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Mr. Ian Taylor: There is too much confusion about the key escrow system, which is often associated only with the problems of the Home Office trying to track criminals. Key escrow, public-private key infrastructures and the use of asymmetric cyphers are all valuable tools for industry for purely commercial reasons. When I introduced a mandatory key escrow system, there was a lot of industrial support for it. Time has gone on and I have already recanted--I do not have to keep doing it. However, we should not talk about criminality every time that key escrow is mentioned. We also have to understand the serious commercial interests involved.

Mr. Miller: I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Gentleman's judgment on many of these issues.

Mr. Wyatt: He should come and join us.

Mr. Miller: There are several issues on which the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) should come and join us, not the least of which is Europe. I take his point that we should not automatically link key escrow simply with issues of criminality. There are broader issues involved. His point is well made.

Part II deals with electronic signatures. I am not a million miles adrift from the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton--for once--in seeking an assurance that the nature of the signature required by any parties to a contract will be driven by the needs of the parties, not simply by the needs of the state. The state clearly has a legitimate role through its various agencies, but just as parties to any civil contract have arrangements that are acceptable to them in pen and ink--or whatever other vehicle they use; perhaps a shake of hands--the state should not seek to interfere in the process, but should aid it by helping to set standards and directing people to where such standards can be found.

The reasoned amendment says that we should decline to give the Bill a Second Reading

The only aspect of that on which I agree with the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton is that the United Kingdom has a lead in the field. We have that lead because the Government's general policy has helped to build a framework that assists such development. That is adequately recognised in several large company responses to the proposals. Dell--a company that I hold in high regard--says in its submission:

    "Dell welcomes the Government's decision to move away from the use of key escrow and third party key holding.

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    Dell supports efforts to establish a self-regulating, non-statutory accreditation scheme for Trust Service Providers.

    Dell welcomes the removal of the proposal for a rebuttable presumption of validity for electronic signatures.

    Dell proposes that electronic signatures should be recognised as completely satisfying the requirements of UK statutory law, which have been traditionally fulfilled through the mediums of paper and writing."

That is not dissimilar to the points I just made.

I referred earlier to Microsoft and the letter I received from David Svendsen, the chairman of Microsoft in the UK, in which he set out a number of bullet points. He

Again, that touches on a point that I made. Mr. Svendsen

    "supports the Government taking powers to establish a voluntary approvals scheme for cryptography service providers."

Finally, he congratulated the Government on

    "introducing legislation that will serve as a model for Europe".

That was from the largest IT company in the world--indeed, probably the largest company in the world.

Mr. Allan: At the moment.

Mr. Miller: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is thinking of my next sheaf of papers, which is from He may have an insight that I do not have. However, similar notes of accord have been coming in the post over the past few days.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton would have been right had we been debating the Bill as originally proposed, as some of his points were those raised by industry at that time. It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman did not catch up by recognising that the Government have moved positively in partnership with business, commerce and industry--not just in the UK, but worldwide.

I welcome the Bill, and I hope that my minor observations can be debated in Committee. I hope that we get the Bill rapidly on to the statute book to ensure that Britain remains a lead player in this important area of business and commerce.

6.3 pm

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): At last--this is the most elephantine pregnancy ever. In the dim and distant past, I was the Minister who started on this process in 1995. Now we have the Bill, and the Home Office has been seen off, thankfully. I congratulate the Minister on achieving something that I did not achieve. To put that into context, I had an achievement in terms of the Internet Watch Foundation. That was a self-regulatory body, created when the Home Office was ready to pounce in the absurd legislative way that only it knows.

I would like the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce to pass on my congratulations to her officials, many of whom were full of enthusiasm in 1995. I hope that they still are, although I am less than sure. Nevertheless, they have done a remarkable job in seeing the Bill through its various periods of gestation.

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I declare the interests which are in the register. From time to time, I am asked to advise companies, and I am a director of one or two technology companies. If it is thought that the benefits to the UK that the Bill will bring will also benefit them, I will be delighted to have declared my interest in that context.

It is difficult to remember the atmosphere when we proposed the ideas of key escrow and trusted third parties. I came across a delicious quotation from Janet Street- Porter, now the editor of The Independent on Sunday--bless her heart. Back in those days of 1996, she said:

That will not make me rush out to buy The Independent on Sunday. Nevertheless, somebody has to be that wrong.

Mr. Miller: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the problem that he had in the previous Administration was that that was precisely the view of that Administration?

Mr. Taylor: The House, as always, was full of wisdom on those occasions--it just did not happen to understand what I was saying. That was the problem.

It might have been a good job that the House did not understand. Since then, the National Security Agency in the United States has genuinely become a hate figure. In 1998, the plot of a film called "Enemy of the State" revolved entirely around the NSA murdering a politician who was trying to bring in a Bill with powerful encryption. I hope that no one gets that sort of encouragement, because we cannot afford to lose any politicians from the Conservative Benches--we have few enough as it is.

In principle, I welcome the Bill. It is difficult for a Government, and the Minister should be humble in one respect. The rate of progress since 1997 has not been as fast as many of us would have liked. In addition, it is dangerous for a Prime Minister to put so much emphasis on the importance of an e-envoy, only to find that the e-envoy does not take up his post for about 18 months. In fact, the e-envoy will not start until 1 January.

There is a problem in translating the fine words used by the Prime Minister and across Government into effective implementation--that is what the industry is looking for. In that context, I hope that the Minister will indicate when the 60 recommendations of the "" report, from the pen of Jim Norton and his committee, are to be put in place. What is the action plan for that? In many cases, they are ahead of what we think the Government's plans are. That is important, particularly in terms of education. The Department for Education and Employment still talks as if it has not read the report.

I hope that the Minister will use her undoubted charm, but also steel, to make sure that other Departments understand what is going on. I shall give her a tip in a spirit of co-operation--she should use powers which are trans-departmental to make an impact on the Government's understanding of e-commerce. I had those powers in the scientific sense, as Science Minister, and I arrogated to myself the powers in the technology sense. She must do the same if she is to be effective, and if any of the report's action plans are to be put in place. Somebody has to browbeat other Government Departments and Secretaries of State to apply them.

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There is still a degree of confusion, which is not clarified by the Bill, about whether internet service providers are common carriers or are to be more responsible for the content that they carry. It is a complex matter, and I know only too well that there has been much thought about it. However, I would be grateful if the Minister would remove the uncertainty. She should continue, with Oftel, to look at the problem of unmetered calls. I will try to clarify this point. If I do so wrongly, I am sure that the Minister will assist the House by pointing out why.

The difficulty with unmetered calls is not the willingness of companies--although one should watch BT carefully, because if it were to introduce very low-price or even free calls that were in a sense subsidised by its other activities, it would be eliminating competition rather than spurring it on--but the need to protect poorer people, who would by definition probably face higher than normal subscriptions.

The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell- Savours) over-emphatically attacked BT, which was unfair, but he missed the point that unmetered calls are often attached to a service with a monthly or quarterly subscription. The consistent policy of this Government and the previous Government has been to try to ensure that the subscriptions are kept low, because of the problems of poor people. The clash between the subscription levels and the unmetered calls is one of the obstacles that Oftel is still wrestling with. It is a pretty intractable issue.

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