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Government Digital Service

Volume 765: debated on Tuesday 13 October 2015

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what changes in the Government Digital Service will follow from projected cuts in its budget and the departure of senior staff.

My Lords, the future budget for the Government Digital Service will be determined in the spending review. The Government are 100% committed to the digital strategy set out in the previous Parliament and to the vision of government as a platform, so we can solve digital challenges once on behalf of all government. We will continue to strengthen the team in GDS and capability across government so as to transform the public delivery of services, making life easier for the citizen and cheaper for the taxpayer.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that this was a Conservative initiative—from the noble Lord, Lord Maude—in the last coalition Government, which had active Liberal Democrat support and much wider support from those in the technological community outside, and that it has been so successful that, as the Financial Times reports today, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Israel have modelled their approaches to digitisation on the British scheme? Now, since the chief executive has resigned, six senior executives have left the GDS in the last six weeks and there are increasingly worrying reports of what is going on. Can we have at least a Statement and preferably even a White Paper on the future of GOV.UK, or are we going back to piecemeal approaches by departments which were demonstrated to be so ineffective in the past?

First, I thank the noble Lord for what he did when he was in government in supporting the GDS. I can say that we are utterly committed and remain committed to the strategy that was set out in the last Parliament. Plans will be announced before Christmas that will set out our strategy. The plans to create government as a platform continue, and the noble Lord is absolutely right—from my own experience in the private sector it is right that the entire organisation continues to embrace digital technology and build government as a platform.

My Lords, yesterday we gave a Second Reading to the Enterprise Bill to help businesses, big and small. However, we know that on average businesses are losing 33 working days a year because of outdated government online services. This is where they need help. Can the Minister therefore tell the House whether the Cabinet Office is one of those departments refusing the cuts that other bits of the Government are trying to make to it, and what guarantees business can have that there will be no cuts to the Government Digital Service?

My Lords, I may have been in this House a very short time but I think your Lordships would agree that it is probably more than my life is worth to start predicting the outcome of the spending review. However, I am delighted to use this opportunity, given that the noble Baroness has asked me this question, to remind the House and indeed the Treasury, should it be listening, that during the last Parliament £1.7 billion was saved thanks to digital transformation and the Government Digital Service cost £58 million. This is therefore a very good return on investment. Obviously, discussions continue, but I entirely share the noble Baroness’s view that we need to do more to support businesses.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that my noble friend Lord Maude, as he now is, did a brilliant job in transferring services that would otherwise be extremely expensive so that they are online? That has saved the taxpayer a huge amount of money. Is not the quid quo pro for that that people, particularly those in rural areas, have access to broadband? It is no good if you have to fill in your tax return or your claim for agricultural subsidies, or whatever it is, if you do not have a proper online service, and BT is not providing that service. It is not good enough to say that it should be available to 95% of the country—100% of the country should be able to access government services online.

My Lords, I entirely sympathise and share this point of view, Headley being a place—at least in my mother’s house—that does not enjoy the full benefits of superfast broadband. However, I remind the House that the Government are investing over £780 million to bring superfast broadband to areas of the UK, total public investment is nearly £1.7 billion, and 3 million additional homes and businesses have superfast broadband available for the first time thanks to the Government’s investment. However, I entirely concede that more needs to be done.

My Lords, the Government Digital Service is a success thanks to the leadership of Mike Bracken and the noble Lord, Lord Maude. I wish them well in their new roles. However, I share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. Digital successfully implemented is by definition risk taking and innovative, and the Civil Service is not famous for embracing risk taking or innovation. What are the Government doing to nurture the next generation of political intrepreneurs within departments, across government, to drive this innovation and achieve the improvements in quality at potentially lower cost that we can get out of digital?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an extremely good point and the Government are very focused on this, as is the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office today has announced the appointment of a new chief people officer who will lead HR, and I am sure he will put this at the top of his agenda.

My Lords, the GDS and GOV.UK have made a huge contribution to better government. We heard the Minister’s assurances about strategy, but can he give the House an absolute assurance that we are not going to return to a free-for-all where each government department sets up its own website again?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an extremely good point. During the previous Government a number of websites were shut down—scores indeed—some of which were competing against each other. I hope this is not a party-political point, but I think we have all learnt the lessons from the early days of digital. We need to make sure we continue on the approach we have set.

My Lords, the previous Government had an excellent record in promoting the use of open data in government. Can the Minister give an assurance that this Government will be equally vigorous in its use in this Parliament?

Absolutely, my Lords, and we need to continue to use our data better. It surprises me that we still have silos of data that we do not use and do not mine, and we need to continue to make the data more open and more available.

My Lords, one of the greatest challenges with digitisation is protecting personal data, and the ability to access government services is much easier when you can do that. Is any consideration being given to a card that will allow people to prove exactly who they are when they try to get this data?

As the noble Lord will know, there is a project underway led by GDS on Verify, but that is a very good point and I will draw it to the attention of GDS.