Mr. Hancock, I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship for the first time. Today is the first occasion on which e-Government has merited its own debate, and I am delighted to have the opportunity of three hours to debate it. I am pleased to see so many of my parliamentary colleagues here to offer their own experience of and views about e-Government. The debate has matured since the heady days of the dot.com-fuelled enthusiasm that many of us witnessed. Today, e-Government and developments in information technology are central to our manifesto commitment to transform real people's lives through the transformation of public services.
We in Government have an ambition in terms of the reform of public services, which are increasingly personal. In another sense, "personal" means customer-focused: an extension of choice for the customer, giving greater control over how they access Government services. Customer focus also benefits the taxpayer in terms of efficiency and value for money. Very little of that ambition, which helps to provide the current momentum within e-Government, can be achieved without IT.
Let me turn briefly to some of my recent experiences during the parliamentary recess, when I witnessed at first hand citizens using IT to access Government services. I see some of my parliamentary colleagues whose constituencies I had the honour of visiting during the recess. I visited Eastserve in Manchester, a local online service for local people, providing them with low-cost wireless broadband, and playing a part in the regeneration of that community.
I met a mother who, four years previously, had been pestered—if that is the right word—by her children about why they could not have a computer in their home. Partly through the initiative of Eastserve, not only are they now accessing computers, but the mother is lecturing at the local college on aspects of IT. That is one person whose career has been transformed and a family given a real opportunity.
I also visited the Outer Hebrides, which are on the geographic periphery of the United Kingdom and, without IT, would be on the service and opportunity periphery. I met a crofter who was using IT to keep in touch with the different initiatives that affect his life and that of the industry. I met someone who was partially paralysed, but thanks to adaptive technology, he can now work from home. Thanks to the arrival of broadband in the area, he now operates as a schools network administrator, supporting every school on the islands. Not only has a life been transformed and a career rebuilt, but a community on the geographic periphery, and all its schools, has been served, and all that has been enabled by IT.
I was in Kent last week, where I met a different and perhaps even more challenging group of people. They were students and young people, who had a different experience of e-Government and IT. They were among the most IT-enabled and IT-literate people in the country. They made entirely fair criticisms of many official websites, saying that they were too wordy and too boring. I know many young people say that about many Government services, whether online or not, but we must find a way for Government websites to reflect the ease of access of some private providers and search engines. One of the ways in which that lesson has been learned is the creation of Directgov, for one-stop online access to Government services. That will increasingly evolve before its public launch next year.
I also met small businesses in Staffordshire to listen to their experience and to hear how they would like to access Government services online. Those visits and the visits that Ministers across Government make, not only during the recess but throughout the year, provide us all with lessons that we must learn. Today, however, I shall talk about more than the visits that I have undertaken and the people whom I have met. I shall talk about our ambition for e-Government, reflect on the challenges that we face and talk about our transformation strategy in advance of the launch of our IT strategy shortly.
First, on our ambition, our general election manifesto set out a vision in which the citizen is at the heart of public services. Historically, that has not always been the case. Too often, the service has been constructed around the needs of the provider, the council, the Department or the agency. One example that typifies the new focus for the future is a single budget for pensioners, cutting a swathe through the separate delivery silos that pull a pensioner from pillar to post. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend Gordon Banks here. He and I met a group of pensioners from his constituency during the recess.
We promised to adapt the strategy that was at the core of our manifesto, and such a focus is our ambition, but it will be achieved only through a thorough transformation of public services.
We face four challenges. First, our ambitions face the challenge of scale. Thanks to the nature of our government, which is not federal like that of other countries, we are the most ambitious in scale in respect of the IT challenge, be it managing the huge IT estate systems of our recently merged revenue Departments, or creating and managing 60 million electronic health records across dozens of organisations.
Secondly, our ambitions face the challenge of efficiency. The public sector is estimated to spend about £14 billion a year on IT. Although IT itself can generate efficiencies, we must be vigilant that we are not wastefully duplicating infrastructure and applications.
Thirdly, our ambitions face the challenge of delivery. We mean to deliver. We have already delivered large change projects; for example, the payment of benefits directly into the bank accounts of 22 million citizens of our country. We are in the process of delivering innovation. NHS Direct is a world leader, with 1 million visitors and 650,000 calls a month.
While I accurately and fairly celebrate such success, I must also acknowledge some of the delivery failures of the past. These have dogged Governments of both colours over the years. That is an honest assessment, but let me be clear: the vast majority of Government IT systems work. They are managed and driven by dedicated public sector IT professionals. They deliver services all day, every day and every month throughout the year, but a small minority of projects have had problems under this and previous Administrations. As we advance our transformation, we will ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. I shall go into those paths in detail later, if time allows, but first I shall highlight what we are already doing to deliver and to challenge and overcome the generic causes of previous failure.
The Office of Government Commerce has done sterling work despite the recent criticisms: transferring generic techniques and lessons from better management of public sector construction projects; recognising and developing the skills of our work force; and putting in better monitoring, better management of suppliers, controls at portfolio level and capacity planning.
No doubt some here today will claim that the recent National Audit Office report on the OGC's gateway process is critical of current Government IT projects. The report does show, however, that since its creation the OGC has had a positive impact in improving Departments' IT procurement. In 2003–04, value-for-money savings from gateway reviews were an astonishing £730 million. That said, the OGC recognises that there is still work to do and improvements to be made to the Government's IT procurement.
Let me take this opportunity to put on the record a quote from another NAO report which states:
"This evidence indicates that the Gateway Review process is improving the procurement of IT, and that this should increase the likelihood of successful delivery."
We are serious about efficiency, but we are also serious about modernisation and we are deadly serious about providing better services that change the lives of real people throughout our communities.
The final challenge of our ambitions is relevancy. We live in a world in which the old political contract between a deferential citizen and a paternalistic Government cannot deliver. We want a more grown-up relationship. We recognise the need for citizens to have both choice and voice: choice in how they use public services and a voice in how those services are created around them. Choice for those whose voice is traditionally not heard in this debate is essential.
Thanks in part to IT, families, regardless of economic background, will be able to receive the same high level of service. IT can help to dismantle the barriers put up by producers and the geographic environment. For example, the Citizen Direct consumer helpline and website create a common process and single interface for trading standards offices throughout the country. All complainants receive the same high level of service, not just the service that can be afforded locally.
Let us consider the process of accessing NHS consultants. Reforms to NHS IT will help to ensure access to the right help for all who need it. "Choose and Book" will put the patient in control. The truth is that command public services today are no more acceptable than a command economy. The 21st century's expectations of public services are a world away from those of 1945 and 1995. People demand quality, choice and high standards because they experience and demand that in every other walk of life, and we must meet those expectations.
Turning to our transformation strategy, I am confident that we can meet those four challenges by taking a strategic approach to transformation, but how do we open up the system, break down its monoliths, and put parents, pupils and law-abiding citizens at the centre? That transformation will occur and will meet those objectives only if we centre services on customers, citizens and businesses. That will be further enabled as we share services throughout the public sector effectively and it will be underpinned by professionalism in the way in which we conduct our business.
Citizen-centred services can be built up only by systematically engaging and listening to citizens, businesses and the front line of public services, not by treating them as distant, downstream consumers of outputs. We need to fixate on the customers' behaviour, motivations and needs.
I again stress the importance of personal insight and carrying out research properly. Last month, I took the unusual step of trying to find out which is the most remote place in the UK where we could examine how people access Government services online. I went to the Outer Hebrides but decided that that was not far enough away or remote enough, so I went to an oil platform half way to Norway to see for myself how IT is enabling people to keep in contact with their onshore life while working offshore. E-mail use has become standard.
I was pleasantly surprised to meet a gentleman who was completing the application form for his son's driving licence, which was the way in which he maintained his contact as a father, despite being 150 km offshore. Intriguingly, I met another gentleman who is using Directgov and other Government portals to keep in touch with a planning dispute with his neighbour when he is halfway out in the North sea. When we talk about the way in which we access and enable access to Government services through IT, we really must think about much more than the traditional ways in which those services have been delivered previously.
As we strive for a good service, we must learn from others, not only from other public bodies. Importantly, we must learn from the private sector, just as it will increasingly copy some of our best practice. We must also look internationally. The Canadians are implementing changes and reforms that have been brought about by online consultation and feedback mechanisms.
We intend to create a customer insight panel, more details of which may appear in our IT strategy shortly. What I shall say now, however, is that the panel and other innovative techniques will generate actionable insight that will allow the Government to advance the agenda.
As we survey and seek that insight, we must always be sure that the results are representative. Market research companies find it difficult to get a cross-section of the community—perhaps because of their socio-economic or generational background—to participate. Other difficulties faced include some working-class communities, which have moved away from fixed lines towards low-cost mobile phones, and the refusal of some young people to participate in surveys. The customer insight panel must work carefully, so that we get a cross-section of all communities across the United Kingdom. It must not simply be an expression of the opinions of the most connected, the most vocal or, perhaps even, the most articulate.
All that aims for is the goal of personal service, which is tailored to an individual's needs and reflects a broader set of circumstances than the single dimension required by just one service provider. We may see new delivery chains being created through intermediaries and the citizens advice bureau. I am glad to see my hon. Friend Andrew Miller here today, because during the summer recess I had the opportunity to meet some of those intermediaries and voluntary organisations to discuss how they would like to see Government IT develop in the years to come. They provided a useful insight, which we might hear about from my hon. Friend, into how they would like to see Government IT focus on their needs and enable them to support the communities in which they work.
I shall now turn to the issue of shared services, which has attracted considerable attention in the media. It is the second of three key parts of our transformation strategy that I wish to address. The transformation to which we aspire will occur only if we adopt a new approach to joined-up service delivery across the public sector, one that will break down the silo culture of delivery. Departments that share corporate services such as HR and finance could create 20 per cent. efficiency savings.
Shared services also mean building more effective links between central Government and local government and the wider public sector. Some councils already share contact centres, which allow citizen questions to be answered first time and on the front line. I visited several of those during the summer recess, in south Lanarkshire, Tameside and elsewhere.
The final area that I wish to focus on is professionalism. Professionalism is at the heart of our transformation strategy. Mr. Hancock, I sense that many IT professionals have had a series of jobs rather than a clear career path. That must change. The nature of that change will be contained in our IT strategy when it is published.
The quality of our transformation depends on our empowered front-line staff ensuring that value is delivered in every call or client meeting. That quality also depends on those working behind the scenes. They require the skills to do the job that we encourage and ask them to do.
At programme level, we must also ensure that we have improved our professionals' capacity to plan, deliver, manage and govern our IT change. To that end, we shall lead a new approach to the Government IT profession. That approach will mobilise the IT professionals' skills, ideas and talents across public services. That will enable other professionals across the civil services, especially the front-line staff.
Overall, the focus on professionalism will increase citizen confidence in the effectiveness of our services, in the security of our services and in our ability to improve their real lives. Having outlined some of the challenges that we face in e-Government, Mr. Hancock, I wish to thank all hon. Members who are present. I look forward to their contributions, questions and observations.
While my hon. Friend the Minister was speaking, I was reflecting on the fact that it was some 35 years ago that I first sat under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock—although not in this place. I will not remind you of the event as you may rule me out of order. I was looking at this debate from the point of the view of the progress that has been made over recent years. We should not knock the significant steps that have been taken in unbelievably difficult circumstances. Few Parliaments and Governments have found perfect solutions. Indeed, none have. The ones that have made the most significant steps are ones that started with blank sheets of paper.
The new emerging democracies in central and eastern Europe have some interesting and innovative systems. At the Cabinet meetings in Estonia the system is so sophisticated that there are no papers. Estonia may only be the size of many of our county council areas, but it had the huge advantage of building systems around a design of democracy from the bottom up. We do not have that advantage, and therein lies the biggest single problem that we face in empowering our citizens in the complex processes of government.
My hon. Friend may have picked this up before, but one of his predecessors said in 1998:
"The vast majority of people do not differentiate between Central and Local Government services. I know this when I go to my surgeries—people don't know whether I am a councillor, an MP, the CAB or whatever. They come because they have a problem and all they want is a solution to that problem. And that just reflects that people do not live their lives in easily defined compartments. Better Government attempts to recognise this and aims to overcome those institutional barriers so that services can be delivered in ways that take account of real people's real lives."
That was the focus back then and it remains the focus of the work that is being undertaken inside Government. We should not underestimate the complexity of doing just that.
When I wrote a paper for the Government in 1998, the prime example that I used to illustrate success in this area was the Australian centrelink project. I still commend it to people as an exceptionally far-reaching project that has been able to provide services to people in small towns and remote areas in a comprehensive way. Again, the Australians had a couple of significant advantages. First, the population base was considerably smaller. Secondly, the infrastructure and the pipe work around the country was enormous and over-engineered by virtue of earlier decisions made by successive Governments. It was not deliberately planned that way; it just happened, and modern Governments exploited it well.
Centrelink, which was launched in September 1997, provides under one roof a range of customer services that were then parts of the Department of Family and Community Services, the Department of Education, Training and Youth Services, the Department of Health and Family Services and the Department of Primary Industries and Energy. Centrelink has expanded since then. The services are comprehensive: they are one-stop shops where citizens can get advice online from experienced office staff who provide front-end services to meet the needs of many people.
My hon. Friend's predecessor rightly asked why on earth citizens should know the details about the boundaries between the various levels of the state. The concept of single points of delivery at physical locations or through web-enabled solutions is, as a target, worth moving towards and pressing forward with. It requires a huge amount of political will, and, despite the sterling efforts of the Cabinet Office, there is still a lot to do. That includes knocking heads together. It also includes ensuring that the principles established in the e-envoy's office empower his team to bring together Departments to set common information and communications technology standards, ensure common routes by which people can get advice about designing systems, and stop the creation of stand-alone projects, except where essential.
Those recommendations were in my 1998 paper, which I still commend to my hon. Friend. Many things have happened and many positive things have emerged since, but politicians must make political decisions to ensure that through the exploitation of modern technologies we get the best out of the systems that we wish to create to serve the population.
My hon. Friend will recall that when he met people in my constituency, they did not simply draw boxes around and compartmentalise the lives of people whom they were seeking to assist. Whether it was the citizens advice bureaux, the Siroptomists or whoever else contributed to the discussion, people told us that they were considering the life chances and life events of people, and how they were addressed. They were unconcerned by the boundaries of Department A and Department B; they were looking for solutions. That must be the focus of the Government's activities.
I commend the approach adopted by Ian Watmore's team in the e-envoy office. It has built on some of the earlier work, and it now focuses on internal departmental issues. That must drive us towards consideration of our relationship with local government and the voluntary sector, because there is no point in reinventing the wheel. If systems can be brought together through a common delivery channel, that should happen. We should not be jealous of our little part of the system and protect our staff from the intrusion of other Departments. There should be genuine openness and sharing that begins with only one premise: what is the best way to deliver the appropriate level of service, which we have determined politically, to meet the customer's needs? One of the best ways of doing so is asking customers and I commend my hon. Friend for embarking on a programme of doing just that. We need to build up systems that do not include boundaries between central and local government or, indeed, between the voluntary and the private sector. We should not be afraid of creating common channels.
We need to remember that IT is just a tool. It has enormous potential to help us to improve the way in which we serve the citizens of this country, but if misused it can be a pain in the neck. We know that occasional mistakes have been made by successive Governments, and my hon. Friend was right to acknowledge that. No one made those mistakes through malice or stupidity; it is just that it is difficult to see the big picture because government is complex. Translating what seems like a brilliant idea for service delivery to one part of the population into something that comprehensively works and provides benefits for all Departments is easier said than done.
We should look with pride at some of the services that are up and running, which my hon. Friend gave as examples. We should tell Ministers to make sure that they work through the Cabinet Office, or the appropriate agency, to ensure that Departments learn from each other. No more projects should take place in isolation; we should have a co-ordinated approach. Let us see if it is possible to emulate some good ideas, such as centrelink, to provide a better service to the people we represent.
Speaking to people throughout the House, I do not think that there is an enormous political divide on the matter. There is a fear of the technology. Technology is merely the enabler; it is not the hard bit. The political will is the hard bit, and I urge my hon. Friend to take that message to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my right hon. Friend Mr. Hutton. I wish him every success in winning that argument in Cabinet, because the political will must stem from there.
In 1998, I argued for a Minister for IT for just this reason. I still happen to believe that that is necessary and I am not being disparaging to my hon. Friend, but it ought to be someone of Cabinet rank. He will certainly be in the Cabinet in the not-too-distant future. When he gets there, he should take this baton with him and knock heads together to ensure that we get the co-ordination necessary to get the best out of the technology.
This is my first speech in Westminster Hall, so I am not used to it yet. I hope hon. Members appreciate that and forgive me if I have any minor lapses.
I am pleased that the debate is being held because the subject is important and will grow in importance. In my constituency, and throughout all constituencies, groups of people could easily get left behind in this great movement. They are on lower incomes and from what we traditionally call working-class backgrounds. I want to concentrate on those people in particular, as well as making some general remarks. I will give examples from my constituency of when e-Government—in particular, when it involves local and national government coming together—would be helpful. I hope that it will be used in the near, rather than the distant, future. It is a necessary step that we are taking to put every citizen at the heart of government.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend Andrew Miller that government is difficult for people to understand—it is difficult for us new Members to understand, let alone our constituents. As he rightly said, we all know from the inquiries we receive that people misunderstand what is involved in local and national government. My post bag is always full of education questions and housing problems, which I take up cheerfully on behalf of my constituents. However, that demonstrates a misunderstanding of what we do here and what Swindon borough council does.
We should not underestimate the empowerment that e-Government could provide to the individual, to us in our jobs in Westminster, and to councillors in their jobs in Swindon and other areas. However, we have to overcome some necessary hurdles if e-Government is to close, rather than widen, the gap between the empowered and the powerless in society.
I represent South Swindon, which is well known as a hub of expertise in technology. I hope the Minister agrees that British-based firms are best placed to help us provide solutions in e-Government. I want to highlight the value of e-Government and the hurdles that we must overcome, and to urge the Government to procure more IT solutions from British businesses.
Research has revealed that the UK is increasingly becoming a digital nation. The number of British households with access to the internet has increased more than fivefold since 1998. The rate of that increase is an indicator of the growing importance of the technology. In the fourth quarter of 2004, more than half of British homes were connected to the internet. In 1998, the figure stood at just under one in 10.
Despite making strides in the number of people online, there are the problems of the socially excluded and of whether, by increasing the emphasis on the internet, we are not increasing the disempowerment of those who do not have access to it. We must endeavour not to create a two-tier system, with a technology-poor underclass. A study published last month for the Improvement and Development Agency—IDeA—warned that e-Government at both national and local level largely ignores the needs of hard-to-reach individuals and is failing to promote social inclusion adequately.
I think e-Government could help with a constituency problem that worries me. The Minister will no doubt be aware that one of the main indicators of social deprivation is the number of children on free school meals. Crucially, that is used to determine the funding that local authorities and schools receive. It also triggers many other funding streams and is one of the factors in a school's PANDA—that is not an animal that is under threat; it stands for performance and data analysis in schools. A school's PANDA is crucial. It is what its funding is based on and what it is judged on when it has inspections. It provides an indication of how well schools are doing in the league tables, how good their GCSE results are and so on.
In my constituency, as in those of other hon. Members, the local authority and schools quite rightly lobby me constantly about funding. Swindon is a low-funded local authority. It is in the bottom 40. We are all concerned to ensure that we continue to increase school funding, and not just the capital amounts, but the baseline funding too. I have explained to my local authority that another way of getting funding is to up the figure for children on free school meals, if it needs to review that.
However, there is a difficulty with that. Churchfields school in my constituency is for 11 to 16-year-olds. I ought to declare that I am a governor. The head teacher, Mr. Flavin, investigated the free school meals idea, as I suggested. Much to his dismay, he discovered that parents must fill in a complex form to qualify for them. As we know, many parents who come from deprived social backgrounds are either not willing or not able to do so, particularly those who have English as a second language. They must fill in a complex form and physically take it and their income support book across Swindon to Sandford house, which is one of the council's buildings. It can then take up to six months to process the application. It is no wonder that of the 350 parents—parents of one third of the roll—whom Churchfields has worked out are eligible for free school meals, only 133 have filled in the form.
The school plans to take action. It is thinking about sending teachers and staff to homes to help the parents fill in the forms and also to tell them that they do not have to take up the school meal if they do not want to, but that it would help with funding. I do not know whether those plans have been completely formulated.
The school is seriously disadvantaged. It is not judged in the way that it should be—on its results—and it receives less funding, as does my local authority. How much easier it would be for the teachers, the school, the parents and the children if there were an e-Government system that enabled the form to be filled in online, the council to receive it immediately and action to be taken immediately. After all, that funding does not come out of the local authority's pocket but straight from the Government. Of course, we may have a problem later if more children are on free school meals and the funding increases, but I am sure that we will be able to find a solution to it.
We must consider that type of problem and think about how we can use technology to offer a solution to the schools and to the children in my constituency and throughout the country.
My hon. Friend should also reflect on the fact that the data that are required for those people to qualify for free school meals already exist in some part of the state. One of the questions is why there should be a wretched form in the first place.
My hon. Friend reminds me of one of the difficulties. Social services claims that the Data Protection Act 1998 forbids it from using information that it already has in the system. [Interruption.] I am glad that hon. Members are indicating that that is not so. I shall have conversations with them outside the Chamber to determine whether we can advance this initiative in South Swindon.
I was pleased to visit the citizens advice bureau in Swindon during the summer recess. I was impressed with how it uses e-technology to help people quickly and efficiently. It can get everything, including all the briefings, online. Its staff use touch screens. I was most impressed by that and wish that I had such a system for my advice surgeries. We could all give a better response to our constituents in the short time that we have if we had such technology at our fingertips. I would love to access it. Getting broadband and getting into my e-mails was quite difficult during the summer. This place must make some advances if we are to access that technology.
More generally, I note that the UK has slipped down a rung in the e-Government league table. I am sorry about that. This year it stood at joint 10th position in the annual rankings, down one place from last year. I am sure that the Minister will push for it to go up even higher next year. As he stated, Canada leads the way, followed by the United States. Interestingly, in the US, where one might expect people to be more internet-savvy, four in 10 citizens surveyed by the Pew internet study responded that they would rather use the telephone than the internet to pursue inquiries. So, even in countries where internet sites are most attractive and easy to use, there is still a problem with public trust. There is a great deal of work to do with the most deprived people in my constituency to boost their confidence and trust in IT.
Hon. Members raised some interesting points at Question Time yesterday. For example, the Government were urged to intervene to procure more of their IT solutions from British businesses. I wish to associate myself with that. As I said, Swindon has always been at the forefront of e-solutions, with examples such as the Cable and Wireless internet solutions centre and, of course, Intel.
We know that the barriers between people and technology can be broken down—that is how we have all ended up using mobile phones. We all remember the "bricks" that were first used by builders—so the apocryphal stories went—in the 1980s, but the phones are different now. Swindon businesses have always been at the forefront of the technology, and so they are best placed to break down some of the barriers between people and e-Government. I thank the Minister for trying to get to South Swindon during the summer recess. It could not quite be managed, but my door is always open, as is South Swindon's. I know that the Cabinet Office will be launching a web-based portal to enable innovation by those who want to work with the Government. I will ensure that businesses in my constituency that wish to take part receive details of that.
The Government have made a commitment to raising IT standards throughout our schools and that is borne out in Swindon. I take a special interest in education and have made it my business to visit most of the schools in South Swindon. I have seen some wonderful information and communications technology suites during my frequent visits, and I pay tribute to the Government for releasing the funding to ensure that such things are developed.
Access to ICT facilities has been improved for pupils, parents and the local community in that way. In Swindon there is an average computer to pupil ratio of approximately 1:8 in primary schools and 1:5 in secondary schools, which is very good. With the IT revolution happening in our education system, and citizenship classes—at last—returning knowledge of government to our schools, perhaps there is an opportunity to combine the two so that the next generation can begin to harness e-Government technology, whatever background they are from. However, I leave hon. Members with the frightening thought that we may all have to take a course in text language to understand the inquiries that come in from our younger constituents.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for introducing the debate today, in which we are all endeavouring to give our expert advice on the thorny issue of e-Government. I also thank the Minister for taking the time out from his busy schedule, as he mentioned earlier, to visit Ochil and South Perthshire during the recess. During that visit he discussed with a group of my constituents their experience of IT and of e-Government. I believe that we are addressing a fundamental issue in this debate. If people have no ability or opportunity to use IT, they will never use e-Government services. I shall spend a few moments speaking about that matter before moving on.
In the group of my constituents who spoke to the Minister during the summer, a fair number of elderly people had no first-hand experience of IT, and some made it clear that they had no intention of ever having any such experience. From experienced users we heard the well-rehearsed argument—as the Minister acknowledged earlier—that websites are often not user-friendly, and that many seem to be designed with little or no thought for the user or the users' varying levels of ability. That is important, because if we are to encourage the IT-deprived parts of our communities to dip their toes into the water, we want them to have a good experience, not a bad one that could result in their never returning. All website designers, whether in the private sector or in the Government, have a real duty to present services in a straightforward manner. That can be done; there are some excellent sites out there, but there are also some absolutely frightful ones.
Access to computers was another issue raised with the Minister during his visit to my constituency. Many people cannot afford their own computer or the charges made by internet service providers. What are the Government doing to widen the availability of IT, especially to the old or disabled?
Moving on to e-Government, the Minister will not be surprised to hear that some of my constituents believe that the Government do not yet match the IT opportunities provided in the private sector. The private sector sites seem to be much more approachable and inviting than traditional Government sites. I was delighted to hear from the Minister, during this debate and yesterday, about the launch of the Government IT portal, which allows access to all e-Government services from one point of entry. The Minister is aware that I have been calling for that for some time. It will benefit businesses and the general public, but we must get the message across in simple, understandable language that the portal creates faster, more efficient services.
However, we must also provide human assistance for users who have difficulties with online services to resolve their problems and reassure them. There is still significant distrust of the medium in large sectors of the population. When people deal with the Government online, or in any form, they are often providing sensitive information that they hold dear.
The Government's targets are, first, to make access available to all those who want it by 2005—this is 2005, and I do not believe that we have reached that point yet—and secondly, to make all Government services available online by 2005. We have heard about the steps that the Government are taking towards that goal. We have heard about the launch of the portal, which will provide such access, and I congratulate the Minister on that step forward. I hope that the move will allay the criticism made in the European Commission's Eurostat report of May 2005. However, we have a long way to go. More people visit the BBC's and The Guardian's websites than visit Government websites. Although 31 per cent. of businesses access Government information online, 46 per cent. in Australia and 96 per cent. in Sweden do so. Only 3 per cent. of the public in the UK have sent forms in online, whereas in Luxembourg, the figure is 21 per cent.
I refer to what the present Minister for Europe, my right hon. Friend Mr. Alexander, told the House in 2003, when he was Minister at the Cabinet Office. He said that Canada, through its single citizen portal, was the clear world leader in the field. That remark has been reinforced once or twice today. Although we still have progress to make, we are getting there. People can now report a crime online through a well-designed and user-friendly site, which is excellent. People can complain to trading standards, as we heard from the Minister. People can report benefit fraud online, complete income tax self-assessment online—if they really want to—locate childcare online, or apply to university online. I believe that over 160,000 did so in 2003.
People can claim winter fuel payments online, buy a television licence online, or apply for a passport online—some 64,000 people do so every year. However, we must go further. Could we not expect to pay our council tax online? Should we not all, as patients, always have the ability to book appointments with our GPs and specialists online? Should we not be able to complete forms online, rather than just printing them out for completion by hand, which is often the case with certain sites?
I know only too well from running a small business how difficult it is to keep abreast of good practice and legal requirements. I commend the Department of Trade and Industry on its recent introduction of a scheme designed to make such information easily available to people who run a small business. I urge the Government to promote it even further, because in the small business sector, a lot of people do not know that the service exists.
I welcome every co-ordinated step that we take to increase the range of Government services available via the web, but we must ask ourselves whether we are doing enough to improve access for the elderly, disadvantaged and disabled people who are major users of Government services. Many of those people are computer literate, but we must also take into account those who are not. For example, are the 6,000 UK online centres doing their job right? Are there enough of them? What assistance is there for users with special needs—people who have difficulty with a form, users whose sight is impaired, or someone who gets into difficulty? People need to be assured that online applications are the same as the paper applications that can be obtained from the post office or from another source. We must ensure parity of presentation and information.
I urge the Minister and the Government to do more, at a pace. Yes, the potential is huge, but we must get it right by making online services every bit as understandable as the traditional form, or even more understandable. We have a great opportunity in that respect; the potential for growth is huge, but we must not stifle it by providing insufficient opportunity for today's customers.
As I said to the Minister when he visited Alloa in my constituency recently and heard about people's online shopping experiences, this is a transient phase but one that we cannot afford to lose. We can go into any school today and see tomorrow's generations of e-Government users, but let us not miss the opportunity to help today's users.
I, too, welcome the opportunity to debate this issue and I commend my hon. Friend the Minister for his remarks. Those who are not participating in the debate may feel that those who are doing so are a bunch of IT nerds and sad techies, but I have no IT knowledge whatever, as my hon. Friend Andrew Miller will confirm; he has just had to fix my pager.
The debate is not about IT itself but about having a passion for transforming public services so that they can be delivered to those who need them most in the most appropriate way for those citizens. It is deeply political and central to what this Government are about. We tend to lose that point in some of the debates that go into techie language on the minutiae of portals and so on.
There is passion in Government, and I commend the funding. Way back in 1997 when we talked about e-Government the deeply cynical said there would never be enough investment, but there is more than enough investment. In the most deprived part of my community, Bury Park, along one street—Dunstable road—there are at least four or five IT centres. Every school is so IT-connected that one cannot move for the number of up-to-date white boards, computers and every IT gadget one can imagine.
The Government's passion for delivering the agenda is proven; we have delivered on our target. People say that the Government produce targets but do not deliver, but here we are. We will achieve our target of 100 per cent. services online by the end of the year and the expected £1.2 billion in efficiency savings by 2007–08. That is also to be commended. It is fundamentally recognised by the Government that a transformation agenda has not only produced those efficiencies but can deliver the quality services that our citizens deserve.
Hon. Members will forgive me if I sound a little frustrated; as leader of Lewisham council, prior to entering the House, I was one of the people who were advocating and delivering the e-Government agenda in the mid-1990s when some of it was not fashionable. When I was leader, Lewisham was one of the first councils to deliver online, joined-up services. My background was in housing; we recognised that the delivery of housing benefit to the most deprived people was appalling. How could a Labour council justify delivering some of the worst services to those who were most in need? We set out about joining up our housing benefit services online, linking housing and the Department of Social Security. There were issues of data sharing, but we fought through them to ensure that that service went from very poor to excellent.
Leadership and passion need to be shown in local government to prove that such things can be done, rather than falling back on the sometimes simplistic argument that things cannot be done because of data sharing and various other "can't-dos". This is a can-do agenda and I know that one thing the Minister will be doing is driving that passion and enthusiasm and the can-do agenda through e-Government.
We have to ask ourselves, however, whether we have gone far enough in some of the things that the Minister said he wants to achieve. Have we gone far enough in central and local government to break down silos? The old departmental-itis is still with us. I get very frustrated, particularly when local authorities tell me gleefully that their services are online, but they are not joining them up. Have we identified what "online services" or the 100 per cent. target mean?
My local council in Luton claims almost to have met its target because it has set up a brand-new call centre. Actually, the response times in that call centre, as external auditors have shown, are appalling. The quality of service is not good, but the council is able to tick the box to say that it has online services. There is something fundamentally wrong not only in the definition of e-Government services, but in the quality of those services.
Have we done enough to make e-Government citizen focused? I want to return to that. Have we done enough to ensure, as other hon. Members have said, that the services reach the people who need them most and not just the usual suspects, giving them another opportunity to lobby for the extra services in the way that they lobby already and a greater advantage in access to services? Citizen-focused service delivery is essential, and the quality framework for UK Government website design and human-centred design standards have been successful. Their use should be the norm rather than the exception for central and local government.
Have we done enough to achieve the wired society? That is one of our big challenges. Like other colleagues, I have argued for some time for one IT Minister, not simply because we want excellent people such as the Minister here to be in elevated positions, although we do, but because there is more to the e-Government agenda than simply local and central government. We should be looking to a wired society.
Those of us who visited Canada many years ago saw how schools were joined up to skills training, education and service delivery. There was a unified offer to citizens not only for delivery of certain services, but across the board, including the voluntary sector. When we went to Canada, its greatest claim to fame was the online moose hunting licence. Perhaps that was not the best example to show us in those days. Nevertheless, the vision was good. We need to consider how we can make maximum use of all our IT opportunities for all our citizens and not just those in public service delivery.
Have we done enough on the take-up of IT services? As has been mentioned, we have slipped down the league table slightly. There was a little thing called the general election, which may have taken our eye off the ball slightly. We must ensure that we are up there with the leaders—the US, Canada and the Nordic countries—and we have much more to do to ensure that online services are the preferred channel in the UK. We have to admit that in the course of this project we have not always been wholly successful at ensuring that Government sites are the most exciting and accessible. Let us be blunt; in many cases, they have been difficult and boring. Until the UK matches other Governments, let alone the private sector, in terms of quality, efficiency and accessibility, we will not reap the full benefits of e-Government.
Social exclusion has been referred to, and it is at the heart of everything I have been involved with in terms of this agenda. It is important for the Government to realise that large numbers of people who have contact with them are elderly or disabled. For many of those people, using conventional keyboards and equipment is very difficult. If one adds to that a complicated and ill-designed online system, clearly the appeal of the system is diminished.
More elderly people are going online; indeed, the number is growing exponentially. However, in terms of the social exclusion agenda, we must ensure that they are not excluded because of the lack of simple and accessible systems, systems that are simple enough for us—MPs such as me—to be able to access.
I do not believe in the arguments about the digital divide being impossible to resolve. The social exclusion agenda that I see increases social exclusion. I was involved in one of the first online discussions between parliamentarians and citizens about issues of concern. It was a project called WomenSpeak and involved survivors of domestic violence. We made it our target to reach those who were least likely to have any contact with any agency.
By definition, survivors of domestic violence are in that position but, even beyond that, we asked who was least likely to have any contact with any agency and least likely to go online. We extended the outreach and the first survivors online were a group of Irish women travellers in the north of England. The second group was Bangladeshi women in Luton in my constituency. People said that it would be impossible to set up such a project, but it was not and its success is that those Bangladeshi mums are still online using school facilities and have skilled themselves. Most did not have English as a first language and their lives consisted of home, school and nothing else. They are now IT literate and have access to a world that was not previously available to them and to skills and opportunities that were not previously available to them. Far from creating a greater digital divide, IT can increase access and opportunities in a way that we must pursue with even greater vigour.
Reference has been made to the problem of confidence in our IT systems and, like other colleagues, I think we must do a great deal more to ensure that we build that confidence. I have heard it said that the fragility of confidence in the delivery of Government systems is such that we are only a scandal away from another meltdown. That is the popular perception of where we are with Government IT systems and service delivery.
We must remember that some of our IT transformation projects are the largest of any Government anywhere in the world. Goodness knows, the Department for Work and Pensions has some problems, but the level of transformation and the IT projects are enormous. Of course, we must address the failures, but, like other colleagues, I think we should commend those projects that have been successful. As chair of EURIM—the European Information Society Group—I am pleased to say that we are undertaking to bring forward and highlight those Government projects that have been successful and have been delivering e-Government but are not generally acknowledged.
Are we delivering the services that people want? I have referred to the departmental silos that still exist in central and local government. There is still too little joined-up service delivery. I had a vision about four years ago, which I presented to the then Minister, when I said, "This is your challenge. If you can deliver this"—we have not—"you will have cracked joined-up online services." It was an idea for survivors of domestic violence to be able to report and resolve their problems online. Why should a survivor of domestic violence have to visit their housing benefit office, housing office and social security, as well as trail their kids to the education service and, perhaps, Citizens Advice at a time of absolute crisis and homelessness? I will throw that challenge to the Minister again. Those who need our services most should benefit most from a joined-up online service provision.
I wonder whether what we are doing is far too much top-down, rather than bottom-up. I sometimes despair of local government recreating its services as they are online without any transformation. I have seen it far too often. I have also despaired at the lack of citizens' involvement. I commend the Minister for his comments about ensuring that we have citizens' involvement and feedback. We urgently need online feedback loops. We urgently need online consultation. We have to ensure that e-democracy is integral to this e-Government offer. That is a completely different debate but one that is essential if we are to have ongoing improvements in service delivery.
If our citizens are to have choice, as well as receiving services online, they need to be able to tell us online whether those services meet their needs and what else they feel is appropriate. We should look more at whether some of the large resources going into local government need to go into the community organisations and social enterprises who are doing the bottom-up, joined-up service delivery.
I am trying to get funding for a project in my constituency called Click Bury Park, a service that is being designed online by young Pakistani and Bangladeshi men who have the highest unemployment rate in my constituency. They are designing a one-stop service shop so that people in the Bangladeshi and Pakistani community who are most deprived and who are least likely to access a range of services can find information about those services on one portal in their languages and in an accessible form.
That is the community doing it for itself. It is about regeneration, access to services, information and training those young people. It brings all sorts of benefits. They want to do e-democracy. They want to talk about forced marriages online. That is the sort of innovative project that we should support. But because it does not fit in a box, the funding streams do not allow it to be funded. There is something seriously wrong when we have a system under which one bit can be funded, but not another.
Just before the general election, I took a young woman who represented a group called MumsOnline to see the then Minister for Women. That group is doing the precisely the same kind of work. I would agree with my hon. Friend. I commend the notion of finding potential voluntary sector or not-for-profit partners who could be the agency for delivery of Government information services to a particular community of interests, be that a group of young Pakistanis or the much broader group of young mothers that could be scattered all around the country. This concept needs to be re-examined by central Government.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. If we are to get greater innovation and choice, citizens have to be involved in creating and delivering those services online. That is the way to ensure greater take-up of services online. Partnership working is key. The Government have referred to partnership working in terms of larger IT companies joining with smaller companies or social enterprises. That is a new announcement and I am slightly cynical; I wait to see the delivery on that. There are issues around joint procurement as well as joint service delivery.
Importantly, citizens themselves must design and build some of those services. That is the way in which we will truly achieve e-Government. It will be achieved, in particular, through those people who most need the services being able to ensure that they receive the services that they need and, preferably, to take part in the project; designing it and obtaining that choice of public service delivery that the Minister is determined to achieve.
I agree with Margaret Moran that there is some risk of our being accused of being nerds. I was described as an "anorak" by the Liberal Democrat Whips office not only for agreeing to speak in the debate but for having it in my diary before I was asked.
Indeed, Mr. Hancock, it is deeply sad. I confess to having a background in database marketing, mainly for national charities' fundraising departments, and to being an early adopter of gadgets. I represent a constituency that is a leader in the field of database-driven marketing, which is one variety of IT.
What were once called new technologies are fast becoming mainstream. My wife and I found our house on the internet; we bought our car, booked our holiday, pay all our bills and do our weekly shop on the internet. One much-loved old technology after another, from analogue TV broadcasting to 35 mm camera film, is set to be overtaken by the digital revolution. The distinctions between our phones, our cameras, our computers, diaries, radios, alarm clocks and notepads are fast disappearing as technologies converge and overlap. Several hon. Members have mentioned, however, that not everybody is included in this revolution; the less technically literate, the less well-off and some older people are excluded from it.
An interesting statistic from the Office for National Statistics shows that although home internet access for the UK population as a whole is about 50 per cent., it is 89 per cent. in the highest income decile and only 15 per cent. for households in the poorest income decile. That statistic can be addressed only partly by making IT more available. Margaret Moran said that this also involves, for instance, making websites more simple, understandable and user-friendly, and involving the user in their design. I agree with that, but we must always have the fallback of human or paper-based options for those people who, for whatever reason, are resistant to the use of IT and may never be able to access it in the same way as others.
From my own marketing background, I am acutely aware of the potential and the risks of this revolution. When visible to the consumer, information and communications technology offers the opportunity, to paraphrase the Government's e-Government strategy,
"of transforming the experience of users of goods and services, enhancing their delivery, and radically widening access both to goods, services and information."
There are plenty of good examples of that.
I have used the Inland Revenue's self-assessment process and it is a good example of how the online system can be made more user friendly than the paper form, because it rather brilliantly does the maths for you. Another example, which I am glad that Gordon Banks briefly mentioned, is university admissions. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service is based on the edge of my constituency, and the Minister is welcome to come to Cheltenham to see a superb example of an online system.
UCAS—the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service—is moving towards a 100 per cent. electronic application, and it has created a system that is continually updated in real time, so that students applying for universities can check the day-to-day progress of their application. The system will provisionally allocate places as it proceeds. It is quicker to use; it makes managing applications easier and less time-consuming; and it is more flexible and more accurate. UCAS says:
"As the electronic age becomes part of our lives, young adults demand facilities online."
It told me quietly that that was less true of some of the academics handling the applications, but that only reinforces the point that some people need support in using IT.
UCAS makes it clear that although it is aiming for 100 per cent. online application, it will always be able to provide at the very least a printed-out form. The form does not even have to go to a printing company but can simply be run off as needed. A paper-based alternative will always be available as a fallback.
Another good example is NHS Direct. It followed the good commercial example of HSBC's First Direct, which has been a pioneer in using information technology in a people-friendly way, first with its phone lines and then moving on to a user-friendly online presence. After 1989, First Direct set a world-class example that has been followed by bafflingly few commercial companies. Many companies are far more willing to leave people with menus of choices, something that approximates to recorded music and blind alleys that they get caught in after endless loops.
It is interesting that one of First Direct's latest innovations is a webchat service for online banking, thus reintroducing the human element. I hasten to add that I am not pitching for a corporate donation to the Liberal Democrats from HSBC. The new service could even extend to face-to-face contact online. The company is trying to make the systems more human, not less. Too many companies have taken the opposite path. I hope that the Government will take note and do the same with NHS Direct.
The example of commercial database-driven marketing is that what is invisible to the consumer also matters a great deal. In marketing today, professionals can choose to analyse personal data from three main sources. Each source can be overlaid on the others to target consumers with a degree of refinement that sends marketers into ecstasy but might well scare many consumers. First, geodemographic data based on census information place people in hundreds of market segments based on postcode, age, gender and social characteristics. The result is hundreds of standard market segments, from corporate chieftains to bedsit beneficiaries, from fledgling nurseries to burdened optimists. The company Experian offers its clients categories such as small-town seniors, who are defined as mixed populations of lower-income pensioners and middle-income workers who live in second-tier seaside resorts and small semi-rural communities. Its groups are that specific, and it has 242 others on offer.
Such bought-in data can be overlaid on in-house transactional data, whether on product usage, purchase or membership patterns, order values or inquiry patterns, and then perhaps overlaid again on attitudinal information gleaned from consumer surveys. If precise information on an individual is not available, it can be inferred and projected on to them—roughly speaking, by assuming that a person is somewhat like their neighbour, either their geographical neighbour or their neighbour in terms of transactional patterns. That is all very entertaining when the worst mishap that can befall someone is not to be targeted with a particular variety of nappy or marmalade. It is less funny when it prevents someone from getting an affordable mortgage or insurance, especially if the data are wrong or misleading, or if they result in the targeting of less sophisticated consumers by less scrupulous companies.
The reason I raise the issue is that, in theory, all that wonderful information manipulation is available to the Government too. The right data pattern in the wrong government hands could trigger not the offer of a sale but an extra level of surveillance, for instance. It is no wonder that data protection and privacy legislation and action are so essential and that freedom of information rights need to be so jealously guarded. Otherwise, we would have a dramatic shift in the balance of power between the state and the individual. Therefore, the Government should take note when their own advisers issue dramatic warnings. The Minister may guess the example that I am about to quote, which is the Information Commissioner's concern about the Identity Cards Bill. [Interruption.]
I believe that the Information Commissioner is an adviser to the Government, in one context. A document from the Information Commissioner's Office states:
"The extent of the information retained as a core part of the National Identity Register is unwarranted and intrusive, the system of operation envisaged by the government also raises additional serious concerns. The government proposes that a data trail should be created of when a card is checked against the National Identity Register. This will show who checked it and when . . . thus building up a picture of an individual's card use and a detailed picture from this of how they live their lives."
In marketing terms, that is transactional data.
There are other areas in which we must proceed with some caution.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept, given his expertise and his particular constituency, that the state has, for many years, had the power to engage in the type of surveillance about which he is concerned? Indeed, the technology that marketeers use is based, for example, on work that Ordnance Survey does. Therefore the power is there, but is not the hon. Gentleman sufficiently confident in the robustness of the democratic process in this country to be certain, as I am, that no Government would abuse that power?
I wish I were, but the Information Commissioner is worried. In his detailed submissions on the Identity Cards Bill, he pointed out that it was not necessary to identify people to maintain that register at national level. We should at least be on our guard. As I said at the beginning, I did not argue against ever holding such data at Government level. It should be ensured, however, that rules on data protection, freedom of information and access to people's records are in place. If there is no need for a national identity register database such as has been proposed, I would warn against it.
It is right to encourage e-procurement. The Gershon report anticipated local government year-on-year savings of about 2.5 per cent. over the next few years. We must be cautious in expecting those savings all to be delivered exactly as planned. Cheltenham borough council found the implementation of e-procurement a little clumsy. There was a slightly simplistic expectation of predictable savings in exchange for new technology investment grants. Councillors were also concerned that the pattern of procurement might shift from smaller local suppliers to larger companies that were better able to exploit the e-procurement system. The Government's Authority Forum backed that up by saying:
"There could be other unforeseen problems with making changes to back office processes such as procurement systems."
Martin Scarfe, who represents one of the councils that participates in the Authority Forum, said:
"I could take 2.5 per cent. off the budget tomorrow by insisting on e-procurement, but what would happen? I would take £10 million out of the local economy, because small and medium-sized businesses here are not geared up to it. Sometimes councils have to make local choices."
The warning is reinforced by the Federation of Small Businesses. I found what it said slightly surprising and alarming:
"More than four out of five small businesses use the Internet"
—so one in five does not—
"and this use is mainly for email purposes. We believe that form-filling etc should be easier with the advent of e-government."
"The Gershon report recommended moving local authority procurement online by the end of 2005. This could have a serious impact on SMEs, who trade with government already but do not have online facilities, or who wish to trade with government, but again, do not have the appropriate online facilities. SMEs who currently trade with government without online facilities will almost certainly lose work."
That is a challenge not to abandon e-procurement but to pay special attention to smaller businesses' needs and to support them in adapting to an inevitable new era. There is an example in my constituency. I recently went into a small bookshop that was closing down. My assumption was that the huge new Ottakar's around the corner or the huge Waterstone's in the town centre had taken all its business. I was wrong—it was Amazon. If that bookshop had been more geared up online and had marketed itself locally for online book purchases, it might have survived.
Some critical thought must be applied to information and communications technology. E-democracy is another exciting, modern idea. Piloted in 2002, it clearly has some benefits. The "UK online annual report 2002", commenting on the e-voting pilot in St. Albans, states:
"As a result of piloting e-voting and counting, the election result in St Albans was announced just four minutes after the polls closed."
That would not produce quite the same atmosphere on election nights as we are all used to, but we would get to bed a little earlier—or our parties would start a little earlier, depending on the result. The Electoral Commission concluded that there was no evidence that fears of fraud were realised in practice. However, I should be interested to know how it knew that. Having anonymous people voting online seems to be open to great risks. Some of the experience of technical glitches in the US voting machines, some of which are not just electric and mechanical but electronic, should give us pause. Sometimes it is better to look for simpler solutions. If the Government want to boost turnout in elections, they might experiment with voting at weekends, which might boost turnout without the possible threat to public trust in election systems that e-technology might introduce.
If I am beginning to sound conservative, it is partly due to my experience of IT systems. I was once assured by an academic that the trend in database technology was for cost to go constantly down and capacity to go constantly up, and that I should just wait, as it would inevitably mean that I would be able to get a system of infinite capacity at zero cost. My experience is rather the opposite: almost every IT project that I have looked at has had at least a tendency to go up in both cost and time scale. I am sure that the Minister will agree with that.
As one hon. Member warned, the complexity of systems and of government means that some of the savings that we anticipate may not be delivered in practice. Anne Snelgrove said that the Government were expecting more than £1 billion of savings from e-Government by 2008, but it would be wise not to start spending that money too soon.
There is great potential in e-Government. It has the potential to extend consultation and to empower people. I have an example from the voluntary sector, which has been mentioned. I used to work for the Alzheimer's Society, which changed its research programme in an effort to make it less dominated by scientists and medics and more directly influenced by carers and people with dementia. One of the systems that was adopted was for researchers to place their research proposals on an intranet, and carers and people with dementia logged on, reviewed them and posted their comments. It was on the basis of those comments that the society looked to award grants. The researchers said that that was a far more scary process than being reviewed by their medical and scientific peers, because they had to ensure that the language that they used was accessible and understandable. It resulted in a change in the nature of the research programme because it directed research more towards the priorities of carers and people with dementia, not what was most exciting from an intellectual point of view for the medical and scientific people.
So there is a real potential to empower people, but there is, as we have already explored, the potential for a digital divide and for people to be excluded. We must be careful, especially where consultation is a tool for important decision-making, that IT does not exclude people, particularly those in the lower social income groups.
Productivity may increase, and there are many welcome projects under way that we support, such as the Government gateway and the legal online information database, which help productivity in Government. However, productivity does not always deliver savings; it sometimes just generates more work. As we all know from our e-mail systems, the much-vaunted day of the paperless office—which would mean that we all had lots of free time and much less communication to handle because we did it so efficiently—has not arrived. In practice, it just means that we have 198 e-mails every morning.
E-Government and information and communications technology may deliver greater productivity, more empowerment, more knowledge and a better citizen, or customer, satisfaction. It may deliver great cost savings. However, it demands vigilance to ensure that, in the process, we do not exclude a new technological minority, or allow Government to acquire power at the expense of the individual to an extent undreamt of in previous eras.
The amazing thing about the debate is that IT is all-pervasive in this country, yet the Minister tells us that this is the first debate on it in this House. That is utterly astonishing, and the debate is very welcome. Another thing that is welcome is that those colleagues who have spoken obviously have a deep knowledge of the subject and a passion for it. It has been a fascinating and impressive debate. I was in two minds about whether to come at first, but I am delighted that I did.
E-Government has become central to the life of the country and has produced some valuable benefits. I can give an example from Hampshire, the county from which I happen to come. Hampshire county council recently won the best project in the "Government to citizen" category of the Government computing BT awards for innovation—you will be well aware of that, Mr. Hancock. It beat off competition from Lancashire, Preston, Renfrewshire and West Sussex.
The council came up with a project called occupational therapy direct, which was launched last January. The project handles requests for occupational therapy services from citizens, social services and health care professionals from across the country. Rather than waiting to see a therapist in person, patients call an 0845 number and speak to a trained adviser, who uses workflow software to work out the help that the patient needs. It can be anything from advice on equipment to booking an appointment with a therapist. There were huge benefits. The project has saved the therapists time and has cut waiting lists by 35 per cent. Some 45 per cent. of referrals are now dealt with directly in the service centre. Therapists can concentrate on those things for which they are most needed, and better targeting of care means that elderly patients have a better quality of life.
The project has been a success all round and it is not the only success story in Hampshire. East Hampshire district council has developed a geographical information system, which was mentioned in this month's Butler Group Review. It is an information system that allows individuals to download aerial views by entering a postcode. They can see the landscape in great detail. People use the views to see their nearest police station, fire station, schools and shops. A company called Get Mapping, based in Hartley Wintney in my constituency, is surveying the whole country and combining the information that it produces by its aerial photography with the most incredibly detailed on-the-ground maps from which people can get a huge amount of useful information.
A great deal of useful work is being done to collect information. Andrew Miller looks as though he disagrees.
Far from it. I congratulate Get Mapping on providing a fantastic service. It is a business model that should be considered by all sorts of people who are thinking about how to improve the delivery of services. When I required a map of my area, I bought it on a Sunday and it was delivered electronically to me 10 minutes later. That is a wonderful service.
The point that the right hon. Gentleman makes about geographical information system services is precisely the point that I was trying to make to Martin Horwood about the importance of the work undertaken by Ordnance Survey.
I am delighted by what the hon. Gentleman says about Get Mapping. I agree with him and hope that it can expand as it deserves to.
Much more is potentially available—for example, in education. People tend to say that young people spend far too much of their time on computers nowadays. They may do so, but that is not a threat; it is an opportunity to allow young people, and older people, to learn things in exciting ways that have never been available before. It is not a problem at all that people spend time on computers, provided that they do not spend too much time and become addicted to some of the games to which, I am afraid, I sometimes get addicted.
The particular game that I am completely addicted to is "Civilization". It is the most fantastically educational game, which teaches us, in ways that I never expected, about history and how societies advance.
A very valuable website, ePolitix, has given Martin Horwood—the hon. Member for GCHQ, if I can refer to him as that—and I some useful briefing. It referred to the fact that the eZeSchools network has found that education can make huge advances through e-Government, and I am delighted that it has.
Having said how valuable e-Government can be, there are nevertheless dangers and risks of which we must be aware and guard against. Much is being done in e-Government and we rely heavily on computers; nowadays even our fridges, telephones and cars have chips in them. If those technologies come under attack from outside through hacking or cyber warfare, the risk to the coherence of our society is serious because of the pervasive dependence on information technology.
I am lucky enough to be a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee—I am its resident geek—and I have constantly raised the fact that critical national infrastructure relies heavily on information technology. I worry that we do not spend enough time on, or have enough fear of, the ways in which critical national infrastructure is vulnerable to attack from outside.
In 2004 the Intelligence and Security Committee said:
"We recommend that the threat to the UK's Critical National Infrastructure and vulnerability to electronic and other attacks should be examined by the JIC and considered by Ministers."
While we rely so heavily on information technology, it is essential that we protect that technology.
My second concern about our reliance on information technology was mentioned in the excellent speech of the hon. Member for Cheltenham. There is a worry about fraud in voting systems, for example. Margaret Moran said that we need to move forward with e-democracy. However, if we are so concerned about postal voting—I am sure that those concerns have not been cleared up; we are still worried about the amount of fraud there could have been as a result of the all-postal ballots—consider how much more difficult it will be to guard against fraud in internet voting. Following the Minister's excellent opening speech, can he reassure us that the Government will not go down that road unless they are absolutely certain that they have guarded against fraud in a better way than they did with postal voting?
May I commend to the right hon. Gentleman, in his capacity as a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, the work that is being undertaken by the Information Assurance Advisory Council, chaired by Dame Pauline Neville-Jones? The council brings together the private sector and Government agencies, including some with which he has been connected through his work on the Committee, to address some of the issues and to help protect information systems by sharing private sector knowledge and Government information. He is right that we must not underestimate the importance of that kind of work.
The hon. Gentleman is right. The work that the IAAC does is fantastic. It brings together the Government and business in a way that is a model of its kind. I hope that the Government listen to the warnings that the IAAC produces. It does some valuable work in seminars and, when I can go to its meetings, I do, because I am a geek, and they are fascinating.
We need to protect and guard against attack from outside and fraud. However, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham said, we also need to guard against invasions of privacy by the Government. In that context, I became more worried than I usually am about the comments made by Andrew Miller. In referring to whether children were eligible for free school meals, he said that all the information is already somewhere in the Government network, and could be drawn together. Indeed it could, but people in the UK get worried if they give information to the Government for one purpose and it gets used for another.
In that regard, the points that the hon. Member for Cheltenham made about there being a dramatic shift in the balance of power between the individual and the Government were absolutely spot on. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston asked the hon. Member for Cheltenham whether he was not sufficiently confident in the robustness of the democratic process to prevent that. I am afraid that my answer to that question would be "No." The democratic process must have checks and balances built into the system to prevent Governments who are less benign than those that we are used to in the UK from misusing and abusing information.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. What I meant when I intervened on the hon. Member for Cheltenham was that, in this particular case, it would be easy to devise a system in which, if information were needed about A, B, C, D or E and the Government already had all that information, people would be asked to authorise the Government to access that information. That would empower the citizen to give the necessary authority rather than assuming that the state can take it.
I would be much more content with that. However, I would be worried about the Government assuming control over the information that people themselves should own about their private lives.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for reinforcing my point. He possibly makes it more elegantly than I did.
Andrew Miller makes the important point about consent. That is one of the great restrictions on the marketing industry: it is allowed to hold data and use it only for the purposes for which consent has already been obtained and, where those are explicitly sensitive personal data, the burden of consent is even greater. However, the Government have started to introduce opt-outs, exclusions and ways around that. In some cases, that is valuable. I believe that Members of Parliament have such an opt-out and are allowed to assume that we can obtain from public bodies sensitive information on behalf of our constituents in a way that ordinary members of the public cannot. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the ways in which the opt-outs can be used in government are a risk and that, just because the principles exist, that does not mean to say that the Government cannot find ways around them?
Yes, I agree. In this country, we are used to benign government and people respecting the rules not only that Government lay down but that people think Government ought to have laid down, whether they have or not. In other words, we are used to people behaving well. However, we cannot be certain that that will exist for ever, particularly given the changes that the new world order, which we keep being told about, is beginning to introduce to the Government of this country and, indeed, the Governments of western democracies in general. We may find that our freedoms are limited and our privacies curtailed in ways that we cannot currently predict. We need to build into the system safeguards against the abuse of those freedoms and our privacy being pried into.
That said, I do not want to concentrate on the dangers of e-Government; rather, I want to say how valuable it has been. I started by saying that e-Government was extremely valuable, and I continue to think that. Labour Members, particularly the hon. Members for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) and for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks), talked about the need to have e-Government more readily available to those who might be thought to be less accustomed to using information technology, and they are right. In one sense, that is a short-term problem, because as our children, who all programmed our videos—remember those?—grow up, they will become used to the idea of using technology, so the problem will decrease with the generations.
However, the current problem is real. People who are too old to have been familiar with Amstrads when they were introduced in the 1980s and to have used them regularly will have no interest in taking up e-Government because they will not see any benefit in going through the mind-numbing process, as they would think of it, of learning how to use these awful computer things. Actually, computers are extremely valuable to everyone, but there is a lot that the Government need to do in that regard—for example, ensuring that libraries have a lot of computers readily online and free to be used by people who cannot afford to have them at home.
The Government also need to encourage small businesses to be more optimistic about the value of e-commerce. If, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham said, e-commerce begins to take over at local level, small businesses may well suffer. They find the high cost of developing and maintaining websites prohibitive, so they may lose out on the local business that one would think they were ideally placed to pick up.
The Minister said that on one of his visits—to mid-Kent, I think—he was told that Government websites left something to be desired. Of course that is true because, unlike commerce, Governments do not have the important driver that if they do not get their website right, they will be out of business. It is therefore important that the Government should benefit from the experience of commerce.
The parliamentary website is one example of how a website should not look—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I am delighted to say that it is just about to be revamped.
I have listened with interest to the right hon. Gentleman. I recommend the education website as a much better example of a parliamentary website. It is run from this House.
I shall go to it immediately after the debate.
One of the problems with the parliamentary website, among others, is that from the looks of it it has been built up by people who are used to the old pre-internet ways of dealing with things. They put completely irrelevant distinctions between the Journal Office, the Table Office and the Vote Office on the website. No one who goes to a website wants to know about that; they are just rooms in buildings. We want to know how to get information. For example, if one wants to know the date of the next Transport questions, how does one look it up on the website? In the agenda for the day? No, it is not there. So where does one go? Eventually it can be found on the bulletin board, which is something that I thought went out about 20 years ago. Anyway, it will all be revamped and we will be much the wiser. As many hon. Members said, it is important that customers are involved in the development of Government websites. I very much hope therefore that right hon. and hon. Members have been involved in the revamping of the parliamentary website.
I have one final question for the Minister: who will pay for all the e-Government? It is a very expensive business. Local government is told that it must get much more of its stuff online, but will central Government provide money for local councils to do so, or will they say that everything will be so efficient that local government will pay for it all out of those efficiencies? Computers do not usually save money; they just enable us to do more. There may well be money issues that the Minister needs to address.
This has been a timely debate. In fact, it is overdue. E-Government is a vital aspect of our lives. There are worries that we need to guard against, but having guarded against them, I have been heartened by the commitment shown and very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
The first line of my winding-up speech, which was drafted by my excellent officials, says, "We have had an excellent debate." The most recent previous debate to which I responded also started with that standard line. The only difficulty in that debate was that no Member contributed; it consisted of my opening remarks and my closing remarks.
It was quality rather than quantity, of course.
The debate has been entirely different today and I start by thanking you, Mr. Hancock, and all those hon. Members who attended or participated in the debate: my hon. Friends the Members for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey), for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks), for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), and for Luton, South (Margaret Moran); the right hon. Members for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot); and Martin Horwood.
The remarkable thing about a relatively consensual debate is that it generates a substantial number of reasonable questions. I have no intention of taking 60 minutes to answer all the detailed questions and shall respond in the spirit in which they were asked. If any hon. Members do not think that I answered the questions that they asked, I am happy to chat with them after the debate, or, if they would like more detail about specific questions, even to have a formal discussion at another time.
The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire said that he was here in the Chamber in two minds. I do not know which mind persuaded him to come, but I am glad that it did. He spoke about the success of the occupational therapy project in North-East Hampshire, which deserved its award. As the Member of Parliament for East Renfrewshire, I was not as pleased as him that it beat the competition from Renfrewshire.
The right hon. Gentleman identified the challenge, which I have seen as I have travelled throughout the country. Innovation is often led by talented or driven individuals, rather than by the centre. That is as it should be. It should become normal practice, rather than exceptional or innovative. When it came to computers, we had an insight into the right hon. Gentleman's personal life—a certain addiction, which not every member of his party on the Front Bench wishes to discuss. I thank him for his honesty.
The right hon. Gentleman asked some entirely reasonable questions to which I wish to respond. The National Infrastructure Security Co-ordination Centre has assessed that the threat of electronic attack is increasing in the UK. We do not believe that such attacks are imminent or that they critically threaten the infrastructure, but the determination to launch them is increasing.
In respect of e-voting, the Government remain committed to innovative, multi-channel means of voting. However, in conjunction with the Electoral Commission, we are considering how security could be guaranteed through e-voting and other methods, so we are not seeking a pilot for e-voting in the 2006 local elections. That is the sensible way to progress until such time as we can ascertain specific means of security.
Fraud, information protection and information assurance affect the public, private and voluntary sectors and everywhere else, and there is important work to be done on information assurance. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of it from his work on the Intelligence and Security Committee.
I should like to draw Members' attention to an initiative called Get Safe Online, which has had some but not enough publicity. Its profile will become higher in the weeks ahead. The initiative is about improving people's confidence—that of users and of business—in transactions online.
The right hon. Gentleman reasonably asked about protections on information. There must be careful protections on what information is held, how it is handled and who gets access to it. There is no question whatever of the information on any of the databases being shared with commercial organisations.
Earlier, while preparing for the debate, I was intrigued to hear about a novel experience in one Scandinavian country, Norway. It puts online, freely and fully accessible, everyone's tax returns, so one could in passing investigate one's neighbour's, boss's or anyone else's tax returns. I should like to reassure the House that the Government are not persuaded to undertake that course of action. Whether that is due to the different culture or the different level of acceptance of the availability of information, it nevertheless shows a remarkable contrast in the tolerance that we rightly expect towards the availability of personal information.
The right hon. Gentleman asked, quite reasonably, who pays. He asked the question and gave the answer in almost one breath. The IT strategy, which I can confirm today will be published later this year, identifies ways in which central and local government must work more closely together, breaking down a lot of false barriers that have built up over decades. They built up initially for, perhaps, good reasons, as such services and systems were created and designed in a world that never envisaged the IT innovation that exists today. A lot of efficiency gains that are being envisaged are not about organisations doing more, but about doing things differently. I have seen good examples of local authorities where that is happening. I am sure that is happening in Hampshire, although I have not yet had the opportunity to witness it at first hand, but I have seen it in various parts of the country. Local authorities are rolling out responsibilities using IT, breaking down barriers, and ensuring that the customer—the council tax payer, the citizen—has one source of information and one point of contact, regardless of what their question about local authority services is.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham made a thoughtful speech and I was intrigued by one comment that he made. He said, "Forgive me for sounding like a Conservative." I thought that that was a natural tendency for a Liberal candidate in Cheltenham; how else would a Liberal get elected there? He spoke about changes in personal circumstances, and the way in which our lives are adapting. I have not yet bought a house online, but it has certainly become normal in my household to buy our weekly shop and the children's presents online and to look for bargains on eBay, if am I allowed to say that. Well, I have said it. My family is in Glasgow, 400 miles away, and the least high-tech way I communicate each day is to send suggestions about my children's homework, such as sums, by fax. That is the least IT-enabled way I help with my children's homework; it is usually online, and often includes exchanging e-mails and using other innovations. Only a decade ago parliamentarians would never have envisaged that.
The hon. Gentleman talked about his experiences as head of a consultancy, having had clients as diverse as the Alzheimer's Society, the British Humanist Association and others. He talked, quite rightly, about his local IT successes, not least the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. I think that I am right in saying that 65 per cent. of university applications in the UK were completed fully online. That is a remarkable turnaround in UCAS's management systems. The important thing is that it is customer focused and allows potential students to access universities in a way that suits their needs.
On other aspects of his comments, the hon. Member for Cheltenham allowed his proximity to GCHQ to go to his head. Of course, freedom of information is important; that is why the Labour Government introduced the Act. That is why we campaigned for the Act, and why we defend and promote it.
Comments about change and fear of change have always been made, and I am reminded that, at a time when it was first envisaged that trains could travel at over 30 mph, people were cautious about whether the human body could cope with that, and whether more than 30 mph on a speed train would lead to human suffocation. I remember the pictures of the first cars in which a man—I assume it was a man rather than a woman because of the era—had to walk with a red flag in front of a motor car because of the supposed inherent dangers of the new technology and innovation.
The ID cards to which the hon. Gentleman referred will necessitate far stronger data protection than all the other cards that are available at present, for which people in their millions voluntarily provide information—store cards, which I do not have, and credit cards and debit cards, which I do. Some of that need for information was driven by his previous profession: marketing and direct marketing companies. I am sure that he has experience of his previous profession driving some of those trends. I wish to give him an absolute, cast-iron guarantee, as I did the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire, that none of the information will be shared with commercial organisations. Hon. Members will have another opportunity to comment when the Identity Cards Bill is debated in the Chamber next week.
I am grateful to the Minister for dealing with that point. Obviously, he has been accessing some of my personal data, but I briefly point out for the record that the British Humanist Association and the Alzheimer's Society were at various times my employers, not my clients, and that I meant conservative with a small "c". That underlines the importance of being able to correct personal data through freedom of information, for which Liberal Democrats also campaigned for a long time.
I was not expecting that the Government would make personal data available to commercial organisations, although census data are the basis of much commercial information. In a sense, Government agencies are already making such information available. The important point is the one that was made by the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire, which is that the real fear and concern is the abuse of data in the future by a Government who are less reasonable than this one.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but he gives another reason why we should hope that there will be no change of Government in future elections. There is a remote possibility of a change of Government to the Conservatives. However, there is also a general acceptance that even in their darkest and most authoritarian days, they would not have abused these systems had they been in place. The likelihood of a Liberal Democrat Government is so far-fetched that I do not believe any of us have bothered to investigate the tendency or inclination of a Liberal Administration to such abuse, but I would give them the benefit of the doubt. Whether conservative with a large "C" or a small "c", no Liberal Administration would get involved in the sort of activity that the hon. Gentleman claims to fear could be carried out by this or any future Government.
Consider the political and personal cultures of this country, the investigative journalism capacity and the checks and balances. First, Parliament would have to agree to any changes to the system, and the people of this country are not set, nor will they ever be, to elect a group of people to this House who in a majority would vote for an alternative-facing means of managing the national register. That may not be the case in other countries. For example, there is discussion in the press about what is happening in China, but it has a different political culture and history, and a different approach to many of the IT opportunities. Indeed, picking up on the comment of the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire about whether IT is a threat or an opportunity, it seems that some Governments elsewhere in the world consider it a threat to their control rather than an opportunity for their citizens.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston began by saying that he served under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock, in 1970. He did not offer details of the capacity in which he or you were serving, but at that time you certainly could not have envisaged that three decades later you would be sitting in the House of Commons—perhaps you could, I have no idea. However, I do not expect that either of you envisaged having a discussion in the House of Commons 30 years later about e-Government, of all things.
There were a few computers in the country at that time, and the Government had to publish a list of all of theirs. In those early days, each computer had 100 times less power and capacity than today's average mobile phone, and each computer took up a large room to fulfil very limited functions.
My hon. Friend pressed for the need for citizen-focused IT structures and systems, and for breaking down organisational barriers. He rightly talked about the need for pride in the services that already work. Vast swathes of our daily life are enabled by IT in the private sector—and, of course, in the public sector. He demanded that we should not seek to reinvent the wheel. That will be made clear in the IT strategy that will be published. We have no intention of reinventing the wheel—there will be no big-bang, day-one introductions of massive IT projects. That lesson has been learned from experiences over the years.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the need to involve others in service design—in website design as well as design of the service itself—and the importance of learning from international experience. He spoke about the Australian system; the Australian Minister responsible for it is meeting the e-Government unit here in the UK next month.
I should also mention that, arising from my meeting in my hon. Friend's constituency, I received a letter from Sandy Watts of the local citizens advice bureau. He made some specific recommendations about Government IT and how it relates to the citizens advice bureaux, and he made a series of suggestions and raised some reasonable concerns, which I am taking up.
My hon. Friend Anne Snelgrove made the observation that it would be nice if MPs had access to the super-database that the citizens advice bureaux provide for their case workers. There is an opportunity there for the Government to look at establishing a partnership with CABs to empower caseworkers—maybe ours, or those in local government—and to have a bit of a two-way trade. There is a superb opportunity there.
My hon. Friend is right: there is a phenomenal opportunity in the untapped resources of voluntary organisations—not just the citizens advice bureaux but organisations such as those that my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South and others spoke about. I had a meeting yesterday with an organisation called Netmums—a phenomenally dedicated group of mums throughout the country who are providing a service that the Government could probably never provide. However, because Netmums provides a service that crosses government, it does not fit into one box, and therefore obtaining public money—from either local or central government—has been difficult for it.
I am sorry to keep saying this, but we will have to wait and see what is included in the IT strategy. It would be inappropriate for me to make announcements on that today. However, we anticipate using such informal networks much more, and tapping into the good will and undoubted talent that such organisations and the individuals associated with them have, so that we can work in partnership across government and within communities.
Those organisations often meet more people than we ever will. They are trusted in terms of objectivity much more than we ever will be regardless of which party we belong to, as in many senses they are not seen as part of the establishment. Therefore, we should seek ways to enable them—and IT, at least in part, does that.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon made points about business, and I will address them in a moment. She also made a specific point about free school meals and her role as a governor at Churchfields school. Sometimes, for good reasons, the Data Protection Act 1998 is misunderstood. It is a source of frustration for all of us when we find out that we cannot do this or that because of data protection rules. The legislation is often adhered to in a haphazard and inconsistent way across the public and private sectors. In the IT strategy we will set up more work on data protection, and on the most common misinterpretations of it.
I do not happen to believe that the reason for the legislation being used in that way is, in the main, a case of, "We don't want to tell you." I think that organisations often believe that they are not allowed to give out information because they misunderstand the Act. More work needs to be done on that so that there is greater accessibility to that information.
As for the specific points made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon, most councils already have controlled access to check housing benefit claims. I am not sure whether the local authority in question has already done that. If my hon. Friend wishes me to pursue the matter, and she provides me with more information, I shall be happy to raise her specific point with the Information Commissioner in respect of whether the Act has been appropriately applied. That might provide one specific solution in Swindon. We need a solution for the whole country because these experiences are all too commonplace.
Visiting the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire was a novel experience. I say that in a friendly way. I do not know whether anyone here has been to Ochil and South Perthshire, but we had a discussion about whether Tullibody—I am sure everyone knows where it is—should be recognised as a city. I do not want to insult the good 5,000 people of Tullibody by making an observation as to whether it should benefit from city status. We had a discussion about canals, helicopters and all sorts of things, some of which have a tenuous link with IT.
I think it was in my hon. Friend's constituency that I met an elderly pensioner—I do not say this as a joke but as an observation of the different levels of appreciation of IT—and asked them why they did not use IT to access the internet. I do not say this to make a fool of the individual, but to show different expectations. The person was worried that they might break it; they thought that they might press the wrong button and delete the programme. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South said that she was not technologically focused, despite the fact that she made an excellent speech, but we all know that that will not happen by pressing the wrong button. However, we have not got that message across to that pensioner. One of them said: "Sonny, I've got into my 80s without using it. I now have a telephone. I don't need a computer."
I am sure that my hon. Friend did not intend to imply this, but we should not assume that older people do not want to use computers. It is a most empowering technology, and my mother, who is 86, wheelchair-bound and living on her own, is totally reliant on computer-based services. She had no formal education after the age of 14. It is not a question of educational attainment, but one of whether there is a combination of support to encourage people to learn and the capital to cover the initial outlay.
Again, my hon. Friend makes a fair point. For all sorts of reasons, there has been a vast increase in the number of older people using information technology. They use computers in all sorts of ways to break down some of the barriers that they face. One of the reasons why we want single account management for pensioners is so that they do not have to go to all sorts of different agencies. One contact with one pensioner would free them up from all the transactions that they expect to have with government. There are other personal motivations and drivers. Families are more mobile, and technology offers a way of keeping in touch with families across the globe. Their grandchildren—if not their own children—use information technology for homework, and it is a way of keeping in touch with grandchildren and supporting them in their homework.
When I was in Ochil and South Perthshire, it was clear that about half of those in the audience were already using IT and the barrier to their using it further was not, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said, the capital cost of investing in a computer but uncertainty about the ability to commit to pay a continuous connection fee, such as for broadband. That is anecdotal, not scientific, evidence but it was important to hear that message. It was not a question of the £100 that they needed for a second-hand computer—in fact, a family member could have given them a computer—but the fact that, despite the increase in pension, the pension credit, the free TV licence and the rest of the support given by the Government, they could not commit confidently to that connection over the years. We need to find ways to provide cheaper online facilities for pensioners and others.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire asked about business, as did some others during the debate. In addition to what the Cabinet Office is doing through the better regulation agenda to help business, there are specific ways in which we can break down bureaucracy. In my travels round the country meeting business organisations and small and medium-sized businesses as part of the better regulation agenda, I have heard that they feel that the regulations relating to IT are as impenetrable as some of the wider regulations. Whether or not that is borne out by statistics, it is certainly the feedback that small businesses have provided.
One suggestion is that we find a way of reducing the bureaucracy involved in procurement so that smaller businesses have easier access to it. We are actively examining that. Are the barriers just too great for small businesses of one, two or three people to compete on a level playing field for e-procurement? As my hon. Friend said, the new portal through which small businesses that want to work with the Government can make suggestions about innovation to us is important.
I will address some of the general points before I respond to a specific comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South. The cross-Government nature of IT services is essential. In fact, my hon. Friend made this point too. As we all know, organisations such as Netmums or the organisations that support the victims of domestic violence face a challenge in obtaining support because the nature of their work lies across so many Departments. How do we design systems of careful data sharing to match the needs of such groups? I have had informal discussions with Baroness Scotland about this. As my hon. Friend will know, Baroness Scotland is determined—driven, in fact—to secure a cross-Government solution, specifically on domestic violence. As a consequence of the suggestion and inquiries made by my hon. Friend, I will certainly have more formal discussions with Baroness Scotland.
I have had experience in my constituency—we all have—of people having to repeat information over and over again. I will give a benign example of data sharing, but I will not mention the name of the individual because I do not have their permission to do so. As a constituency Member, I had the harrowing experience of a bereaved family coming to see me following the loss of a young child. They had to repeat the details of the bereavement on numerous occasions, for many different reasons, to all the different Government agencies. That just prolonged their immeasurable agony. They had to repeat not only the name and age of the child but the circumstances of the bereavement. Should we not design a system for data sharing that prevents such repeat questioning? We can accept repeat questioning in normal circumstances once or twice, but in those circumstances, that family, that mother, should have had to provide that information only once.
For a good reason, everyone mentioned access for those who have traditionally been excluded—certainly at the earlier stages of IT development. Some work has been done, but an awful lot more needs to take place on things such as website design. Initially, Government website design was haphazard. We know that. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston spoke about it. The emerging democracies—I should say the increasingly established democracies; they are no longer emerging—of eastern Europe started with a blank piece of paper. They learned from the years of experience in the countries neighbouring them to the west. In that sense, they had the advantage of learning from experience. We did not have that.
It seemed that every Department and Government agency said, "This internet thing is probably very interesting. We should have a website." So an industry became involved in designing Government websites. There are about 2,500 Government or agency websites in the UK. That is a vast amount. Many think that they are doing a good job, but some are entirely unnecessary. That is why we are moving towards Directgov. I also want to prod gently the software designers. They do not set out deliberately to exclude people from different backgrounds, but due to accident, lack of forethought or because it is not perceived to be in a narrow commercial interest, their design packages are not always the most accessible for people with less formal education or who have English as a second language.
My experience of preparing for the debate over the past few days has been that when one logs on to many of the transactional websites, there is an additional barrier that I had not thought of for those who do not have a computer at home. The hon. Member for Cheltenham said that when he registered for home shopping he had to provide an e-mail address. Many people with no experience of using the internet do not have an e-mail address and when asked for one, the problem seems complicated. That seems to be a barrier, although it is not intentional because there are good reasons for requesting an e-mail address, such as marketing and so on. However, requiring an e-mail address as a condition of entry to a site may not be the most effective way of encouraging access by people from different backgrounds. A lot more could be done on that agenda, which is why the Government have been working with the Disability Rights Commission and others on web accessibility.
Incidentally, 90 per cent. of households in England are within 5 km of a UK Online centre. There is a debate about how those centres are used and UK Online must keep adapting to ensure that its focus is right so that the customer comes first.
On people from different economic backgrounds, during the summer I went to east Manchester, which is a relatively deprived community. I am shortly going to east London to see some projects in the community there. I also visited the Halton benefit express bus. As I travelled down from Glasgow, I thought that I was just going to see a bus with people who advise on benefits. It was parked outside a major supermarket in the morning and was welcoming. It was staffed by civil servants, but also by volunteers with good experience—the sort of people who were spoken of earlier—and provided real-time advice on benefits, welfare rights and almost anything imaginable. It was enabled by wireless broadband and linked into the local benefits service's databases. The Benefits Agency and other Government agencies came to the car park on the bus and met customers who had never been to the relevant Government office for information. That was the cutting edge, but it should not be the cutting edge. Such work comes about because driven, innovative and good people want to do things differently, but it should not be left to them. We must create a framework in which such excellent practices become normal practices.
Turning to the last comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said, IT in itself is not important—perhaps I should not say that as I am the Minister with responsibility for e-Government. IT is a tool to achieve an end, and that end is modern and personalised public services that benefit from massive and record investment from national Government. We have invested seven times more than the previous Administration in rebuilding schools, putting IT systems into schools and connecting every school through broadband. The reason for efficiency is not just for efficiency's sake, although that is a good driver in itself. Efficiency is redirecting resources to the front line and improving citizen and customer focus to enhance people's lives.
Despite the failings of the tax system that have been well documented, it would not have been enabled without IT. The direct payment of benefits is all about IT, as is job searching for those who want to find a job, improve their job or get a career. It is interesting that the most popular Government online service is their job-searching system, which receives 800,000 visits a week. There are 400,000 job vacancies listed on that website, which is enabled by the tool of IT. It enables policy ideals such as direct payments, the provision of information that people need to make choices and the extension of school opportunity. Sometimes we see IT as the end in itself rather than the means to achieve that end.
I started by speaking about the four challenges that we face: scale, efficiency, delivery and relevancy. I finish by saying that we also face a global challenge. We all know that we cannot be first in prosperity, as the Chancellor said, if we are second in education. That is why we are spending seven times more on our education system—we are rebuilding schools and inputting IT.
The fifth challenge relates to the emerging economies in a world where China will have the third largest economy within five years. The economies of China and India are growing at five times the rate of economies across the EU. The challenge for us is to allow human capital and technology to make the knowledge economy the engine of ongoing success. That is imperative as we face the great economic challenges that are common to all developed western democracies. We must meet those challenges strategically through e-learning, education, e-delivery and everything else about which we have spoken.
We must be customer-centric. We need shared services and a greater degree of IT professionalism. Those three strands will be contained in our IT strategy, which will be published later this year. It is an agenda that we must deliver, and it is an agenda that we shall deliver. I thank you, Mr. Hancock, and all those who have attended the debate.
Despite his promise, the Minister managed to get 38 minutes out of his hour. I wish to thank everyone for participating in the debate. When I learned that I was to chair it, I, like others, was a little apprehensive of what it would entail. I must, however, share the views of everyone who has spoken: it has been interesting and informative. Congratulations to everyone and thank you all.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Five o'clock.