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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): The Strategic Rail Authority has set out its current plans for the development of the rail network in its strategic plan,
Mr. Prentice : That is very disappointing. Why does calling for the reopening of an old railway line appear eccentric, while calling for a new road, as my misguided hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) has done, is okay? Will the Minister accept that now that the Countryside Agency is calling for the reopening of those two lines we ought to press ahead and get trains running on them? The Yorkshire Dales national park is out of bounds to thousands of people without access to a car. If these railways were reopened, that would introduce the countryside to the thousands of my constituents who have never been there.
Mr. Jamieson: I recognise my hon. Friend's concern, and the Government recognise that there is great value in reopening railway lines when that is appropriate. However, he will appreciate that for both these linesin particular, the Skipton to Colne line that is currently not in useit is a matter for those locally, and for the local authority in particular, to formulate a plan and make it known to the SRA, so that we can implement it. As he knows, the SRA is currently holding discussions to gauge interest in reopening the line in the longer term, but it has no plans at present to do so. If local authorities come up with a plan for the Skipton to Grassington line, it can be looked at carefully to meet the ambitions of my hon. Friend and his constituents.
Mr. Speaker: The House will note that I have only managed to get to question 10 on the Order Paper. That was because questions and answers were far too long. We have an obligation to get through the Order Paper, as that is only fair to those who have taken the bother to table questions. I look forward to shorter questions, and of course shorter answers, at the next Transport questions.
The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Douglas Alexander): We are committed to ensuring that central Government services are made available electronically by 2005 and that key services achieve high levels of use. The latest figures obtained during quarter four of 2002 show that 63 per cent. of services were e-enabled. Departments continue to work to meet the 2005 target.
Mr. Crausby : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but is he confident that the general public will have sufficient access to the internet by 2005 to ensure that online services are available to those who need them most?
Mr. Alexander: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the important challenge of the digital divide. We now have 6,000 UK Online centres that operate right across the country. They provide exactly the kind of internet access of which he spoke. We have identified one of the principal barriers as being skills and confidence among the population, and the campaign that the Government announced only yesterday is a significant initiative in helping to bridge that divide.
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): In a recent written answer, the Government were unable to tell me how much they had spent on websites in the past four years, yet the National Audit Office estimates the figure to be something like £1 billion. Does the Minister agree that the Government appear to be the last organisation still living in the dotcom boom?
Mr. Alexander: I simply do not recognise that description. To take a single example, about 500,000 visits to NHS Direct Online took place last month. That is a perfect of example of how the Government are modernising public services and using new technology to find challenging new solutions to the needs of the British public. We are serious about investing in schools and hospitals, and one has only to look towards the initiatives for broadband to see how we are taking forward that work.
Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): Does my hon. Friend agree that effective online services must be simple to use, uncluttered and written in plain language? Does he share my concern that, in our excellent haste to get services online, we are not taking advantage of the opportunity to simplify some of the services at the same time?
Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend raises an important point. One of the key challenges in getting services online is that we do not simply automate the past. That is why it is important both to develop new services and for the Government to enhance their 2005 target. That means not only demanding that services go online but driving up levels of use in the key services that serve the public.
Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): Will the Minister confirm that, as part of the fallout from the loss of financial control and the budget overspends in the Cabinet Office, the office of e-envoy is being shrunk by a quarter? Can he tell the House how that will affect progress towards the target of getting all services online by 2005? If it does not affect those targets, what does a 25 per cent. cut with no impact on output tell us about the waste, inefficiency and bureaucracy in the Cabinet Office?
Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): Does the Minister agree that online services are only of use to citizens if they can easily find them? In that context, will he tell us when we can expect a replacement for the poor UK Online Government portal that is currently available? Will he look at the excellent Canadian Government site, canada.gc.ca, to see an example of how we should do things?
Mr. Alexander: I assure the House that I have already looked at the Canadian example and that I am undertaking such work here. I also commend to the House the Massachusetts government's site, which is similar to that of the Canadian Government. We can learn important lessons from those two transatlantic examples.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): Will my hon. Friend congratulate UK Online and ITV companies, especially Granada, on their work to promote the "IT's for Life" campaign and surrounding work? The fact that the storyline of "Coronation Street" included the need to expand access to information technology is of great benefit to the public. Such programmes must be expanded and I seek a commitment that that will happen.
Mr. Alexander: I am delighted that a national institution such as "Coronation Street" has carried a storyline that exemplifies the kind of outreach work that we want throughout the country to ensure that every community gets online. Perhaps in the future we will move from the Rover's Return to the Surfer's Return.
The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I regularly receive representations on the proposed civil contingencies Bill. The Bill has been developed through a consultative process, beginning with the emergency planning review in 2001 during which we received many replies on proposed legislation. Since then, the Government have engaged closely with the emergency planning community and key external groups, which have made written and oral representations that have informed our work.
Miss McIntosh : How do the Government intend that local councils should pay for their emergency planning provisions in the event that the Government proceed with their plans to stop the ring-fencing of that budget under the Bill?
Mr. Alexander: The hon. Lady raises an important point. It will help the House if I make it clear that in addition to the Government's direct contribution of £90 million, local authorities contribute extra money from their general funds. The Local Government Association estimated in 2001 that the local authority contribution for England to that work amounted to an additional £9.9 million. Consultation on the specifics of the Bill will, of course, continue in the weeks and months to come.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore): Will the Minister give some reassurance to local authorities that are worried about the long-term imposition of any powers that might come from a civil contingencies Bill? If it becomes necessary to use such powers not only in the short term but for a prolonged period, what additional resources might be made available?
Mr. Alexander: The Government spend hundreds of millions of pounds on emergency planning and civil protection in the UK. There is central Government funding for organisations that are involved in the provision of responses to emergencies, which of course include local authorities. Additionally, the Government have increased the direct grant aid paid to local authorities for such work. We shall continue to discuss with local authorities their responsibilities under the proposals that we aim to introduce this summer.