HC Deb 11 July 1997 vol 297 cc1179-244

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Betts.]

9.38 am
The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle)

One of the questions tabled by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) asked what is the information society. That remains an open question—the debate is about exactly that. Perhaps our discussion across the Chamber will clarify the matter.

It is almost commonplace to say that we have moved from the industrial age to the information age. As we move into the next century, we will be carried forward into the age of the digital economy. Some describe it as moving from the age of manpower to the age of the brainpower economy. There have been incredible developments in computing and telecommunications and we are still in the midst of those step changes.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in the debate. I did not mean to interrupt him so early, but he has just said something rather interesting. Will he confirm that it is the Government's view that we are now in the post-industrial age? Is he speaking for the Government when he says that?

Mr. Battle

That question is amazing. I will explain later in my speech why I believe that we are living in a new age—the digital age, which takes us even beyond the information age—and the answer will be spelt out. Sometimes, however, generic terms are used loosely. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not appreciate the pace of change. In the early 1950s, when I was a youngster, one could look on the back of a cornflakes box and see predictions about what our lives would be like. I recall predictions that we would move between buildings through glass bubbles, but I do not recall anything about mobile telephones, which were not even conceived of in the 1950s. That demonstrates the type of qualitative shift that has occurred.

The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) asked whether we have left the industrial age. There is still plenty of industry around, but we are being carried forward to new, unanticipated shapes, and that is the important aspect. Twenty years ago, who would have imagined that there would be a computer on everyone's desk, much less the ability to communicate on the move or to access or send e-mail while on a train journey? Those technologies have the potential to be far reaching in their implications, to transform our lives and to take us from the industrial age—as it has classically been described in the history books—to the information and digital age.

Consider the incredible potential of the Internet and the world wide web, for example. Only a few years ago, it was the exclusive domain of a few physicists and a laboratory tool. Today, 50 million people in 150 countries are connected to the information super-highway. It is projected that, by 2000, which is only a few years away, there will be 250 million subscribers.

When people ask me about the information society—the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham asked me about it today—I sometimes say that I have some doubts about using that term, because it is rather loose. The term underlines, however, the important social and economic dimensions of the information revolution. To date, the information age has been about access to vast amounts of information; entertainment at the touch of a button; and the ability to interact with and manipulate large quantities of data, to conduct remote transactions, to communicate on the move, to participate in distance learning and electronic commerce and to send and receive e-mail. Mobile solutions are the future.

There was a great communications revolution 450 years ago with the advent of the Gutenberg printing press, which made one book available to a mass market. Within the next generation, every book ever written, every symphony ever composed, every film ever made and every painting ever painted will be, with the click of a mouse, within the reach of all children. That is the type of step change that is occurring. I am even tempted to say that the next generation of children will communicate their own symphonies to other children through the new information technologies.

The information society is interactive and it has real potential to transform the economic and social fabric of our lives in the next century. Already, we can buy books and clothing on the Internet, where we can also buy our shopping from supermarkets or obtain business advice. We can start a company today and be dealing in Japan, Germany or Brazil next week, all without leaving our home. It once took years to achieve such goals.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

I had hoped to be able to congratulate the Government on being part of the move towards making information much more accessible via e-mail. I have performed a small search and discovered that, a few e-mail directories ago, one Minister was listed and that, in the subsequent directory, three Ministers and Departments were listed. In the directory just published by the new Government, however, the trend is backwards. The Government must be the only organisation who have fewer people on e-mail now than before. What will the Government do to ensure that every Minister and Ministry can be contacted by e-mail?

Mr. Battle

I hope that I am on that directory, and I shall check to ensure that I am.

Mr. Bruce

indicated assent.

Mr. Battle

I was on e-mail as a Back Bencher, and I have three e-mail numbers now—for my duties as a constituency Member of Parliament and as a Minister—which causes some confusion. I am very keen to promote e-mail as a means of communication and access. I am tempted to say that I will check the directory. Although every Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry is on e-mail, I cannot speak for other Departments. I will check the directory and encourage all Ministers to be listed on e-mail so that they can be contacted through it.

Mr. Bruce

The Minister will know that a confidential directory is sent to all hon. Members—because of our current Tory-lookalike Government, it has a blue cover—which shows that the Department of Transport no longer has an e-mail address. Although most Ministers are on e-mail, hon. Members are not allowed to know their e-mail addresses. It is, therefore, rather difficult for us to communicate with them.

Mr. Battle

I will examine the situation and ensure that the addresses are there. I should add only that, when I first subscribed to e-mail, my system was clogged because 2,500 American high school students sent me an e-mail asking about politics in Britain. E-mail does not solve all communications problems. In principle, however, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should sharpen up accessibility and the openness of government. E-mail is a means of accomplishing that goal and we will examine ways in which to use it.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

While the hon. Gentleman is improving availability of information and access to Ministers, will he do me and every other hon. Member a favour by carefully examining access to Treasury Ministers? Like my Opposition colleagues, I received a letter from the Treasury stating that hon. Members should not write directly to Treasury Ministers but should take up matters with senior officials in relevant Departments. That does not sit very well with the Minister's comments today or the spirit of open access and open government. I therefore hope that, today, he will undertake to examine the Treasury's position and to report back to the House. I should be very grateful if he will write to me on that matter.

Mr. Battle

I cannot take responsibility for every Department simply because it is on the super-highway. I will, however, look into the situation and ask my colleagues at the Treasury to make a check of their communications systems. We are talking about communications. If we simply go electronic and never again talk to one another, it will be a bit of a disaster.

I have asked whether I cannot have a virtual red box rather than having to carry around masses of paper. I think that I was in a better position on using computers before the general election than I was after it. In all seriousness, however, there are questions about exchange and confidentiality, about which I will say more later in my speech. Nevertheless, we believe that we should be as open and accessible as possible and that we should use the new communications technologies as a means of achieving those goals. I will look into the matters raised by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham.

The challenge of the new technologies will be to harness their potential for the benefit of all—which is a short, three-letter word that I am determined to prove is absolutely inclusive. We will have to work together to include everyone. We should have an open debate on the developments to ensure that the new technologies are not only for technophiles, leaving others as if they are technologically challenged, lost in computer acronyms and jargon or even afraid to turn a computer on because they fear that they may get an electric shock.

In practice, global information networks are transforming our world, drawing people closer together through global communications. A vision of a global information society is now starting to take shape, making possible profound economic and social changes that are transforming and diffusing through all realms of human activity. The coherent developments of an information society have become essential to our competitiveness, to our employment and to improving of our quality of life. It is therefore vital that the benefits of the information society are available for all.

My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry underlined those points in her first major policy speech. She said: The information superhighway is the means of delivering to all our people improved access to information, services and markets. The mass markets of the future will first be identified for those who provide access to the technology for the mass of their people, and opportunity follows that understanding. We want to ensure that every member of the British public is ready to embrace the information society and to use and realise the benefits of information and communication technologies. That means raising awareness of the opportunities available through the new technologies, and the use of technology to get information for learning, work, industry and, indeed, for fun and leisure, to help children and to help communicate—I am tempted to say "to communicate more intensively"—with families and friends anywhere in the world.

Global information networks can contribute to resolving economic, social and political problems in new and imaginative ways. The networks can be used to rid society of social exclusion. We can raise awareness and use new technology as a tool to improve the quality of human relations and human communication.

I must insist that we continue to regard technology as a tool. It is not about machines simply transmitting electronic signals to machines out of human control. The real value lies in linking people together, not in joining up the technology. It is about human communication, which should be an ordinary, every-day, interactive, personal experience. It should be person-centred. I am tempted to reply to the advert, "Yes, it's good to talk, but it's even better if someone is listening."

Using technology should be an inclusive human activity. Raising awareness, providing access and enhancing skills are the key themes for the Government's IT for all programme which is run by the Department of Trade and Industry. IT for all is a partnership with the private, public and voluntary sectors. It provides the public with the opportunity to try out and get involved in the information society. As we know, business is already working to increase awareness and give people a chance to try out the new technologies, which should bring home to them the way in which IT might improve business performance and the quality of our lives.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

Has my hon. Friend seen the very interesting letter in The Times this morning written by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas) about the job-creating potential of digital television and the extent to which it is a way of moving jobs and creativity outside the great wen—London—to which too much wealth has flowed in the past 18 years? Technology can help the spread of jobs and wealth across our nation.

Mr. Battle

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I was going to deal with that point. We do not need to be concentrated in the same place; mobility is the key to spreading opportunities more widely than ever before. I shall emphasise the human possibilities of technology before dealing with the economic potential.

The Equality project in my city of Leeds aims to assist people with severe disabilities. It uses new technology to counter social isolation and enables people to find out how standard IT equipment and software packages can be adapted to be made accessible to them. People who cannot even use their hands to move a mouse can use speech to direct a cursor on the screen, which helps them to communicate. Someone confined to a wheelchair said that a computer could literally open new doors. That is a real improvement in someone's quality of life.

Mrs. Gillan

While the hon. Gentleman is on the subject of disability, when are the Government going to implement the second part of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which directly involves new technologies?

Mr. Battle

I cannot respond as generously to that question as I have to others. The House had a great struggle to get the previous Government to take disability seriously. In opposition, we made incredible efforts to force the Government to take access for people with disability seriously. We got a half-baked Bill in return, but we shall work to improve access in any way we can, as will my colleagues in other Departments. We do not need any lectures on that topic.

I was talking about access to new technologies. I have visited projects in Leeds and also one in Norris Green in Liverpool's inner city. There is a centre in a library where people of all ages call in, looking for information on training, education and leisure. People who have no IT training, background or skills are using use the new technologies. I saw older people looking up and writing their family histories using computers. I met a young man in his twenties who suffered from dyslexia, but said that, because he could now use a computer, he could literally write. They are the benefits of technology.

I must mention my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) who set up an organisation called Cambridge Opportunity Links. It is a scheme to help parents who are returning to work after a spell looking after their children to get information on jobs, training and the availability of child care. It helps them calculate whether they will be better off in work or on benefit. The equation is worked out using new technology.

My hon. Friend's organisation collects the information and puts it together on easy-to-use web pages so that parents can access it at public access points in libraries, community centres or citizens advice bureaux. It enables a lone parent in Cambridgeshire to get information on jobs, training courses and child care, and work out how she can be better off in work. At the end of this month, I believe that it will be possible to get access to that system in local Benefits Agency offices in a touch-screen kiosk. That is precisely the kind of imaginative use of technology that we ought to promote. I congratulate my hon. Friend on taking that initiative, and I hope that many others will imitate her example.

IT has to be for all, and it can be for all. It must be inclusive, and not divide society into the information rich and the information poor. By working with large and small companies, community groups and local authorities, we can make a step change and build an inclusive community. For example, new IT networking can enable the unemployed literally to enter the labour market on screen and find a job. British Aerospace has already set up a model on the Internet which enables graduates in engineering to screen and scan all the companies in Britain and Europe to find out what they can apply for. In other words, technology can open up the labour market. Yes, it improves and enriches the quality of life, but, at the same time, it is a tool for empowerment.

I deal now with the need to make the networks and infrastructure easy to use, but also with the need to develop the economic potential, a point to which my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) referred. The electronics and IT sector is a substantial part of British industry. The hon. Member for Sevenoaks asked about the post-industrial age. I am tempted to remind him that industry includes making the telecommunications and computing equipment. It is part of industrial activity to build that infrastructure.

With a total output of £36 billion, growing at around 7 per cent. a year, our electronics and IT equipment sector is the sixth largest in the world and it is a major source of innovation. Eight of the top 20 investors in research and development in Britain are electronics, IT and telecommunications companies. In other words, we have strengths in specialist software, broadcasting technology, optel electronics, fibre-optic technology and semi-conductor design. Britain has more inward investment in those sectors than any other country in Europe.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said, the potential for regional development as a result of that technology is important as Britain moves forward as a leading European manufacturer of semi-conductors, personal computers, mobile phones and television sets.

Mr. Ian Bruce

I congratulate the Government on the excellence of British industry in that sphere. The hon. Gentleman will know that, before the general election, the present Prime Minister made a deal with BT to wire up all the schools in the land. In return, the Government would give BT the opportunity to broadcast television and films down its own telephone network. Will the Minister tell the House how that deal is being taken forward and whether he feels that it might be undermining all the investment that others have been making in our networks?

Mr. Battle

There was no deal in the terms described by the hon. Gentleman. Discussions on ensuring that schools are wired up are taking place with British Telecom and others, together with Oftel. The hon. Gentleman will have read about that in the press. Telecommunications are not new. What was going on during the past 18 years? Unlike the former Government, we do not claim credit for every business investment in Britain, as if we politicians had built it. We congratulate industry on its developments, innovation and potential.

I do not want the picture of strength to be compressed into complacency. We are talking about the fastest-growing sector of global business in which there is fierce international competition. The competitive edge of telecommunications and information technology companies can be lost overnight. Product lead times can be measured in months. I am told that a software idea has a half-life of about six months. We have to work very hard just to hold positions in the incredibly fast-moving world markets.

Significant progress has already been made in the development of the network of networks to make up the United Kingdom's information super-highway. British Telecom has already invested more than £28 billion in infrastructure and equipment since 1984. The cable companies have invested £7 billion since 1991, with about another £6 billion scheduled to complete the existing franchise bill. Despite that investment in programmes brought forward by a wide variety of operators, I am sure that the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) agrees that there is still some way to go before the opportunities to use the infrastructure are available to all members of society on an equal footing. Our aim is to ensure a truly national network of networks to benefit the whole of society.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

The training and education provided in schools are vital to give people opportunities to use new possibilities in IT. Does the Minister appreciate that many schools constantly struggle to acquire the necessary hardware and software and to maintain it, which is also important? There is often pump-priming finance, but then nothing to replace the equipment a few years down the track. Do the Government have firm plans to provide the additional capital or revenue support for education authorities to enable schools to be properly equipped for the new age?

Mr. Battle

If I get a chance between the welcome interventions, I shall spell out later some details about the national grid for learning, when I shall respond fully to that question.

At this stage, I should like to mention the IT for all initiatives that already exist. Some 150 private, public and voluntary sector organisations are working together, including the education sector, to provide opportunities for all citizens—yes, youngsters as well—to get to grips with new technologies. We must ensure that the potential impact of the technological revolution on competitiveness is built through at business level. Without the next generation—the children and the youngsters—understanding it, we shall miss out again. I shall spell out later how we intend to take that forward.

Businesses can improve their timing, quality control, choice and ability and can erode restrictions on time and place by using technology to improve their business advantage. I am concerned about the need to get technology not just into schools but into businesses, particularly small businesses.

I remember visiting a company in my constituency that made automotive parts. When I visited the workshop, the guy could not even deliver a proper bill. When I asked why he did not put the information on computer, he said, "Because a computer is for an office. I work with oily hands and would contaminate a computer if it was in the workshop." A computer has a plastic casing. As long as oil does not get on the brains of the computer, it is possible to put one in a workshop to deliver invoices.

The workshop has now done that and has improved its stock control and invoicing. The man then asked, "Why do I need to send out paper? I could do the transactions and the orders on the Internet." That is a low-level technological approach, but many businesses are not even at that primary stage. We have to work on that agenda to ensure that businesses and commerce take advantage of new technology now. That is part of the work of the Department of Trade and Industry, with the benchmarking study, the spectrum strategy consultants and the information society initiative business information line. Information on all that is available in the Library.

Those initiatives need to be promoted more widely because there is a low uptake of new technology by small and medium-sized enterprises. We must address that gap and ensure that they use the opportunities to be competitive. Up to 50 per cent. of all UK employment will be in companies of fewer than 50 employees. It is vital that they use new technology and computing to lift them up a step change, to maintain competitive advantage, to increase their contribution to the economy and to survive in the future. The business opportunities are sometimes not spelt out and realised by business. We shall continue and enhance the Department's programme for business, which is part of the information society initiative.

The university for industry and the Internet enterprise zones are other means of bringing the education sector and the business sector together. We are all aware of what is known as the millennium time bomb. As we tick towards the next century, two digits could wipe out a century, with computers being unable to cope with the change to the next century. People may have to get ahead in reprogramming their computers, buying in the advice now, because the closer we get to the end of the century, the more expensive such advice will become. The problem must be taken seriously. I hope that the efforts of the Department, supplemented by efforts in the business arena, will ensure that the problem is addressed and people are not caught out and do not have to pay a heavy price.

We must ensure that excellence in the basic science is translated into business success. The UK has a world-renowned science and engineering base, but that expertise is often not converted through business into products and services competing in a global market. It is vital for businesses to look ahead to the medium and longer term and explore the potential contribution that developments in science, technology and engineering can make to their success. That is why the foresight programme must be further promoted. The importance of IT and telecommunications must be stressed in that programme.

Information technology will provide new opportunities and challenges, and will offer changes to the way in which business is done to develop the competitive edge. Even in the research sector of the work of the Office of Science and Technology, we must not only promote existing technologies, but get ahead of new developments. We shall also work positively in the European Union to take forward international collaborations. I mentioned the Equality project in Leeds, which is part of a European Union project involving the Netherlands and Newcastle. International collaboration is an important means of taking things forward. Local authorities are also important. They have carried out some of the most imaginative developments.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asked an important question, to which I shall now respond more fully. The success of the information technology, electronics and communications sector depends heavily on people having proper skills that they can use later. Training people, increasing understanding of technology and using it to maximise competitive advantage are crucial. That is why the Government will pay a full role in providing an education system for all which equips people with the confidence and basic skills necessary for work in tomorrow's industries. That is why two of our new and innovative proposals—the national grid for learning and the university for industry—are such vital initiatives.

Those proposals are crucial in the drive to create an environment and a culture in which employers play their part, together with employees, in encouraging continual learning, relearning, training and adapting to the challenges of rapidly changing technologies and markets. Education is the key to building the information society and the global information networks of the future. That is why we have made literacy in information and communication technologies a central plank in our manifesto commitments. It is vital for children to be literate in information and communication technologies. They need the skills that are necessary to use the new tools in their work in the new millennium.

Mr. David Heath

Welcome though those projects are, in the primary sector there are still an awful lot of schools that struggle desperately to provide equality of opportunity for children at the earliest ages. Jumble sales are not a proper way of financing IT facilities in primary schools. I am asking that we ensure that it should not be just those children whose parents are sufficiently well off to provide a computer at home who benefit from the advantages and opportunities that the Government are, quite properly, promoting later in their school career.

Mr. Battle

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, which I accept. His comment should be echoed more widely than just in the Chamber. It is vital that we get the whole infrastructure right and we take that point seriously on board.

We want to ensure—this relates to the point made by the hon. Member for South Dorset—that we link schools, libraries and colleges that are connected to the Internet. I accept that that requires infrastructure. Our national grid for learning takes account of that point as does the university for industry, which will link industry and the potential for life-long learning. That also needs investment in infrastructure if it is to happen. Those initiatives will bring together Government, industry and education and will create a new virtual resource as long as we have the infrastructure in position. That point is accepted.

Having the national grid for learning on the Internet will enhance teachers' skills. The grid will bring them up-to-date materials, and pupils will have access to high-quality educational materials. As youngsters of the new generation begin to take IT for granted, they will begin to think that the Internet is passé. They will use it for pragmatic reasons and to get the information they need, and teachers will have to catch up. Teachers will be learning from pupils for once. They will have to learn how to switch on and use computers. We shall have to train new teachers to ensure that they are all literate in the new telecommunications and we shall have to retrain existing teachers. The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts will contribute to that process.

We want to connect up schools, colleges and libraries, working with the cable companies, British Telecom and other telecommunications companies, and we want to keep the access charges as low as possible—a point raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. We want to develop plans for public-private partnerships to deliver educational software and services to pupils, teachers and other learners. We want to remove barriers to learning and set up opportunities even for those with special educational needs to increase the availability of information.

The national grid for learning will provide curriculum support for schools. It will help teachers' development and it will extend life-long learning, whether home based, through further education or through specific training for employment opportunities. The grid will link closely with our plans for study centres funded through the national lottery and through the university for industry. We hope that museums and galleries can be linked up so that there are many opportunities for learning.

Mrs. Gillan

I am delighted by the plans for information technology in schools which the Minister is outlining. They will build on what the previous Conservative Government did. Will he now tell the House how much money is going into the programme?

Mr. Battle

I cannot tell the hon. Lady the answer today. We are working up the programme and we shall spell out the details later. As always, budgets will be put before the House. We have already said that we will invest in this area and that it has been included in our Budget programmes.

Mrs. Gillan

How much?

Mr. Battle

The amount will be rather more than the hon. Lady's Government invested during their whole period in office. I will give her a practical example. I recall pressing the previous Government very hard to invest in the joint academic network—JANET—and its counterpart, the super-JANET. It was us, when we were in opposition, who pushed for investment there. We see the potential for network technologies in United Kingdom education and we will ensure that they are properly backed up.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)

I have sat listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman enumerating the policies he inherited. Many of the things in the grid that he is talking about are already happening simply because of private sector investment. That is exactly why Oftel announced an agreement with the cable industry on fixed-price packages for ISDN connections to schools. That programme is under way. That is why the profits of companies making the machines have been rising year in and year out, despite the constraints on school budgets. They have found ways in which to enable schools to use IT as part of a radical restructuring of the educational process. All I ask the Minister to acknowledge is that he is building on very solid foundations.

Mr. Battle

The hon. Gentleman was responsible for this area in the previous Government.

Mr. MacShane

A distinguished part.

Mr. Battle

I compliment the hon. Gentleman on the foundations he built. We want to see the process enhanced and developed—

Mr. Ian Taylor

With the private sector.

Mr. Battle

I accept that. The hon. Gentleman played a distinguished part, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said. I would like to see the private-public partnership enhanced, built and developed a bit more to ensure that new technology reaches all parts of our society and not just little exclusive enclaves. We need to extend the process and to put together new forms of public-private partnership. We should network all the higher education institutions and that process should include publicly funded research institutions as well. Piecemeal work went on under the previous Government, but we did not have the integrated, joined-up thinking that is needed to connect the whole lot together and to take us into the new millennium. I publicly acknowledge the contribution of the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) and I am pleased to build on it, but I hope that he will acknowledge that we need to develop the process further.

Information technology will be one of the key strands—the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham referred to this—of our better government programme, which was announced last month by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Information technology will inform much of what we intend to do in government because it underpins how we relate to local communities, to citizens as a whole and to businesses large and small. We are talking about open government and communications.

Information technology enables us to use post offices, public libraries and citizens advice bureaux to the best advantage. We must ensure that assisted access to electronic services is available throughout the nooks and crannies of our society. The health service is another area where there are exciting possibilities for the use of information technology products and services.

As we move into the new millennium, the development of on-line services is creating a new environment for communication between businesses and their customers. Businesses have begun to use that environment for advertising and selling services and products. Consumers use on-line services via the Internet to buy things, to obtain banking and financial services and to buy tickets. Already, a mass market is developing, using and stimulated by interactive digital television.

As we see the convergence of televisions, computers and telecommunications, we see increased buying and selling over the network; we are moving into the digital age of electronic commerce. That brings with it a new series of issues that we will need to address in the House.

We need to build an infrastructure that we can trust and use with confidence. Some communication between human beings will always have to be confidential, so confidentiality is crucial. As we move towards the new global information networks with the potential for electronic commerce, we need a clear legal framework and a proper system—for example, for confidential digital signatures. That would prevent fraud in transactions. We need good information technology security to protect users and suppliers. We must also tackle offensive and illegal material on the Internet. We require a clear, predictable, international legal framework and we must ensure that it is applied on line.

Within those developments, we must ensure confidentiality and integrity in transactions, and the new science of cryptography—using secret codes to keep messages secure—will be vital.

The previous Government issued a consultation paper to which the hon. Member for Esher and Walton invited responses. We have continued with that work. We shall work through the replies and prepare our response. We are making progress on the basis of the work that the hon. Gentleman did in government. Once again, I compliment him on having the foresight to tackle an issue that we need to address.

In the medium term, we need to establish a competitive framework to take account of media convergence. The gradual erosion of distinctions between the previously discrete sectors of telecommunications, broadcasting and IT will require a regulatory structure for the next century. There is much work to be done.

In closing, I am reminded by a remark of the French poet, Paul Valéry. He said that we can be certain that the future is not what it used to be. The world of new information and communication technologies exemplifies that. In 1968, an engineer from IBM's advanced computer systems division said of the microchip, "Yes, but what is it good for?"

We have spoken of the half-life of Internet products being only six months, so the pace of change is momentous. It is unlikely to slow down. In fact, it will probably increase. The skill will be to ride the wave of change, seize the opportunities and be confident that we can shape change and the future. We need to ensure that the little word "all" is all-inclusive and build an inclusive society that provides opportunities for all by making use of the new potential.

Our children are already moving into the digital future. They are quickly mastering the tools that they will need for the new century. Some of us need to catch up. The Government have a crucial role to play in optimising the benefits of new technology as we approach the millennium. In partnership with business, we must not only promote the use and development of the information society and its products and services, but ensure the future competitiveness of our business, industry and commerce.

We must ensure that the future quality of life of citizens is improved by the potential benefits of new technologies. The hon. Member for Sevenoaks put it in tabloid terms earlier, but I agree that we have been an industrial society, as it was classically defined; we are now in the information age and we are moving forward into the digital economy of the future.

10.22 am
Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

In the usual way we would have congratulated Ministers at the Department of Trade and Industry for securing a Friday debate when we first heard that there was to be a slot for trade and industry and we wondered which aspect of the Department's work would be highlighted.

We wondered whether we would be hearing about the consequences for industry of the Budget and just how hard Ministers had tried to fight the Treasury's raid on business pension funds. We thought that we might be told about the current state of the economy. Just this week, the Engineering Employers Federation warned that the damaging combination of rising interest rates and the ever-strengthening pound had serious consequences for manufacturing industry.

We thought perhaps that the Government might explain how, within just nine weeks, the country has been plunged into an extremely damaging strike. We thought that the Deputy Chief Whip might have selected for debate early-day motion 216, which was signed by so many Labour Members, calling for intervention in the British Airways strike. Then we might have heard from the Minister of State whether the Government backed the trade union that sponsors the Prime Minister or his favourite business man who is chief executive of the airline.

Instead, we are debating the information society and I welcome that. It is good that the House can look ahead a little and take stock of the technological change that confronts us. As the Minister correctly said, the Government have a large role to play.

The Opposition certainly relish the debate. We have a proud record in encouraging all aspects of information technology. That record would not have been possible had it not been built on the firm foundations of privatisation and liberalisation. Unlike the Labour party, we believe in an information society not for its own sake, but for what it can do to empower people. Before I address each of those three points in turn, I should like to welcome my hon. Friends to the debate.

I am particularly pleased that the House is to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), the Minister's predecessor. He made an enormous contribution to the interface between the Government and information technology. He was the Minister who provided real leadership and coherence to the Government's programmes and it would have been nice had the Minister of State acknowledged that my hon. Friend launched the information society initiative and was the first to seriously warn about the millennium bug. He was an excellent Minister and we look forward to hearing from him later today.

The Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry (Mrs. Barbara Roche)

The hon. Gentleman is making an extraordinary speech. He appears to have denied the importance of the subject and has underlined that by the fact that he obviously was not listening when my right hon. Friend the Minister of State paid a generous tribute to his predecessor. Was the hon. Gentleman not listening at all?

Mr. Fallon

We were certainly listening. It is nice to have that generous tribute reconfirmed. My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton championed the information society. We look forward to his speech and that of my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce).

The Conservatives have a good record in these matters. It is encapsulated in the information society initiative which brought together the programme for business, information technology for all, our support for digital technology, the super-highway initiative at the Department for Education and Employment, Government Direct, the millennium ICT project and so on.

First, the initiative understood that the super-highway would be in a free market. It is not and cannot be a single, state-controlled, state-funded, fibre network going into every home. As Sir Peter Bonfield once said, it is rather a network of networks—a patchwork of interconnecting links, using mixed technology.

Secondly, the initiative properly reflected the choice that we want to result from the new technology. It built in from the start not provider preference but customer choice. Thirdly, it was future-friendly. It understood—because we understood—just how markets work and that it is not for Government to specify a particular technology, but rather for the market to sort out competing technologies and properly test them. My goodness, if we had had a Labour Government in control for the past 18 years we would be back in the age of Prestel or the Minitel system that we were offered by the French Government. Who knows? We might have had a British computer corporation subsidised with billions of pounds of taxpayers' money assembling some mini-Battle out in some assisted area. The information society initiative was right in that it stressed not the kit itself but the uses to which it should be put. The application of hardware, software and skills really mattered rather than the kit or the technology.

We bequeathed the information society programme of some £35 million of new money spread over four years to the new Government. We shall therefore want to know before this debate closes whether that new money still stands or whether it has been caught up in the Department's long-term spending review. We shall also want to know—my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) has been pressing the Minister for an answer—whether the money earmarked for the millennium ICT programme still stands and whether the budget lines for technology foresight still stand.

If the Under-Secretary does not know the answers to those questions now, it is only fair to give her notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham will be pressing her on the matters. What is required urgently is not joined-up thinking but joined-up money.

Mr. Battle


Mr. Fallon

If the Minister is going to confirm that all those programmes that are funded by new money still stand, it would at least be of some reassurance.

Mr. Battle

That is no problem. The budget that we inherited stands and it will be carried through. Only this morning, I honoured a scheme that was a commitment, and funding has been allocated to it. There is no reduction in or cutting of any scheme that we inherited. We made that absolutely plain when we decided that we would accept the parameters of the budget that we inherited. The schemes will carry on—yes, including technology foresight. The hon. Gentleman may have missed the fact that we have made three announcements on technology foresight since the election.

Mr. Fallon

It is nice to have that reassurance about the existing programmes. I shall therefore move on to the two new programmes that have been announced.

First, there is the national grid for learning. I was not quite clear from the Minister's speech, to which I listened very attentively, whether money for that programme was to be made available in the current financial year or whether, as he seemed to imply—I shall give him the opportunity to correct his comment—no new money will be available until the next financial year.

The second new programme is the university for industry. The House will be surprised to hear that that has an initial budget of only £5 million. If that budget stands, the university will easily be the tiniest one ever to have been established in this country. Will the Under-Secretary say just what funding is likely to be available when that university for industry is at full stretch?

Mr. Battle

I know that the hon. Gentleman is younger and handsome, so he may have forgotten that exactly the same remarks were made about the Open university. It was said that it was being launched on a shoestring budget—but look at it now.

Mr. Fallon

If the university for industry is to be serious and successful, it will have to attract the kind of resources that were devoted to the Open university by the previous Government over the past 18 years. If we had that commitment from the Minister, we might have something worth talking about. What is not worth talking about is a university funded by only £5 million. I defy the Minister to nominate any university in this country that can survive on such a budget. Ministers really cannot have it both ways. If they want to share the credit for our programmes and to develop new ones, they will have to confirm existing and new budgets. Otherwise, they should come clean and admit that such programmes are possible only under a Conservative Government.

On the subject of existing programmes, I was a little surprised that the Minister did not say very much about our important initiative, Government Direct. He did of course stress the importance of new technology embracing the public services, so perhaps he was referring to Government Direct when he made those remarks. The programme was pioneered by my colleague Roger Freeman, who was one of the unsung heroes of bringing the Government closer to business. He took full responsibility for £2 billion-worth of spending on technology in central Government.

I was a little surprised to find yesterday at the Government Direct exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall, which I hope my hon. Friends have had time to visit, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster posing in front of the cameras. My hon. Friends will recall that, just three months ago, when a statement was made on Government Direct, the then shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), dismissed the programme as a "last-gasp technology gimmick". Yet, his successor was at the exhibition yesterday preening himself in front of the cameras.

Government Direct can of course be developed. It points the way to fresh challenges. The key question is not just that of confidentiality but the amount of information that is made available to the public. I understand that a White Paper is to be published later this month, although the Minister did not confirm that. I also understand that legislation is a very long way off. I commend to the Minister a check on the current state of the open government site on the worldwide web. I think that he will find that it may need a little updating.

The amount of direct access to Government is of course something that we can debate. The whole area is neatly encapsulated by a document which was published recently, which I hope the Minister has seen, "Citizen Direct", written by Karen Swinden, Tim Jackson and William Heath. One does not have to agree with all of it to appreciate the fresh angles that they take to the whole relationship between citizens and their Government.

The final area of Government activity in new technologies that I want to highlight is one that the Minister referred to: information technology in schools. When I was fortunate enough to serve in government, I had responsibility for this area for a couple of years. I welcome the fact that the Government are continuing their commitment to developing such new technologies. Since 1979, we have spent more than £1 billion on encouraging technologies in schools.

I welcome the continuance of the super-highway initiative by the Department for Education and Employment, but I am slightly wary—and was slightly wary in government—of simply piloting in schools all the new technologies as they come along. I was a little disturbed to hear the Prime Minister simply suggest—I think it was when he was Leader of the Opposition—that every child in the country should have a lap-top computer. We were careful in government always to pilot the newer technologies and always to assess their educational as well as their technological impact.

Mrs. Roche

I am following the hon. Gentleman's remarks on children and access to computers with some interest. In talking about the legacy left to us by the previous Government, what does he have to say about the fact that 40 per cent. of computers in schools are five years out of date, rendering them obsolete by today's standards?

Mr. Fallon

If the hon. Lady had studied the matter, she would know that we have the best record in Europe of introducing computers into schools. We did the best that we could with the resources available to us. If she is pledging to devote new DTI money to the Department for Education and Employment, I am sure that my former colleagues in that Department would welcome it.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich. North)

Will the hon. Gentleman please comment on the previous Government's initiative of inducing schools to collect vouchers from shops to buy computers? How many computers were bought by that method? In my experience many schools depended on Tesco and Sainsbury vouchers to finance their computers.

Mr. Fallon

We welcomed any contributions, because we never regarded this simply as a matter of state funding.

We encouraged all schools to maximise their resources and involve parents in fund raising. I welcome the contribution that some of our major companies have made to encourage technology in schools. We never fell into the trap of believing that those new technologies should be introduced into schools for their own sake, or into accepting that computer literacy was a substitute for real literacy. We regarded those new developments as tools towards better education and higher skills.

Mr. Ian Bruce

Was not the Under-Secretary's intervention extraordinary given that the previous Government had such a good record in providing computers in schools and not a penny has been announced today to improve matters? My majority was the lowest against a Labour candidate. Many of my constituents voted for a Labour Government believing that they would provide more money. Is it not extraordinary that we should have a debate on this matter yet not get a single penny from the DTI to improve computing in schools?

Mr. Fallon

My hon. Friend's intervention is welcome. I have already warned the Under-Secretary—I thought it only fair to do so—that when my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham winds up the debate, she will be relentless in pressing for answers on that area of funding. We need an answer on the national grid for learning, and any further answer on the budget for the university for industry would be welcome. On the Under-Secretary's final point about improving and modernising the state of computers in schools, we want to know exactly what contribution the DTI budget will make to the Department for Education and Employment. The hon. Lady introduced that topic and she can certainly answer those questions.

Mrs. Roche

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fallon

I shall give way just once more, because I have a great deal more ground to cover.

Mrs. Roche

We are all waiting with bated breath for the rest of the ground the hon. Gentleman has to cover.

The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood my earlier intervention. I was talking about the previous Government's record and the legacy that they left us. Explanations there came none.

Mr. Fallon

Let me be clear: the hon. Lady is the Minister; if she thinks that too high a proportion of the computers in our schools are obsolete, it is for her to say what new resources will be committed to solving that problem. If she has to explain every intervention that she makes, we are likely increasingly to suspect that no new money is available.

The previous Government's good record would not have been possible were it not for the privatisation, liberalisation and competition that we fostered throughout the new technologies. Those are the three graces of radical conservatism. Had we not privatised British Telecom in 1984, and encouraged competition, first through the duopolies and then through greater liberalisation, we would not now have the investment which the Minister of State praised: some £29 billion invested by British Telecom; prices lower in real terms by 40 per cent. since 1984; and some of the cheapest telecommunication systems in the western world. Neither would we have had the massive investment by cable companies to which the Minister of State also referred: some £7 billion so far; and a further £5 billion pledged until the end of the century.

The Labour party was wrong to oppose the privatisation of British Telecom if they now seek to claim credit for successful investment 13 years later. It would be nice if, just for the record, the Minister would now admit that the Labour party was wrong to oppose that particular privatisation. I pause waiting for that final admission. We have waited for 13 years; we are content to wait a little longer.

Just as important as privatisation was liberalisation. All consumers can now access the Mercury network. More than 200 local, regional, national and international public telecommunications licences have been issued. The UK's four cellular networks are among the largest in the world and there are now some 150 cable franchises. I hope that the importance of cable will not be dismissed. It is one of the largest new technology industries in this country, indirectly employing some 17,000 people. Investment in it amounts to some £12 billion and an important point for the House to note is that virtually none of it has been financed by the Government. We did not start as a Labour Government would have, with some kind of British cable corporation or cable grants programme. On the contrary, we privatised, liberalised and encouraged the marketplace, and thus secured the investment which the Minister of State has praised.

I have two pieces of advice to offer the Government. The first and most important is that they should not meddle further in those markets. That advice may already be too late. We now hear that there is to be a new regulatory authority, "Ofcom", to bring together the different functions of regulators. We also hear that the principal regulatory formula of RPI minus X may be interfered with. We now have a utilities review, which will lead to months of uncertainty. That shows clearly that Ministers do not understand that the new technology industries need a stable regulatory framework, not some eternal year-long review.

Mr. Battle

The companies themselves asked for a review of regulations, as the hon. Gentleman knows from our consultations in opposition. The energy industry said that we need a framework to address the future because the one that we have already is 13 years old. The telecommunications industries point out that, with convergence, the present regulatory framework is not sufficient. Conservative Members write to me asking whether there will be a regulatory framework. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is totally opposed to one. If so, why does he suggest that the Government should interfere and intervene in, and get a grip on, some areas?

Mr. Fallon

Of course there must be a regulatory framework. We set one up. What the Minister does not understand is that it must be reasonably stable if we are to continue to secure the investment levels which the previous Government delivered.

My second piece of advice to Ministers is not to attempt to second-guess the market by doing cosy deals with preferred providers. However, that advice, too, may be almost too late. The Labour party has made that mistake not in government but when it was in opposition. Some 18 months before the Labour Government came to power, my hon. Friends will recall the spectacular fiasco of the British Telecom schools deal. Let us refresh our memories about that fiasco. I can offer the Minister and my hon. Friends the headline: Blair, BT and Smoke-filled Rooms and an article in which the correspondent explains why the Labour party's sweetheart deal on the super-highway is a mistake. Back in October 1995, the Labour Leader announced with great fanfare that British Telecom was to be given special early permission to provide broadcast services over the national network in return for cabling schools, colleges and libraries.

Our policy was clear. We treated British Telecom and the other British telecommunications operators on an equal basis. They could run individual cable franchises, but they were not allowed to broadcast services over national networks to residential customers until the review in 2001 when we expected competition to have matured. It is important to put it on the record that the operators were allowed to offer full access to businesses and schools.

That arrangement was broken by the then Leader of the Opposition—now the Prime Minister—who decided, in a smoke-filled room, to offer British Telecom privileged access ahead of the other telecommunications operators in return for cabling up schools that it was cabling anyway at almost no charge to the corporation. That deal was heralded in a speech by the current Prime Minister as new Labour, public and private, working together, building a dynamic economy. Within weeks, the deal collapsed. The regulator condemned it as anti-competitive, and the cable companies rightly were up in arms about their investment. It was even attacked by the Labour party's friends at The Independent—not a noted critic of the Labour party—which wrote: Labour is in effect advocating a one-off boost to BT's monopoly power where some of the excess profits are used to do what the state wants, rather than allowing the regulator to ensure that this surplus is passed back to the consumer … Mr. Blair should ditch the BT deal, back customer power not big business, and, above all stop making policies on the hoof. BT has learned a lesson and, with the windfall tax applying to it to the tune of £500 million, it is a very expensive lesson. But I hope that Labour has learned a lesson also—that there is no such thing as a free telephone line. Such deals remind us that this is not new Labour, but old-tech Labour—it is not to be trusted. When it has the chance, Labour always prefers to do cosy deals with single monopoly providers. Confronted with a choice between monopolistic centralisation and private competition, all Labour's old instincts come to the surface. That is the fundamental difference between the Opposition and the Government. The Government see information technology as an opportunity to direct and to control. We see it as an opportunity to liberate and to empower.

The BT deal is in question, as the Minister has conceded. The regulator said last month: This is just not the way to proceed. Perhaps the Under-Secretary would do us the courtesy of telling us in her wind up where we have got to with the BT deal. If she cannot do so today, I hope that she will write to me on this point. What kind of licence might be devised by the regulator? What reassurance will there be for the cable companies?

In the end, the previous Government were proved right about single deals. Precisely because my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton did not fall for such one-off deals and trusted the market, the cable companies were able in January this year to announce a new favourable tariff structure for giving all schools access to the Internet. That was rightly welcomed by my hon. Friend, because it was he who had produced precisely that result by encouraging competition and by nurturing the competitive instinct among the new technology companies. The lesson is clear. We grow great companies in this country not by monopolistic deals done in smoke-filled rooms by the Government, but by making all new companies compete vigorously.

Mr. Ian Bruce

My hon. Friend is right to be concerned about the deal. The Minister did not respond properly to the challenge I gave him about the BT deal. I have a fax from Telewest, a leading cable company, whose concerns about the negotiations with BT about the cost of access by other companies to the network are shared by all cable companies. There is a feeling that a "super-highway"—and not "super-highways"—is to be set up in this country. The Government must respond to the real concerns of the cable industry and others investing in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Fallon

I hope that we will have that response at the end of the debate, and that the Minister will give us news about how the regulator is proceeding with the deal.

Mrs. Roche

With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, he clearly did not listen at all to the remarks by my hon. Friend the Minister of State. The hon. Gentleman said that we do not recognise the language when he talks about the BT deal. Clearly, discussions are continuing between BT and the regulator and we will follow them with interest. In due course, their findings will be made known far and wide.

Mr. Fallon

That is confirmation that the Government are not involved in any of the discussions, despite promoting the deal. We wait to see the results from the regulator, and I can assure the Minister and the Under-Secretary that we shall follow developments from the regulator and the Department when the decision is announced.

It is precisely because the previous Government promoted competition in these markets that we have the degree of inward investment to which the Minister of State has paid tribute. The UK is now the number one target in Europe for inward investment and much of that investment is in the new technologies.

I turn now to the essential philosophical difference between the Opposition and the Government. For us, the whole point of encouraging an information society is not to enable people to collect information, but to use it. We see information technology as a means, not an end. If the Government will the means—as they profess to do—they must also will the end. Giving citizens more information is meaningless if the Government restrict the use to which it is put.

This debate comes at the end of a week in which the Government have announced less choice for consumers. Parents will no longer have a choice of grant-maintained schools, selection in existing schools or new grammar schools. All schools will be reallocated to specified new categories—not by parents, but by the Government. The debate comes at the end of a week in the middle of which the Government published our performance league tables for the national health service. These tables would never have been published by this Government—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. It would help the debate if Ministers would not make remarks from sedentary positions.

Mr. Fallon

The previous Government first published league tables for schools, one of the most important sources of information for parents. Ministers voted against that legislation—the Minister of State himself voted against it in November 1991. When I became Minister for schools, I found that a great deal of information about school performance was locked away in the director of education's safe. Some local education authorities that inspected their schools refused to publish the results. Some that tested reading skills throughout primary schools refused to release the results. We made the results available for all primary and secondary schools.

If the Minister wants to be taken seriously as an advocate of the information society, he should admit that he was wrong to oppose the release of that sort of information on the performance of schools and hospitals to those who want to make choices.

The information society is not a public relations exercise in redefining the relationship between Government and those they govern. It is not an issue of presentation. It is about encouraging choice and, therefore, improving services. It is about encouraging more critical consumers of services, whether those services are public or private, and allowing consumers to act on the information that they have received and use their judgment instead of Ministers or local councils substituting their judgment.

The conclusion of this debate is clear. If one truly believes in an information society, one must also believe in its consequences—that citizens should have faster and better information, that power in our society should be pluralised and that choice should be put where it belongs, which is in the hands of the individual.

The Opposition are proud of our record in information technology. We know that it was possible only because of the privatisation and liberalisation that stood as the founding principles of our economic record and because we believe that if one is committed to markets, competition and to flexible skills and labour, and one is prepared to treat customer choice as the guiding principle, one can truly be respected as an advocate of the information society.

11.1 am

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)

On my way here this morning, I drove past a large advertising hoarding. The message was, "Rock the Net." It was the advertising slogan of a software company specialising in intranets.z I do not expect the House to jump and jive during my speech on the net, but I will try to reflect on one or two of the issues that still leave me intrigued after an enjoyable period as Minister for Science and Technology.

First, I welcome my successor, the Minister, to his job. I think that he has the most stimulating job in the Government. In many cases, information technology is the determining factor in whether this country will be able to cope not only internationally, but in delivering services to our own people.

Looking around the less than crowded Benches this morning, it is sad that more of our colleagues do not fully understand that, whatever their personal interest in this House and whatever reason they have the honour to sit on the green Benches, the information age and the information society with its digital implications mean a transformation in the way in which government and services are delivered. Health, on which the Minister touched, education, which both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) mentioned, transport and virtually every aspect of the services that are delivered to the public, such as social security, will be transformed by the technological revolution that has been occurring in recent years. Our difficulty in trying to encourage our colleagues to take an interest is highlighted by the fact that not many of them will necessarily make a contribution to the debate today. I only hope that they realise that, as times change and by the time we get to the next election, the politics and government of this country will be infused by many aspects of information technology that they may not have fully grasped and that they may have difficulty talking to their much better educated electorates.

Before I get to the wider issues, I must refer to one or two matters that were outstanding when the election determined that I was not to continue as Minister. On the BT non-deal—it was a deal, but it was immediately dressed up the following morning as a non-deal—in October 1995, I hope that the present Government have learnt that although it is an admirable aspiration to connect up schools, an ambition which is shared on both sides of the House, the matter is better left to a stable regulatory situation and market investment than to cosy deals.

Two questions demonstrate what I am trying to say, so I shall not go over the ground that my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks, the Opposition spokesman, covered admirably. First, if it was decided that BT should have earlier access than that laid down in the 1991 arrangements to enable it to use its existing networks for simultaneous broadcast transmission for the BBC and ITV to homes, what licence fee should it be charged for that privilege? One cable industry licence—the franchise in Northern Ireland—cost £14 million, so BT should be charged about £500 million for the privilege of getting earlier access to homes on a national basis. That figure is not totally different from the amount that it will be hit with under the windfall tax. That fee was never part of the deal, however, because it was simply not properly thought through. If one disturbs competitive arrangements, there have to be cost consequences and, perhaps, compensation for the cable industry which bid on a different basis for the cable franchises.

Secondly, it is all very well saying that BT should have free access to schools, but if BT is the dominant provider in the marketplace—despite the fact that there are 150 or more competitors, it is—and if it has access to schools and puts in the connections free of charge, it is logical that all the other suppliers will have no opportunity to compete. They will simply be squeezed out of the market. That raises the interesting question of the costing arrangements for access to the local loop through the connection that BT would have provided free to the school, which I am sure the Director General of Telecommunications is looking into closely—I know how good he is at these matters. It does not take long to realise that the connection is the easy bit. The question is what on-line services are to be provided. What is the cost of switching? What is the effective access charge to the Internet service provider other than BT's own Internet service provision? In other words, there are profound implications. One of the worries of the cable industry and the Internet service providers is that if one has access to the school, one has that core component of access to the local loop, which will be one of the determining factors in where money is made in telecommunications as we move forward.

I raise those questions not to go over ground again, but because they are genuine questions. I am delighted that, in a written answer to me, the Minister stated that the consultation with the Director General of Telecommunications will include the Internet service providers and the cable companies."—[Official Report, 16 June 1997; Vol.296, c. 60.] That is an important safeguard.

Mr. Ian Bruce

I am sure that my hon. Friend already knows this, but the House will be interested to learn that when all the discussion about what special sweetheart deal would have to be done with BT took place, the likes of Cable Tel, a leading cable company, demonstrated that it had already provided—it had needed special clearance from Oftel—a special deal for schools that made Internet connection affordable. That was done without the need for any special deal with the Government of the day.

Mr. Taylor

I am well aware of the details of the Oftel agreement with the cable industry to provide a fixed package for ISDN for schools. One of the problems for schools has always been the slightly open-ended commitment. Costs escalate in proportion to the length of time for which a computer is used. That is why some people in the industry are considering dumb terminals while others are investigating intelligent terminals and storing information.

The schools are confronted with the difficulty of what the budget deficit will be at the end of the year, so a fixed charge for access for the whole year, regardless of usage, was an extremely important development. We need Oftel regulation to ensure that there are proper competitive grounds for the contractor arrangements with schools.

I want to pay a compliment to BT, which has responded extremely well in a competitive environment. It continues to build out its network, with massive investment, not because of any deals with the then Labour Opposition or promises from the then Conservative Government, but as a result of the competitive pressures that it is under with the cable industry moving in on an important area of the local loop. BT responded by upgrading its network.

I am glad that the BT deal with MCI has recently cleared another of the hurdles. My voice is no longer listened to, as I am now in opposition as opposed to being the Minister, but I would like to put it on the record that if the Federal Communications Commission, the regulatory final hurdle in the BT-MCI deal, is attempting to say that it needs to examine more closely whether the United Kingdom is an open and liberalised economy for telecommunications, it really ought to come off its high horse.

As a Minister I was sometimes frustrated because the deeds of the FCC were at some variance with its words, as in the lead-up to the Geneva conclusion of the World Trade Organisation talks on telecommunications liberalisation. Thankfully, however, a successful conclusion was reached.

The United Kingdom is about the most liberalised complex telecommunications economy and it is far more open than others to inward investors and more generous in granting licences for international telecommunications and domestic operations. I hope that the FCC will not take a day longer than necessary to realise that it need have no doubts about the openness of our telecommunications policy. I know that the Minister will continue that liberalised approach in all that he does.

The information society initiative will change the way in which we work, both in this country and globally. There is no need for companies to be concentrated or for employees to work any particular hours in their office. We can network from anywhere because distance is no longer an obstacle. Rural communities can thrive.

There has already been work to ensure that life stays in the highlands and islands rather than being sucked into the big conurbations; that is no longer an inevitability. Life can be brought back to rural communities by tele-working and all the ways in which companies can access, analyse and distribute information instantly.

Companies' relations with other parts of their supply chain or their markets will also be transformed. The world is now a single marketplace. Once it is on-line, even a small company can communicate with people around the world, and if it is sensible and markets itself on the net, with its own web page, it can make itself appear a much more substantial operation. Small companies must be urged to get on-line.

I am delighted to hear that the information society initiative, programme for business, will continue. When I was the Minister, there were about 38 support centres around the country backing the business aspects of the initiative and providing hands-on help, especially to small and medium-sized companies, enabling them to understand why it was important for them to get on-line, use electronic data interchange and exploit the Internet as a marketing tool, to cut down the time that processes take.

For just-in-time processes to succeed, companies must be on line. In any event, many of the larger companies are beginning to insist on electronic ordering and processing. If smaller companies have not thought about that, they should think about it very quickly indeed. If one is not on-line, one needs to be extremely careful about rivals or competitors, wherever they happen to be based, encroaching on markets that had seemed very much one's own.

Our communities will have access to information and connections that were never thought possible before. The Minister did not mention the fact—I do so as an addition, not as a criticism—that technology is capable of looking after everybody. There are technological means, for example, of extending networks beyond what the cable industry can reasonably be expected to do.

The cable industry may cover about 80 per cent. of United Kingdom households, but using the radio spectrum will enable us to provide ISDN-equivalent signals to connect into rural communities. As we move into the digital television age, we will have other ways of ensuring that information and the interactivity of the new arrangements can reach out to those communities.

Mr. Battle

I regret the fact that I did not have the opportunity to mention that and many other matters in my speech. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that we have introduced a Bill on spectrum pricing in the other place. It was left over, as it were, and should create precisely the space to which he refers.

Mr. Taylor

I am more than happy to respond to that. Opposition and Government can sometimes find common ground and I warmly support what the Minister is doing with regard to that Bill. We worked hard on it and I was pleased that it was in the Gracious Speech.

The general public simply do not understand how important the radio spectrum is in delivering the services that will emerge in the digital age. The purpose of spectrum pricing is to drive forward efficiency of use of the spectrum so that the bit that is no longer used in one way can be freed up for other uses. That is how we have enabled the mobile telephone industry to expand to an incredible extent. We have been able to clean up spectrum and allocate it to the mobile industry.

We are now approaching the third generation of mobile technology, which obviously requires us to make the best use of a scarce resource. Now that I do not have the responsibility of being the Minister, I can say that I profoundly hope that we will make use of radio spectrum pricing to raise considerable sums that will stimulate the transfer of the digital terrestrial television process to the percentage of the population that might be slow in taking it up.

The criteria in the Broadcasting Act 1996 were that we would review the switching off of analogue spectrum within five years, or 50 per cent. coverage, whichever was the earlier. As with black-and-white and colour, a persistent core of the population will hang on to their analogue spectrum and their old television sets, either because they cannot afford the new ones or because they have not been encouraged to change over.

It is in the British national interest to stimulate the change and radio spectrum may provide the funds, because plenty of people will be willing to bid for the spectrum that will be freed up when everyone has moved to digital terrestrial. The transmitters will give a much clearer signal, so spectrum can be taken back for other, more innovative, purposes. That is a technical, but important, matter if we want to achieve growth.

One of the constraints on what we are doing is the radio spectrum. There are plenty of ideas, but can we achieve the clear spectrum? That was one reason I had such a battle with Channel 5 when it wanted to use aspects of what we call the channel 35 spectrum, which is a clear digital spectrum. Channel 5 has it for five years. By the time we can claw it back there may well be mobile television or other signals for which we want to use that national spectrum. Channel 5 was given the spectrum on the basis that its 3 million or 4 million subscribers, who will be using a signal in that spectrum, will be moved off on to other signals by the fifth anniversary. Perhaps the Minister would like consider that.

Technology will transform the way we live; the connected communities will provide mind-boggling opportunities. Schools will be on-line; they will not only be on the Internet, but will be connected to homes so that teachers will be able—if necessary, interactively—to see what progress a pupil has made with his homework. There are various software packages to prevent children watching "Neighbours" until they have finished their homework. I do not want to be part of the nanny state, but that seems to be a profoundly good idea. Not only will children be able to do their homework, but on the same television network—using an interactive television or a personal computer—they will be able to access information digitally from the libraries, other information centres and museums anywhere in the world.

There will be a transformation in the way we live in our communities. Not only will we be able to work more at home, but we will be able to receive greater information and educational opportunities. I spent quite a lot of time ensuring that the Dearing report would stress how technology would transform higher education and its delivery. I spent much time on that when I was a Minister, even though I was at the Department of Trade and Industry—we did not pay any attention to departmental boundaries.

It is perfectly obvious that we need to consider not only the massive skills base and the use of technology in our universities, but how the universities' relationship with their students can be structured differently. In the technological age, universities have other dimensions; we do not need to bring students together in one central position in every university. I pay tribute to the work of the Open university and the way it has pioneered distance learning. We can also have diffused campuses. All such matters must be taken into account if we are to be able to afford to allow all those young people who wish to go to university and higher education centres to do so.

Technology will transform not only the way we live, but the way we learn. It will also transform our leisure time. Interactive games are often dismissed by the purists and IT snobs, but they are one of the great pull-throughs of interactivity. It is fun to play a game against a computer; it is even more fun to play a game against several other people, simultaneously, anywhere in the world. My teenage sons have taken a greater interest in that aspect of computing than I might have wished, but interactivity leads to other skills that can be learnt for interrogative educational purposes. That is another aspect we shall have to study extremely closely.

Other implications have not been properly thought through—certainly not in many of the debates that I have heard in this country, although they have begun to emerge in the United States. Information technology has now reached a stage where we simply do not understand the impact of the advances in the semi-conductor business on the rest of society.

Alec Broers, the excellent vice chancellor of Cambridge, gave a telling anecdote. He said that if the motor industry had advanced at the same rate as the semi-conductor industry over the past 15 years, the 60-mile journey from London to Cambridge would take a second; it would need only a teaspoon of petrol and the 20p parking fee at the other end would be greater than the cost of the car. That is mind-boggling, but it is not an unsustainable observation.

We have not fully appreciated the transformation in the rest of our lives that will result from the advances made in the semi-conductor industry and the ability of micro-processors to store information in our computers. The computers that most Members of Parliament have on their desk tops are more powerful than the on-board computers of the Tornado aircraft. The ability to access information is staggering, yet it has not yet fully impacted on other aspects of our life—but it will. It will certainly have a big impact on transport, as global positioning becomes part of our everyday life. At any given moment in a car we will know where we are and where others are so that we can avoid traffic. Information can be flashed, via satellite, to roadside signals warning of disturbances ahead, such as traffic jams. Those aspects will rapidly become reality and, through the foresight programme, many other ideas will be picked up by industry.

New technology will transform our lives; it will also transform economics. Economics has not made a proper shift towards what some larger companies realise will be inevitable. The global economy means that companies will have to restructure themselves and will no longer need the same sort of physical proximity to each other and members of the company—they will be able to communicate electronically and digitally. Employees in remote areas will be able to participate in video conferences. Information can be distributed rapidly. Rural communities can use satellites with a large footprint to enable not only information download but mobility.

Companies will change and politicians have to realise that economies will be increasingly open and responsive, not closed. It will no longer be easy for them to respond to Government intervention. In those circumstances, the idea that a Government economic policy based on the nation-state principle is likely to be the model for the future is hugely misguided. We can already see what has happened on the foreign exchanges, where there is instant movement of money.

The instant movement of information has political as well as economic consequences. As companies change the way in which they work, economies will change and we will inevitably have more global trade, regardless of individual Governments' attempts to restrict it. Politics will also change because Governments will have less influence on the movement of information, goods and services. That creates problems, including fiscal problems. Someone can avoid, not necessarily illegally, the imposition of tax because he is able instantly to source materials from other parts of the world. It is now possible to buy any book or CD of music on the Internet, and national boundaries are becoming irrelevant.

In an interesting speech the other day, President Clinton said: In many ways, electronic commerce is the Wild West of the global economy … Our task is to make sure it is safe and stable terrain. I do not remember the wild west ever being a safe or stable terrain. President Clinton was either mixing his metaphors or being over-hopeful. I suspect that, between Governments, we still have a few battles at the OK corral to come. There will be some fairly vicious fights as Governments realise that the control and powers that they had previously taken for granted are slipping away. In those circumstances, as control slips away, there will be territorial battles and attempts to reimpose different controls. There will be exchanges between Governments which will create new rivalries. We are beginning to see that now in Internet data protection. That has a profound impact. The EU and United States have been at odds on the matter this week. If, for example, the EU refused to allow certain data to be transmitted to countries which they did not recognise as having the same privacy laws as those within the EU, there would be battles between what at present appear to be established trading partners. Given that privacy is important, I believe that the Minister will find the matter firmly on his desk in the coming weeks.

Mr. Battle

I did not have the opportunity, because I wished to curtail my remarks, to mention the ministerial conference in Bonn earlier this week. It involved not only the EU but the Americans, Japanese, Canadians and Australians. A declaration was published at the end of that conference, which will be available in the Library. Some tensions between America and Europe were perhaps exaggerated by the media, but some of the themes outlined in my speech, including confidentiality and a clear legal framework, were raised at the conference. It took the debate helpfully forward. Those matters need to be dealt with further in the Council of Ministers. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will find the declaration helpful in taking the debate forward. We need to keep the debate moving.

Mr. Taylor

I shall certainly look at the declaration with great interest, but I predict that one declaration will not resolve the problem.

Another problem is intellectual property regulation. Certain countries in Asia which have enormous potential are held back by their failure to grasp the problem. The failure to safeguard intellectual property causes countries from the more developed world not to invest as much there as they otherwise would. It is a market distortion.

Security is another problem. The Minister touched on the big argument about encryption and whether heavy encryption can be exported from the United States. The battle is much more complex than simply whether encryption should be exported. There is a battle between Governments. I am the Minister's predecessor so I understand the problems that he will face. Governments need from time to time, subject to the laws of the country, to keep an eye on material that might be passed across the digital networks connected with terrorism, drugs or crime in general. Governments must balance their need to do that against the desire for open speech and freedom of communication. That is very much part of the debate in the United States, where only in the past week the Supreme Court has changed the rules on decency, which President Clinton thought he had enshrined in a Bill that had passed through Congress. Those battles will be enjoined and they will touch on some sensitive matters between Governments.

I was delighted that, after pitched battles, we managed to get 1 January 1998 as the date by which the EU will have liberalised telecommunications. There is a danger of former Ministers sounding rather pompous, but I am trying to flag up the issues of concern. I am profoundly concerned that liberalisation without proper regulation is not liberalisation at all. If one moves a previously market-dominant company into a liberalised background, but does not watch interconnection charges, one is not liberalising. The test of liberalisation is ease of market entry. That will be another international squabble which will grow. In those circumstances—some of my colleagues ought to shut their ears to this—the EU has a profoundly important role to play. Karel van Miert is one of the most important Commissioners, and in some ways I wish he would exercise his powers under the treaty of Rome with even more gusto. There will be a real need for intervention on competition grounds to ensure that market access for our companies in the rest of the EU is open and that access is properly rewarded by their ability to obtain customers and contracts and access to existing networks as well as to build up new ones.

There are other factors to watch. We must ensure that what countries call easy access does not mean that there is no real incentive to invest in the infrastructure in the first place. I will not bore the House any longer on this subject. It is complicated. There must be a regulator and it must not be the department of trade and industry of any particular country. It must be separate. Once the rules are set, they need to be stable.

I take as an example a country that is well away from Europe. India has the most sensational potential in telecommunications and the information society. I shall not go into all the reasons for its failure to realise that potential because they might be libellous. One of the reasons is that the regulatory arrangements were not put in place at the time of the auctions for the telecom circles, so it was difficult for companies to know how much to invest because they were not sure of the framework in which the investment would have, over a long period, to gain a proper rate of return. India missed a trick. Of the 900 million people in India, fewer than 1 per cent. have access to a telephone. That is extraordinary. The potential is phenomenal, but intellectual property law and stable regulation are two of the preconditions for access to the information society. Companies want to help and to invest, but the Indian Government in return must make an effort to remove the worries about those two issues.

I do not believe that all that I have said and all that has been discussed in America recently has fully impacted on those people who prepare papers on foreign policy. I suspect that foreign policy will change. The way in which countries interact with each other will be affected by the opening up of societies, the need for information to be secure and the need for content to be garnered from wherever in the world and then protected. Content is the great driving force of the information society. I commend to the House some of the articles that have begun to appear on the subject. There was one in the spring 1997 edition of Foreign Policy, an American magazine, by Daniel F. Burton. Jr., a vice president of Novell. The article is remarkable not so much for its profundity, although it is interesting, but because it appeared in Foreign Policy. It is headed "The Brave New Wired World". The Americans are realising that information technology will influence the way in which they behave. We in the United Kingdom had better watch out. The article refers to the power of the United States to play a defining role in how the world economy and politics develop because it has a towering software presence, a world-class hardware business, a dynamic content industry, a telecommunications sector that is rapidly being deregulated, a strong venture capital base, flexible labor markets, and an unparalleled university system. The United Kingdom has the same benefits. We share with the Americans the English language. They have modified it slightly as they have developed it, but I am generous enough to say that we share it.

The point of the article is to show that new relationships will be built on those assumptions. To exert influence and power in the world, it is necessary to have a level of excellence in each of the areas that I have just mentioned. Much will flow from that and it will have a big impact on the debate about how a country maintains its security in the widest sense of the word, bearing in mind the fact that information is one of the greatest assets that it needs to protect.

It is important to consider how a country can protect its wealth, because wealth no longer respects national boundaries. If a country is to be powerful, it must be able to attract and retain businesses, particularly value-added high skills industry. That will impact also on how a country protects its culture. If we are not careful, we will find that other cultures will begin to dominate. That is less of a problem in our eyes perhaps than it might be for the French because of the Anglo-Saxon nature of many of the developments that have taken place. Nevertheless, we must be careful to ensure that we are as active as possible around the world. We should encourage things in which we have a lead. For example, the role of the BBC World Service is important to the way in which we protect our culture. I do not want to encourage the Front Benches to get into a debate with me about that. I am not trying to discuss historic policy decisions, I am merely noting that I believe that the BBC World Service has an important part to play.

It is important for us to be clear about what satellites are going up and what access there will be to them. We should also be clear what role British companies or British-based companies—which is not the same as British-owned ones—will play. What role will we play in international negotiations about access? How do we plan to react to the development of low earth orbit satellites systems such as Iridium? Are British companies playing a part in those operations, such as Teledesic and all the others? They will all have an impact on access to everyone's desktop computer and everyone's mobile telephone.

What indigenous inward investment are we trying to encourage? What about exports, such as the excellent work of Motorola on GSM digital telephones and the work that Nortel has done with Energis on wrap-round optical fibre systems for power lines? As a result of that work, telecommunications can be combined with the power system.

Such questions will determine whether Britain will have a leading role to play in the world rather than the more traditional one on which the House has previously concentrated. If we think that such developments will impact on everything else and leave politics alone, we have another think coming. I took part in a cyber debate during the general election campaign with the producer of the cyber debate for the National Children's Home. I believe that about only a few people took part or paid any attention to it. That was hardly earth shattering or a way of transforming the outcome of the election. It was a small taste, however, of what will become part of everyday life in the next general election campaign.

In the United States, during the July election campaign, the Republican party in America announced that the press should hold their front pages and take a deep breath because it intended to make a big announcement in the following week. Everyone tried to guess what it might be—it was a remodelled page on its web site, which was done to capture the imagination of the American people. I do not recall that the front page of The Times was held back when the Conservative party remodelled its web site during the general election.

At the next general election, between 8 million and 10 million people could be using the Internet and more will probably have some connection to it. Businesses will be wired up and many people in the constituencies will be used to using digital television. The politics that does not pay attention to that will be the politics of losing. We must shake ourselves up completely.

I hope that the next time we have a debate on the information society there will be some keen young people bursting to debate it because they realise that there are some profound conclusions that they need to draw to the attention of their constituents. I hope that they, too, will appreciate that those conclusions will affect the quality of life of this country and our position in the world.

11.44 am
Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

I can be relatively brief because it is clear that the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), who is extremely knowledgeable, has a vision which is largely shared by Labour Members.

I should like to recount one or two of my experiences relating to the information society. I was the dean of a large biology department in East Anglia where it took me four years to get the intellectual elite to e-mail each other regularly. The difficulty was that they were not computer literate and, unlike our young people, had not been trained on computers. The only way I managed to get them to use computers was by banning memos and by asking the secretarial staff to refuse to send those individuals any information. It was amazing how, overnight, those people got computers on their desks and became versed in them.

My other endeavours relate to cancer research. The discovery of the DNA sequence from a laboratory in Australia or wherever in the world has been of key importance in advancing research. I am of a mind to ask for the DNA sequence for Euro-scepticism because it sounds as though there may be a joint interest in patenting that.

I am also interested in what people find out from their experiments. If someone is conducting an experiment in Cincinnati, Ohio, I can know the results—I assure hon. Members that there is still collaboration in research—within a matter of hours. One no longer has to send to the United States those terrible blue airmail letters with which we all grew up in the 1970s. Nowadays, with e-mail and similar connections, the fast transmission of scientific facts is most important for advancing scientific research.

If we want to know what effective treatments patients are receiving in various hospitals in any part of the world we can get that information up on our screens quickly. That means that the best and most effective treatments can spread around the world quickly.

I endorse everything that the hon. Member for Esher and Walton said, but I would also say that, with regard to biomedical research, we need to wake up in this country and ensure that everybody is trained, versed and confident in using new technology. In that way, the brave new world of which we know we will be a part will come on us much quicker. Once again, I endorse what the hon. Gentleman has said and I am sure that the Labour Government will take on his suggestions soon.

11.46 am
Mr. Nigel Jones (Cheltenham)

I welcome the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry to his relatively new responsibilities. As the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) has said, he has the best job in government. I wish him well in the task ahead and I am sure that he will bring to the job his usual enthusiasm.

I also welcome this early debate on the information society. In common with the hon. Member for Esher and Walton, I regret that a few more hon. Members are not present. I thank the hon. Member for his contribution. He and I took part in the National Children's Home cybernet debate during the election, which was a fascinating experience. We also did one or two others. The hon. Gentleman told me that he intended to ramble on; he did not do that, but gave one of the best speeches that I have heard in the five years that I have been in the House. I compliment him on that and the work he did in the previous Government. I hope that we will hear from him on many more occasions.

Hon. Members will be aware that, before entering the House, I spent more than 20 years in the information technology industry. As a former member of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, I should mention that I have declared in the Register of Members' Interests that ICL and Telewest have kindly lent me some of their state-of-the-art technology. I thank them for that.

There is a lot of comment, much of it exciting, some of it hype, and a lot of it downright ill-informed, about the information revolution and the information society in which we will live. Much of that society is based on British invention, including, for example, fibre-optic technology. Like it or not, that revolution is here and there is no way in which we can stop it. As I have said in the House before, the invention of fibre optics and the information age will have an impact as dramatic as that of the invention of the pencil.

The merging of computing and broadcasting technologies in the digital age will offer mankind both opportunities and significant dangers through changes in the way we live. There are huge opportunities for government, both central and local, to improve the services they deliver to the citizens of our country. I want to emphasise one point, which was referred to by the Minister—the right of every citizen, wherever he or she might happen to live, to access the new services. Universal access must be the key phrase.

There are two parts to the information society—the infrastructure that we need to put in place and the services that the infrastructure will deliver. Many of us are familiar with the sight and inconvenience of cable companies digging up roads and pavements in our constituencies to install the green pipes that will deliver communication services, 57 channels of entertainment and, I hope, a bit more.

The information super-highway could and should revolutionise our lives. At the moment, we are scratching at the surface of what it can deliver. There are concerns about band width and the amount of data that can be squeezed down the pipe. It may not be sufficient for the two-way moving picture services of the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who popped into the Chamber earlier, is concerned that the good people of Kingston, having suffered the inconvenience of having their streets dug up once, may have to suffer it again so that the right technology can be put in place.

There was a significant problem with the previous Government's policy on infrastructure. They were right to encourage competition, but they were wrong to ban British Telecom from transmitting entertainment services. They were also wrong to let franchises only for the installation of cable in lucrative city and town areas. That cherry picking has left rural areas out in the cold and out of the information revolution. I appreciate that radio frequencies—microwave technology—can be used to get into the rural areas, but the previous Government's policy created a new category of poor, the information have-nots. Indeed, the ban on BT broadcasting live services was the equivalent of shooting Linford Christie in the foot at the start of the 100 metres. If we have a world beater, we should encourage it, not discourage it.

The cable companies and BT are the key to installing the infrastructure for the information super-highway. A report from the House of Lords entitled "The Information Society Agenda for Action in the UK", published on 23 July 1996, recommends that BT, Mercury and other public telephone operators should be allowed to provide and convey broadcast entertainment services by 2001. I want the Government to tell us at some stage, not necessarily today, whether they will allow that to go ahead so that BT can help us to get the infrastructure in place.

There needs to be a national plan to ensure that everyone who wants access can get it. It is all very well for our great cities and large towns to make use of new services, but rural areas should have the same facilities. Rural areas of Gloucestershire, Devon, Cornwall, Scotland and Wales should be as much a part of the future as our cities and towns.

The principal recommendation in the report was for a national information society task force, modelled on the United States advisory council on the national information infrastructure, to bring together all the private and public sector players to give a clearly focused lead in moving the UK rapidly into the information age. The previous Government were satisfied with the existing diversity of consultative bodies, but I hope that the new Government might adopt the report's recommendation.

There is far more to the information society than 57 channels of entertainment. As we heard from the Minister and from the hon. Member for Esher and Walton, it will have a profound impact on the way we work and live. With the digital age, computing and broadcasting technologies are merging, and Britain is uniquely well placed to make a success of that change. We have superb engineers to design the communications hardware for the information age. Our software scientists are the best in the world—and I speak as a former software scientist.

Britain is a relatively small country, but our broadcasts have a reputation for excellence and we have the English language. If we put all those together, we see that Britain has a unique opportunity to create wealth and jobs in the new technology industries.

The Internet of today is not a super-highway. The super-highway envisaged by Vice-President Al Gore and my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who is very well up on these matters, is a broad band system that allows high-definition pictures in both directions and text to travel from any point on the super-highway to any other point. Businesses will use the technology—some already are—to promote their services. Holiday companies will offer a see-before-you-fly service, which I am sure the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) will be keen to view.

Mr. Ian Bruce

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for advertising south Dorset. I am sure that he has been to Weymouth and Portland and seen our wonderful coastline. Of course, we can already dial up the Internet to find out what is happening in Weymouth and Portland. I hope that everybody listening to this debate or reading it in Hansard will do so.

Mr. Jones

The hon. Gentleman has one of the most beautiful constituencies in our wonderful islands.

Estate agents will provide a multi-media conducted tour of the home of tomorrow from the comfort of the armchair in the home of today. Because there will be point-to-point access, a colleague will be able to call and send a document, a press release or the 3D image of the building one is designing so that we can make last-minute adjustments.

There is some evidence that companies will locate where they can have the best information infrastructure, as well as the best road, rail and air infrastructure. Soon, access to central and local government services will be available in the home. I have a vision that on a Sunday afternoon, when the football is boring—I will not say which team might be playing—I will be filling in my tax form, pressing a button and sending it off to the Inland Revenue, without the prospect of all those letters coming back asking for more details on this or that.

Mrs. Gillan

Did the hon. Gentleman have an opportunity this week to see the exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall? It showed that tax forms are already available on the system, although we cannot yet send forms directly to the Inland Revenue. That progress was made under the previous Conservative Government, and I think that they should be applauded for it.

Mr. Jones

I am quite happy to applaud the previous Government for the progress that they made, and I even know some of the people who worked on that system at the Inland Revenue. However, I should like further innovation. We should, for example, be able to select a character on the screen to act as a guide. One could perhaps select Rory Bremner to ask questions on one's tax return, possibly making the experience more enjoyable than it is now.

All those governmental systems should be delivered to the home. Citizens advice bureaux have already been mentioned in the debate, because they certainly have a role to play in those systems. Andrew Banfield, who runs the Cheltenham district CAB, told me that Cheltenham is one of six CABs in England piloting direct access to Government forms via the Internet.

Mr. Ian Taylor

I apologise for intervening after making such a long speech, but the hon. Gentleman has raised a crucial point. One of the reasons why we currently cannot directly file our tax returns but must go through a recognised intermediate is the need to verify data and the sender's identity. That is why I established the National Smartcard Forum. I am very keen to encourage smartcards, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) is also very interested in the subject. We must grasp the nettle on that matter, or we will slow the rate of progress in improving direct access to Government services.

Mr. Jones

The former Minister has raised a very important point. I would not like the hon. Member for South Dorset, for example, to send in my tax return, and I am sure that he would not like me to send in his.

Mr. Battle

It depends on how big they are.

Mr. Jones

I am sure that the return of the hon. Member for South Dorset is much bigger than mine, and I am sure also that he would like me to pay his tax. We will, however, have to talk about the issue of data verification. The hon. Member for Esher and Walton started the consultation process on the issue, but we still have some way to go.

The CAB is an ideal organisation for introducing information systems in a user-friendly form—in their homes—to the largest possible number of people. Such progress will enhance the lives especially of disabled people who cannot get out much, who will benefit from technology by being able to access the services that they need.

The Government have a responsibility to ensure that everyone who wants them can gain the skills necessary to use new technology. That will involve ensuring not only that the infrastructure extends nationwide but that there is no financial barrier to gaining such skills. People in schools, colleges, universities, libraries, village halls and at home must be able to gain access.

Every school pupil should have access to information technology, not only so that they can learn about word processing and spread sheets, and find their way around the Internet but to prepare them for life in the information age. If a person at school today does not develop the skills to use the information technology that will pervade everyone's life, they probably will not be able to get a job.

A previous Secretary of State for Education and Employment made encouraging noises about linking schools and colleges in the same way as super-JANET links universities. There has already been some banter in this debate about the ideas that the Prime Minister expressed when he was Leader of the Opposition. However, like the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), I suspect that some of those ideas—fine though they were—have not yet been fully thought through.

There is a problem in education across the United Kingdom, not least in my own county of the Gloucestershire. School budgets have been cut annually because of the fatally flawed system of standard spending assessments. If we fail to invest in education now, we will rear a semi-skilled generation that is unable to compete in the world.

Some wonderful pilot schemes are being operated in schools across the country, and they started under the previous regime. In my own constituency, Arthur Dye primary school is now linked into Telewest's system. Telewest piloted and paid for the project, for which we are extraordinarily grateful. The school has an Internet terminal, and the head teacher has told me that the project is already having an impact on children's behaviour. Children not only come to school early but they do not want to leave at lunch time to kick a ball around the field. They also stay late after school so that they can get their hands on the kit.

Another primary school in my constituency, Sir Thomas More Catholic primary school, has received sponsorship from Texaco and has given each member of its top class—the 10-year-olds—a small hand-held computer. The children take their computer home to do their homework. I saw some of the material that they have produced using that pilot system, and it convinced me that we should expand such systems to every school and to every child, so that they can all have access and own their own equipment.

Tomorrow, I will launch an information technology project at Wolvercote first school, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). Southern Electric has donated six computers to that school. They will join another computer donated by Huw Price, the managing director of BitbyBit, a local software company. BT has kindly provided free access to the Internet for a year. These are all private sector initiatives, but there is a need for some Government pump priming, too.

My party leader knows I believe that every child should be given a personal computer at the age of 10. The cost would be considerable if it were to come from Government funding alone. About 600,000 children reach the age of 10 each year. I asked some computer manufacturers to give me a quote and, although the figures varied, one company suggested that it could supply 600,000 children with a machine of their own for a total of £200 million. That sounds like a bargain to me—it would mean one tenth of a penny on income tax. I am happy to discuss with the Minister the possibility of developing a policy to supply every young person with a PC.

I said that new technology was a source of dangers as well as opportunities. There has been much media coverage of the security of sensitive personal information, and there is concern about the use of the Internet by terrorists, paedophiles and other law breakers. However, a much more urgent problem is that of the year 2000, known in the trade as the millennium time bomb. The problem was created by the information technology industry, and now has to be fixed by the industry and its customers, but time is ticking by.

There are now fewer than 900 days until the millennium. In May this year, the National Audit Office produced a report called "Managing the Millennium Threat". A task force to consider the problem has been set up in the DTI, but, to my mind, it is not getting the job done as it should.

On 10 May this year, the Financial Times published a letter from Maurice Fitzpatrick, the head of economics at Chantrey Vellacott. He said: One point seems to have escaped commentators' attention—namely the cost to the public sector of sorting out its computer millennium problem. Taskforce 2000, the body sponsored by the Department of Trade and Industry to raise awareness of the problem, estimates the cost of sorting out the public sector problems at £7bn … If these figures seem high to a cash strapped Government, try estimating the cost of not sorting out the problem. There could be disasters across a swathe of local and national Government Departments; for example, national health service computers could crash, and drips beside hospital beds are now controlled by microchips which need to be checked. Maurice Fitzpatrick said that there were fewer than 1,000 days to the millennium—there are now fewer than 900—but, in any event, the Government need to find the necessary resources to sort out the public sector problems.

Mr. Ian Taylor


Mr. Battle

The hon. Gentleman is speaking from the Dispatch Box now.

Mr. Taylor

One speech and I am promoted again—it is a wonderful feeling.

I want to underline what the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) says about the year 2000 problem, but there are in fact fewer than 900 days in which to sort it out. I am afraid that for most companies and Government Departments the matter will come to a head a long time before the millennium. It is clear that companies that have audited and corrected their systems will refuse to deal with companies or Government Departments that have not done so. The issue will be whether a company or Department can guarantee that its software, hardware and embedded chips are millennium compliant, and whether that can be guaranteed to a third party. If not, within a matter of months—certainly by 1998—it is likely that that company or Department will be cut out of the supply chain.

Mr. Jones

I absolutely agree. Companies and Government systems need to be millennium compliant at least by December 1998 so that they have a year in which to sort out the problem. The problems will arise before the clock ticks over to 1 January 2000. There is a suspicion that there will be problems on 9 September 1999–9.9.99. I do not know whether hon. Members are familiar with Cobol programming, but there is a system called high values that can be put into a field and puts nines everywhere. Anyone comparing dates against 9.9.99 could run into trouble on 9 September 1999.

Mr. Battle

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that serious and important issue. We shall not resolve it here.

I notice that, after his illuminating speech, the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) has immediately moved to the Front Bench to speak for the Opposition. I welcome him back to that post. I should like to pay him a compliment. It is common practice that the Government are not allowed to see the letters of the previous Administration, but I know from a letter in a computer magazine that the hon. Gentleman wrote to, I think, 130,000 companies encouraging them to take the issue seriously. He added at the bottom of the letter that he hoped that replies would be piling up on my desk. I am saddened not to have had many replies.

I can only allude to the letter, because I have not seen it, but I should like to underline what it said and what the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) is saying. I hope that companies throughout the land will take the issue seriously. If they do not act now, they could pay a high price and even be put out of business.

Mr. Jones

I thank the Minister. This is the most serious problem facing business today. If we do not sort it out, companies could go out of business.

In recent weeks, I have met several people at the sharp end of trying to solve the problem, including a member of Taskforce 2000. I do not want to be alarmist, just as the former Minister tried not to be when he gave evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee. Geoffrey Finlay of Alydaar—a company named after a former winner of the Kentucky derby, he tells me—says that there are serious problems, not just in the public sector. The private sector is also in some disarray. An independent report prepared by Spikes Cavell sums up the scale of the problem. It says: The IT managers and finance directors of UK companies have not yet sat down to evolve detailed strategies to handle the Year 2000 question. The report was published just a month and a half ago, in May. It continues: The whole initiative is still at the starting gate. Funding requirements have not been quantified or set aside to solve the problem in 82 per cent. of organisations surveyed. Time is running out. If people do not have their systems fixed before 2000, they could go out of business. The Sunday Times has said: Everyone should take the millennium bomb very seriously. Organisations which fail to prepare adequately will be placed at a severe disadvantage. Some will not survive … This is a management problem of the highest order. I hope that business will take note and do something about it pretty quickly.

There is a problem of silence from suppliers. Someone suggested to me that it is a legal problem. Lawyers for suppliers are suggesting that the company should say nothing about the product because otherwise they will be liable. We have to do something about the millennium problem, because fixing it will require a partnership between suppliers and the people to whom they have supplied the products.

There was an appalling report, which I hope is not true, in last week's Computing magazine about IBM's strategy for 2000. It says: An internal IBM document seen by Computing, and confirmed by sources at IBM as originating from the company, alleges the company is only targeting a few large users with near-complete year 2000 solutions. The document further alleges that IBM has made 'no direct attempt to provide a comprehensive solution that is year 2000 compliant' for the majority of customers and will not guarantee a fixed price or complete solution. An IBM spokeswoman confirmed that IBM had separate strategies for mainframe and other users: 'We rely more on partners when dealing with smaller users'. I should like IBM to clarify the position because it is the biggest supplier in the market.

Mr. Ian Bruce

The managing director of IBM wrote to me yesterday totally denying that story. I have no brief to speak on behalf of IBM, but I must point out that the company mentioned that all the information it has on how to get rid of these problems is being published on the Internet. It is taking a major role in trying to help people. The article is the usual journalese. It says that an IBM spokesman confirmed that the company had two strategies, one for big users and one for little users. Any sensible company would have two strategies.

Mr. Jones

I am grateful for that intervention. The Government must take action to ensure that public systems are millennium compliant, but the private sector must take action, too. That involves suppliers and their clients working in partnership to overcome the problem.

This has been a fascinating debate. There are great opportunities in the new information society. There will be hiccups along the way and there will be challenges for us all, but it is an exciting time to be alive. We must make the most of these opportunities and I wish the Minister well in his efforts.

12.15 pm
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

This has been an important debate which, sadly, has been poorly attended. One of the problems with parliamentary practices is that we do not always flag up these debates sufficiently ahead of time to generate the necessary interest. Our parliamentary technology is desperately lagging behind what is necessary for Members of Parliament. If I can transmit that message to those responsible for parliamentary technology, my short speech will not have been totally wasted. One must remember, however, the old cliché that the best way to keep a secret is to make a speech in the House of Commons.

The difficulty with the whole information technology debate is that although we are submerged in information, we do not often know what is going on. I receive tons of e-mail, but it does not necessarily tell me anything. All the techno-nerd clichés of the world will not replace the fundamental need for education in the use of information technology. In the context of education, clear and precise language is needed. Unless we restore clarity and rigour in our language, information technology could pile up, one cyber-nerd connecting with another into eternity, without our advancing much further.

A small warning that I put to my hon. Friends and to Opposition Members who have taken part in the debate is that we should not over-worship the power of the English language, powerful as it is. The point about new technology is that it will enable many other languages to retain their character because as technology allows interpretation to take place automatically, it will preserve the integrity of other languages. I welcome that because the world must remain culturally diverse. Although I am delighted that I was brought up speaking English—I have tried to maintain that practice—the fact remains that other languages have their rights. Clarity of language is necessary.

I was reading Macaulay for a debate this afternoon with Lord Hurd—one has to read Macaulay early in the morning before entering a debate with Lord Hurd—and I came across a sentence relating to the last great period of Tory rule in the late 17th century. Lord Macaulay said: The people of England saw harlot after harlot, and bastard after bastard, raised to the highest honours of the peerage. I am not sure whether that is parliamentary language, but it may be relevant to debates about the descendants of the people to whom Lord Macaulay referred who seek to thwart the will of the British people. While I am not suggesting that there should be gatekeeping for unparliamentary language, it is rather odd that when I quote from a famous essay by Lord Macaulay that raised not an eyebrow in the 19th century, the language sends a frisson around the Chamber.

Let us have the clearest possible use of English—the strongest, sturdiest, most vigorous use of English—as we set about our information technology policy. It really is vital. In opening the debate, my hon. Friend the Minister made many important points about the centrality of information technology for the new economy.

In my constituency of Rotherham, a software firm called Chrysalis has grown from two men and an idea into a firm employing 35 people making advanced video games that are sold overseas. One would not even notice the company as one drives round that great steel and coal town; it is tucked away behind the high street opposite the town hall. However, it makes a great deal of money and adds real value to the economy. That is the future for my constituents.

Even in the steel plants in Rotherham, most of the workers sit in computer sheds using technology where once only brute force and craft skills were required. New skills have been added and constant training is required. That is the way forward.

References have been made to encryption technology, which is also vital. Henry Stimpson, the Postmaster General in America in 1929, when asked whether he would authorise the bugging of mail, said that gentlemen did not open other gentlemen's letters. Certainly the CIA and the other buggers have moved on from that.

The taxation system is based on information, so when it goes into cyberspace, cyber tax evasion will become a reality. The problem of privacy will require sensitive thinking. It will be solved not by technology, but by clear thought, analysis and debate. I, too, pay tribute to the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) and the excellent work he carried out in office. He said that there may be distinct points of view between the European Union and the United States and we cannot have a single cultural, technological model.

Mr. Battle

My hon. Friend has a clear and refreshing approach to the English language in the House and elsewhere. In the light of his comments about language and clarity, it strikes me that it is easy to get locked into computer acronyms and special terms. Many people still think that a floppy disk is a frisbee, so we have to get away from technical language so that people are no longer afraid of the technology itself. Only a computer specialist would turn the simple word "stop" into a technical term.

Mr. MacShane

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I remember feeling very sorry for the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) when he was about to speak during Prime Minister's questions about a year ago. He was referring to an important European initiative called EURIM. In the hubbub, most hon. Members did not hear EURIM, but something that sounded similar and the important point that the hon. Gentleman wanted to make was lost. I am glad that he was standing up, not me. So clear language and an end to acronyms are vital.

My final point is relevant to today's debate and today's news agenda. It is the natural instinct of Conservatives to hoard and guard information. I believe profoundly that one measure that has been missing from the statute book for many years is an effective freedom of information Act. As someone who has been active in the Labour party for some years, I deeply regret that the Labour Administration of the 1970s did not grasp the nettle. If they had, we might have been governed in the 1980s by different and fairer means. Access to information is a contribution that the Government can make to the whole debate—not access to press releases or spin doctors' briefings, vital as they are. Indeed, I have done my spinning and written press releases in my time.

We will need effective freedom of information legislation. It has to extend beyond central Government. I believe profoundly that it will have to cover councils because they spend a great deal of money. It may have to extend to quangos and, indeed, to City boardrooms and trade union council executives because the better the provision of information, the stronger the chances of creating the one-nation partnership economy in which I know many of my hon. Friends believe.

The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), who is now absent from the Chamber, showed through his speech that five years of earning an honest crust has not brought him into the 1990s. His remarks on the British Airways dispute showed that, like all Bourbon ex-Members of Parliament, he has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.

I suspect that the BA dispute and others will be resolved if both sides of the industry make full information available. I very much hope that, having heard the excellent conciliatory approach of both Mr. Morris and Mr. Ayling on "Today" this morning, that dispute can be settled. If British Airways is to become a great international success in full partnership with its employees, as I certainly hope, it will need to extend information. Similarly, the trade union will have to extend information about its thinking to avoid any other conflict.

Freedom of information legislation is necessary. We need to get it right. Consultation must begin. We have examples in other countries and there are other draft Bills. The legislative timetable is crowded, as we know, but I think that many Labour Members and many members of my party would be very disappointed if, at the end of this Session, an effective and workable freedom of information Bill had not passed into law. If one likes, it is a question of ensuring that the hackers of the world—the Jim Hackers and not the Sir Humphreys—win.

12.26 pm
Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

I am very grateful for being called in this important debate. It is good to follow the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane). I am very glad that he correctly referred to the information society and interpreted it widely. If we are talking about society—if Labour Members believe that there such a thing—there is obviously an information society.

I should like to translate what the hon. Member for Rotherham said for his hon. Friends on the Front Bench. Obviously, he was trying to stay on-message while giving a very clear message that he did not believe that what the Government are doing concerning a freedom of information Act is correct. I am sure that he will jump to his feet to correct me if I am misinterpreting what he said. It is interesting that one often tends to make interventions—certainly when one is in government—in order to give coded messages to one's hon. Friends on the Front Bench.

I was rather disappointed by what the Minister said about the information age. He took rather too narrow a view of his brief. I am glad that both the Minister and the Under-Secretary, who have taken over the portfolio of my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), enthusiastically agree how wide the debate is.

I was also a little disappointed that the Minister talked about digital ages as being different from information ages. He was getting a little confused about the delivery mechanisms. In fact, information is driving many things that are happening.

Mr. Battle

I am not confused at all. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the Bonn declaration, which will be put in the Library. If he had been listening to what President Clinton has been saying and had considered that, at the European Ministers conference in Bonn, it was said that we ought to address the digital age, he would realise that I was using language that the rest of the world is starting to use. We believe that we will move from analogue to digital and that it will have a profound impact.

Mr. Bruce

The Minister prays in aid President Clinton and the European Commission, who are not quite as out of touch as him in describing the mechanisms. I shall come to that in my speech.

I take issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon). Nobody calls his constituency "Sevenoak". I suggest to all hon. Members that when they talk about information super-highways, they do not drop the "s". The "s" is dropped by a certain large telecommunications company, which believes that there should be an information super-highway, but when one discusses interconnecting networks the correct term is "highways". If we get into that mindset, we shall start to understand what the information revolution is all about: access to information in many different ways.

If, today, we discuss only computer technology, we shall miss the fact that society is changing in terms of how it does certain tasks. We must be careful to think about how to do the job rather than just how to deliver it.

A little has been said about big developments within the UK. British Interactive Broadcasting, which is part of the Sky empire, has been discussing how it wants to deliver services to the home. On digital broadcasting, we have not discussed the revolution that is likely to come through a franchise for terrestrial broadcasting. BSkyB has been extremely active in that area. Although Mr. Murdoch has been a driver and a positive force in many of those technologies, he tends to monopolise them. When we talk of information super-highways and of opening up the market, however, we must ensure that the suppliers of information, particularly into people's homes via television, have ease of entry into the marketplace.

Incidentally, I do not agree with those who say that Murdoch's Sky television, for instance, has been an exclusive organisation. It has allowed many people cheap access to satellite television channels by its own charging mechanisms. One must look carefully at that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton was a little worried when he saw a sceptical person like me sitting in front of him, and felt that he had to apologise for discussing Europe. He had absolutely no need to do so. The most sceptical of Conservative Members believes in free markets in the European Community; indeed, we drove that forward. Europe has been dragging its heels on allowing matters to proceed on a Europe-wide regulatory basis because individual countries have been trying to keep their monopolies. One of the United Kingdom's great advantages is that it is ahead of the pack in information technologies. If this Parliament can make up its mind what it wants, regulations within the UK could become standard within Europe. America often follows rather than leads us in that respect. The Government must concentrate on maintaining that lead, which they have been given by the previous Government.

We must look at the broadcasting aspect because regulation is a nightmare and much remains to be done. We have touched on mobile telephones and on pricing, a Bill on which is now in the House of Lords. A great deal must happen for electronic commerce to work properly and hon. Members on both sides of the House have alluded to that matter already.

Many people think that the smart cards in their wallets are not part of the information age. Of course, they are. They are one of its key elements. Encryption, too, is important, as is voice management. When we make a telephone call in the future, will we talk to a person or to a computer that talks back? Those are all current developments.

The taxing of the Internet has been mentioned. Products can be bought and services can be provided and paid for internationally through the Internet. Where will they be taxed? This is a massive issue for the Government, and I am sure the Treasury will address it. We must also address it in this House. The packed Chamber today demonstrates how much interest there is among all my colleagues.

I used to be a work study engineer and, for my sins, I still look at things from the point of view of a work study engineer. Very often people talk about getting into new technology. For example, the Minister said that firms should have computers on the shop floor and, of course, computers have a role to play there. But we should be looking for appropriate technology. The first thing work study engineers are always taught is to eliminate a process altogether if it can be done. If one can avoid doing something at all—or take a step out of the process—please do so. One finds that people introducing a computer into their offices are often adding a process, rather than cutting one out. Re-engineering is important in business, life and society—otherwise one adds costs to the operation.

There was a check list for work study engineers. What are you doing? Why are you doing it? When are you doing it? Where are you doing it? How will you do it? So often people say that they will bring in a computer, and one asks what they are going to do with it. The reply is, "I want to be computerised." One must ask again, "What do you want to do with it?" Often, we do not hear what people want to do.

We have heard a great deal about the Internet and, I am sorry to say, the rest of my speech will be about the Internet. I wish to refer to e-mails. If I encourage my constituents to e-mail me—my business card has my e-mail address on it—and if I want to send that to a Minister to seek a reply without using any paper, that clearly is efficient. But I cannot do that because I do not have the e-mail addresses. We should re-engineer what we do in this place, because we ought to be an example to the rest of the world. If we cut out paper and save a few trees by e-mailing, the process could be completed in a fraction of time.

I recently changed offices, as most colleagues do after each election. Most hon Members start in a broom cupboard miles from this place and eventually move to a broom cupboard without a window in this place. I am now up to a room with a window. If I lean out and peer round, I can see the dial of the clock on the clock tower. I wanted one desk with a computer so that I had a bit of space to work on, but I did not appear to have a terminal in the office.

I rang the PDVN and I was told that I would have a direct connection into the office by July. In the interim, I could use the normal modem system. I said that I would accept the office on that basis. It was important that I was to be wired in, as I was wired in in my previous office. I know the speed of the computer on the two systems, as I have my modem linked into the PDVN via my home. I am aware of the difference in speed and the problems of printing. I accepted the office and was told that I would get the terminal by July. It has taken me two months to get an instantaneous e-mail. E-mail is wonderful—getting information to put into it is a different thing. I hope that the person who is responsible for the PDVN and for cabling up this place will read this debate. When I find out who it is, I shall certainly send him or her a copy.

I have now received the definitive answer about when my office will be linked into the PDVN by hard wiring. It states: I have consulted our cabling people and there are no plans to cable T2–11"— my office— until Summer Recess 1999. I know that it is not the Government's direct responsibility. I have volunteered to the Opposition Whips to serve on the Information Committee, which oversees the work of those people. I hope that the person responsible for giving me that answer will have a plan to do it this summer while I am away for the recess. It is extremely important.

Incidentally, I share a corridor with my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks, who will also not have a link. Indeed, the Opposition Whip who is studying new technology in the Whips Office is on the same corridor. None of us has a link.

Mr. Battle

I hope that the hon. Gentleman's remarks will not be treated as special pleading. When I came to the House in 1987, I was given a shelf on a corridor downstairs on the cloister. When I plugged my computer in directly—it happened to be a Mac, which causes even more difficulties in this place as the hon. Gentleman might well know—the authorities realised that my phone bill was larger than anyone else's because I was using computers to intranet before others did.

Let me put it this way: hon. Members coming to the House now have used computers in their daily lives and at work and need the access to be put in gear as quickly as practically possible. I hope that this debate is heard wider and further afield. It is not for the Department of Trade and Industry to tackle the matter, but I hope that the Committees that deal with information will handle it. I am delighted that under the Labour Government the hon. Gentleman at least has a room with a window.

Mr. Bruce

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who started off on a shelf. Mine was special pleading on behalf of all hon. Members. There is no point in linking up those of us who have a special interest in the subject if we cannot e-mail the people we have to bully into taking an interest. We want it to be available to all. Is that not the problem? People who do not sign up to the electronic revolution and the information society cause problems because we have to re-engineer and have several different forms of information transmission.

We often discuss complicated matters and how we will provide services. This morning on television, it was noted that the centralised facility—it is called a call centre—that deals with the rail timetable is answering only 50 per cent. of calls. That is an example of the sort of simple information that we all want. That is all part of the information revolution. Years ago, the service worked well. Clearly, it is not working well now and that has to be put right. The Minister will say that he did not start that, but it is the trend throughout industry. I hope that when he talks to his colleagues in the Department of Transport, in its new bigger form, he will ensure that they are keeping a close eye on that problem, just as he will be ensuring that BT is doing its job properly in the service that it provides.

The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux has written to many hon. Members who have taken part in this debate about the information rich and the information poor. Those are all issues which hon. Members have to keep very much in mind. If I may offer the Minister some advice, one often hears people talking about universal service. BT is saying that universal service has a big cost, but it is the biggest selling benefit that it has. One should never subsidise BT to provide universal service because that is why the vast majority of people go to it for new and better services. That is important. Parliament must ensure that it is the watchdog and that it watches over that closely.

Although this British Parliament is by no means perfect, it has a great deal to tell the world about how parliamentarians can push forward the information society.

I see that the Minister's parliamentary private secretary, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), who was a distinguished Chairman of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, is here. The Parliamentary Information Technology Committee—PITCOM—is perhaps even more relevant; it is working to ensure that Members of Parliament understand what is happening. The great advantage of that Committee, and of many other Committees that we have in Parliament, is that we invite people from outside to see and understand what we are doing.

I should have declared an interest at the beginning of this speech. Hon. Members probably know that I am a paid adviser to the Telecommunication Managers Association, a user group which takes an active interest in all such matters. It is interesting to note how many industrialists, academics and others want to take advantage of the new technology.

An offshoot of PITCOM, doing a slightly different job, is that famous Committee, EURIM—the European Informatics Market group—which we must always refer to in a rather pronounced way, so that it is not thought of us as something else. It is amazing to consider the working parties that we have set up. We have drawn up about 18 draft reports so far, and there are probably more than 20 working parties in all, examining all the different elements of what is happening in the information society.

We were astounded when a deal was announced between BT and the Labour party. The hon. Member for Rotherham spoke about freedom of information. I am seriously worried, because nobody denies that the then Leader of Opposition, now the Prime Minister, had discussions with BT—he announced the results at the Labour party conference—but the deal was denied almost immediately by the chairman of BT.

What with the Nolan committee and all the rest of it, it is extremely important to find out exactly what is happening about people who have been influential in all those matters. The Oftel director general commented on the windfall tax and came out with an extraordinary figure of £2 billion that could come out of BT. It is interesting to note that a much smaller figure has been asked for by the Treasury. One has to ask whether some other deal was done in those negotiations.

Mr. Battle

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not challenging the integrity of the regulator. I thought that I heard a hint of that from the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) before, but I did not rise to it. We support absolutely the independence of the regulator. The discussions are with Oftel, not between the Government and BT.

Mr. Bruce

The hon. Gentleman should read Hansard to see exactly what I said. The regulator, totally independently, came up with the view that £2 billion of windfall from BT was doable. I have made a serious allegation—that the amount that the Treasury has decided to take from BT is considerably less. One must ask whether a deal has been done between the Prime Minister and BT.

Mr. MacShane

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order to make allegations against the Prime Minister of doing a deal with BT involving £2 billion? That is scandalous and unacceptable, and I hope that, through your intervention, the allegation will be either quickly withdrawn or repeated outside.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, each hon. Member is responsible for the statements that he makes in the House. I did not hear any allegation against the Prime Minister.

Mr. Bruce

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You are right to say that I did not make an allegation: I asked a question. I asked that question on radio and television, in the public domain, in the run-up to the general election. I would be happy to ask it again.

Mrs. Gillan

Did my hon. Friend happen to read an article entitled, "Labour dials a wrong number", published in The Independent in October 1995, which said: Labour is losing its competitive edge. Mr. Blair's British Telecom "deal", announced on Tuesday, was extremely ill advised. Whether an exchange of favours between a putative future Government and a monopolistic business, or simply a gimmicky spin for conference on a sensible regulatory change, Mr. Blair has sent a worrying signal to the British consumer"?

Mr. Bruce

My hon. Friend makes my point: clearly no writ has been served on the newspaper for asking exactly the same question. I have written to the Prime Minister—at least, I have dictated the letter although I have not signed it; it will be sent in the next day or so. That letter asks the Prime Minister to publish the list of donators to his so-called blind trust. I have checked with the Registrar of Members' Interests in the House to see what advice had been given on information that should be given by Members who took money from the blind trust. The advice that was given to the then Leader of the Opposition has now altered. The problem that the Registrar had already identified is that people who donate to a blind trust can promptly tell the world—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is allowing himself to be diverted far too far from the subject matter of the debate. He should return to the main, broad stream of the argument to which the House has been listening all morning.

Mr. Bruce

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The subject of the debate is the information society and my remarks concern information coming out into society. They are relevant to the subject of the debate, which is so wide that one could almost talk about anything—although I am always guided by you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and would not wish to defy you in any way.

I have asked for the information about the Prime Minister's office fund to be published in the public domain. I was asked a question by someone who is upset about the amount of money going to the millennium fund for that great dome—it will all be part of the information age and we shall be trying to promote it. The person asked whether the architect was one of those who had donated to the blind fund. I do not know; we need that information—it is important.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have already had to interrupt the hon. Gentleman once and he has been here long enough to know that this is a debate about the information society. The House has understood what is meant by that term in the context of the debate. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue other matters, he knows that there are plenty of other occasions on which to do so, but those matters do not fall naturally within the remit of today's debate.

Mr. Bruce

I take your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I have finished my remarks on the subject. As you will know, I was challenged on the issue via what was virtually a point of order. I am happy to leave other allegations until I have received a reply from the Prime Minister about whether he will list the donators.

I felt that in this important debate, when we had an opportunity to talk about the information society, I should devote part of my speech to an element of one of the working parties within the European informatics Market group, which will be reporting to the Government and the European Community. The important subject of regulations on Internet content have already been raised. The regulations are relevant to the debate. The secretary of the working party, David Harrington—the secretary general of the Telecommunications Managers Association—has decided that he will not use paper. He will insist that all the minutes and the draft reports are produced electronically and put onto the Internet. The working party is currently under the chairmanship of Baroness Dean. She is also chairman of the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services—ICSTIS.

I am grateful to my researcher, whom I asked to go into the Internet and obtain information about the types of Internet content regulation. The House will have to examine regulation of the Internet and decide where it is going. Although hon. Members may not be interested in the technology, many are interested in what is happening on the Internet and whether the content is harmful. There are 50 million-plus users of the Internet and the world is worried about regulation of illegal and harmful content and protecting children from it.

It is interesting to try to define what people are worried about. Clearly, certain material is illegal and its dissemination is punishable by the criminal law and outlawed for use by all sections of society, regardless of age and the medium used. What is illegal off-line is illegal on-line. Illegal content includes material related to paedophilia, trafficking in human beings, deviant pornography, racism, extremism, terrorism and fraud. Much work has already been done in the European Parliament and it has produced some interesting reports.

Other material is not illegal, but it is harmful to the development of children. It is sometimes available to adult consumers. One has to consider how to restrict access to adults. We have considered regulation at the point of origin and at the point of access. It has been said that regulation at the point of origin will not work. The Internet is internationally dispersed and it is not realistic or possible, and perhaps not desirable, to exercise control over content at the point of origin. Control can be applied at the point of access, but that does not imply that efforts should not be made to trace illegal content to its source as well as to its customers.

Technical solutions that could allow effective control over content at the point of access are not yet fully effective or universally available. Why are technical solutions so difficult and not fully effective? There are news and ratings systems on the Internet, but one gets into great problems because the news often deals with violent events and adult-oriented subjects, and news stories often end up verboten in the same way as pornography is.

Microsoft tried to edit out some material through one of its systems, but found it difficult to do so. The public nature of the Internet means that if one channel is blocked, users will find another route by which to disseminate information. The report to Members of the European Parliament said: the particular nature of the Internet is such that censorship is virtually impossible. If a message is blocked from passing through one channel, it can get through by another. It is, furthermore, vital to respect freedom of expression, even if this leads to repugnant extremes. Furthermore, the world is worried about children first and foremost, as is evidenced by the recent comments made by President Clinton. He said last week: With the right technology and rating systems, we can help ensure that our children don't end up in the red-light districts of cyberspace. We have to be extremely careful about that, but it is important to understand that existing law already covers so much of what appears on the Internet. The biggest problem is one of jurisdiction—the international electronic medium is physically difficult to police.

It is not impossible to provide protections. For instance, almost every country in the world has already signed up to the convention on the rights of the child. By doing so, they will ensure that harmful information on the Internet will be caught. Funnily enough, I believe that the only two countries that have not signed the convention are the United States—I hope that its other laws will cover the problem—and Somalia. It is extremely important that we consider that issue.

I know that other hon. Members wish to participate in the debate so I will conclude by saying that, in the future, I hope that we will have a debate in prime time on the information society and other related issues.

1 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

The debate was initiated by the Government. I believe that many observers with an interest in technology and the spread of information in society will be disappointed at the content—or lack of it—in the Government's contribution to the debate.

It is sad that the colleague of the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry, the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs, is not on the Front Bench, because I am sure he would have noted how the debate has been misrepresented. It has been not an information debate, but a lack of information debate.

I look to the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry, for whom I have a great deal of respect, to redress the problem. I hope that she will present a serious, well-structured response to the questions that I shall ask and those asked by my hon. Friends the Members for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) and for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor).

Opening the debate, the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry spoke for more than 40 minutes. He told us that he started his life on the shelf; I very much hope that he does not end his life there. We were given a beautifully eloquent guided tour of modern technology, but we heard nothing of what the Government intend to do. The Minister's speech was quite rightly put a little in the shade by the offering from my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton. As those on the Government Benches have rightly acknowledged, he has a legendary reputation as one of the finest Members to hold the position of Minister for Science and Technology the House has ever seen.

Mr. Battle

Yes, and the Government of which the hon. Lady was a member sacked him.

Mrs. Gillan

My hon. Friend is greatly respected by the scientific and business community. He championed that community with great knowledge and to great acclaim. I advise the Minister to keep his remarks to himself and to read my hon. Friend's speeches.

The Minister's performance at a science and technology meeting upstairs yesterday was a bitter disappointment not just to me, but to many of the audience who were summoned by him. All they heard were enthusiastic ramblings, personal anecdotes and tales from Leeds. If the Minister wants to gain any respect, he will need to judge his words more carefully in the future.

I do not have respect for the Minister because at the start of the debate I asked for a reply to my written question. I accepted his apology and took it in the spirit in which it was offered. I was led to understand that he had signed a substantive answer to my question on the information society. That answer has not reached me here, and I have been either in the Chamber or within 100 yds of it all morning. The Minister has not brought that substantive answer to the House. I am happy to give way to him, because I took his apology in the spirit in which it was offered.

Mr. Battle

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to read out the answer to her question, which appears on the Order Paper for 11 July, which I understand is still regarded as today. The question asks: "what is her"—my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry's— Department's definition of the Information Society. The answer is: The Information Society is a concept encompassing the converging information technology, electronics and communications industries, their products and services and the infrastructure of the connecting networks. It involves the ability electronically to access very large quantities of information and entertainment on demand, to interact with and manipulate large quantities of data, to transact remotely and to communicate while on the move. It is a society where interactions and events are no longer determined by geographical position or physical separation. It will have a major impact on the economic and social fabric of our lives, and should be developed to create opportunities and benefits for all citizens. I hope that that is a helpful start for the hon. Lady.

Mrs. Gillan

That oral rendering of the written answer contained more information than the Minister's opening speech. I am extremely grateful to him—it proves that he can read rapidly. He could have arranged for that reply to be delivered to me, rather than throw it so disgracefully across the Table. However, that is the sort of arrogance that permeates the Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset made an extremely good speech. He is frustrated because he is not tuned in and turned on. I hope that that will soon be remedied. We put up with poor facilities in this House. It is certainly not the life of luxury that people might believe it to be. It is very difficult to get office space, as the Minister said. I have great sympathy with him for having had to start his life on a shelf. I started my life on a somewhat bigger shelf, but at least it was inside a room rather than in a corridor. The House needs to move into the next century. I am sure that we can agree on that, if nothing else. It is important that we make progress towards having the finest and most modern communications and technology available to hon. Members and, by virtue of that, available to the wider public and our constituents.

I feel sorry for the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who is waiting patiently for his Adjournment debate. It will come shortly. I note that the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) is not in his place. He made a speech on freedom of information which I felt was slightly off topic. He seemed to be contemplating the possibility of the Minister without Portfolio, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) planting chips—

Mrs. Roche

I am sure that the hon. Lady would wish to know that my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) has left the Chamber to take a telephone call because his son is not very well.

Mrs. Gillan

I am grateful to the Minister for that information. I was not implying that the hon. Member for Rotherham was neglecting his duties. He has been in the Chamber all morning. I am sure that we all wish his son a speedy recovery.

There is not an area of our lives that is not touched by information technology. The information society initiative started by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton was adopted as the overall strategy of the Conservative Government, who developed it to enable the United Kingdom to take its place as a leading nation in the growth of the information society. I praise British Telecom for the help that it gave us in moving forward with that initiative.

The Labour Government have been entrusted with the continued development of the information society initiative, yet in all their policy documents produced over 18 years in opposition and two and a half months in government they have never appeared fully to understand the implications for the business climate in which we operate.

Having called the debate, I hope that the Under-Secretary will listen to some of the questions that I shall pose. I want her to have the courage to tear up her civil service speech, as the Minister did, and reply directly in the interests of the population, which the Labour party claims has given it such a great mandate. Anything less than direct responses to my questions will be a clear sign that the Government can only carry forward the well-laid Conservative plans and that they have failed to consider the challenges posed by the rapidly changing face of technology.

I should like to start by paying tribute to the Cabinet Office's central IT unit. Today is the last day of its week-long exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall, which has been mentioned several times in the debate. My first question for the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry is how and with what resources the Government Direct programme will be implemented. We have the prospectus that the previous Government produced on it, but I should like her to tell us how the Government plan to install the networks and equipment displayed in the exhibition.

While I visited the exhibition, it became clear to me not only that the technology is available and will present no problem, but that the problem will be with government. The Government must work on a cross-departmental basis to maximise that technology. I therefore hope that the Minister will state directly what the Government will do to facilitate such co-operation and tell us what clout the Department of Trade and Industry has in ensuring that there will be cross-departmental co-operation.

The harnessing of science has improved the quality of our environment, schooling, communications, mobility, health and security and it has certainly changed the way in which we work, live and communicate. One of the most important matters, however, is how the cost equation can be improved to allow ordinary citizens to benefit from the advantages that such progress offers.

I think that the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry agrees that the cost equation is an extremely important matter, because so many technologies still bear a high cost. One of the Government's continuing roles should be to help to find ways to reduce the costs of delivery and to widen access to new technology. The Government should not create separate networks with terminals only in such worthy places as libraries, which are visited by a minority, but integrate public service access with private services to reach a wider audience at an affordable price.

I agree with the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry that the information society should be inclusive. I believe that the information society should include the disabled and accommodate the computer illiterate. In her reply, I hope that the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry will be able to answer my question about whether the Government will implement the provisions in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 that apply to access but have not yet been implemented. I hope that she will also give us a timetable for implementation.

The new Government have made much of the morality of our society and attempted to place themselves on the moral high ground with such intellectually bankrupt statements as, "We will govern for the many and not the few." By the very proposals that they are working on in so many spheres, such a statement may well become the petard on which Ministers are hoist. If the Government are to govern for the many and not the few, they will, for example, ignore disabled people's access to information technology, because the disabled are the few and not the many.

Another example is the use of in-lobby technology for the delivery and distribution of social security payments. It is arguable that placing terminals in post offices or retail outlets will enable those on benefits to collect more easily their share of taxpayers' money and result in cost savings to government and convenience to recipients of welfare, but can Ministers justify the high investment that will be made in only 20 per cent. of the population, some of whom will undoubtedly be the feckless and workshy, whereas the vast majority of hard-working people will receive no help towards their inclusion in the information society?

Technology will certainly turn clients of the welfare state into efficient consumers of the social security budget, but will it discriminate against hard-working individuals who fend for themselves? It will not if action is taken to integrate those services with other services, particularly those in the private sector. I therefore hope that the junior Minister will tell us her Department's policy on that matter, the stage it has reached in its thinking and what action it will take to ensure that a fully integrated service delivery scheme is achieved. In plain words, what are the plans for multi-service points?

I want to consider the regulation and policing of the new technologies, a subject considered at length at the Bonn conference the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry attended. I and many colleagues were disappointed that the Minister did not refer to that conference—

Mr. Battle

I did.

Mrs. Gillan

Only in an intervention; it was not a substantive part of the hon. Gentleman's speech.

Mr. Battle

I was generous in accepting interventions and, according to the marks on my notes, I think it was in response to one of the hon. Lady's interventions that I referred to the conference. The points that I made about the need to ensure that information was confidential were lifted from the discussions at Bonn. I assured the House that the declaration, which I hope all hon. Members will read and make use of, would be in the Library. What more does the hon. Lady want?

Mrs. Gillan

I will tell the hon. Gentleman what more I want. I have had the advantage of seeing the ministerial declaration from the Bonn conference. It is a non-binding declaration and the follow-up is so trivial that it consists of only three points. I cannot believe that it took two days to produce a non-binding agreement which includes in its follow-up the statement: Ministers welcome suggestions made by every country to organise special events during 1998". This document will make good reading for all hon. Members when a copy has been placed in the Library.

Mr. Battle

The hon. Lady should read the rest of it.

Mrs. Gillan

I have, but it does not contain much other than aspirations.

Mr. Battle

What, then, is the hon. Lady's view on the proposals in it for encryption?

Mrs. Gillan

What is the Minister's view on the German and American proposals on encryption and on the row that broke out? The Minister must remember that I am in opposition now. I do not have to answer the question—he does. He has to provide the information, not me.

Mr. Battle

If I were allowed to do so, I would be happy to respond fully to the debate, but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry will do so more competently than I. There was not a row between the Germans and the Americans at the conference, as the hon. Lady will see from the communiques and press reports. Sadly, the conference was not reported extensively in Britain, but it was reported in the German and Dutch press. In the Library, there are transcripts of what was said, from which she will see that there was no row. I am more than happy to take her through the details of the conference, but I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would rule me out of order if I did.

Mrs. Gillan

I thank the Minister for his worthless intervention and his patronising attitude. I have been to the Library and I have the press cuttings. One states: Germany will this week risk a clash with the US government and international multimedia companies as it pushes for European agreement on principles for regulating global information networks"— but more of that later.

Mr. Ian Bruce

Had my hon. Friend come to the PITCOM meeting, which dealt specifically with encryption and which the Minister might have been able to attend, she would have heard almost everyone from British industry criticise the Americans—[Interruption.] The Minister of State obviously does not want to hear this. Everyone criticised the Americans for keeping their encryption technology to themselves, saying that they could not allow it out for commercial use because of defence interests. The Minister should understand that if there was not a row there should have been.

Mrs. Gillan

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.

I was considering regulation and control. I shall bring the debate a little closer to home because I want to probe the Government's policies in areas that have not yet been mentioned. What are the Government's policies on smart card technology? Has the Minister of State had the opportunity to examine the work of the National Smart Card Forum? What role he is going to play in, for example, encouraging operators and users? One of the problems is that they need to be convinced that they can live together in the same chip without cross-talk. The technology exists, and the Government should perhaps have a role in convincing companies that that is a way forward.

Mr. Battle

That sounds like intervention.

Mrs. Gillan

The global market is vast—estimated at over £5 billion by 2000—and there are limitless application possibilities. The UK and France have been in the forefront of the development of smart cards. The Government have evaluated the technology by Department. The Minister needs to give a firm lead—that does not mean intervention, as he suggested—to ensure that evaluation takes place across all Departments in concert so that the advantages of economies of scale can be seen.

Government support would be a great help to our electronics industry, putting it in a strong position to obtain a large share in the world marketplace. The export potential of smart card technology is vast. Our exporting companies need support from Ministers at the Department of Trade and Industry, because the Chancellor's ineffective Budget has decimated our exporting companies. I have great sympathy with the Government trade and industry Front-Bench team. It must be difficult for them to give the attention to industry and jobs that the Labour manifesto promised when the Chancellor has introduced measures that destroy jobs, particularly in exporting companies.

The Minister mentioned the Internet, but he did not refer to it at great length. I hope that the Under-Secretary will give us her views on Internet policing and regulation. It is appropriate that we are having this debate today because the headline on the front page of today's Evening Standard is, "Murder Suspect Caught By Internet". For the first time, a British murder suspect has been arrested via the Internet in America. Two hours after his description was put on the Internet, it was seen by a policeman, who apprehended him. That is a great move forward, and it shows how relevant the Internet is to all of us, particularly to security and justice.

Electronic commerce is also gathering momentum. It is possible to sit in Amersham and order a book or compact disc from California—if not arrest a murder suspect. Financial and commercial transactions are growing, nationally and internationally, with—I am sad to say—scant regard for Governments, the Inland Revenue or Customs and Excise. How are the Government preparing for the global shopping mall? Is the Department of Trade and Industry working with Customs and Excise and the Treasury on a policy for policing such transactions?

Do the Government agree with President Clinton's approach to products and services delivered across the Internet? The Minister will obviously have read President Clinton's speech made on 1 July. I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to tell us whether the Government agree with it. President Clinton has directed the United States trade representative to work with foreign Governments"— that means our Government— to secure agreement within the next 12 months that all products and services delivered across the Internet will not be subject to tariffs and that all equipment from which the Internet is built will also not be subject to tariffs. What is the Government's policy towards that speech? If they agree with everything in it, can they justify such acquiescence? If not, what regulatory framework do they propose?

It is most important that, in answering those questions, the Under-Secretary says how she will ensure that the Government retain their revenue and income as the transactions multiply and tax avoidance opportunities increase. If the Government have no solutions to those problems, they will find that there is increasing erosion of revenue, particularly in indirect taxes, to which the only answer may be a shift towards direct taxation. I hope that the Under-Secretary will address that matter directly in her speech.

I turn now to the education of the generations who will use electronic commerce, who will work in smart buildings, who will carry just one smart card and who, according to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton, may pay only 20p for a car. Oh brave new world! They will certainly be liberated by technological advances that we cannot even predict.

The education of those children is paramount. After 18 years of planning, and after 18 years of sniping at and opposing everything that Conservative Governments did in education, there was published this week a White Paper on education, "Excellence in schools". It contains some admirable aims and objectives, many of which are the continuation of our policies. In the context of this debate, I was disappointed to see that there was only a small passing reference to information technology. I think that Ministers will share my disappointment because it was left to a Department of Trade and Industry Minister to give us more details about the national grid. A Department for Education and Employment Minister should have put those details at the heart of the White Paper. The sadness is that no Minister can tell us what will be taken forward within what time scale and at what cost. There are warm words and promises, but they are uncosted, undated and unfulfillable.

When I was fortunate enough to be a junior Minister at the Department for Education and Employment, I visited schools that literally took my breath away. I went to a city technology college that operated 364 days a year, ran a five-term year and closed only on Christmas day. The children queued to get in first thing in the morning and had to be thrown out last thing at night. Why? The school contained state-of-the-art technology and the children were hungry for knowledge.

The technology college initiative will go ahead under the Labour Government. I want to know which of the programmes will fall foul of the reviews in the Department for Education and Employment. I hope that Ministers in the Department of Trade and Industry will fight for the Department for Education and Employment to keep the technology college programme growing because it is the way forward in education. I have seen nothing in any Labour party or Government document since Labour came to office that guarantees that that programme will move forward.

There are many questions that the Government must face. I have tried to pose a few that were not asked in some of the valuable contributions made by my hon. Friends. So that the Under-Secretary of State gets the drift and so that she can answer my questions directly, I shall summarise some for her. How will she take forward Government Direct? What funds will be committed to that initiative? Will the Under-Secretary set up a cross-departmental inquiry to look at reducing costs and maximising efficiency? Will she ensure that a private-public sector partnership exists and how will she drive it forward?

Will the Minister consider the needs of the disabled and will she give me the answer to my question on the Disability Discrimination Act 1995? Will she undertake to examine the smart card technologies? Will she make an effort to look at the export drive of the electronics industry, particularly the sector that deals with smart cards? What are her policies on the Internet? Does she agree with what President Clinton said? If she does not, why not, and if she does, why? Will she speak to the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise, or has she already done so, about the implications of the Internet? What are the detailed plans for information technology in our schools? How much will be spent on IT in schools and within what time scale?

There are many more questions, but sadly time prohibits me from asking them. The House has a much wider audience that is waiting for the Minister's response. I hope that it will be straightforward and not an arrogant dismissal in the style of the written answers that I have received from the Department. In the past two days, out of some 20 questions, only one has been answered substantively. A second response was thrown across the Table by the Minister.

We have had an important debate and I am sorry that more Labour Members, who are so numerous, were not queuing up to participate. In a debate about the information society, the Government have provided little information. Now the Minister has a chance to make a name for herself in the House and answer some questions directly.

1.30 pm
The Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry (Mrs. Barbara Roche)

I start by welcoming the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) to her new responsibilities on the Opposition Front Bench. I had hoped to have the great pleasure of doing so during last week's important debate on small retail businesses, but the hon. Lady was not in her place and I understand from the Conservative Whips that they could not find her. Sadly, her voice could not be heard last week, but I am delighted that we have had the great privilege of hearing her speak today.

It has been an extremely important debate and we have heard some excellent speeches. Unfortunately, it was marred by the speech of the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) who, in every aspect of his delivery, demonstrated why his party lost the election. Whenever arrogance is mentioned in the Chamber, the phrase used by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade comes to mind. She said that the Opposition have a degree in arrogance that surpasses all. We shall certainly take no lessons from them in delivering what the British people expect and hope from the new Government.

We have heard several important speeches. The hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) was a Minister who made a great contribution to the subject. His speech covered a number of important aspects. My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) stressed the importance of simple language and conveyed in his speech the message of information technology for all. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) dealt with the importance of new technology to biomedicine and the necessity to ensure that all professions benefit from IT.

I was saddened, however, by some of the comments by the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), although he made a number of important points about electronic commerce. Of course he has a distinguished record as the chairman of PITCOM. It was sad that his speech was marred by straying into inaccuracies and leaving the subject of the debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) who made some important comments about rural areas which were greatly appreciated.

The Government embark on their term of office at a crucial period for information technology, electronics and communications. It is an exciting time, as we move into the new millennium, but we are moving into the information age at a speed that is baffling to many, and our understanding of the precise implications for the way in which we live and work and the way in which we enjoy our leisure hours ranges from intelligent guesses to the complete inaccurate.

We have only to consider what stabs at the future we might have made five or even three years ago. Most of us would have got it wrong. For example, many experts failed to predict the meteoric rise in the use of the Internet—even over a 12-month period. Much has been made—this was mentioned by the hon. Member for South Dorset—of regulation of the Internet. I certainly agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham on the subject.

The Government, like their predecessors, will certainly work to ensure that the system that has been put in place, which includes Internet watch, which is based on the law of the land, will continue. I raised the issue when I represented the United Kingdom recently in the European Union Telecoms Council. Of course, we need to have a wide-ranging discussion not only here in the UK but with our international partners. The subject is important for us all.

We are now coming to terms with the reality of networks that link us globally. The process is not quite as easy as making a telephone call, but the technology is getting there. With the approach of digital satellite and digital television and the interactive services that they will make available to a wide range of people, the day is fast approaching when the technologies and the benefits that they bring will be available for all and will make a significant contribution to improving the quality of life.

A number of hon. Members, including, of course, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, have emphasised the importance of avoiding a division in the nation of information haves and information have-nots. Indeed, the hon. Member for Cheltenham made that very important point. We need to ensure that everybody is able to take advantage of the information society. In fact, there will not be a true information society until everybody is able to make use of it.

The IT for all initiative is therefore particularly important, given its focus on access to technologies in local, convenient and unintimidating environments, enabling people to have hands-on experience and to try out what is best for them in a friendly atmosphere. What do I mean by this?

As I am sure hon. Members will be well aware, the IT for all projects include travelling computer buses run in co-operation with the private sector, which offer opportunities for all to get hands-on experience. Family technology evenings, which are supported by Microsoft, open up opportunities for parents and the wider community in schools and other community bases. As the parent of an eight-year-old, I know that it is us parents who are learning from our eight-year-olds—and even younger—about where the new technology is taking us.

If any hon. Member has doubts about just what information and communications technologies can do for all sections of the community, I draw their attention to a group of EU projects in which we are involved, which help the disabled and the elderly. I was rather taken aback that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham appeared to knock the support given to such projects. They are important because they bring about the involvement of everybody in the information revolution that is about to happen.

Such projects give people with learning difficulties user-friendly access to e-mail and the Internet through specially designed interfaces and the use of symbols. A portable controller and associated software are being developed to enable disabled people to communicate with their surroundings and control temperature and lighting.

I was in Bavaria about a month ago looking at some good British modern design and techniques, which have come from universities but are looking for commercial adaption. The equipment will help severely disabled people to live their lives freely and independently. Those are the great advantages that the information revolution can bring.

Mrs. Gillan

I hope that I misheard the hon. Lady. She seemed to suggest that I was casting aspersions on projects for the disabled. It was quite the reverse. I was casting aspersions on the Labour party's philosophy, "We will govern for the many, not the few." It is the few who are disabled. Along the lines of that maxim, the Labour party should not be concerned with them. It should be concerned only with the largest number of people.

Will the Minister now answer the question that I have repeatedly asked about the Disability Discrimination Act?

Mrs. Roche

I am absolutely astonished to hear the hon. Lady's intervention. The best way that I can describe it is as nonsense. Of course it is the Government's job to govern for everybody and, in doing so, we shall ensure that disabled people have access to information technology. That is vital. The hon. Lady was a Minister in the previous Government who disappointed disabled people time and again. It has been left up to this new Labour Government to ensure that we deliver proper support and enablement to people with disabilities.

Mrs. Gillan

Will the Minister answer my question?

Mrs. Roche

If the hon. Lady has a little patience—I know that it has been a whirlwind two and a half months and she is still recovering from her party's defeat at the last election—all will come to her in time. A little patience and humility from the hon. Lady would be extremely welcome.

We also have a project to help physically disabled people—[Interruption.] If the hon. Lady would listen, she would learn what is happening out there for disabled people and could then make a more substantial contribution to the debate.

As I was saying, the project will help physically disabled people who cannot speak to communicate by developing a device with pre-stored conversational sequences, which can be tailored to the individual over time. [Interruption.] I am sorry that the hon. Lady finds such projects amusing. Many disabled people, many of whom will be following our deliberations, consider it important that we have a proper discussion about those projects.

Mrs. Gillan

I regard this subject as most important, but the Minister has not replied to the question that I have posed over and again. Is she incapable of answering it or does she not have an answer? Have her officials been unable to find the information in the short period that they have had? Will the Minister be straight with us? Are Ministers going to sit on the Front Bench and never answer questions directly but just exchange insults across the Dispatch Box? Answer the question about the Disability Discrimination Act: when will the second part be implemented? Does the Minister know, or even care?

Mrs. Roche

It is difficult to know how to respond. This debate is about the information society, part of which is the ability to listen. The hon. Lady has not had much experience of that during the past 18 years.

Another project is to develop standard guidelines for the production of signing books for the deaf and to study the consequent storage and distribution issues. The Government will follow those important projects extremely carefully.

We have heard a great deal in the debate about the United Kingdom's information technology, electronics and communications industry, and about the readiness of the UK's communications infrastructure for the information age. The industry makes a substantial contribution to the UK's GDP. It provides considerable employment and is a source of much innovation and enterprise. It is the kind of industry where the UK can add considerable value and, as a result, compete successfully world wide. The new Government very much support that.

The coming months will see some exciting new developments. In particular, I shall be following closely the development of the newly announced investment by Microsoft in Cambridge, and the associated venture capital fund for small companies. A great deal has gone on in that area, such as the St. John's innovation centre and the business angel networks.

Mr. Ian Taylor

I welcome the announcement by Microsoft, which has been encouraged to look positively at the United Kingdom. Bill Gates had dinner with me twice, and the new Administration have followed up that interest. May I ask the Minister to urge her ministerial colleagues to give the same importance to the new industries that she and the Minister of State have given to them? Sometimes it seems that Labour is concerned only with the old industries. The telecommunications industry employs more people than the motor car industry in this country. The music industry makes a larger contribution to this country's GDP than the water industry. This is a transformation in the way in which industry will affect the future of this country. It is important that everybody in the Government understands this, as she has done.

Mrs. Roche

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that important point. We need a balanced approach, and all my colleagues have the same message. It is interesting that very many of the traditional industries have become reliant on new technology because they are new technology-driven. I always quote the example of a wonderful third-generation, family-run bakery in my constituency. It is very popular, and everything is baked fresh every day. But if one goes behind the scenes, one sees that it is driven by new technology. That is a perfect marriage of a traditional industry with new technology.

Considerable development has been evident in infrastructure provision. In addition to the major investment from BT, Mercury and others, more than 9 million homes now have cable running past their doors. Construction has accelerated, currently adding at least 2.4 million homes every year. This will bring broad band services to some 19 million homes. That is a considerable achievement.

Further coverage is being developed through the use of the radio spectrum. More than half a dozen companies have now been licensed to provide services by means of radio fixed access. Two of those were specifically required to cover rural areas—those where broad band cable franchising typically has not reached. The Government are now also considering possible uses of other parts of the spectrum for broad band applications, further extending the possibilities to bring broad band connectivity within reach of the whole of the UK population.

Mr. Ian Bruce

The Minister may be coming to the end of her speech. In a debate on the information society, nobody has yet mentioned the Post Office. Is she aware of a report produced by the Communication Workers Union, of which I believe the hon. Member for Hull, West and Hessle (Mr. Johnson) was the general secretary? It proposed to the previous Government that they should free up the Post Office so that it could invest in new technology to enable it to compete in the worldwide information revolution. Have the Government any plans quickly to free up the Post Office in such a way?

Mrs. Roche

The Minister for social partnership, my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), who has responsibility for the Post Office, made a recent announcement on that subject. We are certainly keen that the Post Office should be able to compete in all the new opportunities that are increasingly becoming available.

The United Kingdom digital infrastructure, whether cable, radio, satellite or other network, is truly developing into a seamless network of networks and technologies. That is the reality of the information super-highway. It is certainly not a monolithic, single-technology, fixed-link network. That emphasises the importance of encouraging and protecting investment in all forms of alternative infrastructure. Of course, the regulatory regime must continue to underpin seamless interconnection and dynamic competition at the network level, but, as those component networks and connections near completion, it must also increasingly turn its attention to supporting affordable access for all in the new range of services offered over those networks. That is extremely important as we get convergence. Inevitably, politicians of whatever political party and nation state tend to follow behind the emerging technology. We ought to keep that very much in mind.

We have rightly heard much about competitiveness. The new technologies have the almost unique potential of being able to improve the competitiveness of practically every sector of business. They cannot be ignored and any business that does not take on that message risks seeing its business usurped by those that do. In this age of the global economy, it is just as likely that the competitor is in the far east or north America as in the next town or across the channel. Certainly, the message that we need to send to all businesses in the United Kingdom, both large and small, is that there are global markets and that it is vital that we make our country and our businesses as competitive as possible.

Mr. Fallon

If it is true that all businesses must be as competitive as possible, why is the other side of the Department of Trade and Industry—I think that he is now called the Minister of State for social partnership—proposing to impose the minimum wage and the social chapter, which will add costs to British business?

Mrs. Roche

I entirely reject that argument. What is interesting is the number of businesses that support the minimum wage because they believe that it will be competitive. As recently as a few months ago, the Federation of Small Businesses backed a sensibly negotiated minimum wage. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should spend a little more time with the business community.

The battle for competitiveness is never won. We need more investment in indigenous companies from inward investors—in small companies as well as large ones, in research as well as product development and in our university centres of excellence as well as our companies. We need to get better at exploiting our well-deserved reputation for innovation. More of those bright ideas need to be turned into winning products in companies based here in the United Kingdom and not overseas. More of our small, technology-based companies need to be helped to become the stars of tomorrow. Indeed, in the words of the recent Confederation of British Industry report, the "Tech-Stars" of tomorrow.

To do that, we need to build a relationship between the science and industry base and between Government and businesses both large and small. As the Minister with responsibility for small firms, I want in particular to underline the vital role that smaller businesses play in a successful enterprise economy.

The Government are firmly committed to providing the right conditions for the sector to compete and grow. That is why it is so important for the message about the opportunities and benefits of the new technologies to reach out to those many small companies and why the Department's information society initiative programme for business is focused on them. We are determined that it should succeed in communicating the message effectively. We will do that with the help of business partners and local support centres.

The hon. Member for Sevenoaks asked me about that programme. It will certainly continue; indeed, we will enhance it. In the autumn, I will make an announcement about the direction of business links, and how we want that programme to grow and prosper.

We want to help small businesses even further, and I want to highlight the role of the enterprise zone on the Internet. In opposition, we did a great deal of work on that project, and I am especially pleased to be advancing it personally. It will be a one-stop Internet site designed to help small and medium-sized companies to obtain quick and easy access to a wide range of business information available on the world wide web.

That is important, because any owner-manager knows that there is a great deal of helpful information out there, but that it is sometimes difficult to have enough hours in the day to deal with it. That is one way in which we can make the information revolution work for our small businesses.

A number of hon. Members have said that the Government should set an example, using information and communication technologies to increase accessibility, efficiency and effectiveness. I absolutely agree. Government, and the public sector more widely, are in a position to have a major impact on the environment of acceptance leading to a virtuous circle of even greater use.

The new technologies offer opportunities for opening up government in education, health, public administration and elsewhere and improving the delivery of public services. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency has worked closely with motor manufacturers to establish electronic links that allow motor dealers to register and license vehicles at their own premises, avoiding the need for journeys to the vehicle registration office. The DVLA has also been piloting a project to enable companies with large vehicle fleets to relicense their vehicles in bulk by electronic data interchange.

Insurance companies are also benefiting from an electronic inquiries service that has help them to speed up the processing of motor claims. Those are good examples of the public and private sectors working together to secure not only value for money—which is extremely important, as we should be wise spenders of the public purse—but a better service for consumers.

Libraries, museums and galleries are another important part of the public sector in which it is clear that information technology has the potential to make a significant difference. As so many people can have access to libraries, we must ensure that the information revolution extends to the library system.

Reference has been made to the Cabinet Office's central information technology unit's pilot projects, which cover important areas of government, in which IT can make a difference. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham asked me a number of questions about that. More of those pilot projects will follow. Some will be central Government-local authority partnerships, building on projects that local authorities have developed. We heard some discussion about that today and about the work that has been done by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell). We want to build on those projects.

Mrs. Gillan

How much will the Minister put into the forward programme?

Mrs. Roche

As the hon. Lady knows, we have made our spending plans clear: we are sticking to existing limits. The hon. Lady must take into account the prudence that we shall exercise. Unlike the previous Administration, we shall be wise spenders of the public purse. In his excellent Budget last week, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer put that aim into practice.

Some local authorities are leading the way in providing unified and more conventional services, using technology. The views of the public on the schemes will be sought and recorded through market research, and results published to inform the debate.

My hon. Friend the Minister rightly made a great deal of the importance of skills, training and education in taking forward the information society. Much has been done, but much needs to be done. Without a well-educated population and a skilled work force, we shall not be able to take full advantage of the new technologies to improve the United Kingdom's competitiveness and to improve our daily lives.

There is still much that we need to do. Clearly, we need to work closely with industry to bring that about. That is why our plans to revolutionise learning in the United Kingdom include the university for industry. That is a bold new venture which will bring new opportunities to adults seeking to improve their skills and realise their potential. It will bring learning to the workplace, the home and the community, and it will be a vital part of our information society. The university for industry will simplify and widen access to learning; it will improve the availability and quality of information and materials and stimulate demand for learning.

I was disappointed to hear the remarks of the hon. Member for Sevenoaks when he knocked the university for industry. I was mindful of the fact that when the Government of Harold Wilson introduced the Open university, the then Conservative Opposition voted against it. I am afraid that times do not change—it just shows that the Conservatives have learnt nothing.

Mr. Ian Bruce

The one thing on which everyone in the House can agree is that the Open university, as introduced by the late Lord Wilson, is excellent. We pay tribute to the university for its excellent standards. Conservatives believe that the university for industry is another good idea, but we are worried that only £5 million has been set aside for that excellent idea.

Mrs. Roche

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has admitted the Conservative party's past mistakes—that is welcome news. The hon. Gentleman has a cheek to criticise us for taking forward the initiative when the Conservative Government did nothing about it.

In one of the more useful parts of his speech, the hon. Member for South Dorset mentioned the century date change problem. That problem also highlights the skills issue. According to recent surveys by the Computing Services and Software Association, across the IT industry—both among IT suppliers and user organisations—many thousands of job vacancies remain unfilled.

That situation is likely to worsen as more businesses seek to ensure that their systems are prepared for the century date change. To address those issues, I shall be hosting a millennium skills summit later this month. The aim of that high-level meeting is to recognise the challenges facing UK industry and commerce as a result of the shortages in skilled IT staff and to look for ways of addressing the problem in both the short and longer term.

During the debate, we also discussed the position in our schools. As I have said, we know that as many as 40 per cent. of school computers are now at least five years old; they are obsolete in today's terms. That is why my right hon. Friend's Budget announcement about funding for schools in that vital area was so widely welcomed by schools up and down the country.

Mrs. Gillan

What period does the Minister consider is right for a school to keep a computer? How much of the money that was announced by the Chancellor will go into the IT programme of computer replacement that she suggests?

Mrs. Roche

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in the Budget an additional £1.3 billion to be spent over the lifetime of the Parliament to start tackling the backlog of capital repairs and equipment for schools. That is an immediate programme of capital investment to equip our schools with the infrastructure, including IT equipment, and the bright, modern schools that they need.

Mrs. Gillan

Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. Roche

No. I will not take another intervention at this point. I do not know whether the expression "brass cheek" is a parliamentary one. Of course, I will not use it if it is inappropriate. I see opposite me on the Opposition Front Bench two former education Ministers, whose Government were responsible for letting our primary and secondary schools get into a disgraceful state of disrepair. I wonder why they do not hang their brass necks—if that expression is available to me—in shame rather than speak on this subject at all.

The issue is not only equipment but the skills and confidence of teachers in using and teaching new technology. The Stevenson report has made a valuable contribution to IT training of teachers. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham spoke about the White Paper "Excellence in Schools", which was published earlier this week. It has already set out our broad proposals for the national grid for learning. We shall consult specifically on those proposals in the autumn.

Our legislative programme for this Session includes a commitment to use lottery proceeds to support teacher training in information and communication technologies, and we shall consult on that shortly. We shall use some of that money to help existing teachers to raise their skills to the same level that we expect newly qualified teachers to achieve.

Mr. Fallon

I have been following carefully what the Minister said on the national grid for learning. Does what she has just announced mean that the resources available to it will come only from the lottery, or is there new Government money? If so, in which year will it start?

Mrs. Roche

Let me seek to help the hon. Gentleman. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment will announce later this year decisions on the proportion of the additional money for education that was announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor that will go to the national grid for learning. So, with a little patience, the hon. Gentleman will get the information that he seeks.

We wish to ensure that our measures develop the use of information and communication technology and life-long learning, to enrich our lives at school and university, in our work and leisure, in our homes and workplaces, and in our libraries and museums. The information society is also the learning society.

A great deal of interest has been expressed in the debate in electronic commerce, another area in which the technology is moving at great speed. I was in Bristol earlier this week looking at a small but rapidly growing high-technology company. It is already developing products to be used for electronic commerce, specifically aimed at small and medium enterprises. So the technology is moving apace. It is a wide area and issues such as intellectual property rights, information security, privacy, encryption, digital signatures, payment taxation and so on are emerging as important.

Certainly the House will return to these subjects in the coming weeks and months, not least when we respond to the consultation exercise initiated by the previous Government. I have no doubt that many of the issues that have been raised today, which are extremely complex, will be discussed in some detail.

We recognise that the effective harnessing of the huge potential of information technology is crucial to our national and social well-being. That is why we intend to use the best information society developments in the public interest. That is why we will aim for fair competition, open access and maximum social benefit. Above all, we will aim to spread the benefits of new technology to the many rather than the few.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.