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MPs to be tempted online with freebie handhelds

Technology-shy politicians to be offered sweeteners to quell their fears

MPs need to be tempted into the age of electronic communications with sweeteners such as email filters and free handheld wireless computers, according to a House of Commons Information Select Committee report.

It seems that, like the rest of us, MPs don't like spam. But the report found that they are so fearful of being overwhelmed by emails from constituents, mass email campaigns from pressure groups and general solicitations, that they simply don't make their email addresses public.

The report, Digital technology: working for parliament and the public, found that "a member might decide to rule out the use of new communication channels on the basis that there is no capacity to deal with them."

For those MPs that do make their email addresses public, between 10 percent and 20 percent of their correspondence is received electronically. This figure is soon expected to soon grow to as much as 70 percent, the report said.

In some cases, when MPs receive a mass posting of emails from a group protesting a particular issue, MPs "may decide to delete each one without reading it first", rather than dealing with each email either personally or through a member of staff. "But care will need to be taken to identify and preserve mail from constituents," the report said.

MPs are not currently supplied with an "official" email account or address by the government and those that use email do so at their own expense. The Information Committee will investigate and make recommendations on "potential mechanisms to enable all members to be accessible to the public electronically" and plans to look into filtering software to "weed out 'junk' email."

It is also essential MPs have reliable remote access links from outside the Houses of Parliament and that they are trained in using such technologies as VPNs (virtual private network), the report said.

"We acknowledge that the 'remote access' service occasionally performed poorly in the past" but "we are optimistic that members will have the benefit of improved links between Westminster and constituency offices before long," the report said.

Another possibility is to lure MPs into the digital age by supplying them with handheld PCs. The Information Committee has already held talks with BT and HP/Compaq to discuss support for handheld devices.

"There is a case for including a suitable mobile device as part of the standard set of equipment issued to members, funded centrally," the report said.

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