To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what steps his Department is taking to help improve the quality of usage of information technology in British businesses.
My Department encourages British businesses to make efficient and effective use of information technology by a variety of means, including the encouragement of best practice, support for collaborative research and development and technology transfer. It is, of course, for individual firms in their particular circumstances to decide how best to make use of IT and so derive the best possible benefit from investment in the technology.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the contribution that the better use of information technology can make to the competitiveness of British industry is much under-estimated in this country? Does he also agree that, because the Government are major users of information technology to the tune of £1·5 billion a year, they can set a good example to British industry? Therefore, will he outline to the House how he is sure that his own Department is taking the correct decisions both at the point of purchase and after the event?
The best way of seeking our own departmental assurance is to take advice, where necessary, from experts and practitioners in the industry. I should like to reassure my hon. Friend that we do our very best to remain enlightened users of IT. The general impact of IT usage is a key-enabling technology which pervades all sectors of the economy. That is why my hon. Friend's question is so relevant. Certainly, to my knowledge, for the first time since the war Britain is now out-performing the Federal Republic of Germany in a crucial application area—the use of computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing equipment. We are now, in the first major investment programme since the war, outstripping the Germans to the tune of 8 per cent. market penetration. I believe that that is a very significant event.
Will the Minister nevertheless recognise that the failure to produce a follow-on programme for the Alvey programme and the substitution for it of the ESPRIT II programme within Europe has left a void in Government support, specifically for the application of new techniques for the British partners in international collaborations? Does he realise that that is losing the country a great deal of the benefit which, as he rightly said, we are fully capable of achieving from information technology if only we are properly organised, with the support of the Government?
We achieved final agreement for ESPRIT on Monday. The hon. Gentleman is correct when he says that there was no follow-up to the Alvey. He will know that there is a programme of about £84 million over five years, partly funded by the Science and Engineering Research Council and by ourselves, which is following up a number of Alvey initiatives. He will also know that there are a number of other programmes in electronics and information technology. We now have, subject to an additional review, the Gallium Arsenide programme, which has been complicated a little by the difficulties between the two participating companies. So we are following up Alvey in the right way in collaborative and pan-European research.