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House of Commons

Wednesday 17 January 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Minister was asked--


1. Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): When the appointment of the e-envoy will be announced. [144195]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Ian McCartney): The selection is being overseen by the civil service commissioners and is being made in accordance with the civil service commissioners' rules for recruitment to the civil service.

The selection panel consists of the first civil service commissioner, Baroness Prashar; Mavis McDonald, the permanent secretary to the Cabinet Office; Nick Montagu, chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue; and Iain Anderson, the former adviser to the Prime Minister on millennium bug issues. Interviews were completed with candidates earlier this week.

Once the selection panel has reached a decision, the appointment has to be approved by the Prime Minister on the recommendation of the head of the home civil service, with the agreement of myself and my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce. The formal announcement of the appointment will be placed in the House of Commons Library as soon as the selection process has been completed.

Mr. Wyatt: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he share my view that, with the publication of the communications White Paper--which might lead to a new Department after the next election--we need an internet Minister first, rather than a new e-envoy?

Mr. McCartney: I did not quite catch the gist of my hon. Friend's question, but I think that it was about the Government's current and future proposals for the management of Government policy in respect of e-Government issues. My hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce is responsible for co-ordinating the whole e-agenda. I am responsible for the e-Government agenda and the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), is responsible

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for access to skills. Of course, we also have a champion for the e-agenda at Cabinet level: my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Although I am sure that the whole House will be thrilled at the knowledge that a new e-envoy is shortly to be found, why did the Government state on the resignation of Alex Allan back in October, when it had been known for some time that he would resign in October, that a replacement would be found in December? It now seems that a replacement will not be found much before February.

Mr. McCartney: There has been absolutely no delay and an announcement will be made soon. Not only has there been no delay, but we immediately appointed an acting e-envoy, someone with considerable experience, who has continued the work. As a consequence of that, we are able to announce today that we are ahead of our target for the number of services already on the internet. More than 40 per cent. are already on it and we are ahead of delivering our target in 2005.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the most important aspect of e-commerce is the effect that it has on opportunities for British exporters? Therefore, alongside the services that we have for e-commerce and e-business generally, we need to create more opportunities for those setting up websites and entering e-commerce to learn basic business skills, so that they can offer the support to their clients and customers overseas that good business men always try to offer.

Mr. McCartney: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce and my colleagues at the Department for Education and Employment have put a huge multimillion pound project in place to give help, advice and training not only to individuals, but to small businesses in particular. The programme will deliver for the United Kingdom the best environment in Europe for doing e-business, both here and abroad.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I, along with all other hon. Members, have received a letter from the Lord Chancellor's Department giving details of how an extra £54 million will be spent in the Court Service. However, the expenditure of that money is subject to the approval of the e-envoy. Why?

Mr. McCartney: We announced in the review of information technology projects--99.9 per cent. of them were mistakes left by the previous Government--that we would put in place systems to ensure that, where Departments roll out programmes and technology, those programmes fit a system so that, when they are rolled out, they will be successful and have a rigorous business plan attached to them. The proposals that we set out in the document on improving information technology have been signed up to by all Ministers and all Departments. That will ensure that, in future, IT programmes in any Department will be of high quality. When they go online, they will work successfully.

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Next Steps Agencies

2. Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): What plans she has to review the attachment of next steps agencies to Government Departments. [144197]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Marjorie Mowlam): Next steps agencies are subject to regular reviews, usually at five-yearly intervals. These examine all status options, including the positioning of the agency under review within a given Department.

Dr. Whitehead: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does she accept that the positioning of the next steps agencies within particular Departments owed more to their origin within those Departments than to their function? Does she agree that, after 12 years of their working, a review of functions would be appropriate, with a view to ensuring that the agencies are appropriately placed?

Marjorie Mowlam: I take my hon. Friend's point, which I can assure him has not been ignored, because it is one that the Department has spent some time considering. As I said in answer to his first question, we review the agencies every five years, and they are also under constant yearly review, and the issue that he raised is included in that process. We have not changed the host Department of any agency, but we have much more cross-cutting work between Departments and agencies so that their public service agreements are shared and their production is maximised.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): One understands why the next steps agencies were set up, but is the Minister convinced that there is proper scrutiny of those agencies by Parliament?

Marjorie Mowlam: From where I sit, yes. We scrutinise well, and if Parliament does not scrutinise the agencies, that is Parliament's responsibility, not mine. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we do not let the agencies go unscrutinised. They perform an important function in the delivery of programmes, and I assure him that if there is inefficiency or ineffectiveness, we will not let it grow.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the Conservative Government's creation of the next steps agencies--organisations that dispose of countless billions of pounds of public money and have intimate dealings with many millions of our fellow citizens--was one of that Government's most disgraceful innovations, as it destroyed genuine parliamentary accountability? Does she agree that no more of those agencies should be created and that the reincorporation of their functions within Departments for which Ministers are responsible to this House will be as significant in advancing democracy as the previous Government's action was in destroying it?

Marjorie Mowlam: I hear what my right hon. Friend is saying. I assure him that we do not let next steps agencies act as free agents. There is constant review and

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monitoring of their actions. I must add that there are more ways to achieve accountability, transparency and good delivery of public services than through Departments.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Since the attachment of the next steps agencies to Departments, how much money have they saved through market testing, and how does that figure compare with the savings achieved by the Departments themselves?

Marjorie Mowlam: I am afraid that I do not have those figures at my fingertips, but I shall certainly let the hon. Gentleman have them.


3. Mr. John Healey (Wentworth): If she will make a statement on progress towards meeting the 2005 targets for making Government information and services available electronically. [144198]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Ian McCartney): Yesterday, I laid before the House the latest report on progress towards the target that by 2005 all Government services should be online. The report shows that for the whole of central Government, 42 per cent. of those services are now online, which is well in excess of the interim target of having 25 per cent. of Government services online by 2002.

A leading example of the progress that we are making is the development of the UK online citizen portal, which offers a new way to access all UK Government information and services available online. For example, a "life events" area of the portal takes situations important to many people, such as having a baby or moving house, and pulls together packages of information and services in one convenient place.

Mr. Healey: Does my hon. Friend agree that wider provision of e-information and e-services by Government is only one side of the coin, and that the other is having more people gaining e-access? Does he recognise the potential of digital television, and will he and his colleagues ensure that the Government put it to the test in technology pilots?

Mr. McCartney: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Digital television will indeed play a major part in access to Government services, both for information and for doing business. The technology has only recently become commercially available, but the Government are working with the industry. We have already issued interim framework policy guidelines for digital television, and there are several pilot projects in the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Health. Over time, digital television will allow people to do business with local and central Government from their own home.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I am interested in the Minister's comments about digital television, because according to the Government's own report, of the 521 Government services projected to be delivered in 2005, only six will be delivered through interactive television. Chasing Government targets is like searching for a mirage, because the structure of the reports

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has entirely changed; so will he help me? A year ago, the Government's progress report said that at the end of 1999 capability for electronic service delivery was 36 per cent.; now, the Government say that 42 per cent. has been achieved, which represents a great triumph in the intervening year. Will he explain that apparent lack of progress and tell us how much take-up has increased on last year's figure of 17 per cent? [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is far too much conversation in the Chamber. The House must come to order before the Minister replies.

Mr. McCartney: Those comments are a bit rich coming from a member of a party whose Government did nothing about e-commerce or e-technology during their 18 years in office. In my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey), I stated quite clearly that we are ahead of the schedule. We have advanced the target from 2008 to 2005 and extended the 2002 target from 25 per cent. to 42 per cent. In addition, in the first few weeks after the introduction of UK Online, 5 million citizens used it to access services--the equivalent of the population of Scotland. That is not a bad start, given that we were at zero when we took over from the previous Government.

Mr. Lansley: The decibel level rises the more the Minister is in trouble. Let me ask him to consider quality. The Inland Revenue has introduced online self-assessment tax returns, and I estimate that there are about 12,000 visitors a day to the website, but only 26,000 returns have been filed in the past six months. What proportion of those who access the Inland Revenue website successfully file a return electronically--what is the take-up?

Mr. McCartney: The hon. Gentleman tries to use a fog of statistics. Let us be absolutely clear. For example, MAFF--

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Spit it out!

Mr. McCartney: The hon. Gentleman might want to spit, but I am a rather more sophisticated individual than he is and I like to put my brain in gear before using my mouth.

To return to the question asked by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), on 25 January the Government gateway goes live for business registration and enrolment for online services from Customs and Excise and for applications through the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for common agricultural policy aid schemes, in addition to Inland Revenue end-of-year transactions. In mid-March, we go live for business transactions for those Departments, with Customs and Excise following by the end of March and the Inland Revenue in April. Bit by bit, we are implementing a rolling programme for the introduction of services, which is something that the previous Government did not even attempt.

Mr. Lansley: I am grateful to the Minister, but he has not answered a single question. Let me ask him once more: if take-up was 17 per cent. a year ago, what is it now? If capability was 36 per cent. a year ago, why is it only 42 per cent. now? What about cost? There is no

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re-engineering of government going on in all that, only an extension of capability to internet or digital television. How much will the programme cost, and what benefit in terms of savings will accrue?

Mr. McCartney: The hon. Gentleman has changed tack again. The fact is that we are ahead of target in terms of the use of the internet and putting transactions in place; we are ahead of target in access to information and in sorting out the problems created by the previous Government. We have a multimillion-pound programme of investment in modernising the public sector and Government. The Conservatives' £16 billion cuts in public services would undermine what we are doing to modernise Government. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I say again to hon. Members that the House is far too noisy, which is unfair to those who have asked a question and want to hear the answer.

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