Jeremy Corbyn MP

House Of Commons

London SW1A OAA

12th March 1999

Dear Jeremy,

Urgent request to refer complaint to Ombudsman:

On 5th March 1999, the DTI published "Building Confidence in Electronic Commerce: A Consultation Document". The response time permitted was under 4 weeks (until 1st April). The Cabinet Office has published guidelines requiring central government departments to allow a minimum of 8 weeks. I lodged a formal complaint on 5th March, receiving a reply on 9th March.

Please would you refer this matter to the Ombudsman for investigation as a prima facie case of maladministration. I am seeking an extension to the response deadline until April 30th (the proper minimum of 8 weeks).

Clearly, if the Ombudsman is to be in position to provide effective redress, it will be necessary to complete an investigation and make a ruling before the present deadline for consultation responses (1st April). I would therefore request that this case be considered most urgently.

Please find attached the Grounds of Complaint, and relevant papers.

Yours faithfully




Caspar Bowden

Director, FIPR

To: The Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration

13th March 1999

"Building Confidence in Electronic Commerce: A Consultation Document".

Consultation response time contravenes Cabinet Office guidelines

Grounds of complaint :

  1. The reply received from Dr. de Souza does not provide any reasoned justification for disregarding the guidelines, or argue for an exemption in terms allowed for by the guidelines. It rejects the complaint with the dismissive slogan that "guidelines are just guidelines", remarking that the DTI is satisfied that they are justified in this case.
  2. The implication is that government has executive discretion to waive observance of its own published administrative procedures, without giving proper reasons. This would appear to render non-statutory codes of practice ineffectual, because Ministers could simply derogate from compliance arbitrarily.
  3. Specifically, to uphold the DTIís procrustean doctrine that the minimum response time for a public consultation exercise can be truncated to fit a Parliamentary timetable would set a sweeping precedent, permitting governments to forestall criticism that might arise from public scrutiny and discussion of unpopular or ill-conceived legislation.
  4. The reply claims that "in effect, there has already been an extensive consultation process", over the past year. This is an extraordinary post-rationalisation of failed attempts to secure support for the most contentious proposal (linkage between "key escrow" and voluntary licensing), by selectively briefing with information not in the public domain. The delay in publication was caused by mounting protest, both from industry and civil liberties groups, which resulted in the excision of this proposal from the published paper; however many other equally complex matters requiring close scrutiny and wide discussion have, partly in consequence, received little attention (e.g. CA liability, decryption "notices", and the creation of broad secondary powers through primary legislation).
  5. Exactly a year before the publication of the Consultation, I filed a request for disclosure of original papers on the development of UK encryption policy under the Code of Practice on Open Government, writing subsequently that disclosure was "required urgently to provide a context for public understanding of the forthcoming Secure Electronic Commerce legislation" (23/7/98). The department agreed to make best endeavours to make disclosure "before or coincident" with the publication of the consultation paper (28/8/98 minutes of meeting on 4/8/98). No disclosure has been made and the Ombudsman is making a formal investigation (case ref: A.23/99). I would ask that the departmentís failure to disclose before publication now be taken into account as part of that case.


Schedule of attachments

  1. (5/3/99) Letter of complaint to Rt.Hon. Stephen Byers MP, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.
  2. (9/3/99) Reply from Dr.Stephen de Souza (DTI -- E-Commerce Bill Team)
  3. (5/3/99) DTI Press Release accompanying launch of consultation paper -- P/99/200
  4. (Aug 98) "How to conduct written consultation exercise". Contents and Ch.4. (Response Times)
  5. (5/3/99) "Industry blasts Blairís three week encryption deadline" VNUnet Newswire
  6. (11/3/99) "Net trade: a battle half won" : Computer Weekly
  7. (11/3/99) "DTI offers chance to ditch key escrow" : Computing

Download the letter dated March 9 from DTI (requires Acrobat Reader to view)

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