HC Deb 17 June 1999 vol 333 cc553-4
10. Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

What account he has taken of representations received from the IT industry in framing his policy on e-commerce. [86501]

The Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry (Mr. Michael Wills)

We work extremely closely with the industry in developing our e-commerce policies. Let me give just three examples: we listened to industry concerns about key escrow, and have announced that our e-commerce Bill will contain no such requirements; my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in the Budget that, as recommended by industry, he was introducing tax breaks aimed at encouraging companies to provide their employees with personal computers for use at home; and three weeks ago, following a recommendation from the IT industry, we announced the launch of a major initiative to raise the e-commerce skills of small business advisers, which we are implementing in close partnership with BT, Intel, Microsoft and Compaq.

Mr. Griffiths

Is my hon. Friend aware of the industry's widespread hostility to the previous Government's proposals for the compulsory registration of encryption codes, and will he confirm that the Government have rejected any such proposals?

Mr. Wills

I can confirm that key escrow will be no part of our e-commerce Bill; I am indeed aware of the industry's widespread hostility to the proposals.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

If we are not to have compulsory registration of encryption codes, can the Minister assure us that we will find a balance between allowing people to access and do business on the internet by e-commerce and maintaining security and safeguarding the information that is available? Is the Minister following the developments of the e-commerce directive being considered by the Council of Ministers and will he ensure that there is no conflict between the Bill and the directive?

Mr. Wills

I am happy to say that I can give an assurance on all those matters. Our proposals will be compatible with European legislation. Of course we are concerned to ensure that the needs of the law enforcement agencies are met as well as the needs of the rapid roll-out of e-commerce, which is to the overall benefit of this country. That is as far as I can go at the moment, so I hope that the hon. Lady can wait to see the details when we publish the e-commerce Bill.

Madam Speaker

Mr. White.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

E-commerce is underscored first by the local loop cost of a telephone call and secondly by the server technology. BT controls 85 per cent. of local loop costs and 90 per cent. of the servers are in America. If we cannot have free local calls, we cannot develop an e-commerce economy, and if the servers are in America, we cannot collect corporation tax. What does my hon. Friend intend to do about that?

Mr. Wills

I understand my hon. Friend's concern. It has been voiced before in the House: there was recently an Adjournment debate on this very subject. Oftel has been holding consultations on precisely this issue and it will announce the results and recommendations shortly. I will have to see those before I can comment further.

Madam Speaker

I called Mr. White and Mr. Wyatt stood up, so I shall call Mr. White again.

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

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that the speed of technological change is far outpacing the ability of the House to deal with it, and that our infrastructure is being caught up by that of countries such as Singapore and the Scandinavian countries. What does he intend to do to ensure that we stay ahead and that we have adequate skills, with programmers and developers who can take advantage of e-commerce? How are we to fill the skills gap?

Mr. Wills

I can offer my hon. Friend comfort on all those points. We are taking steps to ensure that we are the best environment in the world for e-commerce. The e-commerce Bill is only the beginning of a series of initiatives. I will give further details in due course, when we are ready to announce them.