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11.26 am

Mr. John Healey (Wentworth): I want to raise matters connected with the single gateway, a subject that does not sit neatly in one Department and, although important, is not urgent. It does not find a comfortable slot in our normal Chamber timetable, and I am grateful for the opportunity to raise it today.

I note that Ministers have started to refer simply to the single gateway, rather than the single work-focused gateway--possibly because those who get their hands

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dirty dealing with clients had started to use the near-acronym "Swarfega". It is fine to refer to the single gateway--a gateway to government support and services--but we must not lose the word "focus" in the implementation, even if we lose it in the name. There are three reasons for that.

First, the Government's specific aim is to provide a single point of access to a range of services, not just to the benefits system. Secondly, the general economic aim of the Government's welfare-to-work policies is to increase the sustainable level of employment by putting more recipients of benefits in touch with their local labour markets. We are already doing that with the new deal. Thirdly, the general aim of the single gateway and of welfare reform is to change the whole culture--to move away from the question "How much should we pay you in benefits?" and towards the question "How can we help you to become more independent?" Providing people with opportunities to work in the open, intermediate and sheltered labour markets is one of the principal ways of doing that.

I am proud to be a member of the Select Committee on Education and Employment, which visited Australia last November and, in January, produced a report entitled "Active Labour Market Policies And Their Delivery: Lessons from Australia". In Australia, separate Department of Social Security and Commonwealth Employment Service local office networks were integrated in September 1997, and a new agency, Centrelink, was formed. Centrelink offices act as gateways to benefits and a wide range of Government services, assisting unemployed people, students, families, homeless people and aboriginal people. They serve as a unified point of delivery for services that were formerly delivered by four different Departments. More than 400,000 appointments are booked each month, half a million decisions are made each week and 232 million payments are made each year.

The concept is, however, deeply compromised by the separation of the job network--a network of agencies competing to provide job search, advice and assistance for unemployed people--from the Centrelink operation. For unemployed people looking for work in Australia, Centrelink is the point of registration and classification, but Centrelink staff are not allowed to advise clients on their choice of job network provider. They are not able to act as personal advisers to those unemployed people. Nor are they able to access 90 per cent. of the vacancies that are available in Australia, as those vacancies are held by job network providers.

As we look to implement the single gateway, we need to learn such lessons from elsewhere. It is essential that the Employment Service and other employment and training agencies are built into the single gateway from the start. It is essential that the single gateway does not become benefits driven. I am happy to say that the Select Committee on Education and Employment is about to embark on a joint inquiry with the Select Committee on Social Security. That will be one factor that will figure prominently in our inquiry.

The single gateway has the potential to revolutionise the way in which people see and experience the Government's role in welfare and work support. There is an opportunity to realise the aspirations of my right

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hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office in the White Paper that was published yesterday, "Modernising government", in which he states:

    "Better provision of better services available from government at all levels is central to the approach of Modernising Government",

and it is central to the concept of the single gateway. However, the first four pilots for the single gateway begin in June, and eight more are due to follow in November. I wish to register a concern that we may be missing a once-and-for-all opportunity in two areas as we move towards implementing the single gateway.

First, the pilots risk being an emaciated test of the potential of the single gateway. They will be run for three years, but will deal only with new benefit claimants--a total of no more than perhaps 30,000 each year in each area, 75 to 80 per cent. of whom will be jobseeker's allowance claimants.

Those pilots are much too modest in scale and too restricted in scope. For example, those who want to claim the new range of in-work tax credits, in-work housing benefits or child benefit only will still have to go through the existing system, which will be run alongside single gateway interviews and arrangements. The Government's drive towards greater integration of tax and benefits policies must be matched with greater integration of tax and benefits delivery. Indeed, we need to incorporate benefit "payments out" from Government with "tax payments in", just as they aim to do in Australia.

Secondly, the single gateway is justifiably championed as a significant step towards joined-up government, but we cannot have joined-up government unless we have joined-up information. The single gateway must be championed as a significant step towards electronic government as well.

Although face to face contact with personnel advisers will be central to the success of the single gateway, the concept of the one-stop shop is simply not location bound. Centrelink in Australia, for example, makes extensive use of the internet and plans in the near future for claim forms to be electronically available, completed and dispatched back to benefits offices.

That electronic access offers the potential to help the Government to achieve their policy aims, but it also raises important questions about how we prevent such access from adding further to social exclusion. Patterns of personal computer ownership and of internet access are skewed, with a male, middle-income bias. The same is true of card-based information access and storage methods. Smart cards and magnetic strips all display that bias in their use.

The most widely used technologies are those found in the home: telephones and television. Telephone call centres have been used extensively and effectively in Australia. They have been used in the UK successfully with Employment Direct. I welcome the fact that the call centre will be the base for four of the single gateway pilots that will start in November in Somerset, Buckinghamshire, Gwent Borders and Calderdale, Kirklees.

It is the development of digital television that presents the opportunity to ensure that we have service access through a medium with which people are familiar and which can be navigated using controls that need not be very different from those that people are already used to. However, that presumes that public information and public service channels are part of the digital television age.

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Public information and public service channels are not a priority for digital television service providers. Jane Stephenson of Granada Sky Broadcasting spoke for the whole industry when she said recently that public service information "is not a priority". GSB's programme content, for the moment anyway, is largely driven by the commercial formats that it has chosen, so home shopping is much more of a priority than, say, information on social services. The danger is that structures will be set now in a way that will inhibit the use of DTV for electronic public services.

The issues are these. What regulation or incentive will be needed to ensure public service access through DTV? How will the costs of DTV access for people on low incomes be met? Now is the time to consider those questions: while the ground rules for DTV and its technology are being set, before a dominant provider emerges and before the negotiating hand of the commercial organisations is strengthened in relation to Government.

If the Government's vision for a single gateway can be expanded in that way, it can live up to its advance billing as a radical and far-reaching reform. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office will play his part in that development and will pass my concerns on to those colleagues who are involved in that important project.

11.37 am

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): It has been a fascinating debate, as recess Adjournment debates always are. The problem is that, as the debate progresses, we find that we have many similar points and points of mutual interest when a constituency issue is raised, and that we want to comment on everything, but I will leave that to the other two Front-Bench spokesmen because I want to make one substantial point on a major issue of concern.

I am struck by the number of occasions when we have seen the connection between food and health. They are critical to our fellow citizens. For example, I take the contributions of the hon. Members for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) and for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who were both concerned about breast cancer. I am sure that every hon. Member has unfortunate, sad, tragic stories from constituents of how the system has failed our society in terms of diagnosis, prevention or treatment.

The specialist scientific report for the European Union directed our attention to an apparent connection--I put it no stronger than that--between hormone-treated beef that the United States is seeking to export to the European Union and the incidence--indeed the increase--in breast cancer. Food and health march together and we should never forget that.

The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) correctly identified a major problem in the way in which we treat our most vulnerable citizens. There is an almost precise replica of the situation that he described at Bridge hospital, in his community, at St. Lawrence's hospital in Bodmin in my constituency, which serves the whole south-west. Again, health is obviously central to our concerns.

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) and the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) talked about the problems that our food industry is facing. Again, there will be major implications for the health of

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the nation if we do not get the right balance between nutrition, food quality and health. That is why I am so delighted to see the report of the special pre-legislative Select Committee on Food Standards. I take some responsibility for that Committee because, as a member of the Select Committee on Modernisation, I was enthusiastic about the idea of proper scrutiny before a Bill is set out in black and white. I shall refer briefly to the wide ranging and urgent implications of that Committee.

The problem with pre-legislative scrutiny is that it takes time, and we do not have much time in which to improve the situation. The Committee is saying that important nutritional issues are at stake.

I should declare an indirect interest in that my wife is a director of a famous traditional grocer's shop in Cornwall. Hon. Members who come to the best part of the British Isles for a holiday during the recess may care to call. Although, of course, I cannot advertise the shop, everyone knows that we have the best speciality food in the United Kingdom, if not the western world. My wife is a director, and I am a shareholder. Whether what I have to say about the Food Standards Agency will impinge on that enterprise, I know not. However, hon. Members would be well advised to head west over the next few days.

The Food Standards Committee report rightly draws attention to the continuum from food safety through quality to nutrition. It is difficult to divide those factors up. That is why I find it difficult to accept the Government's apparent limitation on the role of the agency. We should listen carefully to the Committee, because, particularly when it comes to information rather than advertising, it will be difficult to draw the line at which the agency should stop.

Recommendations 5 and 8 are extremely important. Recommendation 13 deals with connections to specific agencies that operate under the aegis of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Other hon. Members may have dealt with the Pesticides Safety Directorate or the Veterinary Medicines Directorate. The hon. Member for Ludlow has joined me several times to look at the work of such directorates. If their work is totally divorced from the agency, the agency's work will be much depleted.

Most importantly, the Meat Hygiene Service must be brought under the control of the independent FSA, and it must be properly accountable to Parliament. The current crisis in the abattoir industry has been some time in coming. When Labour Members sat on the Opposition Benches, many of them joined me in attacking the previous Government over the MHS, recognising that it would not be properly accountable. It is critical that we should bring those burdens on the food industry under control.

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