HC Deb 15 June 2000 vol 351 cc1089-91
3. Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

If he will make a statement on the regulatory framework for e-commerce. [124581]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers)

The Electronic Communications Act 2000, which received Royal Assent on 25 May, gives legal certainty to the use of electronic signatures and gives powers to amend existing legislation. It will ensure that the United Kingdom is the best place in the world for e-commerce.

Mr. St. Aubyn

The Home Secretary's Bill, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill, which will regulate e-commerce in this country, is described in a Financial Times leader today as giving the Home Secretary powers that Joseph Stalin would have used with relish. It says that those powers could seriously injure the attractions of the UK as a location for e-business. Is the Secretary of State not aware that, earlier this week, the British Chambers of Commerce published a report by the London school of economics warning that our level of e-commerce business could suffer by up to 30 per cent. as a result of the Home Office Bill? A major company in my constituency with long experience of encryption development—

Madam Speaker

Order. Questions are getting out of hand today. We are getting into an Adjournment debate. If the hon. Gentleman has a constituency case, he should raise it on the Adjournment. Put the question to the Secretary of State.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

When will the Secretary of State accept responsibility for the Home Office Bill's highly damaging effects on e-commerce business for my constituents and others?

Mr. Byers

It is agreed by business that we need to have a safe and secure environment for electronic commerce. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill, which the Home Office is taking through another place, will provide that environment. However, we are aware that there are concerns in the business community about some of the Bill's proposals, which is why the Home Secretary, on behalf of the Home Office, has indicated that he is more than willing to consult business about its concerns. That is what he will do. If necessary, the Bill can be amended to reflect those concerns.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

The Electronic Communications Act paves the way for Britain to take a leading role in that important area; my right hon. Friend should take no notice of the carping from the Opposition Benches. Will he look carefully at encouraging companies to work together to kitemark their products, so that they can sell to the rest of the world with an underlying support mechanism among themselves—which will be self-regulated—to ensure that goods and services are delivered? That would help. Secondly—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has put a question. Will the Secretary of State answer? We are moving on in questions today. Come along.

Mr. Byers

It is true that business-to-business transactions over the internet are proceeding very quickly and developing rapidly. However, my hon. Friend raises an important issue, which is about transactions with individual consumers over the internet. There is some merit in the idea of an e-mark to brand the validity of transactions. It is one of the issues that my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce is considering.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

As the Home Secretary has apparently bet his annual salary that the estimates of the British Chambers of Commerce are grossly exaggerated, could the Department of Trade and Industry, as the Department responsible for e-commerce, give its own estimates of what the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill will cost industry? Could the Secretary of State also calm industry's anxiety by giving a categorical assurance that the compliance costs of meeting national interests will be fully reimbursed by the Government?

Mr. Byers

The Home Office, as the Bill's sponsor, has done its own assessment of the business cost. I repeat the point that I made earlier: if business has genuine concerns—I know that it has expressed some recently—about the measure that the Home Office is taking through the House of Lords, we are prepared to listen to those concerns. That is exactly what we did with the Electronic Communications Act 2000. I believe that we were able to ensure that that measure was very effective by listening to the views being expressed, and I am sure that we shall do exactly the same with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill. That assurance is there. If business wants to discuss the matter with the Home Office, the Home Secretary has invited it to do precisely that.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton)

It was thanks to Conservative Members that the over-regulatory first draft of the Electronic Communications Bill was shaken up and whittled down to the light-touch approach that we finally saw. Now, however, it seems that all those excessive, interventionist regulations were simply sent down the road through St. James's park to the Home Office, and included in the RIP Bill. There seems to be a complete absence of joined-up government.

More important, the Secretary of State himself seems to have completely abandoned the DTI's role within government as the protector and promoter of business and enterprise. What liaison has he himself had—it is all very well for him to talk about the Home Secretary doing this or that—with the Home Office in the formation of the RIP Bill? Or is he completely content with a Bill that puts yet more burdens on to business and is likely to cost British business £46 billion in lost business?

Mr. Byers

I replied to that question a little earlier. The hon. Gentleman has not reflected on the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), in which I made it clear that if business is concerned about the Bill's contents, we shall consult with business. That is exactly what we shall do. The Home Office is providing a secure and safe environment for e-commerce.

We are going to take no lessons on e-commerce from a party that supported key escrow—which got the whole of business up in arms against it. Conservative Members know very well that that was the Conservative party's exact policy. The Conservative party was the party of key escrow, and business opposed it totally. Our proposals are ones that business actually supports.