Previous Section Home Page

Column 240

Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John

Steen, Anthony

Stephen, Michael

Stern, Michael

Stewart, Allan

Streeter, Gary

Sumberg, David

Sweeney, Walter

Sykes, John

Tapsell, Sir Peter

Taylor, Ian (Esher)

Taylor, John M (Solihull)

Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)

Temple-Morris, Peter

Thomason, Roy

Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)

Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)

Thornton, Sir Malcolm

Thurnham, Peter

Townend, John (Bridlington)

Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th)

Tracey, Richard

Tredinnick, David

Trend, Michael

Twinn, Dr Ian

Vaughan, Sir Gerard

Column 240

Waldegrave, Rt Hon William

Walden, George

Walker, Bill (N Tayside)

Waller, Gary

Ward, John

Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)

Waterson, Nigel

Watts, John

Wells, Bowen

Whitney, Ray

Whittingdale, John

Widdecombe, Ann

Wiggin, Sir Jerry

Wilkinson, John

Willetts, David

Wilshire, David

Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)

Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)

Wolfson, Mark

Wood, Timothy

Yeo, Tim

Young, Rt Hon Sir George

Tellers for the Noes: Mr. David Lightbown and Mr. Sidney Chapman.

Column 240

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker-- forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House notes with approval the progress made in the United Kingdom towards equality and increasing opportunities for women, as described in the United Kingdom National Report for the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women; and calls on the Government to continue the policies which have made this possible.

Column 241

Information Super-highway

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Conway.]

10.14 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): I welcome the opportunity to raise the subject of the information super-highway--[ Interruption .]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Order. I ask hon. Members to leave the Chamber quietly, so that we may hear the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen).

Mr. Allen: I hope that I am allowed injury time for that, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

It is unfortunate that I have to raise this matter in an Adjournment debate, and sad and typical that the Government have not found time to debate this important issue. The significance that the Government attach to the information super-highway is reflected by the fact that I, as a Back Bencher, have been left to raise the issue.

Seizing the advantages of the super-highway is possibly the most important issue facing our nation. It could massively change for good the way that we work, live and play. It is a pity that the Government's response has been piecemeal and uninspired. They seem overawed. They appear to be saying, "Let us leave it to the market and hope." As in most things, the market is a good servant but a poor master.

Labour accepts that the Government have a role to play in exciting the public about the possibilities of the super-highway, giving confidence to potential users and giving confidence to business. The Government have a role in providing leadership and vision. Al Gore has provided that in the United States, and even Newt Gingrich had his say. In this country, Government thinking has been contracted out to the great winner of friends for any project--the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw), whom I am delighted to see in his place. Who is co-ordinating strategy? Who has the vision for the information super-highway? Why are the Prime Minister, the President of the Board of Trade and the Secretary of State for National Heritage silent? We have drift, when a once-in-a-millennium chance has come along.

Soon a new Labour Government will take on the task that the present Government have neglected. We must first ensure that the information super- highway is everybody's property. People must understand that it is not merely jargon but can deliver real things for them. I have in mind Susan Smith--an isolated, 16-year-old single mum on a tough estate in my constituency. She has no parental support, and is trapped at home watching a stream of imported soaps. Can she use her television remote control to access information on nursery provision, basic nutrition, parenting skills, health care appointments and even training for work? That is the Susan test. Unless the super-highway works for Susan, it will be little more than a tool for a small elite.

Few Susans and even fewer politicians will use the technology if it is dry and requires a PhD to operate. It must be easy and fun--not intimidating and technical. That was brought home to me in a personal revelation at the national gallery last week. When I visited the micro

Column 242

gallery, I accessed some of the nation's greatest paintings merely by touching the screen. There was not even a mouse or a keyboard to negotiate. Even I could call up a Monet or Rembrandt and read about its history, context and life of the artist. The gallery has taken two of our most daunting cultural features--high art and high technology--and transformed them into something fun and entertaining. I was so busy enjoying myself that I did not realise that I was being educated at the same time.

The technicians would call the technology a CD-ROM; to me it was understanding for the first time a part of my culture and a part of myself, and it revealed to me that every elector and every child at school in the land can and should own our heritage and walk into the national gallery at will.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): Does my hon. Friend agree that much of the money that has gone into schools for computers and IT equipment has come from grants for education support and training, and that it is a great disappointment to us all that that funding is to be reduced from £270.6 million in last year's Budget to £250.1 million in this year's Budget? That will mean a reduction in computing equipment in schools and certainly no money for training teachers, which is the other important aspect of ensuring that all our children benefit from the great revolution in high technology.

Mr. Allen: That reminds me of what my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) says about sport--that it is all right for the Government to talk about sport for all, but then they do away with the very playing fields that are necessary in order to teach our youngsters the basics of sport. In exactly the same way, we would hope to seek a partnership between local authorities and education authorities and the new techniques and concepts. It is impossible for the Government to work in partnership with the private sector when, as my hon. Friend pointed out so accurately, they talk about access to the new technologies but then stop schools by the very cuts that they have introduced.

But back to the national gallery and accessing the immense cultural possibilities of the great artists' exhibition there or understanding for the first time the beauty of Shakespeare without a thicket of scholarship getting in the way and finding one's way around such marvellous things. Perhaps we should have a CD-ROM about the House of Commons and democracy-- if I may link those two.

Equally, single mums and politicians should be able to understand their tax and social security position and how to access local and central Government services. Unless the Government take the lead on the information super- highway, such things will happen more slowly or, worse still, not at all. That is why we have set up a Labour party policy forum on the information super-highway under the auspices of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith). [Interruption.] Rather than make garbled and rambling comments from a sedentary position, as we have come to expect from Conservative Members, they should e-mail their views to me. My number is I look forward to Conservative Members sending me their views on Labour's super-highway. Even the Under-Secretary of State may wish to participate in that, as I know that he is not allowed to participate in broader policy making on the information super-highway.

Column 243

We could do worse than use Parliament as our first model, symbolically to show that we in this place are committed to the information super-highway. Every Member of Parliament should be provided with access to the Internet, if they so wish, and facilities for sending e-mail just as they now send letters or use the telephone.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): My hon. Friend will have seen the report last summer of the Select Committee on Information, in which we pointed out that the House is the only Parliament in the whole of Europe, bar that of Turkey, which does not have a fully fledged network. That is extraordinary, especially when many local authorities have gone way ahead of the House. Does not my hon. Friend think that it is time that we drove those technologies through much faster than is happening at present in order to give such a lead to the community outside?

Mr. Allen: Very much so. I commend the work that has been done by my hon. Friend and, indeed, by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller). It should not be done by entrepreneurs, be they Conservative or Opposition Members, but rather it should be organised by the House and encouraged by the Government, not least because it would allow citizens and electors far better access to their Members of Parliament. We should be wary of looking at snap referendums through electronic means, but we should look at the possibility of allowing interaction between a Member of Parliament and his or her constituents, or direct e-mailing on certain occasions. The ingenuity of Members of Parliament could be tested. I am sure that they would come up with some excellent ideas.

But everybody needs some encouragement, even Members of Parliament, and it is a matter for the Government and the Lord President to kick the system into action in the House of Commons, so that we can start to set an example for our colleagues outside.

The same is happening in local authorities. Despite the dead hand of centralism that lies heavily on them, authorities from Bristol to Newham--I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms) in his place, and to give way to him.

Mr. Stephen Timms (Newham, North-East): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and for mentioning the Newham initiative. He is aware that that initiative is a partnership between the London borough of Newham, the Metropolitan police, Olivetti and a number of European cities, and is aimed at developing multi-media access to public services. Will my hon. Friend join me in commending the ATTACH project and express the hope that it will secure the funding from the European Union that has been applied for?

Mr. Allen: I am delighted to say that I have visited the ATTACH project. Despite the fact that Newham is co-ordinating a tremendous project, how much better it would be if London followed the example of Manchester and had a co-ordinated strategic authority, which, instead of having people competing against each other for a limited pot of cash, sought to have a strategy for its capital city, like every other capital in Europe. On the European dimension, I know from my own experience of trying to obtain RECHAR money for former coal mining areas in my constituency, that the Government, because of their

Column 244

ideological block, often stand in the way of cities and regions making the best of the European money that is available. We need a Government who will facilitate and encourage the use of European money, not one who get in the way and hand it out piecemeal, as dogs fight over a bone.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) will be aware of the Cambridge experiment. There are also experiments in Manchester, Newham, Bristol and elsewhere. Manchester in particular is leading the way with an electronic post office, called Manchester HOST, and several electronic villages, which provide affordable access for small business and the local community to electronic mail, bulletin boards, on-line databases, access to the global Internet and training in cyber skills. I am afraid that, by comparison, London looks rather sick. London could do far better if it was given the right encouragement and local government structures by an incoming Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury told me the other day of another example of the way in which this is all beginning to work. He told us that, on a recent visit to Los Angeles, within days of the earthquake, 700,000 people were teleworking from home using computer networks. Many still are. Those are just some of the many examples on our doorstep and around the world of how we can use the ability to communicate interactively, which is what the super-highway is all about.

Unless we encourage those developments, there will be an ever-wider gap between the information poor and the information rich, not only in our own country but, possibly, internationally. The South African deputy President recently revealed that half the people in the world had never used a telephone and that Manhattan Island has more lines than the whole of sub- Saharan Africa.

So what are the aims of the next Government? First, we should construct a truly nationwide network. We do not want a network that covers two thirds, or even three quarters, of the country. The beauty of the concept and practice of the super-highway is that, while it must be national, it can equally be very local and, indeed personal. We want to encourage genuinely local services--for example, local television channels--as well as the genuinely national services encompassed by the super-highway. The role of a Labour Government--a role abrogated by the Conservatives--will be to use the opportunities that are opening up to deliver maximum social benefits.

We want to build on the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), and use the recommendations of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry as the basis for the United Kingdom super- highway. I understand that the House may be given an opportunity to debate a Bill dealing with the subject next week. We shall continue to work intimately with BT and the cable companies, seeking a mutually satisfactory agreement.

This will not require millions of pounds of Government expenditure. Businesses and the next Government know that the information super-highway will create many lucrative markets. Multi-media applications, CD-ROM and portable and digital equipment are all potential job creators and profit makers. The money is there: those companies are willing to invest huge sums to construct

Column 245

a super-highway. Amazingly, however, the Conservative Government have failed to cultivate that co-operation and make use of their combined power and resources.

The Government's lack of energy and their procrastination cause uncertainty for investors and planners, and deter research and development. All those concerned know that we shall put that right, and build a partnership that works.

Secondly, we need a network that not only links business to business and provides home entertainment, but ensures the public good of every school, library, GP's surgery and citizens advice bureau that is linked to it. As an incoming Government, we have been working very closely with the cable companies, and I am delighted that the Cable Communications Association has decided that it will automatically provide every school that cable companies pass with a free connection. It has freely committed itself to a public service obligation, which is good business sense as well as good community relations.

All the companies providing the infrastructure know that schools, libraries and so forth create future users and purchasers, and a source of future markets for their new services. We as a Government will give companies a tremendous opportunity to make money over a long period, and by encouraging them to build infrastructure, we shall ensure their place in the markets of the future. The quid pro quo--the planning gain--is the maximising of social benefits for the community as a whole.

An example of that principle--a social contract in operation, perhaps--can be seen in the state of New York. It was ensured there that whoever won the highly desirable franchise for Manhattan would also pay into a fund to cable the south Bronx, and as a result of that policy New York is now working towards a state-wide cabling network. What can be done in the United States can be done here, too.

Our third objective is an open access system. The super-highway builders accept that they should not prevent the suppliers of services having access to their network. They should, of course, be entitled to charge a reasonable rent for the use of infrastructure. Here, sadly, the outgoing Government seem to be stuck in the 1980s. The thinking has now switched from infrastructure to services, from holes and poles to easy-to-use applications; but the Conservatives are rooted to the spot, yearning for the ideological certainties of the 1980s rather than thinking through the challenges of the future. There must be a common carrier purpose for the infrastructure, with services being separately provided.

We also need to address the difficult question of regulation of content. Existing regulatory frameworks may suffice for services and conventional cabling, but the Internet throws up particular problems. I recently visited the innovative Cyberia cafe in Whitfield street in London and spoke to some young people who are, in many ways, the most avid users and the pioneers of the Internet. They were desperately keen not to see the unlimited horizons of the Internet closed down by censorship. An incoming Government, particularly a Government committed to reinventing democracy in the United Kingdom, should associate themselves closely with such sentiments. However, crimes such as racial hatred, pornography and defamation can never be tolerated in any section of society. Although existing law should be employed to tackle those problems, if and when they arise on the

Column 246

information super-highway, the Government also need to initiate a broad review of the relevant legislation to ensure that there are no loopholes or inconsistencies.

There is a great deal more to say on the information super-highway. However, I am conscious of the need to leave some time for the Minister to reply. I hope that the Minister has gained something from his experience at the G7 summit last week. I was delighted that he went to the summit. Equally--this is no reflection on him--it was inappropriate that we did not send someone at Secretary of State level or even at Prime Minister level. If the Americans could send Al Gore, the creator of the vision of the super -highway in the United States, it was inappropriate for the Minister alone to have gone to the G7 summit. Labour will have different priorities. We will ensure that the information super-highway works for everybody.

10.36 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Technology (Mr. Ian Taylor): We have had an interesting session, for 20 minuteor so, on the super-highway, although the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) did not appear to have picked up any information on his travels along it. For a start, he does not appear to realise, despite the numerous questions that he has tabled and I have answered, that I am co-ordinating Government policy on the information super-highway and the information society. The many initiatives that I have announced to the House are now well advanced and are showing just how active the Government are.

As the hon. Gentleman kindly mentioned, I was the Government's representative at the G7 talks. It was interesting that the speeches and contributions that I made during that weekend got a great deal of support and approval from the other Ministers round the table. Indeed, they recognised that the British Government's policy of liberalising information technology, privatising the telephone industry, increasing competition and encouraging alternative infrastructures was the basis of policies that we, as the G7, then adopted. It was interesting that Vice-President Al Gore dropped in, made a speech and then went on to do other things. Secretary Ron Brown of the United States was especially encouraging of the British position and went out of his way to be very supportive of the policies that we have initiated. I did not feel any sense of embarrassment about being the only British Minister. Indeed, that was an advantage because I understood how Government policy was being co-ordinated. Nor do I feel that Britain was in any sense under-represented, given that the conclusions of the G7 talks exactly underlined the British Government's success over a period.

The hon. Gentleman should first understand that the super-highway is no single entity. It is not a motorway-building programme which one must try to build to every corner of the country in the same fashion, with the same number of lanes. The super-highways are interconnecting channels-- interconnecting networks. They are often unpredictable in the way that they interconnect and they frequently use different technologies. There is a mix, for example, of broad-band cable and co-axial and twisted copper pair. Each has a function on the super-highway and each has applications. There is the use of satellite technology and there is

Column 247

increasing use of the radio spectrum. There are already two companies licensed in the United Kingdom to use the radio spectrum for telephone links. I intend to announce details of further programmes, given the success that we are having with the efficient use of the radio spectrum.

In each of those technologies, there are solutions. For example, the way in which one connects rural areas in the country into the super-highway is not necessarily by digging trenches and putting down cables. It may be much more suitable to link with the radio spectrum and we are looking at that, especially in rural areas. It is also possible to say that as more than 90 per cent. of British people are already connected to the telephone they are already connected to the super-highway. Indeed, one may access Internet without having to have optical broad-band fibre. I fully accept that it is slow, but it is possible. Many surfers of the Internet out there are not connected with broad-band fibre.

Next Section

  Home Page