Consumers reject need for services 24 hours a day

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The Independent Online

The much-heralded 24-hour society moved a step closer today when the Government promised longer opening hours of public services, in response to public focus groups.

A report published today as part of the Government's People's Panel research shows that almost half of those questioned wanted to be able to contact public services at evenings and weekends, although fewer than one in 10 wanted to have access on Sundays.

Demand was highest for extended weekday opening hours - up to 8pm or 10pm - as many working people said they found it difficult to sort out problems while at work, and it was easier to call from home when their children had gone to bed.

Ian McCartney, the Cabinet Office minister launching the report, said the Government was committed to bringing the "e-business revolution into the heart of Government" and that new technologies such as digital TV and the internet would be used to transform health and social services.

He said: "The Government is committed to making public services widely available outside normal working hours, where people want them.

"Opening public services to customers at times which are convenient to them, particularly evenings and weekends, is a significant improvement in service delivery."

The Government has pledged to extend opening hours in five areas of public services by 2001, and will have action plans in place by July, based on the findings of six People's Panel focus groups and a survey of 1,000 panel members.

People asked for better access to social services, the Passport Agency, doctors' surgeries, NHS hospitals for non-emergencies, and local councils in general.

A senior Cabinet Office source said: "A lot of the extended hours will be managed electronically. People could fill in tax forms over the internet, or register their elderly relatives for help with social services."

About one-quarter of the respondents wanted to be able to go to hospitals and contact social services 24 hours a day. Only 11 per cent wanted to see their doctor at any time, while 17 per cent wanted to resolve passport problems out of hours. More than half said longer opening hours and quick responses to inquiries were the main priorities for improving public services.

Younger people and those from lower social classes were the most keen for services to be open 24 hours a day. Parents of young children wanted to be able to make phone calls in the evening because they were less likely to be distracted once their children had gone to bed and did not want their conversations to be overheard.

Using the telephone was by far the most popular method for making contact with public services outside normal hours, followed by face-to-face contact. Electronic communication was seen as a good way of making services available 24 hours a day, but many people said they did not have access to computers or the internet.