Draft Companies Act 1985 (Electronic Communications) Order 2000

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Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): By and large, this is an easy order, because it fits in with the issues that the Committee debated at length during the passage of the Electronic Communications Act 2000. The measure before us follows from the passage of that Act. This is a rare moment: if the details are properly implemented, they should result in fewer, rather than greater, burdens on business. Of course that is our policy. New Labour pretends that that is its policy, but does not always implement it with the zeal that we would like.

The direction of the order is exactly in line with our policy for business. However, I shall revisit the theme of many comments that I made during the passage of the Electronic Communications Act 2000 and the Postal Services Act 2000—on which I also led in Committee—by saying that the order is a cumbersome way of expressing in law and on paper what we want to achieve. If only we could, cross party, persuade the draftsmen sensibly to put on paper what we wanted to achieve, we would be much further forward. I pity any lawyer or anyone who has to pay a lawyer to interpret so many pages of gobbledegook that change a few Acts of Parliament to allow electronic signature and the electronic transfer of information. If that is the state of our democracy and law, we are in a pretty pitiful state. The simplification and easy expression in language of an uncontroversial objective should be much easier.

I hope that the Minister will say more about safeguards and the verification of information that travels through cyberspace to establish that the person communicating with a company or any other organisation is proper and authorised and the representative opinion of the person pretending to send the information. What safeguards have been established? Following on from our debates before Christmas, during the passage of the legislation, what system has emerged through private effort or been set up by the Minister to ensure that whatever appears on someone's screen is the transmission of the pretended authorised person.

Perhaps the Minister can explain what she meant about the DETR order. She read from her script faithfully, but my expression matched hers in its bemusement. I am not sure whether it was a resolution or a revolution; I could not fathom exactly what she was on about. The Committee would be much enlightened by an explanation.

What is the current status of the e-envoy? He is responsible for the issues under discussion. I recognise and compliment Alex Allen, the former e-envoy, although I have suspicions about the hybrid status of anyone appointed as an envoy or Tsar. His status is somewhere between that of a Minister and that of a civil servant, with no properly understood authority in our constitution. I accept that Mr. Allen probably did a good job and I am sorry that he has had to move on for personal reasons, but I do not think that the position of e-envoy has been advertised or appointed. It has not been sent to me in a press release. As there has been no statement in the House, will the Minister tell the Committee the status of the appointment, what the appointee will be charged to do, how the job will be done and what will be the nature of the contract?

If the Minister wants to enter into the spirit of the statutory instrument, she should make a firm pledge that within a fortnight—I will give her three weeks—her Department will issue press releases by e-mail, as it is the only one that does not do so at present. She is supposed to be the e-commerce Minister, but every day her Department churns out bog rolls of facts, and the most fatuous press releases of all time—that is another matter—and refuses to send them electronically, much as I have tried to persuade it to do otherwise. Will the Minister tell me why?

What will the Government do to match the standards and the opportunities that the measure sets for businesses? We were told in a great advertising campaign a few weeks ago that we could file our tax returns electronically in return for £10—a nice, dinky little bribe—only to be told two weeks later that the system had collapsed and we could no longer do so. What is the status of all Departments in matching the electronic standards set in the proposal?

I shall make one further observation, which is important to the future workings of the House and its Committees. I sat through most of yesterday's debate on the so-called modernisation of the House of Commons. I listened to all the speeches carefully, with an open mind, and I grew to respect the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson), who made an excellent speech about the guillotine on the permanent programming of our proceedings. I also had to listen to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons), and now I have to watch her doing her correspondence when she is supposed to be enhancing the scrutiny of Parliament. Her paper, it seems, is as blank as her mind. I am sorry that her comments in yesterday's debate do not match her conduct today.

Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale): On a point of order, Sir David. Our conduct in debate should be an example to the outside world, and it is not incumbent on the hon. Gentleman to act as judge and jury without his having scrutinised my activities. The papers that I am scrutinising are not correspondence.

The Chairman: I see nothing out of order.

4.48 pm

Mr. Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): Thank you for calling me, Sir David. I shall make a few brief comments. First, I welcome the proposal and the Minister's statement that it is part and parcel of putting Government on-line. I cannot remember the percentage that the Government expect will be on-line next year, but I hope that they are on course to achieve their aim. Indeed, the process should be stepped up.

Changes at Companies House requiring communications to be made electronically will affect small and medium enterprises, but such changes will not happen for some time. They should be made in a reasonable manner, with appropriate notice and with the appreciation that some small enterprises may be unable to adopt electronic means of communication.

The best practice guidance will be most welcome; I hope that the new procedure will not be set in stone, but will be open to revision in the light of experience. Consultation has taken place on best practice guidance and other matters. I make a gentle inquiry rather than a criticism. Is the Minister happy or worried that only 39 responses were received to the consultation? Was the order sufficiently advertised? That seems a small number of responses given that they were not all official and that some were from individuals. Did enough individuals know about the proposal? Like the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), I would be interested in learning a little more about the e-envoy.

4.50 pm

Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale): Opposition Members laugh, but will my hon. Friend the Minister comment further on the systematic lack of investment under the previous Administration in the Department of Trade and Industry, which left our Government with so much to recover? Like many Back Benchers, I welcome correspondence with many exporters and companies that rely on the DTI's services about the effect that the lack of investment under the previous Administration had on the business community that Opposition Members profess to care so much about. Perhaps the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton should not complain so much about his faxes. Such attacks bring this place into disrepute by personalising matters.

Mr. Duncan rose—

The Chairman: Is the hon. Lady giving way?

Lorna Fitzsimons: No. I have finished.

4.52 pm

Ms Hewitt: I shall respond briefly to the interesting points that have been made in the debate, most-although regrettably not all-of which has been courteously conducted.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton said that the order was too complicated. I sympathise, having made precisely that point. Unfortunately, however, there is a good—or bad—reason why it is so complicated. It amends lots of different provisions that are scattered through a complex measure—the Companies Act 1985. In 1985, it was not our party but the hon. Gentleman's party that was in power and responsible for drafting the original measure. I would love to have simpler drafting, and we shall continue to pursue that holy grail. Unfortunately, however, to revise accurately a complex measure and ensure that the changes are coherent and can be followed, at least by the legally minded reader, a longer order is sometimes necessary than might in theory have been desirable.

Mr. Duncan: Does the Minister intend to publish, or is a system in place, for properly publishing, a composite amended and updated version of current law so that people do not have to cross-reference the order to previous Acts?

Ms Hewitt: That need will be met by the guidance from the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators, to which I referred earlier. However, I accept the point about the need for a consolidated statement of the legislation complete with these amendments and any others that have been made in the meantime.

The hon. Gentleman asked about authentication of electronic communications. For communications between companies and Companies House, the registrar already has a system for ensuring that electronically delivered information is properly authenticated, and, depending on the nature of the signature requirement, documents are authenticated with either a confidential pre-arranged digital code or an individual code that comprises selected elements of personal data. That authentication system in place at Companies House will continue to apply to the new documents and information sent to Companies House under the order.

Mr. Duncan: Will the Minister explain the process by which if an electronic alternative is permissible, the paper copy will no longer be necessary? For instance, how, in the filing of a company's accounts or its obligation to send an annual report, is it acceptable in law to send an electronic version, thereby rendering unnecessary the paper alternative?

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Prepared 8 November 2000