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High speed access to internet must be Government priority – Ferris

29 April, 2008


Sinn Féin Communications Spokesperson Martin Ferris TD, speaking in the Dáil this evening on a Private Members' Motion on E-Government, said E-Government can only be relevant if the public has access to computers and internet in the first place.

Deputy Ferris said while he would support the recommendations in the motion he believes that ensuring more is done to ensure that the maximum number of people have access to broadband internet is equally important.

The following is the full text of Deputy Ferris' speech in this evening's debate:

The Government strategy to make public services more accessible through the use of modern technology is certainly laudable. But, as the motion points out, there have been notable failures in reaching the targets already set.

It would therefore be desirable that there is more accountability in relation to implementing plans and that this information be made more readily available.

There have undoubtedly been some successes in facilitating access to parts of the public service. One that seems to be particularly mentioned is the motor tax office which facilitates people in renewing their car tax online. That has allowed a great many people to save themselves a lot of time through not having to spend hours in one of the offices.

The same system should also be introduced to other areas such as passport applications and civil registration. While there are obviously safeguards that need to be in place to prevent identity theft and other fraud where a person might wrongfully apply for a passport or birth cert in someone else's names, there are means of insuring security and as much of the process as possible ought to be able to be done through a computer.

There are also other less sensitive areas including planning applications as referred to in the motion where there would appear to be little reason why this could not be conducted initially online. As with the dramatic reduction in the queues at the motor taxation offices, this would contribute to a great saving in time and energy expended in waiting rooms.

There are also areas that involve citizens less formally with the state. The web sites for some public amenities are excellent. One example of this had been the recent placing on line of the 1911 census for Dublin. Many people have been able to access family records and it is planned that the records for the entire country will be made available within the near future. And the National Archives also has plans to do likewise with the 1901 Census.

It is also important of course that public services websites contain accurate and up to date information. In general that is the case but there are instances where for example online travel timetables have been wrong. That of course lessens peoples' confidence in the facility, especially where people are coming from a culture where they are more inclined to trust other sources of information.

Some Government Departments could also do with improvement. Some are excellent but others appear badly designed and it is sometimes difficult to access the information required. That will not encourage people to use them. Perhaps the best sites should be used as a template for the others.

Of course public accessibility is only relevant if the public have access to computers in the first place, and if the internet service available to them is adequate. That situation is improving but perhaps not as uniformly as it might do. There is also the danger that in increasing the amount of public and other information and business that is primarily focused on the internet, that a minority will be further excluded.

That is a particular concern where PC ownership and internet use is rare among certain socio economic groups. That can either be for economic reasons - although a PC and internet usage is probably in most cases no more expensive than the household television and cable access - or more likely for educational and other reasons.

People who leave school early and who have little interest in the written word are highly unlikely to display much interest in the internet. That is why it is so important that all schools have computer courses and that all children are taught the value of the internet. Otherwise it will become another barrier between those who feel that they are not really a part of this society, and the rest of us. And as more interaction with the state goes online that will have implications for social exclusion.

Most families do not have at least one member who is computer literate. 55% of households had at least one PC in 2006. That increased to 65% in 2007, almost 900,000 of whom had access to the internet but significantly only 54% were using broadband compared to an EU average of 77%.

Broadband penetration here was 16.8% in September 2007compared to the average of nearly 20% for other European countries surveyed. The one bright spot is that the growth rate improved significantly in 2007. There are still many parts of the country, particularly in rural areas, where broadband is not available and that represents a serious handicap in many sectors from business, the public service and private users.

My own county remains among the least serviced in terms of broadband accessibility and this is indeed proving to be a serious handicap particularly in attracting investment and there is no coincidence that Kerry currently has among the highest levels of unemployment in the state.

The same restrictions will also of course apply to people in areas where broadband is not available in accessing public information and engaging with public services on line. In order to ensure that all citizens have the same level of service, the level of growth of broadband penetration needs to be further increased.

So to conclude, while I would support the recommendations in this motion I believe that of equal importance is ensuring that more is done to ensure that the maximum number of people have both access to broadband internet and that its use is encouraged through the education system and within the community as a whole.

ENDS

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