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Mr. Allan: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is critically important to get electronic banking right? Given that the world of e-commerce is based on credit and credit cards, many of the people about whom the hon. Gentleman is talking will be excluded.

Mr. White: The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next point. The growth of institutions such as E.Bank, First Bank, Egg and others is an important step forward, which I welcome. That development will transform the way in which the internet is used, just as direct marketing via telephone lines did three or four years ago. An important development is taking place, and the Government should facilitate investment in the new companies coming on line.

I mentioned the Competition Commission earlier, and a regulatory framework needs to be put in place for e-commerce. The financial markets and the Treasury must recognise that they need to facilitate e-commerce. The Bill is therefore extremely important, but it could fail if other bodies put obstacles in its way. The Government must have a joined-up approach. I welcome the fact that we have an e-Minister, and an e-envoy who knows his way around the civil service, but we must not allow the problems that I have outlined to take root. It is encouraging that the Government recognise the danger, but they must also deliver when it comes to avoiding it.

I am also made uneasy by the innovations that are taking place. We talk about electronic communications, but there is no guarantee that innovations will be confined to that field. For example, although I am not sure that the solid state transference systems already operating in laboratories are covered by the Bill, the Government need to be aware of the issues that such innovation raises.

If I can agree with the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton about anything, it is with his comments about language. I wholeheartedly endorse what he said about the need for our legislation to be written in plain and non-sexist language. This Bill is one of the better examples of the use of non-sexist language, but it still refers unnecessarily often to "him", "he", "it", and so on. Such references are not needed, and I plead with the parliamentary draftsmen to recognise that we are not living in the 18th century.

Mr. Baldry: Does the hon. Gentleman realise that, under the provisions of the Interpretation Act 1978,

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which date back almost 100 years, any Act of Parliament allows us to construes the word "she" whenever "he" is used? It is a totally neutral word.

Mr. White: I accept that there is such an Act, but not that that position is valid. If business, local authorities and most people outside can use non-sexist language as a norm, there is no reason why this place cannot.

I support this much-needed Bill. The changes that it makes will benefit this country, but other changes in respect of infrastructure and of obstacles in government and business must also be tackled.

I congratulate the Government on listening to industry. Industry said that it did not believe that the original provisions were right and asked for change. The Government listened and changed the Bill. That is a foundation for success.

I also congratulate the Government on securing a double whammy by helping British business while exposing the divisions among the Tories and their hatred of the European Union. One has only to mention Europe and they find a reason to vote against things. Opposing the Bill, as the Tories want us to tonight, would damage the United Kingdom's lead on e-commerce. I congratulate the Government on resisting that, and on the Bill.

6.51 pm

Mr. Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): Unfortunately, owing to a prior engagement, for which I could find no substitute, I shall have to leave before the end of the debate. I have notified Madam Speaker and the Minister.

I have a small business, although it is not particularly an electronic communication business. My interest is that, like many businesses, we hope increasingly to use such means.

I know that the Government attach particular importance to the Bill because Her Majesty has announced it twice. I congratulate the Department of Trade and Industry to the extent that, over time, it listened to very real criticisms. The Bill has shrunk and shrunk, for which many of us are grateful. We are particularly glad that the Department has excised part III of the draft Bill, which had no place in trade and industry legislation. It would have been better suited to the Home Office.

The final Bill is slim, but I regret that I must still question the relevance of some of its remaining limbs. Its ultimate aim is to facilitate the growth of e-commerce. The DTI's press release states that the Bill is designed

Liberal Democrats support that because electronic efficiency will increase overall wealth by raising economic efficiency.

I am sure that the Minister agrees that it is important that traders recognise that the internet offers a new system of trading. Conventional trading techniques cannot simply be translated into cyberspace. I said that I have my own business. Many colleagues would expect me to say that I have an established web presence and that everything is up and running, but that is not the case. Instead, having, I hope, amended our computer systems to ensure that they will not be hit by the millennium bug, we are carefully re-examining our sales strategy and products in conjunction with a marketing company. We will soon be looking to market our

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products through e-commerce. It is important that business does not think that e-commerce is the answer, that one can simply slap something on a page and that is the end of it. The matter must be considered. I hope that the forthcoming Small Business Service will help to facilitate matters, especially for the small business community.

I well remember that when I was first elected to the House I was one of those who spoke about the millennium bug. I will not embarrass anyone, but a question on the subject was referred to the Minister responsible for the millennium dome. While there may be problems with the dome, that was not the force of the question. I take my hat off to the many hon. Members who know a lot about the subject, but many colleagues clearly knew nothing about it two and a half years ago. That extended to Ministers. It is important to educate people about electronic commerce.

The hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) is leaving. He rightly expressed concern about the cost of transmission. The Minister referred to the number of different options with, for example, mobile phones and suggested that that could be a way forward. I accept that, but the choice of systems is wide and it is not always easy to choose the most relevant, cheap and applicable one.

This morning I visited Meadvale primary school in my constituency, where I learned something that is relevant to the debate. I saw for the first time a system whereby the lesson--in this case a geography lesson--was projected straight from a computer on to the wall. The system is quite expensive, but the school was able to employ it through special funding. Children could see the whole globe on the screen. It could be adjusted to show the country concerned. My point is that this is another means by which we should be able to communicate sales or other messages within companies or to other companies.

I will concentrate on the Bill's two substantive sections: the setting up of the approved cryptography provider register and the legal status of electronic signatures. I am not sure that the section on approved cryptography providers could not have been dropped altogether. That is the opinion of the Law Society. The case for such a register has not been convincingly made. The market is developing fast. Lack of confidence in cryptographic efficiency is not a significant barrier to trade.

Mr. Allan: Does my hon. Friend share my experience of common information technology standards? Their great joy is that there are so many from which to choose. Is he worried that the cryptography service may fall into the same trap as other Government-promoted standards such as those for networks, whereby the Government produce a scheme that industry rejects because it has moved on years by the time that it is implemented?

Mr. Cotter: Exactly. I hope that the Minister understands that point of concern and will address it.

I welcome the clause that explicitly forbids the introduction of requirements for key escrow. I shall not say much about that because many hon. Members have covered it. The fact that the Government feel obliged to put a curb on their secondary powers is of concern.

Mr. Duncan: I am most encouraged by the fact that the hon. Gentleman agrees with so much of what I said. Do Liberal Democrats intend to vote with the Opposition on our reasoned amendment?

Mr. Cotter: We are concerned about many points, and we shall listen closely to the Minister's response.

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Although the Bill has some faults, we shall be able to discuss it in Committee. As the hon. Member for Esher and Walton pointed out, the Bill has its faults, but it also has some merit. We shall consider carefully what the Government say. The welter of reserve powers is of great concern, and occurs increasingly in Bills introduced by the Labour Government.

Another problem relates to a basic concept of the legal process. At present, a signature is valid only if one intends to make it so. In any dispute, the burden of proof is on the person who intends to rely on the signature, not on the person who is alleged to have made it. I am concerned that that distinction is in danger of being overturned by the measure. The evidential weight of a signature certified by an approved provider will be in favour of its recipient.

If consumers receive goods or services that they claim not to have ordered, a supplier may be able to hold them liable simply on the grounds of receipt of their electronic signature, and the burden of proof will be on consumers to prove that they did not make it.

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