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Millennium Compliance

4. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): What assessment he has made of the relative preparedness of Government Departments and agencies in respect of millennium compliance. [47922]

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Dr. David Clark): The results of the June quarterly review show that central Government are making good progress in achieving millennium compliance, although greater attention needs to be paid to embedded systems and to telecommunication systems. Departments have typically completed about 30 per cent. of the necessary correction work and 25 per cent. of their testing. On the whole, departmental plans have remained stable since the first review in March and all Departments now have target dates for completion of work on critical systems.

Fiona Mactaggart: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his continuing review of the matter and his openness about it. However, I should like to press a matter that I have raised with him before, which is using agencies, where appropriate agencies exist, to ensure the proper preparedness of different parts of the public service. I am especially concerned about the role that the Medical Devices Agency could play in providing a centralised test of different pieces of equipment used within the health service, so as to stop different parts of the health service and different health service trusts repeating each other's work. Will he give me an assurance on that?

Dr. Clark: My hon. Friend has raised this matter on a previous occasion and it is a pertinent point. The whole issue of the national health service has caused some concern in the House and, during our recent debate on it, I expressed my concern at the fact that there are still gaps in the national health service and local government--a view supported by the National Audit Office and the Audit Commission. Since that time, the NHS executive has completed its own review, which is more encouraging. It shows that satisfactory progress is being made in over 90 per cent. of NHS organisations. I am still concerned about the other 10 per cent. I shall draw the attention of the NHS executive to the specific point raised by my hon. Friend.

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East): Is it not the case that, on this unique issue, no one can really say--not even the Government--how well we shall be prepared to respond to the problems until the first midnight of the new

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millennium? Is it not essential that we have contingency plans prepared, put in place and tested well before the end of next year?

Dr. Clark: The hon. Gentleman is, as always on this issue, absolutely correct. We shall probably not have to wait until 1 January 2000 because various other dates, such as 9 September 1999, will trigger difficulties. We need contingency plans in place and that is why the Government have established MISC4 and MISC4(P) to look at those issues and to try to ensure that there are contingency plans across both the private and the public sectors because one interrelates with the other.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to look again at something that I have suggested before, which is a practice on a Saturday or Sunday where we could take 10 per cent. of public services, wind the clocks forward and test the embedding technology? I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has evaluated that. Can he comment further?

Dr. Clark: We are looking at that proposal. It may not be possible to do that in every Department, but we believe that there may be opportunities in certain sections to try that experiment. It is something which we are trying to evaluate now.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): Is the Chancellor in a position to guarantee that at least the public utilities such as water, the sewerage system, electricity and so on will continue to work? If not, when will he be?

Dr. Clark: We are discussing those very issues in the Cabinet Committees dealing with the matter. We have papers by the week from the various Departments and the territorial Departments which explain how the public utility suppliers are trying to cope. We must consider the interrelationship between the public utility suppliers and the contingency plans that will be necessary because, if one fails, they will almost certainly all fail. We are taking this seriously and there are almost weekly meetings of Cabinet Ministers looking at the matter, and getting the best advice possible.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): The situation in the NHS is still worrying, with perhaps 10 per cent. of projects behind schedule. How will the Minister ensure that the people responsible are held to account, because accountability is an essential part of any meaningful target setting? Has the right hon. Gentleman persuaded the Prime Minister that, in the interests of accountability, he should remain as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster until the millennium so that he can be held to account?

Dr. Clark: The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point about accountability, and nobody has a monopoly of knowledge in that sphere. I hope that every hon. Member will take it upon herself or himself to ensure that they are confident that their local health trust is following the course of action outlined in the excellent document by the Audit Commission entitled, "A Stitch in Time". We have set in place a template for the national

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organisation--the national health service--with its millennium project to try to deal with the outstanding issues. We also need action at local trust level. I urge hon. Members to assure themselves that their constituents are being satisfied and protected in this respect.

Smartcards

5. Mr. John Healey (Wentworth): What progress he has made in developing the use of smartcards to provide access to Government services and information. [47923]

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Dr. David Clark): Smartcards and other new technologies can radically change the way in which the Government do business. Examples such as supermarket loyalty cards are already transforming the levels of service and choice offered in the private sector. As we move from the old industrial society and its way of working to the new information age, the Government's relationship with our citizens is changing and we must lead and manage that change. I want a wired-up Government to provide high-quality, easy to use and flexible services to our citizens.

Mr. Healey: I thank my right hon. Friend for that encouraging but rather general response. I draw his attention to a specific smartcard project--the Endorse project, which was launched last month by the Government with Barclays bank to cut out form filling for the newly self-employed. Is the Minister aware that the project is being piloted in Rotherham, which is one of nine pilot areas, four of which are in South Yorkshire? Can he tell me when the pilot period is due to end and what plans he has to make sure that the lessons and benefits from the pilot are promoted across the country?

Dr. Clark: I was pleased to launch Barclays' Endorse, which followed a similar pilot project by NatWest and the Post Office, called "Business as usual". They make life easier for our citizens, who, until we introduced an electronic method of registering as self-employed, had to send to three Departments six separate forms, with the possibility of having to follow those with eight forms. The result was, not surprisingly, a failure rate of 40 per cent. We tackled that problem by allowing people to register electronically as self-employed, which means that they fill in one smart form on a personal computer, which is immediately electronically transmitted to all the relevant Government Departments. I am sure that the experiment will be a success, and I look forward to the days when there are 1,000 such terminals available to our citizens.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): What consideration has the right hon. Gentleman given to using smartcards for providing information to the authorities? For example, when shall we do away with the flimsy bit of paper that happens to be our driving licence and use a smartcard for that, or does the right hon. Gentleman live in fear of the civil liberties lobby?

Dr. Clark: The Government have made a decision not to introduce a national identity card, but we already have in hand the issue that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. A small smartcard driving licence is being tested in various

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parts of the country and, before long, will become universal. Like the hon. Gentleman, I look forward to the day when we use smartcards to provide Government services such as the renewal of television licences and payment of motor taxes. We would not have to go to the post office armed with a sheaf of papers, but simply go to a kiosk, use our smartcard and get a licence immediately. That is the future.

Forms

7. Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford): What steps he is taking to (a) simplify and (b) condense Government forms that the general public have to fill in before having access to many Government services. [47925]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle): Making it simpler and easier for people to access public services and cutting down forms and queues are at the heart of better government. Pilots of interactive on-line forms are part of the story, but so, too, is a move from telesales to teleservices: for example, using the telephone to help people at home to complete forms and to make better use of public services.

Mr. Beard: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware of the case of my constituent, Mrs. Ball, who was faced with a 32-page form when claiming disability living allowance for her son? She could fill in that form only with the aid of the local branch of Mencap. Now she is notable in the area for her achievement, and is inundated with requests for help from people who are as bemused and confused as she once was. Has any assessment been made of the waste of time in people going to tribunals unnecessarily or the personal hardship involved in delayed payments as a result of those complex forms being wrongly filled in? Does my hon. Friend accept that public support for benevolent policies is being destroyed by the ordeal to which people are subjected in gaining access to the entitlement that they have as citizens of this country?

Mr. Kilfoyle: I am aware of the problems encountered by Mrs. Ball, my hon. Friend's constituent, and I understand that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has written to express our regrets at her experience.

The Benefits Agency keeps all claim forms under regular review. The disability allowance and attendance allowance claim forms were redesigned recently--a new child-specific pack was introduced in August last year and a new adult pack in October last year. Disability organisations were involved in the development and design of the new forms. However, I understand my hon. Friend's concern. The characterisation of government in queues and forms is one aspect which the "Better Government" agenda will address later in the year.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): Does the Minister not realise that the civil service is doing what it always does very well, which is to produce forms that fully meet its own standards? Can the civil service not take lessons from the private sector, the first lesson of which is that the customer is always right? The customer finds forms very

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complicated. Is it not possible to include more representations by the consumer in the planning of those forms?

Mr. Kilfoyle: The hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me if I disagree with his assertion that there is always something to be learned from the private sector.

Increasingly, the public service, pragmatically, is willing to learn from private sector practices, and it is always willing to re-evaluate its own procedures. As I said, the Benefits Agency does so, and we want to extend that type of good practice into all arms of government, central and local.


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