E-commerce minister quizzed


The Chancellor Gordon Brown and Patricia Hewitt, Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce, held the first Pre-Budget Roadshow to discuss the Government's agenda to improve productivity in the UK at UUNET's headquarters in Cambridge last Friday.

Excerpts from Patricia Hewitt's presentation, which refers to forthcoming legislation, and her answers to questions taken from the floor during the roadshow, are reproduced here:

Patricia Hewitt, Minister for Ecommerce

'The E-commerce bill was the first bill in the Queen's speech, and I believe it will be our first bill of the 21st Century. It will enable us to modernise centuries of statute law and replace up to 40,000 references to hard copy documents. It has been described by Microsoft as a model for Europe.

'We have to get our telecommunications market right and we have got one of the most liberalised and competitive market places in the world. But we need to do more to drive competition further and faster into that market place and in particular to get the cost of internet access peak time down. We are seeing moves on that, from both Oftel and BT and I am confident that very soon we will have an even wider range of internet tariff packages and we will see the cost of access continuing to fall.

'We have also just announced Europe's first option for 3rd generation mobile radio spectrum and we are well ahead of the US on mobile telephony. Third generation mobile will give us rich multi-media access on the move and retain that competitive advantage over the US.

'Very shortly will have an announcement from Oftel on the issue of local loop unbundling and how we get competition into the local loop. I will shortly be announcing a consultation and further allocations on wireless radio fixed access loops as a new source of competition to the local loop.

'We are also looking at how we regulate for a world of convergence.

'We need confident people with the skills and access to the new technology to close the digital divide.

'We are also setting high priorities for getting SMEs online, for although we have world class small businesses, many of them here in Cambridge, who are exploiting to the full the potential of ICT if you look at our small businesses as a whole they are at the bottom of the OECD league table when it comes to using ICT and we cannot simply afford to leaving them there because these days if a business doesn't realise that the Internet is an opportunity they will soon find that it is a threat as someone else discovers an opportunity to take their business.

'I am working to create a small business network, information and knowledge that small businesses need online services that government can provide access to private sector sources of support as well - available online and indirectly through a call centre and through advisors, business link or trade association.

'I have also just announced the establishment of the first online ministerial network which will coordinate our work on electronic commerce and electronic government with ministers from every key government department, working through an online meeting room and online ministerial chatroom for the more informal discussion that we all want to have as well.

'In Europe, we are working for this goal of one single European market for electronic commerce. Next Tuesday we will formally sign and agree the e-signatures directive.

'We need to create a Trust Europe scheme which will give effective levels of consumer protection and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms through a system of industry self regulation across Europe.

'And finally we are doing much to position Britain for real success in this new economy . But we must also ensure that we are ready to catch the next wave. We need to understand the world in which there is ubiquitous computing and ubiquitous connectivity, ie things that talk to each other. A world in which storage capacity is being transformed. And look ahead to the 4th generation of mobile communications. We have the skills and capacity to be leaders in this new wave of technologies but I think that we in government need to understand more and to work with you to ensure that we build the skills and ready ourselves to exploit it.

'Do keep in touch, my email address is e.minister.dti.gov.uk and if you want to respond to the Chancellor's pre-budget consultation I refer you to the Treasury's home page hm_treasury.gov.uk'

This speech - and that of the Chancellor Gordon Brown - is available online at http://www.uk.uu.net/new/1999/chancellor/

Questions and answers

Nick Wood-Dow,Interforum - 'very pleased to hear that you are about to sign the two directives at Telecoms Council on Tuesday I am interested also that you referred to the country of origin issue, is it likely to be settled at the general affairs council on the 7th December and how do you think that we will win this one on behalf of the UK?'

Minister's response: 'We are moving towards closure on the electronic commerce directive and there is growing agreement across member states that the directive should be concluded as drafted, ie on the basis of suppliers company of origin. However, there are related matters such as the Brussels convention. We are getting loud messages from the UK business community on what is needed to get the European framework right, but it is very clear that other member states governments have not been getting the same messages from their own businesses. I would encourage you to urge your European partners to lobby the European Commission to ensure we do get this right.. and quickly.'

Stephen Gatley, Integrated Dynamics Limited - 'Is there going to be any investment specifically aimed at companies that develop online wireless systems, our particular interest is the delivery of health care online?'

Minister's response: 'Let us know of any proposals that you may have. We may have to do more to ensure that Government is the intelligent consumer for these services. There is clearly a lot more that can be done on management of information within the NHS itself.'

Martin Alley, UUNET - 'One area not mentioned is banks, historically they have been a weak link in providing consumers with electronic based services are there any plans to change this?'

Minister's response: 'We have been working very closely with the British Banking Association and individual banks in particularly to ensure they are delivering services, particularly to the small business sector. We have had interest in creating a small business service gateway so that the virtual network will be available to every bank business adviser on their own screens. Don Cruickshank has been looking very closely at the banks, on behalf of the Chancellor, looking in particular at their services to small businesses. Also how they facilitate Ecommerce, particularly clearance as credit card merchants.'

Hermann Hauser, Amadeus Capital Partners Limited - 'Will you be willing to support Ecommerce centres and link them with the Science Enterprise Challenge which exists in eight university towns?'

Minister's response: 'Clearly we do need to see the growth of Ecommerce centres I think it something that RDAs, the small business service and Business links should look out. As they develop and modernise business support centres and incubators they should be looking to make Ecommerce centres part of the package. I think it is a very sensible idea to tie that up with the Science and Enterprise Challenge and the work we are trying to do to get more universities to spin off start up companies.'

Richard Bang, Floosietek Ltd - 'One thing we notice when trading internationally that most foreign companies will pay their bills within 10 to 14 days and yet when we trade with UK companies we have to wait three months. Is there anything going to be done to address this?'

Minister's response: 'The latest survey on bill payments does show a significant fall in the average time taken for bill payments. It is still no where near short enough and that is to do with a bigger problem, a culture of late payment in this country which we are trying to tackle.'

Caroline Swift, CHASE - 'What is government doing to provide micro investment for small businesses?'

Minister's response: 'We have a range of initiatives designed to tackle a market failure in provision of finance. Creation of enterprise funds at a regional level with the regional development agencies playing a key role and that is specifically designed to leverage in private capital as a new source of finance for small businesses. We are consulting on a knowledge bank, looking at the specific problem of start-up companies in high tech knowledge where there are no physical assets to which the bank can look for collateral. Where the asset of the company is the brain power of those starting it up. This is clearly a problem and we are looking to see if we need an institution or to extend the guarantee scheme we already have in the small loan firms. Lastly, the enterprise grants designed to assist small businesses in the assisted areas and the Phoenix fund which is designed to provide funding to community finance initiatives that can provide finance to start-ups in particularly disadvantaged areas.'

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