Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 441 - 459)

WEDNESDAY 15 MARCH 2000

MR DEREK WYATT, MP AND MR MARK ADAMS

Chairman

  441. Good afternoon, Mr Wyatt and Mr Adams. Our apologies for keeping you waiting. Thank you for the two papers which you have put in to us. My colleagues will have a feel for this from the papers you have put in and from other knowledge of you also. I wonder if I can kick off by asking you what global role does WiF aspire to?

  (Mr Wyatt) Good afternoon, everyone. The reason we have started WiF is because we feel that there is a chasm of knowledge from the government side around the world where we are playing catch-up and where the Internet community finds it incredibly difficult to get in. The computer industry is in, is embedded as it were in relationships with the government, but the Internet community is not. It is very hard for Lastminute or Amazon actually to come and show their technology. If I take one example of Lastminute, which I know is a hot subject, at the end of August every year people clamour to get to university. If there was a LastminuteUniversity.com, that could save a lot of angst, it would be very much cheaper, it would be simpler. There is an enabling technology in the Lastminute website that could be used by government, but it is very difficult for them to get into it. We felt that whereas initially the Internet was in a way business to consumer, and is much more now business to business because they want to make some money, there is very little business to government. The idea is to try and bring solutions to problems that all governments face in the public services, like for instance, what is the future of a physical school building? It is time we had a look at these questions but probably the Internet community has a better idea of that than governments round the world. Probably each government is struggling with it. It is for the public services and we are trying to create a window, initially with a conference, then with a secretariat and then with a portal; one thing at a time.

  442. You seem to be a little bit critical of the United Kingdom Trust which is an attempt to solve a particular problem, again which is government, the industry and, I suppose, part of the public service. It depends where you class the Consumers' Association. Is that not the kind of area where the Government is reacting appropriately, and yet you feel it is not satisfactory? You offer yourself as an alternative?
  (Mr Wyatt) No, we do not offer ourselves as an alternative. I just feel currently that there needs to be a discussion about the Consumers' Association's role from both sides of that particular premise.

  443. Just in that area?
  (Mr Wyatt) Indeed. But it is a global problem. You could have the United Kingdom Trust, but most websites and servers that do business are in the east coast of America. In fact, between 90 and 95 per cent of all servers are, so you need to attack this in a world forum rather than a United Kingdom forum.

Baroness O'Cathain

  444. The east coast of North America, actually.
  (Mr Wyatt) Yes, Boston.

Chairman

  445. So how do you do it?
  (Mr Wyatt) How would you do it? Well, sir, please write a cheque and send it to me in the post. Initially we have to gain confidence in what we are trying to do. That will take a little bit of time. That is also branding, that is also integrity. It will take a while.

Lord Sandberg

  446. What does "a while" mean?
  (Mr Wyatt) I think we need to see out this year. We will have done a conference. We have so many different things hitting us that we do not have the resources yet to be able to handle secretariat issues. For instance, just today we have had people coming in to talk about Media Carta which is a sort of Magna Carta for the Net. In fact I told him to call it Magna Carta 2.0. They have said, "We have nowhere to put it. Could we put it in the secretariat?" One day we had the Internet Watch Foundation who said, "We have got all these sorts of foundations all over the world but they are a bit bitty. What we need is a policy forum. Is there some way that could be the secretariat?" Clicksure (I am Chairman of the Council of Clicksure, which is a world trust based in Oxford and Washington) actually said to me recently, "We do not actually want the Council any more. We cannot really have our own Council that is telling us these are the rules. We need the World Internet Forum or someone to say, `We will do that'." Just listening to the previous conversation, there is a hole that, with a bit of luck, we might be able to fill.

Baroness O'Cathain

  447. Mr Wyatt, I have the advantage of being quite a rapid reader because we only got your supplementary paper, B94, when we arrived at this meeting today. I have read the whole paper and I am intrigued. I would like to ask you a couple of questions on it because it is obviously fundamental to your philosophy about this area. When you say that in the area of public understanding you would score them five out of 10, what is the 10? Is the 10 some sort of worldwide standard or is it a standard created by Mr Derek Wyatt MP?
  (Mr Wyatt) Mark wrote that bit so I will ask Mark to answer it.

  448. I see. Well, then, is it a standard created by Mr Mark Adams?
  (Mr Adams) Those numbers were put down in no way to act as arbiter, rather to make it simpler for people who inquire as to how well do we think we are doing, and for me to say, "Well, I think we are doing about five out of 10".

  449. That is how well we are doing by comparison with whom?
  (Mr Adams) It is an interesting question. How well we are doing in comparison with the G8 countries particularly, how well we are doing in comparison with the emerging economies in the Internet, the ones that are really making things happen in Scandinavia, Malaysia and Singapore, and also of course, in comparison to my own view on what we should be able to be achieving and what we could be achieving. Just to give you a quick perspective on that, my view is not an arbitrary one. My view is very closely linked to many of the papers and speeches made by the Prime Minister who has set a tone for where we should be. In comparison to that tone I feel somebody needs to say, "We are not living up to that tone." It is a combination of those three things.

  450. I must say I am slightly disappointed because I hoped you were going to tell me that you had a whole raft of information that the Committee as a whole could draw on in terms of what level ten was on trust, on creating company awareness, on the development of the enterprise culture and so on and so forth. It is really based on Mr Blair, is it?
  (Mr Adams) It is very subjective. Yes, it is based on Mr Blair and my analysis and is based on the levels achieved by the other two groups of countries I mentioned. I would add, however, that the work that the DTI has done in inspection reports is very rigorous and very thorough and if the Committee required the more substantive numbers behind these points we could produce some, there is good work available.

  451. You describe the eEurope Action Plan as an unambitious and uninspiring initiative and you say that [email protected] is very much ahead of the times. We have had a lot of evidence to suggest that [email protected] is very good indeed. This statement "very much ahead of the times", what times are we talking about? As it is ahead of the times, does that mean that people are not going to be able to understand it because you are rather scathing not only about the intellectual ability of this country and the inhabitants thereof, but their internet ability, their modern e-commerceability? Also, where you say "A condition of the performance reviews of all civil servants should include an appraisal of internet literacy", I suspect that you do not know that a lot of people are quite literate on the internet. For example, with one very noble exception on this Committee I think we all communicate by e-mail.
  (Mr Adams) As I said before in those notes, the performance of this Committee in terms of e-mail use has been absolutely exemplary, I think it has been fantastic.

Chairman

  452. I hope you have been to our web pages as well.
  (Mr Adams) I think you have demonstrated, if I might say, a style, an approach, an attitude, a flexibility, that is the hallmark of what it is to be in the internet era. If I could bottle it and sell it I would not need to start a .com company. That would be a terrific asset.
  (Mr Wyatt) If I might just add a couple of thoughts. Tim Berners-Lee let out the World Wide Web in 1992, it is now 2000 and that was eight years ago. It was six years ago that Netscape announced what it could do and here we are still struggling as a Government all around the world with it. It seems to me that there is actually a hole in the way in which governments function with respect to an idea as profound as this but we are catching up and, to be honest, we are going to catch up forever and that is the worry. The second thing is I think that, unfortunately, we feel that e-commerce is a delivery system and actually we have not asked what Government.com is and we have not asked what that fundamentally does to Government.

  Chairman: Can you try to answer some of those questions for us, please?

Baroness O'Cathain

  453. You asked the same questions, can you answer them?
  (Mr Wyatt) Can I?

  454. Yes.
  (Mr Wyatt) I cannot find a FTSE 100 company that has 22 board directors, so the Cabinet currently has 22 board directors. I think that the style in which a government works should be sharper and quicker and faster. Therefore, I wonder whether the structure of vertical institutions, which is what Government departments are, is an 18th Century model and whether the actual internet redefines that. I do not have a finite answer. I have begun a series of lectures about this but I have not got to the end of it. Fundamentally we must start the debate. In Washington at the moment there is a very serious set of debates on the net about whether Congress should vote on an issue, pass it and put it into a sort of box and then for the Internet community to vote on it. That raises a huge number of issues.

  455. That is pretty anti-democratic.
  (Mr Wyatt) Nevertheless, that is the debate going on and it is current about does this mean a change in the constitution, an adaptation, and we will listen to that debate with interest.

  Chairman: Could I suggest that you look at the issues of accountability and budgetary processes which we presently have. If you could provide some solutions to those we might start to see some real cross cutting Government in a whole range of areas. I might suggest that you look at some of the experimentation with democracy in Finland where I understand at the end of each week parliament decides on a question to be put to the people who then vote on it, those who choose to participate, expressing a view on a nationwide basis.

  Baroness O'Cathain: But do they act on it, Lord Chairman?

  Chairman: We are thinking about seeking further evidence on that.

Lord Paul

  456. Mr Wyatt, nice to see you here in your expert field. As you heard my colleague, the noble Baroness, reads with an e-mail speed but ordinary mortals like me have read only a little bit. You have given Government five out of ten and in one of our earlier evidence sessions we received evidence that if Government had a more dedicated Minister to look after e-mail perhaps it would move faster. On the other hand, the Government claims that they have a Minister of State in charge and a full-time E-Envoy. How big a difference would it make in your view if they had a Minister for e-commerce to get this whole programme moving faster?
  (Mr Wyatt) There are a couple of things there, Lord Paul. First of all, if you look at how the major FTSE 100 companies are moving in their management systems, the poor old personnel manager and the poor old computer clerk used to be in the gutter bracket of the career structure and now it is very clear it is the chief executive and the finance director and the Internet person. That is a significant shift in the way in which the management structures are going. To be honest, that is what we need inside the Cabinet Office. We need the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I think the next big appointment would be a Minister for the Internet. Currently it is held across Government, there is an e-commerce Minister in one department, the DTI, there is an E-Envoy in the Cabinet Office, and Ian McCartney is the procurement person but that is for computing, not necessarily for Internet. You have got NHS Direct, you have got a thousand computer centres being built, you have got the National Grid for Learning, but there is no defining architecture, there is no understanding of what a hub could do, there is no way in which we could plug in our communities locally. Somebody must be responsible for the overview of how this country is going to get the net. At the moment it is muddled and confused.

Baroness O'Cathain

  457. Can I just butt in there, if I may. Is it Government's responsibility to ensure that everybody is net literate, is able to visit websites? By your discussion here today it looks as though the internet is the king that we have all got to aspire to, whereas Internet and e-commerce are another tool of carrying out business and making life a little bit easier, yes?
  (Mr Wyatt) I think there is a profound difference between what the Internet is and what e-commerce is.

  458. Yes, but e-commerce is actually using the Internet as well as.
  (Mr Wyatt) Indeed, but we have a responsibility I hope, although it is not always easy, to make sure that when students leave school at 16 they are literate and numerate and various other things, I think we would put into that debate they should also be internet fluent. I think we do have that responsibility. Because this is the most profound thing since the industrial revolution we also have a wider responsibility to our old age pensioners, to groups of people, mainly men over 45—that is me—who have missed it, most of us are logarithms and slide rules, if we got to that bit, and miss it. I have seen far too many chief executives with their secretaries answering their e-mails. They really do not get it. This is a huge thing. I do not think we have defined the Internet clearly in this Government or as a nation, and we need to do that.
  (Mr Adams) May I add a comment to that? Does Government have a role to play? I think the answer is yes, categorically. There are two major impacts of the Internet and e-commerce, and I am bundling the two together, the effect on the economy, the new world economy of the knowledge-driven world, and the effect on society. Both of those two areas I believe are extremely poorly understood, they have not been charted or mapped sufficiently. I will not use the word negligent, maybe remiss is the word that there is no clear map for the effect of internet and e-commerce on the economy or on society and that is where Government has to get involved, especially if we wish to establish the United Kingdom's position in the competitive global economy.

Lord Woolmer of Leeds

  459. In relation to Europe, not just the United Kingdom but the EU and all of its governments, in as concrete terms as you can, what should governments in the different European nations and what should Brussels be doing now? What precisely should they be doing, in your view?
  (Mr Wyatt) I think the biggest problem, to be honest, is tax: tax collection, tax identity. That is just such a big issue that the OECD papers are awaited with interest. Currently if you order on Amazon.com you ought to pay VAT on the music side but quite often Customs and Excise in the United Kingdom either do not badge it up or collect it. I imagine that is £2 million to £3 million a week coming through that is not collected in VAT. So there is a policing customs issue with that. I down-dialled Real Audio 5 the other day off the net from Seattle but, of course, I did not pay VAT on that. Normally I would have bought the CD. There is no VAT to pay on the net. If you then move off VAT, TVA or value added tax, where are the companies going to start to pay corporation tax? Where they register their server? Where they deliver their product? Where they originate their product? These are very fundamental problems and I do not think there is a body yet, I do not think the G8 has got there and I do not think the United Nations or the European Union have got there. We think that is one thing maybe the World Internet Forum Secretariat could be charged with, blowing my own trumpet there. This is fundamental now because it does mean you might not build a hospital or a school. This is not going to go away. This is a huge issue.
  (Mr Adams) On the question of what governments in Europe should be doing, my view is that Europe has a role on the information privacy issue that you were discussing earlier and the tax one, those are very big issues for Europe. Broadly speaking, I think governments are addressing the issues. A year ago we would have been saying that this issue and that issue should be addressed, but now it is more the case that most of the issues are being addressed and it is a question of the pace. The pace and the commitment with which decisions are then taken seems to be too slow. The areas that have not been addressed are the two I raised earlier, the impact on the economy and the impact on society.


 
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