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Georgia: Public Services

Volume 739: debated on Monday 16 July 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what lessons they are learning from the introduction of “one-stop shops” for public services in Georgia.

My Lords, the Government are always willing to learn from examples of good practice from overseas. I compliment the noble and right reverend Lord for highlighting the Georgia case. He may be aware that US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has just made some very complimentary remarks about the Georgian public service halls. The wider public sector in the UK has already done a great deal on one-stop shops, working across organisational boundaries and making it easier for customers to access services in a more joined-up fashion. The implementation of the Government’s Digital by Default agenda will provide government information and services online and in one place that will be simpler, clearer and faster for users.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I am indeed aware of the Government’s desire to reform public service provision. As he has mentioned, the example of Georgia is truly remarkable. While driving to one such public service hall when I was there recently, our escort asked us for our details. When we arrived only 15 minutes later we were all presented with replica Georgian passports. This was just one example of their speed and user-friendly approach. Will the Minister encourage different government departments to look at the actual design of these halls, because whatever we have in the way of digital provision, there will still need to be a place where some people can go? Secondly, will he see if they can work together, perhaps with the Post Office, in such public service halls?

I congratulate the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harriesvili, on his new citizenship. On the question of design, I have looked at the pictures of some of these new public service halls in Georgia—they are magnificent buildings, on a scale that I do not think would be easily accepted by the media in this country; it is easier for a country that is coming out of a socialist era in the way that Georgia is doing. The Government are aware, however, that the Georgian provision depends heavily on using new technology, and that parallels exactly what we are attempting to do with the Digital by Default exercise.

My Lords, Georgia is a small, faraway country about which we tend to know very little, although today we now know a little more. The question raised by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, about the way in which Georgia has developed one-stop shops is extremely important. I was with him on the visit to the facility in Rustavi and I was also issued a passport by the Georgians in double-quick time. I also went to a similar facility in a small community high up in the Caucasus, where exactly the same provision is being extended. The modernised interface between public and state that these facilities embody is highly impressive. The Minister may not want to take it from me but he has already mentioned Secretary of State Clinton, although he did not quote her words about,

“very creative and impressive advancements”,

and “modern technological wonder”. Will the Minister reflect on this and possibly consider inviting a delegation of Georgians to come to this country to share best practice with us?

My Lords, I received a detailed briefing from the Georgian embassy this morning, as they discovered that I was due to answer this Question. We are doing a number of things that work in the same direction: we are looking at the provision of the public service estate, and the capital assets pathfinder exercise, working between central and local government, is looking precisely at how you can bring offices together so that services are integrated. In Hampshire, the new Havant public service village, which is the furthest along in this development, is a project that will bring together Hampshire County Council, Havant Borough Council, Hampshire PCT, Hampshire and Isle of Wight police, Capita, Citizens Advice and other voluntary sector partners in the same building. The aim is to transform public service delivery in Havant. That is very much the sort of thing that we have in mind and, incidentally, will save a considerable amount of space by the time it has finished.

My Lords, G4S is an international company but I have absolutely no idea whether it has yet been engaged in Georgia.

My Lords, we are about to have elections for police and crime commissioners, with material only on the web and no leaflets. Digital by Default, which the Minister has mentioned, will do for some, but there are a lot of people who need all sorts of things such as passports, licences and debt advice. Could the Minister go to Georgia himself or possibly send Francis Maude there to see what we could learn about people still needing face-to-face advice?

My Lords, I have been to Georgia three times in the last 15 years and would love to go there again. The speed at which our population is moving towards using digital services is quite remarkable and I find, as someone of the older generation—like everyone else here, if I may put it tactfully—the estimates of how many people will use digital services by preference in 10 years’ time very encouraging. However, as in Georgia and the Havant exercise, people who do not find digital access quite so easy will still need assistance to help them use facilities that are more easily available online.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the £4 billion new investment programme announced today for our rail network needs to be accompanied by a more streamlined planning system and that following the abolition of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, the Secretary of State has become the one-stop shop for major projects? Will the noble Lord confirm that the planning process will be better as a consequence?

My Lords, that is a little wide of the Question. However, I did book my train tickets for the next two weekends from London to Saltaire online this morning so I am moving in the right direction in using digital means. In terms of planning, all I have done in respect of railways this morning is to check exactly what the Castlefield corridor, part of the new northern hub, is.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is absolutely no need for him to go to Georgia, nor indeed for visitors to be brought over from there, when they have an excellent ambassador, from Georgia, here in London? I suggest that he talks to the ambassador.