keen to ensure that broadband featured prominently in the future thinking of what is still a major telecoms provider in the United Kingdom.

I was heartened that the model that BT has adopted was drawn from best practice, which I think was from Germany originally. It may be helpful to remind the

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Chamber that BT's previous position was to identify a certain number of exchanges throughout the country that were to be broadband-enabled. The effect of that was inevitably somewhat arbitrary. Once it had reached the target, but did not feel that it was sufficiently profitable, it did not feel a commercial obligation to continue beyond that.

In intense discussions between officials, BT and myself, we highlighted the situation in Germany, which allowed the market to lead the roll-out of broadband. Although there are particular regulatory differences between the British and German situations, one lesson that was helpfully learned was that, if there is a demand in a particular area, it should be reasonable for BT to service that demand. I understand that the facility on the BT site at the moment allows someone to register an interest in obtaining a BT service, so that ADSL can thereafter be enabled.

The point that was made about digital inclusion remains important. In that regard, I identify the work that has been undertaken by the UK online centres. I recently visited two computer learning centres in Paisley. I had the privilege of opening one of them, which is in close proximity to both Wemyss Bay and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns). What allowed a link to be established was the procurement by the computer learning centre of a broadband connection which, in turn, e-enabled and gave a broadband connection to the surrounding community.

When I visited the computer learning services in the west of Scotland, I was greatly inspired by the accessibility and services that could be provided by a broadband connection. Perhaps I should have emphasised more strongly my point about the level of resources that have been committed. The real prize out of the billions of pounds being spent by the Government in the months to come will be to secure not only large-scale procurement but smart procurement, which unlocks other market potential.

For example, if we can ensure that broadband connectivity in a locality is achieved through the Department of Health, through GPs' surgeries or local trusts, in a manner that is suitable and is in tandem with the work that is being taken forward in education, it is easy to envisage a future whereby the public sector demand could make provision for the private sector. In that sense, the point that my hon. Friend makes is well taken, but it strengthens the case for the digital inclusion work that the Government are undertaking—allied to the fact that broadband procurement is resting strongly within departmental budgets, rather than being seen as a discrete, self-identified fund that is remote from health and education provision.

Given the scale of the investment that I have identified, it is only fair to acknowledge that the second area where I think ongoing work needs to be taken forward is strong project management. Following the direction given by the Prime Minister in his speech to the e-summit in November, I can today announce new measures that will improve the Government's approach

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to IT projects and will build on the work already in place to ensure that, whenever possible, large IT projects will be better managed, procured more smartly and delivered on time and within budget.

The Office of Government Commerce will work closely with Departments on measures such as the setting up of centres of excellence to share best practice, thorough risk-assessment projects, the identification of common causes of failures of past IT projects and greater clarity and responsibility in project management. That will go a long way towards delivering effective and reliable IT projects in the future.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): The industry has welcomed the establishment by the Government of the Office of Government Commerce's gateway review process, whereby projects are evaluated independently. Will the Minister tell us whether the intention is that the gateway review should be mandatory or only advisory? Should we be concerned if we hear of projects costing several millions that have been red-lighted by the gateway review?

Mr. Alexander : The hon. Gentleman rightly identifies the significance of the gateway review process that is being taken forward within Government by the Office of Government Commerce. One of the greatest successes of the gateway process, which has been running for a limited time, is not just the degree to which it has been recognised as a legitimate function at the centre of the Office of Government Commerce to scrutinise work that is being developed, but the degree to which it assists Departments in their information technology project management. The announcement that I have made on the directions that the Prime Minister gave in the e-summit are viewed as the logical extension of the gateway review process.

Perhaps it would be helpful if I described exactly what the gateway review process involves. It is a technique drawn from best practice in the private sector, and is led by the Office of Government Commerce. In a recent article in The Economist, the gateway review process was referred to as "almost mythical". The gateway review is a series of stages that need to be crossed, and at each stage effective scrutiny of how the project is advancing is offered by a group outside the relevant Department.

A key element of the gateway review is that, when cause for concern is found, a process is put in place to make sure that capacity can be built up to address it. The measures that I have identified today will work in tandem with the gateway review process to improve not just identification of problems but the capacity to address them, both in Departments and in the Office of Government Commerce. Reports of the Public Accounts Committee clearly identified the need for specific leadership in Departments on projects. If I had to identify one issue that has emerged in the more critical gateway reviews, it would be the lack of clarity about leadership in Departments.

The gateway review process helpfully identifies difficulties. The raft of measures that we will introduce to strengthen that process will build on its success and will take our work forward. The hon. Member for

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Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) and others scrutinising the work of the Government on major IT procurement will notice that any major IT project of significant scale will have exactly the checks and scrutiny that would be found in corporate sectors. Also, and perfectly reasonably, we have an obligation to uphold on value for money. Incidentally, it is worth while recognising that the Office of Government Commerce comes under the Treasury with regard to securing its primary function of providing value for money.

It is difficult to take forward the work of project management without recognising that there are related issues, such as diversity of suppliers. Value for money is a key matter that the Office of Government Commerce will continue to develop. I hope that I have been able to give some assurance to the hon. Gentleman that there will be the necessary scrutiny of major IT projects. That will supplement, rather than undermine, the gateway process.

Mr. Allan : Will the Minister make it clear that Departments can go ahead with projects even if the gateway process states that those projects have weaknesses? Will the Minister be happy for that knowledge to come into the public domain, so that if a project went ahead against the advice of the gateway review process, we would know about it and could criticise the decision?

Mr. Alexander : Of course, departmental Ministers remain accountable to the House of Commons and have to answer for the actions of officials. There are issues relating to the accounting officer. That officer would have to explain why, in the light of the findings of the gateway review, a decision had been taken to proceed with no catch-up plan to allow the project to get back on track. Certainly, following the gateway review's advice is encouraged, if not mandatory. We look ahead to the scale of investment that will be made, and the allocations of the comprehensive spending review. The discrete gateway review process and the work that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister charged us with in November, which will be started off by some of the announcements made today, show the degree to which a greater, and not a weakening, grip is being exerted on the projects.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport): The Minister has just said that the gateway review process recommendations were not mandatory, but he was asked a second question, which was whether a failure in the vetting process would come into the public domain, and he has not answered that. If a decision were not approved, would the public, and not just the accounting officer of the relevant Department, know?

Mr. Alexander : The Public Accounts Committee has trawled over a number of major IT projects. It is the enduring responsibility of every departmental Minister, not only me, to account for their actions before Committees of the House and the House itself. Criticisms may be levelled at the Government, but not being subject to the scrutiny of Parliament is not one of them. There are several PAC reports on the issue and, given the scale of Government investment, it will be an area of continuing interest to many Committees in the future.

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I am conscious that I am in danger of contradicting my earlier undertaking not to speak for too long in my opening remarks. Perhaps that is a fault shared by many hon. Members. It is therefore appropriate for me to try to make progress towards a conclusion.

To supplement the point that I made about the efficiency of IT procurement, I should say that the Government have a responsibility to provide efficiency, but we must also address the issue of equity mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde. For citizens to use services online they must, of course, have access to the internet. That is why I am pleased that we have exceeded our target of 6,000 UK online centres by the end of 2002. Those centres provide low or no-cost internet access and training, and a crucial entry point for those unable to afford personal computers or broadband connections.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for giving way. He has been commendably generous and I shall try not to delay him and the rest of my colleagues for long. I am grateful that we have been able to draw down money from the invest-to-save budget to make local government services more accessible in Gloucestershire. However, is there not a conflict between making local government accessible to the general public and the work that the Post Office is conducting? Would it not be sensible to ensure that local government and sub-post offices work more closely together, otherwise a real opportunity will be lost?

Mr. Alexander : In the context of the debate, it would only be fair to mention the work undertaken by local government on e-government and the provision of services online. I recently attended a major international conference in Berlin and spoke to Thomas M. Siebel of Siebel Systems—a major provider of services to the IT community and to Governments throughout the world. When I was identified as a member of the British Government, he first wanted to make me aware of the pioneering work being done by local government, not in a single locality but throughout Britain. He was keen to say that, on the basis of the international experience that he had garnered, we had some pioneers in Britain. His point about providing services online through local government is an important one.

When I was at the Department of Trade and Industry, I was responsible for postal matters. I was keen to ensure that there was close liaison between Whitehall and the Post Office to discuss some of the thinking that was evolving in the Post Office about the provision of services. I facilitated conversations between the Office of the e-Envoy, which took a broad remit throughout Whitehall, and the Post Office.

I have to confess that, given my changed departmental responsibilities, I am not fully appraised of the stage that such conversations have reached. If it would help, I will make my hon. Friend the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness aware of the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who may have a particular constituency angle that he is keen to pursue.

Mr. Connarty : I thought that the Minister was going to answer the question about the role of post offices. In my meeting with the National Federation of Sub-

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Postmasters, concern was expressed that the pilot scheme using sub-post offices as points of access to Government information seems to have been terminated without explanation. Is it no longer the Government's intention to allow people to use sub-post offices to get information about Government services online?

Mr. Alexander : Again, I am wary of treading on the terrain of my colleague in the Department of Trade and Industry. I understand that the scheme on the provision of online services was piloted under the Government's general practitioner programme in the Rutland area of Leicestershire, and has come to a conclusion. The original intention was that the pilot was to run for a limited time.

I previously held departmental responsibility for that pilot, and issues were raised, such as how to ensure that the service was attractive to sub-postmasters and provided value for money for other Whitehall Departments. If there was a vulnerability in the development of the service, it was not that individual sub-postmasters in the Rutland area did not identify that the service was popular. The problem was how to translate that into either increased footfall or greater use of services—identifying value for money for sub-postmasters and how they would profit from the services. Identifying how value-for-money propositions could be offered to individual Departments such as the Department for Work and Pensions was the substance of discussions between the Post Office, the Department of Trade and Industry and other Government Departments.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. The Chair is not able to participate in the debate, but I might be more involved if the Minister addressed more of his remarks to the front rather than to the rear of Westminster Hall. I am fascinated not only by his accent but by what he is saying.

Mr. Alexander : I hope that you will forgive me for the discourtesy, Sir Nicholas. It is a great honour for you to suggest that what I have to say may be of interest. I am not sure that such an opinion would be shared on both sides of the Chamber. Perhaps with that all-too-trite remark, I should more gracefully conclude my remarks.

I hope that I have managed to communicate not only the scale of investment but the commitment of the Government to driving forward with work on the e-enablement of public services right across the piece—from local government to key Departments such as the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills. I will be interested to hear the comments of my hon. Friends and of other colleagues. We still have work to do on information technology project management and on making further progress on the equity issue. I look forward to the rest of the debate.

Several hon. Members rose—

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. Clearly, many hon. Members wish to participate, whether by speaking or by intervening. With good sense and discipline, all hon. Members will be able to participate. With permission, the Minister will want to make a few remarks at the end of the debate.

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3.1 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): This is not the first time that I have heard the Minister speak on this subject. As on earlier occasions, I have been enormously impressed by his enthusiasm for it and by his grip on the technology. His appointment certainly put a round peg in a round hole.

I endorse the view that the Minister set out at the beginning of his remarks. The United Kingdom should be a leader in this technology, in government and the public services as well as in commerce and entertainment. However, my experience and investigations suggest that, as well as the achievements and triumphs that the Minister mentioned, there are one or two defects in the present e-government strategy and a large question mark over the Government's plans for the development and use of the necessary infrastructure—a point that was touched on during interventions in his speech.

We certainly need reform and transformation in the machinery of government and the delivery of our public services. Many services are inaccessible, unresponsive and inefficient. The internet can play an important part. However, I am suspicious of the current fashion for adding an "e" at the front of words. It can be misleading and unhelpful. It is all to easy to be caught up in the latest fashion and waste both time and money following it, delivering little benefit to the end user while overlooking some basic and elementary steps that can bring immediate gains.

Members of Parliament may be guilty of some mistakes. A number of colleagues have invested in websites but then lost interest and not updated them for months or, in some cases, years. At the other end of the spectrum, a number of colleagues still do not offer their constituents an e-mail address. We are rightly cautious about passing judgment on how colleagues interface with their constituents, but I would say to colleagues whose constituents cannot reach them by e-mail that their constituents are now sending e-mail messages to MPs who have an e-mail address and asking them to print them out and pass them on. I received such a request yesterday. I do not expect my colleagues to take my telephone messages, so I do not expect to have to take their e-mails.

For most people, e-transformation suggests the use of the internet as a delivery and access mechanism. I think that that is the main thrust of Government policy. Departments, public services and local government are all being urged, and in many cases instructed, to

That is a great soundbite, but I wonder whether the strategy is right.

Too high a proportion of the services concerned are of poor quality and are badly managed and organised; they fail to deliver good results on either cost or quality. In my view, a service must be inherently efficient before it makes sense to add internet access to the existing access methods. If one puts a badly run service on the internet, it simply enables everyone to find out more quickly how bad it is.

Mr. Chris Mole (Ipswich): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, although they might not provide the impetus for change themselves, electronic solutions

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provide the opportunity for an agency or body to grapple with fundamental management issues and to review thoroughly its modus operandi and change the way in which it does its business?

Sir George Young : There is some force behind the hon. Gentleman's argument. It is still better for a body to put its house in order before adding internet access rather than to use internet access as a catalyst for change. There might be a case for the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, but I would prefer things to happen in the tidier way that I outlined.

The Prime Minister is committed to providing

I welcome that objective, but people in the health service say that the use of computers and telecommunications in the health service is pretty primitive. That might be a reason why so much new spending goes on administration rather than treatment. What would be the effect of investing scarce resources and funds to allow patients to find out from the internet how long they must wait for an operation?

The soundbite that I mentioned ignores the need to be selective about the online services that will be most useful to the public and that will save the most for the public purse. There should also be selection based on the services that make sense in terms of available technology and the extent to which citizens are able and willing to use services. There is a need to prioritise. For example, I was delighted recently to find that rather than making the long, arduous journey to any post office or using the phone, I can now buy a fishing rod licence over the internet. I suspect that the average citizen would be more interested in being able to renew a tax disc over the internet. The Minister touched on that, and I hope that the scheme will move forward. I am not sure whether the Home Secretary's announcement yesterday about voluntary entitlement to an identity card could take that a stage further by giving each citizen a unique number to use in his or her transactions with the Government.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): Is my right hon. Friend aware that I tried to file my tax return on the internet two weeks ago but I was told that Members of Parliament were not entitled to do that?

Sir George Young : My hon. Friend is psychic because along with millions of fellow citizens, I received my PAYE coding notice a few days ago. It made heroic assumptions about next year's income, which I wish I shared. The name and address of my inspector of taxes—probably the same inspector of taxes as that of other hon. Members—was at the top of the letter. Lower down the letter was his telephone number, which looks expensive to call because he is based in Cardiff. However, no e-mail address was given. At a time when many of us carry out routine business such as querying a tax code by e-mail, that option is not available.

I received a leaflet last year urging me to file my self-assessment tax return via the internet. I was given five compelling reasons why I should do that, including the fact that the form would be returned faster, which is an advantage, I suppose, and the fact that any money

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would be repaid sooner. That was followed by a letter from my inspector of taxes, which is probably the document to which my hon. Friend refers, saying that because MPs have special dedicated pages covering their income, allowances and expenses:

I gather that the same exclusion applies to several other groups of taxpayers.

People with more than one employer have to correspond every year with the Inland Revenue at Longbenton to determine which employer will deduct national insurance contributions. That could be done perfectly well by e-mail in order to save a tedious exchange of letters, but it is not possible.

The Pension Service offers our constituents the facility of forecasting their retirement pensions. Why can people not tap in their national insurance number and relevant details online to find out what their pension will be instead of getting a form, filling it in and waiting?

The driving test is now in two parts: theory and practical. One test can be booked over the internet but the other cannot. I cannot find out on the internet which NHS medical practices are accepting patients. It seems that local general practitioners are even shyer than many MPs when it comes to providing an e-mail address.

I was pleased to discover from the Department of Health website that form E111—which would be useful if I were knocked off my bicycle in any part of the European economic area, is available—but I still have to go to a main post office to fill in another form as well as the E111.

There are, however, some good results. Top marks to the TV licensing authority; I can buy a TV licence over the internet. One of the Departments has enabled me to get a form to register a vote on the internet. There are, therefore, some achievements.

I looked at the Department of Trade and Industry site this morning and clicked on a seductive page offering the full text of ministerial speeches for one day, including a speech to the Insolvency Lawyers' Association. However, either the page has not been updated for over a month, or Ministers have been mute since 11 December, when Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean addressed an audience in Cleveland in the United States. A coherent approach would be to ask the public what transactions they would like to be available, and examine whether those could be delivered. That would be better than the less structured approach of stipulating a deadline by which all transactions must be available.

My final point—I am responding to your injunction to be brief, Sir Nicholas—is the most important one. To what extent do we believe that some citizens can and will access and use public services online? The Minister referred to that towards the end of his speech. Last year's report by the National Audit Office expressed considerable concern about it, and the more recent note by the House of Commons Library staff reinforces that concern.

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Local authorities have been busy in the past two years responding to the Government's requirement that they, too, put all their services online by 2005. Looking through some of those local government plans, one is struck by the consistency with which it is reported that broadband internet rather than ordinary dial-up will be needed to make sense of such a strategy.

The Government have spoken a lot about broadband, but there are no effective plans to ensure that it will be made available to citizens across the country by 2005, or indeed according to any other timetable. It is obvious that online access to services is most important and attractive to those who have to travel furthest to obtain those services by any other means—those who live in rural areas. My rural constituents are already up in arms because they cannot get the broadband services that are being promoted so enthusiastically by the Government and others. Broadband is available in Andover and Tadley in my constituency, but more than half of my constituents do not live in those two towns, and therefore cannot get broadband. In many areas, there is no expectation that we will be able to get broadband on an equivalent basis to people in the cities.

I heard what the Minister said about satellite, but I am not sure that that is an acceptable alternative, as it tends to be a fast link one way and a telephone link the other way. It strikes me that the best approach, if one can overcome the regulatory hurdles and deal with the problems about neutrality of platform, is to get BT to enable the exchanges and to bring broadband to them in the way in which most people have it in the cities.

Mr. McWalter : Has the right hon. Gentleman managed to obtain any assessment of how expensive it is to update an exchange? Once that becomes a fairly standard operation, it ought to be possible to upgrade most exchanges in villages. The Government, the regional development agencies and others ought to be able to give assistance on that, to ensure that it can take place universally. That is the only way of achieving universality in these services.

Sir George Young : The answer, as I expect that BT would tell the hon. Gentleman, is that the cost depends on which exchange, its proximity, and how far BT needs to back up the service. My view is that broadband should be considered a universal service, such as telephone, water and other utilities. I believe that the approach adopted should be based on an entitlement to broadband rather than the alternative approach, which is that we should let the market speak, and that somehow it will all sort itself out. However, that may not be a policy which my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) finds himself able to endorse.

Mr. Drew : I should like to clarify the picture with regard to a set threshold. One of the problems in rural areas is that the smaller the area is, the higher the threshold that needs to be achieved to break through the magic number. Following my discussions with BT, I understand that an additional problem is beginning to occur—low take-up once ADSL has been put in place. I am concerned that, if there is not a good level of take-

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up, partly because people are obsessed with the threshold, there will be a double whammy against the benefit.

Sir George Young : When we have this dialogue with BT, it tells us that take-up is pitifully low in areas where it has provided broadband, and asks why it should expand the service in rural areas before it can increase it in the towns. We may have a role to play in encouraging take-up through our chambers of commerce and our businesses to knock out the alibi that BT tends to use.

The Government have made optimistic statements on broadband, but no commitment. A senior BT executive says that he

It so happens that 90 per cent. of the population live in urban areas, and 10 per cent. in rural areas, which will not overcome the problem.

In November, the Prime Minister told the e-summit, to which the Minister referred, that

I endorse that comment.

To conclude, we need a prioritised approach to putting services online rather than a deadline for all them. That should be linked to a more coherent strategy for ensuring that services are as available to people who live in rural areas as they are to those who live in towns. I will be the first to champion the Government's strategy if we can reach both those targets.

3.15 pm

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on an outstanding opening speech. He need have no worries about leaving the Chamber for half an hour.

I want to expand on some of the excellent points made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). He is on to something with his warning not to adopt a tick-box attitude to which services are put online. We should start by finding out what services people want, need and will use, and not set about automating the past simply by sticking things on to the internet and calling that e-transformation. I hope that my first remarks of the afternoon will be understood in the context that e-transformation involves a radical change of mindset, not simply a series of technical exercises.

I was delighted to hear the Minister put the needs of the customer of public services at the heart of his statement. He said, rightly, that people expect and demand the highest quality of interaction with the private sector, which includes banks, building societies, Amazon.com, and in all the other ways in which we interact. Second-rate services from the public sector will no longer be tolerated. The needs of the customer, not the needs, desires or time scales of the producers, should be at the heart of the debate.

As the Minister said, the Government have a clear agenda of investment in and reform of public services. I was pleased to hear him re-emphasise the £6 billion

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investment in ICT which is part of the latest investment round, but he is right to point out that e-transformation is not simply a question of money, important though that is. The Prime Minister made it clear that we must combine that investment with reform if we are to achieve our goal. As the Minister said, we need money and reform.

E-transformation is not a technical exercise, and I am delighted to note that not a single anorak is draped over a chair in the Chamber this afternoon. It must be at the heart of the Government's agenda for reform in the services that we offer to our customers and our voters. The opportunities presented by IT and the internet are enormous, and we have only begun to understand them fully. Britain has some of the world's best IT companies and British consumers are among the fastest in Europe to adapt to using new technology. People have become used to dealing with the technology. Twenty years ago, people in my constituency were likely to be working with their hands in the shipyards. Today, those same people are working with PCs, and people who never knew heavy industry are using IT skills from a young age.

The fundamental questions of the debate are: what can we achieve by applying new technology more creatively to the way in which we deliver public services, and why is it necessary? Owing to time constraints, I am not sure that we have quite made the case for why e-transformation is necessary and what benefits might accrue from it. I shall choose one solitary example of why a radical e-transformation of Government services is long overdue.

About 80 per cent. of Government services are delivered by local councils—housing benefit, for example, is administered locally, but under national rules. However, as this month's Audit Scotland report shows, the variation of performance among Scottish councils alone is breathtaking. The time taken to process a housing benefit claim in Scotland ranges from 17 to 106 days. Processing a change of circumstance form ranges from three to 49 days, and the proportion of renewal claims processed on time ranges from 99 per cent. to 25 per cent. That is just one example of one benefit delivered by one sector of government in a part of the United Kingdom that is relatively small in population terms. We could multiply that 100,000 times across the full range of services.

That performance is simply not good enough. A taxpayer who has paid for a service has the right to expect the same quality of service from the producer—in this case, the Government—whether he lives in Greenock, Renfrewshire or anywhere else in the UK. Every local authority with its own IT procurement and human resources department and its own legion of administrators is doing exactly the same thing, but clearly some are doing it very well, whereas others are not.

Many authorities are putting more of their services on their own websites. They would argue that they are making a greater effort to e-enable, but it is a classic example of automating the past and believing that once a technological face has been grafted on a service, the job of e-transforming has been done. That is not e-transformation.

A better example of the use of technology to transform the delivery of a service is telecare, through which doctors can monitor patients over the internet. I

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read about a GP surgery that used digital cameras to photograph a patient's skin, stored the photos on a laptop and sent them off to a dermatologist to decide what treatment, if any, was needed. The North Manchester primary care group has, through teleconsultations, reduced its waiting time to see a dermatologist from an average of 18 months to 17 days. That—not filling in a form online to wait in a queue to gain access to a consultant's surgery—is e-transforming services. It is all about using the technology radically to alter the way in which the service is provided.

I understand the Minister's difficulty. Sadly, he does not run every local council and every NHS trust. [Interruption.] I would be delighted if my hon. Friend took control over several local authorities and NHS trusts that I can think of, but I will pass on from that.

We have, rightly, given local bodies greater control over their own budgets and more freedom to direct their own affairs, but I must tell the Minister that at some point, such fragmentation will stand in the way of e-transformation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State acknowledged that in what I take to be a change in Government strategy towards IT in the NHS, at least in England and Wales, where it will not be pushed down to local level but kept at the centre. If we want the e-transformation of public services, we will have to follow that example.

Organisations should be able to adapt to continuous change as a way of life. Far more important than large-scale, expensive and vulnerable single-change projects for the future—putting bits and pieces online—is a mentality that adapts to continuous change and to the challenges of continuous scientific and technological breakthroughs. We need make that step change only once.

Internal reform is vital, but the project will not be complete until the individual customer of Government services can access and interact with them in a fast, secure and convenient way. Almost every hon. Member who has intervened so far has made that point. In the past three years, access to the internet via home computers has more than doubled. Some 11.4 million households—46 per cent.—are now online, and nearly 1 million have been added to that total in the past year alone.

My constituency is top of Scotland's league for home internet use. More than half of households go online for half an hour or more every day, which puts us sixth top in the entire United Kingdom. That is in part because Inverclyde is heavily associated with electronics and the IT sector, but, like many places, it is not without its share of social problems. It is surely no coincidence that the highest take-up of the internet is in London and the south-east, where more than half the population have internet access, and the lowest is in Northern Ireland and Wales, where less than one third do. Furthermore, home internet access is available in four out of five of the richest 10 per cent. of households, but only one in five of the poorest and second and third poorest 10 per cent. of households.

How do we improve those numbers? Some 30 per cent. of people have never used a computer, and it is fair bet that those people come from the most disadvantaged social groups. One important question is whether there is a future in accessing the internet through digital

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television, and I hope that the Minister has time to address that in his winding-up speech. I appreciate that the take-up of digital television is another debate for another occasion, but there may be an important lesson to be learned. Although 30 per cent. of people have never used a PC, the percentage of people who have never used a television must be zero, so a medium may be readily available that requires no learning of specialist skills. That point was made by the e-envoy last year, when he urged:

One of the biggest problems of access is that we are trying to deliver the e-agenda to an audience that is using the same technology that was used decades ago. Dial-up modems have been in use since the 1960s, and we have all experienced the frustration that they entail. As we have heard said, broadband is becoming more widespread, and I will not repeat other Members' remarks other than to say that I was intrigued to see a survey of trendsetters in last weekend's The Sunday Times. I am not sure how it measured trendsetters—no one asked me, so I assume that I am not one—but the survey showed that the must-have buy for trendsetters in 2003 is a broadband internet connection.

Too many hurdles are still in the way. Despite the fact that my constituency is the top in Scotland for internet access, we do not have ADSL, and looking at the most recent figures on the BT website, we are miles away from it. However, I commend the Minister's commitment and the Prime Minister's announcement of a new UK broadband taskforce at last year's e-summit.

The challenges that we face are great, but at least we have the opportunity to examine businesses that have gone through the e-transformation already and see whether we can learn any lessons. Many private sector businesses have undergone such a transformation, and I should like to offer a brief example of one business in my constituency that has undergone a global e-transformation. As the Minister knows, IBM has a large presence in Greenock, and I was happy to meet company representatives to discuss their global e-transformation to see what lessons we could learn as a Government. They said that 10 years ago IBM was

I do not know whether that rings any bells in the Minister's head. IBM then set about transforming its business. I was told that e-transformation is virtually complete and that the gains and efficiency; to use IBM's term, have created an unstoppable momentum.

I will not dwell too long on that example, as I appreciate that time is of the essence, but I was told that when, to use IBM's term, an organisation is heavily "siloed"——when it has pushed down its budgets as far as possible and has given individual fiefdoms as much autonomy as IBM had by the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, that is a huge barrier to e-transformation. I offer the Minister my thought that pushing powers down the line is good in itself, but it may be counter-productive in the long term.

IBM has 350,000 employees. It is not the size of our civil service, but it is not far off it. There are parallels to be drawn, and if we can extract the best processes of

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companies such as IBM and combine them with the political will to implement e-transformation, our public services will be more customer-focused and accessible. However, that must come with a warning: the Government need to implement equivalent organisational improvement rapidly if they are not to become a drag on companies working and investing in the United Kingdom.

I conclude by reflecting on one of the most extraordinary comments that I have read. Speaking at last year's e-summit, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that e-transformation was

When considered alongside the mountain of other challenges that the country faces, that is an extraordinary statement. To those of us who believe that massive improvements to our constituents' quality of life can be achieved through the better use of modern technology and a radical new mindset, the Prime Minister's words are extraordinarily encouraging. The challenge now is to make that vision a reality.

3.30 pm

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I welcome the debate and the comments of the Minister who opened it. I have listened to him speak on several occasions, both at the Department of Trade and Industry and the Cabinet Office. Indeed, I have followed him along that route. My shadow responsibility makes me feel like a cyber-stalker. I am missing discussions on digital television roll-out in the Communications Bill Committee, but I thought that it was important to be here and talk about the e-transformation of the Government, which is not something that we often debate in Parliament. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) is in Committee, but he has to deal with amendments.

This is a cross-party issue. Several hon. Members tend to come together on such subjects, as critical friends of the Government. The failure of the Government's large IT projects means poor services for citizens. That gives me no pleasure, other than the obvious opportunities for partisan debate, which do not take us too far forward.

The Minister rightly cited the background of a period of the dotcom boom, after which we moved to what is called the dotcon bust. In many cases, it was a con. The court cases on the stock exchange in New York demonstrate that issues were deliberately talked up. As for the public sector and e-government, we must welcome the opportunity to move away from the rhetoric about utopian visions, where "e" would deliver everything, to a sense of realism about what we are trying to achieve.

I want to speak about challenges and to focus on three matters. The term "putting services on line" covers a multitude of sins—from a telephone call centre to transactions on the internet. It is probably helpful to talk about such matters in the sense of services being available via the internet, which can mean many things: from web services to e-mail access and a range of transactional protocols.

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I share many concerns that have been expressed about the crude nature of the Government's targets. Their target of all services being online by 2005 has perhaps led to e-decoration, not e-transformation, when a thin veneer of "e" is laid on top of the service, rather than fundamental changes being made to it. I congratulate the efforts of the e-Envoy and his office. They have been a step forward in raising the profile of such matters. The e-Envoy has been equipped with a crude and blunt instrument and has been told, "Go out there and get everything online by 2005. If you can tick the boxes, we have all met our targets and everything is okay." Well, if all the boxes are ticked, everything will not necessarily be okay.

A key issue is the user base by which to use internet services. We talk about the internet being available in the household as though that is equivalent to the number of people who will use the internet for the Government's services. Such figures run at anywhere between 45 and 55 per cent. and half the population certainly has internet access within the home. However, that makes them only potential users of the Government's services, not actual users. Let us consider the surveys that have been carried out. In October 2002, an article in The Guardian showed that last year the number of Britons who claim to use e-government increased from 11 to 14 per cent. The analogue that I look at closely is the figure for people using online banking, which I think is quite accurate and which reflects well the social divide. At the end of December 2001, the figure for online-enabled bank accounts was some 8 per cent. of the total, which was probably analogous to the numbers who felt comfortable using online services from the Government at that point.

Let us consider the figures for online voting in the pilots that took place in May. In my constituency, which is quite affluent, the figure was about 15 per cent. In constituencies nearby in Sheffield that are significantly less affluent, the figure was about 2 per cent. That gives me the overall sense that on average 10 to 15 per cent. of people feel comfortable carrying out transactions online. The figures will be far lower in deprived areas and a little higher in more affluent areas. That leaves a market of some 85 per cent. of people interacting with the Government using other media.

That is not an argument for slowing down, because there are significant advantages to increasing that 10 to 15 per cent. and working with them. However, we need to bear those points in mind and not assume that, if a Government service is put online, half the people will use it. That was the mistaken attitude of the dotcom boom.

The Inland Revenue figures are helpful. I understand that the figures from the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants in September last year were that only 113,000 people out of the 3.5 million people who had sent their returns to the Revenue by that stage had used the online self-assessment service. We can also consider international comparators. In Canada, for example, which has a smaller population than ours, some 2 million people a year file online, so we still have significant difficulties in getting people to use online services.

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I understand that the Government are consulting on the future of the UK online site. There are design and structural questions to be answered about it. My figures show that there are 3,000 Government websites. The UK online concept is a first stab at trying to pull them together, but once someone goes beyond UK online, they start heading off towards lots of weird and wonderful other creations. Again, if we compare that with the Canadian Government online site, we find a far more coherent approach to life. It is far more centralised, but it makes sense to people.

I understand why people do not want to use the UK Government online services. I find using them difficult, so I have every sympathy with others who find that. Someone can reach UK online, search and find what they are looking for, but then they are in the hands of God knows who as they try to get the service done. It is a messy process.

Some of the advances that are necessary to increase the percentage that I mentioned are in the area of training. This is now not about having the kit, but about having the necessary skills. The British Computer Society has played a particularly important role in promoting the European computer driving licence, which I understand has been completed, or is being done, by more than 500,000 people in the UK. Such figures are important.

The other significant player was mentioned by the Minister. We in Sheffield know it as the university for industry, because it is based there, but it is known throughout the rest of the UK by the brand name of Learndirect. I visited people there recently, and it is now the biggest provider of online learning in the world. There was an international conference in Sheffield recently and it turned out that no one else had done what the university for industry has. There is huge potential for growth in this respect. That sort of initiative, which reaches hundreds of thousands and potentially millions of people, leads people to feel comfortable using online services.

I also want to mention the other nine tenths of the iceberg. If the bit that we see is the online bit, the other nine tenths are the back-office systems. Again, that reflects previous comments. The back-office systems are the most important; the website is the icing on the cake. Sadly, we have reversed that order of priorities in many cases. We have put the icing on the cake, but we have done nothing about the back-office systems.

We have been very successful in putting informational systems online, but it is widely recognised that transactional systems, which are the very tough ones, have not been dealt with. I think that it was the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) who highlighted that well with the list of services that he described. There is a common theme to all of those, which is the lack of a method for secure transactions between the public and the Government. I understand that work is ongoing on that, but it poses major questions. To tie it up with the ID card debate would worry me greatly.

There are reactions to ID cards and all sorts of questions relating to ID and the use of Government databases, which the Prime Minister has mentioned. That may act as a barrier to those transactions if people feel that the only way that they can get an ID is to sign

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up to other things that they feel much less comfortable about. We must to be careful about a neutral secure ID for transactions between citizens and the Government that is not tied up with ID cards and Government databases that link everything together. If that is achievable, it may be more acceptable to the public than going ahead with an all-encompassing solution. I certainly have some nervousness about that.

The comparison with the banks is important. It is a good analogy to return to for many reasons. The banks have developed much more efficient back-office systems; they have a single back-office system and then multi-channel access. The primary channel is the bank branch, but when one goes into a branch one is served by an individual who accesses pretty much the same system one would if one went online or the call centre receptionist would if one phoned up. That kind of architecture is proving successful. I am worried that we may not have engineered these new highly efficient back-office systems in the public sector. We have created a webface to an old fashioned system. That back-office engineering is critical.

The challenges are in three key areas. The first is the capacity of suppliers to deliver. We have seen problems in the Child Support Agency system. The Government expressed a will to change the system for making CSA payments. The suppliers of the IT have been unable to deliver in the required time scale. We may increasingly find that to be a problem. I am particularly keen to see information technology impact assessment brought into our legislative process so that we think about this at an early stage. It is easy for us to come along and alter a system that will require a major IT system change that simply cannot be delivered. That causes all sorts of problems.

The housing benefit systems that were cited by the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) are a good example of that. Local authorities such as Sheffield have contracted out the housing benefit systems, supposedly for greater efficiency. They brought in new mechanical systems to deal with that but they also introduced the housing benefit integrity project, which requires the collection annually of far more paperwork, causing huge delays. I can understand the reason for the housing benefit integrity project, but when constituents complain about waiting three, four, five or six months for a housing benefit payment, it is clear that the knock-on effect for people on the ground was not considered.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one innovation we could introduce is a statement of each Bill's e-implications, just as each Bill now has a statement under the Human Rights Act? We could analyse the e-implications of each Bill.

Mr. Allan : That is precisely along the lines I was suggesting. There needs to be some form of impact assessment. We look at the money implications. Every Bill has an attachment saying what it will cost. The proposal would not apply to every piece of legislation. It might not apply to criminal justice law, but where we are making major changes to social security, for example, we should not simply vote it through without being told what the systems impact will be.

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The other example is the child passport question. We changed the law, for good reasons, to bring in child passports while implementing a new system in the Passport Agency. The results were obvious and everything screwed up. There are numerous other examples. Some things have moved forward. Digital signatures are now available. However, the secure-transaction questions need to be answered.

The third element that I want to touch on is the public service difference. We have not exploited that. The public sector can command extra effort because of the good will involved in it. We have not extracted that public sector benefit in the way that we do continually in health and education. It is seen as obvious there, but somehow not in IT. There is huge public value on the IT front in the intellectual property in all public services, but we too frequently cede it to others.

In some of the contracting models we have used we have tended to say, "You have the whole thing; IT is yours." The Inland Revenue is a classic example where we have ended up in a single propriety supply-dominant situation. The current feeling in the industry is that no one will even tender for the Inland Revenue contracts because we have locked ourselves in. We effectively cede the intellectual property and fail to take advantage of the large community of developers who work across the public sector and whose work we could build into.

I have welcomed the Government's open source policy across the Dispatch Box. It is important to consider it in terms not only of classic open source software—Linux, Apache or the programmes—but of methodology. One can build open solutions on propriety software and companies, such as IBM, have taken us a long way forward. Its entire product range is now available with Linux as a platform, but it is not going out of business and giving everything away; it is selling solutions based on open source. Important software companies, such as SAP, have moved on to the open source platforms.

There is huge benefit to be reaped from the public sector. For example, we can imagine the vast number of people who work on digital imaging in the NHS looking at how to move X-rays around. Their expertise should be shared openly, instead of our shovelling the cash in the direction of external companies which then own the property rights. We may want to employ external companies to do the coding, but we should own the intellectual property, share it within the community and reap the benefits.

Mr. McWalter : I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about open source. I wonder whether he agrees that the Government need to direct that process. Instead of fragmentation with everyone developing their own systems, co-ordination is required so that the systems are pulled together and end up being more effective.

Mr. Allan : The hon. Gentleman is correct. What was positive about the Government's policy was that they spelled out certain areas where I hope that the Minister will indicate that they are making progress. In particular, they specified that the e-Envoy and the DTI should look at making all Government-funded R and D

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work open source as a default model, which was clearly within their policy. They are also looking at the option of purchasing the propriety rights to software so that in the health service, for example, one might buy the rights to a good proprietary package and make it available to the developer community. All of those would be great steps forward.

I hope that the Minister will respond positively. IT and e-transformation have now moved to the top of the political agenda, particularly with the Government's stress on IT and the NHS. IT is normally a backwater, but the success or failure of the NHS in terms of the Government's political targets is now dependent on whether e-transformation is achieved. The success or failure of Government IT projects now becomes for the first time a critical political issue. It will affect whether Labour wins the next election.

When the Passport Agency systems went wrong, it was annoying. If the NHS systems do not improve, it will be more than annoying; it will be a political make-or-break issue for the Government. I welcome the fact that IT is at the top of the political agenda and look forward to the rest of the debate.

3.48 pm

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): I thank the Minister for his speech and commend him on his aggressive attitude and deep knowledge, which is rare. I agree with the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) that he is a round peg in a round hole. Along with the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness, that makes two round pegs in round holes, which must be rare in government. That is welcome because we are giving the right impression to the industry and to our citizens, which is so important. We spent five years not giving the right signal, and I am glad that we are doing so now.

When I came to the House in 1997 I did not think that it could spell the word "internet". We were one of the last Parliaments to go online. Now we are one of the finest. The transformation in our parliamentary data and video network in the past five years has been sensational and its instigators should be commended. I wish that the House could speed up its love affair with e-transformation. Although we passed the digital signature in 1998, we still cannot use a digital signature in the House for early-day motions or anything else. That is deeply disappointing, as we are not giving a lead to the rest of the country.

The Minister said that we would shortly be able to get a car licence online. That will be a wonderful transformation as unfortunately—I am sorry if any Swansea Members are present—the organisation is a disaster. Will the Minister put the BBC collection of the television licence fee online, too? In fact, why not merge those two businesses and float it on the stock exchange? If that money could be hypothecated it would be a major contribution to even more e-business for the Government.

Several different licence fee collection points throughout government could be merged. It is a bit like the back-end operation to which the hon. Member for

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Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) referred. As he said, if there is one back office we want lots of channels into it. Who in government looks at this sort of process? We are losing an opportunity to have more efficient services and to make some money.

I emphasise the telephony element of e-transformation because many at local government level know that we are moving to front-office telephony. I shall explain why it is first-phase rather than third-phase and why I am nervous about it. The Government introduced a new child tax credit three years ago; the form was three pages long. In April there will be a new child tax credit; the form consists of 14 pages. The people who have to give that information are generally less able and less well educated; they struggle to read and find filling in forms difficult.

The same applies to housing benefit. Half the trouble is that the Benefits Agency will come back six or seven times to a constituent, who is overwhelmed because he does not understand the forms. The call centre, rather than saying, in effect, "Hallo, how can I misdirect you?" could say, "Please may I have your pin number? Can you confirm your date of birth?" as the banks do online. The person could then ask, "How can we help you fill in the form?" If they did so, £2 billion or £3 billion would no longer remain unclaimed; the amount that people received would go up substantially. That would improve their quality of life. One of the reasons why we become politicians is to improve people's quality of life.

Is there a best practice website in the Cabinet Office that gives the best telephony system in Britain, the best unit system supplying the telephony and the best-trained call centre staff? Could there be an award scheme to give gold medals to those groups? People talk about X-rays being sent up and down the country; as an MP, I would love to know where to find the best digital X-ray system. Where would I find it? There should be a best practice website for the public sector so that we can learn from each other, because that is what the web is about.

I have long argued for the information technology brief to be held in the Cabinet Office, which is why I am thrilled that the Minister is present. However, there are some outstanding issues, although I am not sure how and why they crop up. For example, if I had not tabled a question in December about the failed Foreign and Commonwealth Office computer system, I do not think that Ministers would have known that it was failing. That is critical, because we are trying to change the way the Foreign Office works.

The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) and I were fortunate enough to be on a British-American parliamentary group visit to California. To our great surprise, we found that the regional development agencies—south-east is in San Diego, east midlands is in Los Angeles, there are three in silicon valley and one is in San Francisco—do not report to the consular general's offices in Los Angeles, Phoenix or San Francisco. That is complete madness. The community in the United States does not understand where Britain is half the time. It does not want different agencies; a front window should be open electronically for the Foreign Office in California. It is, after all, the sixth largest economy in the world. It matters how we are perceived in California.

Mr. Greg Knight : I am with the hon. Gentleman 100 per cent. on this issue. The scenario that he describes is

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one of the United Kingdom not having a focused voice in America. Does he agree that the development agencies that are using public money to set up offices in California would be better advised to give grants to bring broadband to rural areas here in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Wyatt : I will discuss broadband in a moment. We have agencies overseas—the British Tourist Authority, the British Council, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and now we have regional development agencies. What the right hon. Gentleman suggests is not the message to send to overseas plc. Someone will have to get a handle on this. It is confusing and is complicating the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in its responsibilities to the Department of Trade and Industry.

I am not fond of the Child Support Agency, but I will not lay blame for it. I come from a business and media background and did not know in 1997 what CSA stood for. However, I took a huge interest in it because it was the subject of the biggest part of my mailbox. I then became part of a confidential team in my Department to change the law. Once a week or once a fortnight, I used to go to meetings with the Minister. In about April 1998, it was explained to us that we would be introducing a system in April 1999. I said, "Oh really? There are 1 million cases and there will be approximately 1 million more by next April. I do not know of a piece of software that can deal with that." One of the permanent officials turned to the Minister and said, "It's done."

The reason why things have been delayed is either that the secretariat in that Department does not understand software or that people were conned by somebody telling them, "No, don't worry. Two million cases is a piece of cake." Today is 16 January 2003 and the system has yet to be introduced. That represents four years of hell for people whose cases are dealt with by the CSA, which came about as a result of a horrible piece of legislation. The cause of the delay is a failure to consider the e-implications. We must have a deep look into those implications when we pass legislation.

Have any further advances been made on lottery terminals? The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam mentioned bank terminals. Of course, bank terminals go down at midnight and are empty for six hours a day—that is an example of a potential back-end use. The Branson bid included a proposal to do most of the work on the post offices and the licence fees, but I have seen no movement whatever from Camelot.

Mr. Allan : I could not agree more about bank machines. Recently, I was in Spain and noticed that cinema and theatre tickets were being sold from bank terminals as if they were internet kiosks. The network is ready and waiting, and I hope that the Government will take advantage of it.

Mr. Wyatt : I could not agree more.

I want to talk now about UK online, which is just wonderful. It is the most amazing thing to be able to open, in the poorest areas of my own patch, four centres. They are full. It is incredible; it is an unnoticed revolution. I commend the Government for what they have done. However, we also have libraries and schools

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that are online but not connected to each other. Schools close at 4 o'clock and libraries close at 5 o'clock and are not open on Sundays when children need access. The UK online centres are good because they are open all the time.

I would like there to be some co-ordination. We could have created a broadband hub in every town and village and fed in the schools, the post offices, the libraries and the village halls. It is not clear to me that we have got that message across. The Minister is nodding; I am sure that he has got the message, but we have to corral Departments to think about joined-up government.

The BBC has missed a trick. I know that, at the media conference in Oxford yesterday, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport announced a review of the BBC. That is very welcome. The BBC spends more on its online site than Yahoo!, which is the largest online site; the BBC spends more money on its content than does the most commercial site. There is something wrong there. That money is being spent by the BBC, but not on a public service. For instance, people cannot get consumer advice online, or the Encyclopaedia Britannica or information services.

Mr. McWalter : I understand what my right hon. Friend is saying, but does he not commend the extraordinary depth and quality of the educational materials on the BBC website? They are some of the most splendid sources of information on the web.

Mr. Wyatt : I do commend them. However, the Open university, which is the finest in the world, does one thing while Learndirect produces something else on the same principle—teaching. There is also the BBC. That is crackers. The organisations should work together. The Open university should be a partner with Learndirect and Learndirect should be part of the BBC education project for which the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport gave permission this week. There are insufficient stakeholders. The BBC wants to build a bigger and bigger empire, but I want it to be a stakeholder in other people's businesses rather than running things itself. Its website is excellent, but there is a principle that citizens need advice, such as on how to buy a house. That is a public service, which is what the BBC is for. Most of the BBC website does not represent a public service.

I went to see the Leader of the House to suggest that a review of broadband would be sensible and to ask him to set up a special Select Committee on broadband that could discuss all the implications such as whether broadband should be universally available, like water and electricity, and how we should achieve that. He was very keen. I then spoke to the Chairmen of the Select Committees to which broadband is relevant—Trade and Industry; Culture, Media and Sport and so on. None were interested in joining together to create a broadband Select Committee. It is sad that they would rather hold on tight to their little bit of territory. It is like the silos that we keep complaining about in government.

The hon. Members for Sheffield, Hallam and for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) and I created our own broadband group, which we called the shadow Select

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Committee. We held a meeting, the Minister gave evidence and we have worked with Computing magazine to ensure that that evidence will come out. That committee will establish best practice, and we want a committee to consider spam for the same reason. Spam represented 8 per cent. of internet traffic a year ago, but now 35 per cent. of internet traffic is made up of spam e-mails. Some of it is awful and pornographic. It is crackers that billions of spam messages a day clutter up the internet.

The House needs to be able quickly to set up Select Committees on single issues so that we can corral the best information and bring people in to decide the legislation that we need. The fact that we cannot do that is a weakness of the House. I e-mailed the Minister this morning to ask whether he would allow us to hold a shadow Select Committee on spam, but I would rather have a proper Select Committee.

Mr. McWalter : As a member of the Select Committee on Procedure, I ask my hon. Friend to direct his suggestions to it.

Mr. Wyatt : I will do that, and I thank my hon. Friend for the suggestion.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I make no comment from the Chair. [Laughter.]

Mr. Wyatt : When I chased up my regional development agency, I found that there was absolute chaos. It had started using the money that has been made available without preparing an audit of need for the south-east. It said, "Here's some money; let's apply for it." Two hundred businesses have been given a satellite link for broadband. Well, please. That is what we mean about holding things in the centre and best practice coming out. We have wasted about £1 million on broadband. Not one of the links is in the Isle of Sheppey, which is part of my constituency and the sixth poorest area in the south-east. We do not have cable television because no one would bid for a poor franchise, would they? The Independent Television Commission, bless it, thought about the Isle of Sheppey, and then thought that the Isle of Thanet was an island. It put the two together and made a cable offer. Of course, nobody made a bid for it; the Isle of Thanet is the poorest area. Alleluia.

We have never had cable so we have always had to pay British Telecom prices, but we will never get broadband because BT will not bring it to our area. The South East England Development Agency, which has been challenged to reduce poverty, has not even done an audit of need. Will the Minister ask all the regional development agencies to send in audits of need before spending more on broadband?

We have got a satellite link in our rural UK online centres. That is a BT link and it goes down about 80 times a day because its Berlin operation is not working properly. We had to track down where in the system things are wrong. It is all very well to say, "Do satellite," but one has to be really careful with it. There are better satellite systems than the one that BT uses, but there are cost implications to them. The planning regulations must be changed so that broadband is delivered

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universally just like water and gas are—it must be part of that provision. It is obvious that that is what we must do.

I commend a project that is in its infancy and that I mentioned yesterday. Nick Dunlop of PA Consulting near Victoria is putting together a very ambitious and visionary project called e-Parliament that will connect online all the Parliaments in the world, so that if someone has a particular interest—in health or transport, for instance—they will be connected to the people who are interested in that in France, Germany, the United States of America, Australia and so forth. It will bring people together. When someone thinks, "Hang on, I wonder how do they do that in Germany," they will not have to run around worrying about the answer. They will be able to click and connect with a group of people whom they can ask, "What is your legislation on that? Show me what it looks like." That is an amazing concept. This is the most exiting project that I have come across for many years, and I commend it to the House.

Several hon. Members rose—

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. Several hon. Members wish to speak. The spokesman for Her Majesty's Opposition has not yet risen to his feet, and I would like to call him at approximately 10 to 5 at the latest in order to enable the Minister to have sufficient time to wind up.

4.6 pm

Mr. Chris Mole (Ipswich): E-government is one of the most exciting and crucial agendas of our time, and I am lucky to have had a range of experiences that enable me to bring a trio of perspectives to the subject. After surviving 17 years as a research manager at the BT laboratories just outside Ipswich, I became one of the few engineers to move into the brave world of politics at local, regional and now national levels. My most recent insights come from these experiences, but they are applicable across the full range of public services.

As a Member of Parliament, I want to reflect my constituents' desire to see a step change in the improvement of the convenience, quality and quantity of all public services at national and local level that are delivered by national Government or local government or by others acting on their behalf.

My constituents should expect the services of the future to be very different. Those services should be joined-up in ways that make sense to them; accessible at the times and places most convenient to them; delivered or supported electronically, thereby facilitating fast, more reliable and better value services; delivered jointly, where appropriate, by local and regional partnerships, and connected to a national infrastructure; delivered seamlessly, so that customers should not be asked to provide the same information more than once and service providers are better able to identify, reach and meet their needs; and open and accountable, so that information will be freely and easily available, complaints will be easy to make and responded to quickly and effectively, and citizens will be able to participate effectively in local decision making. As has been said, the focus of the development of e-government must, therefore, be citizen-centred.

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The comments of the Minister for Local Government and the Regions and Sir Jeremy Beecham, the chair of the Local Government Authority, summarised the approach on which we need to focus. Last year, they stated:

Therefore, services must continue to be available to everyone, and that may mean delivery through a variety of channels that are suitable to different ages, cultures or social groups. We should aim for universal access, recognise the risk of digital divide, and look at solutions such as providing training and hand-holding for those currently without the necessary skills and confidence. Some service outlets, such as libraries, tourist information centres and colleges, could be tailored to provide such support. To an extent, Learndirect and other projects in my constituency are already doing that. All of that recognises the fact that government at any level is democratic and must be accountable. There are clearly issues about confidentiality and data sharing that must never be forgotten.

During the mid to late 1990s, the e-government agenda continued to grow in importance. It was obvious at that time that local government had an enormous capability to create innovative solutions, but the biggest challenge was the potential size of the agenda that organisations had to address. The agenda includes transactions, access channels, enablers, e-business and organisational development. Of those, transactions are probably the most straightforward and offer an immediate sense of progress. Certainly, in Ipswich, the borough council's sports facility bookings and the county council's online library service are excellent examples of how services have been make easier for citizens to use. Customer First provides a one-stop for social care customers. Electronic prescriptions speed up responses to medical needs and e-commerce improves transaction efficiency.

Similarly, there have been national initiatives, including NHS Direct Online. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency uses an online payment system for television licences, making life simpler for citizens. However, just considering the plethora of potential access channels highlights the difficult decisions that policy makers have to take. Which technologies will achieve penetration and which will last? Given the pace of change of technology, guessing the future is a risky business. However, web penetration in the UK is now significant, with a generation of people leaving school having learnt to use the web, a generation of workers for whom the internet is a way of life, and a growing army of silver surfers. Broadband connections are currently growing at a rate of 30,000 a week.

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However, there are risks. Was WAP—wireless application protocol—a successful technology? On the other hand, SMS text messaging was never supposed to be a primary feature of GSM—global system for mobile—mobile phone technology, and it now accounts for £1 million of business a week for mobile operators, generated mostly, but not exclusively, by those under 30. I was encouraged to hear that the new Connexions service in Suffolk is developing the use of text messages to arrange appointments and communicate with some of their clients in the 14 to 19 age group.

There is always the risk, for those of us who are old enough to remember the early days of video recorders, of another VHS-Betamax competition. On the subject of television—this is relevant to comments made by hon. Members—it is interesting that the iSuffolk Pathfinder is considering the potential of digital television. The case is unanswerable. The TV is just about the most ubiquitous piece of domestic technology, and if the Government achieve digital switchover by 2010, almost everyone will have one. The recent troubles of ITV Digital show that even in that channel, waters do not always flow smoothly. However, there are already solutions on the satellite and cable network platforms, although we might need greater penetration than one TV per household if we are to avoid arguments about going online to pay council tax when one's sons and daughters want to watch "Neighbours".

However, it is the last of the items on the agenda for public service agencies—that of organisational development—that is probably the most critical. In no sense can the full potential of e-government be realised by computerising existing processes. Indeed, wider modernisation must be seen as a sibling agenda, and the introduction of call centres, one-stop shops, customer relationship management systems and business process re-engineering must be thought of as part of the same set of challenges. At that point, decision makers may reach a crisis, as there are too many options, and the future is almost too uncertain for investment decisions to be clear. That can almost lead to a somewhat rabbit-like paralysis in the face of the technological headlights. Clear business planning will be one tool for informing the business case when savings can be identified and when investment payback times are reduced. Other strategies must include reducing the risk and sharing the cost.

It is likely, therefore, that to achieve maximum value for money, bodies will engage in multi-tiered, multi-agency partnerships. Frankly, the public do not see the silos in which services are held, whether by central Government or one of the tiers of local government, and naturally expect services to be joined up. They do not want to have to give their details more than 50 times to people in different organisations, let alone to those in the same one, as often happens. A local retailer who has access to some form of postcode database will only want to know a customer's house number and postcode to complete successfully all the address fields on an invoice. The private sector will be an important partner, bringing technical expertise, ready-tailored solutions and different cultural perspectives. We shall all watch the

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partnership between Liverpool city council and BT to see the potential of such a high level of dependence on external solutions.

Clearly, where we start can be driven by national and local priorities, such as education, health, crime, economic development, transport and the environment, which go some way to guiding the e-government agenda in prioritising projects. The Local Government Association added e-citizenship and e-democracy to the service priorities. E-citizenship refers to the drive to empower local populations to give them the skills, confidence and opportunities to exploit e-enabled access. E-democracy means not just the capacity to vote electronically in local and national elections, but the use of the internet and related technologies to involve people in consultation and community planning.

E-enabled councillors are a crucial stage in the process. Councillors or non-executive directors of boards and other agencies that are online will have better access to information, be better informed, have a more effective interface with full-time staff and should engage more readily with their communities. They will also have a greater capacity to take key decisions about the e-government agenda.

It became a mark of inclusion in the post-executive/scrutiny split world of Suffolk county council that the leadership of the Labour group that I led would initiate e-mail-based policy discussions to clarify the thinking of colleagues around key issues. With more than 30 members in the group, it produced some lengthy e-conversations, but headed off much of the rumour and misinformation that so often plagues good decision-making.

For three years I was the deputy chairman of the East of England Development Agency, which had a different, but parallel, agenda. Its regional vision was

Within the regional economic strategy, EEDA supports enablers for regional economic competitiveness in which increasing the productivity of businesses and public agencies is critical. The fundamental principle is that, in a knowledge economy, a developed region like the east of England must compete on the strength of its skills and ability to exploit knowledge, not on wage competition.

The three most critical aspects of the RES for our region are: the coverage and capacity of broadband networks, access to ICT hardware linked to the networks and ICT to underpin the development of skills. As regards the last, I was pleased recently to open a learning centre and a community shop on the Chantry estate in Ipswich, bringing access and learning to an area where technology uptake might not otherwise have been expected.

The Ipswich constituency sits in a region with a mixed urban/rural topology, of which Suffolk is highly representative. That leads to critical questions about the development of innovative methods of delivering high quality and high capacity broadband network coverage through wireless, satellite or cable. I have even heard discussion about the development of a series of low orbit transmission stations suspended from medium altitude balloons, though I am thankful that suppliers are now offering satellite-based broadband products.

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It is interesting to note that Suffolk was an early trial location in the 1970s for a line-of-sight microwave link intended to offer wireless voice services in the Saxmundham area. An abortive high capacity analogue microwave waveguide test was tried around the same time. Many thought that it would have been more valuable if it had been extended to Southwold and connected directly into Adnam's brewery.

The distances from exchange to premises are a technical barrier to broadband in rural areas. It is not just a question of whether an exchange can be enabled, but whether it is possible to get from the exchange to the premises. The problem of insufficient demand, which undermines the economic case for upgrade to ADSL or similar technology, can affect both urban and rural localities. A good example is the Felaw Malting enterprise centre in Ipswich—a successful location for growing and high-tech businesses, but the local exchange cannot currently supply high-speed data connection because it is not based on the town's main exchange.

Thankfully, the objectives of agencies such as the RDA and the UK broadband task force to co-ordinate the aggregation of demand, has been taken on commercially by BT. Some hon. Members have spoken about the BT website on which people can register their need for broadband: when demand is sufficient, conversion can take place. The Government's £1 billion investment in public service networks will contribute to the weight of demand to produce viable cases for broadband locally. It is through such solutions that our RDA envisages every home eventually having access and providing the opportunities for people to acquire the basic ICT skills that will allow them to access online learning.

EEDA is managing a £5.8 million Government fund to encourage more telecommunication providers to supply more broadband services to the east of England. Through that fund, it intends to establish a brokerage system for potential customers, encourage application providers to assemble packages of broadband applications to make such services more attractive to business and public services, connect business parks, run an awareness campaign and set up a competition to provide community-based demonstrations of the benefits of broadband technology.

The digital dividend at this stage is potentially significant. That dividend could include overcoming obstacles to accessing rural and peripheral areas, such as living locally and working globally; enabling business participation in e-commerce and e-banking and thereby enhancing productivity and competitiveness; and reducing the need to travel and the demand for new business premises by flexible and remote working. The benefits could also include giving flexibility to business location decisions, encouraging and promoting business start-ups in areas of physical regeneration, delivering training and learning opportunities via ICT, enabling the use of ICT for further skills development, and the promotion of social inclusion by enabling internet access for all.

In a way, the regional agenda exemplifies the best practice role of government. No one in central Government would claim, any more than they would in local government, that the ability of Departments to respond to the e-government agenda is anything more

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than patchy and sometimes inconsistent, despite the best efforts of the Cabinet Office and the Office of the e-Envoy.

My favourite anecdote concerns the day on which we had been considering at county hall the Government's new proposals for education maintenance allowances. Frustrated by the enormity of yet another paper-based form to be faced by schools and pupils alike, I fired off an e-mail to the Secretary of State for the Home Department, in his former capacity as the Secretary of State for Education. I suggested to him that Suffolk county council, of which I was leader at the time, could perhaps develop, in partnership with the Department for Education and Skills, a web-based form that might simplify life in schools. I waited patiently and finally received a reply from some functionary in the Department, which started, "I hope you do not mind me replying by e-mail." That sort of thing does not fill one with hope.

I am not sure that even the Cabinet Office has solved the problem. One of the sources of information that is critical to us as MPs is a list of ministerial responsibilities, which we use to direct inquiries from constituents to the correct Minister. Following last year's mini-reshuffle, the existing PDF file became out of date. Some weeks later, having failed to elicit a response to the message I had left on the Cabinet Office website, I e-mailed the officer responsible, who e-mailed me back saying that the document was going to the printers, which was not what I wanted to know. I do not know why they had not updated the PDF file on the website the day after the decision was finalised.

That is sufficient criticism, because the role of Government must be a positive and facilitative one. That role should include a statement of central priorities for local service delivery, policies that deliver outcomes that matter, a framework for strategic e-planning and delivery, a common model of e-government, technical standards to promote communication and shared services, a national infrastructure for electronic service delivery, and the allocation of resources.

The Minister and others mentioned the £1 billion that was allocated for networking in 2000, and the commitment in the comprehensive spending review to £6 billion for ICT for public services over the coming years.

I am pleased to see that the partnerships that are developing between local government in my constituency, central Government and other agencies intend to get the best for our citizens. As MP for Ipswich, I am encouraged to see that the iSuffolk Pathfinder has been an important tool in improving the convenience, quality and quantity of public services.

E-government is a critical agenda. Those who see that agenda as important only for some are a continual frustration to me. Driving change in public service culture is crucial to delivery, and all MPs should be engaged as advocates and champions for e-government to serve their communities.

4.23 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport): There is general consensus that e-transformation of public services is a good thing. It speeds up delivery, improves access, and enables information to be made easily and widely

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available. However, there are also bad facets of e-transformation. It depersonalises a service that should be personal, creates confusion, excludes people who do not have access to the requisite equipment, and can lead to inflexibility.

However, there are thousands of good examples of the huge progress that has been made through e-government and e-technology—whether in applications and form filling, planning procedures, complaints procedures or traffic management. In the police force, enormous benefits have been gained in surveillance and detection due to the introduction of e-technology.

On education, recent research has shown that there is not always a proportional improvement in the performance of pupils despite massive investment in IT. I tried to think of an explanation and came up with a simple one that may commend itself. In essence, teaching is a communication business, and it is not invariably the case that people who sit in front of keyboards and stare at screens are the best at communicating. In fact, there is little correlation between good social skills and an obsession with computers. Even in the public service, we lose the personal dimension through various forms of e-government, which may not be an advantage.

However, my primary focus is on value for money. As we all know, there have been well-documented catastrophes in IT procurement throughout the public spectrum. One need only mention the Home Office, and the Learning and Skills Council, whose software makes it impossible to determine how much further education colleges have to spend. That is a recent hiccup, but one that is all too frequent in the history of e-government. One might also mention the enormous amount of obsolescence and the computer equipment that is now in crates or skips throughout the country because it was ordered ill-advisedly. That was not always because technology overtook it, but simply because such things as compatibility were not checked out.

I am concerned about the amount that we will spend on e-government. We have already spent enormous sums. Councils have spent fantastic amounts again and again. I accept that it is one thing to make the odd bad buying decision: over a period of time, good practice sets in and such mistakes become less frequent. However, I am deeply concerned about embracing a strategy that is correct and avoiding one that is flawed. Any advance in e-government that leads to a greater dependence on monopoly suppliers and providers worries me deeply. The entente between Bill Gates and the Prime Minister worried many people in the IT world and the commercial world in general. It is well accepted that Bill Gates and Microsoft are not natural pluralists. The experience in the United States and in Europe shows that, from time to time, Bill Gates needs to be reminded that there is such a thing as a competitive and open market.

Worrying signs persist. We all recognised that it was a mistake when the Government allowed Microsoft to design their e-portal in such a way that made it inaccessible initially to all but Microsoft browsers. The procedure was over-budgeted and we eventually tried to sell the system to Egypt. Even now, I am told that the relationship between the civil service and Microsoft is

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cordial, to say the least, yet there are still certain hitches when using non-Microsoft technology to access Government services.

I am told that it is difficult to get far on page 3 of the income tax form without using Internet Explorer or some other Microsoft product. I am also told that the national health service has done a deal with Microsoft whereby computers are provided with the OEM operating system thrown in for free. I am worried by repeated stories in the press that digital certificates for VAT returns and similar forms are not universally accessible to non-Windows-based computers. Someone who is by no means inexpert in the use of technology to fill in their corporation tax return on the Equifax system told me today that they had experienced problems.

The Government have set their face against such problems. I know about the Electronic Government Interoperability Framework—eGIF—the principles of interoperability and other principles for which the Government stand. However, it is not the principle that primarily concerns me, but the implementation of it across the board. It is possible for industry standards to be confused with proprietary standards. Proprietary standards occasionally become industry standards simply because the firm is so successful and its technology so good that it dominates the market and everyone must use it. That has happened in all fields of technology from time to time. However, it is best when it happens through open competition.

It is crucial that the Government try to make that competition as open as possible, if only because it can save billions. There have been significant savings to private bodies that have looked outside the Microsoft world. A current example is the use of a UNIX-based system by the West Yorkshire police authority. There are significant and increasing risks in putting ourselves in the position of being solely dependent on a monopoly supplier, because we are moving away from a system in which we purchase software to one in which we lease and pay to re-lease software, thereby ensuring an income stream for the IT companies.

In the IT world, people are buying less and less hardware, possibly because they are unimpressed by the pretensions of new hardware. However, computer companies will pick up the income stream lost there by endeavouring to lease software, rather than sell it outright. Increasingly, software is requiring digital authorisation, which does not yet lock out third-party software but may in the future, and in America people are dreaming up schemes associated with trusted hardware for which not only the operating system, but the hardware that accompanies will be prescribed.

I am worried that we may be sleepwalking into a degree of dependence, which would be unfortunate as there is increasing evidence that there are a variety of robust alternative solutions outside individual suppliers. Recent research in education established that schools found Macintosh-produced products to be more stable and reliable than some of the products that they customarily buy, and systems exist that are not as virus vulnerable as some of the systems that the Government use. I hope that the Minister does not think that I am pleading for some sort of geeks, or anoraks, charter. I am arguing that what is written in the open-source software document presented by the Office of the

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e-Envoy should not remain sitting in the document. It should come up front as a Government promotion. We are looking not for indulgence of anoraks, but a fight against monopoly provision and a battle for technological standards.

More importantly to the Government, it is an opportunity to save a colossal sum of money. I am worried about procurement naivety, and I should like to give an example of that from my experience. The House of Commons provides all hon. Members with PCs, which have Windows 2000 or nothing, although that is not the fundamental objection. We have an e-mail system that is probably the most virus vulnerable of any on the market, and we have also been provided with excellent Hewlett Packard machines, which provide scanning and copying facilities, fax access and so on. We pay for them as client MPs, as it were, and are provided with printer cartridges, which are replaced X number of times and quickly exceed the cost of purchasing the machine. If I had ordered a machine, I would not have put myself in that position, but the House of Commons has.

I am arguing for the promotion of robust competitive standards and proper and public audits of procurement, for which I think the Minister has sympathy. I am arguing not for a re-examination of patent law in so far as it constricts computer procurement, but for a realistic appraisal of benefits. Ultimately, I suppose that I am arguing for a little more cynicism and a little less naivety.

4.33 pm

Margaret Moran (Luton, South): I will argue for a little more politics and passion on e-transformation and perhaps a little less of the perception outside the Chamber—I think that we are the good guys, because we realise this—that the agenda belongs to boring bureaucrats and turgid techies. E-transformation has little to do with the technology; in my view, it is all to do with the citizen.

As has been said, we need to keep that citizen focus firmly in our mind and make some of the political arguments more strongly, particularly to those who will be delivering e-services and achieving our e-transformation, than we have perhaps done so far. Without that understanding, we are in danger of having not an e-transformation but an e-oil slick. That would be a superficial and unsustainable approach in which things happen as they always have and there is a gentle, pretty slick on the top that achieves nothing or is counter-productive.

I, too, congratulate the Minister. In him, we have someone who understands the agenda and is driving it forward. The announcement of additional resources at the e-summit has already been mentioned. Those resources are substantial and over and above those e-projects that have already taken place, such as UK online and schemes to get IT into libraries and schools. We must ensure that our reasons for transforming public services are clearly understood. There is an imperative to get it right. That is not easy, and we must ensure that the message of why we are doing this work is conveyed to councils, many of which are endeavouring to push the agenda hard, but some of which see the policy in terms of targets and ticked boxes rather than as a radical re-engineering transformation.

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We must ensure that councils are looking not only at the quantity but the quality of services online. We need to get the message across to staff, some of whom may fear modernisation or job cuts by the back door rather than viewing the changes as a transformation of their employment opportunities. The changes can cut out the boring back room and release staff into more productive, satisfying frontline roles and personal service opportunities. Opportunities can be offered to citizens who, in many instances, feel no relationship to online services. They do not understand the value of such services or why they should use them. We have to think more broadly about encouraging citizen engagement online rather than simply seeing e-services as a mechanistic process of putting services online and hoping that citizens will engage with them.

The political message is not only, "My God, if the computer project crashes we will not have helped people on a hospital waiting list". It is broader. We want to modernise our public services, not only to save them, as in the bad old days, and to make them more efficient, although that is at the heart of what we are trying to do. We also have to transform them in order to continue investment in frontline services, to maintain and improve our citizens' confidence in our public services. The alternative is that people will lose confidence. The ethos of what we are trying to achieve—we do not mention the socialist principle too often these days, but we should—will be undermined.

There is a clear political divide. Some hon. Members in this debate see the issue purely in terms of efficiency, cost savings and, dare one say it, achieving their targets to reduce public spending and give money back through tax cuts to those who need it least.

We need to send a clear message. A key task is to encourage citizens to engage online. The key issue is e-equality—with a big "E". We must ensure the quality of online services and also the equality of services, which means targeting those citizens least likely to be engaged online. We must focus absolutely on that.

In years past, we have talked about the digital divide. It no longer exists in the sense of access to technology because the reverse is true and there is more kit out there than most people know what to do with. We must enable them to use that technology. There is another issue: empowerment—another big "E". It is about ensuring that communities have the confidence to go online and are able to use the technologies in various ways that are not prescribed by the Government.

People must feel comfortable with the technologies, and they must gain the confidence and skills that will enable them to feel that online public service is important and that they can engage with it. They could then inform us about the services that they value and tell us about their priorities. Those are the things to which we should be paying attention. If we do that, we are more likely to appreciate that process and, by linking what we do to e-democracy, to enhance the democratic process.

Citizens are telling us what they value and how they think that services could be improved, so we must ensure that public services are always improving. That issue is linked with e-participation and technology. If we are investing this much in our e-government services, we

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must at least build into them the opportunity for citizens to give us feedback on a range of issues, thereby enhancing the health of democracy.

We are, at the moment, seeing different agendas forming. In talking about e-transformation, we must bring those agendas together, because one of our problems is partly the way in which we are organising and, as we have said endlessly, creating Government silos. The task of transforming Whitehall will inevitably be huge and, although I am sure that the civil servants will not be pleased to hear me say so, it will probably be the most difficult task. We must deal with that; otherwise we are in danger of delivering services, using that silo mentality, which do not relate to people's complex lives. The Government must ask the right questions. This is not a technocratic agenda. We must ask how we can help and enable people, rather than ask, "How are you meeting your 2005 targets?" We need to look at our structures.

I am delighted that the delivery unit, rightly, has the lead responsibility for the agenda. However, whether we are talking about e-public services provided by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Leader of the House, part of the Prime Minister's office or someone from the Lord Chancellor's Department, or about e-democracy, let us start thinking across the piece. If we do not, there is a danger that we will miss opportunities. We are also in danger of initiative-itis, about which we complain endlessly. Departments set up projects, but they bear no relationship to each other and, as a result, we are not getting the best value, either for our money or for communities. We must focus on quality, not on quantity.

I agree with the hon. Member who referred to our looking at the kinds of services that we put online. I call that the "moose licence" approach to online services. The Canadian Government put moose licence applications online and wondered why they were not overwhelmed by people going online. I do not know how many people hunt moose—or, perhaps, meese—in Canada. We have put online the simple tasks and not those which people need or value. We need, therefore, to consider the more complex operations that, due to their procedures, require many different forms to be completed.

Housing benefit provides a classic example of how too many agencies can be involved. In my former life I was the leader of Lewisham council in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and we put housing benefit online and joined up with social services and the Benefits Agency to try to get some coherence for our citizens, so that they did not have to replicate information and we did not have the chaos of forms getting lost. Those services, and even more complicated ones, need to be online. It is no good just putting information services online, useful though that is; citizens need interactive and transactional services, but we are still far from achieving that.

Some years ago, we had a vision in Lewisham of a personalised, relationship-building portal whereby citizens could be e-mailed about the fact that Johnny

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needed to bring his gym shoes to school that day or that Catford bridge was to be dug up the following week. That is how good businesses act, especially in the States. We should be aiming at that smart use of technology. We need a system to focus on complex services that affect people's lives—the wicked issues.

A little more than a year ago, I put forward a proposal to the e-Envoy's office about a project that we were trying to get off the ground in my constituency of Luton. It was called Women Speak 2. I cite the traumatic experience of a woman fleeing from domestic violence who had to contact between eight and 10 different agencies, giving the same information. Imagine that: she loses her home and her life, but then has to take the kids to different agencies and fill in eight to 10 forms. Why cannot such information be gathered at the click of a button?

Moreover, a click of a button could alert the police to a problem, and help would be available. What I am talking about is not rocket science, but a complex issue that could be dealt with through technology. I have heard no more about my proposal, but I am sure that the e-Envoy knows the reason for that. Such services would be incredibly valuable. They would make contact with the hardest to reach. If we can tackle such issues, everything else will come right.

Work needs to be more joined up. For example, we must ensure that the work of local authorities is online and that they know their targets for 2005. They must fill in their "implementing electronic government" statements. Why are we not encouraging them to consult about their community plans online, instead of that being done by four men and a dog in a cold, draughty hall on a rainy Wednesday evening? Why are we not enabling online links to be made to the neighbourhood renewal strategies and regeneration strategies for our communities?

Why, when the 10th most deprived ward in the United Kingdom—my area—has more technology than we know what to do with through UK online centres, schools and libraries, do we not have a sensible connecting strategy as Canada did? Connecting Canada allowed the community to go into schools or wherever technology was available to learn skills, to search for jobs, to play games or to set up e-communities. Our strategies are not joined up, partly for want of a ha'p'orth of tar. We have spent the capital. We need now to spend a little revenue to ensure that communities can be facilitated.

I am working on a project in my constituency called Click Bury Park. It is aimed at building a community portal for young Bangladeshi mums and youngsters, to enable them to use facilities outside of the time when they would usually be used. It was set up to bring together local information and to allow online debates to take place. The people involved want to discuss drugs and forced marriages to inform our public sector agencies and local authorities.

We need to take a community-based, bottom-up approach. I differ from some of my colleagues in that respect. If our citizens are to be online, engaged, e-enabled and skilled, we must allow them to participate in activities with which they feel comfortable. That is how our e-transformation agenda will make progress.

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There has been too much top-down, and too little bottom-up. Let us have more community empowerment.

4.49 pm

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): I am a bit short of time, so I shall use the time available to me to raise points that other hon. Members have not raised.

I suppose that I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran). I accept that there is an important role to be played in respect of community development, but I shall plead with the Minister to be more directive and to bite the bullet on some of the implications of that initiative, particularly for support and administrative staff.

I shall begin, however, with the way in which e-government has affected me as a Member of Parliament. I must confess that, even as an ex-director of IT at a university, I did not initially allow my constituents to access me by e-mail. The reason for that was straightforward: I had a huge volume of mail, but there was only me and a small administrative team to answer it. Only when Parliament voted extra funds through was I able to appoint someone whose duties included helping me with e-mail. Now, instead of a closed system, I have an open system, through which I am accessible. The moral of that story is that we cannot simply give someone some type of link and say, "There you are. Now you've got it." There are staffing implications. If we provide the facility and the additional staff, we improve the service.

With my relatively modest IT skills, I could have taken short cuts. I could simply have set up an e-mail system, coded it, and, when people wrote in, issued an e-reply without taking into account what they had said at all. The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) spoke about the possibility of a depersonalised service arising from e-transactions, and it is important to recognise that, if the service is too depersonalised, we make things worse, not better. People must be deeply involved in the delivery of these services. If that is what my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South meant, I agree with her.

We are considering the empowerment of people to use e-technology, and that empowerment should go all the way down to their being able to report an overflowing dog poo bin, or whatever. That sounds trivial, but when people try to get my local authority to take the information that a dog poo bin needs emptying, no one seems to know who should be told about that. The telephone number on the sign may have been scratched off by vandals, so people do not know how to report it.

We need systems that do not deal only with reports. The councils should have an internal system that is IT-enabled, but much of the time that is simply not the case. Through a private finance initiative, my local authority, Dacorum borough council, is trying to become an IT chief authority by setting up a system and then offering IT services to others, in the hope that they will buy in and that that will keep the rates down and so on. That does not have my support, because the process of dealing with a fragmented system and making it slightly less fragmented is not as good as a process that is clearly underwritten by all the resources, authority and power that a Government can provide. I therefore hope that the Government will be more directive in dealing with these matters.

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We have community safety wardens, who are responsible for expressing the concerns of people in the community to the local authority and the local police. Why, then, can we not have e-wardens? I am talking about localities in which people have a particular role to play in helping people to get the most from the technology that we now have available, whether that involves general information or empowering them to conduct transactions.

I subscribe to the citizens advice bureaux' system, which costs about £300 a year but is updated monthly on a CD-rom. It enables me to give completely up-to-date information to constituents about facilities that the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux makes available. That is not available as an e-system, but all MPs can get hold of it. With respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), I do not think that the BBC needs to do that. That system is already available to people who are suitably interested and trained.

The plea for support from people at the bottom end of the system and direction from the Government at the top end has been striking. It was quite extraordinary that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) should say that broadband should be like water, and it was very welcome. The whole business has been hamstrung by the market. BT has headquarters in my constituency, as has Dixons. Dixons was furious that BT was pricing broadband so high. The services that could be provided were denied people. That price has finally come down, but we still have that old system and it will not let us have it if it is at all expensive to provide it.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friends the Members for Sittingbourne and Sheppey and for Ipswich (Mr. Mole) that broadband should be seen as a fundamental service. If it is not a fundamental service the school in an area that does not have it or has only limited access to it will become a worse school than one that does. When things are not put on the system because a huge amount of time is required to download them, the result is a restricted, diminished, impoverished service rather than one that addresses the needs of users and communities.

If the service is not universal the whole business is hamstrung and the schools and colleges in those areas that are denied proper access cannot make the best use of this technology. Development will be stymied unless we bite the bullet and accept that it must be a universal service. We must run with that through education and health and all the other systems that the Minister and the Government rightly want to see developed.

4.57 pm

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): I welcome this debate. Today we have heard many interesting and relevant views. I congratulate all hon. Members who have taken part. The debate has been of the highest standard. Debates like this show the House at its best. I have to congratulate the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) on bringing the word "socialism" into a debate on the electronic delivery of services. I do not know whether it is ingenuity or her perverse reasoning, but the idea of introducing electronic public services did not originate post-1997; it was an initiative started under the last Conservative Government.

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In 1996 we launched a Green Paper on electronic government, well before most people were taking the issue seriously. Hon. Members on both sides of the House rather thought that it was a subject confined to computer nerds. It is only with time that the House and the public at large have begun to realise that this is to do with the quality delivery of services and, therefore, the quality of life. If one can save money by delivering services more effectively and more cheaply, that money is available to go into the service itself, rather than its provision. My party's aim was to work towards implementing a policy of providing public services electronically. There is no divide between us on our aims.

However, I am disappointed that electronic government is behind schedule and, more worryingly, that we appear to be slipping behind many other countries, some of which were late starters in this field. We are a long way from realising the targets that even the Government have set themselves. We should not be afraid to learn from other countries how to make our electronic public services not only the best, but the best used in the world.

I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us today whether he thinks that the Government are now on target for achieving their goal of all public services being available online by 2005. If they are not, where does he see the difficulties arising? For example, one area that I am interested in is pre-legislative scrutiny. When does he envisage that being available regularly online? Is he intending to issue any benchmarks to Departments?

The Government's target of 2005 has already been pushed back once. Initially, we were told that they expected 70 per cent. of all services to be available electronically by the end of last year and, of course, as the Minister knows, that target was not reached. In assessing whether the target has been met, we need to look behind the figure because very often what is available online is not an interactive service, but information. Hopefully, it is the aim of all Departments as far as possible to enable the services available to be accessed electronically. At present, it is correct that online tax assessments can be completed, but the user target of 50 per cent. was not met. Part of the reason for that failure was not only in the reliability of the system, but in the security of it, which is a serious problem.

As the House will know, we had a problem fairly recently where it was feared that 700 or more people may have had their confidential tax affairs viewed by others who used the online service. Will the Minister comment on the remarks made by Sir Nicholas Montagu, chairman of the Inland Revenue, who said:

The point that I hope the hon. Gentleman will address is that the privacy breaches could in the view of Sir Nicholas Montagu

What has the Minister done following that breach to reassure the public? Moreover, following that problem, what security evaluation of online services has he

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decided is necessary to be undertaken in the future? Security is an ongoing issue; does he have plans to put best practice in place?

Some hon. Members have already mentioned the point that in comparison with other countries, the electronic use of public services here is not as good as it could be. According to statistics, 14 per cent. of our population have used the Government's services at some point. That is a fairly low figure compared with other countries: the figure for France is 18 per cent. and Canada is way up there at 40 per cent. Does the Minister know why other countries that are as sophisticated as we are seem to be more successful in attracting users? Is the range of electronic services offered in those countries much greater because certain transactions that can be completed online in other countries cannot be done here? The registration of births can be done electronically overseas, but not in the UK. I hope that the Government will act to ensure that we at least keep pace with our European partners.

I want to be fair to the Minister and I acknowledge some success stories. NHS Direct, for example, is widely judged to provide a good service that works well. It has helped many people, particularly in rural areas, who are worried about the health of a family member. By going online to NHS Direct, they have been reassured, or at least pointed in the right direction. However, other public service websites have a long way to go before the same can be said. We have not seen enough progress in the availability of such services in other sectors.

The hon. Member for Luton, South mentioned the problem of access for poorer members of society. I understand that only 7 per cent. of those in the lowest income group currently have access to the internet. We must all work to increase that figure and help the most vulnerable in society to access e-government.

Those who possess a computer are often plagued with problems about constant software upgrades. What is profitable for software companies is not necessarily desirable for the consumer. The Government should examine further ways of providing access at locations that people can reach, both physically and financially, so that no one misses out on electronic provision of public services.

UK online centres are most welcome, but more needs to be done. The hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), who could not stay with us because of a pressing constituency engagement, told me recently about a local business that obtained a grant of public money to have broadband installed. He wants to know why, when public money is invested, the recipients of grants are not required to make the service available to the wider community that they serve. It would be worth trying to link the giving of a grant to ensuring that the recipient uses it to benefit the local community.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) rightly spoke about the need for a change of mindset among the public. Many people probably ask themselves what would be the advantage of going online. If they can see an advantage, the mindset should quickly follow. I hope that the Minister will examine ways of enticing the public to use electronic services.

David Cairns : For the avoidance of doubt, I was talking about a change of mindset on the part of the

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providers of services rather than individual consumers. The right hon. Gentleman is right that we need to make it more attractive for individuals, but I was talking about the producers.

Mr. Knight : I am grateful for that clarification and for the hon. Gentleman's acknowledgement that I am making a valid point. I hope that the Minister will not rule out providing incentives, perhaps even financial ones through reduced fees, to encourage the public to embrace electronic access.

Many contributors to today's debate have said that low take-up is often linked to how websites are presented. Some are lacking in relevant information or are not updated. The Minister was honest enough to acknowledge the problem in his opening remarks and I am pleased that he is dealing with it.

As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) said, there has been no single source for accessing information on public services and one has to go to each different departmental site for information. I hope that the development of UK online and the provision of a useful public access site will remedy what is clearly a gap.

Many services can be started but not necessarily completed online. I have not recently needed to apply for a passport, but I understand that if people seek to do so online, the application can be filled in electronically but has then to be sent back for a signature. For many people, that sort of process is far more hassle than it is worth. If they find that they can do only half the job electronically, many people will decide that they may as well go for the old-fashioned process of filling things in by hand. I hope that the Minister will tell us what the Government are doing about that particular problem.

We have been united in saying that universal broadband access is essential. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) raised that point and I know that his views are shared by the hon. Member for North Dorset and other hon. Members. A lack of availability of broadband in rural areas is bad news for small businessmen who seek to stay in their local community and develop their business but find that they are uncompetitive because they do not have access to the service. I hope that the Minister, not only in his reply today but afterwards, will continue to consider ways of bringing about a universal broadband coverage in the United Kingdom.

The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) mentioned regional development agencies and our joint surprise at the money that is being spent in California from UK public funds. He made his point very well.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde spoke about digital televisions. I wholeheartedly agree with him. A large strand of society does not need to use a computer and has no intention of buying one. Some people almost make a virtue of that, saying, "I'm never going to own a computer." However, if they had the facility in their own home to access services electronically through their television, they would be surfing most of the time. I would put my father into that category. He would not have a computer in his house but I know that, if he had a handset and a digital television and a keyboard, he would be a great user of

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electronic services. When they come, such facilities will bring about a great change in the use of electronic services.

I was interested in what the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey said about his attempts to bring together a Select Committee to deal with the issue of broadband and how he had been thwarted by the parochial attitude of a number of Members of individual Committees. I was not aware that the hon. Gentleman was leading such a campaign. The Procedure Committee and the Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee would certainly wish to consider such a campaign. As a member of the Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, I would certainly be prepared to press the hon. Gentleman's points on his behalf. What he said was valid and relevant. I do not know whether he has tried to get the Chairman of the Liaison Committee on board, but I would urge him to do so if he has not done so already.

The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Mole) mentioned video recorders and Betamax. I am a little older than he is and I can remember, in the days when it was a rare but desirable thing to have music on the move, that most of us who wanted to play music in a car or on a boat were faced with two options: cassette tapes or eight-track tapes. We all know what happened in the battle between the two—the cassette won and VHS won the battle with Betamax. The moral is that the best system is not always the winning system.

The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) made a valuable point about the dominant market position, which I hope the Minister will refer to in his reply. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Microsoft, but in future it could apply to another company. What he said about industry standards was valid and I hope the Minister will reflect on what he had to say on the risk of building in software dependency.

This has been an interesting debate and I welcome the opportunity we have had to discuss the subject. I look forward to further debates on the matter because it is vital to continue to ensure that our citizens receive the most efficient and cost-effective delivery of public services now and in the future. The key to that is increasing and improving electronic delivery.

5.15 pm

Mr. Alexander : I concur with the opinions expressed on both sides of the Chamber. This has been an invigorating and interesting debate, which I will reflect on long after its conclusion.

There have been contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House and I shall endeavour to reply to as many as I can in turn in the remaining time. However, first I want to pick up a point made by the Conservative spokesman, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) in his concluding remarks. He began by suggesting that there is no divide between the parties in recognising that e-enablement is an actuality in public service delivery. I suggest, respectfully, that there is as great a divide as there has ever been between the parties on the issue. The Government are investing £6 billion in such projects; that stands somewhat askance from the position of a party that in recent weeks confirmed its intention to cut

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public expenditure not by 5, 10 or 15 per cent. but by 20 per cent. Crocodile tears about the need for more UK online centres are ill-judged against the financial background of a Shadow Treasury Bench committed to closing one in five.

In contrast, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) spoke with characteristic grace, and I am grateful to him for his kind remarks. As a fellow fisherman, I would not underestimate the significance of being able to find a fishing rod online; the problem for me after a day on the river is that there is all too rarely a fish on line.

The substance of the right hon. Gentleman's critique was that getting Government services online was not enough and in that respect we are also in agreement. I agree, too, with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in his speech in November, to which several hon. Members have referred. He said that in addition to the 2005 target—I will speak about that later—of getting Government services online, the Government were focusing on securing high levels of take-up on key e-services that had the capacity to add the most value in our drive to improve public services such as health and education. The right hon. Gentleman was less charitable, however, in his characterisation of progress on the issue of broadband, which we have debated for a number of years. On price, I can confirm that last year's wholesale DSL cuts put the UK third in the G8 for DSL prices, behind only Canada and Japan. Similarly, cable prices in the UK are now among the lowest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Given the right hon. Gentleman's constituency interests, there is a concern about levels of coverage, but I emphasise that 67 per cent. of the population of the United Kingdom has access to mainstream broadband services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) raised important points about the centrality of IT manufacturing to the local economy of his constituency with its historical connections with IBM, and the more general point about the experience of local government and the risk of automating the past, as he accurately put it. My local authority in Renfrewshire found challenges in coming to terms with receiving e-mailed requests for housing repairs 24/7. That has involved a number of changes to back-office functions. The opportunity he rightly identified for e-transformation is exactly the focus in the local government online strategy, which was published immediately after the Prime Minister's speech at the e-summit by the Deputy Prime Minister's office to provide the kind of sharing of best practice that my hon. Friend asked for. Of course he is right, as the strategy recognises, to argue for fundamental reform. He is equally correct to identify the need for sharing of best practice so that, where possible, unnecessary course duplication of diverse bespoke systems and the like can be avoided. He also brought a different dimension to the debate through his recognition of the central role of digital TV in this area of Government policy. It is less recognised than it should be that the United Kingdom has led the world in the level of digital television penetration.

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As my hon. Friend accurately said, digital TV can play a critical role in making sure we address the equity as well as the efficiency issues. It is a commonplace that there are sectors of the community whose members may for whatever reason, as the Front-Bench spokesman acknowledged, have no wish for a computer in their home in the future, but who are relaxed about pressing the red button on the television and interacting directly through digital TV. That is why I am particularly glad of the work of the e-Envoy's office in ensuring services can be provided through digital TV, which has the capacity to reach sections of the community that might otherwise risk exclusion.

Perhaps more contentiously, as a friend I will accept my hon. Friend's proud and rather charitable interpretation of why Greenock and Inverclyde has the highest level of internet use per day in Scotland. I merely add for hon. Members' information that it tends to rain quite a lot in Greenock.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) echoed the comments of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire on the central charge that the Government need to focus more on getting services online. In this sense there is agreement across the House. He then made the case for further work to bridge the digital divide—another point on which we are in agreement. He identified Canada in particular as a leader in government services. It is fair to acknowledge that, not least on the basis of the benchmark work we have conducted, that is indeed the case. The hon. Gentleman recently travelled to Canada as representative to the e-Envoy's office to see some of the work there. I commend the Canadian Government's work in e-government services. Furthermore, when I spent time at the Department of Trade and Industry I found the development of the Canadian Government's broadband strategy highly instructive and useful in helping to frame the British Government's response to what are not altogether analogous but neither too dissimilar challenges.

The benchmarking exercise, which was published at the time of the e-summit, affirms our recognition that there are opportunities not only for local government but for central Government to learn from best practice elsewhere, partly because this is an innovative and new area of policy making. The e-Envoy's drawing together of strands of work from around the world has strengthened the case that Britain will be able to take forward this work effectively.

The hon. Gentleman was correct in paying tribute to Learndirect's work in Sheffield. It may not be known to hon. Members that in a previous life I was a speechwriter for the now Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown). It was a matter of anxiety that year upon year in opposition we used to write into his conference speech the fact that we would establish a university for industry that would do for the modern era what the Open university achieved in the 1960s. Therefore it is a matter of particular pride to me not only that the university for industry has proved so popular, but that it has been so attuned to the needs of the time. We all have examples of constituents who have benefited from Learndirect. It is a good example of the current reach for services that otherwise might not be available.

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The hon. Gentleman also made a point about banking services, from which an interesting analogy can be drawn with Government services. The number of people who no longer enter banks but instead either contact them by telephone or access them online is probably a good beacon of progress for us. Of course, there are particular security challenges in the banking sector, which in some ways replicate the challenges of e-government services. Where there are best practice examples we can learn from in the private sector we should undoubtedly do so.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to diversity of supply and avoiding proprietary lock-in. Government research and development and the use of open source are policy areas driven by the Department of Trade and Industry. Our policy on open source is a level playing field. We will consider open source solutions alongside proprietary ones in IT procurement and contracts will be awarded on a value-for-money basis, as the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) argued. I was intrigued by his characterisation of public sector difference. Where value can be extracted from our intellectual property rights, of course we should look at that. An example of that is the Government gateway, where we own the intellectual property rights; we have licensed it to Microsoft, and potentially stand to get significant income streams from overseas sales of this world-leading infrastructure.

I turn to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt). He offered a range of characteristically innovative propositions to which I will give thought not only in the debate but after it has ended. I received his e-mail this morning, when I was sitting at my desk preparing for the debate. However, as we are under time constraints, I will not address all of the points that he raised.

On my hon. Friend's initial point about being able to pay for the television licence, I am reliably informed by my outstanding officials that licences can be bought online. The only difficulty that I faced is that I could not read the website address that had been given to me, so I respectfully suggest that my hon. Friend might wish to punch into Google, "TV licensing." That might be a useful start in seeking to ensure that one is able to access that site. On the general issue of best practice websites for the public sector, I commend the govtalk site on the office of the e-Envoy's website.

I said that broadband policy is led by the Department of Trade and Industry, but my hon. Friend's suggestion that there should be a broadband hub is currently being tested in the broadband fund pilots. He might be especially interested in the developing work of the South West of England Regional Development Agency in advancing a broadband hub in that part of the country.

On the alteration of planning regulations for broadband, that immediately brought to mind the last report of the broadband stakeholders' group, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is examining that issue through consultation, as was recommended by the group. That is also what my hon. Friend argued for.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Mole) brought the wealth of his experience from industry and local government to our deliberations. He made many points. One of them echoed the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey by

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acknowledging the vital work that UK online provides, particularly to socially excluded communities throughout the country. I agree with those sentiments and wish to reiterate how central those centres are to our vision of social inclusion. I would argue that an appropriate analogy is the work that the Victorians undertook in establishing public libraries. That is one of the best parallels that can be drawn with this quiet revolution that has been taking place. By the strength of our common endeavour we were able to provide the means by which individuals, even in deprived communities such as mining towns and inner cities, were able to realise their potential through reading and learning.

With regard to my constituency, I would argue that similar transformative capabilities are being offered by computer learning centres. A single illustration might be sufficient to make that point. I recently visited the South End action centre in Paisley, which has established a computer learning centre, and the first thing that struck me was the fact that a senior citizen was sitting next to a teenager. These days there cannot be many public spaces—or places that have been provided by public investment—where such a wide age range is represented within a single community facility.

However, I was even more struck by something else. I asked the senior citizen about the use that he made of the e-mail service. He lives in the high flats that are across the road from the centre and he explained that his brother had left for Canada more than 40 years ago and that, because of the cost of using the telephone and sending post by air mail, they had very rarely communicated with each other until he was able to use the computer learning centre's facilities. Now he communicates with his brother by writing lengthy paragraphs to him once or twice a day. He said that that had transformed family relations, because he was able to catch up with a relative with whom he had lost touch for many years. That is exciting: I never anticipated that an online centre would have been put to that sort of use.

Other people in the centre were engaged in a range of different activities, such as looking for work and filling out CVs. If one is searching for an example of where, by the strength of our common endeavour, we can implement genuinely radical transformation, one needs to look no further than the computer online centres in our constituencies.

The hon. Member for Southport raised the issue of Microsoft and the gateway. The UK Government gateway will communicate effectively with the products of companies other than Microsoft. We support open standards: the Government abide by strict rules to ensure fair competition for procurement and service provision, and across Departments we work with various private sector partners to deliver our e-government objectives. In the gateway project alone, we are working not only with Microsoft but with several other partners.

I turn to the specific issue of which browsers can be used on the gateway. The browsers that are currently available are Internet Explorer, Netscape, Mozilla and Opera, and we are committed to providing further access. The majority of personal computers run Windows with Netscape, and these were implemented first, followed by Macintosh, which is the second most popular. Testing browser and operating system

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combinations to ensure that they work successfully can be a lengthy process, and I hope that further browser and operating system combinations will be tested and released during the coming year.

I also affirm to the hon. Member for Southport that the Government have never worked to a policy in which Microsoft products and services were favoured above others, including open source software. Our policy is

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explicitly to have a level playing field in Government procurement, so that OSS products and services will be assessed alongside proprietary ones, and the solutions will be chosen on a case-by-case basis.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. I regret that we have run out of time. Before we end, I congratulate all hon. Members who have participated, as this has been an interesting and well-informed debate.

Question put and agreed to.

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