§ Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)
I beg to move,That this House recognises the importance of the sustained growth and use of information technology in education and training, in increasing competitiveness and the creation of jobs and in the provision of improved welfare services; and further recognises the work undertaken by the Parliamentary Information Technology Committee in furthering these objectives.
I am glad to have this opportunity to raise the important issue of information technology. I welcome the fact that my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary of State responsible for consumer and corporate affairs is on the Front Bench and that the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) is representing the Opposition. I hope that what I have to say may help hon. Members to take stock and perhaps afford an opportunity for Her Majesty's Government to show how far they too are taking stock on information technology. I shall certainly be interested to hear the views of the official Opposition, as represented by the hon. Member for Motherwell, South, who I know takes a keen and constructive interest in these matters.
§ Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North)
Is it not a matter of amazement to my hon. Friend that throughout today's proceedings we have not seen one member of the Liberal-Social Democratic party alliance in the House? Is it not a disgrace that alliance Members have failed to attend this important debate?
§ Mr. Marshall
I am sure that my hon. Friend makes a valid point. Their limited interest in some of the more constructive opportunities for debate in the House is well known to all Members present.
I do not wish to rehash the definitions of information technology, but it is important to remember that the combination of data processing, computing and communications, especially telecommunications, in low-cost convenient access and easy-to-use configurations is barely 10 years old. However, it encompassess some technologies going back, in some cases, as much as a century ago. It is clear that, as technology and, above all, software, lives up to many of its promises, the way in which our lives are led and businesses are run and the way in which Her Majesty's Governments conduct their affairs will be changed even more dramatically than in the past 10 years.
I wish to concentrate my remarks on that part of the motion that relates to the use of information technology in the United Kingdom. First, I shall address myself to education and training. I would assert that the introduction of microcomputers in our schools is possibly the single most important action to be taken by the Government. Leaving aside the fact that I had a small part in the early implementation of those arrangements, the extension of the provision from secondary to primary schools is of great importance. The idea of a digitally numerate generation coming from our schools with a basic skill upon which many job opportunities can be built is of great significance when we consider employment opportunities in the long term.
Only two weeks ago in my constituency, I saw an example of the way in which this development is working in practice. The Bognor Regis community college is one of our local comprehensive schools. It has provided an 546 excellent example of how a local company producing software, a neighbouring company with two former lecturers from the local teacher training college, and a school can combine to work with an interactive television video system, which, as far as I am aware, is the first of its kind in Britain. It provides the pupils, who I saw demonstrating the system, with an opportunity to carry out scientific and industrial experiments with equipment that if placed in the school, if that were feasible—in terms of size and scale it would not be—would involve the expenditure of millions of pounds. By the use of video and interactive television, along with cursors, there was the opportunity through digital control to simulate experiments. The pupils were using equipment that could be related directly to what is happening in the outside world. It provided them with an opportunity of working in perfect safety in areas that would be extremely hazardous without prior training. I found great enthusiasm and interest in that form of real life experimentation.
In talking about the opportunities for training, I do not want to rehash the remarks that were made during a debate on employment and training on 12 February. The way in which industry and employers generally can meet the skill shortage is a subject that demands more attention. It is true that the National Computing Centre Ltd.'s surveys have shown that about 60 per cent. of companies involved in information technology do not provide training. Instead, they rely on poaching from the other 40 per cent. which provide it. This underlines a real problem.
As I have said on previous occasions, one of the best ways to resolve the problem would be the introduction of tax incentives on a wider front. I am delighted to see my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury in his place on the Government Front Bench. His timely entry has shown that, as ever, he is alert to what is in the wind.
The opportunities that tax reform would provide should be reviewed carefully. The opportunity for individuals and companies to provide training in information technology as a tax deductible expense would help in bridging the skills gap and would offer genuine opportunities for many of those who are unemployed.
Most information technology experts agree that within about 18 months it is possible for someone starting from scratch to acquire sufficiently wide information technology skills to become valuable in the job market. Therefore, there is every possible incentive to use the mechanism which I have suggested, which would produce returns in a reduction, for example, in the amount of public expenditure required for unemployment benefit.
Further considerations are competitiveness and job creation. I shall not dwell greatly on the former. I merely remind the House that in Japan we see the wholesale adoption of information technology and the use of robotics. These have been key elements in a policy that has given the Japanese 60 per cent. of the world television market, almost 100 per cent. of the world video recording market, 85 per cent. of large-scale capital goods such as heavy transformers, and 90 per cent. of the motor cycle industry, as we know to our cost. The lesson for improved productivity is obvious. Although I see some signs of it in Britain, notably in the export performance of companies such as Jaguar, we still have a long way to go.
As for job creation, I should like to draw on my experience as co-author of a book entitled "No End of Jobs" some two years ago to remind myself of some of the 547 areas which we considered in a working party including Mr. Philip Virgo and Mr. Charles Christian. We came up with an estimate of 3 million new jobs by the end of the century, provided that certain measures geared around information technology were taken in industry and in Government.
I must express my appreciation to the Government and Ministers who were good enough to spend time discussing matters relating to their Departments and, through the opportunities provided by Pitcom, hon. Members on both sides of the House who contributed to the wide-ranging debate which followed. A further study compiled by Mr. Philip Virgo, who is on the executive of Pitcom, entitled "Reskilling Britain" has brought some of our work further up to date and concentrated on skill shortages and their relationship to employment.
Such work has been greatly encouraged by the interest shown by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, who has taken on board several of the proposals which have resulted from work that some of us have been involved with and by discussions outside, especially through the parliamentary information technology committee, with some of our industrial and outside members.
I shall consider some of the main headings under which, two years ago, we looked for a substantial opportunity for job creation. We called for an acceleration in the cabling of Britain. It has not gone ahead as fast as many of us hoped because of some problems with capital allowances, but some progress has been made. Mercury Communications Ltd., in which I declare an interest as an adviser to Cable and Wireless, has taken on permanently 1,600 people who are involved with its cabling interests to provide an alternative network.
We called for a widening of educational material through video entertainment to provide a range of instructional and other material, recognising that education in modern society is for life. There has been some progress. I am glad that the House has shown itself to be alert, as has the other place, to the need to help to tackle some of the problems which must be resolved. My right hon. Friend Lord Eden was responsible for introducing legislation on video piracy and this House has recently had an opportunity through my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) to legislate against computer software piracy. The House has shown itself to be responsive; it has reacted to advice.
As for education, the extension of the use of microcomputers in schools has gone ahead apace. I suspect that I speak for many hon. Members when I say that I am worried that demand is now well in excess of supply. I have found in discussions with local schools and parent-teacher associations that there is a demand which we must continue to meet. There are means of doing that with which I shall not detain the House, but the Government still have a part to play. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister will say something about how the Department of Trade and Industry regard that matter. Its work in that area and of the Department of Education and Science is of the utmost significance.
As to energy conservation, those of us who have been involved with the Neighbourhood Energy Action schemes will have seen the way in which there are 548 substantial opportunities for job creation in meeting a social need. That programme has been successful and can be built on.
With regard to Government procurement, particularly information technology, some important work has been done. I want to highlight—I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to reply to this — the proposal for the Government's data network. This procurement programme is of great importance in terms of improved administration. It presents an opportunity to bring together British and overseas companies in an effort to tackle some state of the art technology at a high level.
The programme has a significance beyond its immediate procurement implications. The data network is designed to provide services for the Department of Health and Social Security, the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and the Home Office. Initially, 85,000 terminals in 3,000 locations will be brought into this network, which will provide packet switched data and opportunities for a radical simplification, and will optimise the efficiency and cost of that system. I hope that I am not being too optimistic in seeing that as a way of introducing what many of us have called for for many years—a tax credit scheme which would bring together tax and social security in a simplified coding so that people would have one code number, under which they either receive or pay, and which would sweep away some of the enormous load of paper which confronts the average taxpayer and the average employer.
I now turn to the role of the parliamentary information technology committee. I want to touch on a summary of some of the areas of study that occurred two years ago on personal care and medical procurement. That is an area in which the parliamentary committee is particularly interested.
As to personal care, one of the major job creation opportunities that we saw was in the growth in sheltered accommodation. It has been estimated that by the end of the century two working people in the country will be involved in supporting one retired person. People are living longer and the number of pensioners is rising—we shall all join them at some date. The problems that are highlighted in that statistical sense also point to a substantial opportunity. Given the number of people who own their own homes, which is over half the population, it may make sense for sheltered accommodation to be developed for them on a wide basis. That would provide an opportunity for them to enjoy a more useful and comfortable life than might otherwise be the case. We can see the scale and scope of that opportunity. I foresee a substantial take-off in the development of sheltered housing, which I would wish to encourage.
I would tie that in with the help that has been given, and which could be supplemented, to the development of personal services — inter-active television, security systems, and the whole range of IT opportunities which would provide elderly people with alarms and other kinds of help.
As to medical procurement, the area that we identified two years ago, involving substantial purchasing by Government to meet the country's health requirements, touched on such things as surgery systems, strap-on alarms and powered limbs, where substantial procurement has still some way to go. We are getting some rationalisation, but there is still a piecemeal approach on the part of the DHSS. That has wider implications than 549 United Kingdom domestic supply. If we develop successful design and implementation, that will provide many export opportunities.
The hon. Member for Motherwell, South attended the exhibition this week at which we saw the work of the Science and Engineering Research Council and the Design Council. The exhibition was opened by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science and drew on the work being done in universities and polytechnics. I was particularly impressed by the working of an artificial hand. As a former member of the court of governors of the university of Southampton, I am happy to say that was an interesting example of design work at Southampton, assisted by an SERC scheme, to allow people with artificial hands to get a delicacy of touch which has previously escaped most designs. Most artificial hands simply open and close, but through the use of microprocessor controls and sensors, we are within sight of developing a hand with a measured grip, suitable to an individual's needs, which could help when speed of reaction is needed. That is an interesting and exciting development.
Much of the detailed work that some of us contribute to in debates and outside the House stems from briefings by and meetings with people working on these matters. In a few weeks time, Pitcom will have a meeting with the Comet organisation, which represents those who provide information technology for disabled students. Our session will cover disabled students of all ages. That is just one example of the work done in Pitcom. That meeting will be sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) and I look forward to chairing the session.
We have already had meetings with British Telecom and, in our even-handed way as an all-party group, with Mercury. We shall shortly he meeting the chairman of the Cable Authority and his team to review the progress of cable, which raises some questions and worries. We are due to visit Martlesham to see that centre of excellence in British Telecom. We have a session planned with the Information Technology Users Standards Association, when the response will be made by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mr. Butcher), and we plan a session on the growth of small high-technology companies, when the Secretary of State for Employment will reply. Finally, we shall be reviewing the work of Oftel with the director general.
We put our proceedings into an excellent quarterly journal, with a substantial number of outside contributions, which are well regarded. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for giving the parliamentary committee this commercial, but it has reached a watershed. It was founded six years ago and its first chairman was my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Sir I. Lloyd), who has done an outstanding job. As the incoming chairman, I pay tribute to his work.
The hon. Member or Motherwell, South, who is a good supporter of the committee, and many of my hon. Friends will recognise that my hon. Friend the Member for Havant was once a voice in the wilderness. His wisdom and enthusiasm have been part of the driving force that has carried the committee through to become a body of real value to both Houses. At the time that the committee was formed six years ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Havant was supported soon afterwards by the hon. 550 Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) as the vice-chairman and by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West before he took Ministerial office.
Mr. Philip Virgo, to whom I referred earlier, was one of the first vice-chairmen at a time when it was possible to have an outside member in that capacity. Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, who continues as our secretary today, has been with us throughout and has provided a valuable input to the thinking of another place in many of our deliberations.
Since then, we have seen the growth of a group which encompasses 70 hon. Members of this House, 10 Members of the other place and a similar number of individual members with more than 100 corporate members, stretching from the major telecommunications interests of British Telecom and Mercury through to such major computer companies as IBM and ICL to some of the most modest, small software houses.
The parliamentary committee has an executive committee and a council that is entitled to have 15 parliamentary and 15 outside members. We now have the additional support of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short) as the new vice-chairman with my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Henderson), who I am pleased to see in his place, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) as our treasurer. We have continued the work which was done by those who went before us and which we hope will be of further value to the House.
I shall briefly add to that list the names of some of those who come and help us in this House for no pecuniary gain. It is true that they appreciate the value of the contacts within the industrial membership and with the hon. Members of this House. However, apart from Mr. Virgo whom I have mentioned, there is Mr. Brian Murph) who edits our journal, Mr. Graham Morris who looks after our membership and Mr. Derek Broome who provides a programme of the strength and depth that I outlined earlier. All those people and others have played, arid continue to play, a notable part.
I wish to express my appreciation to this House of that voluntary help and support. In my experience, the committee is unique in its enthusiasm and in the way in which it has built up a relationship with so many people outside.
I shall end with two or three thoughts of my own, because I do not wish to prejudge work that is currently looking at Pitcom's future. A working party will be reporting on Monday of next week to our council and we shall wish to consider carefully what it says. However, I wish to highlight two or three perhaps personal observations and ambitions that I have for Pitcom. The first concern the opportunities to extend the basis of hands-on experience of Members of Parliament.
Many hon. Members will recall that, a year or two ago, there was a scheme through the Computer Sub-Committee of the House of Commons Services Committee and a link with Pitcom that allowed a number of hon. Members of both Houses to receive hands-on experience at the National Computing Centre. That was based on funding provided by the Department of Trade and Industry. My hon. Friend the Minister, who may be starting uneasily at that prospect, should consider that it is money well spent because it allows hon. Members to understand the personal value of information technology and makes them increasingly aware of it in its wider economic and 551 administrative sense. Therefore, I hope that when I seek to revive a scheme that has gone dead I shall get a sympathetic hearing.
Having said that, I am also personally interested in looking at some sort of voluntary scheme which could draw on the help of some of our corporate members. There are obvious problems in terms of companies that are competing with each other, but they could be overcome.
Similarly, I should like to see Pitcom able to draw on the advisory capacity of many of the people who have great knowledge of this sector, especially when it comes to helping Members of Parliament to consider what sort of equipment is best suited to their needs, whether, in the case of hon. Members of this House, in their constituency work, or in their wider personal and other interests.
Many people are still confused by competing computer salesmen's claims. There is still a problem too that, in some areas of work, those who enter enthusiastically into the use of microcomputers may find that, unless they are given prompt and effective advice, the problem that I have experienced as an author of wiping out an entire index or chapter of a book can be very disillusioning. That could perhaps be headed off if the right advice could be obtained at the right time.
In relation to the broader range of information technology development, there is a parallel with the work of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee in trying to see in what way some kind of a more permanent presence by way of a technological secretariat facility could be beneficial. I do not want to prejudge the recommendations of the working party which has addressed itself to that, but if industry saw value in creating such a technological centre it would help to overcome some of the competing claims from which it suffers from time to time. The industry speaks with a discordant voice occasionally. Such a service could be valuable to industry as well as Parliament.
With those thoughts for the future of Pitcom which I hope hon. Members will agree are related to the wider information technology scene, I welcome the opportunity of hearing what other hon. Members have to say. I hope that what we have tried to do within Pitcom points the way ahead to the changes and adaptations required in industry to meet the needs of the 21st century.
§ Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South)
The House will want to congratulate the hon. Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall) on the choice of subject and on the terms of his motion, which draws attention to an important area of activity and rapid technological development. I welcome the Under-Secretary of State to the world of information technology. I understand that his colleagues who usually deal with the subject are engaged elsewhere. I am sure that he will find the debate of value, particularly as it applies to company law and company accounts.
Almost all of what I plan to say is a reply to and further development of the points made by the hon. Member for Arundel. We are in a surprising position. There is an appreciation on both sides of the House of the importance of information technology and, more generally, of science and technology which is not reflected in the Government's actions and policies. It is extraordinary that that should happen here when a country with a Government of a 552 similar ideology—the United States—has put vastly greater resources, and a faster rate of increase in resources, into these important matters.
The simplest measure of the role, importance and declining fortunes of information technology in the United Kingdom is the balance of trade in information technology goods. They have been widely reported for years but the attention of the House has not been drawn to the most recent development. The closest measure is the standard international trade classification of electrical machinery—SITC 716. It seems that we have shifted from a trade balance of zero in 1979 to a deficit in 1986 of about £3 billion. The balance showed a deficit of £10 million in 1979, it improved to a surplus of £311 million in 1980 and deteriorated to a deficit of £2,855 million in 1986. The deterioration rapidly accelerated in the second half of 1986. It was running at £577 million in the first quarter of 1986; at £541 million in the second quarter; it jumped to £852 million in the third quarter and higher still to £885 million—an annual rate of about £3,500 million—by the fourth quarter. These are dramatic and extremely serious figures which highlight the increasing crisis.
It is not only in the balance of trade that we find a measure of the failure of Government policies. There is a sell-out in a number of important areas of data base applications. Access to legal data bases, not only statute law but case law, is monopolised by the United States. It is impossible to access British statutes or case law on a computer run in Britain. Lexis was allowed to take over and close Eurolex, the only British-owned legal data base.
Only last month, the British Library was forced to sell the compact disc rights to its catalogue to a United States firm simply to pay for the cost of digitising it in time to have the catalogue accessible by computer when the new British Library is opened. We have heard much about the crisis in the arts budget, the practical effect of which is that the British Library has been forced to sell our main national bibliographical source to an American firm for the next 10 years.
There is a degeneration of the Government's own management information system, which is their statistical service. We hear constant complaints in the House about the so-called adjustments of the unemployment figures, but in basic industrial statistics there has been a sharp deterioration in quality, coverage, timeliness and accuracy. There is such a wide gap between the practice of Government and what is technically possible that even the consortium of the Treasury, the Bank of England and the Economic and Social Research Council has invited tenders for the development of a modelling system which will link company models to national economy models so that the effects of changes in corporation tax, intensity of research and development or any other general measure of policy can be traced through to the response of individual companies and back again in to the design and adjustment of policies. There is no chance of the research that is under way at the London Business School achieving practical applications with the present degeneration in the Government's statistical service.
The Government have abdicated the development of an information technology strategy to the IT86 committee, which seems to have sprung from the brow of industry without any official brief or commission from the Department of Trade and Industry. I suspect that that is because the Department could not obtain Treasury 553 approval for a departmental committee that would be likely to recommend the increase in expenditure needed in information technology today.
In Europe, the Government are obstructing the renewal of essential European Community research programmes. The Framework programme is being blocked specifically by the British Government, with the result that essential programmes in information technology, including ESPRIT and RACE, have not had their funding renewed.
The overall lack of strategy is reflected in those piecemeal failures and in the collapse of our overseas trade in information technology goods.
We should consider the wider strategic questions that affect the development of uses in the United Kingdom. How can British Telecom plan the research and development, capital investment and training needed when it does not know whether it will be allowed to transmit television programmes to consumers over its cable network? How can the cable operators know where to invest when they do not know whether they can offer telephone services over the cable systems that they will have installed?
I do not wish to waste time on an indictment of the Government's failure and neglect of information technology, because I am anxious to return to the tone of the hon. Gentleman's speech and suggestions about what should be done in the future. Those who place a high value on the role of information technology in our national life should realise that it must be seen only as part of science and technology policy as a whole. If information technology is pressed at the expense of the science budget and general funding for research and development, there will be a backlash from scientists, engineers and industry who will state that information technology does not cover all their research and business activities.
Let us consider the overall position of science and technology. We are aware of the acute plight of the research councils reflected from the advice given by the Advisory Board for the Research Councils to the Secretary of State regarding the science budget and by the statement made by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary on 13 February with regard to the science budget allocations. Since the advisory hoard formulated its advice to the Government the depreciation in the pound has led to a reduction of about £20.5 million in the real spending power of the science budget. The rise in pay, not covered by the 3 per cent. allowance made when drafting the estimate last year, will erode a further £9 million off the budget. and that represents a total reduction in the budget of £29.5 million. On 6 November the Department of Education and Science announced the new money available for the science budget—£26 million. That left a shortfall of £3.5 million on the inadequate level that had been previously recommended.
It is no coincidence that the AIDS research budget increase—the announcements on 6 November represented an increase of £1 million, and the further announcement on Wednesday 25 February represented an increase of £2.5 million, a total of £3.5 million — has come out of the science budget as previously announced. It is not a question of the research money being deducted in the future as it has already been deducted from the Government's spending on the science base.
The science base is essential for the future development of information technology. It is also essential for the possibility of finding an AIDS vaccine. The Government 554 are in danger of destroying, in one decade, the scientific tradition of this country that has been built up over the centuries.
The Advisory Board for the Research Councils is in such a state that it is having to consider serious cuts in the whole structure of the science base in Britain. I shall quote from its most recent advice;It would appear that the Government have set aside these arguments"—the arguments for maintaining and increasing the science budget.
The Government's declared policy, nonetheless, is to maintain and enhance the strength and quality of the science base. Our advice has to be that this policy and the cumulative tenor of the Government's financial decisions can be reconciled only by reducing significantly the scale of the science base in terms of the numbers of fields in which world class effort is maintained; the numbers of researchers employed and the numbers of laboratories. This kind of contraction will require substantial restructuring funds. We shall be addressing the implications of a major contraction in the strategy paper which we hope to have ready as a basis for consultation in the first quarter of next year. But our strategy paper will also restate our firm view that it cannot be sensible to reduce (whether by default or by overt policy) the research capability of an advanced industrial economy at a time of rapid scientific and technological development.
The acute problem that is faced in science arid technology is shared by the crisis in industry. In industry there is a need to build up civil research and development particularly with regard to information technology. So I shall devote the remainder of my speech to information technology.
In a very fast moving area such as information technology, the failure of one partner to make the necessary moves and adjustments handicaps the whole effort. The Government's failure lies in training, in the public sector application of information technology, and in the failure to launch the initiatives that can come only from Government. The Government'is strategy, broadly, seems to be to wait until a particular technology has broken through to a popular price level and then to complain, first, that the equipment embodying that technology is made abroad, secondly, that the users in this country are slow to make use of the new possibilities, thirdly, that the software does not exist for the applications now possible, and, fourthly, that it is just as well that the software is not available because people have not been trained to use it.
I have no objection, and I do not think that my colleagues have, to the announcements by the Department of Trade and Industry during the past week on value added services. The liberal regime in which value added services should develop is entirely consistent with a planned development of an information technology strategy overall and of the information technology infrastructure, but in no way can that liberal regime be said to amount to a policy. It is generally agreed that wide-band telecommunications services are likely to be the major technology push in information technology over the next decade. Direct broadcasting by satellite is a justifiable development in the short-term for the transmission of more television channels and, in the longer term, for broadcasting to mobile persons and vehicles. However, the capacity of fibre optic cables is so vast and the installation cost per household and workplace is so low that there is no doubt that fibre optic cable will be the dominant mode of telecommunication in the future.
555 The Government's present strategy, by piecemeal development of local cable systems licensed by the Cable Authority, has failed. It is not leading to the pace of development that was originally anticipated, and there is no chance of it producing a coherent national fibre optic network going into every home and workplace in Britain. There is no chance of it developing the coherence in the information technology infrastructure by which the value added networks are properly integrated with the engineering design of the system.
When people talk about future cable developments, in which I know the hon. Member for Arundel is much interested, the suggestion is still made that cable applications will develop on the back of the entertainment market. At present there is not the programme material to create an attractive market for new cable installers, and there is not the number of people offering cable services that justifies the emergence of programme providers. However, we might have it the wrong way round—it is not the wider applications that should ride on the back of entertainment, but entertainment should ride on the back of the necessary educational and training applications mentioned by the hon. Member for Arundel. The present cable policy is a strategy for the continued collapse of information technology in Britain. It lacks a coherent common carrier infrastructure, needing to be linked to value added services. It will generate a flood of imports, initially of consumer equipment, but later of capital equipment, leaving the United Kingdom unable to compete anywhere. It will lead to the further falling behind of application as well as manufacture of information technology goods and services in this country.
We can learn lessons from the unprecedented growth of the personal computer market in this country and, indeed, worldwide. Parents observed small boys playing computer games. They got hold of the idea that maybe the kids should know about this technology for their future education. A lobby built up for the installation of personal computers in schools, and then parents got hold of the idea that maybe little Johnny should have a machine at home. The hon. Member for Arundel and other Conservative Members, to their credit, put some effort into launching the educational applications. The fact that they were not carried through far enough, did not have adequate software and so on is a matter of history.
In the new field of interactive video, might not the educational applications be properly provided with properly developed, curricular support material available for each year in primary and secondary schools and in further and higher education, professional training, and in industrial training? If BT was asked to see that a fibre optic cable network was installed into every educational establishment and was able to support that volume of activity, the very commitment to provide that volume of application, just as in the case of personal computers, could stimulate such a volume of development of entertainment services, value added services of all kinds, business applications, and so on, that, by the time the system was in operation, there would be an entirely economic market for entertainment and value added services which would justify the installation of the system into every home and work place in Britain. That is to put the other way around the programme that people have 556 outlined before. It requires a bold initiative from the Government, but I see no signs of any such initiative emerging today.
If the Under-Secretary of State wishes to get some feel for the pace of development in this subject, I recommend that he reads the February issue of the American computer magazine, "Byte", which is a special issue on educational developments in the United States. He will see not only the volume of activity there, which is huge, but the diversity of it, with which we, with our much more limited resources, must somehow catch up.
If, today, the cost of a compact disc player linked to a micro-computer and a high definition colour television screen costs, say, £2,000, within five or 10 years at most it will cost about £200. There is an opportunity to develop not only the cable system but the manufacturing industry, which could give information technology a new launch. Without such initiative and commitment on the part of the Government, and without a concerted effort by BT, equipment manufacturers, the BBC, the IBA, the Cable Authority and the education system, we shall see the continuing collapse of information technology to the lasting damage of the country.
§ 2.8 pm
§ Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, North-East)
The hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) took a long time to do what I should have thought was difficult to do, and that is to turn the lively dance and success story of the information technology industry into something resembling a funeral dirge. He mentioned data bases. I wonder whether he has seen the BEST system — that is, the British Expertise Science and Technology system—based in St. Andrews. I hope that he will see that system if he has not already done so. A private enterprise system, backed by the university directors of industrial liaison, has produced one of the finest data bases in the world, interlinking industry with the science community in this country — a marvellous British first. The hon. Gentleman cannot have seen today's tape, as I did as I came into the Chamber, announcing yet another British first. Yesterday, British Telecom and Plessey, using a computer language-based digital network, achieved this world first. The achievement involves a link-up between a digital network and a cellular radio link to prove that a series of moving pictures could be transmitted through a telephone exchange on to a television screen. It was a joint project which was part of the United Kingdom's research into a trans-European network which is due to be launched in 1991.
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman, who referred to fibre optics, can have seen the work that has been done in the physics department of St. Andrews university. It is using laser techniques to develop new forms of computer mechanisms. It passes belief that an Opposition Front Bench spokesman cannot recognise that today's investment in information technology by the private and public sectors far surpasses anything that occurred during the period of the last Labour Government.
§ Mr. Henderson
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has already taken up so much time that only five minutes are left for my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight), who has been here throughout the debate, and me.
557 I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall) on so admirably initiating our debate. He played an important part in kicking off this work. I remember sitting behind him as a Back Bencher when he was one of the Ministers who introduced the British Telecommunications Bill. It is amazing that during the lifetime of this Conservative Government we have separated British Telecom—a new name at that time—from the Post Office. Until then there was only the Post Office, with telecommunications as a subsidiary. Now it is one of the largest employers in the country. It employs 250,000 people in one of our great growth industries and it is achieving much in the world at large.
The one criticism that I have of British Telecom, which has achieved so much, is that in its most recent reorganisation it has paid insufficient attention to maintaining a central focus in Scotland for its activities throughout Scotland. I hope that British Telecom will review its organisation and improve that aspect.
During the last eight years or so there have been tremendous changes in telecommunications and computers and, perhaps most significantly of all, in the convergence of those technologies. However, effort now needs to be concentrated on two major areas. I refer first to equipment suppliers. Equipment suppliers, who have traditionally lived in the cosy, fat-cat world of supplying the old, monopolistic British Post Office, are still not geared up to facing the more competitive world in which we live today. I hope that they will pull up their socks and do better, otherwise Britain will not be able to grasp the full opportunities that are offered by the growing information technology markets.
Secondly, a great deal of work needs to be done on the opening up of world markets in general and of European markets in particular. They must become much more free. We should say to other countries that we have liberalised telecommunications in this country to a remarkable degree, that it has benefited British consumers and that they must do likewise, because it would benefit consumers and industry in those countries, but that it must be a free and fair market—throughout Europe at least.
I hope that the work that has been done in the House of Commons to improve our information technology resources will continue. I hope, too, that the progress that has been made by the parliamentary information technology committee under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Sir I. Lloyd), to whose work my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel paid eloquent tribute, will continue. It has now been placed on a sufficiently sound base for us to be able to look forward to a continuation of that work. Under the leadership of my hon. Friend it will be important to the development of this industry.
§ Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall) on his good luck in the ballot and I am grateful to him for raising this important matter. We cannot allow the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) to get away with the picture of gloom and doom that he painted. My hon. Friend the Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Henderson) was right to refer to something that is on today's Press Association tapes regarding the high-tech link, which is described as being the best of British. It will 558 prove to be very useful when there is a sudden need to carry out security surveillance at an airport or to monitor the state of a patient on his way to hospital.
One matter is causing me some concern. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary of State will proceed with care if he takes any action. Recently, we have heard a lot in the news about compact discs. EMI is seeking to release on compact disc part of the catalogue of the Beatles, probably the most prolific British pop group of all time. I think that hon. Members know what a compact disc is. It is a digital way of purveying information, usually music, and it does not deteriorate with use. It is not prone to scratching as gramophone records are, and, unlike gramophone records, the quality of sound does not deteriorate as the reading beam moves to the centre of the disc.
There has been consternation among British CD manufacturers about the Japanese development of digital audio tape. I understand that the Japanese have developed a tape system which has the advantage over compact disc that one can record on it. This development has caused some panic among British manufacturers. A recent article in The Sunday Times was headed "Compact discs are about to be made obsolete." I understand that the British Radio and Electronic Equipment Manufacturers Association was so worried about the article that it complained to the Press Council. It does not augur well if the manufacturers cannot even face the challenge of criticism, let alone competition. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary of State will resist certain calls for restrictions to be imposed on this Japanese system.
An article in The Times of 24 February stated:The West is threatening to ban DAT machines completely unless the Japanese put safeguards in their machines which prevent recording. The Japanese say this is an outrageous imposition on the consumer.I wholeheartedly agree with those latter remarks. Long-term success in this, as in other matters, will not be achieved by trying to stop the march of progress.
§ Mr. Ernie Roberts (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)
The business of information technology begins in primary schools. I have visited a number of primary schools in my constituency and have seen young children learning to operate computers, not for games but for learning languages and doing arithmetic. There are not enough computers in schools. Teachers complain that they have to get several children around one computer to familiarise them with computers and find out how they function so that they grow up using and understanding this information technology.
I pay credit to the Inner London education authority which gives special attention to the introduction of computers in schools and colleges. Last week, I visited a British computer manufacturer in Oxford. I am concerned that the computers we have should be British made. Unfortunately, many of the computers in use, including in this building, are not British made. The company which I visited, Research Machines, uses British labour and is British owned. It produces an excellent machine which is so good that I saw one department full of computers awaiting delivery to the ILEA for use in schools and colleges. At the computer show last week, the company showed a new type of very fast computer called the 559 Nimbus AX20, which is receiving a lot of attention because it is much better than many of the foreign machines used in this country.
The ILEA has set up a special organisation called the inner London education computer centre which teaches teachers how to teach with the aid of computers. That has to be done because there is deference on the part of some teachers with regard to computers. Some feel that they may be replaced by the machine. However, they are learning that that is not so and that computers are a tool to help them in the education of children, whether in mathematics, English or science. The use of computers in schools also familiarises young people with what a computer is, how it can function and how it can be used as a tool so that when they leave school they will be able to adapt themselves readily to the use of information technology.
I visited the inner London education computer centre and was impressed with the work being done there, particularly the use of computers to teach English to persons who are backward in that subject. There are people in my constituency who are connected with certain ethnic groups, some of whom came into the country not very long ago, and those methods of teaching are excellent for them. Computers can also be used to teach foreign students who come to this country to learn the language.
I have also visited a centre known as the Hackney information technology centre in my constituency which is teaching unemployed men and women, who have no other particular skill, to use computers as word processors and as a machine which can be applied to industry or commerce. They are finding that training extremely useful.
There have been problems. The main problem is usually insufficient financial assistance. All the schools find that to be the case, as does Hackney information technology centre and many organisations which want to introduce computers into the learning process in this country.
At ILECC one member of staff has produced some excellent books explaining the use of computers and the sort of software that is available for use in schools. I have read those books. In a simple way they explain to those who have very little knowledge of such machines how computers can be used.
I know that other countries are interested in what is happening in ILECC, which was set up by the Inner London education authority. They have been impressed after having visited and talked with the staff at that centre.
One young lady at the centre has been seconded to the organisation from one of the colleges. For some time she has been doing a considerable amount of work in initiating and showing the use to which computers can be put. We need much more financial assistance and support from the appropriate Government Departments such as the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Trade and Industry to see that the machines are made available in schools and colleges. Furthermore, the machines that are to be made available should, as far as possible, be made in this country because good machines are made here. I have mentioned only one company, Research Machines, but there are others and they should be given the necessary orders to produce the machines for our schools and colleges.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Michael Howard)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall) for having raised this important subject and for drawing attention to the central role of information technology in the United Kingdom today. We have had a most interesting and far-ranging debate, and it is only a matter of regret to me that the time left will make it impossible for me to cover more than a small part of the ground that I would have wished to cover, far less reply to the points that have been raised by hon. Members who have taken part. I shall certainly consider whether it is possible for me to write to them, particularly to my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel, on some of the important points raised.
There can be no doubt that information technology is vital to the performance and competitiveness of British industry and commerce and, ultimately, to the economic prosperity of the United Kingdom as a whole. Information technology has an important contribution to make to the development of even more efficient and effective community services, such as education, training, health care and care for the elderly and the disabled. It is because of the ubiquitous nature of information technology and the central importance of it to our future well-being that the Government attach such high priority to their policy for IT. That is why we have channelled considerable resources in this direction.
Our objectives have been twofold. First, we have sought to promote the widest possible use of IT in all sectors of the economy, in industry, commerce, the public services and elsewhere. Only by taking advantage of the benefits that information technology offers in terms of improved efficiency and performance can British industry compete effectively in world markets. By exploiting IT, our welfare and education services will be able to provide efficient, cost-effective and up-to-date services.
Secondly, we have sought to create an environment that will encourage the development of a healthy, internationally competitive, indigenous IT industry. It is important that so far as possible British industry and commerce should be assured access to competitive local information technology products and services.
I welcome the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and others about the importance of IT in education and training. The Government share this view and have funded a number of schemes to encourage the establishment of IT in schools and to make IT an integral part of school life. The House will recall my Department's "Micros in Schools" scheme, which ran between 1981 and 1984. My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel played an important part in that programme. Primary and secondary schools were offered the opportunity to obtain a complete computer package at half price, with teacher training support also available. Virtually all the country's 6,500 secondary schools and over 27,000 primary schools took part in the scheme.
To consolidate our investment and to take the matter forward, my Department is offering support for the purchase of educational software. The pace of change in the new technologies is fast and the Government will continue to look for ways in which innovation might be exploited for the benefit of the education sector. One good example is the approach that has been taken to interactive 561 video. We have made available £1.5 million to support the two-year educational interactive video project, which is examining the potential of interactive videos as a teaching aid throughout the education system. A number of video discs have been developed and they are now being used by schools on a trial basis. The results are being fed back for evaluation and for the purpose of further development.
The Government have also introduced a number of measures to increase the number of teachers of IT and related subjects. These include initiatives to attract mature students and to encourage students to switch to IT from non-shortage subjects.
However short the time available to me is, I cannot forbear from seeking to put into perspective some of the adverse comments that have been made by Opposition Members about the position of IT and the country's record on it. We had the usual whinges from Opposition Members, and I shall cite one statistic to try to put things into some perspective. The United Kingdom's share of exports, when set against OECD exports generally, increased during the last year for which records are available by about 14 per cent. There was a year-on-year increase, and that is a measure of the extent to which the United Kingdom industry can hold up its head when comparison is made with other information technologies in the western world.
It would be churlish of me to fail to mention an important issue that is drawn specifically to the attention of the House in the motion. In bringing the motion to the attention of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel is continuing to play a distinguished role in the work of the parliamentary information technology committee. Awareness of IT as a whole is an important part of its work, and I endorse my hon. Friend's comments and pay tribute to the valuable contribution which the committee makes.
I also acknowledge the debt of the whole House to my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Sir. I. Lloyd) for his sterling work as chairman of PITCOM during the past six years. Under his leadership, the committee has developed an important role as a forum which brings together hon. Members on both sides of both Houses with members of the information technology industry to discuss matters of common interest and concern.
The Government welcome all attempts to raise the profile of information technology and to promote consideration of issues that face the industry. PITCOM's activities are very much in line with those aims. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will wish to join me in acknowledging the contribution that PITCOM makes to parliamentary awareness of the potential, impact and challenges of information technology today.
§ It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.