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Minister for the Web - in waiting;Watershed;Interview;Derek Wyatt

MP Derek Wyatt thinks the learning grid will overload - now he's tackling Parliament about its Internet strategy.He talks to Chris Johnston.

Derek Wyatt's name has appeared in newspapers more often than most of the tranche of new Labour MPs elected in the last general election. Last October the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, in Kent, was mentioned in The Times for his plan to table a Bill outlawing discrimination against women at golf clubs.

He also supported a Commons motion last August to encourage the Sports Council to give greater recognition to the game of chess, and supported the hunting ban Bill. That Wyatt, aged 49, has a keen interest in sporting matters will be no surprise to anyone who remembers him as a former Bedford and England rugby wing three-quarter who earned his solitary cap in 1981.

However, the subject that now occupies Wyatt's attention more than any other is information technology. In 1991, after he was made redundant from a small television production company, he decided to retrain. He bought an Apple and went online with CompuServe.

His work as a consultant for a newspaper company led him to examine the potential of the Internet. "I was spellbound to be honest I to me it was like going back to school, but with more nous than you have at 18. I just felt intuitively that this was it, that this was going to be the next major wave."

Wyatt returned to television production in 1994. He put forward his idea of a television computer channel that would also be on the Internet to Sam Chisholm, then boss of BSkyB. He liked it, but events conspired to prevent the project getting off the ground. Then, in November 1996, Sky launched The Computer Channel, which is now seen in 15 European countries.

Wyatt resigned as the channel's director after a 14.5 per cent electoral swing from Conservative to Labour saw him win the 150th seat on his party's hitlist.

Since entering the Commons, he has set up the all-party Internet committee, which he co-chairs. More than 100 MPs have joined - about one-fifth of the House. Wyatt says the committee's main purpose is to educate MPs about information and communications technology.

Although some Cabinet members are au fait with ICT - Wyatt says Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, spent two or three hours a day surfing the Net during a recent holiday - he believes the Government is still struggling with its Internet strategy. In the first Commons debate about the policy in March, Wyatt called for the creation of a "ministry of communications" that would oversee telecommunications, postal services, broadcasting, software and the Internet.

He says a Minister for the Internet should be located in the Cabinet Office so that departments can be forced to make reforms. And he concedes that it is a job he would like: "Yes, I am available."

In Wyatt's view, a big stumbling block to getting more government services online is Whitehall's reluctance to change its ways. Doing so would make more information available, thereby reducing its influence and perhaps the number of civil servants needed. But Wyatt says: "If you're going to modernise the country you have to start with modernising the Civil Service."

In the Commons debate, Wyatt also floated the idea of giving every one of the UK's 23.5 million households a PC or network computer with Net access, paid for by National Lottery funds - he told MPs that "it would cost no more than the Millennium Dome and be a better use of the cash".

Wyatt says another big stumbling block is the Government's failure to realise the new faster, broadband connections to the Internet. He has yet to convince the decision-makers of its importance and attributes this failure to "ignorance". However, he hopes that continuing discussions with two Ministers might soon produce a solution.

The government aims to do 25 per cent of its business electronically, but Wyatt questions how this can be achieved without a co-ordinated networking strategy.

The same is true of the National Grid for Learning. In his view, the network should be built from the centre out, not the other way around. "A local mosaic is not a national grid and never will be. A local patchwork scenario will make it virtually impossible to link into a national grid," he says. Wyatt suggests making local libraries or post offices the local hubs that would feed into the grid. "If you don't have that, in three or four years there will be overload."

He believes that Charles Clarke - who Tony Blair has charged with responsibility for getting the network up and running - is sympathetic to his concept of how the grid should operate.

As well as annoying some civil servants, Wyatt will win no friends at BT when he says that it should give schools free Net access. He points out that this would put pressure on the entire telephone network, which is another argument in favour of developing a broadband solution.

His vision would be to emulate the ITV network structure, with a nerve centre making strategic decisions about content and regional franchise holders made up of groups of firms, such as broadcasters, utilities and telecommunications companies, providing the necessary network infrastructure. Wyatt says Lord Puttnam, a education adviser to the Government, is particularly interested in the idea - especially because it would not involve Government funding.

There is no doubting Wyatt's enthusiasm for initiatives such as the National Grid for Learning. He is a strong ally for those trying to ensure British schools take their rightful place on the information superhighway.

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