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Dr. Ladyman rose--

Mr. Gibb: I shall not give way because I want to finish in a couple of minutes.

Ministers must give the House some indication of what the level of fees will be. Will the Minister agree to a cap on those fees? Will he answer those questions today or in Committee?

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds is right to demand a timetable for the publication of the whole raft of regulations demanded by the Bill, and those regulations should be published soon. Finally, he alerted the House to the danger of differential fees for those who struggle with IT or who need a course such as "computing for the terrified", which my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) said is available in his constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury is the only member of the Select Committee who is present today--the others are in Sweden. He raised a number of important questions, including the implementation dates for the

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various elements of the Bill. He expressed concern about the e-envoy or tsar, a post which seems to be turning into a virtual appointment.

Turning to the speech by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter), I must say that I am delighted that Liberal Democrat Front-Bench Members agree with us that part I is unnecessary and should be deleted from the Bill. I hope to see Liberal Members in the Lobby with us this evening.

The hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) complained that e-mail is not being used by as many businesses in the eastern region as in London. She gave the figures of 57 per cent. of firms and 81 per cent. of firms respectively. If she knew her constituency businesses better, she would find that the e-mail usage in Stevenage is almost as high as in London.

The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), in a Clicksure contribution, agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury and others that part III is a bolt-on and needs wider consultation. The hon. Gentleman gave an interesting demonstration of the latest mobile phone technology, but he fails to understand that trust on the internet is better achieved by voluntary regulation than by heavy-handed legislation.

The hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) spoke of the law being behind the times in respect of computer technology, but in the same breath said that he was one of the few Members of Parliament who is seriously worried about the prospect of self-regulation. In a powerful speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) pointed out that it was the ending of exchange controls in 1979 that liberated the City of London and enabled it to become the financial centre of Europe. A similarly deregulated approach, rather than the over-regulated approach set out in part I, is what is needed if Britain is to become the e-commerce centre of Europe.

The Government have missed an opportunity to create a light-touch legal regime that would have made this country a world leader in e-commerce enterprise. The Bill is late and it is flawed. The Conservatives have successfully forced the Government to remove part III of the draft Bill. We will now have to work hard in Committee to remove part I and limit the Government's regulating instinct.

If we are successful and the Government accept our amendments, we have every chance of making Britain a world leader in the e-commerce sector. The Conservative approach demonstrates our understanding of the modern world of e-commerce and global competition. For the sake of the industry, I hope that the Government will accept our amendments in Committee.

9.41 pm

The Minister for Competitiveness (Mr. Alan Johnson): I agree with the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) that this has been a fascinating debate. Listening to it has been a humbling experience. A friend told me that replying to the debate would be as easy as falling off an analogue, but it is not, mainly because of the expertise and knowledge displayed by hon. Members on both sides of the House--albeit mostly Labour Members, I am happy to say.

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Before I reply to as many of the detailed points raised as I can, I shall remind the House of the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce. The Bill, appropriately introduced in the last Parliament of the millennium, is central to the modernising theme of the Government's legislative programme. Modernising the law to ensure that our economy prospers in the information revolution is a huge task, but one to which we are committed. We are equally determined to create a modern Britain for the new millennium; that involves modernising government itself. In short, we are determined to create a legal and a business environment to make the UK the best place in the world to conduct electronic business.

The speeches of Opposition Members carried us into the virtual reality--indeed, the parallel universe--they occupy. At the fag-end of their 18 years in government, the Conservatives issued a consultation document that proposed mandatory key escrow and a mandatory regulation scheme; yet, today, they attempt to delay the legislation by tabling an amendment in which they suggest that the Government are over-regulating the industry.

In a thoughtful speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) referred to problems in respect of electronic signatures, as did the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter). Incidentally, the Liberal Democrats are sitting on a virtual fence, waiting for the Government reply before deciding which way to vote. I assure both hon. Members that the Bill does not include any presumption as to whether or not a particular electronic signature is valid. It does not change the balance of proof between the consumer and suppliers: the courts will decide on the effects of a signature based on the evidence before them, just as they do today in respect of normal signatures.

The Opposition's virtual reality was momentarily illuminated by the speech of the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), who is one of those who has a profound knowledge of the subject. The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to send me a note telling me that he was unable to be present for the winding-up speeches. He was extremely supportive of the Bill--indeed, he recanted the provisions of the document issued by the previous Conservative Government. However, in response to the points he raised, I repeat the assurance that we shall not insist on key escrow--indeed, clause 13 specifically prevents that. Orders are made under clause 8 to allow electronic communication where existing laws require paper. If providers want to offer key escrow services and people want to use them, that is entirely up to them; the Government do not intend to interfere.

The hon. Member for Esher and Walton referred to independent service providers' concerns that they may be held liable for material transmitted where they have neither knowledge of its illegality nor control over its transmission. He supports the need for legal certainty. The draft EU electronic commerce directive prohibits member states from imposing a general obligation on independent service providers to monitor the information that they transmit or store and proposes exemptions from liability for illegal content for intermediaries although it does not prevent the imposition of monitoring requirements in specific cases. We shall continue to work hard with the

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industry to ensure that the general issue of liability is got right in the European Union electronic commerce directive.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) referred to credit cards in another thoughtful speech. We recognise the difficulties experienced by small companies in obtaining merchant status for handling credit card transactions on-line. It is a significant barrier to the widespread adoption of e-commerce. Together with Treasury colleagues, my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce is working with Don Cruickshank's banking review to find a solution to this problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East referred, as did many other hon. Members, to the cost of self-regulation and consultation. I assure my hon. Friend that fees under a statutory scheme or under the self-regulation scheme will be based on the cost of assessment and the scale of operation. This will ensure that smaller companies will not be penalised. I also give the assurance that there will be on-going dialogue between the scheme and the Government. The proposals that I have seen include a Government representative on the executive board.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) made a fascinating contribution to the debate. He was released from having to tour Sweden with the rest of the members of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry. I thought that he had gone off to Stockholm but I see him in his place. He is a Conservative Member who has some knowledge of the fundamental issues. The hon. Gentleman drew our attention to the unanimous recommendation of the Select Committee. Given that the Opposition are saying that part I is entirely unnecessary, I remind the House that the Select Committee said that it acknowledged the need for some sort of accreditation scheme for trust service providers to persuade potential users of electronic commerce that it was as safe and reliable as traditional forms of commerce but questioned whether such a scheme needed to be statutory. It recommended that the Government take powers to establish a statutory-backed scheme but hold them in reserve unused unless and until it was demonstrated that a voluntary scheme had failed to protect the interests of all consumers and service providers.

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