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27 Jun 2007 : Column 123WH—continued

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing this debate, which provides a further opportunity for us to talk about rail services in London, and particularly the proposals for the funding of phase 2 of the East London line. I am aware of the numerous representations that my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) have made to my ministerial colleagues in the past regarding the importance with which their constituents regard the project. They stand to accrue interests and benefits from it.

Having listened carefully to my hon. Friends, I can say that I regard them as a powerful triumvirate—I was going to describe them as a three-headed campaign machine, but I think that “triumvirate” is more diplomatic and better reflects their contribution to the debate. Led by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, my hon. Friends have made a persuasive case in terms of value for money and regeneration, and the social, economic and leisure benefits of the scheme. I heard the debate about whether the Hackney Empire or Battersea arts centre should come out on top, but clearly there is a question about whether people should be fighting about that. The point is that Londoners and visitors should be able to move easily around the city, and to enjoy the many benefits of living in or visiting my hon. Friends’ constituencies.

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I am grateful for the generous words spoken by my hon. Friends about Transport for London, the Department for Transport and the Government. The Government showed foresight by giving TfL the powers and funding to do the work that Londoners and visitors have long sought.

Mr. Ian Brown was mentioned several times. I was wondering whether he would be declared as the newest member of the Cabinet—he has plenty of support in the Chamber. However, I suspect that he is committed to the job that he is doing, as are the whole team at TfL, and the officials at the Department for Transport and other Departments. I am grateful to my hon. Friends for their comments. I recognise that phase 2 of the East London line extension is particularly important in the light of developments on the London overground network.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea pointed out, the extension would complete the last piece of an orbital rail network for London. Indeed, it would significantly improve the accessibility of deprived areas of the city. I like the term “regeneration express”, which was borrowed, I believe, from the Mayor of London. That is what we are about.

As I said, the funding and autonomy provided to TfL by the Government have produced dramatic improvements throughout London’s transport network. Although my hon. Friend’s constituents may not yet have access to a London Underground station in Battersea, they have much improved bus services and a steadily improving heavy rail network. As he and others predicted, I am bound to say that deciding when and whether any particular transport scheme goes ahead is a matter for the Mayor and TfL. I understand that, at present, there are no guarantees on phase 2. The Mayor and TfL need to reassess their budgets and transport priorities for the spending review this year. I assure my hon. Friends that the East London line extension phase 2 is being discussed in the spending review, but I should say that it is one of a number of London transport projects that TfL would like to take forward. I wish to put on record an assurance that I shall draw the Mayor’s, TfL’s and the Treasury’s attention to the constructive and persuasive points that have been made in the debate.

I listened carefully to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch about the importance of information to people who travel overground as well as underground in London. From the quality of her contribution, I now know that it is not only a matter of extending the line, but about working with the extension. I am grateful to her for making that point.

I am sympathetic to the points that have been made, and I was interested to hear about the “Connect South London” campaign run by the East London Line Group. On orbital travel, it is important to encourage passengers to choose routes other than those that go through central London, but volumes of passengers travelling in to main hubs are probably far larger than the number of people who will travel orbitally. My hon. Friends made the point that as hubs develop and properly integrate—that is the key—to the TfL network, they will have a significant impact.

Jeremy Corbyn: The Minister will have heard my remarks about the possibility of joining the East
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London line to Finsbury Park station to develop the sub-regional hub. I should be grateful if the Minister would give some indication of her views on that, and on the related matter of transferring stations to TfL.

Gillian Merron: That is not in the current plans, as my hon. Friend is aware. However, the Government are committed to the devolution of London transport services. That is evidenced by the creation of TfL and the powers that have been further devolved to it following the White Paper on “The Future of Rail”. It is possible that there may be further devolution in future.

On the timetable, TfL will take responsibility for the North London railway in November, and we will see a gradual improvement of services. The East London line extension opens in 2010, and the Dalston curve, which will connect east to north London, will open in 2011.

Concerns were raised about the use of the private sector once the East London line extension is complete, and I can tell the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) that I shall be happy to write to hon. Members about the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers report. It is for TfL to decide how it specifies and operates services on the East London line and the forthcoming extension.

It is incorrect to suggest that TfL’s current plans mean that the East London line is being privatised—that is not the case. The infrastructure assets that make up the line will remain under the ownership of TfL and Network Rail. TfL will also own the rolling stock on the route. A concessionaire will be appointed to run the services on the line and, unlike the national rail network, the revenue risk attached to services on the East London line, including income from fares, will remain with TfL, which will also set fares. I hope that that is reassuring.

I shall be happy to write to hon. Members on the issues that I am unable to address today because we are short of time. In conclusion, the Department will continue to work with TfL, Network Rail and other stakeholders to examine opportunities to enhance London’s rail network for Londoners and visitors alike.

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Transformational Government

4.39 pm

Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): We are here at a transformational moment in history. I am of course referring to the fact that the debate is an extreme rarity in the House—it is only the second debate on transformational government that I can remember from the past three or four years. There is, by the way, another little event going on elsewhere involving a new Prime Minister which, I guess, means that the assembled masses are elsewhere. I shall perfectly understand if the Minister has to respond to a pager message from No. 10, because he is extremely worthy of aggrandizement and I would not deny him a move up the greasy pole, but I hope that some of our Cabinet Office Ministers will remain in post for some time because one issue with transformational government is the need for continuous leadership.

The masses are not here for this debate on transformational government, because it is not a sexy subject but a techie, geeky subject. Far too often, the debate concerns IT and technology, rather than the real purpose of transformational government, which involves outcomes for people. That is what I want to focus on, because transformational government is about using IT as a tool to achieve the best outcomes in public service delivery for all our people, but particularly those who need public services most. The issue is fundamental to all MPs, and we must get that message across.

I know that the new Prime Minister is committed to this agenda. He commissioned David Varney’s report, and I am sure that he will implement it with all speed when he gets his feet under the desk at No. 10. I want to speculate beyond Varney, and on where the transformational government agenda should go next. I am chair of EURIM—the European Informatics Market—which you know well, Mr. Gale, as one of its founder members and a great supporter. We are doing a Select-Committee-style inquiry into transformational government, which is a subject that crosses Departments and sometimes falls between the cracks of Select Committees. In my short contribution, I want to say a few words about some of the policy strands that need to be brought together, and which we will explore in that inquiry. I also want to ask the Minister some questions.

Transformational government is about using technology to achieve the best outcomes for our communities, particularly those who need our public services most. It is an intensely political debate. People have told me that there is consensus on what transformational government is about, and there is to a degree. We all want our public services to provide greater value for money and greater efficiency, and we all want to ensure that we can use technology to free up resources for greater front-line working and to ensure more streamlined service delivery.

However, I believe passionately that politics is about trying to ensure two things. First, those who need our services most should receive excellent quality public services. That is hard to provide in a joined-up way. Secondly, we should create confidence in our public services so that everyone has a buy-in to them. In the
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modern world, people expect 24/7 services from the private sector. They want services when they want them and where they want them. They expect efficiency, value for money and technology. Public services should deliver no less, and preferably greater excellence, so that there is a buy-in from the big tent—the middle classes—while enabling more resources to go to those who need them. I do not want to aggrandize the subject too much, but the agenda is about the future of public services.

What issues should we address? First, there are a couple of myths and legends. Too much of the debate about transformational government focuses on failed Government IT projects. One can look at Government computing weekly every week and find a litany of disasters, but that is not the whole story. There are excellent examples of what works both in central Government—in the Department for Work and Pensions I cite pension credits—and in local government. A recent exhibition by EURIM and SOCITM—the Society of Information Technology Managers—exemplified some of the good work, particularly in local government, to join up service delivery.

I heard from a carer who was over the moon that the help that her father received from social services and the national health service was linked seamlessly with help from carers with one point of contact, so that she did not have to run around. More important, her father did not have to run round to a number of agencies to receive the care and support that he needed. There are some good examples, but too often we hear about the failed examples.

Let us be clear. There are failed examples in the private sector, and many of the largest and most complex IT projects are in the private sector. Some work extremely well—for example, Voca for financial services and BT for commission billing. Some projects are immensely complex, but we do not hear so much about the many private sector projects that fail.

We must learn. Many EURIM reports and a recent Public Accounts Committee report picked up some of the lessons that we still have to learn after all this time. First, IT skills are scarce in the public sector, and we must nurture and retain them. There is concern in the private sector about the skills shortage in information and communications technology, which must be addressed urgently. Secondly, continuity at the top is required at both ministerial and senior civil service levels. Thirdly, we must look at projects involving incremental changes rather than a big, centralised bang. In that context—dare I say—are identity cards, although I support them, and we need clarity of outcome. Those are some of the lessons to be learned.

In terms of where the agenda goes next, I want to suggest three strands that should be integrated if we want to transform—I emphasise “transform”—Government and public services. The first is social inclusion. All the strands fall neatly within the Cabinet Office’s remit, which is a happy coincidence. If we are to transform, we must have social inclusion at the heart of everything that we are doing.

We have had processes, e-envoys, tsars and so on to look at life episodes and the equivalent of the moose licence—let us go online and do whatever is easiest, whether it is relevant or not. We must be more
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sophisticated, and look at services that need to be joined up, but which are complex and include the most difficult problems. I chair the all-party group on domestic violence, and a social enterprise within the equalities network that I am involved with is an online domestic violence project. In a crisis, a domestic violence survivor must contact between eight and 10 different agencies, which often give the same information over and over again. Survivors may have to cope with losing their home and the whole terrible situation while trying to care for their children. If we target such a complex problem rather than picking on the easiest subjects, and make the technology work for that person, everything else will follow.

The digital divide or social exclusion in technology has been written and talked about for what feels like millennia. The issue is not lack of hardware—certainly not in my constituency. Hand-holding rather than hardware is needed. We proved that again in the Womenspeak project with the Hansard Society and Women’s Aid in 1999. We targeted the hardest to reach—domestic violence survivors. The first people online were Irish women travellers in the north-west of England and Bangladeshi mums in my constituency, neither of whom would normally go anywhere near public agencies or talk about their situation. They were online using technology, and the Bangladeshi mums are still using that technology to learn online. We were able to reach out. It was said that those people would never go online and never participate, but they did because they had support and we ensured that that was available to them.

We must target the hardest to reach and ensure that we have genuine joined-up service delivery for those with the most complex problems. Of course, we must get certain services online because we need to shift the easy services online. Forty per cent. of people now do their tax online, which is great because it releases resources for the front line and those most complex problems. Social inclusion is one strand.

Diversity and choice in public service delivery is another policy imperative that we must discuss, involving appropriate service deliverers to meet the needs in the community. Social enterprise is another Cabinet Office priority. Do we have models that enable us to ensure that social enterprises can deliver those services? Are IT suppliers and projects geared to dealing with that mixed economy? That is a question to the Minister.

A third strand is democratic delivery. In any private sector company, people build up relationships—R2R—and get feedback on their services. That is basic. It should be integral to transformational government, and I believe that it is coming. However, we should do more than that if we want to build up public confidence, which means that we should involve people who use our services online not only in helping us to maintain the excellence of public service delivery, but in designing and having a say in those services.

Again I quote Womenspeak, because in a legislative and parliamentary context, the evidence that we received undoubtedly helped to influence at least seven pieces of legislation, not least the domestic violence legislation itself. We could use it as a model to think about ways of engaging people in designing public services.

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I pose some of those questions to the Minister. Are we geared up to tackle the issues that I have raised? We still have issues about data sharing, largely because of ignorance about the Data Protection Act 1998. However, there are some good examples, so why do we not learn from them and spread them? There are in public service delivery too many nay-sayers who use the Act to prevent joined-up services.

We must also consider ways in which we can ensure that when cost savings are delivered through IT projects, and the cost is attributed to one Department but the benefits are shared throughout several, we have models that enable us to evidence that situation, so that it can be built into the comprehensive spending review process. I understand that it does not happen now, but it will be fundamental if we are to join up service delivery and end departmental-itis.

We must also have some resource—a small pot somewhere—to encourage innovation and democracy in public service delivery. I hoped that digital challenge would be part of that process; I was involved in the early discussion with the Institute for Public Policy Research. Sadly, however, it is not, as we hoped it would be, a pot for innovation, experimentation, learning and the rolling out of good practice. There is excellence in some of those areas, particularly at a community level. I hope that even if the Minister has a very brief life left in the Cabinet Office before he goes on to greater things, he will take some of those messages back with him.

4.53 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Pat McFadden): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) for initiating the debate. She is a great believer in the possibilities of using technology to improve service delivery, she is a serious commentator on the issue, and she has shown a great commitment to positive and productive dialogue with Ministers on the issue. I, like her, think that today is an appropriate day to debate transformational government. Yesterday, I challenged the Cabinet Office press office to give me the communications plan for the debate, but I fear that even its talents may keep us from the front pages tomorrow. We will do our best.

The issues are important for quality of life and for good government. My hon. Friend rightly said that they are not only about IT, but about change to the way in which things are done, services are delivered and, I hope, change for the better for the citizen who is in receipt of the Government’s service. Change is rarely easy. The systems that we work with are complex, we are dealing with large numbers of people, and the services that we provide are often critical. They are not things that we can afford to get wrong. A private company may take a risk on launching a new product, and the customer may buy it, they may not. However, if we are talking about paying people benefits or pensions, we must get it right for their livelihoods, so great care must be taken to ensure that we get it right.

You will be relieved, Mr. Gale, to know that I shall not go through all the Government’s IT and
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transformation projects, but I shall make a few general points and pick up on a few points that my hon. Friend raised. As she said, the record is better than some reports and impressions suggest. There are significant successful examples of the change that technology has enabled: millions of benefit payments are made accurately every week, which sustain millions of families; online payment of car tax has been taken up by about 9 million people so far; online tax returns were filled out by almost 3 million people last year, an increase of some 45 per cent. on the previous year; and I am sure that my hon. Friend regularly visits schools in her constituency, as I do, so she will have seen the IT investment there, which places us ahead of many other countries, given its scale and intensity. It is crucial in helping pupils expand their own horizons and future opportunities. I could go on, but they are some of the successful investments and projects that have been made.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the Government must respond to the changes that are taking place in other parts of people’s lives. If goods and services are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it is immensely empowering. People are booking flights online, so fewer go to travel agents and they are downloading music and taking part in social networking sites at a time of their own choosing, all of which is empowering. Owing to the transactions that can be carried out, the old concept of opening hours is rendered obsolete. If people are being empowered in the private sphere, the state has a duty to respond, and to try to do things that fit with people’s lives.

The issue is not just about the internet and we must remember that one third of the population are not online. In the provision of services, they cannot and should not be left out or left behind. Even as we use IT to make service better, we must get the right mix of service delivery channels, so that people who need personal or face-to-face help can still get it. Like my hon. Friend, I believe that we can combine the two effectively by doing the easy things online and concentrating face-to-face help more on the locations where it is needed than it has been in the past.

Another crucial issue, which I spoke about earlier this week, is time—the citizen’s time and the country’s time. If we can improve services through the application of new technology, we can give people more time spend productively, and if we can organise our staff time to maximise the use of new technology, and if their time is spent more productively, there will be national benefits.

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