§ 3.6 p.m.
§ Baroness Elles rose to call attention to the opportunities for the United Kingdom in the development of the information society; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. We in this country are very good at many things. One of them is not always fully appreciating what we are good at and where we have been successful. So in today's debate it would be worth looking at one sector where the United Kingdom, together with the United States, has led the 1794 world in the development of new technology, specifically in the field of information. It promises an exciting future for our country.
§ The two significant factors in the UK's success have been, first, the use of English as a commercial language in vast areas of the world and, secondly and importantly, government programmes implementing privatisation and liberalisation policies initiated more than 10 years ago. As regards Europe, for instance, except for the UK, Sweden and Finland, all member states' telecommunications operations are state monopolies without the benefit of competition. One comparative figure indicates the kind of situation that has arisen. As regards what we call "PCs", there are 34 per 100 citizens in the United States and 22 per 100 citizens in the United Kingdom. However, in the rest of Europe the average is 10 per 100 citizens.
We must ensure that Britain continues to hold a leading position in what has developed not only into a European but a global market. As the sector expands rapidly, there is an increasing influence on the lifestyles of individuals, on career opportunities and on a completely new approach to the problems of daily life; for instance, shopping, banking, publications, home-based offices, ways of obtaining information and reception of entertainment available on screen.
§ In many instances distance has now become irrelevant. Availability of information at the touch of a button applies equally to researchers at university, access to databases on a wide range of matters and, for example, even consultation with medical specialists who are perhaps several hundred miles away advising on appropriate diagnosis and medical treatment. These dramatic changes resulting from new achievements and advances pose new problems in public policy, in standards—both moral and technical—in the need for legal measures, in the conflict between twin principles of freedom of expression and protection of privacy, and have to be considered if people are to reap benefits from these changes, so that we can see social and economic progress and avoid possible ill effects and consequences through failure to discuss and debate these issues. While the industrial revolution of over 150 years ago, which Britain then led, altered the way in which people lived, we did not always remain in the lead and there were negative as well as positive results. We are now going through another more complex revolution in which millions of people are taking part and are being affected by it. Anyone who acquires a computer, a telephone line and a modem can open up a new world of information, communication and entertainment, hitherto undreamed of.
§ The opportunity for free and open debate enables us to put our views to the Government. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Ferrers for answering on the Government's behalf, recognising, of course, that only a few of those issues can be touched on in the time available.
§ To understand some of the technical problems involved, thanks should be expressed to the excellent Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) publication Information Superhighways, or the National Information Infrastructure, just published. The clear division between telecommunication services identified by the great success of BT since its privatisation and the 1795 cable services, which have enabled the cable operators to develop their field of operation, has so far proved to be successful. What must now be considered is whether that separation should continue in the future if those big UK companies are to become major players on the European and global markets.
If there was unrestricted entry for telecommunications operators into the broadcasting market, the ability of cable networks to invest and compete in the telecommunications market would be put at risk. That has so far not been of great concern to the major European PTTs, but as they become privatised they will also be faced with the issue that has faced the UK. Any decision will affect the investment policies of the private sector as, no doubt, in the not so distant future, there will be a general convergence of the use of networks. The excellent report Europe and the Global Information Society—Recommendations to the Council launched by Commissioner Bangemann in June 1994 at the Corfu summit has already proved to be a stimulus for member states and a guide to the way forward in advancing information technology at European level, including—and I list some of the main points set out in the report—liberalisation of the telecom sector, achievement and preservation of universal service and the internal market principles of free movement and the conclusion that deployment and financing of an information infrastructure will be the primary responsibility of the private sector. That is a conclusion to be welcomed.
§ In this development the UK plays an important role, already well ahead of other member states. No doubt based on Britain's example, European policy is directed to liberalisation of telecommunications infrastructure by, at the latest, 1st January 1998. What is an essential accompaniment to that policy is liberalisation of the services which accompany the infrastructures, such as access to directories and databases. Those who are involved in Community law will know the difficulties of unstitching links between former companies which have held monopolies in certain member states in order to get directories published freely by individual companies.
§ It is in the UK interest to continue to press for liberalisation in services and telecommunications markets. The removal of the monopoly situations of the PTTs on the Continent should have one beneficial effect; it will contribute to the lowering of prices, as pointed out in the House of Commons Trade and Industry Committee's third report of July 1994. In its annual report, BT endorses that view.
§ One interesting development, following the restrictions imposed on BT to confine its activities to telecommunications and not to be involved in cable infrastructure, has been the effect that that has had on its development into other European markets and as its annual reports says, it has now got a significant presence in many European countries. This year it had a turnover of £313 billion.
§ Of the many legal issues arising, competition policy needs close scrutiny. It is no use in a global market to attack the dominant position of one player in a national field. To encourage and attract private investment, the opportunities for companies to establish successful niches at least at European level are essential, if they are to 1796 achieve world rank. Linkage and co-operation with other European companies, particularly with the companies emerging from the present existing monopolies, are a way forward, and it is hoped that BT will follow that route.
§ The legal aspects of data protection, the right to privacy and intellectual property rights are all matters which, while being based on national law, will benefit by being adapted not only to standard European rules but ultimately to international rules agreed within the terms of the World Trade Organisation but with monitoring and enforcement being left to national courts.
§ Who are the users of this vast web of new technological equipment and what are their benefits? We can consider customers, businesses, institutions, and individuals because they will all be affected by this new development. Internet, the worldwide network of computers linked by telephone, already has about 3 million subscribers in the UK alone and an estimated 30–100 million subscribers worldwide. Access to information is made easier, and can be used to provide information on government documents, reports, forms and fulfil other requirements of the ordinary citizen. It is hoped that the Government may eventually extend their processes of giving information and enabling access to statutes, parliamentary debates and so on as are now available on the European database networks. That could give an impetus to increasing the number of users and the sale of equipment. Minitel, originally launched with the free distribution of mini computers to a large number of individuals in France, is now a common method of getting information on, for example, air and railway timetables, which would be of great benefit to those of us who have to travel and try to get through to railway station inquiries.
§ Internet has also become a source of entertainment and that is an area which needs, if it is possible, some kind of regulatory control. If Channel 4, with a programme advertised daily to the public, can show the kind of so-called entertainment such as the programmes recently severely and rightly condemned—"The Last Temptation of Christ" and "The Word"—it is to be wondered what kind of programmes are being shown on Internet, basically only known to those who plug into the line. Journalistic reports have highlighted recently the appalling kind of material being circulated on Internet—both pornographic and scenes of violence. Measures for blocking general access to this kind of material are clearly needed. If that is not a governmental or legal possibility, it is a technological matter which must be studied seriously.
§ Another aspect of concern relating to the use of Internet is its availability for political propaganda, be it party politics or the spreading of ideas on, for example, race, immigration or other sensitive areas of our public policies. I understand that it is sometimes used for those purposes. One issue the Government must be considering is the use of party political programmes during election campaigns and how far those can be controlled by current legislation or whether amendments are needed to that legislation. Technological progress clearly has its down side.
§ There are two more areas on which it might be helpful to touch. The first is fundamental to the future of our society; namely, educational opportunity and the availability of skills in the technological field. The 1797 imaginative programmes introduced by a Conservative Government a few years ago—the introduction of computers to schools so that pupils were given the opportunity to acquire computer practice—should be revised. I should say to the DFE that recent computer models with modern software applications should be made widely available throughout our schools. It is an expensive investment but it would be a good investment for the young and their future job opportunities. The adaptation of distance learning as a means of communicating and teaching classes of different levels of ability would also bring many advantages.
§ While technological progress is to be applauded, it brings its problems. The rapid advances in recent years are not necessarily reflected in the creation of new jobs, resulting in a decline in unemployment. The level of technical skills required become ever higher, and competition in design and software has become intense. There is not only an economic side—for example, more efficient business management—but a social aspect, which government should not ignore. As a contribution to the beneficial aspects of the new technology in the social field, local authorities should be looking at how, for example, computers can help the housebound, by reason of age or disability. There will be many disadvantages such as lack of human contact, as well as advantages. But that should not stop the issues being examined closely.
§ In a subject of this kind with its vast implications, I have not sought to dwell on the basic technical aspects, such as interoperability, interconnection between services, or even the obvious need for appropriate regulatory frameworks and the development of broad-band infrastructures. Those have been discussed fully in the Trade and Industry Committee's third report on optical fibre networks of 1993–94 and each would need lengthy discussion and analysis. But I mention those as an example of the aspects which need to be looked at in the coming months and years.
§ Another important aspect not to be overlooked is the full participation of the United Kingdom in the European Union's £1,000 million IVth Framework programme in research and development. There are many noble Lords who have considerable expert scientific knowledge and will be making very valuable contributions to this subject not only today but also on other occasions.
§ This short debate may provide some thoughts for the Government, and some thoughts for the future, that we should not overlook the political, social and economic impact that this new information society will have on individuals—a new way of life, new opportunities and for many an easier existence—while ensuring that our own country maintains the lead it has already acquired in what is now a global market. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.20 p.m.
§ Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Elles, for giving us the opportunity today to discuss what is clearly a very important topic for British society and also for British business. There is little doubt that the changes now taking place will present and do present an enormous 1798 opportunity for us, provided they are grasped and provided we have policies which enable the full development of the potential of this revolution. It is a revolution which has changed and will change society. In years to come we will look back and not be able to imagine life without it. It will change the way we work—it is doing that now; it will change the way we communicate with each other; and it will change the way we educate our young people and indeed our adult people as well.
We have a tremendous advantage in that the English language is one of the major assets of this technology. The noble Baroness mentioned the Internet. It is the one area that is most talked about but it is by no means the sole area of this development. Internet is totally dominated by text conveyed in the English language. So there are opportunities that we need to grasp. There may not be the large number of new jobs that we would want to see but there will be a major contribution in terms of employment.
I come from an industry—the printing industry—which has seen major change. As a result of this information society the publishing industry is seeing phenomenal change. I was told that in the 15th century the Vatican had 400 books. Today, 25,000 books are already loaded in digital form via the information society, and that is just the tip of it. The convergence of technology will mean new on-line entertainment and information services. They will be delivered via the telephone line and they will carry large amounts of data, including moving images—I shall return to that point shortly—sound, text, still pictures, graphics, or any combination of those which the individual needs to access. They are likely to include virtual reality—straight into your home—and home shopping. People will be able to key into a computer and actually see the goods not just in one dimension but in multi-dimensional ways. There will be home education and video on demand. The opportunities are enormous.
The new services will bring increased choice, control and interactivity. There will be implications for wide sectors. In education, children will no longer need to be told about art galleries or need to look at books about art galleries. They will be able go into the virtual reality computer and actually see the art galleries. I accept that that is no substitute for children visiting the galleries individually; but if they do not have that opportunity, as many children do not, it is at least a substitute, albeit perhaps a poor one.
The combination of sound, text and images will enable goods to be sold in a new way. That in itself will bring challenges. For instance, it is possible today to put on the Internet a sophisticated advertisement that will reach approximately 30 million people worldwide for a fraction of the amount which at present one would have to pay to a national newspaper to reach the United Kingdom's population.
There are enormous opportunities; but there are also some anxieties which we have to address. I wish to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Elles, on touching upon the social implications and the need perhaps for some regulation in this area. Reports from government bodies, other groups and from the European Commission all deal with the economic factors—liberalisation, 1799 competition and investment—but they do not deal with the potential social implications. One of the criteria that we should lay down is that there must be universal access to these new developments. Otherwise, we shall divide our society between the "haves" and "have-nots".
Many of us have heard the funny story that if you want to know about a computer ask the eight year-old in your own home. A recent survey conducted by NOP and published this week showed that a third of the users of the Internet are on salaries of more than £25,000 a year; that a third of the users are women; and that two-thirds are aged over 25. We are already seeing the divisions to which I referred, and so universal access is crucial. Under the BT licence there must be access to a telephone for anyone who wants it. However, the same conditions do not apply to the broadcasting media. Access to cable television depends on where one lives and whether it is economic to provide it. If we are looking at the good of the nation, that is an area which we need to consider.
The pornography that is available is one area of concern. I must declare an interest. I am chairman of ICSSTIS, which regulates the premium rate telephone sector, a small industry in telecommunications—a new one, only a decade old. It goes back to the liberalisation of telecommunications in the United Kingdom. When it was first launched, 70 per cent. of the industry was in pornography services. It has been through the effective self-regulation of those services and now pornography services are below 3 per cent. of the weekly 5 million calls to premium rate services, which has allowed the growth of good, added value services. That is because regulation was put in place post-liberalisation, as Parliament did not think it necessary to put it in place at the time of liberalisation. Regulation is necessary to protect vulnerable groups and to protect standards that as a society we quite rightly demand.
People say that you can use Internet, that you do not have to pay for the service but just pay the subscription and that money is not there to be made. Is it not a funny old world when the first service that is going to make a profit, it is said, is Playboy magazine, which recorded some 500,000 telephone calls via the Internet within one 24-hour period? No regulation, no controls, 500,000 calls within 24 hours! I am not saying that people should not be able to access that service if they choose to do so. I am not putting myself up as any kind of moral crusader. What I am saying is that in the whole area of the Internet we have to have some gateways which mean that people do not have those services if they do not want them. It is said that 82 per cent. of homes now either have a computer or have access to one. We do not want to see children using these services.
It is said that the premium rate sector was the first interactive sector in the UK. As chairman of ICSSTIS over the past few years, I can tell the House that we have been able to stop some of the material with which we have had to deal only because regulation is in place. I suggest to your Lordships that effective regulation is essential. I do not seek in any way to discourage the opportunities which exist; we need to encourage them, but already school personnel are saying, "We will not access Internet; we are afraid of what our children may 1800 stumble across". That is a bad development. We need a Kitemark or some kind of code; regulation which is effective but not heavy-handed—perhaps self-regulation—which will ensure that people obtain the services they want and that the system is legal, honest and decent. We must ensure that when people use the information super highway they do not become trapped in scams. We have heard this week of some such incidents involving the purchase of goods. The Stock Exchange is extremely concerned about price sensitive information entering the Internet system as that information could distort the markets.
What we are now seeing is a whole series of anxieties emerging through people's practical experiences of using these new services. If there were a public reaction against this system, that would be detrimental to the use of this equipment which represents the biggest opportunity we have had for a long time to take our society forward. Suppliers and service providers would, I suggest, welcome effective regulation—perhaps not statutory—that would ensure that the services meet people's expectations.
§ 3.31 p.m.
§ Lord Cockfield
My Lords, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, in thanking my noble friend Lady Elles for giving us the opportunity of discussing a subject which is not only important today but will be of growing importance as the years go by. I have a specific interest in this in the sense that I was asked last year by the Federal Trust, which is an educational charity specialising in European affairs, to take the chair of a study group dealing with the information society. The group consists of people from industry, banking, finance, commerce and the universities, as well as senior people from the European Commission itself. It has also the advantage that, apart from me, it has in its membership no politicians with the baggage they inevitably carry around with them.
The group is due to present its report next month, on 18th July. It is intended to be a contribution to education in this field and it also discusses the major policy issues which are involved; that is, regulation and competition, the setting of standards and the public policy issues of the kind that the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, mentioned, as well as financial issues. When I undertook the chairmanship of this body I said that I knew nothing whatever about the subject and I regarded my function as solely one of keeping order at the meetings. Nine months later, on the point of publishing the report, I realise how deep is my lack of knowledge on these matters and how much there is still to be learnt. In the light of that I wish to put two points only to your Lordships.
The first is this. It was mentioned by my noble friend Lady Elles. In the 18th and 19th century this country was the leader in what we now call the first Industrial Revolution, and it was the enormous power which we generated as the leader of the Industrial Revolution which underlay the prosperity and greatness of this country in the Victorian era and which to some extent has persisted to this very day. When the second Industrial Revolution started in the 1970s with the 1801 development of electronic and digital techniques, and particularly data processing, unfortunately both Europe as a whole and, indeed, this country fell seriously behind compared with the United States and later with Japan. There is one statistic which has been quoted on many an occasion which underlines this, and that is that in that decade Europe accounted for some 30 per cent. of the demand but only 10 per cent. of the supply. We are now embarking on the second phase of the second Industrial Revolution with the development of what Al Gore, the American Vice-President, described as the information super highway, which has now been broadened out into the concept of the information society.
Europe as a whole, and indeed this country, lags behind the United States. The figures quoted by my noble friend Lady Elles for the number of personal computers per head of the population shows that. We have not fallen behind quite as much as the rest of Europe but nevertheless both Europe and ourselves are lagging behind the United States. We are lagging behind Japan and we are lagging behind the other countries of the Far East. It is not too late now to make good the gap. We have to be determined that we will make good the gap. It will require a massive effort not only in this country but in Europe as a whole.
The second point that I want to make leads directly from that. There are a series of problems, and these issues have to be tackled on a pan-European basis, not just by this country or just by the European Union but by the greater Europe, including the countries of central and eastern Europe which we hope to see within the European Union by the end of this century. This is true for two specific reasons. The first is that data processing—the transmission of information by digital or electronic forms—the information super highway, is no respecter of frontiers. That has been brought out in the not very happy example of the way that Internet has been misused, although we ought not to concentrate so much on the misuse of Internet as the enormous opportunities it opens up. However, this kind of development is no respecter of frontiers.
Secondly, the critical mass required is such that there is no country in Europe, neither this country nor Germany nor any other country, which can provide the critical mass needed for this kind of development. That is why it must be done on a pan-European basis.
My final point is that the attitude of our United Kingdom Government has been entirely constructive. It is important, indeed critical, that it should remain so, not only in the interests of Europe as a whole but, above all, in the interests of this country as well.
§ 3.38 p.m.
§ Baroness Park of Monmouth
My Lords, I must begin by apologising to the House for the fact that I shall have to leave just before the end of the debate; I am truly sorry. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Elles for choosing such an encouraging subject and such a central issue for debate. It must be a matter for pride and satisfaction that as a country we have been in the van of the development and application of high 1802 technology and artificial intelligence, and it has all moved so fast and with such profound results for our society.
When I went to Somerville in 1980 the college did not even have an electric typewriter, let alone a computer. But by the time I returned in 1989 we had computerised most of our operations and IBM and ICL had both attached distinguished young women to us for three years each to promote academic work in the field of information technology in its applications to psychology and engineering respectively. Both IBM and ICL had endowed us generously with the computers that we needed for both undergraduates and graduates.
Since I have always believed strongly in opportunities for women (Somerville was then a women's college) in management in industry, the college held an annual open evening for industry at which chief executives and chairmen of ICL GEC, IBM, Shell and many other companies met the whole of the second year. The first time that happened several undergraduates who were reading philosophy or classics came to me and said that they would come but they doubted whether they had anything to offer industry, or vice versa. I told them that a training in logic and the structure of language was an excellent preparation for work in the field of artificial intelligence. The next year a young women with a first in maths and philosophy went on to an exacting and challenging job in ICL. I hope that that story may help to establish my bona fides as a supporter of information technology, for I myself am hopelessly computer illiterate.
I shall tell the House of my experience when speaking on what I later discovered to be a conference telephone line to New York. I was asked by the young man at the other end of the telephone whether I would agree to speak at the Oxford and Cambridge dinner. I said, "Gladly". He said that I was only the second woman who had done that. From the background came, clearly unaware that he was heard, the voice of the chairman saying, "Yes, and a bloody bad choice that was!". I hope noble Lords will excuse my language.
I know that the world has made a quantum leap in terms of the power to communicate. When I sat on the British Library Board I had to learn at once that we were not dealing only with books, those familiar friends, but with a whole new world that could send a text from Finland to Saudi Arabia through a computer network. When I went to the Royal Commission for the Historical Monuments of England I saw how the text, colour and texture of stonework, stained glass and tessellated pavements could be transmitted through imaging so that a scholar need no longer travel many miles to browse through boxes of photographs. During my time as a governor the BBC was at the forefront of communications technology. I hope that that is still the case.
What concerns me, like many others, is the social impact of all this amazing new knowledge. Much of it, perhaps most of it, is good. I remember a professor of engineering science, a doughty friend and supporter, telling me that his first reaction had been dismay when he learnt that two key members of his research team were each expecting a child. He then remembered the 1803 new X-factor, the computer. They both worked at home for the first year, with regular visits to the department to compare notes with the team. They did splendid work and were able to enjoy being mothers. Steve Shirley, that remarkable woman, built her highly successful business on the same principle of computers at home. All that is good. What are the causes of concern?
One must be, how does society adjust to a world where great enterprises find it both cheaper and more effective to replace large numbers of semi-skilled and even skilled workers by computers controlled by a handful of high-tech experts and where banks replace men and women with computers? What do those people and their sons and daughters do? They cannot all become computer literate high-flyers. What are the educational, social and economic implications? Will this situation create a climate of bewildered misery and resentment which might breed a new generation of Lollards, or will it create a society where small numbers of people have intensely demanding and satisfying work while others play endless computer games?
That leads me to my next anxiety. Information technology is open to great abuses such as the Internet. This ought to be a wonderful exercise in crossing frontiers and shrinking the world. But, as the noble Baroness has already said, it can as easily be used and exploited by paedophile rings and violent groups. Another anxiety must be that our passion for transparency and the proliferation of databases worldwide means that the hacker can threaten our privacy and our security and truth can become a casualty.
In a recent case a surgeon altered the data held on a number of patients in order to support his spurious claim to have made a breakthrough in his professional field of research. There have been frightening examples of the introduction of computer viruses into vital and irreplaceable records of, for instance, blind patients in a hospital. Not least, I wonder whether Nick Leeson of Barings could have lost the millions he did if he had not been for some years free to play a kind of financial Star Wars game in which he lost touch with reality.
Another example of the extremely vulnerable nature of a society where records are more and more likely to be held in a computer is that given in a recent debate on Northern Ireland in the other place, where it was said that there was reason to believe that the IRA was accessing records which would enable it to target people. It was said that:Computer records from the Housing Executive and Inland Revenue records have been accessed".—[Official Report, Commons, 12/6/95; col. 528.]The speaker added that he hoped that someone was thinking of counter-measures. So do I.
I feel pride and satisfaction over the great successes which have been achieved in this country in a vital area of invention and discovery, though I naturally bow to the greater knowledge of my noble friend Lord Cockfield on the distance we still have to go. I hope that we shall apply ourselves early to learning how to ride this tiger and that we shall indeed ensure that all our 1804 children grow up with equal opportunities to master and thrive in this new and marvellous experience and to make it their servant, not their master.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Lord Butterworth
My Lords, I wish to add my thanks to my noble friend Lady Elles for giving us this opportunity this afternoon to look at the new revolution. I also wish to associate myself with what my noble friend Lord Cockfield had to say; namely, that the health of British industry depends upon our being able to establish ourselves in new and sophisticated industries, of which telecommunications and other activities generated by the information society are excellent examples.
One point on which I do not find myself in agreement with my noble friend is when he tries to restrict those activities and say that they are pan-European. If information technology is no respecter of boundaries, then it must logically follow that Europe cannot be as important as he suggested. Information technology is global and international. It is against that background that we must make our plans.
As has been said, the United States are already well advanced in industrial policy in their national information infrastructure, which Al Gore characterised as the information superhighway. POST, in its recent report, sees a national information infrastructure as a significant contender for national economic and technological competitiveness and also as the essential agent for this revolution, improving healthcare, education, training and the like and the delivery of governmental and public services.
Less than 10 years ago it was assumed that an information highway, which was interactive and broad-band, could only be created by an optical fibre network. However, technological advances within the past few years have shown how existing competitive networks in this and other countries can be successfully adapted and, by modest enhancements such as digital compression, can supply all the needs of customers, as they are foreseen at present.
While some still argue that the superhighway cannot be achieved until all work places, households, educational centres and leisure facilities are wired up to a broad band fibre network, others see the existing networks being used by more sophisticated technological developments, and believe that indeed there may well now be no need for the so-called single national superhighway. However, all are agreed that to provide that form of communication ahead of consumer demand would prove a very poor investment indeed. On the other hand, failure to provide the infrastructure in phase with developments would block and damage the whole process.
It is considerations such as these which lead naturally to the problems of regulation. Here I have some embarrassment and must confess an interest because my daughter is the Deputy Director-General of Oftel. However, regulation is so fundamental in this field that I am sure we must tackle it in the debate today.
1805 Oftel's statutory role is confined to regulations of the telecommunications system and the telecommunication market in the United Kingdom. On one view, Oftel's aim of developing innovative services through competition could set up a regime of efficient competition in the UK which nevertheless might deprive major British companies of the experience needed to enable them to compete successfully against their Japanese and American counterparts.
On the other hand, if the information society can be realised through the existing networks, and if a single national superhighway proves not to be necessary, the key problem today would be to achieve what is now called "open networks"—that is to say, interconnections and interoperability between existing and present networks so that there is open access for all service providers to all customers on all networks. However, it is the case that in the short term the networks and services may need to be protected until they have established themselves and some limitation on the service providers' right of access may be necessary to enable new markets to be established.
Finally, the convergence between telecommunications and entertainment may have implications for the regulatory process itself. Oftel is responsible for telecommunications and, as I have sought to explain, setting the framework for competition. The Independent Television Commission is the licensing authority for broadcast entertainment. It may be helpful if the Minister were able to tell us when a review of those current responsibilities is likely to take place and whether we ought to look forward to a situation in which we have a single "Office of Communications" which would combine the existing regulatory responsibilities of both the ITC and Oftel.
§ 3.55 p.m.
§ Baroness O'Cathain
My Lords, like every other noble Lord who has spoken, I am most grateful to my noble friend for drawing attention to this important and exciting topic.
The development of the information society has been and is an outstanding success in the United Kingdom. IT is a huge business. Not everyone realises the full implications of the developments to date nor is capable of comprehending the ongoing potential. The success of the development of the information society is not always recognised. Indeed, in this country, too often we tend to adopt the stance of being "gifted amateurs" and prefer to give the impression that we like muddling through. The description of someone as a "computer whizz kid" is somewhat derisory.
Sadly, there is a head-in-the-sand attitude among certain sectors of society; and I would not even exclude the House of Lords from that category because last night a comment was made about "playing with one's laptop". Indeed, our captains of industry think that computers are for their workers rather than to be used by them, as captains of industry. Herein lies a potential problem; it has been touched on briefly. I fear that the problems recently experienced in banking in the Far East have come about through a lack of complete comprehension 1806 by those at the top who are empowered to run the business of the whole derivatives market, and how computers can access and work in it.
The stance of being regarded as gifted amateurs still seems attractive. However, the people involved in the industry—it is an industry—are far from gifted amateurs playing with laptops. They are highly skilled professionals who have developed information technology in such a way as to give world leadership to the United Kingdom. It is not strange that the United Kingdom has been in the forefront of this development. Our children seem to have inherent engineering skills from an early age. However, they are then sadly diverted into areas which will lead to socially acceptable careers in the professions. There is still this stigma attached to engineering, to making things, and to business in general. For example, my family was appalled because I was the first member of the family not to embrace a career in the professions.
However, these latent skills are not necessarily lost for ever. Many people in the professions are now developing IT skills which draw heavily on the technical and analytical skills which they had as children and which, until the development of the information society, only manifested themselves in a compulsive addiction to DIY, with head under the car bonnet for most of the weekend, and messing about in boats in the marina— not necessarily on the water.
Of course, the information society is technology based, but it is useless without thinking—without analytical and mathematical ability. Those are cerebral skills as opposed to technical skills. Therefore I am optimistic that with our ability on both fronts we can develop still further the application of IT in almost every activity of business and commerce.
In the debate I shall deal solely with business. That is where my experience lies. I am sure that others will deal with medicine. We have already had a good contribution about science. Others will deal with education.
The development of IT has been apparent for many years, but there is still a great deal of development which is either taken for granted as a natural evolutionary process of technical development or is not publicised. Information is the new raw material of our age. It is an increasing, not a diminishing, resource. Strictly speaking, data are the raw material. The skill is in converting data to information.
The UK is a world leader in adding value to the underlying technology to deliver business solutions in many areas of business. It is the skill of our people which gives us the edge in applying that technology. My noble friend Lady Elles has already referred to Internet; but I have heard it said that the information superhighway will be as important to us in the near future as road and rail have been in the past.
I thought it might be useful in the debate to draw on my knowledge acquired not only in my main business career but as a non-executive director of Tesco, for the purposes of the debate. It is not a PR exercise because I am sure that other companies in the grocery distribution business are also deeply involved, but facts are always useful in a debate such as this.
1807 Without IT, it would not be possible for Tesco to run the business which now has a total of over 5 million order lines processed per day. In that business in the past 10 years, stockholding has been reduced from 4.8 weeks to 2.4 weeks—a 50 per cent. reduction. That has coincided with an improvement in service level from depot to store from 92 per cent. to 98.5 per cent. We often compare ourselves with the United States and have already heard that the average number of computers per 100 of the population is about 50 per cent. higher in the United States than in the United Kingdom. However, interestingly enough, in the grocery business the average number of days' stock in the chain in the United States is 104; in Tesco it is 28. That brings enormous benefits. It is a technical point, but it improves customer service and results in a reduction in working capital tied up in stock. Those are just two points.
The customers do not realise how IT is having an impact on their business. They see the scanning—the only outward sign of a huge backup operation. Data taken from scanning goes straight into stock control, which in turn becomes orders for new stock.
That has led to electronic trading via electronic data interchange (EDI). Over 95 per cent. of the orders go via EDI. Tesco alone has over 1,300 suppliers linked into the system, which happens to be the largest electronic community in Europe.
There is yet another factual comparison with other countries, which is interesting. Tesco acquired two overseas businesses recently: one in France and one in Hungary. In France, only 25 per cent. of the volume is based on EDI, compared with 95 per cent. here; in Hungary, the depot throughput for a full week is processed by one depot in one hour in this country. On any mathematical scale, the advances are almost incapable of being measured.
This is not a soulless business; it is not an automaton-driven situation. Computers without people inputting—to use computer jargon—will put out nothing. We always used to hear, when we started learning about computers, "rubbish in, rubbish out". The data out is only as good as the human who is putting the data in. The inexorable rise of IT does not mean large scale job losses, necessarily, particularly if we take the initiative and export our know-how to other countries that are still a long way behind.
Technology for technology's sake may be interesting and fun but it is not the subject for consideration in this debate. The benefits of IT are as much taken for granted as are the advances in many other walks of life. Without IT, customers would not have the choice, freshness of product or the rapid reaction to their demands.
From till receipts, information is gathered about preferred sizes, daily buying habits and preferred brands. The list is endless. It is only through IT that the customer really benefits. In the future, information will be much more readily available. Less time on non-productive information gathering means more time for analysis, which should lead to better decision making in every line of business. There are benefits for all businesses, not just the grocery business.
1808 I should like to speak briefly about another quite different business; namely, the success of PACE Micro Technology, which is a Yorkshire based company and is a world leader in the development of digital pay-TV receivers. This is information technology in a totally different sphere, but one that has both great potential for the UK and great benefit for the consumer. PACE is one of a handful of companies world wide with the ability to design and manufacture digital equipment using a new compression standard (MPEG2) for all types of digital broadcast transmission format, including satellite, cable and terrestrial. This company has developed the digital technology and is now able to capitalise still further on its original developments. PACE is probably an apt name for the company—it is proceeding at a cracking pace. Over the last few weeks, the company has signed four major deals in the Australian, South African and Far East markets.
Those are just typical of the opportunities which are currently being exploited. More—much more—can and will be achieved. Why am I so optimistic? Despite our self-flagellation, we have great resources of human ability in this country. In the area of IT, one just has to look at how children have taken to it. They, unlike me, do not require manuals. They take to computers like ducks to water. Computers are used as tools in schools; as toys at home. Children will not be fazed by the huge leaps in technological development; they will be leading it. What we must do is encourage them and everyone to embrace the modern technology—and on a personal level I can assure your Lordships that productivity and efficiency can certainly improve by a factor of at least four.
We must take the issue seriously. IT is a serious business, a wonderful adjunct to modern life, and a huge opportunity for the UK, both now and in the future. We should all be most grateful to my noble friend Lady Elles for drawing our attention to it.
§ 4.6 p.m.
§ Lord Renwick
My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend Lady Elles for the opportunity today to talk about the information society in all its ramifications. I am delighted that during the course of this fascinating debate it is becoming evident that we are speaking of the information society in the present. It is with us now, whether we like it or not. The Internet is up and running, it is growing by 10 per cent. a month. By about the year 2010 more people will be involved with or connected to the Internet than the total population of the world! Statistics are never quite right.
The information society is here now and we are using it. I am connected to it through the Parliamentary Data and Video Network. I see the noble Lord, Lord Peston, nodding, I followed his example. I must admit that when I was first lent the equipment, I was rather worried about the font used for printing. It looked to me like yesterday's font and I found it difficult to read. I asked for New Times Roman or something more up to date. "Oh, no", said the wonderful people who helped me, "that will totally disrupt the software that you have on your computer". I felt that asking for Times Roman within three weeks of having used a quill pen was 1809 slightly offensive to them, but anyhow I got my New Times Roman. I find that what I write on my keyboard comes out through my printer as presentable copy. I cannot read my speech because my handwritten notes are so bad that I find it difficult to read them. However, now, for the first time, I am in control.
That experience may be replicated with hundreds of thousands of school children when they are first taught the elements of literacy. Think of the disappointment they had with the product of their pen and their joined-up writing, with the awful boredom to trying to decipher the squiggles on the pads at school at the ages of six, seven or eight. Now an astonishing change takes place when a child is given a keyboard. As we have heard, children take to the keyboard like a duck takes to water. There is the excitement of avoiding the difficulty they have in absorbing the written symbols as a reference, with the text coming out on the screen. The children are able to press a button and see their work printed out. They take pride in it, they want to replicate it.
I must declare an interest, I am involved as a council member of the National Council for Educational Technology, I have a three-year term. That body is doing a wonderful job in applying technology to the education system through many processes and working programmes. One of them looks into the value of integrated learning systems, which are another product of the information society. That programme is now up and running and is under evaluation by NCET. It is a machine by means of which a child has an individually designed education programme on which he or she spends 10 or 20 minutes a day. Those children look forward to that time face to face with their computer. They start where they left off the day before. They mark themselves, or they are assessed, and they take pride in achieving a better mark today than they did yesterday.
Then there is the experience of networking in classrooms. I visited a primary school on the West Coast of America. It was in an area where the quality of life was so low that the children were given breakfast at school as well as lunch. It was a school of 600 primary pupils. It had networked two classrooms with equipment provided by local industry (and, in one case—a higher secondary school—the local authority). That had completely changed the atmosphere in the school. Those children had had a truancy rate of some 15 per cent. to 20 per cent. It was down to nil. The parent-teacher involvement in that area had been nothing. It rose to between 80 per cent. and 90 per cent. just five to six months after the introduction of networking, with keyboards and a monitor, one to every two children. Strangely, handwriting had improved throughout the school, in spite of the enormous ability to use the keyboard. Their greatest ambition was to become connected to the Internet. I hope that that has been done now.
I am involved in other operations, purely at a steering committee level. One is Project Connect, a project to connect seven schools in the Leicestershire area to the Internet. One is in Hillingdon—just to show that distance is no object; as the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, said, distance is irrelevant now. It is a six-months' pilot trial to 1810 put those schools on the Internet through a college of higher education, in this case De Montfort University, and another school of higher education. We also use an integrated learning system that will be flexible enough to bring in the Internet, but graduated and controlled so that the problems of pornography and that sort of thing are avoided. In six months' time we shall see how that pilot study is going. My initial information is that it has had an effect in those schools across the board that is very similar to the experience of networking in the United States. It represents quite a massive investment by local and national industries. Therefore, nationally, it will mean quite a heavy investment on the part of schools.
From the business point of view, obviously the information society is important. As my noble friend Lord Butterworth said, it is important for both the UK and Europe to keep up and challenge what is perhaps the present supremacy technologically of the United States and Japan. I am not so sure that we are all that far behind. We are in Europe, and I believe that we are taking this very seriously.
I am involved in a parliamentary group called European Informatics Market (EURIM) which runs alongside the parliamentary Information Technology Committee, with which I am also involved. We are trying to involve corporate organisations from this country and from Europe, and often the UK subsidiaries of American companies, to react very quickly and perhaps influence the directives that come from Brussels in matters of informatics and telematics, which is the use of IT. In fact, we spent this morning looking at the products of three of our working parties: procurement; data protection; and databases. Those three working parties have been working with tremendous input from lawyers and from members of the IT community here. Their activity is ably chaired by my noble friend Lord Chelmsford, to whom I am very grateful for his managing of the day-to-day activities of European Informatics Market. In this way we are keeping a sharp eye on the benefits that directives from the Commission can offer to our industry and to European industry as well, so as to ensure that the directives are very much in line with the needs not only of the providers of IT but most importantly of the users of their products. I am very grateful to my noble friend Lady Elles for the opportunity to discuss this most important matter.
§ 4.16 p.m.
§ Lord Birdwood
My Lords, where does one begin? My noble friend Lady Elles has framed a subject that would not be exhausted if we talked about it for two-and-a-half weeks, let alone two-and-a-half hours.
My interest in the area is at several levels. I yield to no one in my enthusiasm for technology. The speed of change in the underlying science is nothing short of awesome. Every time it is suggested that there is a physical threshold to miniaturisation or processing power, the hardware designers roll triumphantly through it. Now, for instance, we can contemplate switching devices whereby a handful of atoms can determine whether the switch is, so to speak, on or off. A signal round the world costs less than a phone call down the street. Every day someone, somewhere, does something 1811 new for technology. There are new materials, new techniques, new software architectures, new ways of storing information and new ways of using it.
My enthusiasm is no less for other dimensions of the subject under scrutiny. A fortnight ago from these Benches we explored the profound consequences of changing patterns of power in our society. All our lives are affected by the ongoing redistribution of power from historic political sources to new focuses. Power is drifting upwards and outwards to organisms and individuals out of reach of conventional politics. As a society we must rehearse our understanding of these deep changes. It is the information revolution that is both the engine and the enabling mechanism for this redistribution of power. If we study how science and social change interact one on the other, we have a telescope into the future, an early warning system for predicting how a society will evolve.
The Motion is rightly phrased in an optimistic, even jaunty, tone of voice. The blueprint for a government attitude of mind is the recommendation for infrastructure which my noble friend mentioned and which was published last year by the European Council called Europe and the global information society. The language was unusually strong and clear for a Brussels paper, but it was written by people who have real things to do in the real world. Perhaps I may quote selectively from the opening mission statement,actions must be taken … to strike down entrenched positions which put Europe at a competitive disadvantage … it means developing a common regulatory approach to bring forth a competitive, Europe-wide, market for information services; it does NOT mean more public money, financial assistance, subsidies, dirigisme, or protectionism".The same document goes on to list a thoroughly practical catalogue of actions available to any government with the guts and vision to implement, but all the time emphasising the point that the market will be both the spur and the discipline.
So where are the opportunities for Great Britain in particular? The paradox is that by definition the information society mentioned in today's Motion recognises no national boundaries. Nations are transparent. At the end of the day, every transaction is between one individual and another. The world has become Speakers' Corner.
Indeed, the huge challenge for governments everywhere will be how to balance the idea of belonging to a country with the perceived irrelevance of national borders. Happily for us, we probably have more going for us as the information society overtakes humanity than many other communities. First, we still seem to be gifted at raw invention; there is a layer in the British psyche which is very non-conforming, and that is fertile ground for technical creativity in information technology. In the future society of the management of information, creativity will assume greater significance than ever. Secondly, we are showing the way—at least I hope that we are—in how a nation manages its way into post-industrial stability. I am afraid that no government can take the credit for that process, although the reply from the Front Bench may persuade me that I am wrong.
1812 I should like to think that it is the bedrock common sense of the British people which is the model for a stable and resilient accommodation for tomorrow's technology. Frankly, when I am feeling optimistic about Britain, I feel that we have a greater degree of realism about the post-industrial world than do most other countries. But then I look at the statistics about educational attainment, say, and I am again thrown into despair.
I suppose that if I had to pick out any one issue to do with the subject, it must be education. I ask noble Lords to notice that the Motion quite correctly speaks of "the information society". It does not say "the knowledge society" or "the wisdom society". Yet beyond information lie both those virtues. Without education, information is arid, mechanical stuff. Sure, it is facts, entertainment, games, shopping choice and survival in time of war. But let nobody be in any doubt about the consequences of letting education drift as a whole society adopts the tools of total information access.
Let me be more precise. It is difficult to appreciate just how pervasive that technology will be. The universally adopted word—we have heard it three times already this afternoon—which distils the process going on in the technical sphere is "convergence". Computing, communications, the media and electronic devices are flowing together to re-enter our lives with functions at which we can just guess. There are not even names for the hybrid products which will transform so much of what we do. So who is the "we" about whom I am talking? It is those individuals who have been educated to be proficient and comfortable with the new devices.
The danger signals could not be clearer. If we do not educate appropriately, we, the United Kingdom, will be picking up the pieces of great chunks of our population who are resentful, disenfranchised, shut out of citizenship and condemned to forms of poverty and illiteracy which will put extraordinary strains on the social fabric. The have-nots of the information society will be deprived of much more than just money. We will have our own version of the Berlin Wall, but one which will only have substance for the people whom we ignored in the education process while we still had the time to address it.
In that context, it is critical that the Government today embrace the recommendations which will be put forward to the G7 summit in Halifax, Nova Scotia, later this week. Carlo de Benedetti commented in Monday's Financial Times that the education field lags seriously behind other areas in the use of new technology. Time and again, he stressed that this mission is a duty of this and any government. It is perverse not to use in the education process the very technology by which the country can thrive; and when by doing so education costs can probably be reduced.
If we grasp those issues, we cannot lose. But there is no shortage of doomsday projections on which to reflect. Jeremy Rifkin has written a book entitled The End of Work, which should be at the elbow of every social planner in Whitehall. When I am feeling deeply pessimistic about the future, however enthusiastic I am about the technology, I revisit some of Mr. Rifkin's thoughts. He raises the same problem that has troubled me for many years: that the wholesale substitution of machines for workers will force every nation to rethink 1813 the role of human beings in the social process. Redefining opportunities and responsibilities for millions of people in a society absent of mass, formal employment is likely to be the single most pressing social issue of the coming century.
§ 4.25 p.m.
§ The Earl of Northesk
My Lords, I join with other noble Lords in expressing gratitude to my noble friend for moving the Motion today. IT is a vast, almost infinite, subject. It is no exaggeration to say that, as it evolves further, it will—not may—be all pervasive. It will change every aspect of all our lives out of all recognition.
With such a character, the opportunities inherent in IT—social, economic, industrial, scientific, environmental, cultural and educational—are equally infinite. More than that, IT is developing very quickly indeed. Its use and applications are expanding exponentially. The summary report of POST defines the information revolution as:a transformation from the industrial to the information age, causing as substantial a change in society as the move from an agricultural to an industrial society".That is a useful comparison but it could be said to understate the position in two important respects. First, we are not in the dawn of that age. Rather, we are basking under the heat of its mid-morning sun, perhaps even to an extent whereby we are in danger of being burned. Secondly, the changes in society will not be "substantial" but absolute. On no account should we delude ourselves about that.
My noble friend's Motion is concerned with the information society. It is upon the specific notion of information itself that I wish to focus particularly today. Information is power and ultimately control. It has always been so. However, as a direct result of IT, its very nature is undergoing and has undergone a seminal and irreversible transformation. In her excellent speech to the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, on party political funding last week, my noble friend Lady Young articulated a concern that we all have about information in the IT age. She said:One of the most dangerous aspects of politics nowadays is that … allegations are made, unsubstantiated by any evidence whatever and they are then assumed to be true".—[Official Report, 7/6/95; col. 1363.]In the same context, my noble friend Lord Birdwood today iterated his concerns about IT, concerns which he expressed a month ago, during his debate on single issue groups, in this way:power imperceptibly is also trickling down and away from conventional politics into thousands of tiny streams of local and individual influence".—[Official Report, 17/5/95; col. 595.]That is a process which he identified as having occurred because:the media and single-issue groups have, so to speak, found each other. Their eyes have met across a crowded room".—[col. 596.],
Therefore, the question that we should be addressing is why that is so. As we face the expansion of the new information age, we should all recognise that these anxieties are but the tip of an iceberg of a very much wider sense of disaffection, as yet imperfectly articulated or 1814 expressed, felt throughout society, towards not just our democracy but governmental systems all around the world. As Dr. Johnson practically and topically stated:Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it".What computer technology has done, as never before, is to indicate to the individual where information can be found, thereby giving him or her access to its power and to the control that it exerts. The Internet is an obvious example. In so doing it has empowered society—all societies and not just our own—to impose safeguards of accountability upon governments. Against a background of electorates showing signs of becoming more and more disillusioned by their respective political and parliamentary processes, we should not be surprised that IT holds so many magnetic and irresistible attractions.
I say that it has empowered society. At one level that is accurate enough. But at another it is much more diffuse than that. There is a very real sense in which operation of a computer is exclusive, personal, individualistic. Thus, IT tends to empower the individual in society rather more than society itself—a phenomenon that my noble friend Lord Birdwood described as,a dangerous combination of personal powerlessness and personal empowerment".—[Official Report, 17/5/95; col. 596.]
There is one more brick to place in the edifice of this transformation. It can best be expressed thus:What computer information does, it transforms information into a wildly different status and gives it some sort of concreteness as if it's some sort of fact when it isn't".That observation from Andrew Puddephatt, general secretary of Liberty, will, I am sure, strike a chord with many of your Lordships, not least my noble friend Lady Young.
There we have it. This is the "new" information. It now rules. It is everywhere. It infects every issue, and it represents one of the principal dilemmas facing us today. My noble friend's Motion today addresses,the opportunities … in the development of the information society".With that to the forefront of my mind, I draw the attention of your Lordships to this comment from Nick Negroponte, founding member of MediaLab at MIT and acknowledged to be one of the foremost gurus of the IT age. He said:It's an unstoppable phenomenon—you can slow it down, you can speed it up. But most of the people, and particularly legislators, are fundamentally clueless about what is going on".This is a very real current in the tide of IT.
As I have already implied, more and more people are using the technology—combined with their access to the "new" information—as their opportunity to express their disaffection with what they perceive to be the inadequacies of parliamentary democracy. As observed by my noble friend Lady Young,Democracy is being downgraded the whole time",and,Every British institution is now subject to denigration of one kind or another".—[Official Report, 7/6/95; col. 1360.]
IT is redefining the nature and style of democracy. It will continue to do so, however subversive, pernicious or insidious we as parliamentarians may feel that process to be. By the same token, as other noble Lords 1815 have observed, IT has an immense power to corrupt. We had a stark and sobering indication of that over the weekend and we have to recognise that other time bombs of this sort are just waiting to explode. Detective Inspector Ron Laverick, commenting upon a case reported in the press over the weekend, opined:You only have to imagine the potential for paedophiles, terrorists and pornography".
One thing is certain in all this. We cannot be passive in the face of this change. Should we persist in playing "catch-up" with the new technology, in being driven by it, it will continue to outpace us and will ultimately consume us. It is only by being literate with IT rather than ignorant of it, by working with it rather than behind it, by leading it rather than letting it lead us, that we can ensure that its immense power for good can be realised and enacted.
Some noble Lords, notably the noble Baroness, Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, expressed a desire for regulation of IT and particularly the Internet. That exemplifies the sort of dilemmas with which we are grappling. The Internet is global. It is individualistic. It is boundless. It is either intensely democratic or anarchic—sometimes it is hard to tell which. With all due respect to the noble Baroness, how can any national government impose their regulatory will upon the net? I do not say that we should not try; I just question how feasible such a desire is.
This therefore is the challenge before us. This is our opportunity. It is imperative that we as a legislative body absorb and adapt to the fundamental changes that have already been wrought by the information revolution and which, I hasten to add, will continue to occur with ever-increasing rapidity.
In conclusion, who can really say where the voyage of exploration and discovery that is the information revolution will eventually take us? No matter the eventual destination. What is of consequence is that we have a compelling responsibility, a duty even, to grasp the philosophical complexities of its embryonic mind-set in order that we can shape them to the benefit of society. Should we ignore this we shall disappoint both ourselves and the public. IT needs a legislature and political system that is healthy, robust and well-versed in its intricacies if its capacity to work for the greater good is to be achieved and sustained. As I say, this is our opportunity: we must grasp it now.
§ 4.35 p.m.
My Lords, I am the 10th speaker today and confess astonishment as to how much there is still left to say on this subject, and I congratulate my noble friend Lady Elles on the skill of her choice. I certainly cannot pick up on all the matters I should like to in the time available, so I shall concentrate on just two aspects.
I felt that I should look at how we actually use the revolution about which everyone has been talking to add value to the United Kingdom. I have some thoughts on that which I should like to share with your Lordships. Politically by plenty of freedom: that is, freedom to 1816 compete; by level playing fields; by lots of liberalisation and as little regulation as we can get away with (I am a great believer in the 80/20 rule between freedom and regulation; I do not think there is any right or wrong in that); and by a strong anti-monopoly law.
All that is easy to say, but it is harder to achieve. What is a "monopoly" anyway? If we really are in a global marketplace, and everyone pays lip service to this, then is it a monopoly where one company in the UK has 10 per cent. of the global market and in achieving that gains 90 per cent. of the domestic market? And is the answer to that possibly different depending on whether that company's product is a £3,000 PC or a £100 million jumbo jet? I do not pretend to know the answer. Some quite difficult questions are involved. I will offer my instinct, which is that global trade should take precedence over domestic considerations. Indeed, I support the recent Foresight Technology report on ITEC (information technology, electronics and communications), with its comments that multinationals must be supported because they are the groups which will lead in our global competition.
What else can government do? For a start, I should like to see a more positive endorsement of the whole area of IT by individual Cabinet Ministers. They could give us a stronger personal lead. The Government need to be vigilant—indeed, they are being vigilant— concerning the danger that the UK suffers from the speed of the slowest EU state. A lot of people do not believe in liberalisation, not just of telecoms but of utilities, post offices and so forth.
We clearly need to see a much stronger use of IT across government departments. In that regard we recently had the White Paper on public procurement which gives a strong lead on that, so I am optimistic that it will help us move in that direction. We need to free-up public information. I am afraid that the Americans have stolen a march on us and already have all their parliamentary proceedings free on the Internet—Internet again— whereas we have only just begun.
I am pleased to be able to tell your Lordships that the latest DTI paper, Forging Ahead, can be read free on the Internet. But if one wants a hard copy, one must still go to Her Majesty's Stationery Office and pay £19. So there are still problems to be sorted out.
What applications will give us an advantage? I just have time in the space allotted to me to talk about a few with which I am personally involved; it certainly will be nothing like the broad canvas of all the issues we could talk about. I should like to start by reinforcing my strong belief for what I call "market networks". This is where the whole of a market comes together on a common system and a set of common standards actually to drive its business electronically. It opens up a whole new round of productivity for that market and improved client service. New services are shared, which is where productivity comes in. Costs are reduced, competition becomes more focused and companies re-engineer and benchmark. Very importantly, I believe, small and medium-sized enterprises gain low-cost entry into electronic marketplaces, and in doing so they learn the benefits of standardisation and discipline in the process.
1817 Next—and this has already been mentioned—I should like to see more focus on teleworking. I believe that last week there was a debate, which, unfortunately, I could not attend, on pollution. The only noble Lord who mentioned the fact that teleworkers mean less travel and less travel means less pollution was my noble friend Lord Mersey. It has also been said that those who telework most are those who live furthest from their workplace, so that the reduction in pollution is more than pro rata.
But there are other points arising from teleworking. It helps the office to move from the old basis of the owned desk of the employee to a series of workstations which anyone can come to on the day they happen to be at the office. They can plug in to any workstation and be connected to their electronic filing cabinet. That is a totally different concept and it is one which reduces space for the employer.
Video conferencing is now becoming so easy, with PC video conferencing at a reasonable rate, that one can video conference from home into the office or go to the office and video conference across the seas to overseas colleagues or clients overseas or whatever. So I believe that teleworking is something on which we should put a great deal of emphasis in support.
It is essential that we continue to carry on with the lead which we have at the moment in many cases as regards the work that goes on in the making of international standards. This country in particular depends on trade to have an appropriate balance of payments. Standards are an essential part these days of being able to communicate with the rest of the world. It is not generally known, though EDI was mentioned in this House recently, that it is my own group, SITPRO, of which I am an unpaid board member—and I declare that interest—which took the lead in driving through the EDI standards for the United Kingdom. Our chief executive was a founder member of what is now known as the EDIFACT standard and is currently the international rapporteur in charge of all the area rapporteurs. In fact, he was the man responsible for setting up the Far East EDIFACT board and also the African EDIFACT board.
SITPRO at the moment is going through a process of repositioning. It is the DTI's policy that it will move standards from the public sector to the private sector. I do not necessarily disagree with that. I do not believe that it is appropriate for the Government always to continue to subsidise the various activities in which they are engaged. However, it is very important at this moment that we do not actually damage United Kingdom interests. We have here officials who are out in the international world and who are highly respected. The position needs to be thought about very carefully lest in withdrawing them we actually damage our interests in the rest of the world. It is perhaps ironic that they become far better known overseas internationally than at home.
Another area I wish to look at and share briefly with noble Lords is road transport informatics. I have just been made president of a group called RTI Focus which deals in the area of intelligent transport systems. Probably all noble Lords have seen the RouteMaster product which is already in the shops. I was shown one in Walsall the other day. It demonstrated quite clearly to me that there was a foul-up on the M.6-side of the motorway box so I happily 1818 travelled home via the M.5 side. Incidentally, it also told me—and this is a tiny little three-inch screen—that there were problems at the M.25-M.23 intersection which someone more knowledgeable than I am said was undoubtedly roadworks. That is irrelevant and it did not actually matter to me. But is it not amazing that you can have a three-inch screen sitting on the dashboard which will tell you which motorways to avoid? And that is just the beginning of what is coming to us.
There are also inductive loops in the carriageways which are being used increasingly to put information onto the dashboard about the speeds at which one should travel because of the dangers ahead and to collect tolls in the event that there is to be a charge for using the road. Incidentally, if one does not pay the toll because one's smartcard is out of action or not charged, there are cameras to identify the number plate and catch you later.
Perhaps most extraordinary of all, there are plans for road trains. That really is advanced technology. I understand that a combination of wires in the road, radar in the car and various other devices will allow us to hold our cars central to the carriageway, much closer to the car in front and at a steady speed, thus substantially increasing the number of cars on the road. That may be good in that we do not have to build more roads but it may be bad for pollution. Nevertheless, these are some of the things that are being developed in this area where the United Kingdom has the opportunity to lead.
Those are some of the matters in which I am involved. I would love to talk about more of them but time is running out. Perhaps finally I may point out one area which has not been touched on today and that is the interplay between employers and employees as this revolution continues. I remind noble Lords of the words of Charles Handy, the well-known expert on personnel. He has suggested that as employers are forced to downsize by the need to reduce costs, so the employee will have to move to a position where his loyalty is to himself first, his trade second and his employer third. That is a very radical revolution.
§ 4.46 p.m.
§ Baroness Seear
My Lords, before coming to this debate I had wondered whether it was an exaggeration to say, as some would, that the information revolution is of an order of importance comparable with the Industrial Revolution. Having listened to today's debate—and what a pity not more noble Lords are present to hear it—no one who has heard the quite remarkable speeches can doubt that this is in fact a revolution at least of the same order of importance as the Industrial Revolution. Therefore, it requires the same kind of understanding, action and foresight which, alas, was not available at that time, and because it was not available, it landed us with troubles and difficulties which could have been avoided. I am not blaming those at the time because they did not have the opportunities for foresight that we have today. It is far less excusable if we do not seize those opportunities because of the foresight which is given to us.
So much of importance has been said today. Primarily, I wish to focus on two areas. One has been mentioned a great deal and I would like to say a little more about it. 1819 Except for the last speaker, the noble Viscount, Lord Chelmsford, there has been remarkably little attention paid to it. The first is the issue of education. If we apply information technology adventurously and, if necessary, extravagantly, it can give us a return which we urgently need. It is the best opportunity—and it may be the only one—that we have to redress the failures in education which mark and handicap us at present.
It can be done in a great many ways if the equipment and the will are there to back it. One method is to move it into the schools and colleges for the generation which is coming along. Everyone says that that generation is better at these things than the rest of us. But unfortunately for this country, there are a great many of the rest of us still around who do not really know anything like enough about this subject. Among the rest of us is that huge backlog of people to whom I have referred boringly often, I know, in your Lordships' House, who left our schools inadequately educated, who were totally inadequately trained either by the state system or by employers afterwards, and who are now a huge backlog of under-educated, under-trained people in an economy in which there will be opportunities only for those who have knowledge and skills and who can learn and have the confidence to do so.
Surely, this is where information technology, as applied to education can, if we have the will to do it, redress that balance more swiftly than in any other way. Indeed, I can think of no other way in which it can be done. It applies to so many people. It applies to those whose skills have become out of date. The question of up-dating all the time is one of the major problems, both industrially and educationally, today.
We used to think in my day—I must admit that in many ways I am glad that that day is passing—that if you were reasonably qualified at the age of 22 or 23, you were all right for life. We now know that that is most certainly not the case. People have to update their skills. They have to have a good education to start with, but they must then have the opportunity to update what they already know. If what they already know has become obsolescent, they have to be able to learn entirely new things.
Information technology can help us, but only if there is adequate investment in people and if people understand how it can be used. It has particular advantages for women who can benefit from information technology if they have appropriate education opportunities. I refer particularly to those women who want to return to a labour market which they left in order to take up their family responsibilities, but for which they may not have been adequately trained.
I turn now to an issue that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, in his remarkably thoughtful address. I must say that I thought that the noble Lord was unnecessarily pessimistic about employment opportunities in the future. We must prepare properly for them. I remind the noble Lord and the House that there is a vast range of unsatisfied needs in the world. There are not only unsatisfied wants—we know that there are plenty of those—there are also basic unsatisfied needs. In those circumstances, it cannot be true that there is not work to be done. The problem is that we do not have people who 1820 are trained and equipped to do it. Furthermore, we do not have an economic system which turns those wants into effective demands. However, that is another issue. It is not something to be dealt with today in the remaining five minutes that are allowed to me. That point surely gives the lie to the argument that because information technology is, thank goodness, doing away with many of the dullest jobs which many of us did not want to do, there will be no work for the rest. There will be work—but only if we prepare for it, and only if we have trained people and the right equipment. Indeed, we shall need the courage to be able to face and overcome the challenges with which such changes confront us. This is not a task that we can give up. It is within our grasp if only we can recognise and seize it—and if only the Government would give the lead.
Another issue which has not been referred to—unless it was raised while I was out of the Chamber having tea— is teleworking. I am surprised that more has not been said about it. Teleworking means people working in various different ways from their own homes rather than in offices or factories. Teleworking can present us with great opportunities and advantages, but possibly with great disadvantages also. It is important that we accept that a great deal of work will follow that pattern. However, we shall need to monitor it carefully, and to research and consult on its development. We shall need to do so because teleworking does not operate on any great scale at the moment. I understand that only about 7 per cent. of employers use the system and that only 2 per cent. of employees work in that way. Therefore, at the moment the scale is such that we can understand and cope with it. That means that we can have our plans ready before we are overcome by it.
Some reference has been made to the fact that teleworking and information technology generally could help to relieve transport congestion and pollution. It will also present people with an opportunity to spend more time in their own homes. There is, however, a question-mark over that aspect. At a women's conference in Alberta over 10 years ago, I remember nearly being torn limb from limb when I mentioned the advantages of working from home. Those women said, "Half the point of going out to work is that you get away from home. We do not in the least want to be tied up at home". Indeed, I can see what those women meant about working at home, with a man about the house all the time, equipment littered all over the place and the children answering the telephone when somebody else should be doing that. That way of working is only for some people.
We must consider variations on teleworking, such as the use of telecottages. Increased teleworking will come, and although it has its disadvantages, it has one great advantage. I attended a conference on this matter in Berlin last November at which trade unionists from Scotland said that teleworking could bring work back into the Highlands and Islands and might mean that people need not travel to Glasgow, for example. However, that can happen only if we get the equipment right and if we handle it properly. I beg the Government to take this matter seriously and to put money into finding out what is good and what is not good, and what people want and what they do not want.
1821 Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, was absolutely right, as he nearly always is, that it would be ridiculous to do such work on our own. Surely this is something which is pan-European. It would be absurd to try to develop information technology here in isolation from what is going on in other countries. The whole thing is international by its very nature. We would be reinventing the wheel one after another if we did not work together. We would be wasting a great deal of money and getting into a state of great confusion. Surely we do not want to repeat the muddles that we made with the railways— because we developed them in isolation, we find that they do not match those on the Continent. We are now building new information tracks. Let us all work together so that they mesh and run as economically, effectively and as internationally as possible. Indeed, where necessary, they should be as supranational as possible. If we can do that, we have a bright future ahead, but we need to be able to use the information technology which is here for us to harness.
§ 4.56 p.m.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, this has been a fascinating debate and we are all indebted to the noble Baroness, Lady Elles, for introducing it. I am very pleased that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, is to reply to the debate because that emphasises the importance of industry, which I still think is the most important aspect.
There have been massive technological advances over our lifetimes, but they are as nothing compared with what will happen in the next generation. Nonetheless, when we reflect on desk-top and lap-top computers, and, more importantly, on their associated software, faxes, photocopiers, the Internet in all its many dimensions, e-mail, or even the humble telephone in its mobile form, and many other forms of communication, data storage, analysis, and reproduction, all of which are available to the ordinary household, we realise that the present position is astonishing and would have been regarded as part of a dream world, even science fiction when we were young. With regard to all that, we are bound to say, "The truth is out there".
However, there can be no doubt about the economic significance of all this. The leaders in these fields will dominate the economic world of the future, and derive from that political power. I shall return to our country's position in all that in a moment.
Having said that, we must not exaggerate. I spend— perhaps I should say "I waste"—a lot of time on the Internet. Perhaps I may advise my noble friend Lady Dean and other noble Lords that although I browse around and surf on the Internet, I have not yet found a single pornographic image—no sex, no violence. I am not sure whether I am lucky or unlucky, but where is it? If any noble Lord would care to join me in trying to find it on the Internet, I should be obliged. But after the initial enthusiasm, what strikes me about the Internet is how little is there, rather than how much. There will, of course, be a lot more in future.
Like the noble Viscount, Lord Chelmsford, I hope in particular that Her Majesty's Government will get a move on and make sure that many more government documents 1822 are available there. As an aside, I discovered that last year's Red Book was made accessible by the Treasury on-line. I was surprised to see how primitive it is—the words are available, but not the graphs. I was intrigued to hear from the noble Viscount that the DTI's latest document is there because it has not only graphs, but pictures. I shall try to get the relevant HTTP address to see what it actually contains. As a minimum, departmental press statements and related material should be freely available on the Internet with no delay. I should also mention the position of databases. It is true of English law that even the most mundane of databases can be copyright. As I understand it, there is a European Union directive in the offing which may change all that. Since databases lie at the heart of the information society, it is surely right that we should question how freely available they should be. I think that they should be freely available.
Again, I should like to strike possibly a slightly different note and ask your Lordships not to exaggerate the value of the new technology compared with the old. By the old, I mean books and pencil and paper. Quick communication is valuable on occasion, but in my experience is not always necessary, let alone desirable.
I have written this speech on a word processor, but I correct it as I go along using a pen. When it comes to massive data analysis, a computer and its software are indispensable, but, for example, preparing for a Question in your Lordships' House tomorrow, it is easier to look up the relevant one or two facts in Economic Trends rather than the version that I have on disc. I know—and this has been referred to—that there are many books on CD.Rom, and that is useful for reference and research, but I can hardly believe that anyone, certainly none of your Lordships, would want to curl up in bed with one's computer and associated paraphernalia. The ultimate paradox is that word processing has not led to a reduction in the use of paper, since most people find it easier to start correcting from the hard copy, and, if anything, make many more mistakes when they are working on screen. That is true of me.
Earlier I used the word "freely" when I was talking about databases. The point is that information has an economic value. I think I am right that it cannot be patented or made copyright per se. But it can be protected as intellectual property in the form in which it is presented. To use my earlier example, or that of the noble Viscount, Lord Chelmsford, the Red Book is copyright, but the information contained therein is not. All governments will have to decide how much of the intellectual property they own should be placed in the public domain. The more general and fundamental question is whether existing law of copyright and patents is satisfactory for the information society. My judgment is that it is not. In particular, we need to address most carefully what is to be protected as intellectual property, and what is not. I am concerned, for example, with attempts by American firms, in particular, to patent in bio-technology and space what are essentially ideas and discoveries. Attempts have been made in the past to go over what I regard as the correct line with respect to some aspects of computer software and mathematical algorithms.
1823 Having said that, it is apparent that the scale of world-wide piracy of intellectual property in the information and associated fields is large and growing. Again, it would be disastrous if the free flow of ideas and information were impeded, but that is not the same as allowing free use and copying of intellectual property.
I have referred to the UK economic interest. Obviously, we are a significant market. But are we doing enough in the areas of computer software and hardware? How much of all forms of equipment used for communications in this country is produced here? I am not an expert, but a cursory examination even in your Lordships' House does not reveal many "Made in Britain" labels on the equipment or the software. The Americans are dominant but, not surprisingly, a good deal of the material is manufactured in the Pacific Rim. I can see no intrinsic reason why we should not have a stronger position than we do, especially bearing in mind the sort of lead we used to have in those areas. Some of the most fundamental work on all these things was done by citizens of this country.
Our university departments of mathematics, science and engineering have always produced great figures in areas related to the information society. There is no reason why they should not continue to do so, as long as the facilities are available and there is a good working environment. I regret to say, wearing my university hat, that there is a shortage of resources in the universities and that has placed a great deal of all this activity in peril. Science and engineering in this country are underfunded, and, more important, it remains true that scientists and engineers are insufficiently appreciated and, looking around your Lordships' House, are poorly paid compared with accountants, and lawyers, let alone foreign exchange speculators. Those last categories will never make us rich; scientists and engineers will.
All that leads me on to education. With regard to that, I have to say our time has gone. It is the young who matter. They take the advances that I and other noble Lords have referred to for granted. When I tell junior colleagues that the sort of calculation that took two of us a couple of days to finish in my research days at Princeton now takes a few seconds, they are bored with such reminiscences. I think that is for the good. But we must make sure, as noble Lords have said, that the education curriculum reflects that. Incidentally, let me just say on education that I am astounded that the noble Baroness, Lady O' Cathain, most of whose speech I entirely agreed with, even remotely thinks of looking at any computer manuals. They are just imperfectly translated from the original Japanese. The only thing to do is to bang keys on the keyboard or, better still, click one's mouse and it will all come out happily in the end. Young people know that. We must have equal confidence.
None of it is intellectually that demanding. Word processing, and the use of spreadsheets could and should be taught in primary schools. It is certainly easier than programming a video recorder. I take a similar view of access to the Internet. An eight year-old who can play a computer game will have no difficulty in surfing the worldwide web.
1824 Of course, I am still old fashioned enough to push the virtues of numeracy and literacy. I want our young people to understand what underlies what they do, but I do not regard that as incompatible with or inimical to modern methods. The noble Lord, Lord Renwick, made that point. To quote an example I have used before, when I was at school we did something called "tots"; that is, we added up vast columns of numbers. The ability to do so was regarded as a test of intelligence, although I have never understood why.
I am convinced that one should be able to add, and to understand what one is doing. But I hope nobody in their right mind will ever add large columns of figures again when a spreadsheet will do it for you, and guarantee to get it right.
We have argued before about the end of the days of the unskilled labourer. That is surely so. But let me say, echoing what the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, said, those who have expressed a pessimistic view are wrong. For 200 years the argument has been presented that labour-saving technological advance will make most people irrelevant and unemployed. But that has not happened. More people are employed in our country, and indeed, in the world than ever before. If I had time, as the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, said, I could explain why, echoing David Ricardo of nearly 200 years ago, that has not happened and why it will not happen. That I am afraid will have to be for another debate.
I must hurry to my conclusion. We must emphasise that the information society requires a new form of literacy which we neglect at our peril. As I say, I do not accept the so-called supply side explanations for the rise of unemployment, but that does not mean that there is no such thing as technological unemployment. As the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, and others have said, the labour force must acquire these new skills; otherwise the economy will run too rapidly into capacity constraints when we expand demand.
Finally, there are serious social problems here. The information society must be accessible to all for economic reasons, but it must also be available to all, as noble Lords have said, for political and social reasons. I conclude by emphasising that no one should be left out of the new world which we are creating.
§ 5.8 p.m.
The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Earl Ferrers)
My Lords, I should like to join with other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lady Elles for giving us the opportunity to address this important subject. It has been an enormously interesting debate. It has been particularly notable that no fewer than five noble Baronesses have taken part. So the experience of my noble friend Lady Park of being only the second woman to address the Oxford Union—apparently in some people's eyes that was a derogatory act—evidently did not stop her or deter her from taking part in this debate. Nor were many other deterred. I was glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, who is such a distinguished chairman of ICSSTIS, was good enough to say that she was a chairman and not a chair or a chair person or some other emasculation of a perfectly good word.
1825 I find the whole subject enormously exciting. It is, in many respects, to the humble layman almost incomprehensible; but it provides enormous opportunities which should be understood, in so far as trying to understand the incomprehensible is a possibility, and taken up by everyone. The noble Baroness, Lady Dean, referred to it as a revolution, and she was right. The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, wondered whether the revolution is as important as the Industrial Revolution. I believe that it is. Its effect on our future lives will be astonishing and it equates easily, if not exceeds, the changes which the Industrial Revolution brought about.
I have always wondered exactly what we mean when we talk about the information society. Essentially, I believe that it is a society in which information is accessible on a quite unprecedented scale not just to businesses, manufacturers and boffins but in, and to, every strata of life. The information will create new patterns of demand and supply and will alter our whole way of life in ways in which—I think in 10 years' time—we would have thought inconceivable.
Many of us are not used to thinking of information as a commodity. One tends to think that a commodity is a bar of soap or a light bulb. But information is a commodity. It is something which we need in order to take decisions and we must be prepared to pay for it. News, educational material, advertising and financial analysis are all valuable products. We are all quite happy to walk into a shop to buy a book or a newspaper; but increasingly we will become used to acquiring information electronically.
Already—and this is a staggering thought—the value of information which is entering the United Kingdom each year exceeds the value of goods which are being unloaded at United Kingdom ports. This explosion of trade in information has come about through new technologies; the new technologies which have created the superhighways for information. Optical fibre technology can, for instance, transmit information across the world almost instantaneously and in huge amounts. At any one time, all the telephone calls which are now made in Britain can be carried down one fibre-optic cable the thickness of a cat's hair.
As my noble friend Lord Birdwood said, the change is awesome. Computer technology has advanced, and continues to advance, at unbelievable speed. I remember what seems only a few years ago, but it is probably 30, seeing the first computer which British European Airways had. The company built a special building to house it in the Cromwell Road on the site which is now a Sainsbury's supermarket. It was so excited about it that it took some Members of this House and another place to see it. It is almost beyond belief to think that the power of that mainframe computer which in the 1970s required that large building, can now be fitted into something the size of a mobile telephone. The amount of computing power, which is available at a given price, doubles every 14 months. This is geometric progression at an unbelievable rate, to which at present there seems no finality.
My noble friend Lord Birdwood referred to the fact that the techniques are converging. Indeed, they are. Digital information will be the common currency in the future of telecommunications, broadcasting and computing. My noble friend Lord Butterworth raised the specific question 1826 of whether, in the light of the convergence, the Government plan to review the responsibilities of Oftel and the Independent Television Commission. The Government have no present plans to review the responsibilities of either those two bodies. However, I note that convergence may have future implications for our system of regulation. And the distinctions between these technologies and the industries which use them will become increasingly irrelevant.
The storage of text and pictures on compact discs which can be read on a computer screen, for example, makes publishing just another electronic industry. The Encyclopaedia Britannica—all 44 million words of it—is now available on a single compact disc and it can be searched by a computer in seconds. On the same disc, just as a buckshee extra, you can find Roget's Thesaurus and Webster's English Dictionary—and the whole can be sent down an optical fibre in little more than a second. Electronic newspapers are gaining ground quickly, as people recognise the advantage of being able to get the news which they want as soon as possible: foreign affairs and no sport, or no foreign affairs and sport.
I do not wish to dwell too much on the technology, amazing though it is. Our fathers would have thought it all quite impossible. But then they would have thought it impossible for a man to go to the moon. And who would have thought that human beings could be packed—and would be prepared to be packed—into a container such as Concorde and propelled around the world at the speed of a bullet? But all that has happened. And technology enabled that to happen then. How much more will it enable other things to happen in the future? Technology, after all, is only a tool and the truly exciting thing about it is the opportunities which it offers us. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady O'Cathain for explaining how IT has helped Tesco to improve its service—a matter about which she has some experience.
The information society is changing the life of the individual in almost every respect. The four television channels, which we had for so long, have become 40 or more today over cable and satellite, and they will keep multiplying, offering entertainment, news and analysis.
As my noble friend Lady Elles said, as many as one in four United Kingdom homes now has a computer. She compared that with Europe and said that we are doing better. So we are, and will continue; but Europe must increase its number. These will increasingly be used to obtain services such as banking and shopping. Barclays, Sainsbury's and W.H. Smith already offer services over the Internet and other computer networks.
Work too will increasingly be done from home over electronic networks. We will see more people developing what are known as "portfolio" careers; careers which will enable them to offer their services as freelancers part-time to a number of employers in order to make up a full-time job. As was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, people will do their shopping with their video computer or TV screen, finding out what are the types and costs, for instance, of three-piece suites provided by different retailers.
Children are increasingly learning about computers and more and more schools are being connected to the Internet. This is not just a change in the way in which 1827 learning is taught. Electronic networks, in fact, make possible an enormous increase in the amount of information which is actually available to teachers and pupils. The noble Baroness, Lady Dean, spoke of obtaining information from museums. A visit to the British Museum is an event in the life of any school boy or girl. For a child living away from London, it may be a once in a lifetime visit. New technology could make the whole of the British Museum available to a child in a classroom. He will not only be able to look at King Alfred's jewel in a case and read the facts about it but he will be able to turn it around and examine it from every angle, accompanied by a commentary from the world's greatest experts. And it will not be limited only to British Museums and British artefacts; the same child will be able to visit the Prado and the Louvre without leaving his desk.
Education and training for adults will be transformed. Already medical students in one part of the country can, via a screen, follow operations which are being carried out in another part of the country by leading surgeons, seeing the operation, as it were, through the surgeon's eyes. A tiny TV camera attached to the spectacles of a surgeon enables a viewer to see exactly what it is that the surgeon sees. This is an astonishing innovation but one which I personally would be quite happy to be without.
Hard-pressed workers requiring up-to-the-minute training will be able to receive it without leaving their desks by calling up services over a computer network. Patients, too, will have access to greater expertise. A patient visiting her GP will be able to have her symptoms and initial diagnosis discussed with a specialist who will then be able to see and to discuss her symptoms both with the GP and herself and agree on treatment.
For business, the development of the information society represents a huge opportunity. Let us take the example of the Internet. Some 30 million people are thought to use this global computer network. Of course, many of these people only want to use the Internet for academic research, or for communicating with other Internet users on subjects in which they have a common interest. But many others will be interested in doing something new and different.
My noble friends Lord Renwick and Lord Butterworth, and other noble Lords, have said that there are great opportunities in that regard. For example, you can now order flowers over the Internet. The American firm which provides that service sells more flowers than does any other company in the world. The noble Baroness, Lady Dean, said that you can access Playboy on the Internet. I must say that I did not know that; but a number of people evidently take advantage of it. The noble Lord, Lord Peston, also did not know about that. It just shows that he is not the fount of all knowledge, even though he is the fount of a great deal of knowledge. I can tell the noble Lord how to access it, but I have no intention of doing so because it would be bad for the noble Lord. Another less risqué example comes from the world of car advertising. Toyota recently placed an advertisement on the Internet. It received 30,000 responses over a single weekend.
But the opportunity is by no means limited to the Internet. There is the world-wide market for multimedia personal computers—computers which can cope with 1828 sounds and pictures as well as words. That market has more than doubled in size during last year. We must not underestimate the scale of the opportunity. The software and computer services industry, for example, has grown at an average rate of nearly 20 per cent. per annum over the past decade. The value of the combined IT and telecommunications industries in the UK is more than £30,000 million per annum. That puts it in the same field as the annual cost of United Kingdom healthcare. But the opportunity is not one which can be measured only by numbers; nor is it only an opportunity for suppliers. There is an opportunity for all organisations to use information and communication technologies so that they can make radical changes to the whole way in which they go about their business.
My noble friend Lady O'Cathain referred to Tesco. Perhaps I may give her another example—that is, John Brown Engineers and Constructors. That company has used state-of-the-art technology to create a global communications network—a network which is capable of carrying vast amounts of data between John Brown offices wherever they are in the world. A highly complicated design—itself created with the help of computers—can be transferred from the UK to Australia in seconds. Each design centre now has immediate access to the entire information and experience of the whole organisation. And managers can shift design tasks around the world, in phase with time zones, thereby enabling 24-hour working.
One might ask what part the Government have to play in all that. As a start, as my noble friend Lord Chelmsford said, the Government too can benefit from using the new technologies. He said that there needs to be a stronger lead from Cabinet Ministers. I can tell my noble friend that, entirely coincidentally, my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade has made a very important speech on that subject only this morning to the Institute of Directors.
The Government can use IT to improve their internal communications. In the DTI, we are experiencing a quiet revolution as the whole department moves on to a single computer network, with electronic mail messages taking the place of minutes and memoranda on paper. I, for one, will be eternally grateful for that. But I am bound to say that I have not noticed it too much myself yet, but I expect that is because it is thought—not without reason—that I am too stupid to work the instrument.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Peston, on being on the Internet. He said that more government information should be available on the Internet. The DTI Internet server goes live, curiously enough, today. The noble Lord and any other noble Lord can access that. I shall tell the noble Lord, Lord Peston, how to do that because it would be quite suitable for him to receive that information. He can access it by dialling, "http://www.dti.gov.uk". I hope it works. If it does not, I shall have to make sure that I have given the noble Lord the right information.
More importantly, we can use IT to improve our external communications: for consulting people on what they want from Government, for making available information about what the Government are up to; and for providing services to the public. Already, the Department of Education has made its public inquiry point accessible 1829 on the Internet. The Department of Social Security has developed a special terminal which provides members of the public with touch-screen access to information about benefits. The Department of Trade and Industry is establishing a video-conferencing network which is connecting its headquarters in London with its offices in the regions, the new business links, and some of our embassies abroad.
But clearly the Government's role is not just to take advantage of the new technology itself. We have to ensure that our children are taught how to use this remarkable technology at an early age. Many noble Lords referred to that, and I am glad that my noble friend Lord Renwick thinks that it is being done well in some schools.
My noble friend Lord Birdwood referred to Signor Carlo de Benedetti, who is the chairman of Olivetti. As my noble friend said, he wrote an article for the Financial Times on Monday of this week which said that:Digitalisation and the growing use of computers are creating new forms of illiteracy and poverty—even in the most advanced societies".He went on:computer illiteracy affects every social group. It is not confined to the poorest social classes".I shuddered when I read that; but it is true.
Many noble Lords have said that education is important. So it is. That is why the Government have made Information Technology a core part of the national curriculum. Indeed, the United Kingdom is now one of the leading countries in the world which is ensuring that its children are educated in the knowledge, and in the use, of Information Technology.
The Government also have a vital role to play in setting the rules of the game for the private sector so that private companies can invest and can develop the goods and services which consumers want. Of course, man can mar as well as make. Quite rightly, a number of anxieties have been expressed about pornography. Computer networks can be used for that purpose. The Government took action last year to try and address that by bringing the storage and distribution of computer-led child pornography within the scope of the Protection of Children Act. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, that self-regulation may have a part to play. We must resist the temptation to impose regulations on a new and developing part of our lives until we can see in what form it settles down. As my noble friend Lady Elles said, technology can itself help to limit access.
When it comes to Europe and to the wider international scene, the United Kingdom has a leading role to play. What has given us the edge in Europe is the strength and the diversity which derives from competition—competition which has been possible only because of our liberalised telecommunications industry.
One very influential Italian businessman said to me the other day, "Of course, you in the United Kingdom are 10 years ahead of other European countries in freeing up your markets; in using IT," and, believe it or not, in "lack of government interference". The figures speak for themselves. We have moved from a monopoly in 1984 to a position where there are now almost 150 public telecommunications operators. Our broadband university 1830 network, SuperJANET, is unique in Europe. We are Europe's leading manufacturer of computers and colour televisions.
I agree with my noble friends Lord Cockfield and Lord Butterworth and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, that the information society world is, by its very nature, no respecter of borders. Satellite and cable networks enable vast amounts of data to flow rapidly between countries. You cannot stop that; the technology is there; and others are doing it. We have to make sure that we are not left behind.
We are in the middle of huge changes which reflect every aspect of our way of life in ways in which most of us cannot begin to envisage. But in the Industrial Revolution of the last century, Britain was the workshop of the world. As my noble friend Lady Park said, we must learn to ride this tiger. In the information revolution which is now taking place, there is no reason why Britain should not lead the world.
§ Baroness Elles
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his reply, which has been extremely helpful and has encouraged every speaker who took part in the debate to recognise the role of government in the development of information technology and in keeping, as he said, the United Kingdom way ahead in this field. I thank all noble Lords who took part in the debate. When I initiated it, I realised that I had a lot to learn. Having heard the debate this evening, I realise that I have even more to learn. I congratulate and thank most warmly all those who have brought instruction, knowledge and the benefit of their personal experience and the benefit of their own thinking on a subject which is undoubtedly not only affecting us today but even more so will affect us in the coming years. With those few words and with my grateful thanks, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.