HC Deb 10 June 1998 vol 313 cc1062-3
5. Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

What assessment he has made of the public response to his proposals for electronic government. [43499]

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Dr. David Clark)

Information technology is the key to improving services for everyone in our society. I firmly believe that the emphasis must be on ease of access. Great potential exists for the Government to deliver information and services to our citizens at the time and place of their choosing and by the method that is most convenient to them. I am determined to make the best of the technology on offer to make sure that service in the public sector is not second best to service in the private sector.

Mr. Gerrard

If we are to have Government services delivered by electronic means, is it not important that they are easy to use and accessible? Is my right hon. Friend aware that significant numbers of people still cannot afford computers and that elderly people in particular do not feel comfortable using them? What is he doing to ensure that the needs of those people are not forgotten and that services available electronically are accessible to as many people as possible?

Dr. Clark

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Technology is not an end in itself; it is there to make people's lives easier. I lay great stress on technology improving access for all. I do not want a society of IT haves and have nots to develop. I am formulating a range of initiatives to ensure that that does not happen. I was delighted that the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport endorsed that approach. I should point out to the House that, in 10 to 15 years, in an age of digital television, people will have access to services from their own front room as a matter of course. I make the commitment from this Dispatch Box that, at no stage, will we phase in technology without making the paper alternative available for those who are more comfortable with it. We are also conscious that there are difficulties for people with certain types of disability, and we are taking those issues on board.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Does the Chancellor accept that new technology can obfuscate as much as illuminate? For example, letters can be churned out by computer. The Benefits Agency seems to write to all claimants by computer-processed letters, which often are not clear and do not explain why benefit has not been granted. Will the Chancellor look at that? Often, the most vulnerable people in our society need to have information presented clearly to them and the fact that it is done by new technology does not necessarily make the information any clearer.

Dr. Clark

I would not pretend for a moment that we can conduct Government business without using new technologies such as computers and processors, but I shall draw to the attention of the Benefits Agency the point that the hon. Gentleman has made. I know that it is a matter of concern to many hon. Members on both sides of the House; our constituents continually remind us of it.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Any news on Genesis?

Dr. Clark

In the beginning—but my hon. Friend and I both know what he is really talking about. I guess that he is referring to an innovative IT scheme being launched by the county of Cumbria. My Department is working with the county to try to expand the use of that technology, which will revolutionise access to services in Cumbria. Together with my hon. Friend and our hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), I was delighted to launch the scheme and to link up two schools which are in the same local authority district, but 100 miles apart. That made me realise the implications of such technology.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

The House may recall recently seeing a photograph of the right hon. Gentleman holding a prototype of an electronic red box. How many of his colleagues have placed a firm order for this device and what improvements in public service should we begin to look out for?

Dr. Clark

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new post. I hope that he finds it worth while and enjoyable, and that he will have long tenure in it.

The electronic red box, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, is a prototype—

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)


Dr. Clark

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) recognises that, even if the hon. Gentleman does not. We are now looking at the next prototype, which will be much smaller—the size of a laptop. Within the next few weeks, we hope to be able to share its secrets with the world.

We are now looking at the possibility of biometric recognition—reading a person's iris—to open up the red box. When that is up and running, I believe that it will revolutionise the work of Ministers and ensure that, wherever they are in the world, they will have access to the Government secure intranet.

Forward to