Make the most of the Net, Blair tells business

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TONY BLAIR warned yesterday that British business was lagging behind its rivals in the use of electronic commerce.

Launching a report from the Performance and Innovation Unit of the Cabinet Office, the Prime Minister said: "To British business, a blunt message: if you don't see the Internet as an opportunity, it will be a threat."

The report, which coincided with the naming of top civil servant Alex Allan as the Government's "e-envoy", lists 60 measures to encourage business on to the Net. These include making sure the Government itself sets a good example.

Its publication coincided with a call for better co-ordination between governments from top global businesses, which met at an inaugural e-commerce conference in Paris. Thomas Middelhoff, chairman and chief executive of Bertelsmann, the German media giant, said: "Policy makers worldwide should treat e-commerce with a sense of urgency."

Time Warner, Fujitsu and many other companies attended the first "Global Business Dialogue on Electronic Commerce", addressed by William Daley, the US Commerce Secretary, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, French finance minister.

Mr Blair said he himself would take a computer course. "Like many people of my generation in positions of leadership, I rarely use a computer, and when I do I usually need help," he said. With assistance from Owen Garrett of Zeus, a Cambridge computer software company, the Prime Minister ordered his wife a bunch of begonias over the Internet.

The report said its aims were to get the Government online, improve co- ordination between government and business and help overcome business inertia. It pledged e-commerce would be regulated with a light touch.

UK e-commerce will reach pounds 2.8bn this year and could grow tenfold in the next three years. The report said Britain should exploit its natural advantages, such as the English language's dominance of the Web and a liberalised telecoms industry.

The report was broadly welcomed by the industry, but sceptics said the main reason the UK lags the US is the high level of local telephone charges. Local calls are free in the US.

One chapter in the report addresses this issue with the recommendation that regulators should "encourage" telecoms operators to offer a "wider range of tariff structures". The report also focuses on the potential for tax evasion in Internet business and lists steps the Government will take.

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