HL Deb 09 June 1999 vol 601 cc1428-30

2.53 p.m.

Lord Chadlington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why they have not appointed an e-commerce envoy to promote the new technology, despite advertising the post in November 1998.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords. no final decisions have yet been taken. The Government plan to make an announcement on the e-envoy shortly.

Lord Chadlington

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. About 10 million people in Britain now have access to the Internet; and it is estimated that about 5 per cent of world trade will be conducted by e-commerce within five years. What practical policies do the Government propose to protect consumers in this new environment?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government agree strongly with the argument behind the noble Lord's remarks. We recognise that electronic commerce is increasing, and that it will and ought to increase. We have announced, both in our competitiveness White Paper and in the White Paper, Modernising Government, quite ambitious targets for our response to it. These are enormously important matters, as is recognised in the fact that the appointment referred to in the noble Lord's Question is a prime ministerial appointment. The Prime Minister takes it extremely seriously, as we do.

Lord Blackwell

My Lords, I declare an interest as an officer in an organisation with an interest in electronic commerce. Does the noble Lord agree with the report's conclusion that, while protecting the interests of consumers, it is important to focus on measures that will facilitate electronic commerce, rather than run the risk of delay through over-regulation which may inhibit such commerce'? In particular, can priority be given, first, to ensuring a proper legal basis for contracts and signatures on the Internet and, secondly, to ensuring proper jurisdiction over tax for trade on the Internet?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Yes, my Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord. These issues must be addressed, and are being addressed, in the development of the legislation on e-commerce that was announced in the Queen's Speech. They are extremely complex issues.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, on the subject of protecting consumer interests, is the noble Lord aware that Lloyds Bank Internet banking service failed to complete over 1,500 transactions over the previous Bank Holiday, and that a spokesman explained that it was because the computer system had failed to recognise that it was a Bank Holiday? Will the noble Lord assure us that, when the e-envoy, as he is popularly called, is appointed, he will do his best to ensure that this kind of thing does not happen again?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I did not know of the incident to which the noble Lord refers. I thought that Bank Holidays were set up for the benefit of banks, and that banks would be the first to recognise them. That is not quite how we see the role of the e-envoy. We see it as a marketing and promotional role rather than the regulatory role that is implied by the noble Lord.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, although the noble Lord is making an excellent job of answering these questions, as he always does, I am sorry that the Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry is not present. The report of the Trade and Industry Select Committee of another place which made the criticism referred to by my noble friend Lord Chadlington is critical of many aspects of the Government's approach to their forthcoming electronic commerce Bill. In regard to electronic signatures, at paragraph 40 of its report the committee points to the omission of consultation regarding the place of electronic signatures in Scots law as a serious omission. What are the Government doing to remedy this urgent matter? If the noble Lord cannot answer now, perhaps he will write to me.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Sainsbury. who is the Minister responsible for these matters, is on government business in the United States this week. He would have taken this Question had he been available to do so. I apologise for my inadequate presence in his absence.

Noble Lords


Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Baroness's point goes wide of the Question. She asks a detailed question about a Treasury Select Committee report on an electronic commerce Bill. The Question relates to an e-envoy. If there is an answer that I can send to the noble Baroness, I shall certainly do so.

Lord Razzall

My Lords, can the Minister give any indication as to the likely timetable for the e-commerce Bill? For my part, I shall accept his answer, unlike the previous questioner.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

No, my Lords. The complex issues to which I referred are still not fully resolved. It would be our intention to start the Bill on its progress during this Session. But it would be very unwise for me to be more precise than that.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that one of the major French banks has set up a system whereby people can trade on the Internet with complete security?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I learn a lot at this Dispatch Box, things I did not know about Scots law, French banking and Lloyds Bank. I am grateful to my noble friend for the information. I shall ensure that the success of whichever French bank it is in achieving security is brought to the notice of those who seek to achieve security in electronic commerce in this country. It is a most helpful suggestion.