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17 Dec 2002 : Column 687continued
The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): East-west transport links in the east of England are being investigated by the London to south midlands multi-modal study, which is nearing completion. The final report will be published early in the new year. We will consider the regional planning body's recommendations on the study and make a further announcement on how they will be implemented in due course.
Barbara Follett : I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and for the #145 million that the eastern region received in last week's local transport settlement, but is he aware that none of that money went towards improving east-west transport links? Will he bear that in mind in making future allocations, particularly as there is an urgent need for those links to bring employment to the Suffolk coastal towns?
Mr. Spellar: My hon. Friend is aware that we are considering not just the immediate area in London and the south midlands, but the area surrounding Ipswich, not least because of the connections out to the east coast ports. We need to wait for the outcome of the multi-modal study and, of course, the views of the regional planning body. I will certainly take account of her views when we come to that consideration and hope also that she will make representations at that time.
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Will the Minister confirm that he has no intention of allowing, let alone financing, the railway and motorway from Luton to Stevenage, which the Luton airport operators have said would be necessary if their expansion plans were approved and which would destroy the environment in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett)? It would probably end in her back garden. Will he also confirm that the real way to stop unnecessary cross-county transport and travel is to focus airport growth in a minimum of hub airports rather than unnecessarily expanding airports such as Luton?
Mr. Harris : Given the subject matter of this question, it is appropriate that my hon. Friend is answering it. Does he agree that far too few young people express an interest in public service? Is not there a danger that, unless we can convince younger people that their opinions and experience are valued, their disengagement with the political process will only accelerate?
Mr. Alexander: I agree with my hon. Friend. Engaging young people in the political process is a challenge not only for the Government, but for all political parties. One of the particular challenges that we face is that only 10 to 15 per cent. of public appointments come up every year. We have made some progress on that, but we can make further progress, especially with regard to young people.
Jeff Ennis: Has the Minister's Department liaised with disability organisations on this important issue? What can it do to speed up the process so that at long last public bodies are truly representative of society?
Mr. Alexander: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The Cabinet Office and the equality unit have held discussions on these specific areas. We are keen to increase the number of adverts placed in journals that address the needs of particular communities, including the disabled.
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): I commend to my hon. Friend the work of A National Voice, which is the national organisation for young people in care. It explodes many of the myths about young people in care. Will he assure me that such organisations will be fully involved in the work to develop and improve the care system and on the Green Paper on services for children at risk?
Mr. Alexander: I shall certainly bear in mind my hon. Friend's observations on the care system, and I will ensure that my colleagues in government are fully appraised of the work of the organisation of which he speaks.
The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Douglas Alexander): We have jointly established a group to raise awareness of the policy and to build expertise in software procurement. The Cabinet Office effectively promotes and is active in its deployment of the open source software policy.
Some recent examples of public sector usage of OSS include the Department of Trade's Small Business Service, the Meteorological Office and West Yorkshire police. Those organisations are either using or piloting open source software for their operational use.
Mr. Allan : The Minister deserves credit for his open source policy. Will he confirm that it will apply in full to the national health service, which is a major purchaser of IT services and could benefit from acquiring the rights to bespoke software and deploying it openly among the developer community? Has he been able to reach agreement on his policy of using open source software as the default exploitation route for Government-funded research and development software?
Mr. Alexander: I welcome the hon. Gentleman, who is now dealing with these issues, to his new position on the Front Bench. I shall make a couple of general observations and then address the specific question of the health service. We always maintain an interest in best value for money solutions, be they OSS or other types of software. We are also determined to remove reliance on individual IT suppliers, and the Office of Government Commerce is taking forward a range of work in this area. The hon. Gentleman may also be interested to know that I discussed IT matters with the Secretary of State for Health this morning.
Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): One perception about open source software is that it is less secure than proprietary software, but that is not true. What steps is the Minister taking to promote the security of IT systems across government, particularly those using OSS?
Mr. Alexander: I know of the expertise of my hon. Friend in this area, and it goes without saying that the security of Government systems is vital. We are taking active steps on a monthly and ongoing basis to keep appraised of the latest IT security challenges that we face. Properly configured open source software can be at least as secure as proprietary systems; in fact, at the moment OSS is subject to fewer attacks than are alternative forms of software. However, this is an area of ongoing work for the Government.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Has the Minister examined the use of open source software to solve a very big Government problem: their inability to answer letters in anything less than two or three months? Would it not be a good idea to examine how to get much better standards of performance in serving us and our constituents?
Mr. Alexander: One of the challenges relating to software systems is the legacy issue, and one such legacy that we encountered after 1997 was the slowness of Departments in responding to letters. Work is now being undertaken by each Whitehall Department to ensure that letters are responded to at an appropriate time.
The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The Government remain strongly committed to equality of opportunity, and to creating a civil service that is fully representative of the community that it serves. Government Departments have delegated responsibility for most recruitment, but they have set themselves challenging diversity targets.
Mr. Bailey : I thank the Minister for his reply. What advice can he give to young unemployed members of the ethnic minority community in my constituency on how best to improve their chances of being recruited to the civil service, both regionally and nationally?
Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend makes an important point. A range of community organisations is receiving direct sponsorship to encourage under-represented groups to apply for work in the civil service. One example that may be of interest to him is Black Britainit can be found at blackbritain.co.ukan online business that provides black communities with information on jobs across Departments in Whitehall.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Does the Minister agree that, in talking about equality in this context, he should be equally concerned with quality? If he cannot explain today what a Xrepresentative" civil service actually means, can he give us an absolute assurance that, when it comes to recruitment to the civil service, merit will always come above all else?
Mr. Alexander: I would hope that that is not a contentious point on the Floor of the House, but it could be so for those Opposition Members who have no interest in building up the public sector and the civil service in particular. We maintain our ambition of merit and equality of access to the civil service, and we see no contradiction between drawing talent from the widest possible pool across the country, and ensuring excellence in the public realm in the United Kingdom.
Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend makes some vital points. Of course, within the civil service there are targets not just for women and for ethnic minorities, but for disabled citizens; however, along with those targets we have also taken forward streams of work that are attracting non-traditional entrants. As the work of the civil service in relation to the new deal and modern apprenticeships shows, many new routes of access are now available to people who perhaps had not previously considered serving the public interest in the civil service.