Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 631 - 639)

WEDNESDAY 19 APRIL 2000

MR TONY YOUNG AND MR ROGER DARLINGTON

Chairman

  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 website—we welcome your website—we 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 complained.
  (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.

Baroness O'Cathain

  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.

Baroness O'Cathain

  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 website.

Chairman

  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.

Viscount Brookeborough

  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.

Chairman

  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.

Baroness O'Cathain

  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.

Chairman

  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.


 
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