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The Minister for Trade (Mr. Brian Wilson): The hon. Gentleman draws attention to my twitching, so I might as well exercise it further. What he describes is an inheritance; it has not been created over the past 18 months. He need tell no one on the Government Benches that IT and computer provision in schools is highly patchy. Last year, I visited a school in my constituency which had one computer that was younger than the 16-year-olds using it. People voted for a Labour Government precisely because they wanted every school in the country to be equipped to the best standards.

Mr. Hayes: The Minister misunderstands the problem. It is a question not of acquisition but of effective use. It is not a question of the number of computers on desks, but of how they impact on teaching and learning, how effectively they are integrated into delivery of the curriculum, and what impact they have on the relationship between the teacher and the taught. Some schools with few computers use them effectively, while others have invested heavily in hardware without matching it with training, software and support. Computers lie idle and have no impact on teaching.

It is not as simple as saying that we must spread the jam around the whole country and hope for the best. I want the Government to take a lead in using that investment more effectively. All I am saying, hopefully in a reasoned and moderate way, is that, if we are to spend money on computers, we should ensure that they make a real difference to children. One had hoped for a little more from the Queen's Speech on that issue.

Some of the initiatives that have been announced and implemented in the past year--I referred to initiative fatigue--were well intentioned but half baked. I do not want to debate the past--I would not be allowed to, anyway--but schools in my constituency were already doing much of what was in the literacy hour initiative. Whether that should have been universally applied--as it has been--is debatable.

Many teachers understandably and legitimately resent the fact that their creativity, flair, imagination and ability to innovate is being restricted by an increasingly prescriptive Government, who define what they do, how they teach, how much time they should allocate for homework, and when they should stand at the blackboard and when they should not. We must allow our teachers the flexibility and scope to deliver an effective education using their flair and creativity.

The absence of a thoughtful and considered programme is a cause more of sorrow than of anger. There is a lack of strategy, vision and long-term planning. We are told

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that there will be consultation on teaching. We must be careful that that does not become another excuse and opportunity for knocking teachers. Although the Queen's Speech refers to raising teachers' status and profile, there is a real concern that they will not welcome further consultation that will do nothing for their status, and might diminish it still further.

If education is the bridge to self-improvement and personal fulfilment, it deserves priority. Much is said about the priority that the Government have given it, but there are huge holes in the legislative programme in the Queen's Speech in respect of education. Those holes cannot be filled by this Government, but may be filled by a future Conservative Government.

8.52 pm

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South): I make no apology for returning to the subject of trade and industry. Having sat here throughout the contributions of Conservative Members, I have heard great lamentations and gnashing of teeth. In their view, the Queen's Speech lacks legislation for industry, enterprise or jobs. It is noteworthy that they have not proposed any alternative policies. They have also signally failed to address one of the crucial issues in the Queen's Speech--electronic commerce, which will be fundamental to the future prospects of our industry.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) gave the impression that electronic commerce has already been achieved. His and his hon. Friends' references to it were extremely depressing because they showed that they do not understand its' importance to the future of our industry. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) showed that his party's contribution to the debate on electronic commerce is confused and contradictory. He berated the Government over their intention to introduce voluntary licences for encryption, and revealed that his party's policy is for mandatory arrangements. That is utter nonsense.

Perhaps Conservative Members are embarrassed about the fact that, after all those years in government and despite the framework of telecommunications that they put in place, they never delivered the widespread access to innovation and advanced telecommunication services that they promised.

What the Opposition failed to discuss tonight is an important element of the Queen's Speech, which has been welcomed by the Confederation of British Industry. The secure electronic commerce Bill will perform the crucial function of updating to encourage worldwide trading, and will improve competitiveness by enabling the United Kingdom to compete in the digital marketplace.

The aim of the Bill is to overcome some of the key factors that have impeded confidence in electronic commerce. It will improve business confidence by establishing voluntary licensing arrangements for bodies offering electronic signature and confidentiality services to the public. The Bill will also introduce voluntary licensing arrangements for bodies offering electronic signatures to the public, to ensure that minimum standards of quality and service are met.

Signatures meeting those standards will, for the first time, have legal status. The Bill will also sweep away the restrictions that insist on the use of paper transactions, and will tackle concerns about law enforcement powers in the face of increasing criminal and terrorist use of encryption.

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Lest the Opposition think that measures creating an environment in which electronic commerce can develop are not important to the country's competitiveness--as they have implied this evening--I shall remind them of the scale of internet and electronic business in Britain.

The United Kingdom has the fifth largest information technology industry, worth £45 billion, and it is estimated that, in commerce alone, it will be worth £500 billion within five years. Surely that is worthy of more scrutiny or debate than has been offered by Opposition Members today. The World Economic Forum certainly recognised its importance. Its survey found that 20 per cent. of firms believed that electronic commerce would fundamentally reshape the way in which they did business, and that a further 59 per cent. believed that it would lead to significant changes in their business.

Electronic commerce has been growing for many years. It links companies to suppliers and financial institutions, and business to Government. The United Kingdom has an exceptionally strong base from which to develop electronic commerce as it becomes a significant proportion of global gross domestic product.

As has been said in many debates, we are on the cusp of a quiet revolution, in which electronic commerce will play a significant role in a new commercial world; but harnessing the immense potential offered by electronic commerce to create wealth and jobs means that we must rapidly establish agreed ground rules giving buyers and sellers confidence and trust to use the new technology.

Although the prime economic drive for electronic commerce may currently lie with business-to-business transactions, it is clear that consumers--whether ordering books via the internet or using it for home shopping--must also benefit. They, like business, must be able to take advantage of the potential ease and reduced cost of transactions that the Bill will deliver. Consumers must have confidence in the new system. The need to address concerns about security of transactions, privacy and consumer redress will be crucial to the development of electronic commerce.

The Bill begins to tackle some of the issues by ensuring that messages can be signed electronically, so that a user can check who has signed a message and be confident that it has not been tampered with. Consumers will also have the assurance of confidentiality. For the first time, electronic signatures will have the force of law, and electronic transactions such as the pilot carried out in Luton recently by the National Westminster bank, offering intelligent forms for self-employed business people, will have legal standing.

The creation of such a framework is welcome. I am especially pleased that the Government have recognised that electronic commerce is a key element of competitiveness for small and medium enterprises. Notwithstanding comments by Opposition Members, the Government believe in such enterprises. That is why we have the lowest-ever rate of corporation tax, and why we have introduced incentives for small businesses to invest. It is no use Opposition Members shaking their heads. The Budget increased incentives for small and medium enterprises and has radically enhanced their productivity and prospects.

As I said in a recent Adjournment debate on competitiveness and small businesses, however, it is clear from my experience in my constituency that the

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importance and opportunities of electronic commerce to the sector's competitiveness must be more widely known. I am aware of the information society initiative for businesses and its emphasis on small businesses, but not many small businesses that I visited in Luton seemed to know of it. That is borne out by research conducted by the Bedfordshire chamber of commerce, which foundthat Luton and Bedfordshire small businesses use IT equipment but feel that they are not making optimum use of it. It was depressing to be told on a recent visit to a company of 80 employees that its only technology was an ancient computer for the payroll, and that the director was proud of knowing nothing about new technology.

We must make greater effort to get the message across to small and medium enterprises that the future is in electronic commerce. For small businesses, electronic commerce can overcome numerous barriers to competitiveness. Location and size can become irrelevant; all companies have the same global reach. Electronic commerce can also help suppliers to identify consumer needs more exactly. It will speed processes, giving a greater competitive edge, and cut out the middle man, thereby reducing the costs of small businesses and their clients.

Our small businesses have much to learn from their counterparts in Canada, which I visited recently. There, electronic commerce is well developed and integrated into every aspect of business life, from the large to the micro, from systems to design to new production methods. We can learn from the Industry Canada strategy, which recognises that electronic commerce is but one vital element for creating a knowledge-based economy.

Our strategy must therefore be to build trust in the digital economy, building business and consumer confidence. We must, as we will do in the Bill, clarify marketplace rules, remove barriers to the use of e-commerce and update our legal rules. We must strengthen our information infrastructure to support the growth of e-commerce, and, crucially, realise opportunities for jobs and growth by developing skills and leadership in new technologies, which we know is desperately needed.

I recognise that many such issues can be tackled only on a global basis because electronic commerce introduces the borderless world. That is why I welcome the agreement reached recently by my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry on her visit to Ottawa and in discussions with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The agreement was particularly welcomed because it broke new ground and opened up opportunities to ensure that the benefits of electronic commerce are reaped by all--be they business, employees or consumers.

The Bill is not just to be welcomed; it lays the foundations for UK primacy in electronic commerce. Crucially, the Bill signals our determination to harness the power of electronic commerce in order to create economic growth and jobs. For UK industry to be competitive, we must ensure that we create the best environment in which to trade electronically. That is just what we are doing. We must also ensure that we are building on an economy that is based on knowledge, creativity and skills. That is why many of the elements in the Queen's Speech refer to creating a knowledge-based society and economy. In order to ensure that we take maximum advantage of

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the new opportunities that are offered by the information age, we need those joined-up policies and skills to develop our prominence in the world of e-commerce.

I very much welcome today's statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, which will create a digital envoy to be the champion of the new information age. My right hon. Friend's action will ensure that the United Kingdom plays a leading role in the new world of electronic commerce and that the Government's commitment to modernising our trade and industry is fulfilled. Such action stands in sharp contrast to some of the prehistoric views on trade and industry matters held by Conservative Members.

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