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House of Commons
Session 1999-2000
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Standing Committee Debates
Electronic Communications Bill

Electronic Communications Bill

Standing Committee B

Thursday 9 December 1999

[Mr. John Maxton in the Chair]

Electronic Communications Bill

2.30 pm

The Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce (Ms Patricia Hewitt): I beg to move,

    That, during proceedings on the Electronic Communications Bill, the Committee do meet on Tuesdays at half-past Ten o'clock and at half-past Four o'clock and on Thursdays at half-past Two o'clock.

I begin our proceedings by saying that it is an enormous pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. Maxton. With your experience of Committee proceedings, I know that you will guide us through our debates firmly, but with great humour. I also welcome your co-Chairman Mr. Gale to the Committee; we look forward very much to his guidance.

I shall say a few brief words about the Bill. We had a good debate on Second Reading, when it was clear--and has become clearer subsequently--that the Bill has been warmly welcomed by industry. As I said in that debate, the Bill is the product of extensive consultation and is all the better for that. It has been described by no less a company than Microsoft as a model for Europe. I do not doubt that the Bill will help to create the right conditions for electronic commerce in our country.

I wish to stress at the outset of our proceedings that, because technology and conditions for electronic commerce and communications are changing so fast, it is especially important to ensure that the Bill is, as far as possible, future-proof. We have therefore sought to make the Bill technology--neutral, and I am sure that Opposition Members support that. It is important that we do not tie ourselves to thinking only of technology's present conditions, but try to imagine conditions in which the Bill will operate in future.

I am glad to see that the Committee is being assisted by a Clerk using a laptop computer. I am not sure whether that is a first for Committee proceedings; however, it is extremely welcome and appropriate.

Finally, I draw Committee members attention to the progress being made in Parliament and the European Union. Last week, the electronic signatures directive was finalised at the Telecommunications Council. The Bill, of course, gives effect to provisions in that directive. At the Single Market Council on Tuesday, we finalised a common position on the electronic commerce directive based, crucially, on the principle of supplier's country of origin, We are therefore making progress in the United Kingdom and Europe in creating the right conditions for electronic commerce.

I am confident that, under your chairmanship, Mr. Maxton, we shall make speedy and efficient progress on the Bill in Committee, thus helping to secure my objective of making the Bill the first to be enacted in the 21st century.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): I echo the Minister's warm welcome to you, Mr. Maxton, and Mr. Gale, as Chairmen of our proceedings. We look forward to treating the Bill's Committee stage with responsibility and dispatch. We have no wish to play Parliamentary games or delay matters. However, we wish to ensure that the detail of the Bill be effective and, as the Minister said, future-proof.

You have a long-standing reputation as an enthusiast of electronic progress, Mr. Maxton. As the Minister pointed out, the Clerk has a laptop. I have carefully examined the House's Standing Orders, trying to find mention of the use of electronic equipment in Committee. We understand that certain things are forbidden in the Chamber. I therefore seek your confirmation, Mr. Maxton, that I shall be permitted to use my laptop if I need to, as long as it does not make any noise or interfere with the Committee's proceedings, but is merely an electronic aid to the making of good law. I look forward to your confirmation, Mr. Maxton.

Broadly speaking, we support the Bill. But we want measures that encourage electronic commerce and establish a proper framework of law for electronic signature. We believe that the Bill has some severe defects. Indeed, it was only the Opposition's attention that ensured that the Bill was published in draft form for consultation in the summer. What was then part III has been removed, so, fortunately, we will be considering a much slimmer Bill. I am pleased to say that all our proceedings will be on our party website, so, with a special click on e.commerce.latest, the good sense of the Opposition side of the Committee Room can be read by the entire world in record time. We look forward to proceeding constructively. We accept the terms of the Minister's proposed sittings motion. We repeat our welcome to you to the Chair, Mr. Maxton, and look forward to making good law that will be future-proof.

Mr. Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): I also express my appreciation of your chairmanship of the Committee, Mr. Maxton. Given your expertise, I shall welcome guidance from time to time as I become lost in the detail.

I am pleased to hear from the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) that he intends to go through the Committee's proceedings with haste and despatch, and to keep to the point. Having been a member of the Standing Committee considering the National Minimum Wage Bill, which went on at length and at times seemed to get rather off the point, I welcome that commitment. The hon. Gentleman has referred to the internet as being a week, as opposed to a decade, in ordinary time. I should be delighted to spend a decade with some colleagues, but of course that will not be necessary.

We welcome the Bill's light touch and the fact that the Government have responded to consultation, because business requires a Bill that, is constructive and helpful and does not impose bars to trading. On Second Reading, I commented that people outside the Committee also appreciate the Bill's importance. I said that it is important also to realise that electronic communication in commerce does not happen overnight. I look to the Government, via the Small Business Service, with small firms especially in mind, to consider the training that will be necessary to ensure that companies make the best possible use of electronic communications. It is important that they do not see this as a means of progressing immediately, because a great deal of work is required for that to happen.

The cost of call charges has always caused us concern. We have raised this issue with the Government many times, so we welcome BT's announcement this week of a flat-rate charge system. But we shall come back to that, because many people feel that it will not help electronic communications as much as it should. I look forward to the Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. Maxton.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): You and I, Mr. Maxton, have discussed electronic commerce and IT many times. May I take this rare opportunity to associate myself with the comment of hon. Member for Rutland and Melton about the desire to have IT in the Committee Room? For the record, I think it quite absurd that we cannot have clauses and amendments pasted together in front of us provided by the Clerks as we go through the debate. 1 hope that both sides will move rapidly to allow this resource in the House.

My hon. Friend made an important point about the technology neutrality of the Bill. One of the weaknesses of much IT legislation in the previous Parliament was that it was technology specific. As a result, past and present Governments have had great difficulties with contracts that were locked into technology specific ideas, which in turn created logjams in delivery. That is not a particularly wise way to proceed, so the technology neutrality of this Bill is particularly welcome.

If the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton believes that the Conservative party is leading the way in information technology he should reflect on the remarks of his hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) on Second Reading. He made it quite clear that he was on his own in the previous Administration in trying to drive ideas forward. I made some observations on Second Reading about the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) to illustrate the power of the internet. I had searched a site that seemed to be owned by the Conservative party or a close partner, and when I clicked on the button for the hon. Member for Aldershot, I got a photograph of my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South, which seemed a slightly odd link. Perhaps that simply illustrates that the Conservative party does not have technology organised quite as slickly as it claims. I welcome the Bill and I wish it a speedy progress.

The Chairman: Does the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) wish to speak?

Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles): I was waiting to hear your comments first, Mr. Maxton, about the request that has been made.

The Chairman: I shall deal with that. It is the first time that a Clerk has used a laptop computer. It was agreed some time ago as an experiment by the Chairmen's Panel that, if both the Clerk and the Chairman agreed, a laptop could be used. However, the ruling of the Speaker in the House, which extends to Committees, is that laptops cannot be used by hon. Members. I will not express a personal opinion but many hon. Members will know what it might be.

Question put and agreed to.


    That, during proceedings on the Electronic Communications Bill, the Committee do meet on Tuesdays at half-past Ten o'clock and at half-past Four o'clock and on Thursdays at half-past Two o'clock.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that there is a financial resolution in connection with the Bill, copies of which are available in the Room. I should also like to remind hon. Members that adequate notice should be given of amendments. As a general rule, my co-Chairman and I do not intend to call starred amendments, including any starred amendments that may be reached during an afternoon sitting of the Committee.

Clause 1

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Prepared 9 December 1999