HC Deb 23 July 1999 vol 335 cc684-6W
Mr. Matthew Taylor

To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry how many times Ministers in his Department have held meetings with Ministers and officials of the Irish Government since 1 January 1998, indicating the dates and locations of each meeting, the Ministers involved and the names of the Irish Ministers and officials at each meeting. [90408]

Mr. Byers

Since 1 January 1998 DTI Ministers have held meetings with Irish Ministers on the following occasions:

Mr. Wills

The Government have set the ambitious goal of making the UK the best place in the world for electronic trading by 2002. The Government have been translating this vision into a reality, through a range of measures, culminating in today's publication of the draft Electronic Communications Bill. On 6 May 1999,Official Report, columns 446–47, I announced the terms for introducing third generation mobile phones, allowing high speed mobile access to the Internet, among other things. On 5 July I launched a consultation on licensing new radio spectrum to allow broadband wireless services to be offered across the country. On 6 July Oftel announced the opening up of BT's local network to enable broadband services to be available across the country. These measures will give us world-beating broadband access.

On 22 July 1999, Official Report, columns 1342–55, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry announced the White Paper "Modern Markets, Confident Consumers". It offers a new deal for consumers, including core principles for e-commerce codes of conduct to promote consumer confidence in on-line shopping.

I am launching a consultation on the draft Electronic Communications Bill today. The draft Bill and the Government's response to the Trade and Industry Committee's recent report are published in a Command Paper—"Promoting Electronic Commerce". I have also published a summary of responses to our previous consultation. Copies of these documents have been placed in the Vote Office and are available on the DTI website at http://www/dti.gov.uk/cii/elec/ecbill.html. I am asking for comments on the draft Bill by 8 October and the Government will then introduce a Bill to Parliament in the next session.

The Bill will put in place a light-touch legal framework to allow electronic commerce to flourish. The Bill establishes conclusively that all electronic signatures, however produced and of whatever form, are admissible in Court. The Bill also provides for the modernising of the statute book, to remove legal barriers to using electronic means, as an alternative to pen and paper. The power will help modernise dealings with Government and allow the electronic option for other transactions constrained by statute. The Bill will do this by giving the relevant Minister the power to amend existing legislation by Statutory Instrument.

I am pleased to announce that the DTI intends to use this power to amend the Companies Act 1985 to enable companies to use electronic means to deliver company communications, including sending annual reports to shareholders, to receive shareholder proxy and voting instructions and to incorporate. Savings on the printing and distribution of Annual Reports and accounts alone could amount up to £10 for every shareholder who participates.

The Bill will promote confidence in electronic signature and other cryptography services. Such services allow people to ensure that their credit card details and other personal information cannot be read by others when they shop on-line. They allow businesses to protect their intellectual property and stop sensitive information being read by competitors. They will also, by allowing the verification of who is at the other end of an electronic communications, give confidence to those conducting business with companies they have not dealt with before. An approval scheme, for those delivering these services, would build trust, both in the technology and the bodies offering it, by ensuring that minimum standards of quality and service are met.

The Government have been working closely with the Alliance for Electronic Business who are leading the development of a non-statutory, self-regulatory scheme. Such a scheme bringing together providers and users, including consumers, should offer a more flexible and effective way of meeting the Government's objectives than a statutory scheme. The Alliance's scheme is still in its infancy, so the draft Bill proposes to take powers to set up a statutory voluntary scheme by secondary legislation. The Government will only use these powers should the industry fail to work out a suitable model for self-regulation consistent with our e-commerce and law enforcement interests.

In seeking to promote electronic commerce, it is also vital that the Government ensure that the ability of the agencies tasked with combating crime and threats to national security is not critically undermined by criminal use of the very technologies, such as encryption, which are needed to make the electronic commerce revolution happen, and which the Bill seeks to promote. By way of addressing this threat, the proposed Bill establishes new powers to enable the agencies to require the surrender of decryption keys or specified data in an intelligible form in response to the service of a properly authorised written notice. The powers will operate on a case by case basis and will only apply to material which itself has been, or is being, lawfully obtained. The procedures contain strong safeguards. The Bill also establishes oversight and complaints mechanisms covering use of the new powers.

The Bill will also introduce a more flexible process for amending existing Telecommunication Act 1984 licences, a deregulatory measure which will reduce the need for costly references to the Competition Commission.

The Bill will be a light-touch framework for facilitating electronic commerce, building on the UK's traditional strengths including our history as a trading nation, our dynamic IT industries, the City, the English language, our framework of commercial law, our inventiveness and our competitive telecommunications environment.