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Say hello to the new 'e-minister'

Alexander promoted, Timms takes over as e-overlord

In standard government fashion Douglas Alexander, erstwhile e-commerce and competition minister, has been promoted to the Cabinet Office under Lord McDonald. His promotion comes in spite of having failed to realise the 'broadband Britain' he was tasked with achieving.

Alexander's successor is Stephen Timms (pictured), who at least has experience in working in the telecommunications and IT industry. Timms studied mathematics and went on to work for IT group Logica and then research IT analysts Ovum for a total of 15 years.

Alexander, a Brownite ex-lawyer, took over as e-minister from Patricia Hewitt on the stepladder to proper political jobs. In his time as e-commerce minister Alexander managed to preside over the constant trumpeting of a single disbursement of £30m for 'broadband Britain'. This sat in Treasury coffers for more than a year after first being announced by Hewitt. It's only just been handed out.

He also chaired a study group, the BSG (Broadband Stakeholders Group). Alexander had to step down from the BSG after it became clear that it didn't live up to its promise of independence and it made suggestions to the government (namely Alexander) that couldn't be carried out because Alexander couldn't get funding or backing for them.

One key player in the BSG, Tom Wills-Sandford, who also put forward the current chairman, Keith Todd, admitted "it was a very peculiar situation we found ourselves in", having Alexander chairing a group that was making recommendations to himself.

When Alexander eventually stepped aside for Todd, the DTI press office tried to make us believe that Alexander 'had always been only the acting chairman' and that the group was 'always looking for someone else', which was nonsense. Wills-Sandford confirmed that, to his knowledge, Alexander "wasn't the acting chairman".

Ian Taylor MP, one-time Tory junior minister for the DTI and serving member of the science and technology select committee, said Alexander had let the body he had set up to advise him get too close.

A ex-professional lobbyist for the mobile telecomms industry said there was a very good reason why the BSG answered to and was governed by Alexander — it meant he should have only been able to make recommendations he could achieve, making him look like an effective minister.

In fact, the BSG ended up making some recommendations that Alexander could never have pushed through because they ran contrary to government policy. It also, stunningly, made recommendations to Alexander's office that, if implemented, would have constituted illegal state aid (i.e. UK-only industry-specific tax breaks).

That Alexander chaired a group that made recommendations that he as a minister and a lawyer should have pointed would have been impossible to implement epitomises his tenure — Britain lags behind almost every country in the EU as well as the US in terms of broadband adoption, pricing and government policy, according to multiple sources.

The DTI has already attempted to stitch up the numbers of businesses taking up broadband. With luck and some application of his experience, Timms will change a sub-department that has stultified and failed to deliver broadband Britain.


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