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Government Digital Service

Volume 588: debated on Wednesday 19 November 2014

We have designed and created the award-winning and world-leading, the central web domain for Government information. We are redesigning 25 major Government services to make them simpler, clearer and faster to use. That will not only provide savings to the taxpayer, but improve delivery for the public, focused on user need, not Government convenience.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to make sure that individuals who are not digitised, many of whom live in rural constituencies such as mine, are not disadvantaged if they cannot access digitised public services or can do so only at low speeds?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. When, on the recommendation of Baroness Lane-Fox, we adopted the digital-by-default approach—if it can be done online, it should be done only online—we stressed that there must be an assisted digital alternative for those who are not online, and we will ensure that that is the case.

May I congratulate the Minister on much of the innovative work he has done in the digital area, thanks to Martha Lane Fox, the Cross-Bench Member of the House of Lords? Will he, however, take on board the fact that older people in this country find it very difficult to make the transition from the traditional to a digital way of communicating with the Government?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his compliment. We are trying to make a lot of progress, and the British Government are now regarded as world leading, after having been, frankly, a byword for failure in Government IT. Other Governments are now using the source code for, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Baroness Lane-Fox leads the Go ON UK charity, which is dedicated to getting more people online, which is the key purpose. When we provide the assisted digital option, we ideally want to frame contracts so that they incentivise the provider not just to provide a service, but to use it to help individuals to get online so that their lives are enriched more widely.

In answer to the very good question from my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), the Minister responded that those, like many in my constituency, who have no access to computers and are not online will be given something called an “assisted digital alternative”. Will he perhaps tell us what that is?

It can take many forms, but the point is that the service is provided or the transaction is conducted digitally—it is conducted online—although not necessarily by the citizen themselves. For example, it could be done in a library, where someone sits alongside the citizen to help them to input data or conduct the transaction, or it could be done on the telephone, with someone on the other end to put data into the web service. There are a lot of different ways of providing it, and they will be fashioned around the needs of the user, not the convenience of the Government.

In the spring, the Minister announced his digital inclusion strategy to exclude 5 million people. In the summer, he told pensioners to get online or lose access to Government services. In the autumn, farmers found that they needed a credit reference from Experian to apply for common agricultural policy grants. The list of people he is excluding grows day by day. Next week, a report for the Labour party will highlight the impact of his policies on the most vulnerable, and how a Labour Government will change that. How many more people does he intend to exclude from public services before he is voted out of office?

I invite the hon. Lady to dream on, on that front. Her party is ill-equipped to criticise us. The last Labour Government’s definition of an online service was enabling people to download a form from the web, print it off, fill it in by hand and send it off by post. They regarded that as an online transaction—they were not quite in the modern world. We are glad that she is catching up, but she still has a long way to go.