HC Deb 13 May 2003 vol 405 cc164-6
21. Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East)

If he will make a statement on progress made towards the Government's target of getting all services online by 2005. [112587]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Douglas Alexander)

We are committed to ensuring that central Government services are made available electronically by 2005 and that key services achieve high levels of use. The latest figures obtained during quarter four of 2002 show that 63 per cent. of services were e-enabled. Departments continue to work to meet the 2005 target.

Mr. Crausby

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but is he confident that the general public will have sufficient access to the internet by 2005 to ensure that online services are available to those who need them most?

Mr. Alexander

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the important challenge of the digital divide. We now have 6,000 UK Online centres that operate right across the country. They provide exactly the kind of internet access of which he spoke. We have identified one of the principal barriers as being skills and confidence among the population, and the campaign that the Government announced only yesterday is a significant initiative in helping to bridge that divide.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

In a recent written answer, the Government were unable to tell me how much they had spent on websites in the past four years, yet the National Audit Office estimates the figure to be something like £1 billion. Does the Minister agree that the Government appear to be the last organisation still living in the dotcom boom?

Mr. Alexander

I simply do not recognise that description. To take a single example, about 500,000 visits to NHS Direct Online took place last month. That is a perfect of example of how the Government are modernising public services and using new technology to find challenging new solutions to the needs of the British public. We are serious about investing in schools and hospitals, and one has only to look towards the initiatives for broadband to see how we are taking forward that work.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)

Does my hon. Friend agree that effective online services must be simple to use, uncluttered and written in plain language? Does he share my concern that, in our excellent haste to get services online, we are not taking advantage of the opportunity to simplify some of the services at the same time?

Mr. Alexander

My hon. Friend raises an important point. One of the key challenges in getting services online is that we do not simply automate the past. That is why it is important both to develop new services and for the Government to enhance their 2005 target. That means not only demanding that services go online but driving up levels of use in the key services that serve the public.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

Will the Minister confirm that, as part of the fallout from the loss of financial control and the budget overspends in the Cabinet Office, the office of e-envoy is being shrunk by a quarter? Can he tell the House how that will affect progress towards the target of getting all services online by 2005? If it does not affect those targets, what does a 25 per cent. cut with no impact on output tell us about the waste, inefficiency and bureaucracy in the Cabinet Office?

Mr. Alexander

I am rather intrigued by the hon. Gentleman's line of questioning. If we manage public resources prudently, the Opposition criticise us by saying that the services were vital, but if we are not prudent, they suggest that there is waste and excess. We have undertaken an effective budgetary exercise in the Cabinet Office during recent months that has not only secured resources for new online work—a new campaign is being launched only this week—but allowed us to continue to pursue our target of ensuring that Government services are online by 2005. The e-envoy's office has a central role in that endeavour.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

Does the Minister agree that online services are only of use to citizens if they can easily find them? In that context, will he tell us when we can expect a replacement for the poor UK Online Government portal that is currently available? Will he look at the excellent Canadian Government site, canada.gc.ca, to see an example of how we should do things?

Mr. Alexander

I assure the House that I have already looked at the Canadian example and that I am undertaking such work here. I also commend to the House the Massachusetts government's site, which is similar to that of the Canadian Government. We can learn important lessons from those two transatlantic examples.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

Will my hon. Friend congratulate UK Online and ITV companies, especially Granada, on their work to promote the "IT's for Life" campaign and surrounding work? The fact that the storyline of "Coronation Street" included the need to expand access to information technology is of great benefit to the public. Such programmes must be expanded and I seek a commitment that that will happen.

Mr. Alexander

I am delighted that a national institution such as "Coronation Street" has carried a storyline that exemplifies the kind of outreach work that we want throughout the country to ensure that every community gets online. Perhaps in the future we will move from the Rover's Return to the Surfer's Return.