Third Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 23 April 2002
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 97) (HC 721), on Local Government On-Line Funding to Local Authorities
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 97) (HC 721), on Local Government On-Line Funding to Local Authorities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton.
The special grant report concerns funding for the development of local e-government. Local e-government can help to transform the quality of local services and the organisations that deliver them. It offers huge opportunities and at the same time, huge challenges. E-government means exploiting the power of information technology to help to transform the access, quality and cost-effectiveness of public services and to help to revitalise the relationship between customers and citizens and the public bodies who work on their behalf.
E-government is more than technology, more than the internet and more than service delivery. It is about citizens and customers at the heart of everything we do and building service access, delivery and democratic accountability around them. To achieve that, the local public services of the future will look very different.
Services in the future will be joined up in ways that make sense to the customers. They will be accessible at times and places most convenient to the customer. They will be delivered or supported electronically, making them faster, more reliable and better value. They will be delivered jointly, where appropriate, by local and regional partnerships and they will be connected to a national infrastructure.
They will be delivered seamlessly so that customers should not be asked to provide the same information more than once. They will be open and accountable so that information will be freely and easily available. Complaints will be easy to make and will be responded to quickly and effectively. Citizens will be able to participate and bring their concerns to local decision making. It will be used by e-citizens, through effective promotion of electronic services, information and access to technology.
As major providers of public services, local authorities have a critical role to play in delivering a vision of joined-up, responsive and accessible local government. I am pleased to say that local government is certainly rising to that challenge. In councils up and down the country, e-government is already helping to
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make services more accessible, convenient, responsive and cost-effective. It is helping to make councils more open, accountable and inclusive and it is enhancing their ability to lead their communities.
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): I am fascinated by the Minister's remarks. They are welcome and long overdue and I congratulate him on bringing the proposals forward. Did it occur to the Department to have this statutory instrument scrutinised online? The cameras in the Room could be turned on during this process so that people outside could see us legislating and introducing some welcome progress in terms of e-government.
Dr. Whitehead: I thank my hon. Friend for his interesting suggestion. I do not know enough about the arrangements for parliamentary broadcasting to tell him whether that would be possible. However, I would be happy to write to him on that suggestion. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) is making signs, which I trust are supportive of my hon. Friend's suggestion. I shall write to my hon. Friend about the issues around e-government involving webcams and other such instruments.
Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): To assist the Minister, my understanding is that the use of webcams for the online broadcasting of Committees is being piloted. The big problem is the cost of manning all the additional cameras necessary for that. We have the equipment but not the technicians. That pilot is going ahead. I support the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) in urging the Minister to try to extend it as far as we can. It is not just a question of broadcasting, but of interaction—inviting comments in. That is what is important.
Dr. Whitehead: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. Both hon. Members have underlined the potential for the development and enhancement of the process of governance through e-communication.
Mr. Allen: My hon. Friend is being very generous and tolerant in giving way, as we expect him to be. Were this debate to be a pre-legislative debate, colleagues in local government from all parties and throughout the country could view the proceedings using webcam technology. An e-mail address could be trailed along the bottom of the screen and those colleagues could e-mail in to a mediator on the top table, who could distil the bright ideas from local government all over the UK.
There are many good examples of e-government in local government. When we it came to consideration of the actual legislation, perhaps a week later, a brief report could be in front of all Members and the Minister. The Minister could then respond. Perhaps the process would evolve the legislation to an even higher level. The people being legislated for would have had some input, and they would have helped to create even better law. My point is genuine and I thank the Minister for agreeing to write to me on it.
Dr. Whitehead: My hon. Friend has placed on the record remarks about which he has clearly thought very deeply. His idea is interesting in terms of enhancing the process by which communications can
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be sent in two different directions during the legislative process. A number of the items before us this morning are part of that, so it is appropriate for me to write to him.
In response to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), I would point out that webcams filming someone's living room on a 24-hour basis have had big audiences. I imagine that our proceedings would be much more interesting than that and would therefore secure a much bigger audience.
Mr. Allan: We keep our clothes on.
Dr. Whitehead: Hon. Members may have suggestions in that direction. That would certainly enhance the ratings.
I was about to give some examples of successful local e-government. In Lewisham the council is sponsoring the development of an internet portal for local businesses to provide access to a range of services. In Solihull, faulty street lights can be reported by highlighting the affected light on an electronic map, which triggers an e-mail to the maintenance team.
In Oldham, free internet access is being provided from 91 PCs in 14 libraries across the city, bringing access to disadvantaged communities. In Cambridge, e-methods are being used to procure simple goods and services, cutting our paperwork to make savings. In Kent, all planning information has been placed online, which substantially reduces printing and improves access. I could certainly add to those brief examples.
Mr. Allen: The Minister mentioned Cambridge, where there is very high PC takeup. Most people there are online. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire even conducts a surgery, I believe, online. That would not apply in my constituency and that is one of the arguments always put forward against such bright ideas. Will the Minister take heed that it is necessary to help community groups and groups on the ground to gain access to PCs. Rather than dreaming of everybody being able to access PCs, we should seek to allow them collectively to listen to our debates on particular areas that may be of interest to them, such as single mums, employment and training initiatives. Will my hon. Friend at least think about the possibility of extending the existing schemes to ensure that communities can access PCs and participate in politics?
Dr. Whitehead: My hon. Friend has made a number of important points and interventions this morning; that is another. I have mentioned the example of Oldham, which offers free internet access through 91 PCs in 14 libraries. He is correct in saying that we shall soon live in a world in which everybody has a PC at their fingertips. That might be some way off, but we are working towards a society in which, in principle, everyone has an e-mail address—that is not the same as having a readily accessible PC. In a number of schools in the country, all children are given their own individual e-mail addresses, which they can access via the school's computer systems. Having access to the system, as opposed to having ownership of terminals, is an important consideration.
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Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): I hesitate to be the cautious one in these congratulatory affairs. However, does the Minister accept that a little caution can be appropriate? I am very friendly with an American congressman who now receives so many e-mails every day that he has had to contract them out to an independent firm that sifts them to determine which he should pay attention to. We could be heading for a situation that would be the envy of those who conceived the tower of Babel.
Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman also makes a point that will be familiar to Members of Parliament who have websites and active e-mail mailboxes. One does, on occasion, receive considerable amounts of what I believe is called spam, particularly now that it is possible to set up an address list of hundreds of names, and to send each of them an e-mail at the press of a button.
As the hon. Gentleman would expect, there are methods by which multiple e-mails and circulars can be screened out. However, those circulars do exist. They are not fundamentally different from what comes through one's letterbox—some go straight in the bin. The issue is to ensure that an electronic bin works effectively and that messages that go into it have been properly deleted.
The Government's role is to create an environment in which the things that we are discussing can happen. To support the process, we have published a draft national strategy. That provides for a central local vision of local e-government and gives a clear route map to promote its delivery, so that local government can draw up and implement local strategies. It provides for a national framework of standards, infrastructure, partnership working and capacity building in key skills. However, it is crucial that this national framework be based upon local knowledge and solutions. For example, much of the work being developed to assist interoperability is being undertaken by councils in partnership with each other.
This special grant report is part of a £350 million programme to provide support to local authorities to help them to deliver the e-enabled services by 2005. The funding mentioned in the report builds on the £24 million already allocated in 2001–02 to support 24 pathfinder partnerships in a co-ordinated programme of experiment, innovation and shared learning.
It might assist the Committee if I explain that the report enables grant to be paid for the following four purposes. First, the report enables the Secretary of State to pay grant of £4.1 35m to support 15 e-voting pilots. Those pilots have been established in order to develop innovative schemes for use in the May 2002 local elections. They will explore changes in electoral procedures to make voting straightforward, efficient, secure and above all readily accessible to all electors. That contributes to the Government's intention to be in a position where it will be feasible to hold an e-enabled General Election sometime after 2006.
Secondly, local authorities in England were invited last year to produce an implementing electronic Government statement. It might assist the
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Committee if I explain that the report enables grant to be paid for the following four purposes. First, to support 15 e-voting pilots, the Secretary of State may pay grant of £4.135 million. The pilots have been established in order to develop innovative schemes for use in the May 2002 local elections. They will explore changes in electoral procedure to make voting straightforward, efficient, secure and above all readily accessible to all electors. That contributes to the Government's intention to be in a position to hold an e-enabled general election some time after 2006.
Secondly, local authorities in England were invited last year to produce implementing electronic government statements. Such statements set out each authority's vision of e-enabled services in its community, how far they have progressed in achieving that vision, and the work that remains to be done to meet the Government's target for all services to be e-enabled by 2005. To help local authorities to achieve their aims for e-government, the report makes available in 2002–03 a grant of £200,000 for each principal council in England, the common council of the City of London and the council of the Isles of Scilly, the Greater London Authority, Transport for London, and the London Development Agency.
The grant is intended to support the proposals set out in receiving authorities' IEG statements, and will be payable only to authorities that have submitted satisfactory IEG statements. All authorities bar one have produced such statements, which have proved to be satisfactory. A further £200,000 is to be made available in 2003–04 to those authorities, subject to their demonstrating in their updated IEGs that they have made good progress.