ZDNet interviews the e-Minister: Part III

Part I Part II
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

The government has pledged to get all government services online by 2008. What does that mean in real terms?

We will bring that timetable forward. We are looking at the targets at the moment, they were set a couple of years ago and everything has speeded up since then.

We have already made some progress. NHS Direct is a wonderful service. In April, the Inland Revenue will be taking tax returns online and giving a £10 discount because it is cheaper to administrate. The following year, businesses will be able to do VAT and PAYE online with a £50 discount.

We're looking at organising a whole variety of things that are particularly important to individual citizens. If you move house and change address, could you do it all at once? Might there be scope for a public/private partnership, a one point registration of addresses for all government and private sector dealings?

Post office counters are being computerised, with the possibility of using them as access points for people who haven't got access at home.

When will we be able to vote online?

The new Representation of the People Bill is just going through parliament. It will modernise the voting system, allow for Sunday voting, voting in supermarkets. We are looking at ways of making it much easier for people to vote, to raise the turnout.

That bill will also allow online voting. Then we will look to leading edge local authorities to come forward with ideas about how to make that work locally as an option, not compulsory.

How much will all these initiatives cost?

Gordon Brown announced Wednesday that we've set up a spending review for the next three years. Within that we've set up a departmental review on e-commerce and e-government. It will review targets for online government service delivery and give its conclusions in July, although we may well make some announcements before then.

You have to make capital investments. You can deliver very big savings in transaction costs. Banking transactions through a branch costs about £1, with a telephone it is about 10p, do it online and it is less than a penny. That is a fantastic saving. We ought to be able to get similar savings in government so the capital investment will pay for itself.

One of the government bills attracting a lot of attention at the moment is the Regulation of Investigatory Powers bill. Are you happy that it conforms to the Human Rights Act?

Oh yes. We introduced the Human Rights Act so we're not introducing legislation which is in breach of it.

What about claims that powers to give law enforcers access to decryption keys reverses the burden of proof?

That was much misunderstood. I think the bill has been amended anyway since the draft.

I've looked at both and I can't see any differences.

I moved that whole part of the draft onto the Home Office where it properly belongs. The bill will go through a full committee state and these things can be sorted out. The important thing is that the Internet is transforming crime just as much as it is transforming business.

When you have money launders and paedophiles -- and I don't just mean individual sad old men -- I mean organised large-scale gangs operating on an international basis and using hard encryption to evade detection of what they are doing, you've got to make sure the police have got modern powers.

I spent 10 years running Liberty so I know about civil liberties and I care about it but the police have got to have the power under criminal law to, for instance, search somebody's home or office because they have got reasonable suspicion they are involved in serious crime, whether it is money laundering or sex abuse. It they seize a computer and disk and they can't get at what it stored, then they have got to have the power to get the key in order to decrypt it. It is as simple as that.

It is a question of modernising the powers the police already have. RIP is not about giving them new power, but modernising the powers because you can't leave the police with 20th century technology when they're operating against 21st century criminals. It would be utterly irresponsible of us not to do what we are doing in that bill.

Will there be challenges to it?

You will always find lawyers who disagree. What's important is that the Home Office and the DTI is working very closely with ISPs in order to narrow down what needs to be done to enable law enforcement agencies to operate in a proper way.

They are working on the issue of what is a reasonable interception capacity. When there was only one telco, BT, it was easy. Now we've got a huge number of competing tlecos and so we have to look at what is a reasonable intercept capacity. Then you look at what it is going to cost, and where the costs should fall. That dialogue is now going on constructively between the Home Office and ISPs.

My final question goes back to something you said in the beginning. You talked about the need to simplify government e-policy, yet responsibility of e-commerce is currently shared between the DTI, Home Office and the Cabinet Office. Do you think it would be more constructive to have one Internet minister that serves all Internet needs, rather than have it fragmented across departments?

I don't think you can separate the Internet and convergence from every aspect of government. We have got to make sure that every department is exploiting ICT and figuring out how it is going to deliver services through the Internet. I think there is a balance between the central strategy and co-ordination and the commitment and detailed driving forward that you need within each department.

We have a single minister, co-ordinating through a network of ministers. No one minister can actually ensure that every department delivers. We've deliberately put the lead official [e-envoy Alex Allan] into the Cabinet Office so that he has the authority of the central bit of government and is directly answering to the Prime Minister. Alex and his team support me in my role as e-Minister.

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