HC Deb 08 March 2000 vol 345 cc186-208WH

11 am

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

Mr. Chairman—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton)

Order. Let me say straight away that, whatever the hon. Gentleman may think of me, my title in this place is Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Dr. Cable

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce a debate on this subject. When I put in a bid for it nearly two weeks ago, I envisaged a gentle canter around some of the more esoteric and uncontroversial areas of Government policy—not the kind of thing that one would expect to discuss in the Rat and Parrot but— in view of what has happened since in at least two respects, the subject has become much more topical, and consequently more politically interesting.

I want to deal with four matters, and to begin with the two controversial ones. First, there is the question of where we now stand in relation to telecommunication regulation following the decisions that were made last week. I know that much of the procedural side of the debate is being dealt with in the Utilities Bill Standing Committee and was touched on yesterday, but I want to tackle the issue in a slightly different way—a more forward-looking way. I want to discuss what will happen now, in the hiatus between the abandoning of the Bill's approach to communications regulation and the adoption of the new integrated approach, and, specifically, what will happen to the telecoms business.

Secondly, there is the question of charging for the internet. The position is moving by the day, if not by the hour. I am not sure that any of us fully understands the implications of developments emanating from the private sector, but I want at least to raise some questions about what those developments may mean, and where they leave Government intervention.

Thirdly, I want to ask about other aspects of access to the internet, which are not simply a question of price; and, finally, I want to deal with the issue of the public sector's use of the internet. It is clear that, as the private sector solves its problems, more and more of the spotlight will be directed at the Government's role in using the system—in other words, online government—and the whole issue of how it is being benchmarked and promoted.

Let me start with the withdrawal of telecommunications from the Utilities Bill. Last week, several of us were party to a slightly histrionic session, with Order Papers being torn up, karate chops on the Dispatch Box and other excitements. Interesting and important issues were raised, however, and I want to raise them again now, in a spirit of questioning rather than of accusation.

The Government's line—which, up to a point, is very plausible—is that they are listening; but whom are they listening to? That point was made effectively last Thursday by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who observed that, while the Government were listening acutely to industry and to the operators, they were not, perhaps, listening to consumers. Until yesterday, when I talked to consumer groups from the public utilities access forum, I had not appreciated quite how badly consumers had been treated over the past week.

There is a history; I am not sure of the extent to which the Standing Committee went into it. When the Utilities Bill was first presented, the consumer groups were quite enthusiastic, because they, as much as anyone else, had insisted on the strong consumer powers in it. Indeed, I understand that when the Bill was published the press office of the Department of Trade and Industry telephoned the consumer groups, and asked them to issue statements praising the Government for incorporating telecoms—which they did, because they were very pleased. Last week, however, not only were the consumer groups not consulted on the change of policy; they were not even given an explanation. There is clearly a serious imbalance between listening to a perfectly legitimate group of interests represented by the operators—who are acting quite properly—and not listening to the countervailing arguments of the consumer side.

There is a related point of more basic importance. If the producer interests are listened to in such a panic, that begins to undermine the reputation that the Government have built up so carefully—a reputation for impartiality in their dealings with business. I was involved in the Government machine in the 1970s, when we had a rather corporatist approach: certain companies saw themselves as representing Great Britain Ltd, and had partial access to Government. The present Government, certainly in the DTI context, have gone out of their way to create a more transparent process. The rules governing the auctioning of mobile licences strike me as an admirable example of the Government's detachment from special-interest pressure groups, and their creation of a transparent process. However, as a result of their listening to a particular company, or representing a group of companies, their reputation for transparency and objectivity is being gravely undermined, and that has potentially damaging longterm implications.

There is an even more serious question: what were the Government listening to? Until I had an opportunity to read the correspondence in detail at the weekend, I had not realised the extent to which, by acceding to the demands of the operators, the Government were not merely doing what they claimed to be doing —taking a visionary view of convergence—but conceding specific criticisms of the treatment of telecommunications in the Utilities Bill. The operators made it clear that they were wholly opposed to the fine regime, that they were hostile to an independent consumer council, and that they were hostile to many of the proactive consumer provisions in the Bill.

I was sent a letter by the operators' group—I think all hon. Members have received copies—explaining what the operators objected to in the original Bill. It states: The prospect of unlimited fines with no full appeal mechanism —this is the key passage— and communications companies being agents of social and environmental policy through vaguely or even undefined measures will severely lessen the UK's attractiveness for investment in communications. It is important for us to learn from the Minister whether the Government have accepted that criticism, and what the social and environmental objectives that are being jettisoned are. I suspect that the phrase may refer to the preventive approach to health in relation to telecommunications masts, and, perhaps, to access to the system for socially deprived groups. I do not know what it means, but one of the Bill's objectives was clearly to strengthen social and environmental regulation. Given that the operators' criticism has been accepted, to what extent will that objective be diluted?

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate, and apologise for not being able to stay for all of it.

I hope that my question is not too tangential. Is my hon. Friend prepared to comment on the right given to operating companies by the Telecommunications Act 1984, in the form of 25-year licences to disrupt communities, particularly in my constituency? With the arrival of the worldwide network, small country lanes have been disrupted almost continuously for the past four or five years by company after company. The road network is minimal; there has been no compensation and hardly any notice, and the roads are deteriorating seriously.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. This is becoming a speech rather than an intervention.

Dr. Cable

I understand that the cable companies are digging up Cornwall with the same finesse with which they dug up urban constituencies nearer London a couple of years ago, and I know that that is creating a problem. I think that the point relates to a wider issue—that of local loop competition, with which I shall deal shortly—but I agree that the companies have often been rather crass in the way in which they have opened up the system.

I return to the thread of the argument: telecommunications operators have won a retreat on telecoms regulation under the Utilities Bill. I push the Minister a little further: how far does she accept not merely the process point that they have raised—the desirability of future legislation integrating telecommunications and broadcasting—but the substance of their criticism of the original Bill?

One of the points relates to the social and environmental objectives that the companies appear to have objected to. The other relates specifically to consumer protection. What, within the original proposals for a telecommunications regulatory authority and for an independent consumer council, specifically inhibits the development of e-commerce, as the operators claimed? Does the Minister accept that argument? Is that a factor behind the retiming and restructuring of the legislation?

What will happen in the hiatus between the withdrawal of telecommunications from the Utilities Bill and the introduction of new legislation, which will follow the White Paper and, presumably, arrive in the early years of the next Parliament? In that period, will no action be taken to introduce an independent consumer council, or can it be introduced? I have heard it argued that it could be introduced on a free-standing basis without new legislation, but will the Minister make clear what the position will be? It is an important point in relation to consumer protection.

In the intervening period, how will the Government deal with those aspects of consumer protection that are not provided simply by the stimulus of competition? I take one concrete example. Clearly, there is enormous consumer benefit from the fierce competition in the mobile telephony sector of telecommunications, but for some time there has been strong pressure on the mobile operators to come up with the information that will make possible comparisons between different mobile systems for consumers.

As we know, there is much obfuscation in the promotional material about price, quality and back-up service. Consumers have found it difficult to obtain the comparative basis for judging the products. How far will consumer protection go to deal with such a problem?

Does the withdrawal of telecommunications from the Utilities Bill imply a different model of regulation from the one that the Government were embarking on until a week ago? Many of us believed that, despite the rapid changes and the competition at the margins, the telecommunications sector merited a utility regulation approach because, after two decades, British Telecom still has about 72 per cent. of the fixed-line revenue. There are still problems such as the enormous volume of disconnections, which have to be dealt with through a regulator. Do the Government still accept that telecommunications requires that form of utility regulation?

Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in the light of what is happening, particularly in the telecommunications sector, and the rapid changes, there is a case for regulation? However, because of the convergence of technology within the broadcasting industry as well as the telecommunications industry, is there not a case for regulation and a commission that encompasses not just the broad sector of telecommunications, but an even broader sector: broadcasting, where convergence is occurring rapidly?

Dr. Cable

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I think that there is consensus on that. It is clear that the sector is moving rapidly. Communications and telecommunications are becoming interwoven. An Ofcom dealing with communications regulation in the wider sense is clearly the right way to go. I do not think that there any dispute about that.

The dispute is about why it was necessary to withdraw telecommunications regulation in its strengthened form, with consumer protection, at this stage? Why could not the legislation have proceeded and been built on when Ofcom was eventually introduced? There is no questioning of the basic wisdom of integration and of having a regulatory structure for that. I think that we all accept that.

I move to the second issue: charging. The problem that the Government have had—it is a problem that we all share; it is not specifically a Government problem—is that, in many respects, the UK has lagged behind in terms of access to the internet and internet use. It is an important failure.

One of the most persuasive papers that I have read in the past few days, which I strongly commend to those who have not seen it, is the excellent one by Sushil Wadhwani of the Monetary Policy Committee on the economic consequences of internet use—the enormous advantages in terms of productivity growth and lower inflation with growth. It is compelling, with much detailed industrial and service sector data to back it up.

As the Minister has repeatedly argued—indeed, she has worked for it in the past year or so—it is important to get Britain to the top of that league. We are about 12th, lagging behind not just the United States and Canada, but many European countries, particularly in northern Europe.

The argument has been—there is some consensus about it—that one of the main reasons why we have lagged behind is the charging system: because of metering. Most consumer surveys suggest that use of the internet could multiply three or four times if charging were not metered.

That metering in turn relates to BT's practice—derived from its history—of charging on the basis of voice telephony, rather than of the new internet system, where marginal cost is effectively zero. The question that I ask is partly about what is happening in the market: how far do the developments of the past few days represent a fundamental breakthrough in relation to that problem? Do the Government believe that, as a result of this week's developments, that problem is now effectively cracked?

My sense—I am just reacting to news—is that that probably is not the case. As I understand it, the AltaVista proposal involves the company taking a heavy commercial risk. It will absorb BT's charging in the hope that the rapid growth in e-commerce revenue will compensate it for the risk.

This morning's proposal from BT itself, as I understand it, is a special package. It will not be open to all internet service providers. It will not provide a route to rapid spread of unmetered charging, but I should be grateful for the Minister's assessment of the changes.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

The hon. Gentleman is right. The position this week, I understand, is that there is no unmetered call. AltaVista has taken a hit of £100 million to its bottom line. It explained both to the Office of Telecommunications and to BT that a commercial package could be won, but BT does not want to accept that it has to change. As he has indicated, the problem basically is BT.

Dr. Cable

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. That links directly to the public policy issue. A couple of weeks ago, through the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Government indicated that they were willing to challenge the existing BT monopoly in respect of the local loop. Clearly, the market believed it, because there was a major impact on BT's share price, but now that the dust has settled, the question is: what has changed? As I understand the position and the comments of the Oftel director, Mr. Edmonds, and others, nothing has changed. The date for the breaking of the monopoly—July 2001—has not changed. It remains dependent on a gentleman's agreement, essentially, between BT and Oftel on the technological readiness of the system to cope with an opening.

If nothing has changed and the local loop monopoly structure remains essentially intact, one may well wonder what purpose the Chancellor's intervention was intended to serve. What has been the result of the intervention? It has created enormous confusion in the industry about who is making telecommunications policy, and it seems to have had minimal effect on the fundamental problem—internet charging.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

This has been a very illuminating debate, and I regret that I shall not be able to stay for all of it. However, I should like to know—simply to act as the devil's advocate—whether the hon. Gentleman is certain that the unlimited flat-rate access model is the most appropriate long-term method. America—which we all bow down to as our example—has used that model for many years, but I have read suggestions that that is more for historical reasons which arose long before the internet had been imagined. Moreover, in economics, the idea of providing a product for which there is no restraint on unlimited use does not necessarily accord with ensuring that that product is used optimally.

Dr. Cable

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The simple answer is that I am not certain about that. Very few of us are certain, as very few of us deeply understand what is happening. There are substantial changes in the economics of the issue, and those of us who were brought up in the old economics world of scarcity and diminishing returns are having to rethink the world. We are not living in a world of diminishing returns. The marginal cost of using a broadband system is zero. There is no reason why there should be metering, and most consumer surveys suggest that metering is a massive deterrent to use of the system.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

The implication of unbundling the loop seems to be that there will be an all-gain outcome. However, in its brief, BT says—I think that its case should be heard in this debate—that it should like to emphasise that unbundling the local loop will not be a short cut to cheaper internet access for all—on the contrary, cherry-picking of the most lucrative customers and areas will be encouraged. Does the hon. Gentleman therefore accept that unbundling the loop might not be all it is cracked up to be?

Dr. Cable

I certainly did not wish to imply any criticism of BT as a company. Some years ago, when the Conservative Government were in power, BT accepted the principle of competition from cable companies. BT accepted that—rather than unbundling the loop, which is the United States's approach—that form of competition should take place, and its subsequent strategy has been on predictable assumptions flowing from it. I also accept—I think this was the purpose of the hon. Gentleman's intervention—that unmetered charging is not necessarily exactly the same thing as unbundling the loop. The two are partly disconnected, although there is a relationship between them.

None the less, what I hope will come out of this debate is a clear statement from the Government on two points. First, what is the Government's understanding of the current position on unmetered charging, and what options are open to them in ensuring that it is made universal as quickly as possible? Secondly, where do we stand on the principle—whether it is right or wrong of unbundling the loop? What is the Government's commitment on that, and what time frame do they envisage as necessary for its implementation?

I should like briefly to touch on two other issues, the first of which is provision of wider access to the internet. Such access is clearly already being provided by means of commercial processes and e-commerce, and that is all very welcome. The Government—with their initiatives on ensuring that students have internet addresses by 2002 and on widespread availability within schools of internet-compatible personal computers—are doing much to ensure that the younger generation has internet access. Much is being done to raise internet awareness at that end of the age scale. I also read, this morning, that jobseekers will be given access to the system. Indeed, developments on access are emerging weekly.

I should like to know, however, the extent to which the Government have thought through the problem of those who are technophobic, particularly the problems of the elderly and those who have physical disabilities, to enable them proactively to counter the possibility of their being excluded from the system.

In my constituency, for example, a new system has been established—entitled "Hampton Online"—that has had 2,000 contacts since being established. It is an attempt to recreate "the old village" in my suburban constituency, and to enable everyone in the village to communicate through the internet. The problem with the system is that the 25 or 30 per cent. of the population who are elderly are wholly isolated from the new system. Unless something is done to help them—the people behind the website are doing something to help them, by making pictures more attractive and the system much less difficult—they will remain isolated from it.

Do the Government have any thoughts on how people in the older age range—who could perhaps derive enormous benefit from that type of system—and those who are less mobile may gain access in the same way as the younger generation? Is adult education considered a vehicle for increasing access, and how might that be provided?

What specific action is being taken to help the visually impaired or those who are deaf? There is, potentially, an enormous problem for them. If mobile telephony becomes the new vehicle for the internet, how will those who cannot hear cope with the new system? I have in my constituency someone named Julia Schofield. She is recognised as the international pioneer of online government, but she is totally blind. I am very concerned and frustrated by the fact that operators are extremely insensitive to the needs of people such as Julia Schofield. What is being done to ensure that the issue of access to new systems for people like her is being addressed?

Mr. Duncan

Given that looking at a computer screen will not be very productive if one is blind, what can be done to ensure access for blind people? I am puzzled about what can be done to help them. It would greatly benefit all of us if we could determine a way in which access could be provided for them.

Dr. Cable

It is possible, using combinations of touch and sound, to deal with lack of vision. Although it is a complex matter, those who are visually impaired know the problems that they face with such systems, and I am assured that there are technical solutions to those problems. Some of the more imaginative people in the sphere are developing software to cope with the problems. However, it is not necessarily the type of project that companies would embark on commercially, and it will probably require either active intervention or persuasion by Government.

The final issue that I should like to raise—I apologise for going a little over the 20 minutes that I had planned to allow myself—is online government. The Government have already set themselves some targets, such as that, by 2002, 25 per cent. of Government business should be done online.

In the past week, my parliamentary colleagues and I have had a bit of fun with Government targets, which seem to come and go and to have a slightly surreal quality—a bit like the Soviet planning system once demonstrated. Targeting is fine, but the much more important issue is to determine how the Government will benchmark their own performance. What criteria will they adopt? To what extent has benchmarking in Government services been developed?

Perhaps a few anecdotes will illustrate the point. A couple of days ago, I saw that an evaluation of the Government's websites has recently been conducted. The sites were said to vary from excellent—such as that operated by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—to the abysmal, which was the verdict given by users of most of the sites. However, very little attention has been paid to the problem.

To what extent have online processes, such as obtaining a television licence, car licence or passport, been accelerated? One would have thought that obtaining a car licence, for example, could be done fairly easily on the internet. Does online government mean more than simply downloading a form to fill in? Can the process be completed online, and completed quickly and efficiently? I am told by people who have used other systems that countries such as Australia are far ahead of us in developing those systems.

I ask the Minister to go a little beyond the controversies that we have had in the past week and to think a little more into the future, to give us some indication of how far Government have thought ahead to the next big challenge that they will face, which is not simply chivvying and regulating the private sector, but implementing change themselves.

11.29 am
Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) for bringing this debate to the Chamber—on the very morning on which, for the first time, the FTSE 100 valued dot.com companies above some of the older, more traditional industries. I should say that I have a few interests in this sphere, all of which are in the Register of Members' Interests. Although I am not paid for it, I sit on some advisory boards in America and in Great Britain that are involved in the matter.

I think that this debate is about the future and culture of BT. As BT controls so much of the market, unless it changes its culture to be more like that of a dot.com company, it will hold back the rest of Britain.

On Friday, the Liaison Committee met and suggested that the Committee should perhaps have more authority and power. It would be wonderful if, one day, regulators were allowed to speak in this Chamber, so that not only Select Committee members, but all hon. Members could question them. Until we are able to discover what they are doing, we shall not be able to hold them accountable.

Several issues worry me. The first is about IR35, which has been a Treasury concern. One of my constituents, Andrew Crayford, works in the industry and he says that he faces the prospect either of going on the dole and withdrawing all his services or of taking an attractive contract in Germany. That means that the intellectual ability of many people in this sector will be lost. We have had debates on IR35 elsewhere, but I have received three different sets of advice from the Department of Trade and Industry, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office about its impact. That is not helpful.

The performance of BT has been frustrating. I wish to refer to the website edex.co.UK, which is one of the organisations that work between schools and BT. It is an internet service provider. The following news appears on the net today: It transpires that the problem was caused …by BT running out of capacity at the Wimbledon Exchange to the extent that the 999 services were endangered. I believe they even had to physically enlarge the facility at the exchange to bring in that extra capacity. At no point did BT publicly acknowledge that the problems schools were experiencing were down to them. I could go on and on, but the message continues: We have also experienced instances where groups of schools in certain parts of the country have lost connectivity (e.g. certain areas of Manchester). This has been traced to problems at the local exchange. Once again, BT did not admit that they had any problems, but their engineers acknowledged that they had exchange problems. The culture, organisation and ownership are not the only things that worry me about BT. I am also worried about the middle management structure and the transparency of the company. That is a concern, especially as BT's share price went down yesterday.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made one or two speeches about the internet this week, but yesterday he said that he hoped that everyone would have internet access within five years. As I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce knows, five years in internet years is 35 years. Some of us have been in the House for nearly three years, which is 21 internet years—a generation of change to which we have not yet adjusted. Five years is far too long. We cannot continue to say that everyone will have internet access in another five years. I hope therefore that my hon. Friend will tell us what initiatives will enable the Government to achieve their aims.

We have had so many initiatives that I have lost track of where we are. We have had the Prime Minister's speeches this week and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made a speech on the cost of the internet for small and medium-sized enterprises, and also made a speech to BT two weeks ago. Last week, the Department of Trade and Industry talked about the utilities and there have been many e-commerce initiatives. In addition, late last week, the Department for Education and Employment announced its plans for learning direct hubs, and the Cabinet Office has announced other measures.

I have said for some time—it is not necessarily an employment opportunity for me—that we need a Minister for the internet. In the larger companies in America on the Nasdaq index, the third most important person after the chief executive and the finance director is now the internet director. There must be a sea-change in the way in which business and government work in this country. The person responsible for the internet is the third most important person in an organisation.

The problem of blindness was mentioned. There is the most wonderful woman in Richmond—her name escapes me at the moment—and the hon. Member for Twickenham referred to her. She is blind, but that has not stopped her designing the site "Melbourne Public Services On-line". Her problem is that if she asked British Airways to take her dog to Melbourne, it would not be able to return to this country. So she now has a coterie of dogs in Melbourne and in this country to help her, and her website has enabled her to do that. I pay tribute to her. A strong group of people who use Braille online have made presentations to me. What they can do is fantastic, considering that they cannot see.

There are initiatives for computer centres and 1,000 are planned. Two separate parts of government have initiatives for homework clubs, but they could be organised by one body. If we were really serious, the computer centre concept would have been a public-private partnership worth billions of pounds. Not in five years, but overnight we could have found the money—that is the issue—to put hubs and centres into the poorest parts of the country. The divisiveness of internet provision worries me most.

New applications are being made to run the lottery. The trouble with sub-post offices that currently have terminals to sell lottery tickets is that they must guarantee 3,000 sales. If they cannot do that, they cannot have a terminal. Given that a post office—and especially a sub-post office—is so important to a community, would it not be wonderful if the new lottery provision could include a hub connected to the terminal? People would go to a post office not just for a lottery ticket, but perhaps to pick up their e-mails or to check a few things on the net. We could be clever and skilful and make just a few changes to enable post offices to remain open.

The national grid for learning and learning direct initiatives are amazing. We talk about social exclusion and social inclusion. It is estimated that 20 per cent.—or 12 million people—are excluded from access, but how many learning direct hubs are in socially excluded areas? One might be surprised to hear it, but there are none in Kent and that creates a struggle. We must close the social divide, but especially the social divide with respect to the internet.

There are initiatives to open the schools and the libraries and to have network classrooms and terminals in libraries. That is happening, but the trouble is that schools close at 4.30 pm, and libraries, by and large, close at 5 pm and do not open on Sundays, which is just when the children without computers at home or access to the internet need to be able to get into public buildings. A bit of joined-up government would be so important. School initiatives, library initiatives, computer centre initiatives and homework clubs make up four initiatives involving huge sums of money. However, if one person had put them together, he would have not created the jumble or the jungle that we have now.

I am disappointed with the BBC, but I am not sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will agree with me. It could have been the public service face of the internet and a multi-media hub. It could have a policy that said, "We will do BBC 1, BBC 2, but we will do BBC hubs and we will take control of computer centres. We will be part of the public-private initiative and develop a public service for the internet beyond anything that we have yet seen." However, the BBC has been quiet about the internet and it has not met its responsibilities as a public service. I am not saying that BBC Online is not good, but it is not exactly what our communities need.

As regards the UK Trust, I am concerned that the Consumers Association is on the trust itself and is bidding for trust status. Will my hon. Friend the Minister comment on that?

In the near future, a key thing would be to use the lottery for the internet's infrastructure. We have seen big projects, such as that for the millennium dome, but many small projects worth £50 million to £100 million have not worked. I could go through them, but I wonder whether the best prize for the 21st century would not have been an internet infrastructure. The lottery provides huge sums of money, so is that not something that we could think about in the future even though the lottery is not part of my hon. Friend's brief? However, for the sake of joined-up writing, I ask the question.

At the end of this year, the satellite systems for Teledesic, the Seattle-based company, will be launched. There will be about 350 low-orbit satellites and they will create a fundamental change to the internet, because they will provide mobility. For once, would it not be great to have initiatives with Teledesic to work out whether, with the appropriate security, we could use those satellites for our social security and pensions systems? What conversations have we had with the company? We argue about land lines and unmetered calls, but they might be old-fashioned analogue arguments. Teledesic will change the whole way we consider the issue.

It would be great to have a debate soon about what gov.com means. People may think that it is about the transfer of services, without fundamentally understanding what the internet does to government. I have been trying to understand it. We may want league tables, but what does the internet fundamentally do to government? The internet changes the way in which we work and play, threatens the concept of the nation state, and is a horizontal not a vertical structure. Most of us have come up in vertical structures and a horizontal structure threatens the civil service system. It creates a completely different working environment, so it means fundamental change.

I read the papers that Sir Richard Wilson gave the Prime Minister before Christmas, which are on the net. The two-day awayday in Sunningdale came up with six changes for a modern civil service, but nothing was said about gov.com. If the civil service have not got there, we will not.

The internet threatens the age-old Government power structure. I was lucky to be in Washington two weeks ago and I saw a bit of McCain and Gore, but the way in which the groups are working on the net in America represents a fundamental change in democracy and power, and we have not got there yet.

11.41 am
Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing this timely debate. I intervened to ask whether there was a case for a far wider regulatory framework than that provided by the Utilities Bill, encompassing the totality of broadcasting and telecommunications, and the hon. Gentleman replied that telecommunications should have been retained in the Utilities Bill and built upon. With the great pressures on parliamentary time and the speed at which technology is developing, it is better that it should have been taken out of the Bill and a specific telecommunications Bill introduced quickly.

This is an interesting debate. It is constantly said that BT has 81 or 83 per cent. of the fixed-line network, and that is true. However, we should consider some of the other technologies that are around. Some of the statistics are pretty amazing. For example, mobile penetration in Britain is at about 35 per cent. and is expected to rise to 26.5 million, which is nearly 50 per cent. of the fixed-line market. Those statistics may be wrong, but the growth is huge and will continue rapidly. It is a competitive area which, in many respects, will start to diminish the role of the fixed-line network.

As a nation, we need to ensure that we have in place regulation that will not inhibit or hold back our economic growth. We should bear in mind the fact that BT has to pay close attention to the universal service obligation, which, under the current regulatory framework, is placed upon BT, and BT alone. If that were to be imposed upon other service providers—I am not advocating that it should—we might see some ongoing restriction in telecommunications.

I want to consider internet access and some of the existing technologies—I must ensure that I get the terminology spot on—which include digital subscriber technology, wireless application protocol, universal mobile telephone services and digital television. DSL provides an opportunity to enhance the performance of the existing copper line network—local loop unbundling. Part of the debate on that concerns the speed at which BT is introducing its version of that—asymmetric digital subscriber line technology—to support platforms for other internet access providers across the network. There has been an on-going debate about the speed, or some would say the slowness, at which BT is putting the technology in place, but it will be put in place, as it is required to be, and the date that has been referred to is July 2001. However, there is considerable pressure on BT to move faster.

The future of mobile technology is about not just telephone and voice messages, but a plethora of technologies. UMTS, third generation mobile phones, will bring in a system whereby people can send and receive e-mail, draw down digital music, surf the net and even, if they want to, dial people up and hold verbal conversations. The technology is moving apace. It is with us now, but it will soon be out on the street when we will all be able to buy into it. We need to consider that in relation to the fixed-line network. That is why I take the view that the mobile technology is the technology of the future. Whether BT has 60 or 90 per cent. of the fixed-line network begins to be pretty irrelevant.

BT made an announcement this morning on internet pricing—

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

My hon. Friend did not draw the conclusion that seems to be waiting to be drawn, although he may have been being his usual moderate self. The companies associated with the mobile technologies seem to be allowed to cherry-pick the BT network for their own benefit, while the future appears to be satellite based. Therefore, they are depleting BT's profit margins, and, at the end of the day, BT is the only company that has any interest in maintaining a fixed-line system which we hope will reach all our people and make them part of the information society. Therefore, matters are weighted towards those who will take off into the stratosphere by satellite, leaving behind a damaged fixed-line network in Britain.

Mr. Laxton

Cherry-picking has been common in many services, with companies wanting to cream off the lucrative areas, leaving the regulated companies, such as BT, which have to provide a universal service, unable to make much profit or to cross-subsidise with the profitable arms of the business that have been taken away from them.

I will not say that I heard the morning news at 5 or 6 o'clock, but I may test hon. Members' imagination by saying that I heard it shortly after 7 o'clock. In my half-awake state, I think that I heard about fixed-price internet access for £6 a month for residential customers and about £29 for business customers. There is no doubt that some of the new companies, such as Alta Vista, are concentrating BT's mind.

All the communications companies operate in a highly competitive environment. BT would argue that it has been prevented by regulation from providing services such as surf packages quickly, which has hindered its ability to compete. As the days move on—it will be days, rather than weeks, months or years—we need to be conscious of the fact that the internet and original voice technology should be available to everyone throughout the land.

It has recently come to my attention that probably more than 70 per cent. of small and medium-sized companies in the south-east are wired up to the internet, whereas the figure in the north-west is probably 18 or 19 per cent. In Scotland, surprisingly, the percentage is probably down in single figures. It is not a north-south divide, but society and business are being segmented into those who see the sense of getting wired up and those who do not, and those who can afford it and those who cannot.

Mr. Connarty

I hoped that my hon. Friend would mention the problem that the providers of mobile telephone services do not universally cover large areas of Scotland because of the difficulties of access. In fact, even some of the central areas are sporadically blanked out because of the technology that is used. That has always been a problem. The universal delivery that we get from the postal services and from BT is not being replicated by those who are cherry-picking the mobile networks.

Mr. Laxton

My hon. Friend has far more experience than I do of the difficulties experienced in Scotland. I can envisage the difficulty of putting communications towers on mountain tops all over Scotland. That would not go down too well with much of the environmental lobby, and rightly so.

The regulation imposed on BT can inhibit its ability to move rapidly in response to some of the issues that it faces. None the less, it must move faster. We must also bear it in mind that some of the new technologies that are coming on stream and will be with us in the next 12 to 18 months will further open up the market. We must push to ensure that, from a regulatory viewpoint, Britain is as well placed as it can be to thrive in this new era of technology.

11.55 am
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

On behalf of all hon. Members, I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) for initiating this debate on an important topic. There is broad cross-party agreement in wanting information technology and the internet revolution to continue apace and help society in the broadest possible way, but some political disagreement about the nature of regulation. I am very sorry that there are not more hon. Members present to take an interest in this matter.

The leaders of all major parties are expressing opinions, but the speech of the hon. Member for Twickenham was a tour de force and he has perhaps single-handedly given a new meaning to the brand image of Cable and Wireless. He has effectively dissected the current state of Government policy, and especially the manner in which consultation has or has not taken place with consumers and producers. At the kernel of his argument is the question of where regulation and competition clash or separate. That is the basis on which Government policy is being scrutinised.

As the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) rightly said, this debate takes place on the very day on which some .com companies have displaced traditional corporations in the FTSE 100. Sadly, it also takes place against the background of significant disarray in Government policy affecting the regulation of the whole of telecommunications and the internet.

I remember sitting as a spotty youth in 1976 in Committees and the Strangers Gallery—you were a fiery young Back Bencher, Mr. Deputy Speaker—watching the collapse under the previous Labour Administration of the Shipbuilding Bill. We had not since then witnessed an equivalent collapse of such a major flagship piece of legislation, until the crumbling last week of the Utilities Bill, which has proved itself an unhappy mixture of intent.

The Labour party's general election manifesto said: We recognise the need for open and predictable regulation which is fair to both consumers and to shareholders and at the same time provides incentives for managers to innovate and improve efficiency. That was echoed two and a half years later when the Utilities Bill was introduced, but it hardly represents what happened subsequently. Shareholders and customers in two major sectors are now in limbo and the Government's overall policy on regulation is extremely uncertain and in complete disarray. The shambles has left a lot of people in the lurch. At a time when we all want progress to continue apace, there is an uncertainty that this country can ill afford.

Such is the disarray in the Department of Trade and Industry that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) tabled a parliamentary question to the Secretary of State asking whether telecommunications would be withdrawn from the Utilities Bill and on the day after the Bill had collapsed received a holding reply saying that he would get back to her in due course. Such is the lack of co-ordination in the Minister's Department that people are rightly considering its conduct extremely critically.

Although the Government speak the language of wanting to champion competition, in fact they remain a champion of regulation. Between the two, they are schizoid, to put it mildly. The Conservatives want to see a major shift away from regulation to competition. Competition is what happens naturally and it is beginning to happen with some force, although it is being hampered by an old-fashioned system of regulation that the Government are not prepared to tackle.

We have already seen in the drafting of the Electronic Communications Bill a two-year turf war between the Department of Trade and Industry and the Home Office on the nature of the regulation involved. Now, as technology takes a quantum leap from fixed wire links to an explosion of wireless technology, which also implicitly includes broadcasting, we are seeing a new turf war between the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport about which one should regulate those communications.

We desperately now need a clear statement of policy from the Government about the regulation of all those telecommunications matters. However, all we were promised in the mess of a statement last week at Trade and Industry questions was a communications White Paper, which I understand—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—will be published only in November. That means that we will have six months of limbo and uncertainty, while the country cries out for a clear statement of Government policy on that rapidly moving sector. Even when the statement arrives in November, no action is likely to take place in what will be left of this Parliament. Although the country demands speed, we probably will not see any proper Government action until the next Parliament.

Mr. Connarty

I am fascinated by the hon. Member's analysis that the country is demanding speed. In the past few months, I have attended several symposiums in Europe on e-commerce and the information age, and the feeling is that we have to get it right. Debate in Europe will continue at the Lisbon special council, but we should not rush it in case we get it wrong. The Government should be commended for admitting that the scene is changing so quickly that they must gain a clear view before rushing in. The previous Government pushed through regulations on the masts for the new mobile technology, and now everyone is complaining because those masts are stuck outside their doors. The planning authorities cannot stop that happening, because of the laws passed by the Tories when they rushed the issue.

Mr. Duncan

The hon. Gentleman has obviously not been following what we have said in Committee on the Electronic Communications Bill. We have clearly held out against the sort of fossilised regulation that was likely to emerge from that Bill. For the reasons that the hon. Gentleman mentions, we believe that the Government should not fossilise a system of regulation on a technology that is changing apace. We need the minimum light touch of regulation to safeguard certain standards and disciplines. However, the obverse of that is that we do not want the increasingly fossilised system of regulation to remain in place. We need a clear statement of policy from the Government that allows all the companies to compete fully with each other to bring about the benefits that we want to see. Therefore, I respectfully suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he has missed the point.

One needs only to consider the actions of the Department of Trade and Industry and, in particular, the Secretary of State to see that what I say is true. For instance, at a time when companies are attempting to develop cable technology as a powerful competitive force, the Secretary of State referred the NTL-Cable and Wireless merger—against the advice of the Director General of Fair Trading. He should not have done so. Even now, the Secretary of State is sitting on the report that he instigated, to the companies' great annoyance. He should probably have kept his nose out of the issue altogether, but the Government's track record is over-intrusive.

Mr. Wyatt

On the issue of NTL and Cable and Wireless, does the hon. Gentleman understand that the digital box would be a closed box, so that it would be open only for cable, not satellite or digital terrestrial services? That is a negative and dangerous approach, because we need open and transparent platforms.

Mr. Duncan

I agree that we need openness and transparency wherever possible. I do not want to go into the detail of that point, because I might be ruled out of order, given that it is sitting on the Secretary of State's desk—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam)

Order. The hon. Gentleman should feel free to make any point he likes, because the issue is not sub judice.

Mr. Duncan

I am grateful for that guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, in the interests of time, I shall restrain myself.

The other event of the past week was the unnecessary intrusion by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that led to an unfortunate decline in BT's share price, and he must choose between an independent regulator or in competition. The ambiguity of his position has caused unnecessary harm.

I hold no particular brief for BT, but, in the interests of fairness and justice, I must state that the Government's emerging attitudes to BT are rather distasteful. BT has become a whipping boy, and some politicians are trying to score political points by having a go at BT. As hon. Members have said this morning, BT has been in a different category because it had an obligation of universal provision imposed on it in the years following privatisation. Now that we have that universal provision, it borders on the unjust to attack BT for the way in which the regulator is regulating it. In fairness, all hon. Members should accept that BT's case should be fairly heard and it should be set in a proper understanding of where we want to be and of where we and BT have come from.

BT is in a unique position. It was the pioneer of privatisation, since when many other companies have followed, and it is unfair to attack BT in the way that the Chancellor and other politicians have done. BT has supplied me with a brief, and I shall read out a couple of paragraphs simply to put its point of view on record. It states: BT has always been keen to play its part in driving down prices—supporting the vision for a UK world-leading role in e-commerce. We should remember that BT has been subject to price-reduction regulation since privatisation. It continues: However, unlike its competitors, and indeed unlike its European counterparts, it is prevented from swift action through a burdensome, slow and outmoded regulatory regime. Perhaps the Minister could say whether she thinks that that is a fair point. BT also says: BT supports the removal of telecommunications from the Utility Bill and is pleased that the government recognises the competitive and converged nature of the UK communication market. This review must be underpinned by a robust analysis of the competitive framework of the future UK market. Any review that relies on an extrapolation of history will not create a durable and effective policy framework. I read that this morning, and have been briefed no further, but it struck me as a reasonable point of view. The recognition that BT has a fair point reinforces our call for a swift and urgent statement of the Government's policy on telecommunications regulation. To have to wait for the White Paper until November, when it will doubtless be kicked further into the long grass until the next Parliament, is unacceptable. The Minister must answer those concerns in some detail.

I wish to leave the Minister time to answer the questions posed by hon. Members, especially by the hon. Member for Twickenham, but I have a few more points to make. It is good news that a sudden and vicious price war has broken out. Of course, some will fall by the wayside and others will become champions of the sort of access that the consumer is crying out to enjoy, but that competitive outburst is good news for the consumer and will also flush out the progress that we want at the speed that we want. However, the climate of regulation, for which the Minister is responsible, must not jeopardise that, or disadvantage any particular player in that competitive market.

Reference has been made in the debate to the way in which Government can use the IT revolution to improve service delivery. I have always considered that the matter divides into two distinct categories—e-commerce and e-government. They are allied, but different. On the one hand, trade, retailing and communication between individuals and corporations must be encouraged to develop through e-commerce and the internet. On the other, the Government are responsible for form filling, tax returns, and the promulgation of views and information, and we want that to improve dramatically through a parallel use of technology.

It is of great regret to Conservative Members that the Government have mouthed words of support for the internet, but have continued to fail to make decisions that would keep Britain at the leading edge of that development. The IR35 tax rules will drive people out of this country, just when we need their expertise. That is an utter disgrace.

Although one cannot believe everything in the newspapers, it is clear from them that Germany is likely to import 3,000 technicians to help meet staff needs. It therefore seems doubly absurd that Britain, a competitor country with many such technicians, should have an idiotic tax policy that will drive 10, 20 or 25 per cent. of them abroad, or out of business altogether.

Mr. Connarty

Remarks like that make me angry. The hon. Gentleman is saying that people should enjoy a tax advantage. My son is a software engineer and has his own company. He admits that he has a massive advantage over people who pay their fair share of tax. He says that regulation is long overdue. If it were available, he would use it, as would all his colleagues. The hon. Gentleman is simply making a protest on behalf of tax dodgers.

Mr. Duncan

There is no dodging whatsoever. The comments from the Minister and the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) illustrate a failure to recognise the changing structure of risk taking in this country. Much of the gain for risk takers at the leading edge of technological development is on paper rather than in cash. They face unacceptable bills when it comes to paying national insurance, for example, and they are finding them very difficult to meet.

It is distasteful that the Prime Minister should seek publicity by jumping on the internet bandwagon, as if to claim the credit for gains that so obviously are the product of others' work. The Government should make a clear statement of policy on regulation. We want less interference from the Department of Trade and Industry, and from legislation. After the shambles of the past week, there needs to be a greater sense of order in the way that legislation passes through the House, so that this country can remain at the leading edge of what is a very important technological revolution.

12.13 pm
The Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce (Ms Patricia Hewitt)

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing the debate which, by a happy coincidence, takes place in a week of such fast developments in the matter of internet access and charging.

The first challenge to Government is to get the market framework right. I shall begin my response to the debate by saying something about the nature of the framework that we are seeking to create. Our approach is summed up in a simple rubric: competition where possible, regulation where necessary. Through the Competition Act 1998, the Government significantly strengthened the competition framework that we inherited. That Act came into effect last week, and it applies to all sectors, including telecommunications. It significantly strengthens the prohibitions on anti-competitive behaviour, on cartels and on the abuse of dominant and monopoly positions by companies in any sector. By doing so, it will bring real advantages to British consumers.

The Government inherited a telecommunications sector in which competition was not driven entirely by the market. There remains a need for sector-specific regulation. I want to pay tribute to Oftel and its director general for the work done in discharging that regulatory function. However, competition and regulation are not mutually exclusive. As far as possible, regulation must be used to promote greater competition.

The policy strategy document recently published by Oftel makes it clear that organisation's determination to use its regulatory powers to promote fair competition, and to withdraw from regulation as competition takes effect in different parts of the telecommunications market. However, BT retains its dominant position with regard to the local loop. Interconnection is at the heart of moves by competitor retail operators to create a more competitive market. It is therefore essential that Oftel uses the powers available to it under the legislation covering telecommunications and competition.

I shall return to the specific questions of charging and the local loop in a moment, but I shall first say something about the Utilities Bill. It was designed to deliver—and will deliver—an improved system of pro-competition regulation in the electricity and gas sectors. I regret that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) has denounced the Bill again today. I presume that that means that the Opposition want the Bill to be withdrawn completely, even though that would mean abandoning the real benefits for consumers that will stem from greater competition in the wholesale electricity markets.

The Utilities Bill contained a general provision that the Government will provide social and environmental guidance to the telecommunications industry regulators, to ensure that they take account of wider policy objectives.

Mr. Connarty

My hon. Friend mentioned the environment, and I hope that she will allow me to raise the matter of the lack of control over the erection of masts for mobile telephone networks. The New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 covers such installations, which have aroused great public concern. Do the Government intend to have a dialogue with the regulators to ensure the regulation of that activity? Would it not be even better to amend the legislation, so that planning authorities would be able to control the spread of sites that are highly unacceptable? In my constituency, for example, a mast was erected just outside the bedroom window of a child suffering from leukaemia.

Ms Hewitt

My hon. Friend earlier complained— understandably—that mobile telephones do not work properly in many parts of the highlands of Scotland. However, there is a tension between the desire to achieve near-universal mobile telephony and worries about the siting of the masts that would make that possible. The specific health issues involved are being considered by the Stewart inquiry, and by a Committee of the Scottish Assembly. We will examine those matters in due course.

The Utilities Bill contained no proposals to deal with environmental issues by means of the guidance to the telecommunications regulator. However, the social guidance that we published for consultation some time ago covered the question of establishing a universal service for the sick and the disabled, and for elderly or poorly paid people, and dealt with issues of universal access in rural areas. It also covered the matter of access to the networks for emergency services.

Those are enormously important principles, and the Government stick by them. However, we will consider their implementation in the context of the communications review, to which I shall return in a moment.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton also raised the matter of consumer councils. My understanding is that they cannot be introduced without legislation. That is one reason why we originally decided to include telecommunications in the Utilities Bill. We still want to see strong and effective consumer councils for telecommunications, and we will look at the issue in the context of the overall review. I understand that the National Consumer Council and the Consumers Association suggest that, as a stopgap measure, existing bodies such as the advisory committees on telecommunications should be given more resources. We will certainly have a look at that.

We have been in touch with the consumer bodies throughout the Bill's progress. However, in the light of our decision on the whole telecommunications review, the decision whether to retain the telecommunications element of the Bill had to be made very quickly given the progress that the Bill was making in Committee. We were therefore not able to take that decision in consultation with the consumer bodies or the industry. We had representations from the industry arising from the announcement about the White Paper on communications, and we took those into account.

Let me say a word or two more on the White Paper. It is at the heart of the revolution that is taking place in the economy and in society that telecommunications, broadcasting and computing are converging. We considered that issue in the Green Paper that we published in 1988 and the consultation exercise that led to the joint report last June of the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on the way ahead for regulating communications.

We have now decided that, although the industry has benefited from much closer co-operation between the different regulators, it makes sense to look afresh at what is the best legal and regulatory framework for a sector whose boundaries are changing so very fast. We will do that properly. Rather than simply saying, "This is what the policy will be", the Government will do it through a process of consultation and dialogue, first leading up to the publication of a White Paper and then before the introduction of any Bill that may be necessary.

The White Paper will be very broad: it will consider the infrastructure and the appropriate framework for regulation of economic and access issues. It will consider the issues raised on broadcasting in particular about the regulation of content, just as it will look at media ownership rules and the role of public sector broadcasting. It is an essential piece of work, and I hope that many hon. Members will be closely involved.

The White Paper, which will be published later this year—not as late as November, I hope—will be an important milestone in ensuring that, as the industry and the market move very quickly, we have a regulatory system that is built for that purpose.

Mr. Connarty

I would like my hon. Friend to accept that, although Members on both sides of the House have made silly political capital out of the decision to withdraw telecommunications from the Utilities Bill, it was a very bold move and in line with what is required. I commend her for it, and I am sure that many other hon. Members will do so as well.

Ms Hewitt

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who has made an important point.

On charging and access, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday that we want to see access to the internet for everybody who wants it by 2005, and earlier if possible. It is important to understand that universal access will come through various means. It will come through telephone lines, cable, wireless and satellite. It will come through a variety of devices—computers, televisions, mobile telephones and other devices that are only now coming out of the research laboratories and on to the market.

Competition is driving down internet access prices and gives consumers much greater choice of new tariff packages. That policy of competition is working. We have seen in the past two weeks announcements from BT, Telewest, AltaVista and, yesterday, from NTL, all offering free or very cheap internet access with a variety of models and packages.

Mr. Wyatt

The Minister may just recall—or perhaps not—that, in 1936 when television was launched, there was competition between lines 205 and 405. Finally, the civil service decided on 405. We could help the community in Britain by saying, "Here is a basic internet system. This is all it needs", rather than having the hundreds of different systems that are available.

Ms Hewitt

I do not remember 1936. My sense is that different consumers and businesses want different levels of access and packages of content. Rather than the Government saying, "This is to be the standard, the package or the tariff", it makes sense to create a competitive marketplace in which there will be different offerings, and consumers will have the choice to get what they need. In many cases, consumers will access the internet through different means at different times of the day and for different purposes.

We are driving towards competition between BT and other operators connecting to the local loop. There will be competition between the local loop and cable. There will be competition on the local loop, with the advent of local loop unbundling. There will be competition between wired—local loop and cable access—and wireless access which, in turn, will come from satellite, third-generation—indeed, second and a half generation—mobiles and from broadband wireless.

On Monday, I launched the first world auction for third-generation mobile spectrum, with 13 bidders. I believe that that auction will help to keep the United Kingdom ahead of the game.

Mr. Connarty

Has the Minister given further thought to what seems to be the contradiction that Vodafone and Orange, which are now one company, appear to be able to bid separately?

Ms Hewitt

That was a matter to which my right hon. Friend gave very careful thought before the auction rules were finalised. It would have been quite wrong for Orange, through no fault or action of its own, to have been debarred from taking part in the auction simply because of the coincidence of timing of the VodafoneMannesmann merger and the third generation auction. We have put in place extremely stringent safeguards to ensure that there is no collusion between Vodafone and Orange in their bidding in the auction. It will not be possible for both companies to hold licences, should they both succeed in getting them through the auction, if they remain part of the same merged company. So we have taken care of that point.

I hope to make an announcement shortly about the allocation of further wireless spectrum at the 28 to 40 gigahertz spectrum band for purposes of broadband fixed wireless access. That is very important.

Let me say something about the digital divide, which several of my hon. Friends have mentioned. We are determined to ensure that access to the internet is not reserved for the young, the techie and the wealthy. That is why we have worked so hard and fast to connect up schools, colleges and libraries across the country. That has been very successful. It is why, this year, we will be rolling out learning and access centres, particularly in the most disadvantaged communities, which many of my hon. Friends represent, as, indeed, do I.

In another month or so, we will be publishing the report of one of the social exclusion policy action teams on how to exploit information and communications technology to overcome social exclusion. An enormous leap forward will come from internet access through digital television and through third-generation mobile. It will bring the internet and interactive digital services generally within the reach of people who are never likely to want, or could never afford, a computer at home. It will be a very different world.

We are also looking closely at how to exploit the new technologies to open up access to employment, learning and other services for people with disabilities. Like the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend, I pay tribute to Julia Schofield, the extraordinary woman who is blind and has done so much to advance the cause of user-friendly internet and web access. In Leicester, I saw a person with a very severe sight disability using voice recognition technology on a laptop to fulfil a demanding job at Voluntary Action Leicester.

In terms of online government—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Time is up. May I ask hon. Members who do not wish to remain for the next debate to leave quickly and quietly?