More "e", Minister?

Bill Thompson provides a brief history of internet ministers and their achievements

For reasons that have less to do with politics and more to do with a fatal lack of understanding of the technology, ministerial responsibility for the internet lies with the Department of Trade and Industry, where it's part of the science brief. When the net was relatively new and of interest only to academics and a few sad computer hackers, this didn't really matter. But as soon as John Battle took over as minister for science in a Labour administration committed to wiring up schools and libraries and eliminating the digital divide, the trouble began.

Battle, a long-time net user who had networked his constituency and Westminster offices, was a good example of a type one internet minister: someone who used and understood the technology and could see how it might be applied and regulated. He even appointed Anne Campbell, the first MP with a website, as his PPS. Unfortunately, after a few weeks in the job, Battle was forced to hand over responsibility for the net to one of his junior ministers, Barbara Roche. She was a type two minister: she knew nothing about the net, but, as a lawyer, knew how to take a brief from her civil servants. After a year, she was replaced by another type two, Michael Wills. Although keen, and a fast learner, he, too, never grasped the wider issues of how to regulate a global computer network that doesn't respect national boundaries or old organisational models.

When Wills was shuffled off to Education in June 1999, his replacement, Patricia Hewitt, seemed to be the ideal candidate. She understood the technology, having used it during her time working at Arthur Andersen. She was well liked by Blair, so had more status than her relatively junior ministerial position would normally allow. And she was to be given help, in the form of e-envoy Alex Allan, a new appointment charged with promoting the use of the net.

By the time Hewitt took over, the absurdity of having responsibility for the driving technology of the digital revolution sitting with a junior minister in the DTI had grown too great. She has achieved little of note. The issue of content regulation belongs with the Home Office, and the technology is moving too fast for any serious governmental intervention to be effective. For Hewitt - and the net - the only sensible hope is for a promotion, in recognition of how the technical, financial and social aspects of the net no longer fit together in one brief. Our first e-minister should be our last.

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Education, education, profit