Major's vision of an armchair TV revolution

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The Independent Online
It may not be warm beer and cycling spinsters, but it is a vision of the future from John Major's government.

In the future, householders could apply for car tax via their television sets, while pensioners use post offices to check their income tax; and parents would compare the performances of local schools via an information kiosk in their neighbourhood shopping centre.

The hi-tech scenario would be part of an "armchair revolution", said Roger Freeman, the public services minister, as he announced the proposals to the House of Commons yesterday.

The proposals form part of the new "government direct" initiative, trailed by a Green Paper last year. It aims to make government services more flexible and responsive, while cutting costs for business and the public to deal with government. Mr Freeman said talks were continuing on the subject with the National Consumer's Council, the Consumer's Association and the universities. The first pilot projects will be launched tomorrow. "It will make dealing with government as easy as the supermarket laser checkout or the bank cash machine," he said.

"If the take-up of electronic services follows the pattern for that of cash machines, then five years from now, 25 per cent of simple government transactions with the public could be electronic."

Mr Freeman said the impact of the armchair revolution would be far-reaching and could "radically change the size and shape of government".

Opposition parties poured scorn on the proposals. Labour's Derek Foster said Mr Freeman's statement bore "all the marks of a last-gasp technology gimmick by the party of the past". He warned of a "dangerous split between the information haves and the information have-nots".

"Hasn't the Government betrayed citizens by already failing to harness user-friendly technology to make government more accessible?" he said.

"Hasn't government already sold business short by failing to exploit information technology in scything through red tape?" Robert Maclennan, for the Liberal Democrats, pressed Mr Freeman: "So far as open government is concerned, it would carry greater conviction if it was accompanied by a Freedom of Information Act."

But Mr Freeman told him such an act would make "no practical difference to the range of information which should be available to citizens".

The public will be able to make up its own minds after four new pilot projects are launched in London tomorrow. They include an interactive, electronic form, available over the Internet, which allows people to register themselves as self-employed, and a British Telecom Touchpoint kiosk, which provides information on local public services.

A Post Office kiosk for rural areas will also be launched, giving benefit claimants the chance to calculate their benefits. A private-sector geographical project will carry information from some government departments and agencies, such as the Land Registry, the British Geological Survey and Ordnance Survey.

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