Select Committee on Trade and Industry Eighth Report


Annual Report

    (a)  It is not a promising symptom of the attitude of Government to the digital divide that such a key document as the e-Minister and e-Envoy's first Annual Report should not have been made more readily available in paper form as well as electronically. We recommend that future annual reports be made available in paper, when the House is sitting (paragraph 8).

Need for analysis

    (b)  A major effort to bring to reality the promise of public and private e-business within and outside Government is now under way. We commend to other departmental committees the 65 commitments in the September 2000 Report as a rich seam, which we suspect would benefit from further scrutiny (paragraph ?).


    (c)  It is only too evident that what we feared has come to pass; that the e-Envoy has been absorbed into the machinery of Whitehall and is now an adjunct of the e-Minister. We are concerned at this mini-empire growing up in the shadow of the e-Envoy. The assurances given in October 1999 in response to our July 1999 Report that the e-Envoy would not be responsible for implementation seem to have been overlooked. The promotion of UK electronic business seems to have fallen by the wayside. The broad and critical view taken in the 1999 PIU Report has been replaced by the language of Whitehall. We greatly fear that the original concept of the e-Envoy has been captured, tamed and bureaucratised into an e-official planted in an e-office, no doubt full of activity but caught between being an agency of implementation and a powerhouse of ideas. It is not too late for a rethink of the scale and nature of the Office, nor of the role of the e-Envoy (paragraphs 7 and 10).

Secondary legislation

    (d)  Although nobody could describe the intended output of secondary legislation arising from section 8 of the Electronic Communications Act as dramatic in its scale or scope, there are a number of proposals out for consultation which if they come to fruition could have genuinely beneficial effects. We recommend that departments which have not identified any need for secondary legislation to allow for electronic signatures be asked for evidence of the nature of their inquiries, that the target for completing the orders set out in the May 2000 written answer be revised to 100% achievement, and that a second tranche of orders be brought forward as soon as possible (paragraphs 13 and 14).

Trusted Service Providers and tScheme

    (e)  Much parliamentary time has been devoted to the question of regulation of approvals for Trusted Service Providers. We would welcome a detailed progress report on the tScheme in response to this Report (paragraph ?).

Interception regime

    (f)  There is a general interest in helping ensure that the internet is both secure from attack and not used for criminal purposes. We welcome continuing reporting of progress through the monthly implementation reports, and recommend that the next Annual Report reveal practical examples of the benefits of the changes introduced in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (paragraph 17).


    (g)  The success of the new regulatory structure proposed in the Communications White Paper will to a great measure be judged by the extent to which it is able to ensure a more transparent and competitive electronic market place. Ministers and the regulator must continue to concentrate on creating the right infrastructure and on opening up competition in a number of areas so that other e-initiatives do not run into the roadblock of most people finding the electronic world inaccessible on terms they can afford and under conditions which suit them (paragraphs 18 and 24).


    (h)  The evidence does not suggest that regulation is holding back e-commerce. There is however a strong perception that it could; this requires dispelling. We trust that some positive effort will indeed be devoted to that end, as recommended by the Better Regulation Task Force (paragraph 28).


    (i)  We record the abolition of betting tax as one of the first fiscal casualties of electronic commerce. We look to the next Annual Report to give a full critical commentary on developments in the taxation policy area (paragraphs 32 and 33).


    (j)  We are not established to conduct a detailed assessment of the reality behind the fulfilment of targets across government departments, nor to take in the flood of real or electronic documents on e-government. There is still a slight whiff of unreality in the electronic government agenda. We had hoped that the e-Envoy as originally envisaged might provide an objective analysis of such an issue, from outside the machinery of Government. It is a task which some element of the select committee system may feel obliged to take up in the new Parliament (paragraph 38).


    (k)  Given the UK's general commitment to the e-Europe process, there would be value in reporting annually on the achievement at national level of those e-Europe targets not already directly reflected in the UK's own targets (paragraph 42).

    (l)  At the end of the day we question what purpose is served in pumping out all these e-targets, most of which are only capable of being met as a result of national policies and practices, or in identifying "priorities" if they change with each Presidency and represent no more than a dish of the day from an ever longer a la carte menu. It is difficult not to be sceptical about these rather grandiose and flabby plans. They could however offer the opportunity for a member state to assess its own plans against those produced elsewhere. Ideally, somebody should be asking Governments why something can be done and is being done in one member state but not another. National Parliaments are ideally placed to do this. If the e-Europe initiative is not seized upon by Parliaments it will become another initiative doomed to live alongside the bones of other long discarded Declarations. We can but hope that something emerges from Stockholm to give us hope (paragraphs 47 and 48).

Digital divide: programmes

    (m)  Two years after the announcement that 100,000 low income families would be receiving and paying for recycled computers, it seems that only a third of that number have received them, within the last few months (paragraph 56).

    (n)  If the Wired Up Communities programme is to prove of any value it can only be if the level of expenditure and effort needed to produce worthwhile results stands any chance of being replicated on a national scale (paragraph 57).

Digital divide: general

    (o)  Some programmes seem to be designed to make a real difference. Others are evidently a drop in the ocean; they are either pilots which seek to prove that further expenditure is justified, or futile gestures. These initiatives and centres and development programmes do not amount to a strategy to overcome the digital divide between old and young, rich and poor, urban and rural. In the context of the scale of the digital divide, they look like woefully inadequate gestures. Millions of people are excluded, not the thousands reached so far by these initiatives. We hope that the e-Envoy will be given time to look up from the world of e-Whitehall and take a holistic view of the divide. His first priority must be to bridge that gap with a rounded strategy, based on the experience gained of the rather disparate initiatives of the past few years. We look forward to its presentation in the next Annual Report (paragraphs 55 and 62).

Education and skills

    (p)  There is an impressive array of educational initiatives and efforts designed to get on top of the ICT training agenda. There remains a massive task. Some of the initiatives would repay closer study than we have given them, perhaps by other departmental select committees; being able to teach Japanese by ICT, for example, may be useful but cannot be at the centre of the nation's educational requirements. We suspect that it is proving harder to reach older people. It would be useful to have some idea of measurable output in the next Annual Report, and to have a European perspective on the UK level of achievement, at all stages of lifelong learning (paragraph 66).


    (q)  Consumer confidence in e-commerce and awareness of consumer rights remains low. We would welcome the deployment of the resources of DTI's consumer division, led by the responsible Minister, to publicise the efforts being made to make the electronic marketplace at least as safe a place to buy as the real marketplace, and to consider what more needs to be done (paragraph 69).

Advice to business

    (r)  There is in our view a role here for the Chief Executive of the Small Business Service to examine these support programmes anew and satisfy himself and those who advise him on the Small Business Council that this is the best use of the business support funds available (paragraph 71).

Economic impact

    (s)  In the absence of an authoritative study, undertaken by those without a vested interest in boosting electronic commerce, strategies designed to increase the volume of electronic commerce run the risk of being counter-productive. We look forward to the early production of an evaluation of the net economic effect of e-commerce (paragraph 72).

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