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5.41 pm

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): In my brief intervention on the speech of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), what I was trying to say about IR35 was that anyone with an ounce of technological know-how would have worked out how to generate that kind of signature response in a few days. If the Conservative party had not got that far in its use of technology, woe betide it. All the names have been in the public domain for several months, following a web campaign on the subject. I agreed with the hon. Gentleman on one point, to which I shall return later.

The language in which the Bill is drafted reflects a broader weakness in the way we conduct our legislative arrangements in spheres in which technology is driving our thought processes.

For the benefit of hon. Members who have not yet experienced the web, let me illustrate just how powerful the tool might be. Last night, when reading the paperwork relating to the Bill, I thought that it might be fun to pick a name at random from the list of Opposition Members to demonstrate the power of the web in accessing information. It took me a few minutes. There was a list under "A"; I used an old piece of technology, the pin, which identified the word "Aldershot". I then looked at the web connections relating to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth). I have put a note to the hon. Gentleman on the board, telling him that I was going to raise this.

The local website for the hon. Gentleman's council--a very good website: www.hart.gov.uk--tells us that the local MP has joined a


There are instant connections, not from there but through a search list under the hon. Gentleman's name. The website of The Freedom Association, of whose council the hon. Gentleman is a member, is www.tfa.net, and that linked me, via a number of extraordinary areas, to a site that is partly in the public domain and partly an e-commerce site. It showed, at the heart of the search for that one name, a company called Astra Holdings.

Those of us who have been in the House for some time will remember all those areas, but the exercise showed the power of this research tool. It can link areas of work that we have never been able to link by any other means.

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The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton started his speech in a way that we all find ourselves forced to do in the context of the web. We see asymptotic curves,talking about billions of dollars of potential commerce, processing power, or take-up of the web. All that may be a little hackneyed, but it is true. The problem that we face is legislating on something that is moving so rapidly. No hon. Member can do more than guess at the scale of the growth of e-commerce over the next 10 years. The phenomenon equally applies in other areas of scientific and technical evolution. In my short time here since 1992, those developments have included digital broadcasting--I served on the Bill that provided the framework for that--and human genetics, on which the Select Committee on Science and Technology, of which I used to be a member, worked. Like the information technology revolution, such developments are moving so fast as to render legislation potentially out of date before, with the greatest respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White), the ink is dry on the vellum.

In the case of e-commerce, the Government have tried to use the collective wisdom of the nation by publishing a draft Bill, a procedure that the House should use more often. In sectors such as electronic communications, I commend to the House the use of witness examination at the Committee stage, so that, at the point of coming to detailed decisions, we are as up to date as possible about the technologies that impact on us. That will not solve the problem of keeping up to date, but it will at least give us an opportunity to be up to date on Third Reading.

I recommend that the Government avoid somethingthat happened in several sectors under the previous Administration. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton referred to procurement processes. The biggest weakness in those procurements was that they were technology- based, rather than designed to provide solutions. When looking at technologies, we need to use the best brains both in industry and in academia to deal with the impact of generic technological evolutions, rather than to focus on particular boxes.

To a certain extent, the Bill achieves that. I congratulate Ministers on their foresight and on the way in which they have addressed some of the difficult problems, but I make some observations on what is not in the Bill, rather than what is. I shall not stray too far because I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would want me to concentrate on the content of the Bill.

It is clear that we will have to come back to some of these issues, but it will be at the expense of Great Britain plc if we are not careful and do not get things right first time. Just remember those asymptotic curves that I mentioned earlier--the Bill is about how fast we will get to the near vertical slope predicted. If we get it wrong, who knows what disadvantage we will create for businesses in the United Kingdom.

The next point is specifically targeted at the little Englanders among Conservative Members. Without international agreements and partnerships, we might as well pack up now. The growth of e-commerce will be more important at the next GATT and World Trade Organisation discussions than the price of Canadian wheat ever was. Perhaps that is not a profound statement today, but few hon. Members accepted it when I made that prediction five years ago.

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Essentially, the main principles of such international agreements should be no different from those on which all trade works: trust. All good trade works on the basis of that. If the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton and I decided to enter into an agreement with each other, I suspect that the degree of trust would be limited. I would want to see his goods; he would want to see my money. As trade develops, trust is increasingly built into the relationships. We currently use intermediary vehicles such as credit cards to help us establish those processes. We need to make it possible for electronic signatures to be used for verification. The nations that move furthest and fastest on that will be in a position to succeed.

Ideally, the codes to provide vehicles for trust should be established on a voluntary basis, but if that fails they will have to be statutory. The relationships involved will be a 21st century mail order protection scheme. We need to establish that principle worldwide. Hallmarks such as TrustUK, which my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce mentioned, will give the individual or trade consumer confidence that their goods will be delivered on time and at the agreed price and quality and will give the supplier confidence that the money will arrive on time, to the correct value and in the right currency. Nation states have an interesting role to play. The complex question of taxation has been mentioned and needs to be considered carefully.

Self-regulation can work and I believe from my discussions with industry that the will exists to deliver it.

Part I of the Bill deals with cryptography. The Government were right to rule out a mandatory key escrow, not least because it is the most unintelligible phrase ever to appear in the House. I suspect that very few people here, let alone outside the House, could explain what it meant. I hope that the Conservatives will look a little beyond the horizons of the green Benches to consider the interests of Great Britain plc and will support the principle that we have adopted. We need to send out a gentle warning to all our industrial partners. It would clearly be improper for any company that is a provider at any level to stand in the way of the legitimate needs of the police and criminal investigation authorities. Such companies should remember that their shareholders have children who are targets of paedophiles and drug barons. Of course industry should try to remain on the leading edge, and we want to help in that, but companies should not forget their responsibilities.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I sympathise with what the hon. Gentleman says about responsible cryptography providers co-operating with law enforcement agencies, but I hope that he is not suggesting that part I is about law enforcement. My understanding is that nothing in part I should be related to law enforcement, because those issues are to be dealt with in another Bill.

Mr. Miller: I am referring to the context of the Bill as a whole. I take the hon. Gentleman's specific point, but in the general picture, while we give British companies and players in the field the advantages of being on the leading edge, we must send out a gentle warning that their shareholders also have children who are targets of those to whom I referred.

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Criminals will continue to exploit the net. I gave away some web addresses earlier, but there are others that I am not going to specify. I did a search a few years ago in the wake of the awful Oklahoma bomb, when it was suggested that white supremacists were involved. Some of the information that I uncovered in the public domain on the web was outrageous. I do not think that any Member of Parliament would associate himself with some of the views that I unearthed. It is up to society as a whole to decide where the line is drawn and it is up to all of us in the House and outside to bring to book those who cross it.


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