Broadband - Business, Innovation and Skills Committee Contents

2 Ministerial Accountability


11.  In July 2009, Lord Carter, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting, published the Digital Britain White Paper, which set out the Government's ambitions for the digital economy. Following the publication of the White Paper, Lord Carter resigned his ministerial position to pursue a career outside of Government. Responsibility for delivering Digital Britain, through the Digital Economy Bill, was given to Rt. Hon. Stephen Timms MP as a Minister in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, in addition to his existing position as Financial Secretary to the Treasury.

12.  During the course of this inquiry we became increasingly concerned about the lack of a full-time replacement for Lord Carter. Digital Britain, and the Digital Economy Bill, will shape the delivery of information technology for many years to come. It is a vital aspect of government policy, and indeed, an integral part of the country's response to the recession. Mr Timms is an able Minister, capable of delivering on either of his two portfolios. But we are of the view that it is neither appropriate nor possible for a Minister to deliver on them at the same time.

13.  Of equal importance is the nature of the two Ministerial portfolios at hand. As both Financial Secretary at the Treasury and Minister for Digital Britain at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Minister has been put in the unenviable position of encouraging investment and innovation in the digital economy, while at the same time being responsible for revenue raising.

14.  A clear example of these competing claims came to light during our inquiry. We received a number of representations on the application of business rates to fibre optic cable and the apparent detrimental impact those rates had on the development of the Next Generation Access market.[11] The application of business rates is considered in more detail later in this Report.

15.  When pressed on the potential for a conflict of interest between his obligation to the Treasury to raise taxes and his role as the champion for the digital economy offering support and incentives to business, the Minister argued that:

one of the advantages of the way that my portfolio works out is being able to make progress on the levy that we were talking about earlier on. But I am in a position as well to talk to the Valuation Office Agency and there may well be a need to do so.[12]

On one level this may be the case. But equally, the Minister may find himself in the awkward position as a Treasury Minister of having to judge the financial merits of one of his own proposals as a Minister in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

16.  We remain concerned that following the resignation of Lord Carter, the Ministerial structure which created a part-time Minister for Digital Britain provides neither the appropriate ministerial oversight nor the weight to match the importance of this policy area. Furthermore, we do not consider it appropriate that a single Minister should be both the champion of digital innovation and responsible for tax revenue. This is no reflection on the current Minister, but given the importance of the digital economy to the United Kingdom, we believe a full-time post is required and one which is unencumbered with potential conflicts of interest. We recommend that the Government again appoint a full-time Minister for Digital Britain at the earliest opportunity.

11   Ev 149, 156 and 159 Back

12   Q 327 Back

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Prepared 23 February 2010