Fifth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Wednesday 26 February 2003
[Mr. John Cummings in the Chair]
Local Government Finance (England)
Special Grant Report (No. 112)
on Special Grants for the Local
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. 112) on Special Grants for the Local E-Government Programme.
The report contains powers to enable the Secretary of State to pay grant of up to £38.4 million to support the first phase of the 11 national projects listed in annexe A, as part of the local electronic government programme. Let me briefly place the provisions in the context of the national strategy for local e-government.
The Government are committed to improving public services. Local authorities handle 80 per cent. of people's dealings with the public sector and are therefore in a strong position to deliver the high-quality services that local people have the right to expect. Effective e-government is fundamental to meeting that challenge, which is why we have set a target for local authorities of e-enabling those services that they can by 2005. Customers will then have more choice over the ways in which they contact and receive information from public services. They will be able to use interactive digital television, personalised websites, mobile technology and telephone technologies that employ smartcards, as well as getting services face to face over the counter. We want to explore and enhance those ways of delivering and receiving services.
Local authorities are increasingly offering very high standards of customer services and streamlining their back office activities, and there are good examples of that. Swale district council in Kent has a new customer service centre, which deals with 11,000 calls a month and gives customers immediate answers to 52 different types of queries. E-government can also help with local democracy. In Harrow, people can use a fully interactive consultation section on the council's website to contribute on community issues such as education, recycling and even council tax. There are lots of good examples of the work that is going on, and we want it to continue and expand. In that respect, we are also developing e-voting systems to give local people more choice over how they elect their local councillors.
To drive that agenda forward, the national strategy for local e-government was published in partnership with the Local Government Association in November. The strategy gives council leaders, elected members and senior managers a clear view of what can be
Column Number: 004
achieved, the issues that they will have to tackle, and what central and local government are doing nationally to help.
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): I am delighted that the Government are giving such generous grants to local authorities across the country as part of this marvellous initiative, but has Sefton council approached the Minister for funding? We probably have one of the worst call centres in the entire country. I tried to get through to it for 36 hours a couple of weeks ago, but I failed completely. Frankly, I despair for the rest of the local population, and I would be delighted to think that the poor recipients of Sefton council's online services and facilities might receive funding.
Mr. Leslie: As far as I know, Sefton is not developing a national project, although the report deals only with the first phase. None the less, there is local e-government money elsewhere in the programme. There is about £400,000 for all local authorities, and Sefton will be a beneficiary. I am sure that that will interest other members of the Committee.
Achieving local e-government in all councils requires significant resources. That does not mean just Government money—councils themselves must prioritise money for that purpose. We are playing our part by making available £675 million over the five financial years from 2001 to 2005–06 to support the national strategy. The money will be spent in different ways. First, there is £27 million to provide a programme of 25 pathfinder projects, involving more than 100 local authorities that are developing a range of new technical solutions and materials. They are already helping other local authorities to develop and implement their own local e-government strategies.
Secondly—this is the subject of the report—there is up to £80 million to support the programme of national projects. Thirdly, as I said, there is £400,000 to help all local authorities achieve the vision of local e-government that they will set out in the ''Implementing Electronic Government'' statements that they are producing. Fourthly, we are supporting 60 local authority partnerships with £75 million so that they can share expertise and experience and work with others, rather than always feeling that they have to reinvent the wheel in isolation. Fifthly, there is £34 million to support e-voting projects.
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): Are these authorities self-selecting? Do they put up a case and get selected, or are they part of a bidding process, in which case other authorities will be excluded? There seems to be sufficient money for the Hertfordshire bid, provided that it makes a business case. Is that so?
Mr. Leslie: The authorities are not self-selecting, and applications from interested parties have undergone a process of evaluation. They are often lead authorities in that they receive the grant but work in partnership with others. They will specialise in particular aspects of product development that can be progressed at local level and then applied nationally. For example, other local councils will be able to use
Column Number: 005
and replicate the planning scheme that I shall talk about later if they choose to do so.
The £80 million to support the national projects will ensure that all councils have access to key electronic services and building blocks—they will not have to start building from scratch. The projects will pull together councils, central Government, the private sector and others to define and deliver projects that offer national solutions.
Mr. Syms: Could an authority that develops, say, smartcards, which could have an application in other authorities, sell the idea to them? Is there a licence system? If schemes are funded by Government money, will authorities give their ideas free to other authorities?
Mr. Leslie: It will vary from case to case. We do not intend the money to allow individual authorities to profit excessively from the opportunity to develop a scheme. They will be part of a whole series of mechanisms to roll out the benefits of local projects nationally through mentoring schemes and workshops, and by using the website of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister as a focal point for sharing information. The Department will also appoint agents to co-ordinate the roll-out of the projects' benefits.
National projects are being introduced in three phases and will be completed by March. A catalogue of products will be available next year, and they will be rolled out nationwide from about March 2004.
I mentioned the national project on planning, and hon. Members will see that the London borough of Wandsworth is the lead authority in that respect. It is a good example of how local people will benefit. Hon. Members will know that building an extension to a home or making a planning application involves an arduous, paper-based process. People have to contact the council by phone or mail, or they have to visit in person, and that all takes time and often costs money. They must submit their application in hard copy, which can be cumbersome and costly. The council will eventually contact them, but if they need to find out what progress has been made on their application, they will have to visit the council again.
The national project means that the householder can complete applications online from their home, at their convenience. They can send the plans as an electronic file to the council and they will be issued with an ID, which will allow them to confirm that the council has received their application and track its progress. Their neighbours can look at the planning application online to see what is happening. The scheme is quicker, more efficient and simpler. That is just one example of the way in which new technologies and e-government can help improve service delivery.
There will be further special grant reports in the coming weeks—later in the spring—and I am sure that many hon. Members will be queueing up to sit on the Committees. The reports will contain powers to pay grants for the next phase of national projects and we will also be talking again about e-voting projects, other local authority partnerships and round five of the invest to save budget. For the meantime, this report enables the Government to implement a key
Column Number: 006
part of their overall strategy to e-enable local authorities. I commend it to the Committee.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what I believe is the first time, Mr. Cummings. The Conservative party supports any measures that will encourage innovation within local government and act as a catalyst for effective e-government at local level. High quality e-government is essential for effective governance and should be combined with the roll-out of broadband, which the Minister did not mention. If e-services are to be successful, broadband needs to be rolled out much more widely, particularly in rural areas such as my own. What progress has been made in that respect and how can that be assessed in the context of the Learning and Skills Council initiative to e-enable schools?
Innovative local services and electronic delivery can help maintain a strong relationship between local authorities and local people. The Minister mentioned Swale borough council, which I congratulate, because it sounds to be making excellent progress. However, many other councils are not making such good progress in opening up new channels between local government and the citizen.
We are concerned that the present strategy for local e-government will mean that there is a struggle to meet the targets laid down by the Minister for full delivery of e-enabled services by 2005. Is he concerned that a recent Audit Commission survey suggests that one third of councils are not confident of reaching the 2005 target? Does he think that the target will be met? Is it realistic to move from the 28 per cent. of services that are currently e-enabled to a target of 100 per cent. in such a short time scale—just two years away? Adrian Stafford-Jones, the chief executive officer of Albany, a software provider to local councils, states:
''It is high time for the government to take a reality check. The 2005 deadline for getting local government online is unrealistic. The e-government target date is a noose around the neck of every local authority, representing a deadline that heralds sceptical whispers even within government circles.''
It would be interesting to hear the Minister's comments on that.
The April consultation document marked a subtle shift from the original aim of getting all services online to a different aim of merely getting priority services online. How will the Government ensure that any funds granted genuinely deliver benefits to local people? I note that the Audit Commission will consider the funds. Perhaps the Minister can assure the Committee that the commission will consider not only whether the funds have been spent, but whether they are giving ongoing value for money. Point 8 in the conditions for the payment of grants states that all or part of the grant is to be repaid if the aims not met. How will Parliament be informed if that happens?
Was the Minister concerned by the recent survey conducted by the Society of Information Technology Management, showing that 90 per cent. of town hall information and communications technology heads believe that their departments lack the skills to meet
Column Number: 007
the e-government agenda? Many cited the lack of Government support as a major reason for the problem. To what extent will the Government encourage local authorities to use external consulting services to meet e-government targets? Will the Government encourage local authorities to work together to pool skills? The explanatory notes say:
''The National Projects will enable other local authorities across the country to utilise products that are both proven and tailored to meet the needs of local government.''
How will that work in practice?
To what extent is such sharing of information already happening? What special characteristics do the recipients of the funds to improve e-government have? Having received those funds, will they be expected to share the funds, ideas and technology with other local authorities free of charge, or will they be able to recover some of the costs of participating in the projects when they give that information to other authorities?
What factors were taken into account when whittling down the 144 expressions of interest in invest to save budget round 4 grants to the 25 local authorities that were eventually successful? Are there criteria to decide what is innovative and more efficient? How many of those 25 authorities have substantial elements of e-government already? Some of the projects in this special grant do not seem to relate specifically to the e-government agenda. Can the Minister give further details on the extent of the problems faced by projects in the invest to save budget round 2, which have forced an extension of the existing grants?
How far behind schedule are the projects? What is the funding situation for those local authorities not given grants for e-government purposes in this round? Presumably, it is the local authorities that have not yet applied for the special grants that are likely to be furthest behind in meeting the e-government target, although perhaps the Minister can tell us how the chosen authorities were selected. How will the pathfinder projects encourage the effective sharing of best practice?
The Minister mentioned that the programme includes e-voting and said that £54 million had been devoted to that. How will that be rolled out further from the present pilot projects? Above all, how will the integrity of the present voting system be maintained? The moment that the first scam in the e-voting system is exposed, it will enormously damage the credibility of the scheme and its success.
The Minister mentioned that proper business plans had to be submitted. I see that there is a little note (1) in annexe A to say that Hertfordshire county council will be allocated the main funding for its project once its business case has been worked up and approved. Can we be assured that the other 11 authorities listed have submitted, and had approved, proper business plans? Can he explain why the total given in annexe A is £38.4215 million, whereas a figure of £75 million is mentioned in annexe B? Where will the difference go?
Column Number: 008
Can the Minister comment on the Audit Commission's survey? As I said, that was released very recently. It says:
''There is overwhelming agreement (both between and within councils) that the e-government agenda requires fundamental change and an understanding by staff. When asked, over 90 per cent. of interviewees agreed that successful e-government projects depend upon re-engineering business processes and that these projects would fail if staff do not understand the need for change. The engagement of senior officers is also perceived to be an important factor.''
How are the Government getting senior officers in every council engaged in that process, and what monitoring is ensuring that that is happening?
Does the Minister agree with the Audit Commission's final comment? It is:
''However, against this backdrop of optimism, evidence suggests that most e-projects have only recently begun and few benefits have yet been realised. While some councils seem to be acknowledged leaders among their peers and are frequently cited as having made more progress than is reflected here, our survey''—
that is, the survey of the Audit Commission, the independent auditing body, working on behalf of the Government—
''finds that over 50 per cent. of work to deliver e-strategies started in the past 12 months. When asked to reflect upon their most successful project to date, as many as 18 per cent. of e-champions said that there had been none.''
Although I congratulate the Government on the aims of the e-project, it seems to me that relatively little progress is taking place on the ground, and there is an awful long way to go. I ask the Minister to reassure the Committee that he will meet that 2005 target.