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Dr. Ladyman: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will enlighten me by explaining how his call for more speed ties in with an amendment that calls for less speed.

Mr. Duncan: The reasoned amendment calls for less legislation. It was completely misrepresented by the Minister when she said that the Opposition are calling for nothing to be done until everything has been done in Europe. Rather, we are saying that Britain should proceed now, but in a simple way with a shorter Bill that is not so cumbersome and laden.

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It is the Government who have taken their time. They have said for years that they will appoint an e-envoy. At last they have got round to doing so, but he will not be at his desk until January.

Mr. White: If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about speed, why did not the Opposition agree to a carry-over motion in July and table amendments in Committee? Their objective could have been achieved in that way.

Mr. Duncan: I shall specifically address that issue.

It is hardly surprising that the Government have been so slow. Although they talk much about IT and about how they believe in it, their track record in implementing it in their own house is abysmal. Much of what they try to do in government immediately crashes.

The essence of the internet revolution is that it divides clearly into e-government and e-commerce. The internet is a fantastic mechanism for improving the delivery of government. That is certainly what the Government say, but in practice everything that they touch crashes. About 500,000 people had to wait for a passport in the summer because computers would not work. The Inland Revenue could not properly implement its new system of self-assessment, and a crash led to the absurdity of 56,000 people receiving an apology for being sent the wrong sort of threatening letter.

The Government may speak the language of IT, but in practice their IT crashes. As if that were not enough, they set themselves a target. In 1997, the Prime Minister pledged that 25 per cent. of Government services would be available electronically by 2002. An inter-departmental audit of Government dealings soon afterwards found that 38 per cent. of them were already capable of being conducted electronically. Perhaps the Government think that a target that takes them backwards is easier to achieve.

Worst of all, the Government, pretending that they favour IT and the great internet revolution, plan to introduce IR35--a £500 million e-tax that would drive people abroad. The supreme irony is that those who helped to create the technology to produce the e-signature for which the Bill provides will face a sustained attack from a Government who say one thing and do another.

The Minister was kind enough to refer to the e-petition that I electronically signed this morning. We started it on Friday and we had thousands of names by Sunday evening. Many more thousands came in today, at the rate of one every five seconds at its peak. This is the first electronically signed petition. I look forward to the electronic reply, which I trust the Minister will send in due course.

The Secretary of State, however, is a little slow off the mark. As I walked into the Chamber this afternoon, I saw on the board a press notice informing us that in a week the Secretary of State will become the first British Cabinet Minister to become a digital signatory. He is a little behind the times, and in internet time a week is a decade.

Ms Hewitt: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. As he has collected so many signatures on

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the subject of IR35, will he tell the House whether he believes that an IT subcontractor earning £18,000 a year should pay the same level of national insurance contributions as a nurse or a teacher on £18,000 a year, or whether, as some--some--who wish to evade tax would suggest, that person should be able to escape paying any national insurance contributions at all?

Mr. Duncan: The Minister knows perfectly well that those who are employed as a limited company are doing so legally and that she is replacing their ability to help Britain lead the internet revolution with a £500 million tax, which will be detrimental to Britain's future and to theirs.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Duncan: I give way to the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer).

Dr. Palmer: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I came to the Chamber in the belief that we would be debating electronic communications and commerce. We seem to be debating tax. Is that in order?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I have heard nothing out of order so far.

Mr. Duncan: It seems that the Labour Government are about to add insult to injury. According to The Independent on Sunday, not only are they driving thousands of people out of Britain by taxing them more, to the tune of £500 million, but it seems that they are to give visa exemptions so that people from overseas can come into Britain if they can add to the IT revolution. How does the Minister square kicking people out with bringing them in with special exemptions?

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Would his party reverse the change if it were in government?

Mr. Duncan: I am sure that, unlike the Labour party, we will stick to what we say in the run-up to an election.

Mr. Campbell-Savours rose--

Mr. Miller rose--

Mr. Duncan: I shall give way in a moment, but I want to make some progress.

The Government have been unable to get their house in order and have made a complete hash of e-government. In contrast, our approach to e-commerce is entirely clear. We believe in minimum interference.

Mr. Miller: Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the issue of the petition, will he confirm that the website from which the petition was derived has been up and running for several months, and that it is not the instantaneous vehicle that he claimed? Will he answer the question from

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my hon. Friend the Minister? What would he do about the national insurance contributions of IT contractors on £18,000, as opposed to those of nurses on £18,000?

Mr. Duncan: I am happy to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that we collected all the names over the weekend.

Mr. Miller: Rubbish.

Mr. Duncan: I defy the hon. Gentleman to disprove me. We announced the petition on Friday and received 1,700 signatures over the weekend and a further 2,000 this morning, witnessed by many people. Even in the 20 minutes during which I held a press conference this morning, a further 387 signatures came in.

Mr. Campbell-Savours rose--

Mr. Duncan: I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman.

The Government invited us to allow the e-commerce Bill, as everyone believed it was called, to be introduced in the last Session and carried over. We rightly refused because we were not prepared to aid and abet the passage of a dog's dinner of a Bill, which would have been burdensome and detrimental to the progress of the revolution that we support. We knew the Bill's main contents and we were not happy. At least we thought that key escrow had been rejected and I was pleased to hear the Minister confirm that today. However, only a few groups were adequately consulted in a secretive, cosy process. The Minister shakes her head, but the Government did not properly consult small, infant companies, which are at the cutting edge of the progress that we support. The consultation process concentrated on the larger, established companies.

We forced the publication of the Bill in July; the Minister was not prepared to publish it. All companies, large or small, had the summer in which to consult the Government only because we refused to allow the carry-over procedure, and demanded the Bill's publication. Our efforts gave them that opportunity.

Ms Hewitt: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has chosen to reveal discussions that took place through the usual channels. However, as he has done that, I emphasise that we published the draft Bill for consultation because we believed that that was the right way to proceed. We made it clear that we wanted to introduce the Bill; we published it and we have now introduced it.

Mr. Duncan: I mentioned the matter only because it was raised during the Minister's speech. I am puzzled about how the Minister could have published the Bill for consultation if she had already laid it before Parliament. We forced its publication. Interforum, which probably represents the largest group of companies in the sector, stated:

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    At that stage, Interforum said what we were saying:

    "We advocate a simple e-commerce Bill containing part II,"--

the provision for electronic signature--

    "a four-page Bill genuinely designed to help the development of e-commerce in the UK."

It continued:

    "Far from promoting the UK as the best place on earth to trade electronically, the Bill is dominated by provisions which will make it more cumbersome to set up services in the UK, rather than elsewhere."

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