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House of Commons

Wednesday 5 April 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

PRIVATE BUSINESS

City of London (Ward Elections) Bill (By Order)

Order for further consideration, as amended, read.

To be further considered on Wednesday 12 April.

Oral Answers to Questions

CABINET OFFICE

The Minister was asked--

Countryside Policy

1. Mr. Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton): What progress is being made in developing a cross-departmental policy for the countryside. [116384]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Marjorie Mowlam): The Government's countryside policy will be set out in detail in the rural White Paper to be published later this year.

Mr. Dobbin: I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. I recognise the positive steps proposed in the Government's legislation to improve access to the countryside for the public and at the same time to protect existing rural amenities. Will my right hon. Friend endeavour to encourage Departments to recognise and support the constructive and helpful contribution made by farming and other rural industries to that process?

Marjorie Mowlam: I thank my hon. Friend. We will do exactly that. In preparation for the completion of the rural White Paper, we are trying to ensure that all Departments are signed up to the parts that they will implement. The Ministerial Committee on Rural Affairs, which I Chair, will ensure that all Departments think in terms not just of the rural White Paper, but of other legislation with a rural dimension. As a result, I hope that farming families, who have faced many serious difficulties, will be helped by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's £200 million package--and he met them last week. Efforts are also being made to help people in rural communities to diversify economically and to give them a broader base from which to work.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): Does the right hon. Lady accept that one of the problems of the countryside

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is that younger people often feel that they have very little to do? When she holds the discussions with other Departments, will she bear in mind that recreation facilities are very important in rural areas and that there is a feeling--certainly in my constituency--that there are not enough of them?

Marjorie Mowlam: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's contribution. Our policies, such as the new deal in rural communities, aim to find work for young and older people. Work is the first priority for young people.

The hon. Gentleman made a specific point about leisure amenities. One of the advantages of the Committee that I Chair is that it receives representations across Departments. As a result, we can deal with the difficulties of education, leisure and unemployment that young people face. I hope that we can have a bigger impact on rural communities and on the difficulties that many of them face.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the critical issues in putting together the rural White Paper is to provide one-stop advice for farmers seeking to diversify and enhance their businesses in various ways? That means providing access to the range of advice services that are available, including those on the resolution of planning issues that are often identified as being of critical importance in rural areas.

Marjorie Mowlam: Yes is the short answer. We are not just considering planning issues, but, when we consulted in rural areas, planning came top of the list for many people. We are considering how we can simplify the planning system and make it a quicker process so that it does not hold-up developments. However, as with any other policy, we have to make a judgment. We have to do what we can to speed up and simplify the system so that it is easier for people to use. However, at the same time, we must not affect the beauty of rural communities and we must do all that we can to protect the countryside. It is not a zero-sum game; we can have a win-win situation, as we have with rural housing policy where we are primarily considering brownfield sites for developments. Benefits can be obtained for all sides.

We are also considering one-stop advice. At the risk of raising a tendentious and difficult issue, I point out that we have already begun to help the rural post offices that are in difficulty. We have begun to provide money for information technology through the Horizon project and we already offer them 50 per cent. rate relief. In addition, I hope that one-stop shops, alongside existing provision, will provide a better service to people in such communities.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): Now that the Food Standards Agency has been established, will the right hon. Lady tell the House whether any consideration has been given to moving countryside and rural issues to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food so as to create an enhanced ministry of rural affairs and agriculture?

Marjorie Mowlam: Such structural change would be carried out by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. With the Food Standards Agency, we have set up an independent body that is not a part of the Ministry of

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Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The people to whom I have spoken want an independent body that is made up of experts from across the board. There is no scientific agreement on many issues, genetic modification being a prime example. The agency contains representatives from the community and from different scientific perspectives. It will provide advice and information and will produce reports. I am not sure that making it a part of MAFF would help the community response to the issues that affect rural areas.

Quangos

2. Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): What plans she has to make quangos accountable to elected regional and local bodies. [116385]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Graham Stringer): The Government have already transferred 220 public bodies to the devolved Assemblies in Edinburgh and Cardiff. It is the Government's intention in due course to transfer a number of public bodies to the Greater London Assembly.

Mrs. Ellman: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is entirely unacceptable for the Government to announce plans to make quangos accountable to devolved government in Scotland and in Wales, and to the proposed devolved government in Greater London, when he has no answers on what is to happen to unaccountable quangos in the English regions?

Mr. Stringer: The Government intend to bring forward legislation that will enable the electorate within the regions to determine whether they want an elected assembly. If they do, that will completely change the terms of the debate on the relationship of that elected assembly to any quangos.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Does my hon. Friend agree that quangos would be far more accountable, as outlined in the question, if no one is appointed to them who is not fully domiciled in the United Kingdom and who is not acting as an ambassador from a foreign country to the United Nations? In other words, we do not want on quangos any more Michael Ashcrofts.

Mr. Stringer: It has been the Government's policy to follow the Nolan procedures for appointments to quangos and to ensure, following the paper on the opening of quangos' doors, both that people presented to quangos have been "Nolaned" and that the quangos themselves operate in an open and accountable way. I am not aware that the gentleman to whom my hon. Friend refers has been appointed to any quangos in this country.

Government Services (Electronic Delivery)

3. Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): What recent representations she has received on the effectiveness of the Government's targets for the electronic delivery of Government services. [116386]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Graham Stringer): There have been two reports on the monitoring of the targets, which have been openly

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debated. In the light of the two reports, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has determined to bring forward the date to 2005, when 100 per cent. of those services that are appropriate to electronic communications will be brought online.

Mr. Letwin: May I be permitted to congratulate the Minister and his colleagues on the huge enthusiasm--[Interruption.] Oh, yes, the huge enthusiasm that the Government display for matters electronic. Does he think that the Government's competence in delivering is evidenced by the fact that they appear to have chosen for themselves a web name that is already occupied by somebody else?

Mr. Stringer: No, I do not think that it affects the effectiveness of the Government that somebody has been trading under the internet provider named previously. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments, but the important point is that the Government are taking e-government and e-commerce seriously. We are speeding up the process to ensure that Government services are online so that we do not get behind in the international race.

Mr. Andrew Reed (Loughborough): While it is important that e-government becomes a way for the future, what steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that Members play their role in delivering e-government to their constituents?

Mr. Stringer: In many ways, the most important help that can be given to Members in using e-government is the greater availability of information that the Government are making available on their websites at all possible opportunities.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): If the Government's intentions on electronic government were serious, two things would have been done in the document published on Monday: first, managed call centres would have been taken out of the definition of electronic service delivery; and secondly, the target date for the proportion of services delivered genuinely electronically would have been 2002, not 2005. Why did the Minister do neither of those things?

Mr. Stringer: On the first point, the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the definition of communication with Government: it includes someone who calls a centre and speaks to a person who has access to all the available information, as opposed to just chatting about the information. If the information is available to the person contacted--for example, as it is in NHS Online--it counts towards the Government's targets; if not, it does not. I hope that the hon. Gentleman finds that definition helpful.

Mr. Lansley: I am grateful to the Minister, but I am afraid that he is the one who has got it wrong, speaking about NHS Online when he means NHS Direct. To the public, managed call centres are not a form of electronic service delivery, however desirable and accessible they may be. I have two specific questions: first, what proportion of Government services will be able to be delivered electronically--that is, by internet, digital

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television and electronic data exchange--by 2002; and secondly, what proportion of services will be able to be delivered by digital television by 2002?

Mr. Stringer: The hon. Gentleman asks questions--[Hon. Members: "No!"] Changing the target date from 2005 to 2002 for 100 per cent. electronic service delivery would obviously change the objectives and definitions for 2002. Precisely because of the nature of those questions, the Government are reviewing the current definitions of electronic communication.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): What role does my hon. Friend envisage for rural post offices in the delivery of Government services in the countryside? Is provision being made now to ensure that, if people increasingly want to use post offices to access Government services electronically, post offices will be able to offer such facilities? Are we putting the right technology into post offices now?

Mr. Stringer: Via the Horizon project, £500 million is going into post offices. The performance and innovation unit is considering the criteria for post office access and it is the Government's policy to maintain a national network of post offices.


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