Nick Fletcher: After the pandemic, large companies need to take more corporate responsibility

17 Apr

Nick Fletcher is MP for Don Valley.

Since the imposition of the first lockdown in March last year, our high streets have suffered enormously while online retail outlets such as Amazon have made huge profits.

I am in no way wholly against internet shopping, and I am pleased that the Housing Secretary also recognises that how we use our high streets will change over the coming years.

That said, polling data and my own experience with constituents demonstrate that the public wants to keep our high streets and believe that the companies who have been able to profit from the lack of competition now must give back more to the communities they serve.

In other words, such online business giants need to revisit what it means to be corporately responsible and how that can be best put into practice.

My feeling that this is more necessary than ever was sparked by the opening of the first Amazon shop in London in March. While some business commentators were eager to promote the concept, I am deeply concerned that the opening of this kind of store will have a negative impact on our society. The store that opened in London last month only requires a customer to pick up an item and leave. They are monitored by CCTV and charged for what they picked up accordingly.

While some may admire such a shopping experience’s supposed efficiency, this experience requires no interaction whatsoever. Is this what the public wants or needs, as we come out of over 12 months of lockdowns and isolation?

Stores such as these will exacerbate the decline of high street shops. The decline of the British high street has long been an issue but was made worse by the pandemic. Even more worryingly, the nature of the Amazon store will lower customer satisfaction and maintain the sense of social isolation that many have been feeling over the past twelve months.

As a Conservative, who believes in the necessity and utility of societal bonds, I firmly believe that we cannot allow huge corporations to create a dystopian environment where individuals speak to each other less and less, and are merely atoms within a system where everything is transacted on one’s phone.

The high street was in serious trouble before the pandemic. But Covid-19 has done a tremendous amount of damage. According to the Local Data Company (LDC), in 2020 more than 11,000 outlets permanently disappeared from UK streets. It is expected that this will continue, with 18,000 more shops, restaurants and leisure outlets potentially being vacated by the end of this year.

Yet if we are to turn the tide of this, and help rejuvenate our battered streets, these new Amazon stores, or similar ones like it, are not the way to go.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, a system that enables customers to come into a store and order anything they need will decimate the surrounding independent or more specialist stores within the vicinity. The rise of the Amazon store will do to our DIY stores and phone shops what the supermarkets did to our butchers, grocers and fishmongers. However, the scale of damage will be even more significant and will risk turning our high streets into nothing less than wind-swept, uninviting pickup centres.

While of course, I welcome that companies such as Amazon want to invest in our high streets, a far better approach would be for Amazon to open shops that showcased new products rather than selling ones in the store. This would still benefit the company, with consumers being able to try out or inspect new products, which if they liked, they could go home and order as usual. This approach would be the best of both worlds. It would enable Amazon to showcase its new products while also ensuring that its store did not suck up business from the smaller stores close by.

Some may argue that such an approach would be backward thinking and unattractive to consumers. However, rather than it being backwards, it is instead a reasonable compromise. Not least because data shows that consumers themselves are increasingly against any moves to increased automate of their shopping experience.

In a survey of 340 people by marketing agency iD, 70 per cent of respondents said that digital experiences do not compare with the ‘real thing’. Furthermore, the BBC’s research in 2017 was clear in its conclusion that most customers dislike self-checkouts and prefer proper, more traditional customer interactions. Limiting the amount of social interaction between shop staff and customers is therefore not wanted by consumers themselves. If we are to revive the high street in the pandemic, it would be nonsensical for the next breed of shops that emerge to be ones such as the new Amazon shop.

This brings me to my second reason for opposing the concept of the new Amazon store, and why I believe that further such stores of this nature are damaging. Not only will such stores accelerate the decline of the high street by making surrounding shops redundant and the shopping experience unpleasurable, but they shall also further exacerbate feelings of social isolation. This is something which large companies should avoid.

The shopping experience offered by the new Amazon store will no doubt further feelings of isolation, which are currently at dangerously high levels. According to a survey of over 4,000 adults by the Mental Health Foundation, the number of people in the UK experiencing feelings of loneliness has more than doubled since March last year, with a quarter of the 4,251 adults surveyed in February saying they felt lonely. This compared with only ten per cent in March 2020. Among young people, a staggering 48 per cent reported feeling alone, as lockdowns affected young people the hardest when it came to loneliness.

I am sure that most people will agree that these are troubling statistics, and we should not be encouraging large companies to employ business practices that make such figures even worse.

Instead, companies such as Amazon, who have done well out of the pandemic, should now be expected by Government and wider society not just to make a profit, but to think about how they can be corporately responsible as we come out of it. With the public concerned both about the future of the high street and increasing social atomisation, it is only right that we expect business giants such as Amazon to think more about the society and economy that they are building.

If we don’t push such companies to act responsibly, the consequences will be unfortunate, if not dire.

Nick Fletcher: Ministers must do more to strike the right balance between health and happiness

30 Oct

Nick Fletcher is MP for Don Valley.

I heard some time ago from a constituent of mine that the Government’s role, above everything else, was to keep its people safe and happy.

I can understand the view that the Government has a duty to keep people safe. After all, for most people, the very reason for the state is to ensure that life is not, as the saying goes, “nasty, brutish and short”.

In many ways, this is still one of the top priorities of the state. Keeping us safe from war, safe from starvation, safe when on the roads, streets and in our homes. We take this as a given, and rightly so.

More difficult a question is whether the Government has to ensure that people are kept happy. With human nature being so complex, the ability for a government to successfully pursue such a policy will always be questionable. In my view, and in the view of most ordinary people, ensuring happiness is usually the role of the individual.

Yet as the Covid-19 pandemic lingers on, it is clear that the belief that the state must also ensure the happiness of individuals has now crept into our public discourse.

I don’t believe in reliance on luck for happiness. Instead, I think that individuals must forge their own paths. They must make decisions and take ownership of their own futures. There are various ways in which any government can help remove obstacles for people and make some aspects of life smoother. Yet as happiness is such a subjective feeling, it may only be made possible by ensuring liberty and giving people choice.

If one of the roles of Government is to make people happy, the best (and arguably only way) this can be achieved is through preserving liberty so people can take charge of their own lives and make their own decisions.

During the pandemic, my views on this issue have only been reaffirmed. Currently, my constituents are roughly split into two camps: those who wish to open the country up again for their mental wellbeing, and those who are concerned about the increasing numbers of Covid cases. Half in the people of Don Valley want the Government to maintain or even reintroduce previous restrictions. The other half, meanwhile, want to have their freedom restored so they can do things which make them happy.

In these circumstances, the Government faces a significant dilemma. Yet it must not become a nanny state and appeal to only one faction – those who wish to be safe. Instead, there is another strategy which I believe the Government should pursue. It should introduce flexible measures which both keep people safe and allow others to pursue what they want to do. If we allow the vulnerable to shield and continue working from home, and the non-vulnerable to go about their business, then we will both save lives and preserve people’s liberties.

It is so essential both that those who want to be kept safe from the virus do not spoil the freedom of others, and those who want to go out respect the concerns of those shielding. This ensures that the vulnerable are safe, but by preserving liberty, it also allows other individuals to pursue activities which make them happy.

Would such a strategy be complicated? Perhaps. Yet those who felt threatened by the virus would feel safe, while those who felt that their liberty was threatened would feel reassured. In other words, both sides would be satisfied, and the Government could carry out the duties my constituent believes it should: keeping us all safe and happy.

Nick Fletcher: How the Government can and should act now to protect young people from exploitation by porn

19 Oct

Nick Fletcher is MP for Don Valley.

The question of online safety is one of the significant challenges of our times. In the Conservative Party’s 2015 Manifesto, we promised to change the law to require the provision of robust age verification checks on pornographic websites.

The Government of the day then fulfilled this promise through Part Three of the Digital Economy Act 2017. In doing so, become we became the first country in the world to adopt a bold, innovative approach to protect children. Yet despite this, the age verification scheme set out in Part Three is still not in place.

This matters enormously because there is a growing evidence base detailing the effects pornography is having and will continue to have, on young people especially.

For example, a recent study by the British Board of Film Classification suggests that children and teenagers are stumbling across online pornography in some cases as young as seven or eight. More than half of 11-13-year olds reported that they’d seen pornography at some point and 62 per cent of 11-13-year olds who had seen pornography said the first time was ‘accidental’.

This problem is widespread, too. A major study in 2016 by the NSPCC showed more than half of 11-16-year olds had viewed explicit content online.

We also know that watching porn can shape and influence how a young person understands healthy sex and relationships. This is because, as The Children’s Society explains, “people under 18 are still in the stages of cognitive development and may not be able to separate the images they see through pornography and how they act in their everyday life.”

This is demonstrated in polling. For example, a survey by the NSPCC found that more than 87 per cent of boys and 77 per cent of girls surveyed “felt pornography failed to help them understand consent.” Forty-one per cent of young people who knew about porn also agreed it made people less respectful to the opposite sex.

In this context, it is disappointing that we did not persevere to introduce robust age verification controls on online pornography last year. This is particularly poignant, as the UK was poised to become the first country in the world to introduce these controls and take a giant leap forward in the protection of children online not just in the UK but across the world.

MPs and Peers had rigorously debated the impact of age verification. I have to admit that even I had doubts about whether age verification technology would prove effective. Yet having spoken to several policymakers in this field, it is evident that the technology would work.

I am also told that everything was also ready to implement these necessary safeguards. The British Board of Film Classification was appointed the independent regulator in February 2018, and both the Commons and the Lords had approved the age verification scheme.

Yet the Government decided not to proceed with the policy in October 2019, saying that they wanted to deal with children’s access to online porn as part of a new, more comprehensive Online Harms Bill tackling all online harms.

Yet new polling by Savanta ComRes shows that while the public do not object to the proposed Online Harms Bill, they are not wholly satisfied with this arrangement. For example, when asked last month what was closer to their position, 63 per cent of the 2,100+ adults polled said they thought the Government should get on and introduce age verification right away, rather than wait any longer, and implement additional protections against other online harms when they are ready.

Meanwhile, only 21 per cent thought the Government should wait for the new Online Harms Bill to introduce protections against all online harms at the same time. Indeed, when one excludes the ‘don’t knows’ (15 per cent) and looks at those with a firm view, 74 per cent said the Government should get on with implementing Part Three now. This is a position which I also agree with.

Equally, we also must recognise that the world has changed considerably since October 2019. After all, if the Government had implemented Part Three in October last year, children would have been better protected throughout lockdown.

Furthermore, Coronavirus has also presumably stalled the progress of the Online Harms Bill. This is particularly relevant because the decision not to implement Part Three was justified as the new Bill was anticipated to be available in early 2020 for pre-legislative scrutiny. Yet it failed to materialise. In fact, due to the ongoing situation, the Government has not been able to publish its full response to its consultation on its Online Harms White Paper, which closed on 1 July 2019.

In the context of this changing world, the old strategy has therefore been overtaken by events.

Consequently, even if a new bill were published tomorrow, it would still be imperative to implement Part Three immediately because it would take two or three years for a new Bill to be scrutinised and passed and the relevant secondary legislation, developed, scrutinised, passed and then implemented.

The truth is that we can protect children from commercial pornography sites now through Part Three of the Digital Economy Act and should do so. Everything is in place for age verification to be introduced. The necessary legislative framework is there on the statute book. The relevant technology is ready. More importantly, the public wants it. As such, I believe it is imperative that the Government should fulfil its objective to make the UK a world leader in online safety.