Wider role for e-commerce minister

Patricia Hewitt keeps the e-minister title, but new boy Douglas Alexander will promote e-commerce and universal banking
Written by Graeme Wearden, Contributor

Douglas Alexander is likely to start his new role as the minister for e-commerce and competitiveness by pushing e-transactions and universal banking.

Alexander will have a slightly wider range of duties than his predecessor Patricia Hewitt, who has been promoted to secretary of state for trade and industry. As well as being responsible for e-commerce, communications and information industries and the Radiocommunications Agency, Alexander will also be in charge of consumer goods, business and postal services -- including the Post Office. However, small business -- previously the responsibility of Hewitt -- will be handled by under-secretary of State Nigel Griffiths.

Contrary to early reports, Hewitt will retain the title of government e-minister. This is expected to enable her to take the lead on technology and Internet matters at cabinet level. Alexander -- based within the department of trade and industry (DTI) -- will run e-commerce, while Gus McDonald of the cabinet office is still in charge of e-government. "There are more key players now, reflecting the wider role that technology is going to play," a DTI spokeswoman said on Tuesday.

The spokeswoman added that Alexander is currently being briefed on his new post by DTI officials. When his appointment was announced last week there were concerns that he knew very little about technology. Many high-tech firms admitted they had never heard of Alexander -- MP for Paisley South and previously a speechwriter for chancellor Gordon Brown -- but other political sources have told ZDNet that he is a well-respected politician who could have enough influence within the Labour Party to get things done.

The government announced last month that it is making progress in its attempts to provide universal banking -- where all UK citizens who do not have bank accounts would have access to a bank account at the Post Office. This initiative would let people carry out e-transactions, and is seen as an important way of encouraging e-commerce by getting more people to use new technology.

There are also plans to make government services available online at post offices by 2003, while the Post Office wants to expand its role in e-commerce to offer logistics and distribution services for online retailers.

Stephen Byers, the previous trade and industry secretary, recently appointed Allan Leighton to the board of Consignia -- the new name for the Post Office group. Leighton is also the chairman of Lastminute.com.

Alexander will also head up the government's work on corporate social responsibility and social enterprises. His work on consumer goods and business services is likely to include representing the jewellery and textiles industries.

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