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In conclusion, at one level, this order would allow the Department for Work and Pensions to provide another option for people who need to contact the business. It will bring the service into the 21st century and mean that from 2012 the online service will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week-allowing people to access services when it is convenient. In addition, the anticipated shift to using online services will improve the services to customers by freeing up advisers so that face-to-face contact can focus on supporting people into work. The technology will minimise the risk of identity fraud because the electronic signing pads will measure pressure, angle of the pen and speed, as well as matching the signature. An electronic signature is actually more secure and much more difficult to forge than it is when it is on paper. Electronic records will reduce the need for people to repeat information to advisers and for advisers to re-input basic information. It will reduce costs, save paper, and help the department to meet its efficiency challenge. Importantly, almost most importantly, as we press ahead with welfare reform, this will provide the basis for the electronic systems supporting universal credit.
Lord German: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for such a detailed explanation. He has taken away the need for most of my questions, which were all about electronic signatures, but now that I have more information it gives rise to more questioning. However, I should say that this is about welcoming in the 21st century. First, there was the horse, then there was a car with a man with a red flag in front, and then there was a computer, and people went on to learn about what was inside it. Now, your Lordships are able to use iPads, iPods and, of course, Android devices in the Chamber. We are moving to a change that has to come; and it is one that of course is to be broadly welcomed, because all of us accept that IT should release people. It gives you an ability to do more, to do it more swiftly and, I hope, more securely.
Can the Minister readdress his remarks about electronic signatures and security to this House in the way it votes? After all, my noble friend has given a brilliant explanation of why electronic voting would be absolutely secure in this House. That is a debate that we can have for some considerable time. It may not be appropriate, but it would work.
My questions are twofold. One is about the level of take-up that is likely. Has the department taken any soundings of what sort of numbers of people will want to use these services? What flows from that is therefore the provision that the department might need to ensure that it provides the right level of support
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My second question relates to security. I think I heard the Minister say-perhaps he can confirm this-that once you have set up an account, access to that account will be by PIN alone. That is slightly worrying because there have been instances of people leaving themselves logged on to a public computer in, say, a library, with the next user simply taking over. Of course, there are very clever people who can identify PINs. That is why we are all asked to do more than simply enter our PIN. If you want to do online banking, you certainly have to do more than just enter your PIN. I wonder whether a double check will be there to ensure that people's data are secure.
Thirdly, in the previous debate we talked about people's action plans for their activity in this work-related group. Will those action plans be available to customers online so that they can review them and perhaps engage in some sort of dialogue with the adviser in a Jobcentre Plus online, thereby freeing up time but also giving them much more instant availability?
We are all aware of electronic signatures because the whole postal voting system in this country depends on a signature being scanned and being kept electronically as the test of whether people have voted correctly and are who they say they are in casting their vote. Technology has moved on, and I welcome the opportunity to move forward in this area. I hope that my noble friend will be able to answer my questions, but I am pleased to support the order.
Lord Elton: In his reply, will my noble friend include a word about whether the arrangements for blind or severely visually handicapped people will change as a result of this system and, if so, how they will be catered for?
We support the improvement in customer service delivery through self-service online channels. It is an approach which can be more convenient for customers and more efficient for the DWP. It is, indeed, a win-win situation.
As the equality impact assessment indicates-supported by research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation-digital services can, in particular, assist disabled people to complete transactions and arrangements personally, thereby reducing reliance on others.
As the Explanatory Note makes clear, the order is enabling rather than mandatory. It asserts that those who do not wish or have the means to take on the new arrangements can continue to use the existing postal, face-to-face and telephony channels. However, it goes on to say that existing claimants will be "invited" to switch to the new service. New claimants will be able to access it via the Directgov website and will be
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The equality impact assessment explains that all jobcentres will have a "digital champion", whose role will be to act as ambassador for online services to improve customer confidence and the take-up of digital services. Particularly given the news reporting of job cuts at JCPs, can the Minister say how many jobcentres have a champion in place and what the plan is to complete this commitment? Can he also say something about special customer records and the capacity of the system to provide for appropriate levels of security for these particularly sensitive cases? How are these being catered for within the system?
There is-and has rightly been-strong emphasis on training for Jobcentre Plus staff, especially to be sensitive to customers who may have mental health conditions, fluctuating conditions or communication difficulties, which might be identified at various stages of the customer journey. Is the Minister satisfied that these opportunities are not diminished by the use of online services? Will system failures automatically be factored into compliance failure decisions to prevent people being chased-or potentially sanctioned-simply because the system has gone down?
Lord Freud: My Lords, I thank noble Lords for joining in this debate. I particularly agree with the point made by my noble friend Lord German about how nice electronic voting would be in this House, particularly given the business of the road outside. As contributors to the debate have pointed out, the provisions are really about getting the department into the 21st century, whether with iPods, iPads or Android devices.
My noble friend asked a question about take-up. As I said, our aspiration is to get to 80 per cent. At the moment, 67 per cent of people have access to a PC. Noble Lords may not be surprised to know that we have done quite a lot of research on this. I might share some of those early findings, because they are rather interesting. Well over half of people in the JSA group are now in a position to take this up. The two categories at the top-"Ready, willing and able" and "Able and persuadable"-take us well over half. Then we go through "Nudgeable", "Unconfident" and so forth, and end up with a small group-below 20 per cent-made up of what we call "Intensive support required" and "Multiple barriers".
My noble friend Lord Elton made the point that some people will always find this difficult. Some blind people are able to use electronic things, or telephones that translate information; but clearly we are not talking about first-order processing at the moment. For those groups, we are staying with other methods.
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My noble friend Lord German asked about action plans. They are not the first things that will go on, but in time they will. Clearly, the whole structure of the universal credit is to put it all online; enormous activity is going on in the department at the moment to structure that electronic relationship.
My noble friend asked about the security of PINs: he was cynical about whether the PIN would be enough. The answer is that security is changing all the time. I could give you an answer today, but the department is looking all the time-as are banks and anyone with sensitive online access systems-to change and develop. A war is going on between cybercriminals and those who maintain the systems, and security levels change. I am convinced that whatever we have today in the way of PINs and other security, we will be watching all the time to make sure that we do not get caught out.
We aim to give a lot of information and instruction to people who are not using their own, more secure computer, but a more public computer, that they should log off. We are looking at systems that will make sure that once a file is closed, one cannot get back into it. We are looking at very active systems. That is one of
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The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked rather fewer questions than usual. However, the difficulty and quality of those questions was absolutely up there with his normal track record. He asked about system failure. Clearly we will look to include that under "good cause". It would be unreasonable to penalise someone who was unable to access our system because it had broken down. I think that I answered his point about training and releasing people to do more face-to-face interviews. Of course, sensitive records will be very tightly controlled as part of our security. On the question of safeguards, we are looking to make sure that when people who are less confident with the system are helped into it, they will be helped in a comprehensive way and we will not do anything that will leave them more vulnerable. That will be part of the process.
This will not be the last time that we discuss technology: I suspect that we will discuss it much more than we have done, in this and many other contexts. I thank noble Lords for their contributions and commend the order to the House.
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