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Mr. Duncan: And us.

Ms Hewitt: There was some help on points of detail from the Opposition--particularly in Committee.

The Government have made extensive changes to the policy inherited from the last Administration. This process of widespread consultation has resulted in a genuine partnership in this area between Government and industry. I hope to see many of the Bill's objectives being achieved by self-regulation, so that we will not need to commence part I.

Part I is designed to build confidence in those offering cryptography services. Those services allow people to verify who has sent an electronic communication, or to keep commercial information or credit card details secret. The widespread availability of high-quality services to the public and to business will be crucial in building people's trust in doing business online, and allaying many people's fears of the new medium.

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I am working with the Alliance for Electronic Business, which has drawn up a self-regulatory approval scheme--known as the T scheme--that is designed to ensure minimum standards of quality and service. Our strong preference is for self-regulation, with the statutory powers in part I held in reserve in case self-regulation fails to deliver. I am confident that, if the Alliance for Electronic Business delivers what it is currently planning to deliver, we will not need to commence part 1. That is why these powers are subject to a sunset clause and will lapse if not used within five years.

The Bill will allow people to place greater reliance on electronic signatures by making such signatures, and the processes through which they are created and certified, admissible as evidence in court. Clause 7 will enable the vast majority of contracts, where there is no specific statutory requirement as to their form, to be carried out electronically.

There are many other cases--estimated to be as many as 40,000--often involving dealings with Government, where there are specific legal barriers to doing things electronically. Clause 8 will give the Government the power to sweep away the obstacles in existing laws that insist on the use of paper, postage and formalities such as sealing wherever it makes sense to do so, and to give people the electronic option. The paper option will remain for those who want it, but increasingly, people and businesses will want to take advantage of the speed and flexibility that electronic communication offers. We have set targets for delivering Government services online, and I have deposited a memorandum in the Library, giving more detail on how we intend to use this power.

Finally, the Bill will improve the procedures for modifying telecommunications licences, which are increasingly outdated in a highly competitive marketplace.

The Bill will modernise our legislative framework, so that the law can adapt flexibly to the extraordinary new opportunities that are opening up with electronic commerce. It is an enabling Bill which ensures that the law does not get in the way of new technology and new business. It is a Bill that has the overwhelming support of business, and does not divide us in the House, to which I commend it.

5.29 pm

Mr. Duncan: We have always supported the principle of the Bill--in particular, the introduction of a proper framework of law for electronic signatures. Those of us who understand business are ready champions of the development of e-commerce. The Minister will admit that we have helped things on their way.

There are issues and uncertainties which will need to be addressed, and this is not the end of the matter. As we look to EU directives, there will be many complicated areas to be studied and legislated upon, and cases to complement the Bill before us today. As the House knows, we do not want part I ever to be invoked. We would rather not have seen it in the Bill, because we want a regime of voluntary control to be introduced.

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I am aware that the Government want this to be the first Bill to receive Royal Assent in the new millennium. Thanks to us and the Minister, it will be. We forced its publication in draft form in the summer and, following the summer recess, we forced the removal of half its pages to make it smaller and better. We have been constructive throughout and are pleased to share in its improvement and in its progress. No single party can claim credit for the Bill. We are pleased to support it.

5.31 pm

Mr. Cotter: We, too, welcome the Bill and the prospect of its early implementation. Unlike the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), I do not promise the Minister a box of chocolates, but perhaps a box of All Sorts with a few comments and plaudits here and there.

Many people, including Liberal Democrats, have welcomed the concept of a light-touch Bill and we congratulate the Government on introducing one. However, along with others, I reiterate a concern that was expressed in Committee. When the Home Office makes its input into electronic communications, I hope that the Minister will, as she and the Department of Trade and Industry have promised, use a light touch rather than the heavy hand of bureaucracy.

As with other Bills, the question of impact assessment has arisen, and the Minister will know that I am concerned about that. The matter was touched on in Committee when indicative costings were provided for the possible arrangements under part I. I do not want to argue strongly about the accuracy of the costs--after all, they were called indicative costs. For example, a figure of £30,000 or £50,000 was given for a medium-sized company. However, as I said in another debate, there is a feeling of dissatisfaction about impact assessments in this and other Bills. I am sure that we shall be interested to hear from the Alliance for Electronic Business, which will soon provide some costs. I should like to know when that will be.

An important point was raised about part II. Departments need to examine outdated definitions, such as the words "writing or signature". On Second Reading and in Committee, it emerged that, as the Bill stands, it is up to individual Departments to update their own legislation as they see fit. That may lead to inconsistencies and confusion, so perhaps the Government should be more proactive. The Department of Trade and Industry should issue time targets and templates to ensure that Departments do what is required.

I know that the Minister will consider it her duty to prod colleagues and generally to promote what the Bill stands for with all Departments. However, I appreciate that she is aware of the many problems that may be faced in order making under the Bill.

Social exclusion is another important issue. The Government have stated that they are concerned to ensure that there is the widest possible access to the technologies. I applaud it when the Minister refers to IT for All, information and communication technologies learning centres, and other schemes. However, Liberal Democrats, like everyone else, are considering a changing scenario, with digital and other means being developed.

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I, like others, have heard about the Government initiative for the provision of low-cost computers for low-income families. How is that scheme going? Although the Minister may not be able to answer this afternoon--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must understand that, on Third Reading, he is limited to discussing the contents of the Bill. Even though he may think that other issues are connected with the Bill, he cannot raise them. He must talk about what is in the Bill.

Mr. Cotter: I stand corrected--thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

In conclusion, the Bill is important to ensure that we as a country address the issues of e-commerce. The Minister is aware of the points that I have made and other issues might be raised on another occasion. I hope that we can advance together to make the climate suitable for business--and small business, in particular--to conduct its affairs.

5.35 pm

Mr. St. Aubyn: I too wish the Bill well and congratulate the Minister on her handling of it. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) ably assisted the Bill to reach this stage when he encouraged the removal of the inappropriate clauses that were originally in it.

I express the wish that, in another place, some of the issues that have been debated and the two new clauses that could not be considered today will be taken up. If the Bill is to succeed, it must deal with the tax implications of cross-border trade. In its wider remit, it will not succeed unless that is done even if the undertakings that the Minister has given are taken on board by her colleagues in the Treasury and are dealt with in the next Finance Bill. Nor will it succeed in its objective of broadening e-commerce if the law of contract and the state in which the law applies have not been clarified.

We have supported the Minister so much on the Bill because we congratulate her on her fights with the Lord Chancellor's Department and with the finance team on the issue of which country's law should apply to contracts. We are concerned by the passage of the Brussels convention and we urge her to stop any suggestion that it should apply to e-commerce. We are also worried by the idea that the country of destination should be invoked in the Financial Services and Markets Bill. Therefore, with her colleagues in other Departments, we hope that she will consider the implications of trying to change the way in which the law is applied. We believe that, almost without exception, the country of origin should be the basis on which cross-border trade is regulated. If we adopt that stance, we should do so as the United Kingdom legislature and not by following the lead from Brussels and Europe.

We did not become the financial centre of Europe by following the lead from Brussels. We did that by following our own lead--deciding what we thought was best for the financial services industry. It is only by following our own sense of what is best for the e-commerce industry that we shall create the centre for e-commerce in Europe to which we all aspire.

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Before the Bill reaches the Lords, the Minister should consider adopting unilaterally the principle behind new clause 2. A report to the Select Committee by the Minister every year would do much to enhance her role and her negotiating power with other Departments. She would be able to tell them that she has to come to the House to defend the decisions and explain why, if they get it wrong, it will be to the detriment of the regulation of cryptography support services. She would be able to explain why new tax burdens, such as IR35, and new regulatory burdens, such as the temp-to-perm rules for temporary staff employment agencies, would add to the cost of developing e-commerce in this country. I know that that is an argument that the Minister supports and I hope that she wins it with her colleagues in the Government.

That principle would also act as a spur to other Departments to implement the terms of the Bill when they try to reform and update other legislation. We were told that 40,000 pieces of legislation need updating to incorporate electronic signatures. However, there are no teeth in the Bill to ensure that the Minister's colleagues do their job to ensure that e-commerce can march ahead as fast as we all want it to.

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