Let's put nannies on the Net, urges Blair

THE DEPARTMENT for Education and Employment should establish an online marketplace for self-employed people such as babysitters, gardeners and hairdressers to find customers over the Internet, a government report on e-commerce will recommend today.

The proposal is one of around 60 recommendations in the report E-commerce @ its best, being launched today in Cambridge by Tony Blair.

It follows the launch last week by Gordon Brown of an pounds 18m, online jobseekers scheme, designed to use high technology to make sure people without a job had no excuse for not hunting for one.

The aim of today's report is to create a partnership between government and industry in order to overcome any initial inertia towards the Internet in the UK. While big companies are aware of the demands of e-commerce, little progress has been made amongst small businesses.

In a speech at the St John's Innovation Centre in Cambridge, the Prime Minister will warn that UK businesses could risk bankruptcy if they fail to embrace e-commerce. Just 10 per cent of UK businesses with fewer than 10 staff have websites, compared to 20 per cent in Germany and 25 per cent in the US. Half such UK firms do not think the Net will affect them.

"British business has to embrace the Internet now, not in a few years time," Mr Blair will say. "In two or three years' time the Internet will be as commonplace in the office as the telephone. If you're not exploiting the opportunities of e-commerce you could risk going bankrupt."

Mr Blair will be joined at today's launch by two companies that depend in very different ways on the Internet. One, Cambridge Advanced Electronics, is an entirely virtual company with no offices. Its employees work online from home. The other, Zeus Technologies, writes the software underpinning e-commerce sites. It was founded by two students who are still only in their early 20s.

Entering into the spirit of the event, the Prime Minister will also do a live audio webcast over the BBC's Net site at noon.

Web entrepreneurs will welcome the report, which has been produced by the Cabinet Office's initially controversial Performance and Innovation Unit.

Wingham Rowan, author of a recent book, Guaranteed Electronic Markets, said: "This is a landmark suggestion. The government should initiate e- marketplaces." He added: "There are facilities only government can command that could make these official forums for online selling much more reliable, universal and lower-cost."

The report will be published this afternoon at http://www.cabinet-office.gov.uk/innovation. Mr Blair's webcast will be at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news.

Mr Blair is also expected to use his visit to Cambridge to confirm that Alex Allan, High Commissioner to Australia and a former private secretary to John Major, is to become Britain's first "digital envoy", charged with helping firms adapt to e-commerce.