Jon Cruddas debates involving the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

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)

Supporting the UK’s Social Fabric

Jon Cruddas Excerpts
Monday 11th January 2021

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Jon Cruddas Portrait Jon Cruddas (Dagenham and Rainham) (Lab)
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I rise to speak about tomorrow’s publication from the think-tank Onward entitled “The Policies of Belonging”, which is part of its “Repairing our social fabric” programme. To avoid any confusion, I am well aware that Onward seeks to develop new ideas for the next generation of centre-right thinkers and leaders. Clearly, that does not include me—at least I hope it does not—and I might therefore be expected to use my time to attack the report and suggest it is part of a right-wing plot to dismantle the social fabric and ensure there is no such thing as society. On the contrary, I am here to welcome this piece of work and to congratulate the project’s supporting partners, which include the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Power to Change and Shelter. This work could well provide the basis for a new cross-party conversation about how we rebuild the social character of the country as we emerge from the pandemic.

It is in that spirit of across-the-aisle co-operation that I have given half my time in this short debate to the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger). The paper he produced last September proposing a new social covenant and tomorrow’s report are thoughtful contributions on how we rebuild our country in the tough years that lie ahead. They both deserve a wide audience across all parties. However, the danger is that we relegate such thinking in preference to economic policy. This remains an historic tendency in both of our political traditions, despite what we know about how people wish to live and what they value, which stretches beyond questions of GDP, utility and economic calculus.

Last year, Onward introduced its UK social fabric index, which measures the relative social strength of every community in Britain, a significant new metric for politicians and public policy makers alike. Its covid-19 community report highlighted resilient local responses to the pandemic over the past 10 months, yet also detailed the limited opportunities for communities to genuinely take back control. The overall argument is quite simple but telling: the social divides that bedevil our country are just as strong as the economic divides. Talk of levelling up, therefore, needs to encompass social as well as economic policy.

A desire to level up communities is not new. It has informed, among others, the community development projects of Harold Wilson, the single regeneration budgets of John Major, and Tony Blair’s new deal for communities. Yet none of those has unlocked the way we level up communities, not least, arguably, because of an overreliance on economic issues. In truth, politicians tend to gravitate towards grant funding issues, job creation schemes and physical infrastructure to foster community. We are most comfortable with that agenda. A more sustainable proposal would be to empower communities to respond themselves and endow them with the resources to do so.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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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.

Jon Cruddas Portrait Jon Cruddas
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I very much agree, and that is the tenor of much of the report being published tomorrow morning, so I urge the hon. Member to read it. The charitable sector and faith groups have been on the frontline of confronting the pandemic in my community, and I will comment on that in a minute.

All the evidence suggests that citizens want the power and responsibility to revive their communities, so how can that be achieved? The report suggests, first, giving individuals the power to repair their social fabric through civic sabbaticals, youth-serving years, character education and new permanent volunteer schemes; secondly, giving individuals the capital to do so through new tax changes to support individual activities, reform of precarious housing, funds to support new civic leadership and adapting the apprenticeship levy; thirdly, giving communities the power to repair their social fabric with community improvement districts, new community councils, business rate exemptions and the reuse of empty buildings and shops; and fourthly, giving communities the capital to do so, controlled by the community themselves, with new social infrastructure funds, higher education reforms, community land trusts and charitable enterprise zones. The 17 specific policy recommendations are well worth a read tomorrow.

This year could well shape a new cross-party dialogue about rebuilding our communities. As the MP for Dagenham, I feel that 2021 is an important year to have such a debate, as it marks our centenary. Modern Dagenham was literally built or born on 7 November 1921, when the first house on the Becontree estate was completed. Some 27,000 homes containing over 100,000 residents would follow, spread over 2,700 acres or 4 square miles, building the largest council estate in the world—a unique experiment: a state-led cottage community built from nothing. It was Lloyd George making good on his promise made immediately after the armistice to build

“habitations for the heroes who have won the war”.

The first migrants felt like pioneers, moving from east end slums into a muddy and empty wilderness, but a resilient community was created. Indeed, by the 1950s and ’60s, analysts from the Institute of Community Studies—now the Young Foundation—regularly used the estate to extol the virtues of settled extended working-class families, yet the twin effects of deindustrialisation and the right to buy dismantled a once stable community. We became, and still are, the fastest-changing community in the country, driven by the cheapest housing in London.

Today, in our centenary year, we are seeking to forge new partnerships to re-establish that sense of community, and we are having some success. Traditionally, the community sector has been weak, but the council has recently worked to change its structures and culture and to work with and support the community in new ways that are more participatory and less paternalistic. Local services have been made less siloed and more friendly and integrated through an initiative labelled “community solutions”. We have invested in London’s first youth zone. BD_Collective has been formed, which is an independent platform for local civil society that now provides the borough’s infrastructure support in terms of civic and social support. We have Participatory City, a £7 million five-year experiment launched in 2017 to foster new forms of community activity. With four shop fronts and a large warehouse, it delivers scores of new community projects among a growing network of over 5,000 local people. We also have Collaborate, supported by Lankelly Chase, which helps to guide the local community on place-based change.

When the pandemic struck, all this came together in an alliance of council, voluntary and faith organisations organised through nine local community hubs, labelled the Barking and Dagenham Citizens Alliance Network, to help the most vulnerable. Approaching 6,000 families have been helped with food, medicines, prescriptions, referrals and advice. Just days ago, it was announced that borough community organisations are set to benefit from a new endowment fund transferred by the council to a place-based charity called Barking and Dagenham Giving—the first authority in London to permanently endow such a fund in support of local community groups—with an additional investment of over £800,000, to be topped up annually.

In Dagenham’s centenary year, major new initiatives are helping to rebuild our social fabric, but the Government need to do more to help us. The social fabric of Britain frayed after years of neglect. The ties that bind us together are in urgent need of repair. The best way to honour our collective sacrifice over the past 10 months would be to endow communities with the resources to foster a more civic culture. The agenda published tomorrow by Onward to repair our social fabric is a major step in that regard. As we enter—hopefully—our final lockdown, we should resolve to repair the social fabric on which we all rely. There would be no better monument to the hardship and heartache of the past year. I now give some time for the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger).

Danny Kruger Portrait Danny Kruger (Devizes) (Con) [V]
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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.

Internet of Things: Regulation

Jon Cruddas Excerpts
Thursday 3rd October 2019

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
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3 Oct 2019, 3:32 p.m.

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.

Jon Cruddas Portrait Jon Cruddas (Dagenham and Rainham) (Lab)
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3 Oct 2019, 3:34 p.m.

I, too, look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to all those questions in a few minutes’ time. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on securing the debate, which covers some of the most challenging issues that society— indeed, humanity—will face over the coming years, many of which are rarely discussed in Parliament. Her speech was quite brilliant.

The internet of things is such a vast subject that it is difficult to know where to start, but I will restrict myself to the ethical questions that underlie the regulation issues that my hon. Friend spoke about, given the epochal technological challenges. In a general sense, many challenges that the country faces appear inversely related to our capacity as politicians to properly discuss them, let alone resolve them. Increasingly, liberal democracies appear unable to navigate the complexities of the modern world. One obvious example is the escalating authoritarianism across Europe and the globe—where is the political diagnosis and response to it, and where is the defence of liberal democracy? To give another example, do we really talk, post referendum, about the issues and feelings that ushered in the referendum, or are we preoccupied instead with the technical aspects of Brexit?

Maybe politics has lost its ethical grip and become too technocratic, and maybe today’s populism is a backlash against that managerialism. Maybe we require a different conversation that addresses moral and ethical questions about the lives that people wish to live. I realise that that point appears unrelated to questions of robotics, the internet of things and artificial intelligence, but I would argue that it is imperative to embed our discussion of those technological changes in a deeper conversation. I welcome this debate because maybe we can start that conversation—arguably the most profound conversation that confronts us as politicians and public policy makers in this country and across the planet.

Whether the forecasts are apocalyptic or utopian, no one doubts the significance of artificial intelligence and the internet of things. They have the potential to affect all aspects of policy, from education to the labour market, and from policing to health and social care. However, much of the current political thinking about artificial intelligence is reactive and geared simply towards ensuring that Britain is at the forefront of technological change—we might describe that as the utilitarian approach. Maybe we should begin instead by discussing what role technology should and should not play in our societies, our workplaces and our personal lives. That departure point would be different from the one that tends to dominate the utilitarian approach: instead of focusing simply on utility or economic benefit to Britain plc, it would focus on justice and how society should be organised.

Shrinking the political debate down to technical rather than ethical terms is especially dangerous in this area of technological change, owing to our lack of expertise in it—notwithstanding some notable exceptions, some of whom have just spoken. For example, being unable to evaluate the claims of developers or independently discern the likely outcomes and risks of their products means that politicians and the public are prone to being swayed by either apocalyptic or utopian technological narratives. Many technologists have bought into what has been termed technosolutionism: the idea that all problems that humanity faces can be solved using technology—even those that technology has caused.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
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3 Oct 2019, 3:38 p.m.

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.

Jon Cruddas Portrait Jon Cruddas
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3 Oct 2019, 3:39 p.m.

That is bang on. For many in silicon valley, that confidence in the potential of technology goes hand in hand with a widespread libertarianism. As the role of technology and profit margin expands, so the role of the state should contract.

My hon. Friend did not mention those who come at the issues from a transhumanist approach. Modern transhumanism asserts that technological change creates the opportunity to transcend the human condition and become transhuman, and that that is to be celebrated, while resistance is deemed nostalgic or parochial. Politicians now and in the future will have to defend a discernible human condition in these debates, which will be a huge challenge.

For example, what happens when transhumanist thinking informs the technologists? Nick Bostrom is the director both of Humanity+, an international transhumanist organisation, and the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, which regularly produces policy recommendations for Government. The point is that politicians and policy makers need to avoid being captivated by the promise of technological progress without an appreciation of the philosophical assumptions that inform the thinking behind the policies being advocated by those with agendas. Consequently, philosophers such as Jürgen Habermas have argued that politicians and policy makers should maintain a “species ethic” when navigating this terrain. These are deep waters, yet such questions are not really addressed in modern political debate.

On a slightly more practical level, the potential risks of mismanaging artificial intelligence are phenomenal. The most obvious example is mass unemployment. It is not possible to pick up a newspaper without reading about the march of the robots and the end of work. Estimates of the proportion of jobs in the UK that could, over the next two decades, be replaced by artificial intelligence and related technologies range from some 22% to between 40% and 45%. There are a wide range of estimates—some of them quite dodgy—of future structural unemployment, and they point to a range of conflicting policy options, such as universal basic income versus full employment. That suggests a wider range of policy remedies, but we are not spending enough time scrutinising the assumptions and empirical data that underscore those policy debates. Maybe we should.

To give a further example, we have already seen data analytics being used malignly in targeted political campaigns, and that practice will become ever more sophisticated, at the expense of our democratic process. As has been mentioned, in the corporate world facial recognition software is now being trialled for the purpose of marketing, to detect the efficacy of an advert on the viewer by judging their facial expressions. Businesses now have the potential to reach into people’s lives in the way Orwell’s “1984” imagined for totalitarian regimes.

Similarly, we have seen the social media filter bubble effect on civic and social life. It feeds us information that aligns with our preconceived notions of the world, closing us off from any contradictory information. Perhaps in the future our children will ask why we as parents allowed them to be so unprotected against such technological power. Left unchallenged, future public debate will suffer from the ease with which fake news could be produced on an industrial scale, given that AI makes the processing and manipulating of all forms of digital data substantially easier and cheaper.

Our very knowledge of the world around us and notions of truth are at stake. That may seem melodramatic, but I do not think it is. The greatest threat to the established political parties, however, could come from the powerlessness and exclusion felt by many as they feel that decisions about them—from hiring, to policing, to insurance—are made by machines. In its evidence to the Lords inquiry into AI, Future Intelligence said that

“the most challenging point relating to AI and democracy is the lack of choice that is offered to the population at large about the adoption of technology. It is, to say the least, undemocratic”.

As wealth becomes increasingly concentrated in the hands of businesses that employ fewer and fewer humans, our society will be riven by inequality on a scale perhaps never before seen. Brexit pales by comparison.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
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3 Oct 2019, 3:44 p.m.

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?

Jon Cruddas Portrait Jon Cruddas
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3 Oct 2019, 3:47 p.m.

Exactly. These are essential issues for the democratic character of western market democracies. That takes us back to the question my hon. Friend asked the Minister about the Government’s proposed remedies and policies. As it stands, policy proposals to meet these challenges are phenomenally weak. For instance, they include developers undergoing training in ethics as part of their computer science degrees, companies ensuring that their workplaces are diverse, and individuals who are made redundant by AI, perhaps repeatedly, being able to train for a new career. As I mentioned earlier, universal basic income is one proposal floated to ensure that those who lose their jobs are not made destitute, but that would mean the state taking on a phenomenal welfare burden just at the time when fewer people were able to pay income tax. To make up the deficit, people such as Bill Gates have suggested a robot tax, but would we tax algorithms as well as robots? Trying to define a robot is a legal and regulatory nightmare.

Returning to the question of regulation, before we make good policy, perhaps we need to return to first principles, asking questions about the values we place on work, freedom, privacy, community and justice—in short, what we want our society to look like. From there, we can then discern the role that we wish to allocate to technology, rather than being seduced by the hype of novelty and processing power. We decide the ethical environment and responsibilities of technologists and their platforms, not vice versa. If we do not build policy on a well-defined vision of human flourishing, policy makers run the risk of slipping into techno- solutionism, thereby putting technological and economic progress above people, leaving them to become citizens of those corporations.

Alternatively, we could endorse a somewhat softer technological determinism and use policy only to manage what we euphemistically call “risk”, when what is really at stake is huge social issues: rising inequality, the accumulation of power in the hands of private companies and human dignity itself. Deeper political conversations are required about what constitutes a good life and a good society. That should inform our approach to regulation. We literally need to rethink human rights in a different way, in terms of the preservation of the species. Thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, we can start that conversation.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)
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3 Oct 2019, 3:47 p.m.

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.