HC Deb 17 June 2003 vol 407 cc207-9
20. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

If he will make a statement on progress towards introducing e-government. [119453]

23. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

What new proposals he has to extend e-government services. [119457]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Douglas Alexander)

The latest electronic service delivery survey shows that 63 per cent. of services were e-enabled at the end of 2002, and Departments have forecast that they are on track for the 2005 target. We recently enhanced that target to ensure that certain key services achieve high levels of use.

Mr. Robathan

That is encouraging in so far as it goes, but has the Minister read the Accenture report on e-government, which states that, although the United Kingdom has been a strong e-Government performer", it looks to have stalled somewhat of late"? The report points out that the biggest concern for the government is the low number of citizens using online government services. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has pointed out that only one in 10 UK citizens have used online Government services, compared with half the Canadian population. How does the Minister see this issue as going forward?

Mr. Alexander

The hon. Gentleman makes a number of important points. Initially, we were driving forward our commitment to ensure that all Government services are e-enabled. That continues to be the agenda that we advance towards 2005. However, for exactly the reasons that he raised, we have also committed ourselves to enhance that target and ensure that we drive up, usage levels. We are specifically considering the Canadian example. Canada has a single citizen portal, which is one of the key reasons why its level of usage is significantly higher than in many other countries. In that regard, I hope that we can make proposals in due course that allow us to harness best practice from abroad as we enhance our agenda for e-government.

Paul Flynn

Although we have not reached the level of the world leader, Canada, the growth in e-government has been commendable in terms of the increase in usage and the innovation that has taken place. However, is it not disappointing that the two groups who could probably gain the most from using e-government are not using it? Only one in 10 of the elderly and one in six of the poorest families have access to the internet. What plans does the Minister have to ensure that that increases?

Mr. Alexander

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. We have established 6,000 UK Online centres across the country, particularly serving low-income and deprived communities where access to the internet might otherwise not be available. In recent weeks, the e-envoy's office has been taking forward a nationwide campaign that is specifically targeted at the kind of groups that my hon. Friend identifies. I am glad to say that in my constituency of Paisley, South, a burgeoning number of silver surfers are taking advantage of public access to the internet, which previously would not have been available.

Finally, to give a sense of scale, over the coming year the Government are investing about?6 billion in information and communications technology. We are determined to ensure that that investment serves not just one section of the community, but precisely those sections that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

The Minister referred to the Government's target of putting all services online by 2005. Can he confirm whether he expects to be judged on that target at the beginning or the end of 2005? Will he ensure that any reports that are produced as part of that process give full information on any problems or failures in meeting the target, as those are likely to be important in learning for future development?

Mr. Alexander

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, e-government, not least because of the scale of public investment involved, is not only reported on by the Government through the work of the e-envoy, but has, appropriately, been the subject of a number of reports of this House. There is little to fear in terms of the transparency of the work that we will undertake in relation to the 2005 targets.

To update the House, in 2002–03, 64,000 people applied for a passport online and 160,000 people applied to university online. I am therefore confident that we continue to make progress. The 2005 target has been vital in persuading Departments that we are serious about getting every single service online that we can. However, I am not complacent, and the work in government continues.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue is no longer technology, but the political will to join up Departments to make things work? It is still the case, for example, that a constituent dealing with a death will have to deal with up to a dozen or more Departments. When are the Government going to ensure that there is a genuine one-stop shop to deal with key life events?

Mr. Alexander

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Indeed, I am corresponding on the subject with my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell). It reflects the fact that this technology should not be seen solely as a technological fix for some of the challenges that we encounter, but rather as a platform on which we can develop genuinely citizen-centred services. The speech that the Prime Minister is making today at the Fabian Society reflects the far broader agenda, of which ICT is only one part, of modernising the public services that were so ravaged by a lack of investment by the Conservative party.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

Referring again to the Minister's target of 2005 for making all public services, including local government services, accessible online, will he acknowledge that there is a problem of definition, and that it is not sufficient for services merely to be nominally available online? Can he confirm that the criterion that he will use for measuring success in achieving the 2005 target is a significant degree of interactivity on departmental and local authority websites?

Mr. Alexander

To use the technological jargon, we are moving towards a multi-channel future. I am pleased to say that in meeting the 2005 target, the use of contact centres plays an important role in the interactivity that the hon. Gentleman identifies. In my constituency, and in constituencies across the country, people are already interacting with local government, not only through email, but by using contact centres. Interactivity is vital: that is why we have specifically targeted key services to drive up usage.