Examination of Witnesses (Questions 631
WEDNESDAY 19 APRIL 2000
631. Good afternoon. I am very pleased to see
you. I have had the privilege of meeting Mr Young at Wilton Park
and have found the experience most stimulating, sufficiently so
as to invite him to submit a paper to us and come to give evidence
today. We are very grateful for the paper, which has raised a
number of points which, as yet, have not been put to us by other
individuals. We will come to those during the course of the questioning.
We will go straight into questions. Do you share the view of many
of the other witnesses we have seen that the United Kingdom Government
and the EU have been disappointingly slow to develop Government-to-customer
aspects of e-commerce? What should be done, in your opinion, to
progress faster than we are going at the moment, especially in
the light of numerous public failures in IT projects we have witnessed
and which have been subject to a separate inquiry?
(Mr Young) We do share that view. I suppose
you could say it is easy to be critical. We would rather be critical
in a constructive way. We were obviously disappointed that the
Horizon Project did not mature in the way in which we hoped. As
you rightly say, there have been one or two other projects that
have gone awry, although the Government are now making the right
noises and what we have to see is achievement. Our view is that
we would like to see a phrase they used "joined-up Government"
being put into action. Every department should be ensuring that
they have a defined programme so they have contact with the public,
with citizens or that people can contact them through the Internet
and they can carry out transactions. The Inland Revenue is one
example, we think this is a good example and the more of that
they can develop the better. It would be the Government demonstrating
by example. We are not convinced that that is the case at the
moment. With each department having its own websitewe welcome
your websitewe cannot resist saying that we would also
like to see the evidence you are getting on the website as well.
632. We share that view. Even the Treasury have
(Mr Young) We can resist anything, except an easy
target. The answer to that question is an emphatic yes.
(Mr Darlington) Perhaps I can pick up on your suggestion
that Government can lead by example. It is striking that the Cabinet
itself has not really entered the e-government era. Even the Minister
for e-commerce is having trouble communicating effectively electronically
with her colleagues. There has been a very good report by the
National Audit Office on the Government websites, looking at two
particular departments. In our view, Government websites have
now got to move beyond the simple provision of information to
become transactional and genuinely interactive if G2C is a reality.
Members of Parliament and members of the House of Lords themselves
could actually play a role. In the United States every senator
and virtually every member of the House of Representatives have
a website. In the United Kingdom very few peers have and a very
small proportion of MPs have. They could be user friendly and
provide local assess points to a whole range of Government services.
633. Why do you suggest that peers should have
websites? I can understand MPs having websites because, after
all, they have constituencies, why should peers have them? As
long as peers are on e-mail they can get whatever they want.
(Mr Darlington) I believe that every member of Parliament,
whether they are in the lower or the upper House, has a role in
communicating the business of the House. If members of this Sub-Committee
had their own website they would explain they are on this Sub-Committee,
and they are doing this inquiry. There would be a part on the
Parliament website where, hopefully, you would find all of the
written evidence that was made available. There is no reason why
the oral evidence should not be available within days.
Chairman: There is an end to achieve that. There
is an end that is on all of us.
634. Pursuing this a moment, we get all of the
evidence, not necessarily from this Sub-Committee, but in other
select committees all of the evidence comes in by e-mail to us.
That is all we need, is it not?
(Mr Darlington) When you say, "all of the evidence".
I do not how many organisations and individuals have contributed
but I would suspect there are a lot of important players of e-commerce
who are not even aware of this inquiry. If a few individuals had
websites that people were accessing, it would be a way of publicising
that and generating debate. I do not know if the e-Envoy, who
has a very good website, has anything about this inquiry on his
635. I hope so.
(Mr Darlington) In the CWU we have put our evidence
on our website and we will create relevant references to the commission
documents, on which you are going to examine us, and other organisations
we have mentioned in our submissions. There is a lot more we can
do to raise the profile of this issue to stimulate participation
in the debate.
636. In accepting that Government should be
more joined-up, should be more transparent and there should be
access for everybody to it, do you see a problem with the number
of communications to Government? Who is going to handle this?
At present many people would not settle down to write a note to
a Government department because, apart from anything else, it
would be unlikely to get to the source of what they wanted. If
everybody in the country has access to e-mail who is going to
handle this? Will it freeze everything up? Will it cause congestion?
I am not against it, I am merely saying that it is going to involve
a lot of man hours.
(Mr Darlington) It is going to change the culture.
Most leading edge companies already have this situation, companies
like BT already have websites and people e-mailing them. You have
to change the structure of your company and the culture of your
company to deal with this. Government will have to do the same.
There are a whole variety of mechanisms for dealing with this.
The first is that you have frequently asked questions on your
website so that you avoid people writing to ask for the same information.
You have to have people regularly checking the site and e-mail
and replying where they can or diverting the query to an appropriate
department. This is only a further step down the road. Before
the telephone, people had to write to MPs and peers in the Government
and, no doubt, when we had the telephone people complained they
got telephone calls. We developed a way of dealing with that and
we will have to develop a way of dealing with this.
(Mr Young) You are right inasmuch as you if you make
these facilities available the worse thing you can do is (a) fail
to update them regularly; that is crime number one. Crime number
two, in a recent Which survey, interestingly, it said a number
of organisations had opened up, including British Airways and
British Telecom; however their failure to respond was pretty awful.
You are right, it does make an organisation more accessible. On
the other hand that is a good thing. It is about a more open Government,
a Government that is more responsive to its citizens. You cannot
deny there is a resource side to it. My colleague is right, it
is about re-thinking the way an organisation is structured and
the way it will respond, just as people had to respond in a different
way to the telephone and faxes, et cetera.
637. Could I just come back to the paper? In
paragraph 11 you refer to encouraging employers as part of the
process to make IT equipment available for the staff to use. I
was wondering if you reached any agreement with your employers
and are these facilities available? Do you know if other unions
are doing the same thing? Recently when we were in the United
States we heard that Ford USA had gone so far as to offer every
employee access to the Internet for $15 or $20. Is there anybody
doing that here? Are any unions making claims for that?
(Mr Young) We have had a number of interesting developments.
As a BT employee you get free Internet access to the BT net. BT
also have an Internet academy for their employers, where you can
learn about the Internet online. They are very supportive.
638. That is their business.
(Mr Young) Absolutely, yes. In the past, if you like,
we tended to see training rather more specific and narrowly based
to the needs of the task that the individual employee is carrying
out. Now there is much more acceptance that what we ought to give
is a more generic type of training. You are equipping the individual
with more transferable skills and more flexibility within the
country. There is business motivation, I do not deny that. It
is quite an imaginative approach that they have started. We also
have a tripartite arrangement with ourselves, the employer and
Queen Mary's College whereby people can re-skill themselves on
an on-line basis and are able to gain them a computer science
degree. They are committed to about 500 people going through that
process, equipping them with laptops. Certainly the people who
are doing the computer science degree course are wholesale equipping
with laptops. Very significant numbers of our employees have either
got access to or are being equipped with laptops.
639. Elsewhere in the trade union movements?
(Mr Young) There are developments but I would not
profess to know exactly.
(Mr Darlington) I think it is developing. There is
some anxiety amongst some short-sighted employers that this might
divert their staff from carrying out their work. I use the word
"short-sighted" advisedly because, within reason, the
use of the Internet for private purposes should be similar to
the use of the telephone for private purposes, it is sensible,
it is reasonable. There are a couple of positive spin-offs, I
think, because members of staff develop a familiarity with the
World Wide Web which will be a transferable skill to an increasing
range of occupations. Of course if, as your inquiry is looking
at, they do more than simply access information but conduct transactions,
it could actually benefit the employer. Instead of somebody going
out at lunchtime and spending half an hour or an hour to make
a purchase, they could do it on-line in two or three minutes.
It would be a stimulus for the economy as a whole.