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19 Nov 2002 : Column 500continued
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): The Government's 10-year transport plan and provisions in the Transport Act 2000 provide a sound basis for achieving improvements in bus services. We are building on that through a number of initiatives. For example, the bus partnership forum is bringing together the industry and local authorities to overcome any potential barriers to bus patronage growth.
Helen Southworth : I thank the Minister for that answer. My constituents are benefiting from significant Government investment in local bus services, but will he use his very best efforts to ensure that we get a new bus interchange very soon to replace the current, inadequate bus station, which provides very poor access for disabled people, families with young children and older people?
Mr. Jamieson: I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate the fact that we have doubled the funding for local transport plans, which will help to provide better bus services in her area. I am aware that she has made a very robust case for the Warrington bus interchange, which will improve facilities for passengers and provide real-time information and CCTV. I am also aware that she met my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport to press the matter very hard last month. I can assure her that a decision will be made very shortly.
The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Douglas Alexander): Earlier today, the Prime Minister made it clear that the Government will invest #6 billion in information technology in the next few years. That funding will include resources not only to improve access to online services, but to drive up the usage of key services.
Ms Coffey : I thank the Minister for his reply, but will he outline what benefits my constituents might expect as a result of the Prime Minister's speech today on the role of information technology in delivering Government programmes?
Mr. Alexander: I can assure the House that this is a genuine coincidence, but the Prime Minister identified Stockport as one of the areas of e-services in the midst of an important, groundbreaking speech today. He talked about the experience of a GP surgery in Stockport in using new technology to ensure a more efficient service not just for patients, but for doctors as well. That is why we particularly welcome the announcement in relation to schools and doctors' surgeries made by the Prime Minister today.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): Summits are all very well, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that they are no substitute for action? Has he seen the recent survey, published by Jupiter Research, which shows that the United Kingdom is one of the slowest connected countries to the internet, with only 7 per cent. using broadband, and most of that 7 per cent., of course, is in urban areas. Is not that appalling? Is he aware that the figure is nearly 30 per cent.? in Sweden? Why are they doing so much better than we are? Is it not the case that, under the John Major Government in the mid-1990s, we led the world in this area? Why is the United Kingdom now a world laggard?
Mr. Alexander: Far from leading the world then, the real progress has been made during the past year. Broadband connections are being made at the rate of 28,000 a month in the United Kingdom and broadband prices have fallen. We have 66 per cent. coverage across the country in terms of DSL-enabled exchanges. The real progress is being made under this Labour Government, which is why we are rapidly moving up the progress league table to become an even more connected economy in the years to come.
Margaret Moran (Luton, South): I congratulate my hon. Friend on the progress that we are making in extending broadband across the country, but does he agree that it is important that our public services include interactive e-government delivery, particularly to allow
Mr. Alexander: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's work in this area; it is a matter of genuine concern to her. I would make two points. First, we have an obligation to continue to pursue our target of extending access to services now being provided electronically online. Secondlyagain, the Prime Minister made this clear at the summit todayit is vital that we drive up the take-up of those services. That relies on having citizen-focused, customer-focused services, and we rely on having exactly the kind of feedback that has been identified to ensure that we design those services in the future.
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): If every school and every doctor's surgery is to be connected to broadband, can the Minister specify how that connection will be achieved in those areas where it is not available on the telephone exchange?
Mr. Alexander: A range of broadband technologies is available. One of the other aspects of the summit today was the announcement, made by my colleague the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness in the Department of Trade and Industry, on the establishment of the United Kingdom broadband taskforce, which is specifically charged with driving out further infrastructure across the countryexactly the point that I was making. Wireless, satellite, DSLdigital subscriber lineand cable technology is available. That is why the Government's platform neutrality is important. We need to work together with other regions to ensure that we get the right solution for each locality.
The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The Government are strongly committed to a civil service that is fully representative of the community that it serves. Ethnic minorities make up 7.6 per cent. of the civil service as a whole, and 3 per cent. at senior civil service level, up from 1.6 per cent. in April 1998. Our target is 3.2 per cent. of senior civil servants by 200405. Departments have delegated responsibility for most recruitment, and have set themselves challenging diversity targets.
Mr. Pond: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, and I welcome the progress that is being made to make the civil service more representative of the community that it serves. However, is he aware that, in my constituency, as throughout Britain, many young people from black and Asian communities could do a very good job in our public services but may be reticent
Mr. Alexander: I endorse my hon. Friend's sentiments. It may be some comfort to him to be aware that the Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Sector Organisations, along with the civil service, is running a series of seminars directed at the kind of challenge that he identifies in a range of communities across the country.
Mr. Dismore: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways of improving equality of opportunity in the civil service would be to improve the nationality laws, which currently preclude one in six Londoners from even applying for the most lowly grade of clerical job? Is that not one of the real barriers to both recruitment in London and to equal opportunities?
Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend is aware that we have spoken in the Chamber on that issue before, and we have corresponded, too. In July, I wrote to him stating that we want to see progress to open up the civil service to selection on merit, regardless of nationality, but in a way that does not compromise our right to reserve posts for UK nationals where that is absolutely necessary. That remains the Government's position.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Does the Minister agree that one department in which people from ethnic minorities could make a vital contribution, in the current environment, is the Security Service? Can he say whether the Security Service has succeeded in recruiting people from ethnic minorities who would be of particular value under current circumstances?
Mr. Alexander: As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there is a long-standing precedent not to discuss the intelligence services in this place. If there are specific matters of relevance that I can divulge, however, I shall happily write to him on that point.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Does the Minister accept the verdict of the Commission for Racial Equality that the current position in respect of ethnic minority recruitment to the civil service is Xthoroughly disappointing"?
Mr. Alexander: I certainly believe that we can do better, which is why we have set exactly the kind of stretching diversity targets to which I referred earlier. I commend the actions of this Government, however, in taking seriously and driving forward that agenda, given what we inherited in 1997.
Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment that progress towards the diversity targets has seen a setback over the last year? The upper reaches of the civil service are still overwhelmingly white and male, and although 52 per cent. of the civil service are women, only 20 per cent. of senior management posts are held by women. Will he therefore make sure that the new Cabinet Secretary shows as much energy as the last one in driving forward the diversity targets?
Mr. Alexander: I assure my hon. Friend that I have spoken to the Cabinet Secretary on precisely that point. I also assure him that, at every level of Government, it is recognised that we must do more in this area. That is why we are driving forward this important agenda.