HC Deb 10 June 1998 vol 313 cc1063-4
6. Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

If he will make a statement about the use of the internet by Government Departments. [43500]

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

I was staggered on coming to office to discover that Government Departments could not communicate with each other electronically; nor could they even e-mail each other. One of my key priorities was to put that right. I recently launched the Government secure intranet, which makes it possible for Government Departments to have safe, controlled and high-performance access to the internet. For the first time, Government Departments can communicate electronically with each other and also with citizens and business.

More importantly, the service is being used. At the launch of the GSI, just over 4,000 civil servants had e-mail access—that was just six weeks ago. The number has now risen to more than 12,000, and it will continue to increase. By the end of the year, I hope that every Government Department will be connected.

Mr. Quinn

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer in respect of Westminster and Whitehall. How can people such as those in my constituency who live in more sparsely populated areas expect the technology revolution to help and empower them, so that they, as citizens, can take part in government to the fullest extent?

Dr. Clark

We are keen to use IT for the benefit of our citizens. I happen to believe that those, such as my hon. Friend's constituents, who live in more rural areas, will be among the main beneficiaries. Instead of having to traipse from one Government office to another—that can often mean from one town to another in rural areas—they will find that information technology, one-stop shops and highly motivated staff will allow them access to Government services across Departments, and even possibly across central and local government, at one point of access.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

Would the need for electronic communication be less urgent if more senior Ministers were on speaking terms with each other?

Dr. Clark

Under this Government, Ministers speak to each other both electronically and personally.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

My right hon. Friend mentioned the number of civil servants with an e-mail address rising from 4,000 to 12,000. What provision is being made to archive e-mail communications, which might otherwise disappear into the ether and be lost to history?

Dr. Clark

My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point and the matter is one with which we have had to wrestle as we develop our freedom of information legislation. We have to try to ensure that electronic communications and electronic records are kept for the record and we are making provisions for that to be done.