New e-minister lacks technology clout

His fans see him as a future prime minister, but he didn't show much interest in high-tech issues during the last parliament and few in the industry have heard of him

The resounding reaction from industry today to the appointment of e-minister Douglas Alexander as the UK's new e-minister was: who is he?

Government lobbyists from leading high tech companies said they had never heard of him, while one desperate search of the public affairs archives of a leading high tech consultancy failed to turn up anything relevant on the member for Paisley South.

Indeed, Alexander has never spoken about important technology issues, such the digital divide or the rollout of broadband Internet access, in House of Commons debates.

According to the online version of Hansard, the official record of the details of Westminster debate, Alexander has spoken 20 times in the Commons chamber. Half of his contributions have concerned Scottish issues, as might be expected given that Paisley South, Alexander's constituency, is close to Glasgow. However, the 33 year old MP appears to have expressed no views on, or interest in, technology issues -- beyond recognising the large number of high-tech jobs in Scotland.

Alexander's most recent entry in Hansard shows that he spoke in favour of "international debt reduction of the kind that Jubilee 2000 has campaigned for", during to the second reading of the International Development Bill. He has also spoken in support of his local territorial army division. His maiden speech, delivered in December 1997, was in favour of the national minimum wage.

In December 1999, Alexander told the Commons that the electronics industry has been "the single most important industrial sector for manufacturing inward investment in Scotland". Both Compaq and IBM have factories close to Paisley South, but in April this year Compaq slashed 700 jobs from its manufacturing plant, blaming the global slowdown.

Intel's director of government and education programmes for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Benny Ginman, said he had never heard of Alexander, but said the new e-minister has a big challenge ahead.

"The [UK] Government has stated ambitious objectives with respect to the Internet economy," said Ginman. "They have said that the UK should be a leading nation in e-commerce, e-government and broadband deployment. The challenge now is to put in place specific plans to implement these objectives. This is what we would hope he will executive."

Ginman said the government's objectives are very clear "but the execution of the plans needs a lot more work". In particular, said Ginman, Alexander must look at new ways of providing broadband to small businesses and consumers. "I think more creative ways of getting broadband are needed -- you can't just beat up the incumbent player and hope things will better."

PriceWaterhouseCoopers seemed similarly baffled by the appointment of Alexander. A spokesperson said she had never heard of him, but noted that Patricia Hewitt, who previously held the post, seemed to "do a good job of her own PR".

However, Alexander did get a vote of confidence from Microsoft's head of government affairs in the UK, Matt Lambert, who welcomed the appointment. "It is significant that the Prime Minister should give the e-commerce post to someone he has a lot of faith in," said Lambert. "This is a good sign, and what I know about him is all good." While Lambert acknowledged Alexander's apparent lack of profile in the technology industry, he said such things have to be taken in the context of public service. "There are few MPs who are very IT literate", he said. "You hopefully get people who have a good eye for issues and how to deal with them -- Alexander is one of these."

Lambert said that Alexander will have to take a serious look at how he ensures trust and confidence in e-commerce. "There is a lot of interest in IT among the general public but there is still a lot of timidity among the general public about buying online," he said, adding: "It is a difficult job, but we should keep an open mind."

Unlike some MPs, Alexander does have a Web site -- www.dalexandermp.demon.co.uk. Despite the election having concluded last Thursday, the home page claims that the site is closed. However, the rest of the site is still live.

Alexander's Web site contains his biography, press releases, local newspaper cuttings and details of his advice surgeries. Unfortunately, Internet-savvy constituents looking to get in touch with the new e-minister may be disappointed, as one of the contact phone numbers is incorrect.

Scottish community Web site johnstonetown.org.uk thinks a lot of Alexander. Billing him as "a professional politician" with "excellent credentials and a solid background", Johnstonetown tips Alexander as a "future prime minister".

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