Tony Blair warns Britain's business

The PM outlines how Britain can rival Silicon Valley.

Prime Minister Tony Blair delivered a stark message to British business this morning: get on the Net or go bust.

The PM, speaking at St John's Innovation Centre in Cambridge, was announcing the think tank Performance and Innovation Unit's strategy for UK e-commerce, and warned British companies: "If you don't see the Net as an opportunity it will be a threat."

The Cabinet Office's Performance and Innovation Unit report -- e-commerce@its.best.uk -- was welcomed by Mr Blair. Clearly concerned by the report's findings that only two percent of the UK's directors saw the Internet as a serious competitive threat, he described the PIU's report as "a wake-up call for many in British business".

The report found the UK is slipping behind America, Canada and Scandinavia in its development of e-commerce and that Germany and France are catching up fast. But with predictions of UK e-commerce being worth £10bn by 2000, Mr Blair was keen to stress the importance of the Net. "In two or three years' time, the Internet will be as commonplace in the office as the telephone," he said.

The Prime Minister admitted government e-commerce policy had been "too slow" and accepted that the controversial key escrow plans -- where businesses would be forced to give law enforcement agencies access to decryption keys -- had been a mistake. He promised "no company or individual will be forced directly or indirectly to escrow keys." Instead he envisaged a new role for government "promoting competition, minimising regulation and equipping people with the skills they need".

To this end, the government plans to provide 80 percent discounts, available to all, on basic computer training courses. Mr Blair reiterated the promise of delivering all government business electronically by the year 2008 and announced plans, from next year, to allow people to submit tax forms online.

Intolerant of what he described as "an information underclass" the Prime Minister pledged to provide home computers for 100,000 of the UK's poorest families. Admitting that he "rarely used a computer", Mr Blair intends to enrol himself on a course.

The PIU's report contains over 60 recommendations for future government e-commerce strategy. As well as stressing the need for co-operation between industry and government with a co-regulatory approach to the issues facing e-trade, the report also highlighted the role of BT and the banks in pushing e-commerce forward. The report recommends another OFTEL review of broadband services and the monopoly of BT and called on Don Cruickshank, through his Independent Banking Review, to urge the banks to make it easier for start-ups to set up online credit processing.

According to Mr Blair, the government has accepted all 60 of the recommendations and is optimistic Britain can be at the forefront of international e-commerce, with developments, like the one he visited in Cambridge on Monday, capable of being "rivals to Silicon valley".

Take me to the e-commerce special.

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