E-Europe 2005 Action Plan

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Mr. O'Brien: I am sure that my hon. Friend is right that there are opportunities for colleges and the education system as a whole to upgrade skills. As I said in my opening statement, the more the technology is upgraded and we provide the increase in skills that are necessary for the business community to take best advantage of the opportunities that ICT provides, the better the economy will develop in the long term.

Michael Fabricant: The Minister rightly mentioned the advanced nature of the internet in South Korea. It was on a boat on lake Atitlan in Guatemala that I met a charming lady who is the vice-president of Samsung. She told me that broadband rates in South Korea are in the order of 14 megabits per second. We do not enjoy that in the UK. The Minister mentioned that we now have coverage of 99 per cent. of the population with broadband. About 4 million people have joined with BT. It is to be congratulated, as are the other private companies that provide broadband. How do we define broadband? We are talking about 14 megabit per second rates in South Korea, yet it seems that broadband can be as slow as 128 kilobits in this country. Is it not a little misleading, albeit unintentional, to congratulate ourselves too much if broadband speeds are pretty low on most occasions?

Mr. O'Brien: We have chosen to describe 128 kilobits per second as broadband because that followed a discussion between Ofcom and the broadband stakeholder group and a view that that was the base from which we would operate. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that some other countries have decided that they want a different base. The important point is not just the speed, but the services that are on offer. Even at the bottom of this range at above 128 kilobits per second, faster web-surfing and e-mail, and the ability to be online and use one's telephone at the same time are all factors that enable us to use the phrase ''broadband''. The Advertising Standards Authority has acted on a few occasions where advertisements have been misleading in claiming more than would be delivered.

Other countries, including France and the USA, have services below 500 kilobits per second. We include those in our benchmarking. We are currently third in the G7 for both extensiveness and competitiveness. South Korea has some special circumstances that have enabled it to proceed at a very fast rate. People live predominantly in flats. It is easier to connect them if they live in big cities. There are issues in the rural areas, even in South Korea. Speeds in this country are increasing and as people see the obvious advantages of broadband they will require higher speeds in due course.
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Richard Younger-Ross: I shall quote one sentence from page 36 of the addendum to document 9675/04:

    ''The need to develop standards for a common approach to patient identifiers and electronic health records architecture is therefore on the agenda for 2006.''

The health service is currently designing new patient record architecture. Is that likely to be compatible with what will happen in Europe? I have some fears. I understand that at present the system for patient files will not even be compatible with the social services patient files, which worries a number of social services departments.

Mr. O'Brien: Let us make one bit of progress at a time. The action plan requires member states collaboratively to compile an inventory of e-health interoperability best practice by the end of 2005. The UK is considered by the Commission to be the lead member state, due to the NHS programme for IT, which is costing about £6 billion to introduce. The NHS is in the process of setting up the programme and is currently on budget and on schedule. The e-health action plan means that the UK will work with like-minded member states to identify and disseminate best practice. That means that we shall see a sharing of information on health best practice, and on obtaining health advice, such as when people are abroad. It enables us to develop an extensive infrastructure within the UK with integrated IT infrastructure and systems for all NHS organisations by 2010. The key components are an electronic NHS care records service, an electronic booking service, Choose and Book, electronic transmission of prescriptions and a national broadband network.

So far as the NHS care records service is concerned, phase 1 release 1, supporting choose and book, was introduced in the summer of 2004. Phase 1 release 2, to support electronic transmission of prescriptions, is scheduled for 2005. We hoped to have that on-screen for 2005, and I understand that it was delivered for testing at the end of 2004, so we are now testing it. In terms of the EU, we have a system being currently developed. It will not be complete until 2010, but we believe that it will provide us with the ability to do our share in the development of e-health across Europe. We must consider and encourage how other countries develop their systems. The more we are able to integrate with other systems, the more the level of interoperability grows, and the more the Commission can encourage that process, the better. Europe's 2005 action e-plan will, I hope, not complete but begin that process.

Michael Fabricant: The Government seem quite proactive in producing a programme for broadband Britain, which is also reflected in the EU action plan. However, research recently conducted by Transversal shows that 60 per cent. of Government websites are inefficient at resolving customer inquiries, and 75 per cent. of customer-related management projects initiated by the Government on their websites failed to deliver any measurable return on investment. Given that lamentable performance, what further input can the UK Government give to Europe to ensure that it does not go down the same path?
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Mr. O'Brien: In terms of a return on investment, there are different ways in which that can be measured—not just in pure economic terms, but in terms of quality of service to the public. Access to online services will improve the quality of service, if that is how people want to access Government services, but the real problem is that most people do not currently want to access Government services online. We are seeing the development of that sort of interest, and we want to encourage it, because we want more people to access not only national government but local government online.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the 60 per cent. figure for Government websites being inefficient and how that is defined. I certainly remember trying to access the website of a well-known national company in order to obtain items for Christmas, and found that it was particularly inefficient for my level of knowledge of how to use its website. It certainly was not user-friendly. We are dealing with a developing technology, particularly in large organisations such as Government Departments, which are trying to create efficient websites. It is a learning experience. We need to improve on the figure that 40 per cent. of websites are efficient, but I suspect that if we measured Government Departments by the same level of efficiency as some private sector companies, there would not be that much of a dissimilarity. We are all going through an ICT revolution, and as we get through it, we will become more efficient.

Richard Younger-Ross: In the addendum that we were sent there was a reference to social inclusion, which is obviously very important and the Government are committed against disability discrimination. People who suffer with impaired sight have difficulty accessing the internet and ICT. Government websites are not particularly readable—the Royal National Institute of the Blind and others have criticised them on that in the past. What are the Government doing with regard to accessibility of their websites to people who are visually impaired? Will they ensure that other European countries insist that there is equal access for those with visual impairment, as should be the case in the UK?

Mr. O'Brien: With technology that is predominantly viewer accessed there will be difficulties for people with eyesight problems. I, like the hon. Gentleman, have taken to wearing glasses and so have more than a little sympathy with those with greater visual impairment. I have noticed that Government and private sector company websites are often written by people with young eyes that are particularly good at viewing small print. It is not only people with substantial visual impairment who have difficulties, but also those with limited visual impairment. Social inclusion is important and we are working with the RNIB and the Royal National Institute for Deaf People on that. The Cabinet Office requires all sites to meet European Union standards, and we are taking part in a major Europe-wide conference this year on how to improve the quality of e-government and access to the internet by citizens. A key issue to be considered will be how to ensure
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greater social inclusion, including those who are visually impaired.

The Chairman: If no more hon. Members wish to ask questions, we will proceed to the debate on the motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That this Committee takes note of European Union document No. 9675/04 and ADD 1 and 2, Commission Communication on an update to the eEurope 2005 Action Plan; welcomes the actions proposed by the Commission as a follow-up to the mid-term review of the Plan; and supports the Government's objective, during its Presidency of the EU, of ensuring that the 2006–2010 Action Plan contributes positively to the enhanced deployment of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in business and in the public sector, thereby contributing to the goals of the Lisbon Agenda.—[Mr. Mike. O'Brien.]

2.44 pm

Michael Fabricant: This has been an interesting discussion so far. The motion is primarily to take note of the European Union document, though it goes on to support and congratulate various people, but I will not be getting too excited about it. I share the scepticism on the European action plan that was demonstrated by the European Scrutiny Committee. In the conclusion of its report, it stated:

    ''We questioned whether the high profile given by the Council to the eEurope Action Plan, and the faith it places in the role of the ICTs in building a knowledge-based economy in Europe, is justified.''

It went on to criticise a Minister—I do not know if it was this Minister—when it said:

    ''When the Commission asks 'whether the specific instruments and targets adopted for eEurope are the right ones or whether a greater impact could be achieved through a new battery of policy tools', it causes us to question whether it is really committed to the sort of robust analysis, assessment and evaluation of what and how much it should be doing that should underlie recommendations on the follow-on from eEurope 2005. Nor do we have evidence that the Minister is asking these questions.''

The problem with this action plan is similar to that with the Lisbon agenda—it is a wonderful wish-list. It wants Europe to be strong in ICT, and the Minister robustly and eloquently pointed out that there was a close correlation between investment in and implementation of ICT by companies and economic growth not only in this country but also in the companies that use those services. That is true, but having an action plan does not necessarily mean that it is going to happen.

When I did a real job, before I became a Member of Parliament, one of my clients was Radio Moscow World Service, which was round the corner in Moscow from Gosplan, the state planning agency. Every five years Gosplan also devised an action plan, but although the plans were good, they never actually worked. The Lisbon agenda has not succeeded so far—at least that is recognised by the Commission—and I wonder whether the e-Europe action plan will work in practice. However, the Minister is right to say that we should support it. I do not know whether it will achieve anything or whether it will cost British taxpayers even more money in supporting endless projects that see no result in Europe, but we must hope that we shall see some return on the investment.
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I shall raise a few brief points relating to some of the Minister's remarks. I want to challenge him and his officials on the statement that the speed issue on the internet is not that important. That is an extraordinary thing to say. About 10 per cent. of people who use broadband feel that they are not getting satisfaction.

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Prepared 13 January 2005