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9.4 pm

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): The internet has offered numerous small companies the opportunity for development. It has been the foundation for enterprise and, although originally developed from the seed of public sector investment, has been very much the epitome and the cutting edge of free enterprise in recent history. That needs saying because it is one of the foundations on which I tend to base any thinking about the impact of legislation in this area. Based on the track record, Government should keep as far away as possible from regulatory interference in that activity. I will judge the Bill against that criterion and, although I have some qualms about the first part, I think that it will pass that test.

The internet is a vital framework for productivity improvement and for simplifying the processes between all sections of the industrial supply chain. As a number of hon. Members have said, it is a critical tool for revolutionising the efficiency of many businesses in this country and internationally. Another attraction is that it provides an extremely low entry barrier to business start-up. That is one reason why it has been the epitome of small business enterprise development: developing from nothing, businesses can be sold on the stock market for astonishing amounts and then, quite often, they disappoint those who buy them.

What is needed to make the best of this? The first principle is for the Government to step back from involvement. That is a difficult task in this country, because we tend always to consider ways in which to regulate, control and direct. That is an instinct from which we must refrain in this sector. We have seen it in the Bill's development; I commend the Government on the long consultation process. The publication of a draftBill, careful consideration of Select Committee recommendations on two occasions and a good deal of interest in what the industry said have all helped to shape a Bill that is far better than it otherwise would have been. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) on that. When the Bill was initially mooted, my ability to enter the Lobby to vote for it would have been tested, but that is not the case now.

Another key issue is to regard the Bill as being about information and people, not technology. When I was an IT director, I had constantly to persuade people that their obsession with how something would be solved technically should not occupy their time. The key issues were: what information did they need, and how were the people who would use that information to be trained and helped to use it most effectively? We could find solutions to the technology--that was not much of a problem. The difficulty was having the imagination to conceive the human solutions of organising a business to take full advantage of what was available. Some of the contributions to the debate have contained interesting digressions into technological aspects, but I do not believe that they are the foundations of electronic commerce in this country; they are not critical benchmarks for its success.

What else do we need? Trust and security have been mentioned as key criteria. We cannot ever have absolute trust and security--they can only be relative. My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet ran through the criteria to consider when using a credit card. One could apply the same rules when buying over the telephone. How do we judge the difference between those two

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purchases? We do not know the person at the other end--he or she might record our credit card details and misuse them, or store them in an inappropriate place and abuse them. Those factors run through people's minds but they have gradually become used to the idea.

People are often driven by their trust in a brand name. That point has been made several times in this debate, and rightly so. A brand name, to me, is one of the critical indicators of trust. That is tough on small businesses, which must sell their products by other means, such as innovation, the excitement of their marketing message and strategic alliances with other businesses that can offer that trust. It is a natural instinct for customers to look for something that they can trust. That is one of the reasons why some websites are more successful at attracting people than others.

We also need flexibility. In that regard, the Bill qualifies for some solid applause. A good deal of reliance is placed on the opportunity to pass secondary legislation in due course, if that proves necessary. Normally, one would be suspicious of that approach, but in this instance it is absolutely essential and necessary. It would be demanding too much to require that time be found for more primary legislation in the future. Sensibly, the Bill gives Ministers a variety of powers to produce regulations to cover all aspects of the matter, and that is the wisest approach. The principle of flexibility has been adopted in the Bill.

Leadership by the Government is vital, as the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) noted earlier. The Government have recognised the need for a strategy on information technology, and that is an innovation in this country. No such strategy has existed here before--a woeful omission that has led to some of the appalling IT failures of the past couple of years and before.

A clear grasp of how to organise the delivery of information technology requires that there be a relationship with Government policies, as an IT strategy must be founded on what we are attempting to put together for and deliver to our citizens. Moreover, the strategy must be founded on processes, rather than on Government Departments. The important thing is the way in which information flows across activities, rather than how it is channelled through departmental funnels. An IT strategy must be focused on citizens and not on civil servants, and on freedoms rather than restrictions.

Those are the criteria against which I shall judge the strategy when it emerges, but I welcome the commitment to produce such a strategy, which will be the foundation for effective electronic commerce in Government. That is one of the key areas: it must be possible to conduct transactions with our Government by electronic means, and the Bill sets targets for that. It states that 50 per cent. of dealings with the Government should be delivered by electronic means by 2005, and 100 per cent. by 2008.

If I were to set the benchmark in that regard, I would judge performance in terms of the reduction in all dealings with the Government. The Bill sets target dates by which certain proportions of the various Government functions should be dealt with by electronic means, but we should be ensuring that the processes of Government are made so much more efficient that it will no longer be trueto say that the same information can be found in

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130 different places in the Government structure. We should be able to change a piece of information at one stroke, rather than through multiple contacts. That benchmark is not contained in the Bill, but it is a critically important foundation for success.

It is clear that core standards are needed, in data storage and in the methodology by which we choose to develop systems. The foundations are still being built, but they will determine how successful we will be in delivering electronic commerce at Government level.

That we must work towards international agreement has been stressed several times in the debate and I shall not dwell on the point. However, I recall from my university days the concept of socialism in one country, and we are in danger of developing electronic commerce in one country--a rather short-term achievement. We must lay the foundations for effective trade across international boundaries.

We also need a realistic and proportionate approach to the regulatory process. That again depends on the Government having a light touch in assessing the risk of something going wrong and the need for intervention.

I have listed the key elements that we must get right. By and large, the Bill is a commendable shot at a fast-moving target. The British instinct for control and regulation has largely been restrained, and I commend the Bill to the House.

9.14 pm

Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles): I am pleased to be called in this debate; I apologise to the House for not being present earlier. Sadly, I had to attend the funeral of my good friend Councillor Arnie Holt. I beg the House's indulgence if I cover points made by previous speakers. I will try not to dwell on the Bill's technical aspects, which have been adequately covered, and address instead some of its wider social and educational implications.

Of the 28 Bills announced in the Queen's Speech, the Electronic Communications Bill was listed first. While its key provisions relate to e-commerce, which I expect has been the focus of this debate, its title is right because it is not just about commerce and how the United Kingdom can and should be the global leader in electronic business but about communication, the spread of knowledge and enabling the development of society in general.

Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I have a keen interest in information, communication and enabling technologies, or ICE-T as I refer to them. I have an Industry and Parliament Trust fellowship with IBM and am a member of PITCOM, the parliamentary information technology committee. With PITCOM, I have travelled to France, Canada and Japan to report on how other countries, and particularly their Governments, are harnessing new technologies for the benefit of their citizens.

I am enthused, excited and passionate not about the new technologies but about what they can and will do to assist people and enhance their lives. I am not a techie or a geek but I am very definitely a people person. I can see the opportunities and widened horizons that the new technology can deliver for people in my constituency and throughout the UK--not only opportunities for their businesses but for their education and the betterdelivery of local authority and Government services.

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My constituency is, to use census jargon, under-represented in the professional, managerial and technical social groups. I want the benefits of information, communication and enabling technologies to be available to all my constituents, not only those who own their own companies or who can afford a computer at home.

I welcome Government moves to allow public institutions such as schools, further education colleges, libraries and citizens advice bureaux to take advantage of lower rate internet access. That should allow groups such as the Salford forum for older people and the Eccles afternoon townswomen's guild, whom I met this week, access to information, both general and practical.

Three categories of transaction were defined in the Trade and Industry Committee report on e-commerce published in July: business to consumer transactions; business to business transactions; and citizen to Government transactions. The Committee reported that in the United States a fourth was found: consumer to consumer transactions, such as on-line auctions. With our local climate in Salford, they could be a welcome alternative to the early morning car boot sale. Much human activity, business, education and leisure is encompassed by this debate.

The Bill had a previous incarnation only a few months ago, since when the Government have consulted widely and amended their proposals. IBM, with which I have an IPT placement, commented:

the industry voluntary scheme--

    "initiative not only to meet e-commerce requirements in the UK but also to serve as a model for countries in Europe and worldwide."

In the north-west, we have been at the forefront of developments in information, communication and enabling technologies. I am the pilot MP involved in the GEMESIS--government, education, medical, industry, social information superhighway--project. It is based at Salford university and provides electronic commerce support to businesses across the north-west. As an integral part of GEMESIS, a virtual chamber of commerce, called the virtual chamber, or TVC, has been developed in conjunction with Manchester training and enterprise council, Manchester chamber of commerce and industry and Cable and Wireless. The chamber now has 140 subscribers.

Salford university plans to become a virtual university of industry for the north-west, with a special emphasis on the way in which open, distance and flexible learning can be used across a broad-band network to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises to become more innovative and wealth creating. In March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry visited the GEMESIS project, and praised its ground-breaking work. He pointed out that such work should be disseminated throughout the country. The recent award of an extra£1.7 million for the project--including money from the European regional development fund--will help to make that a reality.

My local authority of Salford has its own information society Portal initiative, in partnership with Oracle, called "People not Technology", to ensure that the city council, its employees and the people of Salford have the opportunity to realise the potential of technological

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change--to make those technologies work for them and help to improve their lives. Developments include the introduction of a city-based in-house call centre--currently operating in the environmental services directorate. In the first months of operation, responsiveness improved by more than 75 per cent. Next month, a pilot one-stop shop will open--a multi-service site with a cyber cafe. Salford city council has the ambitious aim of meeting the targets that the Government have set for themselves for making services available electronically--100 per cent. by 2008. The council hopes to meet those targets early.

This evening, the Manchester Evening News carried an announcement that the university of Manchester institute of science and technology is to set up a virtual business school that will bring the country's best brains together under one virtual roof.

I am a regular visitor to the digital world centre at the Lowry centre at Salford Quays--one of the landmark millennium projects. The 50,000 sq ft high-tech building will provide an important showcase for Government IT initiatives. An informative exhibition on the ground floor will be open to the public free of charge. On the first floor, meeting facilities with international high-speed, broad-band connections will be available for SMEs and progressive British companies. The programmes will be directed by the Digital World society--a collaboration of leading global IT companies.

To establish the United Kingdom as a leader in the digital world, we should establish a national centre to house our digital assets, so that they can be accessed from all over the world. That could be achieved via the digital world centre at Salford Quays. The facility will be at the hub of a broad-band network infrastructure that stretches out to schools, libraries, community centres and businesses. The UK can become the leader in a high-speed internet that will deliver full motion video throughout the world.

Of course, I have trumpeted the achievements of my locality. However I am keen to ensure that all the important projects that I described work together to ensure effective delivery of our local, national and global strategies. I continually hear the polarised arguments as to strategies: some commentators claim that local strategies are more important than global ones, and vice versa. We need both local and global strategies--perhaps we should call them "glocal" strategies. What is important is that the strategies meet our objectives to encourage maximum access for all citizens; to promote and encourage research development and implementation; and to facilitate e-commerce with minimum, but appropriate, regulation such as that provided in the Bill.

Without thought-out strategies, local economies may lose out--not just by becoming B-roads off the information superhighway, but by following traditional methods of economic development that ignore new types of activity and alliance, and new modes of learning, emerging networks and communities. Measures to address social exclusion must be central to the e-commerce debate and strategy, as should the role of a broadly defined, non-statutory sector--the so-called third sector. That is why I support organisations such as Communities on Line and Tele Cities.

The progressive use of information, communication and enabling technologies and the internet forces us to develop new ways to work and co-operate together, to promote what

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I call "co-opetition": the maximum co-operation between traditionally competing organisations and businesses so that they can work collaboratively towards achieving a common aim or goal--whether that be commercial, social or political.

I am delighted by the Government's bold commitment to make electronically available 25 per cent. of Government services by 2002, increasing to 100 per cent. by 2008. I am sure that other hon. Members have commented on the economic gains to the public sector of e-commerce. In September, an article in the magazine Public Finance reported on research undertaken by the IT consultancy Kable, which estimated that central and local government combined could be saving a staggering £4.1 billion a year within five years, by adopting e-commerce for services that involve financial transactions and by reducing procurement costs. That could be achieved with minimal investment.

The Bill, when implemented, will enable the UK to take its place as the best country in the world for the transaction of e-commerce. It will broaden the access for UK citizens to open up the internet. In this seemingly dry and very unglamorous Bill, we may even be at the start of remodelling our democracy. It will certainly allow us to embrace the future with confidence, commitment and creativity. People first, technology in support. I welcome the Bill.

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