Minister sees the future in a kiosk Future phone box will even take tax

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The Independent Online
JKiosks offering "electronic self-service government" will be announced by ministers today. They are designed to take the paperwork out of paying taxes, renewing driving licences and applying for planning permission.

Touch-screen computer terminals in booths dubbed the "phone boxes of the future" are intended to give everyone direct access to government agencies and local council services.

"The technology exists to deliver self-service government to both the public and businesses," Roger Freeman, public services minister, said yesterday. He is publishing a Green Paper on the subject today.

Ministers will unveil three pilot schemes which will allow anyone to walk in off the street to their local library or into a pavement kiosk and use computer screens to call up information. The services will also be on the Internet.

Mr Freeman suggested it would help small traders who wanted to expand but were not sure about planning rules.

"If you're a plumber and you want to expand your workspace and need to know about the planning regulations, through this technology you can get the form and information from the Citizens' Advice Bureau," he said.

Ministers believe the computers will be no more complicated to use than hole-in-the-wall cash dispensers.

John Prescott, the deputy Labour leader, will unveil the Opposition's similar plans for open electronic government today, claiming that Labour would take a more active role in managing the technology and protecting public-sector workers against job losses.

The Government was criticised by Stephen Timms, Labour MP for Newham North-east, for having failed to generate enthusiasm for its scheme.

Mr Timms said that in America there had been a huge national debate on the subject. It had culminated in the US Telecom Act, passed this year, which contains a pledge to make advanced communications technology available to all Americans.

He contrasted the situation with that in Britain, where Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, gave up the leadership of a ministerial task force on information technology in June because of a conflict of interest with his Haymarket publishing company. It has signed a licensing deal with BSkyB, which hopes to carry the information superhighway on its digital television network.

Whereas the Deputy Prime Minister could have given the project the high profile it deserved, said Mr Timms, he was replaced by Viscount Cranborne, the Tory leader in the Lords. "That just about says it all, doesn't it? The technology for the 21st century in the charge of an hereditary peer."