There have been 2 exchanges involving Jon Cruddas and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
|Mon 11th January 2021||Supporting the UK’s Social Fabric||4 interactions (1,282 words)|
|Thu 3rd October 2019||Internet of Things: Regulation (Westminster Hall)||7 interactions (1,630 words)|
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate him on securing the debate. I very much agree with what he says. Doe he agree that the charitable sector is a foundational partner in the make-up of the UK and that churches and community groups need help at this time to set up online and effective ways of carrying on their sterling work? While it is great to see some churches running online youth quizzes, for example, for others the technology is simply out of their reach, and they need help to purchase and use it. Does he agree that we should be encouraging churches and community groups to be more involved? Perhaps the Minister can ensure that that happens.
I am pleased to be able contribute to this important debate and pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) for securing it. I am a great admirer of him, his work and his world view, which I find I largely share. I think of him as a great conservative, despite what he just said, and am pleased to be working with him on the Onward panel. I join him in endorsing the report that is to be published tomorrow and congratulate the team who have put it together.
This is a topical and important debate, and not just because what we call social fabric is a “nice to have” that everybody agrees with—we all like village halls, Girl Guides and so on. This agenda is profoundly important to the future of our country, partly for the obvious reason that what people want above all else is strong communities—we derive huge value personally from the strength of our neighbourhoods—but, more profoundly, this debate matters because what we call social fabric is in fact the foundation of our prosperity.
The House has just spent the afternoon debating global Britain; I am not sure that this topic was discussed, but the source of our prosperity as a country and, indeed, our offer to the world is in our local communities. We became the world’s first industrial power because we had a culture that enables co-operation, shared values and the moral sentiments that underpin free markets. These are possible only because people trust each other. The country is made up of the communities within it, and our responsibility as politicians is to strengthen our communities and strengthen the foundations of our national prosperity.
The hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham spoke about his constituency in east London, which is obviously a place quite different from Devizes—he said that it began in 1921; we trace our origins to 4,000 BC, when the first prehistoric Neolithic structures were erected in my bit of Wiltshire—but actually there are many similarities. We, too, have entrenched social challenges: rural poverty and social isolation are particularly vicious because they are often hidden. Also like Dagenham, however, we have tremendous organisations and there is a very strong community that is responding to the challenges. I pay particular tribute to Community First and the Wiltshire Community Foundation, which I am privileged to work with.
Devizes is a place where people take responsibility for themselves and for their neighbours, as we are seeing now in the rush to get people vaccinated. On Friday, I spoke to three long-established family businesses in the constituency: T. H. White agricultural engineers, Gaiger Brothers builders and the brewers Wadworth. All three are suffering—naturally, as businesses are during this crisis—but all volunteered to help to put out the word among their workers, and in some cases paid their employees to help drive people to vaccination centres in the weeks and months ahead.
We need to trust in the spontaneous energies of communities, as I have described, but we also need to recognise that activity of that sort does not just happen. If we want more of it, especially in more disadvantaged places, we need to take action and the Government have a responsibility. Let us recognise what has happened over recent decades. As the Onward research demonstrates, our social fabric has grown threadbare over recent decades. Since 2000, a quarter of all pubs throughout the country have closed, and a quarter of all post offices and a fifth of all libraries have shut their doors. Partly that is because of how we all now work, shop and socialise—the changes in our economy and our society—and partly it is because of funding cuts, especially since 2010. I want to acknowledge that: I recognise that austerity fell most harshly on local government, which then cut non-statutory services the most. Youth services, which I worked in during those years, fell away particularly sharply—some estimates suggest that 70% of funding for youth services was cut in the 2010s. So what do we do? Well, we do need more public funding. I particularly welcome the investments that the Government have made. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been committed to youth services. During the pandemic, in the first lockdown last year, there was £750 million of emergency funding for civil society and for charities.
I pay tribute to the work that the Minister for Civil Society, Baroness Barran, and the Ministers in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport are doing to support the charity sector. I would, of course, welcome more funding. I have called very specifically for a new endowment funded from dormant assets, which are potentially worth many billions of pounds, to finance social infrastructure and community projects. I also hope that the new levelling-up fund, announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor at the spending review in November, will live up to its billing and help support the infrastructure of everyday life, which means, in my view, not just trains and broadband, vital as those things are, but also the libraries, the youth clubs and the social enterprises that bind places together. In fact, broadband is a big part of the social fabric. I hope that we can do a deal with tech firms to get our communities properly connected. I see a major role for libraries in particular as the hubs of digitally connected local communities.
Finally, on money, I welcome the kickstart scheme that the Government have announced. Along with Onward and other colleagues, I hope that we can adapt that scheme, perhaps combining it with the National Citizen Service, to create a more ambitious project that funds young people, especially those who have suffered with all the disruption to education during this crisis, and those who will suffer from the downturn in the labour market in the months ahead. We need to fund those young people to work on social and environmental projects in their communities.
To finish, whatever we do with public money, there is something more important that we need to get right: the question of power—who is making the decisions about how money is spent and how services are organised locally. We are one of the most centralised countries in the developed world. To my mind, taking back control was not just about Brussels. If all we do now is bring power back to Westminster, as we have done, we will have failed the people of this country. That, Madam Deputy Speaker, is why I think the social fabric agenda is so significant: we need to put the power to determine what happens locally in the hands of local people. The Onward report makes a number of recommendations along those lines and I made some in my report last year. We are in the midst of a great constitutional change: the restoration of power to the UK. We need to restore power to the communities, too.
I welcome this debate. I thank my friend, the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham for what he called this cross-party conversation. I hope that we can go beyond that. The battle for politics should be over this agenda. We should be fighting in this place about who owns the community agenda, and I think that my party has a very good claim to that.
That is another excellent intervention from my hon. Friend. I look forward to the Minister’s response about facial recognition technology and consent.
I have asked the Minister nine questions and here is the 10th and final one: can we have a comprehensive forward-looking review of digital rights and responsibilities to deliver a regulatory framework fit for the future, which encompasses data rights and delivers an internet of things security architecture in which citizens can have confidence?
I hope that the Minister noted that when US presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren talks of regulating the tech giants for the benefit of consumers Facebook trembles—so much that Mark Zuckerberg has promised to “go to the mat” and fight her over it. However, when the Prime Minister talks about “pink-eyed terminators” the world laughs. That matters, particularly as the Minister advocates a hard Brexit, after which we would not have the support of our European friends and colleagues in establishing internet of things regulation.
The internet of things could represent a more profound technological change than anything since electricity, as I have said. To make it work we need to understand the problems that it raises, and lay out a clear framework for technology companies to work in. However, to take advantage of the changes, we need a Government who understand the opportunities of the internet of things, and who work with industry to mitigate the threats. That is a question not primarily of technology but of standards, interoperability, protocols, control, industry co-operation, self-regulation, legislation and enforcement. If we get that right we can look forward not just to a future of the internet of things but to a prosperous future of innovation that works for all, and things that have yet to be thought of, the benefits of which will be shared by everyone.
I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent remarks, which cover the ethical debate about technology that we too rarely have about the internet of things. One example of the approach he describes—the idea that technology can solve all our problems—is the proposals for alternative arrangements on the island of Ireland, which I understand are being driven by blockchain and other technologies that the Government are not fully familiar with. That libertarian idea that technology is the answer to everything has driven our regulatory approach for too long, so he is right to say that we need experts on technology who can stand up for and consider its future applications from the point of view of society and citizens.
My hon. Friend is making excellent points. Although my remarks on Brexit and technology were limited, I want to emphasise his point. If we agree that part of the Brexit vote was based on people’s sense of disconnect from Brussels and the corridors of power, how much greater will that sense of disconnect be when all decisions are made through technology that monitors but is not under the control of the people?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate my friend the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), with whom I serve on the all-party parliamentary group for Africa, on securing this debate and being very fleet of foot in doing so. Of course, we were not supposed to be meeting this week, so goodness knows when she might have had time to secure the debate otherwise. It has been a pretty profound and comprehensive debate, and there is plenty for the Minister to respond to, so I do not want to take desperately long in reflecting as the Scottish National party spokesperson. However, given that we started with some debate about the industrial revolution, I remind Members that if they care to take a stroll through Glasgow Green, they will find the boulder that commemorates the spot where James Watt conceived of the condensing steam engine, and much has flown from there.