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House of Lords

Thursday, 15th February 2001.

The House met at three of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lincoln.

Parliamentary Answers: Electronic System

Lord Lucas asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When it will be possible for Lords who so wish to receive the Answers to written Questions electronically.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, first raised the issue of electronic Answers to written Questions in 1997. I am not proud of what has happened--or rather, what has not happened--since then and I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, to the Library and Computers Sub-Committee and to the House. I gave answers in good faith that have not turned out to be true. I apologise for that.

Having said that, a test Question has been successfully transmitted from officials of your Lordships' House to officials of the Cabinet Office via the Government's secure intranet and a digitally signed Answer has been returned and the signature verified. We are currently conducting tests to ensure that the software used does not conflict with other software used in the Cabinet Office. Assuming that any such conflict can be resolved, I hope to invite the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, to address a Question to me in March, which I shall respond to by e-mail. We shall then commence the roll-out of the system to other departments. I should emphasise that the new electronic system will run in parallel with the existing paper-based procedure.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am very grateful for the Minister's apology. I exempt him from any blame, but it is extraordinary that it has taken the Government three and a half years to do what I and a parliamentary Clerk could have put together in an afternoon, with a couple of extra weeks to agree what we had done with our relevant computer departments. The issue is immensely simple. Can the Government confirm that all departments of state are committed to implementing the new procedure when it has been tested by the Cabinet Office?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: No, my Lords, I am afraid that I cannot. That is a matter for departments. We shall write to them in the next few days to explain the procedures that will become available and we shall write to the Leader of the House and, for information, to the Leader of the House of Commons. How

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Ministers choose to answer the parliamentary Questions that they are asked is a matter for them. It cannot be dictated.

Lord Renton: My Lords, I listened with admiration to the Minister's Answer. Will he confirm that the new procedure will not interfere with the Government's publication of Answers in Hansard, when appropriate, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, promised me in answer to my Question on Monday?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: On the contrary, my Lords, not only will the new procedure not interfere with the publication in Hansard, it should make that faster and more error-free because the same electronic text will be available to Hansard as to the noble Lord who asked the Question.

Lord Mitchell: My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that the very relevant Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has even wider implications? The technology now exists in your Lordships' House to install a broadband wireless connectivity that would permit noble Lords to have access to the Internet from any location in the House without the requirement for wires or cables. Does the Minister agree that that would make life much easier for many noble Lords and would help your Lordships' House to establish itself in the forefront of the information age?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, that is a matter for the House authorities. I would applaud any measure they could take to establish the House in the forefront of the information age. A wireless network could encourage your Lordships to work in any convenient area of the building. We should examine the many steps taken by the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales to use IT in support of their work.

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, has given a full apology to the House for the delay in the answering of parliamentary Questions by e-mail. But will he explain what has led to that delay? It is extraordinarily simple to dispatch e-mails to Members of your Lordships' House. Indeed, it happens the whole time. If the issue is just security, the technology for authenticating signatures has been around for a long time. What hope is there for much more complex computer systems such as that used to process asylum seekers when the Government cannot work out how to send e-mails?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am afraid that it is not as simple as that. There are reasons which, given hindsight, were avoidable. We gave the contract to a private firm that did not perform, changed its name, lost the people who knew about the project and eventually carried out only an early part of the work. That wasted far too much time.

It is not true that encryption and digital signatures have been readily available for as long as the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, suggests. The most likely

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system was released for export from the United States only in December 1999. I shall gladly talk to the noble Viscount in private about some of the other complications, but I think it would bore the House were I to go on about them.

The Earl of Erroll: My Lords, how soon will it be possible for Questions to be sent electronically to the printers so that they can eliminate typographical errors? If departments are not going to go on to the system for a while, there will be a problem.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the plan that the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency has drawn up, which I think has been discussed with the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, runs from now until the end of March. The supply of the electronic text to Hansard can take place at the same time. Indeed, in the early stages, that will produce the most significant benefit because we do not yet know how many noble Lords will wish to receive their Answers to Written Questions electronically.

Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, will the Minister encourage the e-commerce envoy and his 60 or so employees to think "House of Lords" when developing e-government?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Yes, my Lords. We have been in close contact with the office of the e-envoy about that matter and its staff have been very supportive, particularly over the past few days. They are certainly aware of the needs of the House of Lords.

Disposable Surgical Instruments

3.13 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What delays there now are in carrying out operations because hospitals are waiting for the disposable surgical instruments required to avoid the risks associated with variant CJD.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, on 4th January the Government announced the introduction of single-use instruments for tonsil surgery during 2001. Supplies of those instruments are expected to come on-stream during the late spring and summer. In the meantime, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer has advised that surgeons should review individual cases to ensure that no serious conditions are missed. Guidance has also been issued to the NHS to ensure that, so far as possible, other ear, nose and throat procedures are substituted for cancelled tonsil operations.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his Answer. Have hospitals in England and Wales yet caught up with their

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programmes of non-urgent operations following the delays arising from the instruction that only disposable instruments should be used? Are sufficient disposable instruments now available to meet all the hospitals' requirements?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, approximately 74,000 operations are carried out in the UK each year. So far as concerns the question of supply, an initial order has been placed for 3,000 sets of instruments, which will be delivered in February and March. The remainder of the available instruments will be delivered over the next few months. There will be a delay for some patients who are waiting for a tonsil operation. However, I believe that, under the precautionary principle, that outcome is probably inevitable. With regard to waiting lists, I can confirm that the number of patients on those lists is currently 124,000 below the number that we inherited.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, the Minister's recent announcement referred to tonsillectomies and instruments used in those operations. However, the acting chairman of SEAC was recently quoted as saying:

    "If there is a risk of transmission of vCJD through tonsillectomy instruments, I think it is likely that there is risk through other surgical procedures--particularly those involving the brain and central nervous system".

Can the Minister say whether the Government's recent risk assessment report, which is still unpublished, confirms that view, and what are the Government's plans in that respect?

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