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Mr. St. Aubyn: The number of special advisers has risen from 38 four years ago to 79 at present. If those advisers are so special, will the Minister tell us of one positive, original contribution made by them during the past year to the delivery of services to the British public who are paying their high salaries?
Marjorie Mowlam: We have never hidden the fact that we would use more special advisers than the previous Conservative Government. We have always been open and transparent. We publish a code of conduct for special advisers so that there can be no question as to what they do. We publish details of how much they are paid; the process is completely open and transparent.
I can answer his question only by reference to my two special advisers. On drugs, they have carried out work on different programmes and options and have come up with some extremely creative ideas. On genetically modified foods, they have also worked hard and produced some interesting ideas. I am sure that that holds true for every other Department.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the number of special advisers to almost every party represented in the House has increased since 1997, and especially to the Tory Opposition, because the Short money was increased from £1 million to £3 million plus? If the Tories have not spent the money on special advisers, but have transferred it to their head office across the road, it is high time we knew where the money has gone, because there could be a fiddle.
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): Do special advisers have access to the knowledge network? If so, what safeguards are there to ensure that the knowledge network is not used for party political purposes?
Marjorie Mowlam: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that special advisers do have access to the knowledge network. The reports that they make to their Ministers will go on the knowledge network and will be shared across Departments, to increase efficiency and effectiveness and to ensure that Government Departments join up more--which is the nature of this question--than they do now. After that, information will be made available on a broader front where possible.
The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Ian McCartney): Over 13,000 people have already started free training courses at 843 centres under the UK online computer training initiative. Around half of those who have joined are over 50 and around 18 per cent. are of retirement age. The older population is one of the key target groups for the first 600 UK online centres, which will be rolled out early next year, with approximately 6,000 by the year 2002.
Barbara Follett: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and welcome the work that has already been done. Would he do all that he can to ensure that older people are aware of the existence of subsidised IT training schemes, such as the learning shop scheme that is being run by North Hertfordshire college in Stevenage?
Mr. McCartney: Like our grandparents, I am very keen to ensure that older people gain access to IT. Throughout the country, a range of initiatives are taking place at the moment, including the rolling out of a programme to the 2,000 most deprived communities in Britain; and one of the target groups in those communities is older people. Therefore, the Government are absolutely committed at every stage to invest in providing such access, not just for older people but across the board, so that our society is not divided into the information-rich and the information-poor. Everyone must have access to the net, including older people.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I doubt whether any members of the ministerial team qualify for that description, but I certainly do. May I ask the Minister to look again at the way in which his colleagues in other Departments communicate with Members of the House by way of information technology? I instance a case where I wrote to the Minister of Agriculture in April. He tells me that he sent a reply in July, but because the courier did not deliver, it did not arrive until last week. Given the co-ordinating role that the Cabinet Office and the Minister
Mr. McCartney: I give this absolute commitment to the hon. Member--I nearly said "the older Member". The whole process of the modernising government strategy and of the co-ordinated IT strategy is to ensure that Members of the House are properly serviced by Departments. I give him this assurance. If Members do have a problem, they should come to Mr. Fixit and we shall see what we can do.
Every community in the world has its digital divide, and the Minister will have seen the G8 papers on that. I wonder whether, for the older people in our country, we might pilot an initiative to give them access on a bank holiday to the computers in schools and businesses, where we can give them teaching and training. That is what they need most of all because they fear new technology.
Mr. McCartney: That is a fair point. A key area that we are investing in is skills. As part of that process, I am monitoring regularly to ensure that older people are getting access to information technology, training, and sometimes upskilling and new training. If my hon. Friend has any ideas on that, I am prepared to meet him and see what we can do to help.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Graham Stringer): My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office takes responsibility for legislation emanating from the Cabinet Office, and as a member of the Cabinet takes collective responsibility for the whole of the legislative programme.
Mr. Baldry: The Minister will be aware that we have not had a state opening of Parliament in December since 1921. The fact that we are to have a state opening in December this year is a consequence of too much legislation, too hastily drafted and too hastily rushed through the House. Who in the Cabinet has the responsibility for ensuring that this situation does not happen again and that legislation is properly drafted and properly considered?
Mr. Stringer: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the information about 1921. I was not aware of it. However, I was aware that in this Session the Government have introduced 41 Bills, in the 1981-82 Session the previous Conservative Government introduced 46 Bills and in the 1985-86 Session they introduced 49 Bills. [Interruption.] It is not the number of Bills that is significant; it is the fact that the Conservative--
Mr. Stringer: It is the fact that, in the other place, twice as many amendments have been passed with Conservative support against the Government as were passed against the Government when the Conservatives were in power.
Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): The Minister said that the Minister for the Cabinet Office is responsible for Bills emanating from the Cabinet Office. However, he may recall that the Queen's Speech a year ago said that legislation would be introduced
Mr. Stringer: As hon. Gentleman knows, in April this year the Regulatory Reform Bill was published. It has been the subject of intensive consultation, both with the Deregulation Committee in this House and the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee in the other place. The fact is that so many Bills have been stopped in the other place that, if we had introduced the Bill this Session, there would have been an even greater legislative logjam. The Government are committed to introducing the Bill at the earliest possible opportunity.
Mr. Lansley: The fact is that deregulation is not a sufficient priority for the Government. One of the Minister's responsibilities is to examine the burdens imposed by legislation. Can he explain why the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales has reported that the costs to small businesses of implementing new legislation in the year to July 2000 was nearly double that of implementing new legislation in the preceding year? Not only are the Government increasing the burdens of regulation on business, but the rate at which those burdens are increasing has nearly doubled year on year. Can the Minister explain that?
Mr. Stringer: Improving the quality of regulation remains a Government priority. I have seen a number of statements emanating from the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Conservative party and they have all massively confused the cost of administration with the actual cost of the policy. The Government make no apology for introducing the minimum wage; we make no apology for giving people--for the first time in many cases--the right to a holiday; and we make no apology for protecting people. We are committed to improving the quality of the regulatory framework.