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10.39 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Stephen Twigg): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing this important Adjournment debate which, as he said, gives me an opportunity to set out the progress being made by the new e-democracy Cabinet Committee. I am pleased to take up his challenge that our Committee should avoid being nerdy on these issues. Anyone who knows my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who chairs the Committee, or myself will realise that neither of us is in any danger of being a computer nerd or, I hope, nerdy in other respects.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the intense interest and great commitment and enthusiasm that he has shown in electronic democracy and, more broadly, in taking up issues relating to the renewal of our democracy. It is a timely debate, because the new Cabinet Committee on e-democracy met yesterday for only the second time. We are working towards publishing the consultation document to which my hon. Friend referred. I am afraid that I have to disappoint him as I am not in a position to take up his challenge to give the date of the report's publication. However, I can say with some confidence that my hon. Friend should not have to wait too long, and neither should others in the House. This consultation is an important opportunity for us to take the debate out into the wider public arena.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to seek to place this subject in the broader political context. In many debates in this House, reference is rightly made to the low turnout in recent elections. Most notably, the turnout at last June's general election fell to 59 per cent.—the lowest since universal suffrage was introduced in this country. Especially disturbing was the fact that turnout fell most dramatically and to an all-time low among young people who were entitled to turn out and vote for the first time

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in their life. Surveys suggest that among 18 to 24-year-olds, the numbers voting were probably fewer than two in five. The problem is not confined to this House or this country, but is being witnessed across the democratic world, with significant declines in turnout in general and among young people in particular.

Against that background, my hon. Friend is right to say that when we look at e-democracy, we are looking at how to renew interest in our politics and in this place so that Parliament can once again be seen to be at the centre of these debates in our country. How best can we harness advances in technology to strengthen democracy?

We are all aware of the technological background—the context, technologically—with the growth of the internet and mobile phone use. About two households in five have the internet at home, widening the possibilities of public access to information. The average adult will spend something like eight years of their life watching television. I understand that more telephone votes were cast in the recent final of "Pop Idol" than were cast in total for the Conservative party at the 2001 election. To be fair to the Conservative party, I suspect that people voting Conservative last year voted only once, whereas those voting for Will or Gareth had the opportunity to vote many more times, and I know that many did.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): Fortunately.

Mr. Twigg: I assume that my hon. Friend means that it was fortunate that people could not vote more than once for the Conservative party, or indeed for other parties.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Unfortunately.

Mr. Twigg: My hon. Friend rightly prefaced his remarks by highlighting the threat posed by the digital divide. I have already said that two households in five are signed up to the internet. My hon. Friend pointed out that access to personal computers at home in his constituency is barely more than 10 per cent. In my constituency, which is very different, the figure would be well above 50 per cent. It is of great importance that we do all that we can, in Government and in Parliament, to hit the target that has been set by the Government and extend access to the internet to all households by 2005. That will not be easy; it is not simply about access but about ensuring that people have the skills and confidence to use the internet. The Government, partly through the Office of the e-envoy, are tackling that as a matter of priority.

E-democracy is often seen simply as internet voting, giving people the chance to cast their votes over the internet, over the telephone or by text message. Clearly, that is part of the process, but it goes much wider than that. As my hon. Friend suggested, the key issue in e-democracy is participation and involvement by using the new technologies as a way to enhance opportunities for citizens to participate in the democratic process.

That can be achieved in three ways. First, new technologies can facilitate participation by making it easier for citizens who otherwise are not involved to access information, follow the political process, scrutinise Government and other public bodies and, of course, to vote in elections. Secondly, we can use the new technologies to broaden participation by opening up new

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channels of communication so that involvement in democratic activity can be increased especially, as my hon. Friend suggested, among those previously excluded. Thirdly, we can harness technology to deepen participation and to strengthen some of the connections between citizens and levels of representative institutions.

We can cite many examples of that, and I shall refer to just one or two. Parliament has its own website, and webcasting is being trialled in the House of Commons and the House of Lords and a specific experiment will run until the end of the year. The Scottish Parliament provides live audio-visual coverage of all its proceedings in its Chamber and main Committee Rooms.

In terms of broadening participation, the Hansard Society has an e-democracy programme that involves several successful and excellent projects. I refer, for example, to one that has been mentioned many times in debates and questions in this Chamber. The online consultation that the society conducted in partnership with the all-party group on domestic violence considered the thorny question of domestic violence. About 1,000 messages of evidence were received from women, many, if not most, of whom would not have come forward otherwise and certainly would not have been prepared to face the great personal risk of coming to Parliament to give evidence in public.

Another recent Hansard Society consultation before the last election with the then Select Committee on Social Security considered the issue of people receiving the working families tax credit. It gave those receiving the credit an opportunity to give online evidence direct to the Committee. About 75 per cent. of those giving evidence said that they had never previously been involved in any form of consultation exercise.

Mr. Allen: I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the invaluable work of the Hansard Society and of Dr. Stephen Coleman and his team. They have pioneered many of the techniques that we are debating and have drawn the wider public's attention to the fact that, as my hon. Friend pointed out, webcasting is already taking place in the House. The only thing that is missing is the return path. People can see Committees or the Chambers in this House or the other place in action, but they do not have the return path to e-mail their views back. I am talking about a very simple add-on to the webcasting of pre-legislative scrutiny.

Mr. Twigg: I thank my hon. Friend for that point, to which I shall return in a moment.

Another aspect of the issue is seeking to deepen participation. For example, my constituency is in the London borough of Enfield, which is represented by three Members of Parliament. The local branch of the United Nations Association has recently launched an interactive website in which it conducts what it describes as "MP Watch". It sounds rather ominous, but the three of us have signed up to it and, every fortnight, we receive a question from the group to which we reply. A discussion group and forum then follow from that. The project is in its early days, but it is a positive and innovative example of a local voluntary organisation harnessing the technologies to seek to deepen participation and the connection between political representatives—in this case Members of Parliament—and local people with a particular interest in a policy matter.

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The Government are keen for such initiatives to be taken up throughout the country so that we can learn from best practice, and strengthen involvement in democratic activity. My hon. Friend referred to UK online, which includes the CitizenSpace area where people can already take part directly in Government consultations and discussion forums. We want to consider how to take that forward—partly through our consultation document—to make CitizenSpace a showcase of e-democracy.

The substantial part of my hon. Friend's speech addressed the question of how, as part of the modernisation of this place and the wider reform of Parliament, we could harness new technologies to increase citizen involvement and our responsiveness to citizens. In his proposals to the Modernisation Committee in December, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House put great emphasis on strengthening pre-legislative scrutiny. Technology can play an important part in achieving that.

I welcome the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North that we harness new technology to enhance pre-legislative scrutiny and, as he said, to realise a dream that electors themselves can help to make better laws. I shall pass on his specific proposal to my right hon. Friend and to the Modernisation Committee.

I am well aware that the Committee is determined that the debate on modernisation should not simply be for those of us in this place—the Westminster village—but must be taken outside. The best test of a more effective Parliament is whether we are held in higher esteem and have greater credibility with the public.

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