HC Deb 24 October 2000 vol 355 cc101-2W
Mr. Borrow

To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what decisions he has reached on the future of the Patent Office in the light of the review announced by the Minister for Competitiveness on 27 April. [134447]

Mr. Alan Johnson

The first stage of the Review of the Patent Office has now been completed. I am pleased to say that the Review found that the Office is now extremely customer focused and responsive. The quality of the Office's patent granting and other registration functions is well regarded and compares favourably with that of other intellectual property offices. The Patent Office has met or exceeded most of its performance objectives and targets. It has contributed to the achievement of wider Government objectives. Its standards of customer service are very high. It has achieved a Charter Mark three times, and IiP accreditation.

The Patent Office will continue as an Executive Agency of the DTI. There are significant concerns about privatising or contracting out in full what are largely judicial functions, where commercial drivers could lead to unhelpful pressures. The review found that Agency status was widely thought to have worked well.

We want the UK to play a key role in driving forward international policy on intellectual property—not just patents and trade marks but copyright too, where the Internet and digital uses are posing new challenges. We need to ensure that copyright can be protected and enforced on an international basis, while balancing both user and owner interests. We intend to strengthen the policy units, bringing in a range of expertise and widening the consultation mechanisms, so as to work in partnership with the different interests.

Getting a patent or trade mark is only part of the story for business. They also have to find a market for their invention and need to know how to defend their intellectual property rights. The Patent Office will in future be doing more to help them—linking up with the Small Business Service and the support for innovation the DTI provides. For example, we will be exploring what more needs to be done—using the web—to match inventors with business partners. The Patent Office will also be investigating how it might develop alternative dispute resolution with the interests of small business and private applicants in mind.

Trade is becoming increasingly international and patents need to reflect this. The UK can play a key role in developing the international systems to make them cheap, speedy and accessible. We want to see the expertise of national offices used to achieve this. We have a very well respected team of specialist examiners—we want to see them (and other national offices) being used to speed up and improve the international routes for granting patents. The UK route for patents could then become complementary to the international routes. The review recommended that UK fees should be adjusted to discourage duplication of work and to cover costs. We intend to consider, and consult as necessary, on the scope for changing the fee structure to achieve these objectives.

Our trade mark registration function is highly regarded and it is still needed alongside the EC trade mark and the international trade mark system. The review concluded that there was a good case for bringing greater consistency between the UK and EC systems by ceasing to refuse applications on the grounds of conflicting marks, but possibly notifying the applicant and trade mark owner of conflicts. We intend to consult on the options.

On designs, an EC regime is in prospect and we will consult on whether a UK system is still needed once that is in place.

We intend to ensure that the governance of the Patent Office reflects the need to provide a balance between producer interests, the innovation agenda and the interests of end-consumers, by including a range of external members on the Steering Board, which would discuss policy at a strategic level. We will also be considering whether a new name would better reflect the Office's role and aims. The Office will be working closely with Companies House and Nominet to ensure that, in so far as it would be helpful for companies, a unified application should be possible.

IT is a key strategic enabler for the Office. Advice from consultants showed that the current management, systems and equipment were appropriate and effective for business needs and offered value for money. They generally endorsed the Office's approach to new initiatives, while making some proposals which the Office will be taking forward. The Patent Office has already developed a highly rated website and is on track to have all services available electronically by the Government target of 2005.

The report of Stage 1 of the Review of the Patent Office has been placed in the Library of the House.

Stage 2 of the review has now started and is considering whether any changes should be made to the way in which the Patent Office operates, including its aims and objectives, targets and financial controls.

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