Select Committee on Trade and Industry Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  40. What progress has been made about modernising regulatory regimes to be more electronically friendly? I believe the Better Regulation Task Force has produced an interim report. It was due in mid-November. Have you seen it?
  (Ms Hewitt) Yes. I am the client Minister for that report from Chris Haskins's task force. I have now received it. It is due to be published any day now—tomorrow, I think.

  41. Are you able to give us the highlights of the report before tomorrow?
  (Ms Hewitt) As you would expect, it is a very helpful analysis and we will look very carefully at its recommendations. I would not want to preempt its publication. On the issue of regulatory compliance generally, a number of the different regulatory bodies, not simply within the DTI, are making very good progress on looking at how they can update their own processes in order to take advantage of electronic communications. The Radiocommunications Agency, for instance, not only has an excellent website when they run the spectrum auctions but does a very large part of their own day to day business in terms of receiving applications for licences and issuing licences. An awful lot of that is now done on the web. Companies House, for instance, is updating its own IT systems in order that they can put even more of their transactions on the web, although they already have a very good subscription based service that is operated electronically. There is a great deal going on in different agencies, as well as in core government departments.

Mr Butterfill

  42. I would like to follow up on the problems you have had with the Human Rights Act. Has your department given any thought to the implications of the declaration of fundamental human rights which is incorporated into the Nice Treaty which presumably you will now have to comply with as well?
  (Ms Hewitt) I am not an expert on the Nice Treaty. My recollection is that that declaration of fundamental rights is a statement of existing rights. Therefore, it does not require us to do anything that we would not already be doing. Obviously, we scrutinise all legislative proposals very carefully and certify them as compliant with the Human Rights Act before they are introduced.

  43. The Commission is taking a different view. It is saying that it will have the right to scrutinise our legislation in the same way as the Human Rights Act. There is some puzzlement as to what may happen if these two areas turn out to be in conflict in some areas.
  (Ms Hewitt) I think the Prime Minister has made the government's view on that very clear already.

Mr Baldry

  44. Following up your point about the difficulties of looking at statutes and moving to electronic communication, clearly over the centuries there were many statutory provisions for the need for documents to be attested to in writing—the Law of Property Act, for example. This is clearly a complex area but is there an official, either in your department or in the Lord Chancellor's Department, who is taking the lead and taking a grip on this to ensure that any difficulties that are thrown up by any government departments are coordinated, because there may well be a need at some stage in the not too distant future perhaps to have a piece of simple, primary legislation to pass enabling legislation to get over legislation which was drafted sometimes centuries ago when no one was conceiving of electronic communication. If one is simply trying to deal with each statute as it comes up, we will probably be here until kingdom come, will we not?
  (Ms Hewitt) No. We will be here until the end of 2002 by which time we expect to have completed the process. We already have the enabling legislation. That is the Electronic Communications Act. It would not have been desirable simply to pass a law saying, "Wherever it says `paper' read this to mean electronic communications." That would, for instance, have allowed virtual marriages on the internet which I think would raise public policy issues that most of us would feel very uncomfortable with. It is better to proceed on a case by case basis. The coordination is being done by the e-envoy's office. If that requires consultation with the Lord Chancellor's Department or the law officers, that will certainly happen, but from the e-envoy's office.

  45. We have a draft question here on electronic government. I will read out the question to you in full because it is wonderful. It is one of the sort of questions one would expect to appear in Punch, I think. "Government Computing reported that the original contract for the new on-line citizen portal had been cancelled and that the idea of using birth as the first life stage has stumbled on the discovery that birth registration in Scotland is not the same as in England." If it is not possible simply to do birth registration on-line and there is a question about the United Kingdom on-line citizen portal, I think everyone in this Committee, in the House and everywhere wants all of this to succeed. Is not the danger that parts of the machinery of government could be very over-ambitious and gallop away, whereas parts of the machinery of government, of local government and society generally are desperately trying to catch up? Is it not important to try and ensure that everyone can move forward at a steady and stable speed on this? Otherwise, you are going to get some initiatives which will look quite good news and headline grabbing, but lots of lacunae opening up and you are going, both within government and society as a whole, to have some bits which are very unfriendly and other bits which are just rather dysfunctional?
  (Ms Hewitt) In terms of the overall strategy for on-line government, the Prime Minister set the goal of all government services being available on-line by 2005. Certainly for very large departments that requires very substantial re-engineering and updating in IT systems, that is a very challenging target. Part of our responsibility is to make sure that all departments and agencies are moving forward effectively. It is also a crucial part of the e-envoy's responsibility to ensure that there are common standards across government so that we do not get incompatible standards and, where we have incompatible systems, we start to join them together. We would not want to hold back departments or agencies or indeed local councils who want to go ahead faster and who want to do innovative things. We positively want to encourage that because experience in the private sector shows that it is actually by encouraging leading edge users and innovative applications that you can make the most progress across the piece. On the issue of the UK onlinecitizens' portal, the first release has just gone live. I am happy to say that one of the life episodes around which the citizens' portal has been built is indeed having a baby.

  46. You cannot get more of a life episode than that, can you?
  (Ms Hewitt) Precisely. Cradle to the grave. I shall not pursue that thought further. Having a baby is the first life episode quite properly that is out there on the portal already. What we are gradually doing is adding more life episodes but also adding real transactional services. I think it would be helpful if Andrew were to say something both about the gateway that is behind this and the development of services.
  (Mr Pinder) I am glad you made it clear that you were reading the question out rather than making it up. There are two confusing things happening here. Let me try and clear up the confusion. There is something called the government citizens' portal which went live last week. That has on it a series of life episodes. That contract was awarded to BT and has gone satisfactorily. We are still working with BT. They have delivered the goods. Secondly, sitting behind the government citizens' portal is something called the government gateway. This is a more technical piece of software and hardware which enables us to carry out transactions. That is an essential piece of software to have in place in order to carry out these transactions. There were some difficulties with the contractual arrangements for that earlier in the year. I believe that is where the confusion arises. We have now resolved that situation. We are now dealing with a different set of project management arrangements, including other suppliers from the original supplier we were talking to. That government gateway will come on stream starting at the beginning of next year. The first registration to enable people to do transactions is coming on-line in January. The first transaction is actually occurring in March. The citizens' portal which is at is the first attempt to try to get all government websites linked together through one portal. We have tried however with this one to make it much more focused around individual consumers and citizens. That is why we have this concept called life episodes, where we have tried to take a number of situations in which people might find themselves, willingly or unwillingly, and deal with all the sites they would need to get to from that particular situation. Hence, having a baby has all sorts of advice on it about pregnancy and all sorts of things as well as midwifery type information. It links primarily of course with the Department of Health sites, but there are other sites as well. As time goes on, we will bring on board other life episodes. The Minister mentioned cradle to grave. One of the life episodes we are considering is bereavement and trying to provide help to people once someone has died. We have four life episodes on the site at the moment. We will go live with several more life episodes in the early part of next year, next February. At the same time, we will start bringing on some transactions. We are looking at transactions, for example, like booking a driving test so that people could come on-line and book a driving test through a transaction engine which we will at that point have ready. That is the origin of the facts behind somewhat confusing government computing.
  (Ms Hewitt) The Member quite rightly mentioned Scotland. I want to stress that the e-envoy's office has been working very closely with the devolved administrations. One of the features of the citizens' portal is that it can be personalised. If you want to give your name and address, or your address in particular, you will then receive information relevant to you in Scotland, Northern Ireland or in Wales. As we develop that, we will then be able to reach down into specific local authority areas as well.
  (Mr Pinder) For personalisation around the country, across the United Kingdom, you simply need to express a preference. You do not even need to give your address or post code. You can specify one of the two languages—Welsh, for example. Later on, we hope to bring other languages in the United Kingdom on board as well. If you are, for example, from Scotland, one would get a site which would be branded UKonlineScotland and it would have information on it which was specific to Scotland as well as United Kingdom- wide information. That has led to some complications in drawing up some of the life events, because some of the practice and legislation in parts of the United Kingdom is different and we have been trying to personalise it for those reasons.

Mr Morgan

  47. Can I confirm that birth is usually the first life event, even in Scotland. Do your responsibilities differ in the devolved administrations compared with England?
  (Mr Pinder) Yes, they do.
  (Ms Hewitt) They certainly do. Telecommunications, which is a core part of my responsibility, is a reserved matter. On an issue like broadband roll out and the dangers of a digital divide in infrastructure provision, I am working very closely with the devolved administrations and parliaments so that we know what they are doing and we ensure that we have a United Kingdom-wide strategy in which each of the pieces fits properly together.

Mr Baldry

  48. A lot of parliamentary colleagues will be extremely interested in what you have just said. I wonder whether, in the new year, it would be possible for you to find an opportunity either in the upper waiting hall or somewhere else to have an exhibition of the government portal and the government gateway, because I suspect that, for those who do not take a day to day interest in this area, it will be quite difficult to keep up to speed. I think many parliamentary colleagues would find that very helpful.
  (Mr Pinder) We would be delighted.

Mr Chope

  49. Can I take you back to this document, the UK online annual report? I want to ask you about the international action aspects of it. Before I do that, can you explain how ordinary people get a printed copy of this report? We do not have one in the House of Commons library. The copies we have before us today have been printed off the internet and obviously we want to ensure that as many people as possible can have hard copies.
  (Ms Hewitt) We publish it on the internet which seems appropriate and does indeed make it very widely available. If anybody writes, either to me or to the e-envoy, explaining that they would like a hard copy we will print it off and send it to them.

  50. Is that made clear on your internet site?
  (Ms Hewitt) Generally people who are accessing it through the internet are happy to print it off the internet. That is rather the point.

  51. Surely that is not the point because a lot of people get access to the internet, for example, at schools, public libraries or internet cafes. If they want to print off a document it costs them money; whereas if they go into a public library and they want to look at a reference copy they can photocopy the relevant page of it. I was looking at page 13 of this report and it seems extraordinary that people should be expected to pay to have that printed off when it is absolutely blank. This is a ludicrous situation. If you can produce some documents in hard copy—for example, the electronic government services for the 21st century—why can you not produce this in hard copy and make it available to everybody on an equal basis?
  (Ms Hewitt) We are always conscious of printing costs and keeping the costs of government low, but we do have a printed summary that is generally available. On the website, in line with good practice, we give the address and anyone who would like a printed copy directly from us can get it simply by phoning or writing.

  52. Would they have to pay for that or not?
  (Ms Hewitt) No.

  53. Is that a general principle? The hard copy of any government publication that is on a website can be provided to anybody who wishes to have it?
  (Ms Hewitt) I am not responsible for every government department. I think I am going to have to let you have a note on that. The Stationery Office charges for printed documents. Very often those documents, or summaries of them, are also made available on the web. If you have access to a printer, you can print them off more cheaply than buying a printed copy. My understanding is if somebody writes to me and asks for something and they do not have access to a web printer, then we will send it to them. All this is fairly new territory. There may not be an official protocol but I will check whether there is an official policy and let you know.

  54. That brings me on to the issue of the e-Europe action plan, so-called. There was a progress report on it presented at the Nice Summit. You said earlier that you were not an expert on the Nice Treaty and certainly I will not blame you for that because nobody can be an expert on a treaty which has not yet been published and is not likely to be published for a couple of months. Does this not illustrate how ludicrous the situation is that we have an e-Europe action plan which is telling other countries and business how to run e-businesses when it cannot even provide ready access to a treaty which has been agreed within the last 48 hours? Surely it is important that, before the European Commission, European governments and the Council start dictating to others, they should try and set an example in the way that they carry out their own business? Why is it that it is not possible to get a copy on the internet of the Nice Treaty as it now is because then you would not be in the position of having to tell us that you are not an expert?
  (Ms Hewitt) I think we are going just somewhat outside my responsibilities as UK e-Minister, but I do know that Neil Kinnock, as the deputy president of the Commission, is driving forward a process of reform within the Commission. I regret I am not responsible for the Commission's own workings and therefore I am afraid I cannot tell you at what point they are going to publish the Nice conclusions either on the web or on paper.

  55. Do you think the so-called e-Europe action plan adds up to anything more than a row of beans?
  (Ms Hewitt) Yes, because it goes back to the Lisbon Summit. The Lisbon Summit was a watershed in the development of the European Union. It committed the European Union to taking the necessary steps to become "the most dynamic, knowledge based economy in the world by 2010." What was very striking about the Lisbon Summit was that the heads of government from all 15 countries were absolutely committed to that goal and understood the nature of the economic and social reform programme that would be required to deliver on it. The e-Europe action plan, which is very ambitious and which does cover a lot of ground, contains within it commitments that are hugely important to the United Kingdom—for instance, to a new, modernised framework of telecommunications legislation. I am very glad to say that Commissioner Liikaanen is driving that forward with great vigour. Indeed, the regulation on local loop unbundling that we were discussing earlier is testament to the speed with which the Commission is moving on that. We will get, at the Stockholm conference early next year, a much fuller report on the progress and the implementation of the e-Europe action plan. The report to Nice was very much an interim report.

  56. You have put a high emphasis on dispute resolution procedure. What progress have you been able to make on that?
  (Ms Hewitt) We are making very good progress on that, both at the United Kingdom level but crucially at the European Union level. You will probably recall that in the United Kingdom we backed the creation of an industry led body, a regulatory body called TrustUK, which is run for us by the Alliance of Electronic Business, the Consumers Association and the Direct Marketing Association. That is seeking to hallmark codes of practice that can give consumers of on-line purchases a real assurance. That requires for codes that want to sign up to it the introduction of good alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. At the European Union level, with TrustUK, with consumer bodies, with the industry and the Commission, we have been helping to drive forward the creation of ADR at a European level, in particular through EEJNet,the European Extra Judicial network, I think, which is ADR at a European level where there will be recognised ADR bodies within each Member State so that citizens in one country who run into difficulties with a purchase in another country can use on-line ADR rather than having to go through the somewhat absurd, cumbersome process of trying to go to court. We are making good progress. It is a very important part of consumer confidence.

  57. Have you received representations about the cooling off period of a week? Do you think that the presence of that involves risks of driving internet sales to less regulated environments?
  (Ms Hewitt) We looked at that very carefully. This is the Distance Selling Directive which of course does not just cover on-line sales but also covers telephone and mail order sales. It is absolutely right that there should be a common set of minimum standards for consumer protection across the European Union. It is particularly important in the context of on-line sales. There were concerns from one of the car manufacturers about the implications of a seven day cooling off period and the danger that you might have a car driven around for thousands of miles in the first seven days which was then returned clearly not in the same new state which it had been in. We have worked very closely with industry in transposing the Distance Selling Directive and we have also agreed with the Commission that we will keep the implementation under review. Having talked for instance to as well as to several of the car manufacturers who are selling on-line themselves and to car sales sites, they do not really anticipate a problem. Most of them have already been offering a right to return goods within a certain period if you are not satisfied with them anyway.

  58. The only representations you have received have been from one particular car manufacturer?
  (Ms Hewitt) Yes.

  59. Can you tell us where you have got to on the taxation framework, because you say that the United Kingdom government is taking an international lead on this. What has happened?
  (Ms Hewitt) This is obviously a matter for my colleagues at the Treasury but we are working, particularly through OECD, to try and ensure that there is a global framework on taxation matters. There were some principles on internet taxation agreed at the OECD meeting in Canada a couple of years ago. We are also of course working with European colleagues for instance on the VAT proposals that have recently been made by the Commission.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2000
Prepared 15 December 2000