Sir George speaks on broadband and e-Government
17 Jan 2003
This is the text of a speech Sir George made in the House of Commons.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): This is not the first time that I have heard the Minister speak on this subject. As on earlier occasions, I have been enormously impressed by his enthusiasm for it and by his grip on the technology. His appointment certainly put a round peg in a round hole.
I endorse the view that the Minister set out at the beginning of his remarks. The United Kingdom should be a leader in this technology, in government and the public services as well as in commerce and entertainment. However, my experience and investigations suggest that, as well as the achievements and triumphs that the Minister mentioned, there are one or two defects in the present e-government strategy and a large question mark over the Government's plans for the development and use of the necessary infrastructure—a point that was touched on during interventions in his speech.
We certainly need reform and transformation in the machinery of government and the delivery of our public services. Many services are inaccessible, unresponsive and inefficient. The internet can play an important part. However, I am suspicious of the current fashion for adding an "e" at the front of words. It can be misleading and unhelpful. It is all to easy to be caught up in the latest fashion and waste both time and money following it, delivering little benefit to the end user while overlooking some basic and elementary steps that can bring immediate gains.
Members of Parliament may be guilty of some mistakes. A number of colleagues have invested in websites but then lost interest and not updated them for months or, in some cases, years. At the other end of the spectrum, a number of colleagues still do not offer their constituents an e-mail address. We are rightly cautious about passing judgment on how colleagues interface with their constituents, but I would say to colleagues whose constituents cannot reach them by e-mail that their constituents are now sending e-mail messages to MPs who have an e-mail address and asking them to print them out and pass them on. I received such a request yesterday. I do not expect my colleagues to take my telephone messages, so I do not expect to have to take their e-mails.
For most people, e-transformation suggests the use of the internet as a delivery and access mechanism. I think that that is the main thrust of Government policy. Departments, public services and local government are all being urged, and in many cases instructed, to
"make all services available electronically by 2005."
That is a great soundbite, but I wonder whether the strategy is right.
Too high a proportion of the services concerned are of poor quality and are badly managed and organised; they fail to deliver good results on either cost or quality. In my view, a service must be inherently efficient before it makes sense to add internet access to the existing access methods. If one puts a badly run service on the internet, it simply enables everyone to find out more quickly how bad it is.
Mr. Chris Mole (Ipswich): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, although they might not provide the impetus for change themselves, electronic solutions provide the opportunity for an agency or body to grapple with fundamental management issues and to review thoroughly its modus operandi and change the way in which it does its business?
Sir George Young : There is some force behind the hon. Gentleman's argument. It is still better for a body to put its house in order before adding internet access rather than to use internet access as a catalyst for change. There might be a case for the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, but I would prefer things to happen in the tidier way that I outlined.
The Prime Minister is committed to providing
"broadband connectivity for every GP surgery, every hospital, and every Primary Care Trust in the country."
I welcome that objective, but people in the health service say that the use of computers and telecommunications in the health service is pretty primitive. That might be a reason why so much new spending goes on administration rather than treatment. What would be the effect of investing scarce resources and funds to allow patients to find out from the internet how long they must wait for an operation?
The soundbite that I mentioned ignores the need to be selective about the online services that will be most useful to the public and that will save the most for the public purse. There should also be selection based on the services that make sense in terms of available technology and the extent to which citizens are able and willing to use services. There is a need to prioritise. For example, I was delighted recently to find that rather than making the long, arduous journey to any post office or using the phone, I can now buy a fishing rod licence over the internet. I suspect that the average citizen would be more interested in being able to renew a tax disc over the internet. The Minister touched on that, and I hope that the scheme will move forward. I am not sure whether the Home Secretary's announcement yesterday about voluntary entitlement to an identity card could take that a stage further by giving each citizen a unique number to use in his or her transactions with the Government.
Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): Is my right hon. Friend aware that I tried to file my tax return on the internet two weeks ago but I was told that Members of Parliament were not entitled to do that?
Sir George Young : My hon. Friend is psychic because along with millions of fellow citizens, I received my PAYE coding notice a few days ago. It made heroic assumptions about next year's income, which I wish I shared. The name and address of my inspector of taxes—probably the same inspector of taxes as that of other hon. Members—was at the top of the letter. Lower down the letter was his telephone number, which looks expensive to call because he is based in Cardiff. However, no e-mail address was given. At a time when many of us carry out routine business such as querying a tax code by e-mail, that option is not available.
I received a leaflet last year urging me to file my self-assessment tax return via the internet. I was given five compelling reasons why I should do that, including the fact that the form would be returned faster, which is an advantage, I suppose, and the fact that any money would be repaid sooner. That was followed by a letter from my inspector of taxes, which is probably the document to which my hon. Friend refers, saying that because MPs have special dedicated pages covering their income, allowances and expenses:
"it is not possible to file Returns electronically."
I gather that the same exclusion applies to several other groups of taxpayers.
People with more than one employer have to correspond every year with the Inland Revenue at Longbenton to determine which employer will deduct national insurance contributions. That could be done perfectly well by e-mail in order to save a tedious exchange of letters, but it is not possible.
The Pension Service offers our constituents the facility of forecasting their retirement pensions. Why can people not tap in their national insurance number and relevant details online to find out what their pension will be instead of getting a form, filling it in and waiting?
The driving test is now in two parts: theory and practical. One test can be booked over the internet but the other cannot. I cannot find out on the internet which NHS medical practices are accepting patients. It seems that local general practitioners are even shyer than many MPs when it comes to providing an e-mail address.
I was pleased to discover from the Department of Health website that form E111, which would be useful if I was knocked off my bicycle in any part of the European economic area, is available, but I still have to go to a main post office to fill in another form as well as the E111.
There are, however, some good results. Top marks to the TV licensing authority; I can buy a TV licence over the internet. One of the Departments has enabled me to get a form to register a vote on the internet. There are, therefore, some achievements.
I looked at the Department of Trade and Industry site this morning and clicked on a seductive page offering the full text of ministerial speeches for one day, including a speech to the Insolvency Lawyers' Association. However, either the page has not been updated for over a month, or Ministers have been mute since 11 December, when Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean addressed an audience in Cleveland in the United States. A coherent approach would be to ask the public what transactions they would like to be available, and examine whether those could be delivered. That would be better than the less structured approach of stipulating a deadline by which all transactions must be available.
My third and final point—I am responding to your injunction to be brief, Sir Nicholas—is the most important one. To what extent do we believe that some citizens can and will access and use public services online? The Minister referred to that towards the end of his speech. Last year's report by the National Audit Office expressed considerable concern about it, and the more recent note by the House of Commons Library staff reinforces that concern.
Local authorities have been busy in the past two years responding to the Government's requirement that they, too, put all their services online by 2005. Looking through some of those local government plans, one is struck by the consistency with which it is reported that broadband internet rather than ordinary dial-up will be needed to make sense of such a strategy.
The Government have spoken a lot about broadband, but there are no effective plans to ensure that it will be made available to citizens across the country by 2005, or indeed according to any other timetable. It is obvious that online access to services is most important and attractive to those who have to travel furthest to obtain those services by any other means—those who live in rural areas. My rural constituents are already up in arms because they cannot get the broadband services that are being promoted so enthusiastically by the Government and others. Broadband is available in Andover and Tadley in my constituency, but more than half of my constituents do not live in those two towns, and therefore cannot get broadband. In many areas, there is no expectation that we will be able to get broadband on an equivalent basis to people in the cities.
I heard what the Minister said about satellite, but I am not sure that that is an acceptable alternative, as it tends to be a fast link one way and a telephone link the other way. It strikes me that the best approach, if one can overcome the regulatory hurdles and deal with the problems about neutrality of platform, is to get BT to enable the exchanges and to bring broadband to them in the way in which most people have it in the cities.
Mr. McWalter : Has the right hon. Gentleman managed to obtain any assessment of how expensive it is to update an exchange? Once that becomes a fairly standard operation, it ought to be possible to upgrade most exchanges in villages. The Government, the regional development agencies and others ought to be able to give assistance on that, to ensure that it can take place universally. That is the only way of achieving universality in these services.
Sir George Young : The answer, as I expect that BT would tell the h G, is that the cost depends on which exchange, its proximity, and how far BT needs to back up the service. My view is that broadband should be considered a universal service, such as telephone, water and other utilities. I believe that the approach adopted should be based on an entitlement to broadband rather than the alternative approach, which is that we should let the market speak, and that somehow it will all sort itself out. However, that may not be a policy which my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) finds himself able to endorse.
Mr. Drew : I should like to clarify the picture with regard to a set threshold. One of the problems in rural areas is that the smaller the area is, the higher the threshold that needs to be achieved to break through the magic number. Following my discussions with BT, I understand that an additional problem is beginning to occur—low take-up once ADSL has been put in place. I am concerned that, if there is not a good level of take-up, partly because people are obsessed with the threshold, there will be a double whammy against the benefit.
Sir George Young : When we have this dialogue with BT, it tells us that take-up is pitifully low in areas where it has provided broadband, and asks why it should expand the service in rural areas before it can increase it in the towns. We may have a role to play in encouraging take-up through our chambers of commerce and our businesses to knock out the alibi that BT tends to use.
The Government have made optimistic statements on broadband, but no commitment. A senior BT executive says that he
"believes that by mid-2005 broadband services could be available to about 90 per cent. of households in the country."
It so happens that 90 per cent. of the population live in urban areas, and 10 per cent. in rural areas, which will not overcome the problem.
In November, the Prime Minister told the e-summit, to which the Minister referred, that
"too many of Britain's public services live in the technological dark ages".
I endorse that comment.
To conclude, we need a prioritised approach to putting services online rather than a deadline for all them. That should be linked to a more coherent strategy for ensuring that services are as available to people who live in rural areas as they are to those who live in towns. I will be the first to champion the Government's strategy if we can reach both those targets.
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