E-commerce minister 'neglecting IT for energy'

DTI insiders are unhappy that Stephen Timms has so much on his plate, and say he simply doesn't have the time to digest crucial technology issues

Stephen Timms, government minister for energy, e-commerce and postal services, is so overburdened with responsibilities that he is being forced to put key IT issues such as broadband availability and electronic business on the back burner, government sources have warned.

ZDNet UK has learned that there is deep concern within the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) about the effect a recent reshuffle has had on Timms' workload. This reorganisation took place in June, and saw Timms -- already minister for e-commerce and competitiveness -- also landed with the energy portfolio.

At the time, the DTI denied claims that this extra responsibility would overburden Timms, who had performed impressively as e-commerce minister since his appointment in summer 2002. The reality, though, is different, according to some of those who have seen him at work.

"The reshuffle was a bit of a dog's dinner," admitted one informed source, explaining that Timms was handed responsibility for energy because he was seen as a highly competent junior minister.

Timms is now facing a clutch of serious problems. These include turmoil in the Post Office, predictions that the UK will soon run short of energy supplies, and fears that this summer's shock power cut in London could recur -- on top of growing rural anger about broadband blackspots and the digital divide.

The issue came to a head when Timms found himself forced to choose between attending a major Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) conference this week and visiting renewable energy projects in the north of England. Even though the Delivering Value through Broadband conference was already in his diary, and despite being warned by an official that a no-show would "go down like a cup of cold sick," Timms ruled that the energy brief took priority, ZDNet UK understands.

He will therefore address the BSG's conference on Wednesday via a video link, and will not physically attend one of the broadband industry's main events.

Such clashes are the stuff of a government minister's daily routine, but insiders say the incident illustrates that the energy brief takes precedence over e-commerce issues: "For the first few months, there was a handover period because there were so many e-commerce commitments already in the diary. Now, though, energy usually takes priority."

Another source from within government confirmed that Timms's workload outstrips that of most other ministers, and that there is sometimes amazement within the DTI about the amount of work and the number of official visits and speeches that he achieves in a week.

Since joining the DTI, Timms has won many plaudits. A former employee at both Logica and analyst group Ovum, he has a very firm understanding of the IT sector and his appointment has generally been a popular one throughout the industry.

There have recently been signs, though, that the Timms honeymoon is nearing its end. He was responsible for the government's anti-spam legislation, which has been criticised for not protecting businesses. Spamhaus, a leading anti-spam organisation, has accused Timms of "bungling" the issue.

Some broadband campaigners are also losing patience. While broadband availability is increasing, companies such as BT say that around 10 percent of the population won't be able to get technologies such as ADSL without more government support.

Timms recently announced plans for nine regional aggregation bodies to pool public sector broadband demand in areas that operators currently deem economically unviable, but the idea has had a lukewarm reception. Campaign group Broadband4Britain was quick to claim that the strategy could set back the rollout of high-speed Internet connections in rural UK areas, while major telcos have also indicated their disquiet with the plan.