Information Technology (Government Strategy)

– in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 3 March 1997.

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Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering 3:31, 3 March 1997

Last November, I laid before Parliament the Green Paper "government. direct" (Cm 3438) setting out the Government's strategy for the electronic delivery of central Government services. This strategy forms part of the Government's information society initiative led by my hon. Friend the Minister for Science and Technology, and complements our policies to promote the use of IT in business, in education and by the public at large, and to help this country adapt to the information society. Today I have placed in the Library, and it is available in the Vote Office, a paper reporting on the results of consultation on the Green Paper and indicating the way forward to a radical change for the better in Government service delivery.

People interact with Government daily, whether they are applying for vehicle and driving licences, complying with regulatory requirements and filling in Government forms, or paying taxes. "Government. direct" envisages a time when people will no longer have to queue up, fill out paper forms and send off cheques for Government licences; instead, they will be able to link directly into government through their television sets or from kiosks in post offices, libraries and shopping centres.

Services will be more accessible, more convenient, easier to use, quicker in response and less costly to the taxpayer. As the Cabinet Minister responsible for public service, I find the prospect of delivering services electronically direct to the public enormously exciting.

This initiative forms part of the programme of public service reform, which has already established the citizens charter, next steps agencies and the deregulation initiative as a means of raising the quality of services and making them customer-driven.

Reaction to the Green Paper has been substantial and positive, with nearly 300 responses. I am pleased to say that they show broad support for our intentions, particularly our determination that the initiative should be truly cross-governmental and customer-centred.

However, concerns have also been raised. Some suspect that our aim is not to raise the quality of service but simply to cut costs, or to create a huge central database on individual citizens. Such fears are groundless. There are also concerns about data protection and about potential marginalisation of the disadvantaged and the disabled. I assure the House that we are determined to find solutions on data protection, and we are equally determined that electronic services will benefit everybody.

Last year, the Government launched "IT for all" in order to raise public awareness of, and provide wider public access to, information and communications technologies. I am particularly pleased that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has announced plans to redirect the millennium fund towards information and communication technology projects. After 2001, this could enable institutions such as citizens advice bureaux and public libraries to provide help to access electronic services for those who lack the confidence or opportunity to use a public access terminal.

In taking our plans forward, we have three objectives. First, we will build on the Green Paper by continuing the dialogue with those who have made substantial comments, such as the National Consumer Council, the Consumers Association and Justice. We will explore with universities how we can best draw on their creative thinking, too. We will work closely with the Data Protection Registrar to produce data protection arrangements that command public confidence.

Secondly, we will give the general public an opportunity to try electronic service delivery for themselves through pilot schemes. Some have been launched already. Others that I expect to see launched in the next few weeks will: first, enable the citizen to use one electronic form to tell several Departments about a change of employment status; secondly, bring citizens charter information to electronic terminals in the high street; thirdly, bring electronic services to the rural post office; and fourthly, allow Internet access to large Government geographical and geological databases. More will follow. The views of the public on pilot schemes will be sought and recorded through market research, and the results will be published to inform the debate.

Our third objective is to begin to plan the full-scale implementation of "government. direct", drawing on what we learn from our discussions and the pilots. As soon as we are able, we shall lay a White Paper before Parliament, setting out our plan for implementation, including any legislation that may be needed. We expect to rely on the private sector to lead in the development of technology and to provide the capital investment necessary to be repaid by savings in central Government service delivery costs.

As the Minister reponsible for public service, I shall work with colleagues across government to take this initiative forward, with the support of the central IT unit, which was set up just over a year ago in the Cabinet Office, with people drawn from the public and private sectors. I would particularly like to thank ministerial colleagues who are participating in the programme of pilots, and private sector sponsors such as BT, Electronic Data Services, ICL, Intergraph and Microsoft, who have shown commitment and imagination in their support for the programme.

This information technology initiative will help, for example, the pensioner at the rural post office to check his or her income tax, and the parent in the urban high street to compare the performance of local schools. It will lighten the burden of government on the small business man, and it will help those seeking work to sift job vacancies. It will make dealing with Government as easy as the supermarket laser checkout or the bank cash machine. It is government made easy, and made easy for everyone. If the take-up of electronic services follows the pattern of that for cash machines, five years from now, 25 per cent. of simple Government transactions with the public could be electronic.

Our plans for the use of information technology to provide services in a fundamentally different way will have radical and welcome implications over the long term for the size and shape of central Government. I commend our plans to the House.

Photo of Mr Derek Foster Mr Derek Foster Shadow Secretary of State

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement. I welcome his initiatives, and thank him for the courteous way in which he deals with all such matters. However, the earlier Green Paper and today's statement bear all the marks of a last-gasp technology gimmick from the party of the past.

Why was Al Gore able to present the four-year record of achievement in September 1996 while the Government were still pussy-footing about with a discussion document? Have the Government not betrayed citizens already, by failing to harness user-friendly technology to make government more accessible?

Have not the Government already sold business short by failing to exploit information technology in scything through red tape? How will the right hon. Gentleman avoid a new, dangerous split between the information haves and the information have-nots? Is he not aware of the danger of citizens' personal data falling foul of Big Brother Government or private sector cowboys bent on a quick buck? Why does he not beef up the Data Protection Agency to counter that threat?

Why have the Government headed for the hills over the £22 billion millennium bug issue? Why has the right hon. Gentleman ignored repeated warnings that it could be the next BSE-style crisis to hit government? Have not his Government been ducking and diving on the real issues, leaving the next Government to clean up the mess?

Why do not the Government come clean with their staff by publishing their own estimate of job losses, for example? What is the right hon. Gentleman doing to involve staff as partners in the management of such a profound change? Where are his staff training and development proposals? How much Government cash has been earmarked for the investment? Have the Government instead, as we all expect, thrown themselves entirely at the mercy of the private sector? Does not the statement demonstrate a failure of imagination and leadership from a failed Government, breathing their last after the humiliation of Wirral, South?

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks—at least at the outset of his series of questions. I shall deal briefly with five of them.

First, we are spending at the rate of £2 billion a year in central Government on information technology: a very substantial part of total Government running costs. The Government have not been afraid, either Department by Department or centrally, to use modern information technology. Our response represents a radical step forward in the use of IT to the benefit of our citizens.

As to the difference between the information haves and have-nots, the right hon. Gentleman is right. It is very important that manual systems are continued in parallel with the use of modern information technology, so that those who are not familiar with or do not have an opportunity to use modern IT can use the existing paper-driven system for as long as that is necessary. I have already said that I hope that the citizens advice bureaux will play a full part in this radical revolution of the way in which Government services are provided, by facilitating services for citizens who cannot or do not wish to use them directly.

On third-party access to data, it is very important that the Data Protection Agency and the registrar herself are satisfied about protection against illegal and improper third-party use. There is no difference between the two Front Benches on that.

I turn to the millennium bug: the prospect that some computer systems will fail in 2000, because 20 or 30 years ago, when the software systems were written, planners never assumed that the hardware would last that long. My hon. Friend the Minister for Science and Technology has laboured long and hard to ensure that the private sector is aware of its responsibilities, and we have jointly ensured that all Departments must by the end of this year have drawn up plans, and by the end of next year implemented plans, to protect the public against any faults.

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and I published a White Paper last year on civil service training and development, which made explicit reference to the need for developing computer skills. I congratulate the civil service on embracing those new developments with great alacrity.

Photo of Mr Trevor Skeet Mr Trevor Skeet , Bedfordshire North

If I understand my right hon. Friend the Minister correctly, his statement is about using technology to make more information available on Government services on a 24-hour basis. Will it be a precursor of new developments? Will he be a little more specific on cost? He indicated the amount of capital expenditure going into IT at the moment. Although the proposal concerns only a very tiny part of overall expenditure, what will be its expenditure effect on the Government?

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

One of the principal benefits of modern information technology is that information can be supplied to the citizen 24 hours a day, seven days a week; not just when the office is open. That principle of not only accessible but open government is extremely important.

No one knows what the cost will be, because we must test, pilot by pilot, whether the citizen wants this information service to be delivered electronically. It is important that Government do not dictate. The citizen knows best what is needed, and the private sector will lead with the development of technology. I confirm that we expect the private sector to make the initial capital investment. All our conversations with the private sector lead us to believe that that will certainly be the case.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

Does the Chancellor of the Duchy accept that, although this interim statement on the transmission of Government-held information is important, so far as open government is concerned, it would carry greater conviction if it were accompanied by a freedom of information Act based on the presumption that Government-held information should be made available to the public, except for certain narrowly specified and policed categories?

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept the recommendation of Justice, that the supervisory and enforcement powers of the Data Protection Registrar should be strengthened? Is it his intention that terminals should be available in rural areas, particularly sparsely populated areas, where it is difficult for people to get to Government offices or other centres to obtain the information to which they are entitled?

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

Our code of open government, which applies to civil servants and Ministers alike, presumes that information, analysis and explanation of decisions should be made available. I believe that the use of modern information technology will make government more open, not less: information will not be confined to the filing cabinet. A freedom of information Act would make no practical difference to the range of information that should be open to citizens.

The code encourages civil servants and Ministers to work on the presumption that information should be available except in narrowly drawn circumstances. Most countries follow that practice, and I believe that it would have broad support in the House. The exceptions involve secret intelligence and diplomatic relations with other countries. The presumption is openness of government, and our reforms will enable that principle to be more widely applied.

As for the comments of Justice on the status of the registrar and the law, we shall have to consult on that, and that process has only just begun. I am sensitive to the point made by the hon. Member.

Yes, terminals should be available throughout rural areas. Modern technology knows no geographical or time boundaries. We are carrying out a trial in a rural post office in Devon to find out how citizens react to the availability of a computer terminal to supply information that would otherwise be available only by expensive telephone or by paper.

Photo of Mr Gary Waller Mr Gary Waller , Keighley

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his excellent statement. Will he, in turn, join me in congratulating the Editor of the Official Report, Mr. Ian Church, on the award he received from the Campaign for Freedom of Information for the parliamentary web site on the world wide web, which had encouragement from and the enthusiasm of the Information Committee? How long will it be before motorists are able to renew their vehicle excise licence and pay the duty by using a kiosk in their local library or from a PC in their own homes?

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his Committee's determination to introduce modern technology into the workings of Parliament. A great deal can be done, and I welcome the arrival of Hansard on the Internet. My hon. Friend raises an interesting prospect with regard to car tax. Our vision is that, instead of queueing at a main post office or corresponding by mail to renew our car tax, it should be possible to do so entirely electronically.

With the approval of Parliament, central databases could confirm that a car has passed the MOT test and that a valid certificate of insurance has been issued. An electronic signature—a credit card-sized mechanism—could validate that a person is who he says he is, and a car tax disc could be issued immediately.

Photo of Dr Jeremy Bray Dr Jeremy Bray , Motherwell South

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many demarcations and restrictive practices that grew up in the former age of information collection are simply irrelevant and crippling in the modern information technology age? The common register of businesses, for example, is not available, because, although the component parts—company registered offices, and so on—must be published, the data are compiled with the use of Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise powers. That means that the product cannot be available. Do the Government propose an overhaul of the legislation relating to the main streams of Government information to make that information publicly available?

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

I believe that we should rethink the divisions between Departments, laterally and radically. I feel, for instance, that the distinction between the Customs and Excise, Contributions Agency and the Inland Revenue in the collection of moneys due from the citizen to the state can be drawn more simply, transparently and openly. But the permission of Parliament, given through statute law reform, will be needed for the comparison of data held by different agencies—and, indeed, for the transmission of data between Departments.

As I have said, a radical rethink is needed if we are no longer to rely entirely on the circulation of paper between Departments. We can transfer data between Departments for the convenience of the citizen, but only with the permission of Parliament.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , South Staffordshire

I envy my right hon. Friend his sense of excitement, but will he consider for a moment the most important aspect of contact between the citizen—the subject—and Government: personal contact between one person and another? The depersonalisation that is implicit in much of what my right hon. Friend has said this afternoon will not be welcomed by everyone. Does he recognise that a real danger is implicit in the codifying of every sort of communication, and in the eventual replacement by a hole in the wall of the Government counter with someone behind it?

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

My hon. Friend's vision fills me with horror, but there is no inconsistency in using modern information technology to replace the post office, the fax machine or, perhaps, even the telephone. I want to speed the flow of information, but I do not want information to be depersonalised.

One of the biggest criticisms that can be made by the citizen and, indeed, Members of Parliament of reforms made since the war is that such depersonalisation has taken place. Sometimes we need a face—a person to talk to. I do not mean a face on a video conference screen; I mean people talking face to face. I believe, however, that these reforms should permit a sufficient reduction in other clerical and running costs, to facilitate an increase in personal contact rather than the reverse.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody , Crewe and Nantwich

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, without a strong commitment from the Government in terms of money, his statement is so much rubbish? There is no indication that enough money is available for training, and there is certainly not enough for the provision of hardware.

When the right hon. Gentleman talks about the Department of Transport being able to issue any kind of document, he will be aware that not enough money has even been written into the Department's budget in this and coming years to provide for the information technology that is necessary to run it. Will he examine the American experience, which shows that change of this kind is important to young white males, and will he come back and tell us how he intends to change that with real cash?

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

We are spending real cash. We are spending £2 billion a year on IT projects in central Government, and I do not propose a significant increase. I am telling the House that, just as the Government use the Royal Mail to transmit paper between them and the citizen, so we can use information technology. The fact that, rather than the Royal Mail supplying paper, the private sector is supplying hardware and software, has no financial impact on the Government. Someone else is providing the investment and the service and Government pay for that, but they pay on the basis of usage rather than capital investment.

Photo of Mr Michael Marshall Mr Michael Marshall , Arundel

Does my right hon. Friend accept that his willingness to have an open session with the Parliamentary Information Technology Committee, involving people from industry as well as Members of both Houses, was much appreciated? One of the issues raised was crime. As many of the challenges posed by crime in the 21st century will be information technology-related, does he accept that, as well as receiving information, there is a unique and special opportunity for the public to give information through kiosks and eventually by way of television, and that that would help in the fight against crime?

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to what the all-party Parliamentary Information Technology Committee has so far achieved. I look forward to working with PITCOM. My hon. Friend spoke about crime. It is not just the exchange of information that has to be regulated and regularised, where necessary by Parliament, but the efficiency with which different arms of the law work.

One thinks in particular of the probation service, the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts and the police. We have different computer systems, and they should be compatible. One of the main aims of the central direction of investment, or at least advice on how Departments should spend money, is to make sure that different computer systems are compatible, so that information can be exchanged electronically.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Does the Minister agree that, while this will give the Government great power to carry on their Big Brother technique and to find out about the man in the street, the man in the street will not be able to find out where the Tory party gets its money?

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

I have already explained that the initiative is not about creating greater powers for the state in relation to individual citizens. There is no question of a Big Brother, whether socialist or Tory. The ordinary citizen would not tolerate that, and nor would Parliament. Therefore, any plans for the dispatch of data between Government Departments or even involving third parties, which is not contemplated in our plans, that will assist the citizen, have the citizen's approval and are protected by law, should surely be welcomed.

Photo of Mr Patrick Thompson Mr Patrick Thompson , Norwich North

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the progress that he has announced for the electronic delivery of Government services, and I welcome his comments about personal contact. Will he confirm that the CCTA, which is based in my constituency, has been involved with the "government. direct" initiative, and will be involved in future in terms of the announcement and electronic delivery?

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

I am happy to confirm that, and I pay tribute to the work of the CCTA, which started life as the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency about 25 years ago. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in support of the CCTA. It is a valuable resource of experience and advice for all central Government Departments, and I hope that its work expands.

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell , Cambridge

Is the Minister aware that many of the initiatives that he would like to promote are already happening and well advanced? Is he also aware of the Cambridgeshire Childcare Links project, which was launched by my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) at Hinchingbrooke school in the Prime Minister's constituency a few weeks ago? That service aims to provide for parents who wish to return to work information on child care, jobs and training and social security benefits.

Will the Minister ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security whether he is prepared to co-operate with Cambridgeshire Childcare Links to provide helpful benefits information that will allow parents interactive access as to their entitlement to benefit?

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

I shall certainly pass that to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. I am well aware of the hon. Lady's support for local services in Cambridge. Not long ago, I had the pleasure of launching one such service in Kettering.

Photo of Mr Mark Robinson Mr Mark Robinson , Somerton and Frome

I welcome my right hon. Friend's assurance that personal contact will not be replaced by some sort of virtual reality system. Will he assure the House that there will be efforts throughout the civil service to ensure that the process to simplify guidance and instruction about how to apply for benefits will be continued, to ensure that it is compatible with this new information technology era?

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I emphasise again the importance of personal, caring and, in some cases—when it is to do with, for example, the Child Support Agency or the national health service—compassionate and understanding assistance, which is by no means incompatible with being a civil servant. That is what the House would expect—that personalised, proper service—and it must be against a background of regulations that are simple and written in the Queen's English.

Photo of Jim Cousins Jim Cousins , Newcastle upon Tyne Central

Does the Minister accept that the history of the Government's involvement so far with large-scale information technology contracts is one of poorly defined contracts, large-scale expenditure, cost overruns and poor performance? Will he therefore assure the House that, if he proceeds down that road, it will be on the basis of carefully costed and piloted projects, which produce genuine improvements of service to ordinary people?

Will he also assure the House that his proposals are not a device for undermining the Royal Mail and the network of the nation's 20,000 post offices?

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

It is certainly not our intention to undermine the Royal Mail, but I am glad to see it progress with the development of its own services; it should be congratulated on that. However, there are other ways in which Government Departments can communicate directly and in which the citizen can communicate with Government and vice versa. In the same way that Government embrace the quill pen and the letter, so we should embrace information technology.

I can confirm what the hon. Gentleman says about the importance of relying on properly costed pilots. For the past 50 years, all Governments, of whichever shade, have sometimes had projects that have overrun and been badly thought out. Others have been a great success—I am talking about information technology now. We must learn from that experience. That is why I propose a programme that is cautious. It tests what the citizen wants and what is feasible, pilot by pilot; and substantial money, committed either by the private or by the public sector, should not be given until that has happened.

Photo of Mr Robert Hughes Mr Robert Hughes , Harrow West

Does my right hon. Friend agree that he is to be particularly congratulated on harnessing the unique expertise of the Government communication agency with that of the big players in IT, and that that will deliver quality services in a way that will be beyond the imagination of many people—and, if I may say so, in a way that seems beyond the imagination of the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster)? Is this not another move that shows that the character armour of this Government is open government and good-quality services to customers, whereas the character armour of the Labour party is rotten public services and secrecy?

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

My hon. Friend was a distinguished junior Minister serving in the Cabinet Office, and he will know that it is extremely important to think long term and to have a strategic vision about how to deliver services better to the citizen. It is incumbent on all of us as Ministers to ask: what does the citizen want, how should the service be delivered, and how can we harness modern technology? I am sure that you would agree, Madam Speaker, that Parliament and even Whitehall sometimes appear to be still in the 19th century in terms of their procedures, whereas the private sector has welcomed with open arms 21st-century technology. Government should do likewise.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours , Workington

With the caveat of the Government's failure to move on the question of freedom of information, may I unreservedly welcome the statement, which is enlightened, points the way forward and, in many measures, reflects Labour policy, which goes down effectively the same route?

In that spirit of camaraderie, may I draw the Minister's attention to Cumbria county council's application to the Millennium Commission in relation to the Genesis project, after several years of work by me in my office here, on the university of the Lakes project, and the county council's own work? The Minister referred to the commission in passing when he said that it was considering IT bids more sensitively. Our application on the Genesis project is in exactly this area of IT transfer, and is being dealt with by the commission over the next few days. Will he put in a good word for us, because we want to win the bid and to show the whole country that we can make this system work in Cumbria?

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

I will make sure that the millennium commissioners are aware of that. It is important that local government should be involved in this initiative, and I have made sure that the central IT unit has talked to local authority associations to find out how we can trial some projects in their field of responsibility, too.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale , Colchester South and Maldon

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, but will he bear it in mind that it is only in the past 10 years that pupils have been educated in the use of information technology, and that there is widespread technophobia among those who did not learn about computers at school? Does he agree that adult education colleges will have an invaluable role to play in providing courses to help overcome that problem?

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

There are some technophobes in Whitehall, as there are in Parliament; perhaps people over the age of 40, or perhaps even 30, might constitute the greater number. My hon. Friend the Minister for Science and Technology is doing exactly the right thing. He has launched "IT for all", which is aimed at familiarising those members of society—young and old—who find it difficult to comprehend how to use modern information technology. I greatly welcome his initiative, which I know will succeed.

Photo of Mr Barry Jones Mr Barry Jones , Alyn and Deeside

Notwithstanding the right hon. Gentleman's "vision thing", will he accept that many millions of our fellow countrymen and women will not be excited by his statement? Will he consider my elderly constituent, Mrs. Williams of Pentre, who, when she goes into the post office, will be intimidated by his vision? Is not the timing of his statement somewhat gimmicky, in view of the imminent general election?

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

No, that is not a fair charge. I have tried to present a sensible and balanced conclusion of two years' work. Frankly, anyone looking back at reports of the proceedings of the House will, I am sure, find that the Government committed themselves to large-scale use of the Royal Mail and that a number of hon. Members, and perhaps their constituents, were afraid that they might lose the communications. We must embrace modern technology; the private sector does, as do many Governments around the world. Given his background, I hope—indeed, I know—that the hon. Gentleman will not be counted as a computer Luddite.

Photo of Mr Ian Bruce Mr Ian Bruce , South Dorset

Was my right hon. Friend as disappointed as I was that those on the Labour Front Bench were so backward in welcoming the announcement, especially as the Leader of the Opposition got into such a mess when he announced a deal with BT? Is the right hon. Gentleman perhaps worried that BT will spend its money on this scheme rather than leave it for Labour's windfall?

The piloting of schemes is clearly important, to see whether people will use high-street kiosks. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has any announcement to make in that regard about the bid that I have made for my constituency to be one of the pilots.

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

I am sure that we shall be involved in several dozen pilot schemes in the coming months and years. It is sensible to test precisely what the citizen wants and whether the technology works. I am sure that my hon. Friend will persist in his demands. His comments about Government and Opposition underline a central point: unlike the Opposition, who have the relative freedom to announce an idea, the Government have to examine it, consult on it, test it, think about it and then produce their response. They do not have the same luxury as the Opposition.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller , Ellesmere Port and Neston

The Minister will be aware of my support for his view of the benefits that information technology can bring to cross-departmental activity. Against that background, will he explain, first, what steps he is taking to ensure that the allocation of contracts, especially in the context of privatisation, are not overly concentrated with one company or another? Secondly, will he say whether he agrees with the European Informatics Market, whose board includes a number of hon. Members from both sides of the House, that there ought to be primary legislation on data protection as a result of the European directive and of changes in technology? Finally, even with eight weeks to go until the general election, I would prefer to see the Minister at the Dispatch Box rather than a hologram.

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

Clearly the Government must implement the European directive—we have about 12 months to do so—and we are urgently considering the form in which it should be implemented. There are a number of options, and several Departments are involved. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about monopolies by individual IT suppliers. This must be watched, as we do not want several Departments to be reliant on a single supplier of hardware or software.

Photo of Mr Simon Coombs Mr Simon Coombs , Swindon

Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that the Millennium Commission was unable to approve the bid by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux for a linked computerised system which would have greatly assisted the association in providing information similar to that which we are discussing? In that context, can he say whether it will be possible to place "government. direct" computer terminals in the association's bureaux?

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

I share my hon. Friend's disappointment at the fact that the NACAB was not successful in its millennium bid. I very much hope that it will qualify for assistance from a redirection of the Millennium Commission's funding after 2001. We are trialling the provision of IT in one citizens advice bureau in Spennymoor in Yorkshire—[Interruption.] I do not know my geography. Modern IT would have corrected my statement that Spennymoor is in Yorkshire, and made it County Durham.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant , Staffordshire Mid

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, just a few years hence, political historians will look back to this day and say, first, that it was a landmark day, and secondly, that the Labour party was a group of Luddites? Labour criticised my right hon. Friend's announcements and doubted his integrity in communicating with private companies. Does he agree that it is marvellous that, on this very day, the Cable Communications Association has announced that schools will be able to give access to the Internet to all their children for just £1 per child per day?

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

The House will welcome not only what BT has done, but what the cable companies have done in terms of supplying modern IT to schools. The more primary and secondary schools that are connected, the better.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh , Gainsborough and Horncastle

I welcome the statement, but a problem during the past five years has been that every hon. Member has been inundated by people whose lives have been wrecked by the inflexible computer technology and bureaucracy of the Child Support Agency. What worries me is that the very people who want to come into contact with government—an old-age pensioner at a local post office, a distraught ex-wife trying to get a CSA payment or a young labourer thrown out of work—are the very people who find it difficult to cope with these systems.

At the same time, government is being fanned out increasingly to agencies, there is a lack of parliamentary control, and all agencies are now required to have strict performance guidelines. I fear that, whatever my right hon. Friend has said, we will have fewer humans facing the public and more computers providing more inflexibility and bureaucracy, with the result that more people will be denied their basic human rights.

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

I am sure that my hon. Friend is wrong. He referred to the Child Support Agency, which I am afraid has, in its past practice, relied on several different sources of information. Computers have not been talking to computers—in other words, those affected by the legislation have received conflicting information at different times, without having someone to talk to personally. In a number of cases—particularly where the work of the agency has been removed to remote parts of the United Kingdom—ordinary citizens have been unable to talk to someone about their problems. We can and should embrace modern information technology without depersonalising it. Frankly, we can reduce, not increase, bureaucracy if we do it sensibly.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

I will allow the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) to make a point of order to correct what he has said.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant , Staffordshire Mid

I am grateful, Madam Speaker—you have anticipated my point of order. It was a slip of the tongue; the charge would be £1 per pupil per year.