As a Member of Parliament I am often bemused by the responses ministers give to my questions but the following exchange is so troubling I have decided to devote a whole blog to it.
As well as announcing the end of the cost of living crisis in last month’s Budget, the Chancellor promised improved childcare provision – not until after the election it is true – but still the new government would:
“Provide 20 percent support on childcare costs up to £10,000 per year for each child via a new simple online system.”
As Shadow Minister for Digital Government leading on Labour’s Review of Digital Government this naturally interested me. This government’s digital service provision has been concentrated out of the Government Digital Services (GDS) group in the Cabinet Office and focused on cost-cutting rather than transforming the services all citizens experience. I was keen to understand whether the new childcare support service marked an extension of existing work or something new.
So I put down the following questions:
To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer
(1) what discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the digital inclusion implications of requiring online accounts for new childcare proposals announced in Budget 2014; 
(2) on what systems the online account required for the new childcare proposals announced in Budget 2014 will be implemented; and who is responsible for the implementation of those proposals; 
(3) what discussions he has had with the Government Digital Service on the integration of the new online childcare accounts into gov.uk. 
This week I received the following answer from Nicky Morgan, Economic Secretary to the Treasury:
• Tax-free childcare will be hosted on the Government Digital Service (GDS) Gov.uk website alongside other government digital services. HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) have overall responsibility for the implementation of these services, in partnership with National Savings and Investments (NS and I) who will operate the accounts.
• The GDS are leading the government's work to link digital inclusion into policy programmes and digital services. HMRC have directly consulted with GDS who have been involved in the design of the process and the creation of the solution for tax-free childcare.
• The government will continue to talk with a wide variety of internal and external stakeholders to ensure that tax-free childcare is as simple and secure as possible for parents to access and use.
There are a number of problems with this reply. Firstly the minister identifies GDS as leading work on digital inclusion. But previously the government has been equally clear that Digital Inclusion sits in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, indeed only a few months into the job Ed Vaizey joked he has the longest title in government as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries with responsibility for Digital Access and Inclusion.
All my complaints as to the lack of the promised assisted digital provision, the level of digital literacy, the 11 million people who have never used the internet have been directed against DCMS and indeed when my colleague Helen Goodman and I attempted to raise digital inclusion with the Cabinet minister he vaguely responded:
“There are digital inclusion projects across government and we are actively reviewing, with partners such as Go ON UK, what more we can do...As I said, we have an active commitment to assisted digital, the details of which will come shortly, and to continued activity to support digital inclusion. ”
Now it appears that he was responsible for it all along? By the way we still haven’t seen the details of the assisted digital support.
But in some ways the most worrying aspect is that in answer to my question on what systems the service will be implemented all Morgan will say is what website will host it. I hope that the Minister understands that launching a website is not the same as building a system. But I worry. Perhaps she believes that putting a link on the Google site was all that was necessary to develop Google maps or that Amazon did not need a back office, just a web front window, to become global number one in e-retail?
The Minister is clearly keen to give the impression that, unlike the disastrous Universal Credit, at the time of this policy announcement there is a solution, one which has been ‘created’ with the ‘involvement’ of GDS and is owned by HMRC in partnership with NS&I. Given the absence of any detail on that solution I rather doubt that is the case. And if it is the case, then where was the consultation with service users and delivers – citizens and civil servants – which is so essential to make it work for people rather than to them.
In the Labour party we want to see technology enabling ‘people powered services’ where citizens are in control and their needs and skills an integral part of the service. That’s what Labour’s Digital Review is looking at. And that’s what this government still does not get.
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Chi Onwurah is Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister and MP for Newcastle Central