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Government Services (Websites)

Volume 569: debated on Tuesday 22 October 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amber Rudd.)

I suspect that no hon. Member has got to their feet today and not congratulated you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your appointment. I add my name to the great list of people who have congratulated you on your well earned election. I wish you the best of the luck in your years as Madam Deputy Speaker.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak this evening on a subject that, while not of vital national importance, is one that causes annoyance in the everyday lives of many of my constituents and those of other hon. Members. It is so annoying that Elliott Webb, the morning show presenter on BBC Hereford and Worcester, has asked me to help to address it. He has received many complaints from listeners across the two counties. It is also an issue that our beloved institution the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has contacted all of us about in recent months.

As we know, the Government provide many services to citizens via websites, including applying for new passports, paying congestion charges, booking MOT tests for cars, finding replacement birth certificates, applying for driving licences and a range of other services that can, in the modern age, be accessed by the majority of people through the internet. Some of the services are free, but many cost money. Generally speaking, the process is straightforward—follow the instructions, pay the charge, job done. However, to find the websites and access the services they need, the vast majority of people will use an internet search engine, and that is where the problem starts.

If people use Google to search for “replacement passport”, they will get several pages of websites providing services for replacing their passport, but the proper official Government website will appear several places down the front page. Importantly, the official Government site will never appear in the shaded ad box at the top of the page, only in the fourth place as read by the consumer looking at a search engine result.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I also congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your election. My constituent Barbara Bradbury alerted me to this very problem about the passport checking service that charges £49 for a service that is available for £8.75 at a local post office. This service had a .org web address, which gave it an air of legitimacy, resulting in my constituents, particularly elderly ones, falling for it and paying £49.

My hon. Friend expresses the nub of my argument, and I will make similar points during my speech. He is right to raise this issue on behalf of his constituent and she is not alone in such problems.

I have had examples of the very same thing happening to my constituents. They have followed the process on Google and used a service that cost money, but the Government do it for free. People are annoyed and angry when they find that they have paid for something that they did not need to pay for. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the Government should have warnings on their websites about those companies that charge for something that the Government do not charge for?

There are warnings out there, and I shall develop that point as I make my speech, but the hon. Gentleman is right. It is difficult for people to tell the difference between one type of website and another.

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair this evening, Madam Deputy Speaker.

There is a way of telling that a website is a Government website—it uses the suffix, but most people cannot be expected to know that kind of techie detail. Does my hon. Friend agree that such problems exist for private companies as well, and the problem is not just about access to Government sites? We need a labelling system on the internet that gives some weight to intellectual property and brand owners—the biggest brand in this country is the Government—so that people can be confident that when they see a certain symbol or read a certain word they are on a genuine website.

My hon. Friend suggests action that the internet search engines can take, and I shall develop that point if I may make progress with my speech, although the interventions have shown that this is a widespread issue that affects not only Government websites, but private websites. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raises the slightly alarming point that providers of services can be undermined by someone snaffling their place, as it were, and that is very bad for competition.

These websites, having squeezed themselves in between the consumer and the Government website trying to provide the service, offer to provide a notional service—form filling—and then charge a premium to submit the form on the person’s behalf. BBC Hereford and Worcester has many such examples. Harry from Droitwich paid £49 for a website to fill in his passport form, only to discover that he still had to pay £72.50 for the actual cost of the passport. David from Kidderminster tried to apply for a driving licence online, filling in a form that he believed was his application, but the website just checked the information and sent him the typed-out completed form to send off to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, and charged him £50 to do so. It did not even pay for the stamp! This website was a little more helpful, however, as it advertised a number that could be used to complain about how misleading the site was, but of course he discovered that it was a premium rate telephone number. Perhaps the worst example of abuse by intermediary websites is the case of a Worcestershire resident who texted me while I was being interviewed yesterday morning complaining that she had been charged £30 for a European health insurance card, which is available free from the NHS and which ensures that British citizens get access to health care throughout the EU.

These misleading websites fall into two broad categories. The first are those that are deliberately misleading: websites that set out cynically to dupe the consumer into thinking that they are official Government websites. They look and feel like the website they seek to ape and they charge a premium for a service that is otherwise provided by the Government at a set rate. They win their so-called customers by winning the search engine optimisation game and achieving the top slot on the search engine results page—consumers naturally click on the top site, especially if its name suggests official status.

My hon. Friend is kind when he talks about their winning the top slot, because of course they pay for it, getting to the top of the search engine list by making the biggest pay-per-click bid multiplied by the biggest click-through rate—a game the Government should never get into, being funded only by taxpayers.

That is absolutely right, and again I shall be developing that point a little later, although the search engines are trying to help.

From time to time, these deliberately misleading websites are scrutinised by the Advertising Standards Authority, and prosecutions have been pursued and won, which is a good thing. I understand that more will be done, and I am sure that the Minister will share with the House what measures are coming in due course.

The second type of website is just as cynical, supposedly offering a service to help people fill in their forms. We have heard that the Post Office provides just such a service. For a fee of £8.75, it will check that a passport application form has been properly filled in and send in the application, together with the expired passport, to the Passport Office. This seems a perfectly reasonable fee, especially considering that it includes the cost of postage. What is less reasonable is the £49.50 charged to Harry from Droitwich for the same service, which did not include postage, and the case of the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham). These websites offer what they would argue is a value service, but its true value is of huge debate.

Importantly, according to the House of Commons Library, there is nothing preventing a business from offering services that provide assistance with official processes, and if the services do little to speed up the process, the law does not make them illegal, even if they are utterly worthless. In my view, they are utterly pointless and simply seek to take advantage of consumers by putting themselves higher up the search page results than the official website. We are all caught out by this. We in the House of Commons, of all people, must be more aware of how Government websites work than anyone else, yet IPSA felt it necessary to warn us that the premiums being charged by the congestion charge intermediary sites were not reclaimable. In a bulletin to Members on 21 August, the No. 1 item read:

“If you’re paying for your London congestion charge payment online, please make sure you are using only the official TfL website… Unofficial websites often levy an unnecessary administrative fee.”

It should be obvious to all which site is a genuine Government site and which is a misleading attempt to take money from a consumer. As we have heard, a proper site will end with the suffix, an ending reserved for genuine official Government websites. Similarly, the intermediary sites are required to carry a disclaimer saying that they are not official sites. They all seem to have them. Generally, they will be found right at the bottom of a fairly long page and in minute print. Despite that being obvious to the informed, and despite occasional awareness campaigns and rulings from judges on bogus sites, however, more and more people are being duped into using these unnecessary services.

It is wholly wrong that people are misled this way for a number of reasons, not least because people on tightened budgets find themselves conned out of some of their increasingly hard-pressed reserves. I have great sympathy with the consumer. Whilst it may be obvious that there are ways of differentiating the bogus from the genuine website, why should we expect the consumer miraculously to know and understand all the subtleties of web addresses, suffixes and disclaimer protocols?

The good news, as I alluded to earlier, is that the search engines broadly speaking agree with this. Google, in anticipation of this debate, sent me some advice on how it is already tackling the issue and it is worth sharing this with the House. Google has what it calls a “sale of free items policy”, which states that Google allows the promotion only of sites that charge for services associated with products or services that may be otherwise available for free as long as a number of disclosures are presented together prominently above the fold on the landing pages. I will share the four items it talked about.

The first is that the site clearly states whether the advertiser is affiliated or not affiliated with the Government official source or free source; secondly, that the site discloses that the product, services or forms are available from the Government official source or free source either for free, where applicable, or at a lower cost than the advertiser charges; thirdly, that the site must describe the additional services offered that are available from the Government official source or free source—this is the value proposition—and that advertisers should not misrepresent the value that they add by highlighting features or services available from the official source for free; finally, that the ads and landing pages cannot promote services that provide little or no additional value to the user beyond the original official online automated application process.

It is helpful that some of the search engines do have a clear policy but it is still the case that the consumer’s eye will inevitably be drawn to the top of the page where the paid-for ads appear and where the consumer may also be under the misapprehension that if it is in a paid-for ad slot, it must be an official website.

What makes this so offensive is that the Government websites are already ours as a society. We as citizens have a stake in our Government. We as taxpayers already own these sites amongst us all. When one of these bogus service providers gets between the consumer and the website, they are getting in the way of something that is already ours by right. They are charging us for something we already own, for a service we are entitled to at the basic cost.

I am a fan of free enterprise. If there is an opportunity for an entrepreneur to make a living and it is a legal activity, I wish him good luck and every encouragement. If there is a genuine need for help to fill in Government forms because they are so unfathomably complex and a website advertises itself as providing a service where one is needed—which could of course include payment by PayPal—with ample disclaimers and no attempt to look like the official website, I think it is reasonable that the need be met. If it fills a need, it will be used.

But these websites depend on two things—winning the search engine optimisation battle and paying for the paid-for clicks, and for the consumer to think that they have found the official website they are looking for. The solution could be very simple indeed. In the first instance, it seems perfectly reasonable for the Government to come to an agreement with the search engine providers to ensure that if there is a service being searched with responses that have suffix, that website is placed right at the top of the search results in the No. 1 slot and at the head of the paid-for ad slot. In that way, every search will present the genuine official website first and the consumer will not find themselves being led to a wrong or a bogus site. Indeed, the search engines have already made headway on this. I spent a bit of time this afternoon checking and the sites seem to be at the top of the unpaid-for ads, but they are still in the fourth slot.

Should this problem persist and these bogus or dubious websites continue, it seems reasonable that a value test be put against these sites. If the site can prove that it is doing a reasonable and useful job, it should be allowed to compete against the Government on a service basis. After all, if people feel they need to spend the extra money to unravel a complex form or to pay using PayPal, it is important that the Government receive the message that they need to up their game in the service they are providing. But it is desirable for the Government to strive to provide an exemplary service to taxpayers in closing the opportunity to alternative providers of Government services. But should this problem persist and we continue to see people being duped into using these sites, even after the Government have done everything they can to reduce any chance of a value proposition for these misleading websites, surely a well policed outright ban must be considered.

We are well into the internet age and, as we develop the service that has now become a basic necessity of life, it is right that we should question and push back against some of the more unsavoury and opportunistic parts of the internet. Search engines are doing their bit, but it is vital that the Government should protect consumers from cynical and unscrupulous attempts to turn a profit while they are attempting to use services that are ours anyway. I am grateful to the Minister for his attention this late in the evening, and I look forward to hearing his comments on how we can resolve the problem.

Madam Deputy Speaker, it is wonderful to see you in the Chair, and I should like to add my name to the long list of people who have stepped up to say the same thing today.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) on securing the debate and on the way in which he presented his argument. I thought he was rather self-effacing about the importance of the debate. This is one of the better attended Adjournment debates that I have taken part in, and the keen interest of Radio Hereford and Worcester has also been noted. This is an issue that strikes a chord; none of us wants to see our constituents being ripped off. He powerfully highlighted the difficulties, and in some cases the distress, that some users of online services have experienced as a result of the activities of some third-party websites providing access to Government services, often at a significant mark-up while providing little or no additional value.

This is an important issue, and it becomes even more important because of its context. As my hon. Friend will know, the Government are extremely ambitious to deliver more services online and to encourage more of our citizens and constituents to access services in that way, as set out in the Government’s digital strategy. Quite simply, we want the public to receive services that are simple, fast and clear and that can be accessed easily at times and in ways that suit them. We want to take full advantage of the digital opportunities. It will also please colleagues to hear that this will allow us to produce better services at a much lower cost. It is worth placing on record that the Government saved £500 million last year on digital and technology-related expenditure while making improvements to how people access information and services.

There is much to celebrate in the progress that we are making in building world-class digital services in this country, and we are ambitious to work with the private sector and civil society to help the 11 million people in the UK who are still digitally excluded to get online and close that gap. Given that context, and that ambition, it is really important that we should not allow fraud to undermine the trust in, and integrity of, the systems and services that we are presenting. Concerns about security and the potential for identity theft, confusion about which websites are trustworthy and fears about being ripped off all act as deterrents to the take-up of digital services, so this does matter to us and I thank my hon. Friend for drawing the issue to the House’s attention.

The abuse of access to Government services can take a range of forms, all of which can have a negative impact on confidence. They include: brand abuse, in which Government logos are used to imply affiliation with, or endorsement by, the Government or their agencies; phishing, when attempts are made to acquire information such as usernames, passwords, credit card details and other useful personal information by masquerading as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication; and levying additional charges for access via third-party websites to Government services that are, in some cases, normally free. The justification for those charges are so-called additional services that in fact offer little or no additional value.

What are we doing about it? When we have discovered —or when the public have highlighted—the misuse of Government logos, we have ensured that they are removed from the offending sites. I am pleased to say that we have seen a significant drop in the number of reports of such misuse. However, reports relating to phishing and to third-party websites levying additional charges for access to Government websites have not fallen in the same way.

Obviously, some Government services are more impacted by this problem than others. Services that tend to involve one-off transactions, or those that citizens and businesses use only infrequently, tend to be the ones that third-party websites offer access to. Such services include passport and driving licence applications and the booking of driving tests. We are taking steps to deal with these issues, but there have been some challenges that I should like to share with the House.

The first complication is that the infrequency of use means that users of services provided by central Government Departments and their agencies are not necessarily familiar with the look and feel of those services online. The wide demographic base of the users of those services also limits the impact of a broad-based communication and education approach, in itself an expensive proposition. That does not make the problem insurmountable, nor does it mean that education about the best way to access Government services should not be part of our approach to tackling the problem. However, it does mean that we should seek creative ways of doing that, such as through the use of partners in the private and civil society sectors.

The second complication is the difficulty we have in categorising the activities of some of the websites we have been discussing as bad or misleading. In 2012, as my hon. Friend will know, the Office of Fair Trading conducted an investigation into the online commercial practices relating to Government services and concluded that it was not appropriate to take formal enforcement action. The investigation did not reveal widespread attempts by non-Government websites to misrepresent their affiliation with Government. Moreover, the OFT was of the view that the overall depiction of the sites investigated, including branding, colouring and images, did not create a misleading impression that they were official Government websites. In particular, many of the sites carried statements explaining the nature of the service provided and disclaiming any official status or affiliation with the Government.

Most of the sites subject to the complaints to which my hon. Friend referred tend to be those that, as he said, feature in search engine-sponsored ad spots. Search engines tend to highlight and prominently display such ads above the search results that are most relevant to the search terms that have been used and in general Government services that are accessible via, the new single Government website for all information and services, top the list of relevant search results on the main search engine websites.

What are the Government doing about misleading third-party websites? The OFT’s findings and the means by which such sites promote their offerings bring us back to the subject of education and how we help users of our services to spot correctly when they are on a Government website or the site of a third party. How do we ensure that citizens and businesses enjoy the benefits and additional value that competition through third-party provision of access to Government services can bring without fear of being exploited? We want to encourage that.

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I want to give proper time to the debate of my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest.

We feel that similarity in the look and feel of Government services will help our efforts to educate users and we are achieving that through the transition of departmental websites as well as those of most of their agencies on to A unique typeface font is used on that site and mimicry of that font by non-Government sites will be difficult.

We do not think at this stage that legislation is the way to resolve the issue. Any action we take should be evidence-driven and the complaints we receive at the moment represent a small fraction of the total number of service users. That does not mean that we should be complacent, but it means that any action we take should be proportionate. Frankly, we need more information about how and why people use the third-party sites. At present, we have no evidence that they have all been misled. That could be the result of under-reporting, but we must also leave room for the possibility that it is not.

We do not as a Government have a single clear view of the scale of the problem of third-party sites mis-selling Government services and until recently there has been little consistency in how the Government have recorded and monitored details of complaints about the issue. The situation cannot continue, so my officials in the Government Digital Service have proposed, and Departments have agreed to, a cross-Government approach to tackling and tracking the problem. That will result in a clearer view of the scale of the issue, which currently appears to affect a small proportion of service users. Further action will depend on the scale and seriousness of the problems reported. That will also guide our engagement with the search engines on their enforcement of the terms and conditions that are supposed to guide the use of their sponsored ad slots.

I am pleased to say that in other areas we are making more headway. On phishing, the clear illegality of the behaviour has meant a more clear-cut approach to tackling the problem. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, for example, has a robust system in place to find and shut down rogue sites engaged in phishing activity. In 2011-12, HMRC shut down 841 rogue sites and in 2012-13, it shut down 560. Additionally, the HMRC digital services security team has undertaken a cross-cutting exercise to assist Department for Work and Pensions colleagues in developing the Department’s anti-phishing capabilities by providing training and process maps for dealing with such work.

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has thrown a spotlight on the issue. There is clearly a lot of work still to be done, but I very much welcome the insights and challenges that debates such as this provide to help us to make sure that as many citizens as possible enjoy and trust the benefits of digital Government services.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.