By Rachel Sylvester, Alice Thomson and Jill Sherman
All public services could be delivered online within four years under an ambitious pledge by Gordon Brown to create a paperless state and save billions of pounds, The Times has learnt.
Tens of thousands of public sector jobs could go in Jobcentres, benefit offices, passport centres and town halls if face-to-face transactions are scrapped in favour of cheaper and more efficient online form-filling.
On Monday the Prime Minister will announce plans that he claims could save billions of pounds over four years by making dealing with the State as easy as internet banking or shopping on Amazon. Cash will also be saved on postage stamps, telephone calls an government buildings as the switch to the internet leads to the phasing out of call centres and benefit offices.
The aim is that within a year, everybody in the country should have a personalised website through which they would be able to find out about local services and do business with the Government. A unique identifier will allow citizens to apply for a place for their child at school, book a doctor’s appointment, claim benefits, get a new passport, pay council tax or register a car from their computer at home.
Over the next three years, the secure site will be expanded to allow people to interact with their children’s teachers or ask medical advice from their doctor through a government version of Facebook. But union leaders and privacy experts immediately warned that the Government’s record on IT projects was already catastrophic and there would be key concerns about privacy, data protection and
fraud. In addition many elderly, disabled and undereducated people find it difficult to carry out transactions online.
Government sources say Jobcentres, tax offices, DVLA local centres, passport offices and housing benefit offices will be phased out over the next decade, to be replaced by a single “digital gateway” office, where people who are uncomfortable with computers can go for advice on applying for services online.
The private sector is likely to get involved — one idea is to allow people to buy their car tax disc on Amazon or from their insurance companies. Martha Lane Fox, the dot-com entrepreneur, is also helping No 10 with the implementation of the programme.
Mr Brown will argue that using text messages to remind people of GP appointments could reduce the £600 million annual cost of missed NHS appointments.
Although some transactions, such as filling in a self-assessment tax return can now be done online it was still too complicated, said a Downing Street source. It should be “much easier, like buying a holiday. Dealing with a Jobcentre should be like online banking. This makes public services more responsible and has huge economic benefits.”
The Department for Work and Pensions is currently redesigning the benefit payments system so that everything can be done via computer. There are also plans to issue free mobile phone applications to allow people to deal with the State. One already tells unemployed people what vacancies are available in their area.