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Minister defends UK government reforms

Says growth of online services will not lead to discrimination

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Cabinet Office minister Pat McFadden has said the growth of online public services will not discriminate against those without access to the internet.

McFadden made the assertion at a hearing of the Commons' Public Administration Committee on making public services responsive to people yesterday.

He told the MPs that the interests of people and business were at the heart of the Transformational Government agenda and emphasised the importance of making services available online.

"The state has a duty to respond to the changes taking place in society and to expectations of service," said McFadden. "And increasingly, certainly for the two thirds of people who have access to the internet, who are used to ordering a book or a CD from Amazon, then having services available online is important."

Committee chair Tony Wright said using IT to deliver personalised services will cost the state a lot of money. "In order to respect people's rights you have to be less efficient," he said.

The minister said that electronic services could be both cost effective and more efficient. He gave the example of the nine million motorists who have renewed their car tax online, a process that joins up MOT garages and insurance companies in the private sector with information held by government to provide a rapid service.

By the end of January 2007, HM Revenue and Customs had received 2.9 million self-assessment returns online for that financial year, an increase of nearly 50 per cent on the previous year.

State pension claims, and increasingly pension credits, can now be made over the telephone in one short phone call, rather than taking up to two months and several contacts, according to McFadden.

Referring to the private sector restrictions on access channels, Wright said BT intends to penalise people who do not pay by direct debit and Easy Jet operates an online only booking policy. He asked to what extent government was neutral about access channels and whether it would ever seek to discriminate against people in terms of access methods.

The minister said the government would not attempt to introduce a one size fits all approach to service delivery, and was mindful of the many people who did not have internet access. "I think the state is not the same as a private business in that regard," he said.

He said that a new Charter Mark, the national standard of customer service currently under review, will help by setting out how standards and quality will be measured.

A government Information Sharing Strategy is due for publication this summer. McFadden said the strategy will aim to encourage greater information sharing by ensuring a consistent approach, a clear legislative framework, and enhancing privacy safeguards.

Committee member Gordon Prentice warned of the "huge dangers" that information would leak out. McFadden responded that there were "huge gains" to be made, in areas including benefits, child protection, and even for patients leaving hospital who need ongoing care. However, he agreed that government must also be "alive to the dangers" of poor security.

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

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