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Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): Will the hon. Lady tell us when that new regime will be in place? Will she publish a timetable to tell us exactly when it will be finalised and up and running?

Ms Hewitt: During the passage of the Bill, I shall report on the progress made by the Alliance for Electronic Business, and shall try to publish a timetable for the introduction of the scheme.

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The point of co-regulation is that legislation should be used only when self-regulation does not deliver. Part I thus provides a statutory default option. In July, we spelt out the criteria for a kitemark for this sector; they include a broad coverage of industry sectors and of its range of services, consumer representation, clear standards and the ability to ensure compliance and to meet EU standards so that British businesses and consumers can take advantage of the single market.

I am confident that self-regulation will work, but the industry is fast-moving, and self-regulation is at an early stage. It would be irresponsible to do what the Opposition appear to suggest--to abandon the possibility of a statutory scheme in future. The sensible course is to work with industry on self-regulation--as we are doing--but to create a statutory default option in case we need it.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): By what criteria will the Minister deem a voluntary regime to have succeeded or to have failed?

Ms Hewitt: We have already published--and I just summarised--the criteria by which we shall judge a self-regulatory scheme. Once the Bill receives Royal Assent, we shall hold part I in reserve, in case self-regulation fails. Then, in 2004, we shall conduct an open review of how self-regulation is working; and, provided that it is working well, the powers in part I will lapse, according to the provisions of clause 15.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, even if a statutory scheme is introduced, it will still be open to any commercial provider who is not satisfied with the clauses to operate outside the scheme--that it will be statutory in the sense of a Government register but not in the sense of a compulsion?

Ms Hewitt: I am happy to give my hon. Friend the assurance that he wants. We rejected the mandatory approach that our predecessors had adopted, so any statutory scheme, were it to be introduced under part I, would still be voluntary.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): Would it not be more straightforward if the Minister, instead of putting propositions before the House now to save her face and that of her colleagues, admitted that her Department had made a mistake and that part I was not needed, but said that it would be possible later, if self-regulation was not working, to come back and justify the introduction of part I on the basis of the evidence available at the time?

Hon. Members: U-turn.

Ms Hewitt: The Opposition are in an extraordinary state. On one hand, we hear that we are not moving fast enough. On the other, we are told, "Do not do this. Find the parliamentary time and introduce a fresh Bill if we need it." It is much more sensible to take the approach that we are taking.

Part II confirms the legal validity of electronic signatures.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): I hope that the hon. Lady does not distinguish between me as the

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unofficial Opposition and Members on the Opposition Front Bench as the official Opposition in these matters. However, having been the Minister mentioned as having recanted, as it were, may I ask the hon. Lady to clarify two things? First, can she confirm what the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry told me on 19 November 1999--that the Home Office Bill for the regulation of investigatory powers will not override her desire for a voluntary system? Secondly, can she confirm that the Government, in their dealings with business and consumers, will not adopt a key escrow system? If they do, it may well become the de facto system that others will have to adopt.

Ms Hewitt: It is a pleasure to hear from the unofficial Opposition, and I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman on both the points that he raises. There is no suggestion of the Home Office, in its Bill, taking over the self-regulatory scheme that we are pursuing with the Alliance for Electronic Business or seeking to substitute its own powers for the statutory default powers in part I.

I repeat that mandatory key escrow has not been part of the Government's policy since March 1999. We have ruled it out from the Bill so that it cannot be introduced under part I or part II. Part II deals with the conditions on which electronic transactions may take place between Government and the citizen.

Part II--

Mr. St. Aubyn: On part I, what assurance can the Minister give the House that if, at some time before 2004, she conducts a review of how self-regulation is working, she will not at that stage have to introduce amendments to the Bill in the light of the fast-changing scene that we all know is represented by e-commerce?

Ms Hewitt: In a world that is changing rapidly, we have to try to make the legislation that we pass today as flexible and future-proof as we can. That is why the Bill is drafted on the basis of technological neutrality. It is not designed to prescribe, or to surround with conditions, any specific type of technology. That is very important in relation to the provisions in part II that will confirm the legal validity of electronic signatures.

Mr. Gibb: Will the Minister come to the House if she decides to invoke part I or will it be invoked through an order? Will the House have any say?

Ms Hewitt: I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that I would, of course, come to the House in those circumstances.

Mr. Gibb: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Hewitt: I shall give way one last time.

Mr. Gibb: The Minister has missed the point. As currently drafted, if part I is invoked, the Bill does not require a statutory instrument to be introduced under

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either the affirmative or negative resolution procedure. What assurances can she give the House that it will have a say and a vote on whether part I is invoked?

Ms Hewitt: I have just given the hon. Gentleman an assurance in what I thought was plain English.

Mr. Duncan: It was ambiguous.

Ms Hewitt: It was not ambiguous. If the hon. Gentleman wants to pursue the point in Committee, I am sure that we can spend many a happy hour on it.

Part II also gives Ministers the powers to update the statute book by providing electronic equivalents to paper signatures, records and documents. Lawyers argue about whether electronic signatures would be recognised as valid by the courts, but we cannot afford to wait while lawyers argue and the courts decide. Instead, clause 7 will allow businesses and consumers to have confidence in electronic signatures, because it puts beyond doubt that a court can admit evidence of an electronic signature and a certificate in support of that signature not only to establish from whom the communication came, but to establish the date and time at which it was sent and whether it was intended to have legal effect.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): Will the Minister help the House by explaining when clause 7 will be implemented? What is the timetable?

Ms Hewitt: I anticipate that clause 7 will come into force immediately that the Bill has secured Royal Assent. I think that the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member, particularly supported this measure.

As some of my hon. Friends have said, the proposals for electronic signatures have been widely welcomed by industry. For example, Intel said that it was

We also have to modernise the statute book to enable electronic transactions between citizens and government, and between citizens themselves, to take place. Clause 8 will therefore give the Government and the Scottish Administration the power to sweep away obstacles in existing laws that insist on the use of paper and formalities, such as sealing and--if my hon. Friend the Minister for Competitiveness will forgive me for mentioning it--the requirements to deliver documents through the post. The clause will give people the option of using electronic means when they prefer to do so.

I am pleased to announce that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Cabinet Office has agreed that the Cabinet Office's central information technology unit will now co-ordinate the use of that power to ensure the equivalence of electronic and paper ways of doing business with government. We want Departments to use those powers quickly, and the Cabinet Office will lead the drive across government to ensure that that happens.

Mr. Ian Taylor: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way twice to me. Can she assure me that there will be consistency across government in putting those powers

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into practice? Will the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise join everyone else, or will they devise their own systems?

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