HC Deb 21 January 1999 vol 323 cc1010-2
5. Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

What steps he will take to encourage UK business and industry to use the internet. [65194]

11. Ms Christine Russell (City of Chester)

What steps he is taking to encourage the development of electronic commerce in the UK. [65201]

The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Dr. Kim Howells)

The opportunities offered to businesses large and small by the internet are enormous. That is why the Government placed the use of the internet, and in particular the development of electronic commerce, at the heart of our recently published White Paper. Our goal is an ambitious one: to make the UK the best place in the world for electronic trading. The White Paper set out a wide-ranging agenda of modernisation to achieve this, including an electronic commerce Bill to remove legal barriers, and an extra investment of some £20 million in the information society initiative, to provide practical support and assistance to small firms.

Dr. Turner

I thank my hon. Friend for that full answer. Given the prediction, which he will acknowledge, that, before the year 2002, there may be a 30-fold increase in the use of electronic commerce throughout the globe, does my hon. Friend agree that that represents a major threat to those who are complacent about its importance as well as some amazing opportunities for those who wish to grasp them? I accept what my hon. Friend said about the legislative background, but does he agree that the Government need to be pro-active so that British companies recognise the opportunities and have access to the skills and finance that they may require?

Dr. Howells

My hon. Friend is quite right. On checking, I can tell my hon. Friend that e-commerce is currently valued at $12 billion a year world wide and that by the year 2002 it is reckoned that it will be $350 billion to $500 billion a year and we must have a considerable piece of that action. The Government have launched the adviser skills initiative to ensure that businesses advisers can deliver consistent and integrated advice on information technology and best business practice.

We now have an e-commerce resource centre operating on the internet which will provide businesses with the information, advice and the tools necessary to exploit fully the opportunities of e-commerce. We are drawing up an electronic code of conduct for businesses, which will enable traders to have effective redress and access to complaints procedures and to be identified by a digital hallmark so that everybody involved in e-commerce has confidence that business will be delivered securely.

Ms Christine Russell

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the business link in my constituency of Chester, which runs a large number of innovative and imaginative programmes and courses to help small firms in particular gain further experience and access to business? I believe that people from 200 small firms attended the last training course. How does my hon. Friend think that the forthcoming e-commerce Bill will further extend the opportunities, particularly for small businesses and start-up businesses?

Dr. Howells

I should certainly like to congratulate the business link in my hon. Friend's constituency. Across the country, there are also other initiatives that are extremely interesting and take the issue seriously—which, from the jibes that I heard coming from the Opposition Benches a moment ago, is more than Conservative Members can do. The electronic commerce Bill will establish trust in electronic trading by introducing a voluntary licensing scheme for organisations providing secure message services. The Bill will modernise the law so that it recognises electronic signatures and will, whenever it makes sense to do so, remove current laws that insist on the use of paper. The Bill will introduce voluntary licensing agreements for bodies providing electronic signature services and confidentiality services. It will also provide new powers and proper authority for law enforcement agencies to gain legal access to encryption keys and other information protecting the secrecy of stored or transmitted data.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Clearly, this is going to be a complex Bill. Will the Minister say when the draft Bill will be published? Is it intended that it shall be introduced in the House or in another place? The Minister will be aware that the Trade and Industry Select Committee is about to conduct an inquiry into e-commerce. Will the Government consider the Committee's work effectively as pre-legislative scrutiny work?

Dr. Howells

I congratulate the Committee on the interesting and pioneering work that it has done. The Government hope very much to introduce the Bill just after Easter. I have absolutely no doubt that full account will be taken of the Committee's work.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

.: May I also welcome the new Front Benchers to their new positions, and welcome their support for e-commerce? I should like to take the Minister a stage further in his remarks on the regulation of access to e-mail transmission codes. He will be aware of the public's great concern about how access to the codes should be controlled—about the "trusted third party" concept. He will be equally well aware of the great concern about whether organisations such as GCHQ should become a so-called trusted third party. If the House is really concerned about controlling criminal activity on the internet, would it not be much better to press for control of pre-paid mobile telephones, which are used by drug dealers, than to try to foist control by a Government agency on electronic commerce?

Dr. Howells

That is a long and complex question, and I truly hope that it will not be a long and complex answer. I hope also that the hon. Gentleman's question was not a first bid for his party's leadership. Strong encryption is very useful, as it is used to protect the movement of huge amounts of money through cyberspace. We shall be very careful in ensuring that the libertarian and anarchic spirit of the worldwide web is not circumscribed so that growth is prevented. I should not like any Government—ours, the Americans' or any other one—so to circumscribe the internet and e-commerce that growth is prevented. We need growth.

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