First Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 13 May 2003
[Mr. George Stevenson in the Chair]
Local Government Finance (England)
Special Grant Report (No. 121) on
Invest to Save Budget Round 5 Projects,
Local E-Government Programme and E-Voting
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Christopher Leslie): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 121) on Invest to Save Budget Round 5 Projects, Local E-Government Programme and E-Voting.
As the Committee is aware, the Government are committed to improving public services and to significant e-government strategy, not only for central Government but for local government, to ensure that Government services are available to citizens and businesses electronically as well as in traditional form.
Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I want to pick the Minister up on the point that he has just made about the Government's commitment to delivering e-government centrally. Will he comment on the reports that because of the Budget overspend and loss of financial control in the Cabinet Office, the office of the e-envoy has had its budget cut back by 25 per cent? What impact will that have on the targets for delivery of e-government?
Mr. Leslie: I am certainly not aware of figures in that realm. Obviously, publications such as the Red Book detail many of the issues and departmental spending limits. I am not familiar with that departmental spending limit, but I know that the office of the e-envoy is going from strength to strength and, far from reducing the services that it provides throughout government, is providing an excellent level of service and will continue to do so.
Local government, which is the subject of the special grant report, is exceptionally important, handling 80 per cent. of people's dealings with public services in general. We should be looking at new channels for the public to interact with service providers, not only through traditional means such as face to face and over the telephone, which are important, but over the internet, through digital television and, when appropriate, computer database-supported call centres. There are all sorts of ways of ensuring that the public have decent services delivered to them and for them. Electronic government is important, not only for service delivery but for the processes that the Government go through to deliver those services, to join up and make more efficient the ways in which we work. The funding included in this special grant report, under the local e-government programme and the invest-to-save budget, will help to
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drive forward innovation in local government and help all councils to meet the targets.
I want briefly to review the five purposes for which we wish to pay grant under this report. The first purpose of the report is to pay nearly £2 million to six local authorities under round 5 of the Treasury's invest-to-save budget, which was designed to develop projects which bring together two or more public service bodies to deliver public services innovatively and more efficiently. These projects have significant e-government elements and will work closely with the national projects that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is hosting to co-ordinate their efforts. I can give some good examples to illustrate that if the Committee is interested.
The second purpose of the report is to pay grant to support a further five national projects. Some hon. Members may recall earlier special grant reports, particularly No. 112, and we have already funded 11 of those national projects. The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) will recall those vividly.
A good example of where the national projects will achieve results is the trading standards services national project, which is being led by Warwickshire county council. The project will help to join up trading standards services information to provide a national service to citizens, traders and the enforcement agencies. It will enable other local authorities and services to provide a national service to citizens, traders and the enforcement agencies, enabling other local authorities and services to deliver trading standards at a reduced cost and a time of their own choosing, so that we can improve the experience for citizens seeking trading standards or consumer information through improved and new access channels and establish a common process for handling and dealing with complaints and enabling a consultation process.
The report also includes powers to pay a grant of £2.9 million to West Sussex county council to support the personal local websites national project. The grant was originally included in the earlier special grant report, but the lead authority for the project has changed from the London borough of Camden to West Sussex, for no reason other than by mutual agreement.
Mr. Hammond: Just for clarification, I think that the Minister said £2.5 million, which is obviously what his notes say.
Mr. Leslie: No, £2.9 million. It is helpful to be followed so closely by the hon. Gentleman, but I certainly have £2.9 million in my notes. As I said, the transfer was by mutual agreement, simply because the project was moving from the initial phases to the project implementation stages. My note says that the overall amount of funding allocated and the project's objectives will remain unchanged.
The third purpose of the report, building on previous announcements, is to provide powers to pay grant of about £26 million to local authorities to support a further 82 shared-service delivery partnerships. These partnerships will enable local authorities and others to join up their work more
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effectively at a local level, promote efficiencies and economies of scale in the procurement of information technology solutions and facilitate the rapid roll-out of national projects by reducing the number of potential buyers. I am pleased to say that every local authority in England is now participating, as well as at least one partnership, which is an encouraging step towards meeting our targets. Partnership funding under this grant includes a proposal to develop a range of products to enhance existing community portals, working to complement the existing national projects, proposals to improve current processes for dealing with abandoned vehicles and automating the flow information between organisations involved in reporting, recording and removing vehicles, and such like.
The fourth purpose of the special grant report relates to e-voting pilots. Modernising elections is an important part of enhancing democracy in general, making voting more straightforward and efficient, but also focusing on security and ensuring that access to democracy is readily accessible to all. The report provides 18 local authorities with about £18.3 million of funding to support the enhanced programme of e-voting pilots that took place during this May's local elections.
In total, 59 local authorities, covering more than 6.4 million voters, held electoral pilot schemes, making it the biggest ever test of national e-voting technology. E-voting pilots included digital television, internet, touch-tone telephone, text messaging and, in the counting of votes, e-counting machines and all-postal ballots. The schemes were aimed at modernising and reinvigorating the electoral process, making it easier for people to vote. As the programme develops, we wish to see widespread e-enabled elections to local authorities and the devolved administrations. The ultimate objective is to hold an e-enabled general election at some time after 2006.
Early indications suggest that this year's electoral pilot schemes have been a resounding success, with about 21 per cent. of voters in e-voting pilot areas using new methods to cast their votes in the local elections in England.
Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): On that point, the Minister causes me some concern by citing the pilots as being a resounding success at this stage, when the evaluation has not taken place. When I make my own comments a little later, I shall refer to the difficulties that we faced in Sheffield, and that is from an e-friendly Member. I hope that the Minister will refrain from talking about the resounding success of pilots that have not yet been evaluated. It is not helpful.
Mr. Leslie: I said that early indications were that they had been a resounding success. We shall see whether there are later indications as well. The hon. Gentleman mentioned problems in Sheffield. I am sure that he is not referring to the fact that the Liberal Democrats lost control of the council.
Success was also evident in areas running all-postal ballots. The average turnout in those situations was just under 50 per cent., which was far higher than the
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average turnout elsewhere. Maintaining or increasing the level of security at elections is vital to promoting confidence. I am pleased that so far few reports have come through of widespread security problems, but we are still in the process of evaluating that.
Mr. Allan: For the record, it was certainly the case that in one of the wards in my constituency any elector could have voted twice. At any time during the day, they could have voted electronically and then gone to a polling station that did not have a telephone line and, therefore, could not check whether the voter had voted electronically, and voted again on paper. There certainly were major security flaws, which I hope will come out in the evaluation.
Mr. Leslie: There are various mechanisms for evaluating, which, obviously, we shall continue to do. Of course, people who are motivated can always find a way to evade the rules and the law, but we hope that in any normal sense there have been no particular security problems over and above those normally observed in any local election. We are not yet aware of any particular security difficulties, but we will continue the evaluation process. If the hon. Gentleman knows of security problems, he should bring them to the attention of the relevant authority.
The fifth and final purpose of the report is to encourage best practice and to provide targeted support to authorities that are having difficulty implementing their e-government plans. To achieve that, £8.7 billion is being made available via the local authorities listed in part five of annex A to the report. The grant will support various strands of work to be undertaken by the Improvement and Development Agency's local government strategic support unit, which is working to identify barriers to implementation, particularly of the national project building blocks such as the National Land and Property Gazetteer. Those are examples of its good work.
To conclude, the report is central to enabling the Government to implement a key part of their overall strategy to drive forward public service improvements, not least by e-enabling local authorities and by supporting innovative projects. I commend the report to the Committee.