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Mr. St. Aubyn: Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Government had presented a short Bill in the summer, it would have been relatively easy to have got it on the statute book already?

Mr. Duncan: My hon. Friend is right. If the Government had done as we requested, and presented a short, simple Bill, it could have been close to being enacted by now. However, the Bill that they published for consultation caused many anxieties, especially about the extent of the powers of intrusion, which would have been granted under part III of the draft Bill. Only a few weeks ago, I argued from the Dispatch Box that part III should be removed. The Minister looked across the Chamber and scoffed at me as if to say that that was an absurd demand. However, in my typically tactful fashion, I demanded its removal again. Now, lo and behold, part III has evaporated. The Government accepted the Opposition's sensible, constructive demands. The Minister relented and part III has been removed. We backed business; business backed us; the Minister backed down.

Part I remains a mess. We believe that the industry is best equipped to set standards, and that it can be relied upon to do so. We do not need Government interference in the process.

Part I is confusing and muddled. It is part statutory, part voluntary and, during the Minister's speech, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) described the absurdity of companies not being compelled to participate, should its provisions be invoked. It is not needed at all. Indeed, the measure, which is part of a Bill for a fast-moving sector of the economy, is designed not to be used. It is designed as a dodo--it will lie on the statute book, extinct. She hopes that she will never have to invoke it, but, even today, has been unable to say under what criteria she might decide to invoke it.

The whole point of part I is that it is bound to be overtaken by events and rendered obsolete by technological advance. At least there is a sunset clause, but I suggest that it would be better to invoke it now and not have part I at all. The Minister will perhaps have seen from her own mailbag--as I certainly have and many other hon. Members will have today--that the Law Society recommends the total removal of part I.

The Bill contains some unsatisfactory elements. There is, lying within it, the prospect of a completely new regulatory office. Will it be called Ofcrypt or Ofweb? Who knows, but provision exists for detaching control of the regulatory regime from the Minister and passing it to some new body designed to regulate the internet. The last thing that the internet needs is an interfering regulator.

Mr. Wyatt: If Britain is to be the fastest-growing e-commerce country, is not it important that consumers feel confident about how we trade on the internet? If there

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is to be not a statutory body but a partnership with the internet community, we in the House have to enable that to happen so that consumers can feel confident about using websites. If we do not do that, they will not use them.

Mr. Duncan: No such interference is necessary when there are so many well-established companies connected to the internet that can set their own standards and prove to consumers that they are worth using. The Government do not need to interfere and the partnership to which the hon. Gentleman refers would simply lead to them slowing the development that we want. Indeed, because it has taken them two years to produce the Bill, those companies are already being dragged back in a way that, otherwise, they would not.

Dr. Ladyman: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me a second time. When he reads what he has said, I wonder whether he will realise that he has proposed a policy that would exclude all new and small companies from using the internet as a way of trading. He is saying that the only firms in which people should have confidence are existing reputable businesses. Surely he cannot seriously be telling us that.

Mr. Duncan: The hon. Gentleman wilfully misunderstands me. Plenty of companies are already established in the industry and they could set up a voluntary regime in which all could participate. The Government do not need to interfere--they would be a brake on progress. Indeed, the whole point of part I--even to the Minister, as she would say--is that it is designed not to be used. I am merely pointing out the absurdity of including a provision that is designed not to be used and, I hope, never will be.

The kernel of the Bill is part II--provision for electronic signature, which is all that the industry needs. It wants to know that there will be a proper legal framework within which a person can contract with another and that the contract will stand up in law. As the Minister rightly said, in many examples a handwritten signature is required--in many cases, it must be witnessed by someone else--but as the world advances it should be possible to achieve such verification and signature electronically. That is what the industry needs, and that is all that it needs, which is why we would have fully supported, even in the previous Session of Parliament, an e-commerce Bill that provided for electronic signature.

Dr. Palmer: As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman believes that, at this stage, we should not provide for a statutory register, no matter how disastrously a voluntary scheme might fare. He admits that we are in a new area. Does he think that past precedents--for instance, on BSE, which was caused by a similar lack of regulation--are encouraging?

Mr. Duncan: The Minister has just said that she is confident that self-regulation will work--so am I. I am pleased to find common ground with her. We could expedite the passage of the Bill if she would base her thinking on the comment that she made, and proceed with the Bill without this unnecessary provision, which will be a brake on progress.

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Everyone recognises that part III is a bolt-on extra.Any provision that is retrospective, as the amendment of telecommunications licences would be, gives cause for concern. We reserve judgment on that. What matters is that existing licence holders are not disadvantaged. I am grateful to the Minister for explaining to the House that she will consult more widely and that she intends to remove some parts of the Bill in Committee. We are getting nearer to the four-page Bill that we would like.

A broader issue that affects not only this Bill but others is the language in which it is drafted. Any hon. Member who reads it from cover to cover will see that some parts of it are pretty incomprehensible and unintelligible. It is not an easy Bill to understand. As legislators, many of us would like our style of legislative language to be made simpler.

Mr. White indicated assent.

Mr. Duncan: I see that the hon. Gentleman agrees. Legislation in Australia and the United States is in much simpler language. A sentence such as

makes us wonder how people reading the Bill will know the rights and wrongs of what they plan to do. I hope that I shall have support from both sides of the House if I join the Campaign for Plain English on the drafting of our law.

There is also concern about the loose and extensive nature of the secondary powers that the Bill grants. Many of them are vague and ill-defined. Some broad and unspecific matters are left to the Minister's whim. We shall consider that in more detail in Committee, but it is a point of principle that the secondary powers granted in the Bill go too far. Bills should be written in simple language. As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) said, it is a matter of principle that hon. Members will want to scrutinise anything that emerges from the Bill, particularly something as significant as whether to introduce a voluntary regime--although it is fair to say that, under the Bill, that matter would have to come before the House in a statutory instrument.

Another area gives cause for concern. I am not saying that we should not proceed until everything is agreed in Europe--quite the opposite. I believe that we should proceed rapidly in the simplest possible form, while keeping more than an eye on what is happening in Europe. I detect an element of confusion in the Government about how they will handle European legislation. I welcome what the Minister said about the nature of the directive, which was that the country of origin of the sale shall be the jurisdiction of the law that will govern the transaction. She also said that there is great pressure in the European Union for a different code to govern internet transactions.

There is much confusion. As the Minister knows from what I said to her in European Standing Committee C, I am concerned that she and her fellow Ministers in the Department of Trade and Industry are saying one thing, but her colleagues in the Lord Chancellor's Department are saying another. We will not tolerate it if a small or even a large company in Britain that sells goods over the internet to another country is suddenly subject to the law of that country unreasonably.

The position becomes all the more confusing when geography becomes less and less significant, because the same person can plug in, wherever he is in the world,

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and enter into a contract via his laptop. Where that contract was executed must be clear, and the arrangements must be fair. I am glad that the Minister is going to press for the European Union recital to be dropped, and I hope that she will report to the House when she has been successful.

Our position is straightforward: we want a short, simple Bill. We do not believe that part I should be in the Bill. We believe that part II is the kernel of the Bill, and is essentially all that is needed. We believe that part III must be watched very closely, and we will ensure that there is no unfairness among existing telecommunications licence holders. If the Minister prunes the Bill and prunes it sensibly, making it a short, sharp, effective measure for the benefit of those who want to trade electronically, we will support her; but if she introduces other burdens that prove to be a drag anchor on such progress, we will oppose her.

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