HC Deb 17 January 2001 vol 361 cc330-2
3. Mr. John Healey (Wentworth)

If she will make a statement on progress towards meeting the 2005 targets for making Government information and services available electronically. [144198]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Ian McCartney)

Yesterday, I laid before the House the latest report on progress towards the target that by 2005 all Government service; should be online. The report shows that for the whole of central Government, 42 per cent. of those services are now online, which is well in excess of the interim target of having 25 per cent. of Government services online by 2002.

A leading example of the progress that we are making is the development of the UK online citizen portal, which offers a new way to access all UK Government information and services available online. For example, a "life events" area of the portal takes situations important to many people, such as having a baby or moving house, and pulls together packages of information and services in one convenient place.

Mr. Healey

Dots my hon. Friend agree that wider provision of e-information and e-services by Government is only one side of the coin, and that the other is having more people gaining e-access? Does he recognise the potential of digital television, and will he and his colleagues ensure that the Government put it to the test in technology pilots?

Mr. McCartney

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Digital television will indeed play a major part in access to Government services, both for information and for doing business. The technology has only recently become commercially available, but the Government are working with the industry. We have already issued interim framework policy guidelines for digital television, and there are several pilot projects in the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Health. Over time, digital television will allow people to do business with local and central Government from their own home.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

I am interested in the Minister's comments about digital television, because according to the Government's own report, of the 521 Government services projected to be delivered in 2005, only six will be delivered through interactive television. Chasing Government targets is like searching for a mirage, because the structure of the reports has entirely changed; so will he help me? A year ago, the Government's progress report said that at the end of 1999 capability for electronic service delivery was 36 per cent.; now, the Government say that 42 per cent. has been achieved, which represents a peat triumph in the intervening year. Will he explain that apparent lack of progress and tell us how much take-up has increased on last year's figure of 17 per cent? [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is far too much conversation in the Chamber. The House must come to order before the Minister replies.

Mr. McCartney

Those comments are a bit rich coming from a member of a party whose Government did nothing about e-commerce or e-technology during their 18 years in office. In my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey), I stated quite clearly that we are ahead of the schedule. We have advanced the target from 2008 to 2005 and extended the 2002 target from 25 per cent. to 42 per cent. In addition, in the first few weeks after the introduction of UK Online, 5 million citizens used it to access services—the equivalent of the population of Scotland. That is not a bad start, given that we were at zero when we took over from the previous Government.

Mr. Lansley

The decibel level rises the more the Minister is in trouble. Let me ask him to consider quality. The Inland Revenue has introduced online self-assessment tax returns, and I estimate that there are about 12,000 visitors a day to the website, but only 26,000 returns have been filed in the past six months. What proportion of those who access the Inland Revenue website successfully file a return electronically—what is the take-up?

Mr. McCartney

The hon. Gentleman tries to use a fog of statistics. Let us be absolutely clear. For example, MAFF—

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Spit it out!

Mr. McCartney

The hon. Gentleman might want to spit, but I am a rather more sophisticated individual than he is and I like to put my brain in gear before using my mouth.

To return to the question asked by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), on 25 January the Government gateway goes live for business registration and enrolment for online services from Customs and Excise and for applications through the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for common agricultural policy aid schemes, in addition to Inland Revenue end-of-year transactions. In mid-March, we go live for business transactions for those Departments, with Customs and Excise following by the end of March and the Inland Revenue in April. Bit by bit, we are implementing a rolling programme for the introduction of services, which is something that the previous Government did not even attempt.

Mr. Lansley

I am grateful to the Minister, but he has not answered a single question. Let me ask him once more: if take-up was 17 per cent. a year ago, what is it now? If capability was 36 per cent a year ago, why is it only 42 per cent. now? What about cost? There is no re-engineering of government going on in all that, only an extension of capability to internet or digital television. How much will the programme cost, and what benefit in terms of savings will accrue?

Mr. McCartney

The hon. Gentleman has changed tack again. The fact is that we are ahead of target in terms of the use of the internet and putting transactions in place; we are ahead of target in access to information and in sorting out the problems created by the previous Government. We have a multimillion-pound programme of investment in modernising the public sector and Government. The Conservatives' £16 billion cuts in public services would undermine what we are doing to modernise Government. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I say again to hon. Members that the House is far too noisy, which is unfair to those who have asked a question and want to hear the answer.