Examination of witnesses (Questions 40
WEDNESDAY 13 DECEMBER 2000
and MR CHRIS
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 nowtomorrow, 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
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.
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 writingthe
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
(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 www.ukonline.gov.uk 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
(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 languagesWelsh, 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.
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.
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
(Mr Pinder) We would be delighted.
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
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
copyfor example, the electronic government services for
the 21st centurywhy 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
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
Kingdomfor 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
56. You have put a high emphasis on dispute
resolution procedure. What progress have you been able to make
(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
(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 Amazon.com 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.