HC Deb 18 March 1998 vol 308 cc1199-221

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

9.34 am
Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

Before I open the debate, I should like to declare an interest. I hold two software consultancies—neither is internet—based—with Integrated Communication Projects and with Channel Dynamics.

A copy of my speech will be placed on the website www.iwks.com later this morning. Sadly, that is not my constituency website, which is in preparation.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

It will be on the House of Commons website, as well.

Mr. Wyatt

I am sure that it will be there soon.

The internet is the most important peacetime invention this century. We should consider four events that have taken place in this country and across the Atlantic since 1 May 1997. First, the general election results were posted first on the internet. Secondly, following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, thousands of websites were set up as people around the globe shared their grief; indeed, the worldwide web became for three weeks the worldwide wake. Thirdly, in the Louise Woodward case, Judge Hiller Zobel put his judgment on the internet first. Fourthly, in the Monica Lewinsky affair, the Drudge Report website reported on the alleged problems in the White House before all other media.

The internet's ubiquity continues at a pace that has never been experienced by any industry. If we fail to understand that, and fail to educate and enable our citizens equally, we shall concede economic, social and political advantages to other countries—particularly to America—for ever.

I am pleased that we are holding this debate, and I wondered which Minister would reply to it. At first, I thought that it might be my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, because what travels on the internet is a software issue, and his responsibility. Music sales on the internet in 1997 topped $52 million, and book sales through the likes of amazon.com are set to reach $2.2 billion by 2002.

Then I thought that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster might reply, because he is charged with producing information legislation, which must be internet-friendly, and with delivering electronic services to our citizens, which is just as important. I then suspected that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary might reply, because encryption and pornography come under his wing, and he would be interested in Oracle's work with the American Department of Defense—but no.

I thought that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer might be present. How people do business on the internet, and where, if at all, they pay taxes is crucial, and electronic commerce is vital. E-commerce business will be worth £20 billion in Europe by 2001. Moreover, and more worryingly, President Clinton wants no taxes on e-commerce. However, my right hon. Friend is understandably busy this week.

As we are putting together a national grid for learning via local internet providers, a university for industry, and lifelong learning initiatives, I thought that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment might be present, but I see him not.

Finally, I expected my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security to be present. If she is to issue more than 15 million smartcards, which must be internet-friendly, it would be smarter for her to be present so that I could tell her about the new cards that use radio frequency technology. I do not see her.

The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry has been fielded, because the Department of Trade and Industry is in charge of regulation of the internet. I welcome him, and look forward to hearing his reply to the debate.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)

I am listening with great interest to the list of Departments that could have taken responsibility. Under the previous Government, the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises were focused on by the Department of Trade and Industry, where I was a Minister. I am delighted that my successor is here today. The former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was responsible for the Government on-line system, which is continuing under this Government.

Mr. Wyatt

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I accept that, in this instance, he probably knows more about the subject than I do.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wyatt

Let me get going.

Sadly, I do not think that it is possible to regulate the internet. It is possible to regulate the 250 United Kingdom internet service providers, but only if they are connected via a telephone line. Hughes Olivetti, Astra, Eutelsat, Motorola and Teledesic provide satellite services that can deliver the internet with their own return path. It is difficult to know how they will be regulated.

It is also not possible to make some non-European providers pay VAT. We have failed to regulate that, and have therefore failed to provide a level playing field for our own industry. Moreover, while books and newspapers are zero-rated for VAT, internet services, including electronic books, incur VAT at 17.5 per cent. Why is that? Incidentally, the converse is true of regulating broadcasts. As BT has admitted, many thousands of viewers now view UK television via a telephone line through their personal computers, which is actually illegal.

The internet may be hidden in cyberspace, but, as this overview demonstrates, it is all-pervasive. It may be hard to tie down, and extremely hard to tie down within Government, but that is not an excuse for no action, and it is not an excuse for the existing scenario in Whitehall, which, frankly, is farcical. Because no single Department is in charge of the internet, it falls into the black hole of cyberspace. Few Cabinet Ministers understand it: many still have no e-mail addresses, and they clearly do not look regularly at their own departmental websites, which are woefully inadequate and make us look like bumbling amateurs.

The editorial in the February edition of a magazine that I know that we all read avidly, Government Computing, put it another way: Making the red box electronic without looking at how ministers and their senior civil servants work is like putting satellite positioning on a buffalo cart. Why is Whitehall not like Silicon Graphics? Silicon Graphics has about 22,000 employees, each of whom has a website. At the end of the day, wherever they are in the world, they leave a short note of their activities. While they are at play or asleep, a series of intelligent agents moves through the sites, reads them and decides who else in the company needs the information. When the decision has been made, the notes are deposited in the relevant website, so that, when a Silicon Graphics employee next logs on, he or she has a fast-track business opportunity. How do we even start to emulate that scenario?

The internet is not new. As an academic and political tool, it is more than 30 years old. It has been rebooted over the past five years, for two reasons. A Briton, Tim Berners-Lee, working in the CERN laboratories in Switzerland, created the underlying protocol for the worldwide web as early as 1991. In any other country, he would be a folk hero, but we hardly know him in this country, and—sadly for us—he now works in the media laboratory at Harvard.

A year later, in 1992, Marc Andreessen, a mere student at the university of Illinois, helped to create Mosaic at the university's national centre for supercomputing applications. Mosaic is what we now call an internet browser. In 1994, Andreessen took his idea to Silicon Valley, and helped to start the company Netscape.

In 1995, a young hopeful by the name of Bill Gates said that the internet would not work; in 1995, a young hopeful by the name of Bill Gates told his senior vice-president of Multimedia, Rob Glasher, that the idea of putting radio stations on the internet was simply nuts. Today, Real Networks, Rob Glasher's company, is listed on the Nasdaq. It parks 650 radio stations—including, I am proud to say, Invicta in Kent—30 broadcast companies, and 35 record labels. Already, 40 million RealPlayers have been downloaded directly from its website. Indeed, as I talk, my speech, with pictures, could be seen across the world—not via cable television in the UK, because only cable viewers in the UK can watch, but via the internet. But hon. Members have guessed: we have no facilities for radio or for broadcasting Parliament on the internet.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

In fact, the BBC's website broadcasts Prime Minister's Question Time live.

Mr. Wyatt

I am aware of that.

It is to the immense credit of Bill Gates and his brilliant team at Microsoft that he has travelled the road to Damascus and changed his mind about the internet. The pity is that his company now seeks to control every living form that breathes on it.

The UK statistics given by the Internet Service Providers Association are revealing. At the end of 1997, 1.5 million people had access to the internet at home, and 3 million had access to it at work. At the end of this year, the figures will be 2.7 million and 3.7 million respectively. At the end of 2000, they will be 4.2 million and 4.7 million respectively.

The UK market is growing at a rate of 80 per cent. annually. By the end of this year, when four separate companies—BSkyB, British Interactive Broadcasting, British Digital Broadcasting and Cable and Wireless—launch digital television in some form or other, more people in the UK will be on the internet than already watch the existing analogue satellite and cable channels. That social change has been almost totally ignored, especially by BDB, whose set-top box has no internet access.

The internet is what Andy Grove, the chief executive of Intel, called a 10X force for change. Intel was formed 26 years ago, when two men wrote a statement of intent a page and a half long and with it raised $2.3 million. Two businesses were born: Intel, which has become the fourth largest company in the world, and Venture Capital, which now accounts for 30 per cent. of all new businesses in California. The UK is the seventh largest economy in the world; California is the eighth largest. The venture capital market in the UK is worth less than 2 per cent. of our businesses, and much of that is composed of management buy-outs rather than start-up companies.

The internet makes it possible for a virtual venture capital market to develop. As the structure and ownership of the internet is still largely American, the Americans will hear of the opportunities first, and will invest first. As one who lobbied the Chancellor on a venture capital fund, I was pleased to hear in yesterday's Budget statement that £50 million had been allocated. That is a start.

We are late to the dance floor. The Singapore Government have already set about making sure that they lead the world by creating the first internet-based society. Likewise, the Norwegian Government have announced a desire to give their businesses the edge by ensuring that theirs is the first pan-European country to follow Singapore's example, through an initiative termed the public sector network—a joint venture by the Ministry of National Planning and Co-ordination and the Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities.

If we are not careful, the internet will create the biggest brain drain, virtual or otherwise, that Europe has ever experienced. The consequence will be much higher levels of unemployment throughout Europe, especially in the UK.

Let me give an example of the internet business world as it affects our own young people. Orbital Technology is a three-year-old Scottish company whose founders came across the Java language while at their respective Scottish universities. They realised that they could create something special with it, and set about creating what I can best describe as an archive retrieval system. They were lucky: they raised the first tranche of money— £3 million—but when they came back for refinancing in the UK, they could not find further investment. In the end, they had to resort to America. I was with them at the venture capital forum at Comdex last November, when they sought an extra £10 million and found it.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Before my hon. Friend leaves the subject of Scottish universities, let me say that I know something about it, and can reinforce the importance of what he is saying.

Mr. Wyatt

I thank my hon. Friend.

In New York, the elected mayor has just won the rights to a $70 million venture capital fund, because he recognises the need to rival California. In the UK, our new regional development agencies have no venture capital fund attached to them, but they need to. The new sixth cause in the people's lottery has no place for a people's venture capital fund. We must persuade the Secretary of State of its value.

The problems are compounded by the millennium bomb issue. At midnight on 31 December 1999, millions of computers will fail to recognise that the next day is 1 January 2000; instead, they are likely to recognise it as 1 January 1900. I advise hon. Members to avoid flying that week, and to check their bank accounts.

Mrs. Gillan

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government's handling of the year 2000 computer problem is just as chaotic as the scenario that he outlined at the beginning of his speech, involving policies on the internet and the information technology industry as a whole?

Mr. Wyatt

I think that we have made a start; what we have not done is put enough money in. I read in today's Financial Times that the Australians had given all the financial services until 30 January to declare their millennium bomb agenda. If it is not in place by 30 June, they will not be able to trade.

Mrs. Gillan

I saw that article. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if the Government do not tackle the year 2000 computer problem, that will pose a great threat to the internet itself?

Mr. Wyatt

I am going to come on to how the internet is affected by the bug.

We have TaskForce 2000 to help to create awareness of the problem. Its parliamentary briefing paper, which was sent to me on 5 March, said: The cost to the UK economy is over £50 billion. Later, it said: The Government needs to provide high level leadership now. It is currently not doing so. We have been concentrating on the millennium bug as it relates to computers and computing, but not on how it will affect the internet or our banks. Tim Sweeney, director general of the British Bankers Association, said that British banks would not be able to prepare for a switch to a single European currency at the same time as they work to prevent a rash of damaging computer crashes on 1 January 2000. I wonder, then, how those European countries that will be first to the euro will manage. So far, the Government have allocated £330 million to the whole millennium bug issue; the banks, interestingly, have allocated £1.65 billion.

The national grid for learning has somehow been separated out from the university for industry and our lifelong learning initiatives, which makes no philosophical sense. As the national grid for learning is now constituted, a secondary modern school in my constituency, Sittingbourne community college, with its outstanding headmaster, Alan Barham, and his dedicated staff, cannot shout from the rooftops how it has created a reading scheme for its youngsters who, when they enter the school at 11, have reading ages of just over nine, but, six months later, have caught up. His is a CD-ROM approach. Under the current local mosaic plan for the national grid, no other school would be able to share in that scheme, except those in north Kent.

Another school in my constituency, Fulston Manor, has, through the brilliant work of its head of media, Gwyneth Windsor, developed its own CD-ROM explaining GNVQ provision. It sent it to the Department for Education and Employment. This is the reply that the school received: Although an interesting idea…I am also afraid that there is also a lack of technical expertise within the Department to enable us to take you any further forward"— and that is the Department that is challenged with responsibility for the national grid for learning.

Because the impact of the internet is global, and because it will lead to a fundamental structural change at every level in our communities, I want to make some recommendations for the Government to consider. The first is to create a new Department, the Ministry of Communications, to include responsibility for telecommunications, broadcasting, regulation, software, encryption, libraries, millennium bugs, the Post Office, village halls, community centres and, crucially, the internet.

The second is to charge that Department with the training and education of all Ministers, their Departments, this House and all its Members of Parliament by immediately appointing six internet tsars. The third is to make it responsible for ensuring—and that means giving it the power to ensure—that all Government Departments and agencies become internet led by the end of this year.

The fourth is that the new Ministry will not be created in the style of other Ministries, but will act as the catalyst for change within Whitehall by having a team of 24 Members of Parliament, matched in turn by 24 software experts, who are loaned on sabbatical by the major players in the industry.

The fifth is that the Ministry's philosophy will be based on teleworking, and will again act as a showcase for the rest of Whitehall. Two thirds of the Department would work with the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, Stormont—soon, we hope—and the new regional development agencies. Staff would oversee NHS trust hospitals and help local education authorities. They would be flying internet evangelists

The sixth is that, by 2002, every home will be given a computer. That will cost no more than the current expenditure on the millennium dome. The money must be allocated from the lottery. That would be a much better way in which to welcome in the 21st century.

The seventh and last is that internet access at home would be free for the first 10 hours of every week. Figures supplied by the Media Intelligence Bureau cost the use of the internet at £3.87 per hour, compared with £1.67 for a trip to the movies and less than 12p an hour to watch free-to-air television.

I return to my central theme. The internet is the most important peacetime invention of the 20th century. We can no longer ignore it. It is the key to re-tooling and re-skilling our society. At the World Economic Forum at Davos, 20 per cent. of those surveyed thought that electronic commerce would completely reshape how they do business. Another 59 per cent. said that it would lead to significant change.

If this Government sit on their "internet-free" hands for much longer over this issue, any chance we have of creating a modern, post-industrial society will be lost for ever. The internet is the gold standard of the 21st century.

9.54 am
Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

The importance of this debate is underlined by the sheer size and scope of the internet and its undoubted effect on society. The statistics are impressive, but I question the figures of the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), as accuracy in this sector is difficult to gauge.

The purpose of my comments is to consider the concept of the internet from a social and philosophical point of view. I bow to the hon. Gentleman, as he has an intimate knowledge of the technology. I have no intention of commenting on that side of things.

The Government propose to provide resources to give all schools access to the worldwide web, but do not say how they will monitor it when the web is available in those schools. When considering the benefits, Ministers must be prepared to commission research to highlight the educational benefits of such links, and to take responsibility for ensuring that unsuitable material is not available to school children.

There is an obvious need to limit access to unsuitable material from the eager eyes of young school children. Technological tools must be available to teach us to programme what children cannot see, as my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) advocated when he was a Minister.

Mr. Maxton

May I point out that, if the hon. Gentleman had ever been on the internet, he would know that all the browsers already provide such tools, which stop access to whatever material anyone wishes to use?

Mr. Fraser

Those tools are not overly efficient, and there is clearly no international code available at the moment.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fraser

No, I will continue. Many hon. Members want to speak in the debate.

All parents know that children are inquisitive and naive. They remember things that they should not. Unfortunately, the internet offers a high potential risk that they will come across unsavoury material. We must seek to protect them, and, of course, all society, from the unsolicited advances of unscrupulous people.

I seek assurances this morning that the internet's influence, the ready access of information and easily digestible facts and opinions presented as fact, will be subjected to evaluation within schools, in order to measure how useful the medium is as part of the learning process. There is no guarantee that information obtained on the web is accurate. It must be true that more information is not necessarily better information.

One problem is that anyone can present himself or herself as an authoritative source on the worldwide web. Like junk mail or telephone salesmen, persistence may triumph more often than the truth. I cannot accept the view of computer nerds, as they are called, that the internet is with us, and therefore we must bow before its unstoppable growth and development. I am not against this technological wizardry. We should embrace it, but not be ruled by it.

Appearing before the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, a representative of Microsoft admitted to me that the development of the web had had a cultural impact and produced its own culture. When I asked about the web's cultural impact, he could not do better than acknowledge that it was an interesting question. I asked him whether there was anything in this life that would not be affected and influenced by the new technology. His answer: there was nothing that he could think of. I find that alarming. There is already a booming industry on the internet, with little or no regulation.

Writing in The Scotsman last year, Professor Gordon Graham echoed my earlier theme on the possibilities of a negative influence on the internet. He said: I regularly receive, via the Internet, some of the most unadulterated rubbish I have ever read; rubbish that would not pass the scrutiny of even the most careless and indifferent editor, or programme producer. But, of course, on the Net, it does not have to pass any scrutiny at all—the Net has no editors.

Mrs. Gillan

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the infuriating problems about the internet is unsolicited e-mail, known in the business as "spam", and that the Government probably need to address the problems faced by internet users in that area? In the same way, we receive aggravating, unsolicited faxes through our machines.

Mr. Fraser

I agree entirely.

Gordon Graham also warned that, in an education environment, those using the internet would have to be very discriminating; that was my point exactly. I accept that unsuitable material could be blocked in certain circumstances. None the less, children must not be led to think that messages flickering on a PC screen always represent educational gospel.

How do we monitor internet use, especially in the privacy of a child's bedroom? The internet may help to inform, but it may not always teach. It is no substitute for the subtlety of the pupil-teacher relationship.

When those questioned tell us that they do not know the exact extent of the advances that internet technology will make in the coming year, let alone in the next five years, there is a possibility that society's acceptance of the technology will not keep pace with developments.

If that is so, regulation—if it is possible to regulate the area at all—may also fail to keep pace. As our children so often know more than we do about the applications of the technology, it is possible that those legislating in this place will know less about the technology and its impact than those whom both the technology and the legislation affect. That would be an extraordinary position, which I have never heard of before.

Some say that the net should be linked free to homes not connected to the telephone system. I heard that suggestion in the Select Committee, when a question was put to a witness about allowing access to the net so as to overcome the problem of the contrast between information-rich and information-poor families.

However, is it right to encourage people with limited resources to be influenced and seduced by goods and services that they can ill afford, promoted in an endless stream? Such people should be encouraged to see the internet as a source of information, to enhance their quality of life, rather than being overwhelmed by everything that it can offer.

Can the Government offer any guarantee that material received through the net will not be subversive, immoral or unethical? I suspect that they cannot.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that nearly everything he says apples to the print medium too, and has done for many years? Would he expect the Government to give a guarantee that no schoolchild could obtain subversive or pornographic material from a newsagent?

Mr. Fraser

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the difference is that the internet is international, and it would be far harder to sue a service provider thousands of miles away than to get hold of a newspaper editor. Also, as the debate is about the internet, I should like to confine my comments to that subject.

I should be happy for the internet to be available in every home and school in the country, but there is evidence that it is difficult to regulate and police effectively and efficiently throughout the world, with so many diverse ethical, moral, commercial and social standards to contend with.

The Government must consider regulation carefully. I welcome the establishment of the Internet Watch Foundation, and also the report that 2,000 items have been removed from the domestic web as a result of complaints. I support the foundation's work towards setting up an international rating system for legal material that would allow users to deny access to their children as well as to themselves.

However, that will not guarantee that certain information on the internet will not be seen by anybody, because the system has its own leaks. I do not want to be a merchant of doom, but we must address the serious issues of what the internet is, how it operates and how we should legislate to ensure that its standards are acceptable, given the few quantitative and qualitative checks currently in place.

We must not do that alone. The debate must take place on a international platform, with an international agreement to enforce its conclusions. I accept the many benefits that the technological revolution brings, but we must keep a sensible eye on the problems that the worldwide web will undoubtedly produce.

10.3 am

Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak in this important debate. It is clear that the internet and informing and communicating technology have revolutionised business and transformed the relationship with customers, but in the public sector their effects have been less dramatic.

We still have to see whether the full benefits of the internet and informing and communicating technology—ICT—can be realised in the delivery of public services. That was the subject of the recent POST—Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology—report, which I welcome as it outlines some of the key issues that we face in dealing with the internet and ICT in general.

I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the Minister, because I shall have to leave before the end of the debate to be involved in parliamentary business elsewhere.

I shall draw attention to another paragraph from the POST report "ICT and Democracy", because it clearly describes my own concerns and attitudes towards the internet and informing and communicating technology in that context. If those technologies are to do anything worth while, they must relate to people. That is fundamental to our role as public servants.

The paragraph says: In terms of their contribution to the processes and institutions of 'democracy', ICT could 'merely' improve the communication of facts and policies within the Government and with citizens, businesses and other governments. A more fundamental change would be to use ICT to facilitate greater participation and deliberation through formal consultation and informal debate using electronic means. Even more radical, 'reinventing democracy' postulates that the combination of globalisation and local autonomy enabled by ICT will change the entire raison d'etre of national government. In practice most experiments in using ICT in the democratic process have started at the community level, and could well comprise the type of community initiative supported by Lottery funds. My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) referred to the possibility of using lottery funds.

The report identified three key points. The first was 'teledemocracy' which could enable people to participate in debates and decision-making from their homes or community centres (e.g. 'citizens' juries')". The second was the prospect of 'fully wired' MPs with public e-mail, homepages, electronic voting and electronic links into information and administrative systems". The third was much improved electronic links between different tiers of Government to provide citizens with a coherent view of their Government and Parliament. The report also identified some of the key issues facing us as Members of the House in connection with the relationship between us as public servants, and the community.

Now I shall come closer to home, to my city of Salford, and talk about some of the implications for my constituents in Eccles. Some interesting initiatives are taking place, one of which is the GEMISIS—government, education, medical, industrial and social information super-highway—project, run by a partnership between Salford city council, the university of Salford, the further education sector, sixth forms and other schools, and the local hospital. Through an initiative called the "virtual chamber", members of the chamber of commerce in Manchester and Salford are linked to the GEMISIS project.

I am the pilot Member of Parliament, linked to the whole network. It is important for me, as a public representative carrying out such a pilot scheme, to evaluate the benefits—and also any aspects which may not be beneficial. Like most of my colleagues in the House, I am keen to enhance public access to Government. However, we must also ensure that we do not create an uncontrollable monster.

Mr. Ian Taylor

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the company that was involved in that project. If my memory serves me well, it was Nynex, which is now part of Cable and Wireless. I draw attention to the project because it is an example—it is not the only one in the United Kingdom—showing that one of the benefits of growth in the cable industry has been local cable franchises working with the community.

Mr. Stewart

The hon. Gentleman has stolen my thunder. He is correct, of course, that Nynex, which is now part of Cable and Wireless, is the key provider in the project. I shall deal with its role later in my speech.

As I am the pilot Member in the project, Cable and Wireless is cabling my constituency office—putting me on line, cabled for video conferencing and e-mail, which I can use both in my constituency office and in my Westminster office. I shall therefore have access to all the partners that I have mentioned; and those partners—especially schoolchildren and other students—will have access to me as their Member of Parliament.

The implications of internet developments for democracy—specifically for local democracy—are immense. They will also force us to revisit our views on our function in society as representatives and to evaluate whether the benefits of such developments outweigh their disadvantages. I do not include in those disadvantages hon. Members' ability to relate and communicate directly and immediately with constituents and organisations; I believe that such direct communication is a benefit. However, hon. Members sometimes need respite, and should therefore ensure that there is integrity in any system we establish.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry will be mindful of what I said in my maiden speech about the millennium bug. I welcomed the Government's initiative in establishing Action 2000, which stood in stark contrast to the previous Government's inaction on the problem. Although they had long known about the problem, they took no initiative in solving it.

Nevertheless, there is more to do about the millennium bug. Although providing greater finance would be helpful, other action can be taken. As I said in my maiden speech, it would be sensible for the Government to encourage and co-ordinate local partnerships comprising commerce, industry, education and local government. The partnerships could identify good practice, which could subsequently be shared across the United Kingdom.

10.13 am
Mr. Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare)

I should declare an interest in the debate, as I—like other hon. Members—have an e-mail address and was one of the first hon. Members on the international website. However, I do not want to present myself—or lay myself open—as an expert, expected to know an awful lot about the subject.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) made a timely reference to the fact that hon. Members have to be well informed on the subject if we are to legislate on it. Perhaps we should all join the recently established all-party internet group. There is great potential for improvements in the delivery of public services by innovative internet use, which will allow savings in tedious and repetitive work.

The previous Government produced the Green Paper "Government Direct", which was warm in words but short in public investment. I hasten to add, however, that the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), who is in the Chamber, was notable in his desire to obtain money to support the Green Paper's objectives. Unfortunately, that money was not forthcoming.

Liberal Democrats very much believe that the state has a directional role to play in setting the agenda for change, in encouraging the private sector to develop solutions, and in explaining to citizens the benefits of the changes that the internet makes possible. The new Government seem to be more enthusiastic about the internet, but I should mention—as other hon. Members have done—the problem of the millennium bug.

Although Robin Guernier was appointed to head an organisation established to deal with concerns about the millennium bug, he was sidelined after highlighting the problems that Government might face in implementing a solution. His organisation was replaced by Task Force 2000, which had only a part-time chairman. Moreover—I do not know whether people realise it—its three top executives were not to be put in place until January 1998. If they were not in place, they were not able to do the job.

Mrs. Gillan

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the situation is even worse than that? Action 2000 had a one-day-a-week chairman, and it appointed a director only a few days ago.

Mr. Cotter

I thank the hon. Lady for that clarification, and for making the point that I was trying to make. The organisation's top staff have only recently been appointed to deal with a problem that should have been dealt with, and perhaps solved, so that everyone in the United Kingdom knew what to do about it. It is a great concern.

Mr. White

One of the problems with the millennium bug is that—as the hon. Gentleman said—the public debate has been about personalities rather than the real issues. The longer people carry on talking about personalities, the less we will talk about the real issues of the 2000 problem.

Mr. Cotter

That is certainly correct. However, we have to talk about personalities, because people will deal with the concerns.

I very much welcome the Government's statements on giving children access in school to the internet. It is very important that they should have keyboard access, and not only an e-mail address. We will therefore require more equipment, not only in schools but in public buildings.

Mr. Maxton

Surely it is not a matter only of an e-mail address or of allowing kids occasional access to a keyboard? The state of Texas has taken a decision not to buy any more textbooks. Every child receives a laptop computer, with access to the internet, and receives information in that manner. Is that not how we should proceed with education in this country?

Mr. Cotter

The hon. Gentleman has a very good point, although I am slightly conservative and do not want all paperwork to go out of the door. Books are very available.

We welcome the pilot project in Newcastle, for example, where jobcentres have put vacancies on line, and job seekers can access jobs and call employers directly.

I should like also to put in a little plug for Weston-super-Mare. It is part of a trial area in which information on resorts, bookings, hotels—including pictures and details—and other tourist attractions in the constituency is available on the internet.

I should like to address the following three issues: infrastructure, systems and security. Infrastructure must reach everyone who wants to get on line, especially in country areas. There is a risk of concentration of services in towns where there are many people. With cable companies cherry-picking in towns and cities, there is a danger of a new poverty: the information have-nots—very much in rural areas. It is difficult being unemployed with no car, in a village with no bus service. Electronic job-searching from the local village hall, or eventually from home, will uplift not just the jobless but disabled people, carers and others who, for one reason or another, are tied to the home.

There is huge scope for development in systems, such as in job seeking, finding a way around the benefits maze, lodging tax returns, and many areas of local and national government, such as local government planning applications.

I want to touch on the question of security. I say "touch on" it because it is a very big subject. A BBC News report on the internet, entitled "The Great Encryption Debate", which reminds me of the children's book "The Great Pie Robbery", is a big story on the continuing debate, which has been followed by many on the internet, who are asking what encryption is. It is a system of security, which is of concern.

There is a contradiction between wanting encryption for security, so that messages can be confidential and encoded by the sender, and wanting privacy in personal messages. Most people accept that some limit is necessary. We, like the Government, are concerned about the use of the internet by terrorists, race-hate groups, criminal gangs and the like.

The proposed key system could enable security services to tap into the internet as need be. At the moment, by Government agreement, telephones can be tapped when necessary. Encryption will cause difficulty in accessing systems. I do not pretend to be able in today's debate to solve such problems.

Mrs. Gillan

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the problems of encryption is that, once one has a code and can access internet details, one can also access both historical records and any future messages that pass between sender and receiver? A telephone tap is a one-off measure by which one can listen to a conversation. There is no historical record.

Mr. Cotter

I thank the hon. Lady for advancing the debate. She succinctly puts our concern. I shall not in this short debate dwell any longer on the subject, but merely highlight it as a problem. Solutions will be difficult to find, but the matter needs to be addressed. The Government need particularly to address on the one hand problems about who could be going through the internet, and on the other concerns about the privacy to which individuals are entitled.

Commercial companies are already exploiting the internet in many ways. The enterprise zone is very important. This country is very well placed to go forward, because our firms and organisations are technically well endowed. I hope that the Government will address the many problems raised in this debate.

10.24 am
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

Perhaps the new computer tsars described by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) should be called "caesars". In reflecting on how bad the Government and the House are on the matter, he ought to reflect on what happened before. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), who took a very progressive view in very difficult circumstances under a very unprogressive Government.

In 1992, the vision in the House, and indeed in British industry, was lamentable. Computers were things down corridors, dealt with by IT departments. This House was the only one in Europe, bar Turkey, that did not have a fully fledged network. Advances since then have been extraordinary. I was at the recent opening of the House exhibition on computer services, where one of the Clerks pointed out—I shall be more chivalrous than he—that, when Madam Speaker came to the House as a secretary, quill pens were still in use. We have advanced a very long way since then.

In October 1996, as a result of a recommendation of the Information Committee, the House took the decision to put the full Hansard text on the web. That was a very progressive step. At last year's European telework conference in Stockholm, I challenged other European Governments to do the same. Only the Swedish Government at the moment can anywhere near match what we are doing in that field.

I shall touch on just two points, and on one or two others tangentially; it is difficult to wrap up the subject in such a short time. I turn first to trading on the net, or e-commerce. I encourage hon. Members to look carefully at the speech of Lord Haskel, which was made in another place in October 1997, in which he set out a number of answers to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey. I shall not re-run those points.

In a fairly light-hearted article on e-commerce recently, I set out a point similar to that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) when he intervened on the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser). My hon. Friend said that there is not a great deal of difference in the regulatory regime necessary to deal with points about access for children in this respect and that needed to deal with access to hard copy. Exactly the same argument applies to trading.

Trading between two individuals is based on trust. The key issue is how to establish that trust. Are two people simply getting together, one passing over the goods and the other passing over the money; or are there intermediary devices, such as a bank card or, over the telephone, a credit card? If such trading is done by telephone with a credit card, what is the difference between personal trading of goods and services between supplier and consumer on the telephone and on the internet? There is no difference.

The credit card is used as the vehicle for trust. Establishing relationships that will create the same trust is the key factor that will help the evolution of e-commerce. One needs to know that the information is reasonably protected, and the system is not open to abuse.

There were early experiments in e-commerce on the Merseyside web, on which it was possible to buy an Everton football strip five or six years ago. From small beginnings, the system has evolved to the supply of office furniture. Now large-scale trading occurs across national boundaries. There are still many difficulties for the finance sector, which financial institutions are examining in detail.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey mentioned the case of my constituent Louise Woodward. A large-scale electronic campaign, of which I was at the centre, has raised many thousands of pounds for the defence. It would be inappropriate for me to go into the many reasons why I am firmly convinced of Louise's innocence. I hope to do that when she is safely back home.

I wrote a letter yesterday to Mr. Al Gore, the Vice-President of the United States, setting out some of the problems we need to address on the international regulation of internet-related issues. First, I brought to his attention an e-mail from an allegedly reputable firm of lawyers in the United States. I cannot read the text of that e-mail, because it would be decidedly unparliamentary. It is obscene, disgraceful and libellous. It has been put in the public domain by a firm of lawyers allegedly representing the other side of the case.

Secondly, my constituent has also received hate mail, including some that purports to come from a prison in the United States. It is not acceptable that hate mail, including death threats, should come from anyone, let alone someone in prison.

Thirdly—perhaps all hon. Members might pay attention to this—how do Members of Parliament deal with being libelled on the internet? I have asked several of my hon. Friends with a legal background, who recommend laying down the writ in the country that will provide the greatest return.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

For the lawyer.

Mr. Miller

Yes, that is usually the advice. A lawyer in Texas—who appears to have lost his marbles, judging from some of what he has written—has made certain accusations against me. He says: That is the same Andrew Miller that was standing in the middle of the river of cash flowing from Zurich to the dream team. The dream team was my constituent's defence. I look forward to him repeating those comments on the streets of London, so that we can make some money for the defence. These are serious issues that need to be considered.

I understand the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey for establishing a super-Ministry. I believe that that exists in No. 10 Downing street, because the issues cross departmental borders. Departments cover everything from the difficulties of the year 2000 problem, through intellectual property rights, to the law of libel and inciting hatred. They cannot be boxed off to one Department. It would be a neat idea to dump it all on my hon. Friend the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry—

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

I should be delighted.

Mr. Miller

I am sure he would, given his interest in the subject, but that would present serious problems for the organisation of that complex issue.

I should like to respond to some of the points that have been made about the year 2000 problem. I acknowledge the work that the hon. Member for Esher and Walton started on that. He took some steps in the right direction. It took a long time to persuade the public, businesses and the House of the nature of the problem. I do not expect an entirely truthful answer, but I suspect that he had great difficulty with his ministerial colleagues, most of whom did not know how to switch on a computer. I note that he is closing his lips tightly.

Public awareness is rapidly increasing. I had discussions yesterday with senior people in the Department of Health about what action they are taking. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, I am nervous of flying in 2000. Let us hope that convincing proof comes from all areas of industry that they are doing the job that needs to be done.

The problem is particularly difficult for small and medium-sized businesses. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry is doing a lot of work on that. There are some complexities with the front end delivery mechanisms of public services, but they are being examined in great detail. I commend to the House the most recent quarterly report from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, which sets out, in several hundred pages, the action that the Government are taking.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey said, some web tools will be in difficulty because of the problem. Some parts of the web outside the control of this country could come to a grinding halt in 2000. We need to engage in the discussions that are starting with other countries to ensure that the advantages of the evolution of the web are not delayed by the year 2000 problem.

This debate could go on for a long time. We are considering a major subject which impacts on every aspect of Government and every member of society. I am pleased that the House is taking the matter seriously. I wish my hon. Friend the Minister well in his endeavours in this exciting time.

10.38 am
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

In the three or four minutes that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) has generously left me, I should like to refer to the impeccable timing of yesterday's Evening Standard report, headed "Police hunt 15 Internet bombs made by children". The report began: Police are searching for 15 lethal home-made bombs taken home by London schoolchildren. The explosive devices, copied from a design on the Internet, are from the same batch as one which blew apart a telephone box in Sidcup this month. They are made of copper tubing packed with a simple but powerful explosive. A police spokesman said: 'Given the damage to the phone box, which was blown apart, they could maim or even kill."'

Mr. Battle

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Lewis

No, I will not give way in the tiny amount of time I have available: I am sure the Minister will understand.

Another aspect of the internet which can have a lethal effect on a person's reputation is the use of the internet to defame, libel and undermine people, in private or public. I have personal experience of this. The story goes back to 1993, when a magazine called Scallywag thought it would make a reputation for itself by defaming the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), by accusing him of having an adulterous relationship with a caterer.

My right hon. Friend took legal action against the editors of the magazine and the shell company which published it, but had to discontinue it because they had no assets. Had he continued, my right hon. Friend would have run up huge costs, which would have been awarded against the magazine and its impecunious editors. The editors would then have gone bankrupt, and my right hon. Friend would have had to pay his own legal costs, which would have been enormous. After that so-called triumph, the magazine decided that anyone was fair game. If the Prime Minister could not stop it, who could?

Every married member of the then Conservative Cabinet became a fair target for accusations of adultery, and every unmarried member became a fair target—in their eyes—for accusations of secret homosexuality. Sometimes married members were accused of that as well. In November 1994, the magazine made allegations of that sort about me. By dint of finding out the identity of the printers and the main distributors—attempts had been made to keep them secret—I was able to take legal action in this country which cleared my name and collapsed the magazine as a going concern.

It was my misfortune that, at that time, the internet had just come into existence, and the magazine went on it. To this day, the same filthy lying allegations about my private and political life are repeated on the internet. I did what anybody would do under the circumstances, and where there was a course of action. I sued the internet provider, Demon Internet Services, in Britain. It promptly closed down the site, and I received a settlement which I felt was a vindication. However, the site, predictably, was opened by an internet service provider abroad. There is no effective action I can take to prevent that provider from continuing to blacken my name.

My selection as a candidate was imperilled by this filth. My period as a prospective parliamentary candidate for my seat was damaged by this filth. My election campaign was, to some extent, undermined by this filth. It is filth on an international level. It may bring smiles to the faces of some Labour Members because it happened to a would-be Conservative Member of Parliament. It could just as easily happen to them.

10.42 am
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

I start by giving hearty congratulations to the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) on securing this debate. He has been in the House for a short time only, but he has a reputation for taking a great interest in and having great expertise on this matter. I congratulate all those who have taken part in the debate, although I am sorry that some hon. Members who have been waiting patiently have not been able to take part—particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor).

The matter is of great importance to the United Kingdom, not least because we generate more than a fifth of all world internet traffic. We are one of the major players in this field, way ahead of any other European country, and it is important that we maintain our competitive advantage.

Like the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, I am surprised that the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry, the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle), is here to answer the debate, although I welcome him to the Dispatch Box. I thought that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster might put in an appearance, particularly as he has spent so much time promoting the delivery of Government services over the net and is responsible for year 2000 compliance.

Instead, the Minister—an honourable and generous gentleman—has been put in this position because the Government's policy in this area is clearly a shambles. The policy vacuum was displayed admirably by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey.

The Chancellor of the Duchy ought to be here, not least because he spends so much time promoting his electronic red box. I do not believe that that red box has been a great success with his colleagues. Will the Minister confirm how many Ministers currently use electronic boxes on a daily basis?

In a debate of this nature, it would be unforgivable not to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton. As a member of the last Government, he made much progress in this area. To be fair, the present Government have continued many of his programmes—so many that they have made no original contribution to this policy area in their 10 months in power.

The hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) was a little curmudgeonly when he said that nothing had been done under the previous Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton was responsible for the Central Information Technology Unit, Government on-line, the Information Society initiative, the launch of the super-highways initiative, the launch of TaskForce 2000 and the launch of the schools on-line project. He made it possible for all schools to connect to the internet, and introduced "IT for all". That is an impressive record. My hon. Friend left the Government a golden legacy, which has not been fulfilled.

The internet has developed rapidly, and has penetrated almost every corner of the world. It has wiped out national borders, and provided a medium of communication which has enabled people to talk and do business between China and Chesham and between Amersham and Addis Ababa. Governments are rightly interested in ensuring that it is used to its fullest potential in education and business. However, some Governments and people are frightened by the implications of free, uncensored communicational transactions. My hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) and for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) outlined those problems.

Governments are worried not only because communications can go uncensored, but also, more importantly, because transactions can avoid the tax net. Many global issues—including regulatory regimes and legal implications—should be considered by the Government.

The UK has first-class service providers, and most are doubling their customer base in each year. However, the Government have lost the momentum established by the previous Government, and are not addressing the problems.

I should like to raise a few of those with the Minister. Can he tell the House what progress the DTI is making on encryption, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter)? The DTI's proposals have been met with some concern by providers, including the proposal to register crypto keys with third parties. Perhaps he can tell us how that will work, and why technical experts say it is not feasible.

The Opposition have raised questions about the telecommunications charges between the UK and European countries, which remain disproportionately high. What are the Government doing to address the problem?

Domain names are causing concern to providers. Will the Government be opposing the US Department of Commerce proposals on internet governance, in so far as these involve an assertion of US jurisdiction over the key resources? In a written answer, the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), admitted that there was a delay in sorting out the problem, and we need to know what action the Government are now taking.

What plans do the Government have to tax commerce on the internet? If they are working on proposals for taxation, have they considered the ease with which service providers, for example, can operate from other parts of the globe? Are they going to encourage this succesful industry by creating the right framework in which the service providers can operate?

The internet has been growing rapidly. It is entirely based on computers and cyberspace, and computers—in about 95 weeks—will face the universal deadline of the year 2000. There can be few problems more serious or pressing than the millennium bomb, which will affect not only the internet but every business and public service in the world that has embedded chips or microprocessors in any of its systems.

As hon. Members have said, it would be wrong of me not to raise the fundamental questions relating to the Government's handling of computer compliance for 2000, which has proved to be disastrous. The Government have lost the impetus that was started by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton. TaskForce 2000 was abandoned and Action 2000 was set up, but the director has only just been appointed on a full-time basis. Initially, funding was £1 million; that rose to £10 million but, on 30 March, we read that the Prime Minister would write a blank cheque. After 10 months' inaction, the Government are now panicking.

Will the Minister confirm that Ministers first met to discuss this problem only a few weeks ago? The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) praised the quarterly report of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, but, if he read it properly, he would find that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was incapable of correctly transferring information from the departmental reports to the departmental summary.

The costs associated with the problem are escalating rapidly; the Government have been remiss in allowing the impetus that was created under the previous Government to be thrown away over the past 10 months. They have neglected the business sector, and many regard Action 2000 as inaction 2000.

I hope that the Minister will show that there has been a radical rethink in Government policy on technology. The internet is only one facet of the computing revolution, which can benefit the United Kingdom and the whole of mankind. However, without a coherent policy and a Minister to consider the whole picture—including millennium compliance—we can look forward only to chaos and mayhem.

We need a strong hand on the tiller to secure the future of the internet business for UK companies and to avoid the inevitable disaster arising from the failure to ensure millennium compliance. The Minister should turn back the clock—just as he has continued the science and technology policies of the previous Government, he should continue their policies on the internet and the millennium bomb. If he fails to do so, this country will be severely affected, and our internet businesses will find that they are operating in a very unfavourable world environment.

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

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) for initiating this important and serious debate—my only regret is that we do not have time to discuss it further. As I have been left little time in which to reply to a full debate, I have a suggestion: I have been taking notes on my Psion 5, which I shall load on to my PC, so that what I would have said will be available at tlo.battle@dti.gov.uk—or, indeed, on the websites of the Government, of the Department of Trade and Industry or of the House of Commons. Perhaps we can eclipse space, if not time, in our desire further to discuss these matters.

My hon. Friend said that the internet would be the key to re-tooling and re-skilling, and that it would reshape how we do business. I underline that, and also give my hon. Friend a clue about why I am here. As a Minister in the DTI, I am responsible for ensuring that the banner above the Department bears the word "competitiveness". For the United Kingdom to be competitive, we must ensure that the internet is a vital tool for business, that youngsters, schools and the whole of society can take advantage of that tool, and, of course, that the Government get the matter right in house. We are moving from the information age into a digital economy, where e-trade and e-commerce will truly transform what we have seen so far.

Some hon. Members have expressed concern about crime on the internet, but I should point out that the police—I cannot go into detail—are using the internet to track criminals. The internet, as I am sure we all accept, is an ambivalent tool. We need Government-wide co-ordination across all Departments to ensure that we can take advantage of the new possibilities that are offered by computing and the internet.

As my hon. Friend said, it is worth remembering that the worldwide web was pioneered by a British scientist, Tim Berners-Lee, at CERN, which is a science project in particle physics that has been, and will continue to be, sponsored and supported by Government—it is important that we remember what comes out of the science base.

When I first entered the House of Commons, I asked for a computer modem point to be put on a shelf that I was given as an office in the Cloisters downstairs. I was told that we were offered the privilege only of a telephone. To link one's computer to one's home or constituency office was unknown at that time. I managed to do so, but, for obvious reasons, I ended up with a rather larger phone bill than everyone else. As Members of Parliament, we need to use the equipment—I think that, especially since the general election, most hon. Members appreciate the need to communicate through computing and the internet.

I shall focus on electronic commerce, as the possibilities it offers for small and medium enterprises to open new markets are of central importance. Today, 27 per cent. of companies in Britain—including nearly 40 per cent. of large companies—have a website, and 29 per cent. of small businesses are developing one. A survey showed that 81 per cent. of the respondents believed that the website would be important to their businesses. Moreover, small businesses buy parts on the internet.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston mentioned his problem with American lawyers. I suggest that he looks at the web page "Welcome to Helpnet", which offers advice in psychiatry, although it notes that it is not meant to be a substitute for psychotherapy. He mentioned trusts and money. Bay Shore Trust in Canada offers over the internet a loan in 60 seconds to Canadian citizens with a bank account. Finance is an important area; it will be critical for small and medium enterprises to organise back-up finances over the internet. There will be new ways of doing business and finding support for business.

Mr. White

Under Britain's presidency of the European Union, negotiations are taking place with the Americans about domain names. Does the Minister agree that it is important that that is sorted out quickly, as it could help to develop commerce?

Mr. Battle

The matter was raised by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), and I agree that we have to get it right—indeed, we shall take a lead in ensuring that we get it right in international negotiations.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), who initiated schemes such as "IT for all" and the GEMISIS project, which my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) mentioned. We are enhancing those schemes and pushing them forward, as I am sure that the hon. Member for Esher and Walton will appreciate.

I give an example. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston explained that he was engaged in the GEMISIS project in his constituency. I have met the chief executive of Cable and Wireless, who briefed me on the wide range of the company's projects. The GEMISIS project has the potential and vision for "IT for all" to ensure that everyone has skills and that society is not divided into those with access and those without access. We should emphasise not only business and educational uses, but social and cultural uses.

Despite what the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham said, we have given a major boost to "IT for all"—our aim is that, by the end of the year, the public will have access to a minimum of 4,000 sites, half of which will form a national network of learning centres where the public can acquire basic IT skills.

Mrs. Gillan

That was our idea.

Mr. Battle

The hon. Lady says that that was the idea of the Conservative party, but we are making it work better, just as we are with the Information Society initiative for businesses, which helps smaller companies to seize the opportunities—there are now 60 such schemes up and running, and 20 more will be opening in the next few months. Either she is in favour or against the programme—I do not understand why she should object to our developing the initiative, using the support of business links.

The enterprise zone is a new idea, which will complement the programme for business. It will link internet sites that have been judged by business information experts to be authoritative, and will be clearly signposted in a language that business can understand. We are helping businesses to access reliable information that they need from the internet, including on how to raise finance, and we have developed new initiatives.

In 1995, in opposition, we conducted exhaustive research into the super-highway and its uses, and published a full report, "Communicating Britain's Future". In government, we have begun to wire up the schools and launched the national grid for learning and the university for industry. Those new ideas, brought to fruition by this Government, were not thought of by the previous Administration.

The university for industry will be a new kind of institution that delivers courses to adults at home, in learning centres and at work, exploiting the number of homes with PCs and realising the potential for lifelong learning at work.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has committed the Government to ensuring that 25 per cent. of their services are capable of being carried out electronically by 2002. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has piloted—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. We must now move on to the next debate.

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