Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that the case referred to in the Question is but one of a number of serious examples both in his own department and across government? Can he tell the House whether the number of such cases has increased since the responsibilities of the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency were reduced and departments were free to carry out their own negotiations?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the subject of the Question was the NIRS2 computer system. I have answered the Question about that project. On the question of the work done for my department, I have also answered that question by saying that Andersen Consulting has undertaken a number of projects for us in recent years, and the work it has delivered has been entirely satisfactory.

Jammu and Kashmir

3 p.m.

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

14 Jun 1995 : Column 1792

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey): My Lords, the Indian Government have now extended President's rule over the state of Jammu and Kashmir for six months from 18th July. They have made clear that they will try to hold state elections within that period. We would hope that such elections could provide a first step towards the genuine political process for which we have long called.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, if the Indian Government have been unable to stage elections during the five-and-a-half years of direct rule, and if at the end of that period approximately 5.5 million troops and paramilitaries are still in occupation of the territory and are committing serious abuses of human rights, why does the Minister have any confidence in the ability of the Indian Government to stage the elections during the next six months? Is she aware that every responsible leader of the people in the valley of Kashmir has denounced the elections and said that it is not possible to hold them under the Indian constitution because no one will take part?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's difficulty in respect of this matter but without elections I cannot see that there will be any catalyst for the political process that is needed in Kashmir. Elections are a possible means to an end; they cannot possibly be an end in themselves. One can only speculate what other solutions might be available. However, looking at the difficulties and reading the Kashmir report of March and April this year, it is difficult to see in what way this matter can otherwise be resolved. The noble Lord knows that if he has any bright ideas they will be welcome.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, does the Minister agree that whether the elections are held or not, further attempts at confidence building between India and Pakistan are needed if progress is to be made in resolving the Kashmir problem? In the light of the worsening relations between the two countries since the destruction of the mosque at Charar-E-Sharief last month, what steps have the British Government taken to try to foster improved relations between the two countries?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, the British Government deeply regret the destruction of the shrine and the loss of life. It may never be clear who was responsible. It was a tragedy that it should have happened. I agree with the noble Baroness about confidence building. That is why the Foreign Secretary discussed human rights in Kashmir with the Indian Foreign Minister as recently as 6th May and with the Pakistani Foreign Minister some time previously. We have also promoted a policy of openness with the delegation of the six European Union ambassadors who went to Kashmir in April and were given free access. Our High Commissioner in Delhi visited Kashmir at the end of May. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also visited Kashmir recently. We are discussing with the ICRC a possible role in Kashmir and we hope that that will be agreed soon. We are looking for many ways of building confidence so that the Kashmiris might resolve their problems in a peaceful way.

14 Jun 1995 : Column 1793

Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the Minister aware that on numerous occasions I have made suggestions to her colleague, Mr. Tony Baldry? They consist of an alternative to the electoral process, which is the encouragement and facilitation of a dialogue among the people of Kashmir so that they can express their opinions on the kind of constitutional status to which the territory should aspire. Does the noble Baroness agree that with half a million troops and paramilitaries in the territory, and with severe restrictions on freedom of speech, it is not possible to engage in such a dialogue and that the Indians should be persuaded to demilitarise the territory and to restore freedom of speech so that the Kashmiris can express their opinions?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, this is an extremely intractable problem because it is not a question simply of getting people within Kashmir to sit down and talk peaceably together. I have no doubt that if it were, it would have long since happened. I believe that the encouragement of dialogue within the Kashmir area is necessary. That dialogue must lead to a resolution of the problems. If the Kashmiris are united in their wish to secede from India, the difficulty is that they are far from united in what should happen after secession. That is the problem. There is a sharp division between those who support accession to Pakistan and those who want independence. There are some who actually want a link with India. Until those main groups can resolve their differences it is difficult for anyone from outside, with or without troops, to impose a solution.

Lord Weatherill: My Lords, is the Minister able to say whether there will be international observers at the elections, possibly Commonwealth observers?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I believe that that is a good idea but no requests have yet been made and no decisions have yet been taken.

Sheffield Assay Office Bill

3.5 p.m.

Read a third time, and passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.

Birmingham Assay Office Bill

Read a second time, and committed to an Unopposed Bill Committee.

The Information Society

3.6 p.m.

Baroness Elles rose to call attention to the opportunities for the United Kingdom in the development of the information society; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. We in this country are very good at many things. One of them is not always fully appreciating what we are good at and where we have been successful. So in today's debate it would be worth looking at one sector where the United Kingdom, together with the United States, has led the

14 Jun 1995 : Column 1794

world in the development of new technology, specifically in the field of information. It promises an exciting future for our country.

The two significant factors in the UK's success have been, first, the use of English as a commercial language in vast areas of the world and, secondly and importantly, government programmes implementing privatisation and liberalisation policies initiated more than 10 years ago. As regards Europe, for instance, except for the UK, Sweden and Finland, all member states' telecommunications operations are state monopolies without the benefit of competition. One comparative figure indicates the kind of situation that has arisen. As regards what we call "PCs", there are 34 per 100 citizens in the United States and 22 per 100 citizens in the United Kingdom. However, in the rest of Europe the average is 10 per 100 citizens.

We must ensure that Britain continues to hold a leading position in what has developed not only into a European but a global market. As the sector expands rapidly, there is an increasing influence on the lifestyles of individuals, on career opportunities and on a completely new approach to the problems of daily life; for instance, shopping, banking, publications, home-based offices, ways of obtaining information and reception of entertainment available on screen.

In many instances distance has now become irrelevant. Availability of information at the touch of a button applies equally to researchers at university, access to databases on a wide range of matters and, for example, even consultation with medical specialists who are perhaps several hundred miles away advising on appropriate diagnosis and medical treatment. These dramatic changes resulting from new achievements and advances pose new problems in public policy, in standards—both moral and technical—in the need for legal measures, in the conflict between twin principles of freedom of expression and protection of privacy, and have to be considered if people are to reap benefits from these changes, so that we can see social and economic progress and avoid possible ill effects and consequences through failure to discuss and debate these issues. While the industrial revolution of over 150 years ago, which Britain then led, altered the way in which people lived, we did not always remain in the lead and there were negative as well as positive results. We are now going through another more complex revolution in which millions of people are taking part and are being affected by it. Anyone who acquires a computer, a telephone line and a modem can open up a new world of information, communication and entertainment, hitherto undreamed of.

The opportunity for free and open debate enables us to put our views to the Government. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Ferrers for answering on the Government's behalf, recognising, of course, that only a few of those issues can be touched on in the time available.

To understand some of the technical problems involved, thanks should be expressed to the excellent Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) publication Information Superhighways, or the National Information Infrastructure, just published. The clear division between telecommunication services identified by the great success of BT since its privatisation and the

14 Jun 1995 : Column 1795

cable services, which have enabled the cable operators to develop their field of operation, has so far proved to be successful. What must now be considered is whether that separation should continue in the future if those big UK companies are to become major players on the European and global markets.

If there was unrestricted entry for telecommunications operators into the broadcasting market, the ability of cable networks to invest and compete in the telecommunications market would be put at risk. That has so far not been of great concern to the major European PTTs, but as they become privatised they will also be faced with the issue that has faced the UK. Any decision will affect the investment policies of the private sector as, no doubt, in the not so distant future, there will be a general convergence of the use of networks. The excellent report Europe and the Global Information Society—Recommendations to the Council launched by Commissioner Bangemann in June 1994 at the Corfu summit has already proved to be a stimulus for member states and a guide to the way forward in advancing information technology at European level, including—and I list some of the main points set out in the report—liberalisation of the telecom sector, achievement and preservation of universal service and the internal market principles of free movement and the conclusion that deployment and financing of an information infrastructure will be the primary responsibility of the private sector. That is a conclusion to be welcomed.

In this development the UK plays an important role, already well ahead of other member states. No doubt based on Britain's example, European policy is directed to liberalisation of telecommunications infrastructure by, at the latest, 1st January 1998. What is an essential accompaniment to that policy is liberalisation of the services which accompany the infrastructures, such as access to directories and databases. Those who are involved in Community law will know the difficulties of unstitching links between former companies which have held monopolies in certain member states in order to get directories published freely by individual companies.

It is in the UK interest to continue to press for liberalisation in services and telecommunications markets. The removal of the monopoly situations of the PTTs on the Continent should have one beneficial effect; it will contribute to the lowering of prices, as pointed out in the House of Commons Trade and Industry Committee's third report of July 1994. In its annual report, BT endorses that view.

One interesting development, following the restrictions imposed on BT to confine its activities to telecommunications and not to be involved in cable infrastructure, has been the effect that that has had on its development into other European markets and as its annual reports says, it has now got a significant presence in many European countries. This year it had a turnover of £313 billion.

Of the many legal issues arising, competition policy needs close scrutiny. It is no use in a global market to attack the dominant position of one player in a national field. To encourage and attract private investment, the opportunities for companies to establish successful niches at least at European level are essential, if they are to

14 Jun 1995 : Column 1796

achieve world rank. Linkage and co-operation with other European companies, particularly with the companies emerging from the present existing monopolies, are a way forward, and it is hoped that BT will follow that route.

The legal aspects of data protection, the right to privacy and intellectual property rights are all matters which, while being based on national law, will benefit by being adapted not only to standard European rules but ultimately to international rules agreed within the terms of the World Trade Organisation but with monitoring and enforcement being left to national courts.

Who are the users of this vast web of new technological equipment and what are their benefits? We can consider customers, businesses, institutions, and individuals because they will all be affected by this new development. Internet, the worldwide network of computers linked by telephone, already has about 3 million subscribers in the UK alone and an estimated 30-100 million subscribers worldwide. Access to information is made easier, and can be used to provide information on government documents, reports, forms and fulfil other requirements of the ordinary citizen. It is hoped that the Government may eventually extend their processes of giving information and enabling access to statutes, parliamentary debates and so on as are now available on the European database networks. That could give an impetus to increasing the number of users and the sale of equipment. Minitel, originally launched with the free distribution of mini computers to a large number of individuals in France, is now a common method of getting information on, for example, air and railway timetables, which would be of great benefit to those of us who have to travel and try to get through to railway station inquiries.

Internet has also become a source of entertainment and that is an area which needs, if it is possible, some kind of regulatory control. If Channel 4, with a programme advertised daily to the public, can show the kind of so-called entertainment such as the programmes recently severely and rightly condemned—"The Last Temptation of Christ" and "The Word"—it is to be wondered what kind of programmes are being shown on Internet, basically only known to those who plug into the line. Journalistic reports have highlighted recently the appalling kind of material being circulated on Internet—both pornographic and scenes of violence. Measures for blocking general access to this kind of material are clearly needed. If that is not a governmental or legal possibility, it is a technological matter which must be studied seriously.

Another aspect of concern relating to the use of Internet is its availability for political propaganda, be it party politics or the spreading of ideas on, for example, race, immigration or other sensitive areas of our public policies. I understand that it is sometimes used for those purposes. One issue the Government must be considering is the use of party political programmes during election campaigns and how far those can be controlled by current legislation or whether amendments are needed to that legislation. Technological progress clearly has its down side.

There are two more areas on which it might be helpful to touch. The first is fundamental to the future of our society; namely, educational opportunity and the availability of skills in the technological field. The

14 Jun 1995 : Column 1797

imaginative programmes introduced by a Conservative Government a few years ago—the introduction of computers to schools so that pupils were given the opportunity to acquire computer practice—should be revised. I should say to the DFE that recent computer models with modern software applications should be made widely available throughout our schools. It is an expensive investment but it would be a good investment for the young and their future job opportunities. The adaptation of distance learning as a means of communicating and teaching classes of different levels of ability would also bring many advantages.

While technological progress is to be applauded, it brings its problems. The rapid advances in recent years are not necessarily reflected in the creation of new jobs, resulting in a decline in unemployment. The level of technical skills required become ever higher, and competition in design and software has become intense. There is not only an economic side—for example, more efficient business management—but a social aspect, which government should not ignore. As a contribution to the beneficial aspects of the new technology in the social field, local authorities should be looking at how, for example, computers can help the housebound, by reason of age or disability. There will be many disadvantages such as lack of human contact, as well as advantages. But that should not stop the issues being examined closely.

In a subject of this kind with its vast implications, I have not sought to dwell on the basic technical aspects, such as interoperability, interconnection between services, or even the obvious need for appropriate regulatory frameworks and the development of broad-band infrastructures. Those have been discussed fully in the Trade and Industry Committee's third report on optical fibre networks of 1993-94 and each would need lengthy discussion and analysis. But I mention those as an example of the aspects which need to be looked at in the coming months and years.

Another important aspect not to be overlooked is the full participation of the United Kingdom in the European Union's £1,000 million IVth Framework programme in research and development. There are many noble Lords who have considerable expert scientific knowledge and will be making very valuable contributions to this subject not only today but also on other occasions.

This short debate may provide some thoughts for the Government, and some thoughts for the future, that we should not overlook the political, social and economic impact that this new information society will have on individuals—a new way of life, new opportunities and for many an easier existence—while ensuring that our own country maintains the lead it has already acquired in what is now a global market. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.20 p.m.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page