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Public Information

Volume 486: debated on Wednesday 14 January 2009

The Government are systematically improving access to their services by ensuring that information and services are found through search engines, that there are fewer but higher-quality websites so that users can get to what they need, and that the websites are accessible and more usable.

As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) mentioned in her question, the greatest social and economic value is achieved when we open up public information. The power of information task force has been working with the Office of Public Sector Information, the Central Office of Information and Government Departments to make public data easier to find, easier to understand and easier to reuse.

How effective is the Downing street petition website? I am thinking particularly of people’s concerns about Jaguar Land Rover. Is my hon. Friend aware that the Coventry Telegraph, the local evening newspaper, organised a petition on that issue involving 6,000 people? Will the supporters of Jaguar Land Rover be listened to?

I commend my hon. Friend for his imaginative question. We welcome the online engagement of citizens and it is heartening to see that the Downing street petition site is being used in such a way; we should also praise the Birmingham Post for leading the petition campaign. The petition site has received 2.2 million unique signatures in the past 12 months alone. The last time I checked the Jaguar Land Rover petition, nearly 7,000 people had used it, and I noticed that my wife was one of them. I give my hon. Friend the commitment that I will raise the issue with the Chancellor and Ministers at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

Those who lose their jobs have to find out from Jobcentre Plus about benefits, from the Learning and Skills Council about training opportunities and from Business Link about help in setting up new businesses. Will Ministers ensure that the websites of the three different Departments of State involved are compatible and give information relevant to the local situations? It is no good people in Oxfordshire who apply to Business Link being directed to somewhere in London. A number of us are now organising job clubs and it would be really useful if Government websites helped us to direct our constituents who lose their jobs to accessible information through the web.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point; a lot of thought and work is going on in that area. I point him to the Directgov site, which in recent months has been improving how we support people seeking work and how we get them back into the jobs market when, sadly, they lose their jobs. The Government are doing a lot of work on how we can provide public sector vacancies in an accessible form. We will make announcements on that later this year.

What is the Government’s policy on archiving online information? I have found that some of the most interesting material that I want to get hold of has been archived and is inaccessible.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. In fact, we do not have access to the first ever Government website, which came out in 1994; the technology to track it down is not available. It was, of course, the website of a previous Government. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the website rationalisation programme will have closed some 1,500 websites by 2011. The National Archives are taking the lead on that, so that important information that my hon. Friend and future generations need to find will be accessible for generations to come.

It is great to see the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster here, filling a gap in his schedule between his cappuccino and his soup. Yesterday, he published a White Paper that made much of the aim, shared by everyone, of removing barriers to opportunity for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Why, then, are half of all civil service vacancies published only on a secret website accessible only to existing civil servants? Is that not exactly the sort of barrier to opportunity that should be swept away? Is it not a modern-day closed shop?

Yes, the right hon. Gentleman is right: internal vacancies are naturally advertised internally to colleagues, but we are doing a lot of work on this and I very much hope that civil service jobs will get a wider audience in weeks and months to come.

Is not the real reason for keeping this information secret from the public the fact that there is now a proliferation of public sector—state sector—jobs? Just this week, the Cabinet Office alone is recruiting for a chief psychologist, a Downing street butler and a change manager. Is not the solution to the recession caused by Labour not a change manager but a change of Government?

No, none of that is right. We have the smallest civil service since the second world war, and we are targeting £5 billion of efficiency savings. However, the right hon. Gentleman is right about the specific question. We do need to improve how people access vacancies for civil service jobs, and I hope to announce more measures on that in months to come.