Alan Mak: A week on from the Budget, it’s clear that it will boost innovation and productivity

10 Mar

Alan Mak is Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party, Co-Chairman of the Party’s Policy Board and MP for Havant

The pandemic has had a significant impact on the British economy. Over 700,000 people have tragically lost their jobs and the economy has shrunk by 10 per cent – the largest fall on record. And the impact could have been far worse had it not been for the Chancellor’s support schemes that have protected jobs and livelihoods throughout, from the furlough scheme to billions paid out in business grants and loans.

Last week’s Budget needed to continue this support for the economy in the short term. But crucially, it also needed to lay the foundations for building the economy of the future. What this country needs – and what Conservatives can wholeheartedly champion – is a robustly pro-growth, pro-enterprise and pro-innovation economy to turbo-charge our exit from the pandemic and help Britain lead the Fourth Industrial Revolution, all while remaining internationally competitive.

Last Wednesday, the Chancellor delivered, with a series of policies that will ensure technology and innovation are at the forefront of our economy. ConservativeHome readers agreed, overwhelmingly backing the Budget with 58 per cent saying it was “good” or “very good” in this site’s latest survey, as did voters polled by YouGov.

Last July, I proposed an IT scrappage & upgrade scheme to equip our promising start-ups, SMEs and scale-ups of tomorrow with better software and technology, in order to enhance productivity which has historically lagged behind our competitors. For years, governments have needed to target the least productive SMEs which have invested insufficiently in the latest software, automation or information technology. And too often, our brilliant small firms don’t have the time or resources to get the extra skills or technology tools they need to be more productive.

That’s why I warmly welcome the Chancellor’s two new Help to Grow schemes, specifically aimed at boosting the productivity of our small businesses. Help to Grow Management will help SMEs get world-class management training through government-funded programmes delivered through British business schools, with businesses contributing just £750 or 10 per cent of the cost of the course.

And Help to Grow Digital will level up the digital skills of our small businesses with vouchers entitling them to 50 per cent off the purchase of new productivity-enhancing software, up to a total of £5,000 each. Both these schemes are exactly what’s needed to tackle the UK’s longstanding productivity challenge, while laying strong foundations for the pro-growth future economy we all want to see.

The Budget went further by delivering other measures which high-growth, innovative companies should welcome. These businesses account for just one per cent of companies in the UK, but generate an amazing 80 per cent of our employment growth.

That’s why consultations to find ways to improve our research and development regime and reform the Enterprise Management Incentive scheme to support growing companies retain talent, are encouraging. Furthermore, ensuring firms have sufficient access to capital is vital, which is why the new Future Fund Breakthrough initiative, successor to the Future Fund, is welcome support for innovative tech businesses to access finance, match-funded by Government.

As the first MP of British-Chinese heritage, I also believe a global outlook and attracting world-class talent to the UK is pivotal to our future economic success. That’s why visa reforms aimed at making it easier for highly-skilled people to come to Britain are especially welcome. These include a new unsponsored points-based visa, and new simplified processes for scale-up founders and entrepreneurs.

These Budget measures to support our businesses and turbocharge our future economic growth build on the Treasury’s other impressive pandemic support schemes, such as extensions to the furlough scheme; temporary VAT cuts and business rates relief; two more self-employment grants; new recovery loans to help businesses access finance; and Restart grants of up to £18,000 for businesses who have been particularly hard hit. Overall, that’s over £400 billion of support this year and next to protect our economy.

I also welcomed the Chancellor’s frankness about the need to begin repairing our public finances. We cannot maintain the current levels of borrowing and debt and expect to be able to respond with another £400 billion when the next crisis hits. And as Conservatives, we believe in sound money and keeping our borrowing under control hence the Chancellor also explained why corporation tax is scheduled to rise for the biggest, most profitable businesses in two years’ time.

The unprecedented ‘Super Deduction’ policy to encourage companies to invest in capital assets such as new machinery – an effective tax cut worth around £25 billion – will also be key to incentivising our SMEs to adopt the latest productivity-enhancing technology. Last year I wrote about the dampening effect on capital expenditure (capex) and investment caused by Coronavirus already being large and destructive. The Bank of England predicted a 26 per cent drop in business investment for 2020. In 2009, as the financial crisis erupted, the fall was 16 per cent by comparison. The Super Deduction can help reverse the damage to our country’s technology base.

What we needed to hear from the Chancellor was a mixture of realism about keeping the economy going now, plus a dose of optimism for the future, by laying the groundwork for British businesses to lead the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We received both, building strong foundations for Britain’s growth and recovery.

Maria Miller: Death and rape threats, abuse, revenge porn. It’s time for Government to get tough with the social media giants.

28 Feb

Maria Miller is a former Culture Secretary, and is MP for Basingstoke.

I want 2021 to be the year that we finally grasp the nettle of online abuse – to create a safer, more respectful online environment, that will lead to a kinder politics too.

The need has never been greater. Abuse, bullying, and harassment on social media platforms is ruining lives, undermining our democracy, and splintering society.

As an MP, I have had to become accustomed to a regular bombardment of online verbal abuse, rape, and even death threats. In this I am far from alone. Female colleagues across the House are routinely targeted online with abusive, sexist, threatening comments. As Amnesty has shown, black female MPs are most likely to be subjected to unacceptable and even unlawful abuse.

And while women and people from an ethnic minority background are more likely than most to receive abuse online, they are not alone. Hate-filled trolls and disruptive spammers consider anyone with a social media presence to be fair game: one in four people have experienced some kind of abuse online and online bullying and harassment has been linked to increased rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.

While the personal impact of online abuse is intolerable, we must not underestimate the societal effect it is having. Research by the think-tank Compassion in Politics found that 27 per cent of people are put off posting on social media because of retributive abuse. We cannot have an open, honest, and pluralist political debate online in an atmosphere in which people are scared to speak up.

Which is why I am working cross-party with MPs and Peers to ensure that the upcoming Online Harms Bill is as effective as possible in tackling the scourge of online abuse.

First, the Bill must deal with the problem of anonymous social media accounts. Anonymous accounts generate the majority of the abuse and misinformation spread online and while people should have an option to act incognito on social media, the harm these accounts cause must be addressed.

I support a twin-track system: giving social media users the opportunity to create a “verified” account by supplying a piece of personal identification and the ability to filter out “unverified” accounts. This would give choice to verified users while continuing to offer protection to those, for example whistle blowers, who want to access social media anonymously.

The public back this idea. Polling by Opinium for Compassion in Politics reveals that 81 per cent of social media users would be willing to provide a piece of personal identification (passport, driving license or bank statement most probably) to gain a verified account. Three in four (72 per cent) believe that social media companies need to have a more interventionist role to wipe out the abuse on their platforms.

Of course, this approach would need to be coupled with enforcement ,and I believe that can be achieved by introducing a duty of care on social media companies, along the lines suggested in the Government’s White Paper.

For too long, they have escaped liability for the harm they cause by citing legal loopholes, arguing they are platforms for content not producers or publishers. The legal environment that has facilitated social media companies’ growth is not fit for purpose – it must change to better reflect their previously unimaginable reach and influence. Any company that sells a good to a customer already has to abide by health and safety standards, and there is no reason to exempt social media companies. Any failure by those companies to undertake effective measures to limit the impact of toxic accounts should result in legal sanctions.

Alongside a duty of care, we need more effective laws to give individuals protection, particularly when it comes to posting of images online without consent. Deepfake, revenge pornography and up-skirting are hideous inventions of the online world. I want new laws to make it a crime to post or threaten to post an intimate image without consent, and for victims to be offered the same anonymity as others subjected to a sexual offence, so we stop needing the law to play continuous ‘catch up’ as new forms of online abuse emerge.

Finally, the Government should make good on its promise to invest an independent organisation with the power and resources to regulate social media companies in the UK. All the signs suggest that Ofcom will be asked to undertake that role and I can see no problem with that proposal as long asthe company is given truly wide-ranging and independent powers, and personnel with the knowledge to tackle the social media giants.

In making these recommendations to Government, my intention is not to punish social media companies or to stifle online debate. Far from it. I want a more respectful, representative, and reasonable discourse online. So, let’s work together over the coming 12 months to make this Bill genuinely world-leading in the protection it will create for social media users, in the inclusivity it will foster, and respect it will engender.

George Freeman: The industrial strategy reforms I led helped to deliver Britain’s vaccine success. Now for the next phase.

1 Feb

George Freeman is a former Minister for Life Science and Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board (2016-18). He is co-author and editor of the 2020 Conservatives book Britain Beyond Brexit.

The combination of Covid-19 and the Crash of 2008 have left this country facing the most serious crisis in our public finances since 1776. Unless we make the post-Brexit, post-Covid recovery a transformational renaissance of enterprise & innovation on a par with that unlocked by Thatcher Governments of the 1980s, we risk a decade of high debts, rising interest rates and slow growth.

We have a truly unique opportunity before us. As a science and innovation superpower, with the City of London now outside the EU’s rules for the first time in nearly fifty years, we can unlock a New Elizabethan era of growth – with Britain a world-leader in global commercialisation of science, technology and innovation. It is what our entrepreneurs have been crying out for. Now is the moment to make it happen.

That’s why I’m delighted to have been asked by the Prime Minister to help set up the new Taskforce for Innovation and Growth through Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) with Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers.

Reporting directly to the Prime Minister & the Chancellor’s Cabinet Committee on deregulation, and supported by a secretariat in the Cabinet Office, the Taskforce will consider and recommend “quick wins” to use our new regulatory sovereignty to unlock high growth sectors of the economy to drive post-Brexit post-Covid recovery.

Rest assured: there will also be no big report or a thousand pages of footnotes to wade through. We will be crowd-sourcing the best ideas from the business community and the entrepreneurs and innovators who are the engine of our economy.

The Prime Minister has asked me to bring my career experience in business starting & financing high growth bioscience technology companies as well as my experience as Minister in Health, BEIS and Transport leading our groundbreaking Industrial Strategy for Life Science which has paid such dividends this year.

The reforms I led in our Industrial Strategy – launching Genomics England, the Early Access to Medicines Scheme, MHRA and NICE reform, Accelerated Access procurement have been fundamental to our ability to lead the world in developing a Covid vaccine.

We now need to make Brexit & Covid the catalyst for bold reforms to unlock big UK opportunities for recovery & GlobalBritain across a range of high-growth sectors such as those I have worked on extensively as both entrepreneur and Minister:?

  • LifeScience: harnessing the potential of the NHS as a research engine for new medicines, unlocking digital health & innovative approaches to Accelerated Access, clinical trials & value-based pricing.
  • Nutraceuticals: health-promoting “superfoods”, cannabis medicines.
  • AgriTech: smart clean green twenty-first farming technology like the blight resistant potato banned by the EU.
  • CleanTech: new biofuels, Carbon Capture & Storage & digital “smart grids” to reward households & businesses for generating more and using less.
  • BioSecurity: harnessing the potential of Porton Down and UK vaccine science for plant, animal & human biosecurity.
  • Digital: removing barriers to UK digital leadership outside the EU GDPR framework.
  • Hydrogen: using the full power of Gov to lead in this key sector as we did in genomics.
  • Mobility: making the UK a global test-bed for new mobility technologies,

Before being elected to Parliament, I spent 15 years working in life sciences around the Cambridge cluster, financing innovation. I saw time and time again how the best British entrepreneurs and their companies struggled to build business to scale here in the UK.

So often we have invented the technologies of the future and failed to commercialise them effectively.

After several years working as the Government Life Science Adviser, I published my report for the Fresh Start Group on The EU impact on Life Sciences: Avoiding the Global Slow Lane.

Three years before Brexit, the report was the first to highlight the growing hostility of the EU to ‘biotech’ and the increasing tide of ‘anti- biotech’ legislation – driven by a combination of the German Green Party, Catholic anti-science and lowest commons denominator regulation by the “precautionary principle” which was having a damaging effect on the Bioscience Economy and risked condemning the EU – and by extension the UK – to the global slow lane in biotechnology.

The report set out how the genomic revolution was beginning to offer untold opportunities across medicine and agriculture to help generate huge economic, social and political dividends for mankind. Billions of people were being liberated from the scourge of insufficient food, medicine and energy. The main threat to that? The EU’s hostile regulatory framework.

This was seen clearly in numerous case studies. At the time, the EU’s hostility to GM led German-based BASF and major U.S firm Monsanto to announce their withdrawal from Europe in agricultural research and development. My report argued that unless something was done soon, other companies would follow suit, with dire consequences for the UK Life Science sector.

The report recommended a shift away from the increasingly widely used risk-based ‘precautionary Principle’ and greater freedoms around data protection, using public healthcare systems to help accelerate early access to medical innovations, and for the UK to be able to ‘go it alone’ in designing appropriate regulatory frameworks for GM crops.

The UK’s departure from the laws and requirements of the EU provides us with a once-in-a-generation chance to redesign and improve our approach.

This new Taskforce, therefore, is emphatically not another long-term Whitehall de-regulation ‘initiative’. Neither is this is about cutting workers’ or environmental rights that we rightly guaranteed in the 2019 election manifesto.

It is of vital importance that the UK maintains the high regulatory standards that we have consistently championed. In some of the fastest growing new sectors like Digital Health, Nutraceuticals and Autonomous Vehicle Tech, clear global regulatory standards are key to investment confidence. By setting the new global standards here in the UK we can play a key role in leading whole new sectors.

But we must think innovatively about supporting businesses to start and grow, and make the most of the cutting-edge technologies and sectors we nurture in our universities for global impact. For example, why don’t we use our freedom to pioneer new disease and drought- resistant crops, and use our aid budget and variable tariffs to help create new global markets for UK Technology Transfer?

We won’t unlock a new era of the UK as an Innovation Nation generating the technologies and companies of tomorrow with technocratic tinkering. We need bold leadership, clear commercial vision and reforms to support innovation and enterprise. The two go hand in hand. We won’t unlock an innovation economy without an enterprise society. So we will need to look at tax and regulatory incentives for high risk start/ups like the “New Deal for New Businesses” I proposed back in 2010 to drive recovery after the Crash.

This is a once-in-a-generation moment. Together we must seize it.

Neil O’Brien: Five lessons from the pandemic

25 Jan

Neil O’Brien is co-Chairman of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board, and is MP for Harborough.

Planning for disaster

Years ago I was rummaging around in the basement of the Treasury and came across an old copy of the “War Book”: a big red tome setting out what to do in the event of nuclear attack.

Time had made some details rather quaint: if the Soviets were about to drop a trillion megatonnes of instant sunshine on Britain, I’m not sure “nationalise Girobank” would be the first thing on my to-do list.

But it was a huge, thorough plan. Each department had something similar.

Since the end of the cold war, thinking about civil contingencies has been lower priority. But our more connected world creates potential for new, faster crises.

Not just pandemics, but the financial contagion we saw in 2008. Our reliance on the internet, cloud, electric grid and GPS is increasing. More specialisation, plus more global chains of just-in-time production increase efficiency, but also fragility. You don’t have to be Martin Rees to think there’s new risks that we must plan against.

State capacity

It’s striking that the countries that did best in the Covid pandemic are those, like Taiwan and South Korea, which live under threat of annihilation by their neighbours. They’re dense, urban countries, but per head they had just three per cent and 0.1 per cent of the rate of cases seen in the EU.

Though we’re fastest in Europe, the world’s fastest vaccine rollout is in Israel – a country also under constant threat.

Other top performers include New Zealand and Australia.  They aren’t under such military threat, but have long been used to tough bio-borders. Australia went from one idiot releasing a couple of rabbits for fun, to having 600 million bunnies and having to build the world’s longest fence.  That was a pretty good early lesson about the exponential growth of a new organism introduced where there’s no predatorial ‘immune system’ to keep it in check.

New Zealand and Oz also imposed tough lockdowns in response to relatively few cases. At the time sceptics here said it was “absurd” and “out of proportion”. But our cousins were right, so they’ve been able to get back to normal faster. They basically followed the advice of Ripley in the movie Aliens: ‘nuke it from orbit – it’s the only way to be sure’.

Right across South East Asia and Australiasia, successful states have made their borders very tough. As vaccinations power ahead in the UK, we’re quite right to further toughen our borders against potential new vaccine-resistant variants. The cost of a vaccine dodging variant coming here would just be too high.

But there’s something more to learn from states that live under threat, about the need for state capacity.  Another top Covid performer is Singapore, where civil servants are very highly paid – but small in number, and low performers are managed out fast.  One reason the state shouldn’t be too big is exactly so that it can be strong and focussed.

China as number one

As people have pointed out, coronavirus has accelerated lots of trends: we’ve woken up in 2030. Paying for things is contactless. Videocalling friends is normal. More stuff is bought online. And China is closer to being number one.

Though some democracies managed the same feat, China’s brutal suppression of Covid-19 has been successful, meaning faster reopening, meaning the point where it becomes unambiguously the world’s largest economy is now only a few years away.

The last twelve months have seen Beijing start to throw its weight around more.

The west needs to get its act together urgently. There’s an internal economic challenge, to match their all-conquering innovation-industrial system. And a diplomatic challenge too, to reunite the democracies. At a China Research Group event last week with people close to the new Biden administration, it was clear that there’s an important role for the UK in making that happen.

Making a living

First it was the global scramble for masks and PPE.  Then ventillators.  Then diagnostics and testing kit. Now the global surge of demand for vaccine production and glass vials.

Again and again, the pandemic demonstrated why we need advanced manufacturing capacity: in a crisis, nations are utterly dependent without it.

To be sure, there were always other good reasons to back manufacturing.  Along with professional services, it’s the other part of the UK economy that really drives productivity growth: since 1997, manufacturing provided 40–50 per cent of productivity growth in places like Wales, the West Midlands and the North West.

But the pandemic underlines another reason to want such capacities here. When the international going gets tough, countries must be able to provide for themselves (topped up with firm agreements with allies for complex products).

This lesson is not lost on President Xi, who in a speech in April set out his “dual circulation” plan:

“we must build on our advantages, solidify and increase the leading international positions of strong industries, and forge some “assassin’s mace” technologies. We must sustain and enhance our superiority across the entire production chain… and we must tighten international production chains’ dependence on China.”

In case you were in any doubt, Xi also talked about “forming powerful countermeasures and deterrent capabilities based on artificially cutting off supply to foreigners”.

Since Margaret Thatcher left office, Britain has deindustrialised more than any other G20 country.

Perhaps it’s another area where we should learn from Asia: South Korea has nine times more robots per manufacturing worker than the UK, yet since the Lawson era the UK has slashed capital allowances which support such investment.

As a recent report for the Levelling Up Taskforce found, such allowances also tend to help poorer areas more.

Staying nimble

The Government was panned at the time for not joining the EU’s joint procurement of the vaccine.  But the team who secured more vaccine orders for the UK than any other large country showed the benefits of being small and agile.

We need to apply the same agility and flexibility to our exit from the pandemic.

I totally understand why people want to set hard dates to reopen. We are all desperate to get back to normality.

But there are so many unknowns: how fast cases will fall; what effect school reopening will have; how much protection people get from their first and second vaccinations; how much that stops the spread, not just symptoms; whether new vaccine-resisting strains come here; and how fast we can go on vaccinations…

Given all this we need to stay nimble in the final phase of this. On Friday we delivered 425,000 vaccination doses in England alone. Huge numbers of people are being protected each day.

We will soon jab our way to victory, and end this pandemic.

Afterwards, there’s all kinds of lessons we must learn from it.

Esther McVey: We should honour our manifesto commitment to close the digital divide. Especially during this time of Covid.

3 Dec

Esther McVey is a former Work and Pensions Secretary, and is MP for Tatton.

The country has just entered what is essentially a third lockdown. Ninety-nine per cent of the population is now in the highly restrictive Tier Two or Three until early February, along with all the huge damage that will continue to bring to people’s mental health and livelihoods. So it is desperately important that everyone is able to connect online.

Covid has speeded up the digital revolution that would have evolved over a longer period of time. GP appointments, business meetings and education have rapidly moved to online, and millions of us have stayed in touch by using video services for the first time. It is becoming more and more essential for people to be able to get online with a reliable online connection for vital day-to-day services like banking and shopping. Yet many are being left behind.

According to research by the Good Things Foundation, nine million people who struggle to use the internet independently have been locked out of this digital economy and are being left behind. Nearly 200,000 children in the UK have almost no connectivity at home, and had no hope of getting an education whilst schools were shut, and 23 per cent of children from the poorest families do not have access to broadband at home.

This digital poverty is hitting society’s most vulnerable the hardest. Millions of people have become completely disconnected from 2020 society, and if we want to kickstart our economy, and start digging our way out of the enormous economic difficulties we’re in, we need every part of our country and economy able to make the most of these enormous opportunities online, rather than leaving millions of people on the other side of the digital divide without internet access or training.

The Conservative Party pledged during the last general election to bring world class gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business across the UK by 2025. Despite the widespread availability of the so-called “super fast” broadband, many parts of country are experiencing quite the opposite: unreliable connectivity and slow speeds, especially in rural areas.

Many of my constituents in Tatton and across Cheshire have been told that their properties do not qualify for commercial rollout of broadband. Across my constituency, broadband accessibility varies from street to street, and in Tatton, only six per cent of my constituents’ homes and businesses currently have access to full fibre broadband. This postcode lottery is only reinforcing the digital divide and exacerbating digital poverty.

So it was particularly concerning to me that the Chancellor’s Spending Review quietly ditched the commitment for 100 per cent gigabit capability by 2025 and slashed the financial support for it by three quarters from £5 billion to £1.2 billion. Whilst the new £4 billion “levelling up fund” is welcome, rolling out broadband would itself facilitate social mobility, so this seems a wasted opportunity.

So I am calling on the government to do two things, which I will be raising in the House of Commons today as part of the Blue Collar Conservative campaign on fixing the digital divide.

First, we must honour our manifesto commitments to the millions of people across this country who put their trust in our Party, and commit once again to delivering full fibre by 2025. NHS Test and Trace relies on dependable broadband, as do the 1.62 million people (and rising) unemployed who have to use the Universal Credit benefit system, and my constituents’ quality of life is dependent on this internet access.

Second, if we’re going to lock people down again for the next two months, and ask people to work from home and isolate from family and friends, they must get the tools and the training so that they can stay both socially and economically active. We have suggested investment in a new “digital catch up scheme” which is ready to be implemented immediately and could allow everyone, whatever their background, the opportunity to make the most of their potential whilst life has to be spent online.

We were elected last year to “level up” opportunity throughout the country. Blue Collar Conservatives all over the Britain know that there’s as much genius and talent in the north as anywhere else, and our Party’s task is to ensure everyone has the opportunity to break free and make the most of those talents, and not be held back by their background, and not have to move south to fulfil their ambitions.

The levelling up agenda depends upon nation-wide digital inclusivity. If we give up on this manifesto commitment, fail to invest in our digital infrastructure, and refuse to take the urgent action necessary to level up and fix the digital divide, we will be trying to deliver the levelling up agenda with one hand held behind our back.

The Department for Digital, Housing, Communities and Local Government itself said that digital equality “can help mitigate some of the deep social inequalities derived from low incomes, poor health, limited skills or disabilities”.

These repeated lockdowns in 2020 will leave a lasting legacy. But as painful as the year has been, we have seen an unprecedented mass movement online, which has brought with it many innovations which will shape our lives and the way we work forever.

So it is more important than ever that we turn our attention to the number one infrastructure project as we move forward: digital connectivity and digital inclusivity. We must redouble our efforts to roll out full fibre broadband, whilst at the same time fixing the digital divide. Not doing so would betray the very communities this government was elected to deliver for.

Eleonora Harwich: What must be done to bolster our cyber security – and save lives

18 Oct

Eleonora Harwich is the Director of Research and Head of Tech Innovation at Reform.

Last month, a woman in Germany died as a result of a cyber attack. Hackers disabled the IT system at Düsseldorf University Hospital and the patient, who was supposed to receive a lifesaving treatment, could not be transferred to a different hospital in time to save her. The German police has opened a homicide investigation – the first known to be the result of a hack.

This incident in Germany serves as a reminder of the horrifying consequences that a cyber attack can have in a hospital setting. Yet too much of our public sector remains highly vulnerable.

Last week, the London Borough of Hackney suffered a serious cyber attack which halted many of its services. This example is part of a long list of attacks experienced by local councils and public services in recent months.

One of the key risks has been the massive uptick since March in people working from home. Covid-19 has led to almost 50 per cent of the UK workforce doing some form of remote working, including most civil servants and many others employed by the public sector.

A sizeable proportion are unlikely to be adhering to basic security protocols like two-factor authentication, and many may be using personal devices as opposed to office equipment. This significantly increases the risk of cyberattacks.

joint paper from the UK National Centre for Cyber Security and the equivalent body in the United States Department of Homeland Security warned in April that “malicious cyber actors are exploiting the current Covid-19 pandemic”, and in particular the vulnerabilities in home working. Interpol has reported an increase in cybercrime targeted at governments and critical health infrastructure since the start of the pandemic.

As was the case in Germany, these attacks can have very serious consequences for people’s lives. They can also be extremely costly for the public finances. In February, Redcar and Cleveland local authority suffered from a serious ransomware attack costing the council more than £10 million. The infamous WannaCry attack in the 2017, which led to around 19,000 appointments being cancelled, cost the NHS an eye-watering £92 million. Thankfully no deaths occurred as a result of the attack, but we may not be so fortunate in the future.

As the public sector increasingly digitises and collects more data about citizens, cyber security can no longer be seen as an add-on; it must be a core component of service delivery.

The UK is seen as a world leader in cyber security with its National Cyber Security Centre, two National Cyber Security Strategies and the Secure by Design guidance published by the the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

However, there is a gap between the available guidance and expertise held within these central bodies and what cyber security policies and practices actually look like on the ground.

Two years on from the ‘WannaCry attack’ last summer, over a million hospital computers were still running Windows 7, an operating system released a decade ago and no longer supported by Microsoft.

By July this year, following an offer of centrally funded Windows 10, 846,000 NHS computers had been fully upgraded. This suggests that there are still about 150,000 computers in the NHS which are using outdated and unsupported systems, and are therefore extremely vulnerable to hacks.

Dealing with legacy IT is only one of the challenges the public sector faces when it comes to cyber security.  Reform’s latest reportResilient public services in the age of cyber threats, highlights that skills, procurement and imbalances in knowledge sharing and communication between central and local levels of government are undermining cyber resilience.

According to the DCMS, 27 per cent of public sector organisations outside of central government departments, have a basic technical cyber security skills gap. Yet, a quarter of cyber leads do not even feel confident providing training materials or sessions to upskill their workforce.

The next National Cyber Security Strategy is due in 2021, and must have a strong focus on addressing this skills gap. It must also place a greater emphasis on basic cyber hygiene skills for all public sector professionals.

Reform recommends that the National Cyber Security Centre should increase the capacity of, and mandate attendance to, their cyber security training courses to anyone working in the public sector handling sensitive information. This would go some way in reducing the skills gap and ensure that data held by public sector bodies is handled securely.

Increasing the resilience of public services in the face of cyber threats also means adopting technology that has security built in. Yet it is currently very difficult for those procuring tech to know if what they are purchasing complies with the right security standards. A kitemark – akin to that used for food safety – would enable commissioners to purchase products confident that they meet government’s ‘secure by design’ guidelines.

Covid-19 has accelerated the digital transformation of public services – a positive legacy of this terrible crisis. But this also means that our public sector infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to those who wish to hack it – whether for financial gain or nation-state destabilisation.

Failing to act now to enhance cybersecurity and protect our essential services – from the NHS to the benefits system, prisons to social services – will come at a high cost. We do not want the second homicide investigation stemming from a cyber attack to be in the UK.

Claire Coutinho: Amidst the Great Global Data Divide, Britain must lead the charge for digital free markets

16 Oct

Claire Coutinho is MP for East Surrey.

As the world’s first industrialised nation, Britain knows the value of getting ahead of the economic curve. Access to natural resources like coal and oil have driven historic and economic revolutions, but in the future the fuel of our economy will be data.

Data flows are already estimated to be worth up to £3 trillion a year to the world’s economy. But a global divide is opening up between those leaning towards digital protectionism, like China and the EU, and those pioneering data agreements.

Where once we had the iron curtain, we now have digital drapes. We must reject this impulse and secure access to the resource that will drive our future growth. Pursuing freer digital markets can propel a great British leap forward. To achieve this, we must put ambitious digital chapters at the heart of our trading agenda.

The global data divide has been developing over many years. It sees some countries restrict the transfer of whole swathes of data, with others taking a far more open approach.

For China, its restrictions form part of its protectionist Made in China 2025 industrial strategy, as well as reinforcing its Great Firewall.

Others, such as New Zealand and Australia, have pioneered digital agreements to make it easier for their businesses to connect with new customers.

Britain is a services superpower. We are second only to the USA in our volume of exports. The sector contributes over 80 per cent of our economic output and employs 30 million people. Our data centres are world leaders, we have a global financial centre and thriving data-rich sectors like AI and fintech.

In 2018, the digital sector contributed £150 billion to the British economy, and grew at a rate almost six times faster than across the whole economy. As Britain flies the flag for free trade, ensuring the international free flow of data will be crucial to our future prosperity.

Digital Trade Agreements form the foundation of future services growth. Digital exports do not recognise geographic distance, which makes large markets on the other side of the globe even more appealing.

From facilitating e-contracts across borders, to preventing requirements for data to be stored domestically and allowing British companies to access foreign Government data, these agreements will be increasingly important for our services-driven trade. Regrettably, the global data divide is stymieing progress in international regulatory developments, leaving a void that will only become more pronounced.

Data localisation strikes at the heart of efficient business. Without locking in free dataflows, businesses in increasingly broad sectors would face the need for expensive data centres to operate abroad. In the long term, this would hit our national economy. In fact, the US Chamber of Commerce estimates that Chinese data protectionism will reduce its GDP by between 1.8 and 3.4 per cent by 2025.

As a leading digital economy with new control over its trade policy and an ambitious outlook, Britain is uniquely placed to help shape global rules in this emerging arena. A firm focus on digital trade will place Britain at the forefront in the sphere most crucial to the future success of our economy, and lock-in the digital freedoms that our businesses currently enjoy. The UK-Japan Free Trade Agreement stands us in good stead; going further than the EU-Japan deal and the Digital Economy Partership Agreement, it contains arguably the most wide-ranging and ambitious digital provisions of any agreement in the world.

Liz Truss is rightly focused on the Indo Pacific – the world’s fastest growing region. With plans to join the CPTPP, and trade negotiations underway with pioneers New Zealand, Australia and Singapore, Britain is right to side with digital free-traders. Digital Agreements in this region represent a significant opportunity for the UK, and one which we could not have pursued without leaving the EU.

The coming century will be dominated by data-dependent technology. Ensuring that our trade deals contain ambitious digital chapters will put us ahead of the economic curve, building firm foundations for future growth. Britain reaped great economic benefits from leading the first industrial revolution; we must ensure we are well placed for the next.

Iain Dale: If Milling isn’t up to being Party Chairman, why was she appointed in the first place?

9 Oct

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

I have to admit that I didn’t watch any of the Conservative virtual conference online. Judging by the number of registrations, it can be deemed a success. Twenty thousand people registered, and there were often more than 6,000 people watching.

I’m told fringe meetings proved more popular than the set-piece cabinet minister speeches (wasn’t it ever thus?) with some events, including those hosted by ConHome) attracting online audiences in four figures.

Given that normal fringe meetings might attract a couple of hundred people at most, this ought to give the conference organisers food for thought for the future. CCHQ told me this week that future conferences would almost certainly be hybrid events, and that’s exactly right. The more people who are able to take part, the better.

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Watching highlights of the US Vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, it almost seemed like normal politics had returned.

For the most part, the debate was conducted with mutual respect, good humour and dignity from both candidates. Yes, there were some interruptions, but that happens in debates. We had none of the abuse, insults and acrimony that characterised the debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden a week before.

And it wasn’t just the President who was guilty. We don’t know yet whether the next debate, due to take place in Florida next week, will go ahead. If it does, let’s hope that it’s more edifying than the first one.

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On Tuesday, I deputised for Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph.  I thought long and hard about writing what I did – but it had to be said.

I wrote about the role of the Party Chairman, and how its importance has diminished over the years, and how the present incumbent, Amanda Milling, was performing no useful role, except to travel the country and eat a few rubber chickens

It gave me no pleasure, and in many ways it’s not her fault. She’s performing the role dictated by Number Ten. She has no power to change anything, and scant little influence. Her co-chairman, Ben Elliot, is the one in control and we all know it.

The one role she could perform, but hasn’t got the experience to do, is to get out there on the media and be a lightning rod for the Prime Minister. That’s what Cecil Parkinson did. It’s what Norman Tebbit used to do. It’s what Brian Mawhinney did for John Major. And it’s what Brandon Lewis did for Theresa May.

Amanda Milling went on Any Questions last Friday, and proceeded to read out lines from her briefing notes. It was buttock-clenchingly embarrassing. A programme insider reckoned she was the worst guest they had had on in recent memory.

Again, in many ways, I don’t blame her for that. Everyone tells me that Milling was an excellent Deputy Chief Whip, but we all know that whips don’t do media, and don’t speak in the chamber.

So to appoint someone with little media experience as co-Party Chairman was bizarre to say the least. It did her no favours whatsoever. By all accounts, the Number Ten machine is frustrated by her performance. No shit, Sherlock. Well, they shouldn’t blame her for it, they should apportion the blame to the person who made the appointment.

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I was disappointed but not surprised to see Liam Fox fail to reach the final two in the race to become the next director general of the World Trade Organisation.

The EU was always determined to scupper him, which says far about them than it does about him. He is very well qualified to do the job, which will now be a straight fight between candidates from South Korea and Nigeria. Péter Szijjártó, Hungary’s Foreign Minister, has spoken out and said the whole charade has not been “to the greater glory of the European Union”.

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Just as the Conservative Party has had to put its conference online, so have literary festivals – or at least some of them. I’ve done quite a few on Zoom over the last few months, but appeared in person last Saturday at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, as trailed on this site last week.

The event was organised it very well, ensuring that both speakers and audience were safe. Next Friday ,I’m doing the Bristol Festival of Ideas remotely, but the Wells Festival of Literature in person on the same day.

Then on Sunday October 18, I’m in Twickenham being interviewed on stage by LBC’s Steve Allen, and then on  October 24 in Diss, Norfolk.

On that occasion Brandon Lewis will interview me, which I suspect he’s going to relish, given he tells me I always give him such a hard time when he comes on my show. Ticketing details can be found here.

Conservatives can’t be neutral about culture

7 Sep

MPs are to be made to take unconscious bias training.  A former Prime Minister of Australia is targeted because he is a social conservative.  The British Library links changes to the way it will work to George Floyd’s murder in America.   Extinction Rebellion clip the wings of a free press.  Senior civil servants declare publicly for Black Lives Matter.

Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have a majority of 80.  But the Left’s long march through the institutions seems, if anything, to speed up.

And the Government either won’t do anything about it or doesn’t want to – or both.  What’s the point of a Tory Government, a stonking majority and Brexit itself if nothing changes?

That’s the case for the prosection from some on the Right.  Should Johnson and his Government be found guilty?

The first thing a fair-minded jury would do is mull the charge sheet above.  It would see at once that the incidents and developments above vary in important ways.  For example, the Executive does not control the Legislature.  So whether to conduct bias training or otherwise is a matter for MPs, not Ministers.

The second course it would take is to try to work out what government should and shouldn’t do.  To take another example, Ministerial control of police operations would be alien to the British model of policing by consent, and to a free society.

Third, it would ask those at the top of the Government what they have to say for themselves.  The answers ConservativeHome gets when it puts that question, off the record, is a mix of the following.

Downing Street has “limited bandwidth” – i.e: fewer people than it needs.  Changing the culture of government is like turning round a supertanker, but it can be done.  Look at the change of tone from the BBC’s new Director-General.  And there are victories as well as defeats: the corporation backed down over Last Night of the Proms and the Government didn’t over Abbott’s appointment.

But that’s not all that some of our sources will say when they’re being candid.  They say that the Prime Minister moves slowly not just for reasons of political calculation, but because he’s internally conflicted.  His upbringing, attitudes and reflexes are liberal as well as conservative.  So he moves cautiously – being slower out of traps to champion the singing of Rule Britannia, as it happens, than did Keir Starmer.

You, ladies and gentlemen of the conservative jury, will reach your own verdict – or, if you’re sensible, conclude that putting the Government on a trial after it has had less than a year in office is premature.  Nonetheless, here’s our provisional take.

Johnson is denounced by much of the Remain-flavoured Left as a British Trumpian Bannonite – a misreading which helps to explain why he keeps on winning.  He is right not to declare a culture war from Downing Street.  The British people aren’t in our view enthusiasts for wars of any kind.

But if you think about it for a moment, you’ll see that one of the reasons he doesn’t need to declare such a war is that is already being fought.  The noisiest and nastiest parts of it tend to be where race, sex and religion are contested.

Those in the front line aren’t necessarily conservatives, let alone Conservatives.  They include J.K.Rowling as well as Katherine Birbalsingh (who’s being interviewed live by Mark Wallace this week ; Germaine Greer as well as Nigel Biggar.

That they and others are in the hottest parts of the action may explain why, to large parts of the conservative movement, the real heroes of our time are private citizens rather than public ones.  Consider the case of Jordan Peterson.

Some will say that the Conservative Party, and the centre-right more broadly, is divided about this cultural struggle, citing such telltale signs as Matt Hancock deliberately declaring “Black Lives Matter” at a Government Coronavirus press conference, or Grant Shapps declaring that he’d check Abbott’s record before going for a drink with him.

We think this is an over-complication.  Sure, conservatives won’t always agree about culture any more than they will about economics.  That’s why, inter alia, the flavour of David Cameron’s Downing Street was different from that of Johnson’s.  Near the top, there were fewer northern accents, more women, and fewer “weirdos and misfits”.

But we suspect that if Tory MPs were surveyed, the following attitudes would be found.  Support for equality of opportunity, or as close as one can get to it, rather than equality of outcome.  Much less backing for abortion on demand than on the Labour benches.  Much more for the free market being a friend of the environment, not an enemy.  Caution on reforming the Gender Recognition Act.   Agreement that real diversity must include a diversity of viewpoints.  Disagreement that poor working-class white people have a race privilege.  Poll them and prove us wrong.

In other words, Conservative MPs are more likely to share the patriotic instincts of most voters than Labour ones.  If you doubt it, ask yourself why Starmer is so anxious to present as Labour a patriotic party; why he was quicker than Johnson in coming out for Rule Britannia, and whywe read – his team want to present him as a very British hero who led in prosecuting an Islamist bomb plot. That’s solid ground for the Prime Minister to have beneath him

So while these are early days, we say that just because a Tory Government can’t – and shouldn’t – do everything, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t do something.  For example, there is a Minister for the Civil Service.  He is no less senior a figure than the Prime Minister himself.

So it’s up to Johnson to ensure that senior civil servants don’t promote, in practice if not in theory, causes that are outside any reasonable reading of its code – such as Black Lives Matter which, on any impartial reading, is tainted by anti-white dogma.  (Which doesn’t for a moment preclude following-up on Theresa May’s observation that “if you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white”.)

Cultural change isn’t driven by governments, and thank goodness for that.  Over time, those that have transformed human lives most are the products of human invention (railways; the pill; vaccines) or conviction (the Abrahamic religions; the Enlightenment; secular humanism – or, talking of black lives mattering, America’s civil war.

But though the role of government should be limited, it is real, and modern Britain will always be more than just a market with a flag on top.  Governments propose laws, present manifestos, fund public services, make arguments – just as Johnson’s pre-election one did for delivering Brexit. And, talking of Extinction Rebellion, set the framework for policing policy.

We’d like to see the Prime Minister speak more swiftly when what Neil O’Brien calls the New Puritans – i.e: the legions of the woke – try to silence their opponents.  And ensure that the Government keeps them out of what government does.  Were Cummings and co to reduce its size and scope, that task would become just a bit easier.

Alexandra Marsanu: Working from home – and why we need evolution, not a revolution

6 Sep

Alexandra Marsanu is a Ward Chair at Holborn and St Pancras Conservatives and Deputy Chair for London at Conservative Young Women. She works professionally as a strategy consultant.

A polarising debate has been taking place recently.  On one hand, there is a rare alliance between the Government, media and auxiliary businesses denouncing the impact of homeworking on highstreets, career growth and the mental health of the workers themselves. On the other, you see a majority of workers perfectly content to keep calm and carry on.

No more squeezing on the tube at rush hour; no more money wasted on soggy sandwiches and coffee; no more interruptions or time lost in pointless chitchat over what you did last weekend. An era of high productivity and improved home life is upon us. But would it really be that easy?

Rather than an expected gradual shift to flexible working driven by innovation in collaboration tools, an increase in the ‘gig economy’ or drive for decarbonisation, we have not been given time or choice.

Over the course of a few unusual days, offices were shut down and kitchen tables were seized for the new digital future of the 2020s. We have made do so well with Zoom and Teams and home-made banana loaf that office life seems from a bygone era – not fit for the modern days of self-driving cars and 3D printed buildings. But let’s not forget that they say ‘good things take time’ for a reason.

Although our homes may be packed with monitors and Amazon boxes, many business owners are looking at the empty chairs and aisles and wondering for how long they can still go on. The furlough anaesthetic is due to wear off, and with money quickly running out many are in for a tough autumn.

And for some, it may indeed be time to close shop. Why should taxpayers prop up a chain business just because they hire many people? For many others, it may be difficult to see the value in what they offer. Why would we need to go out and spend our hard-earned money on overcrowded trains and £3 coffee?

Of course, it is difficult to empathise with businesses. After all, the free market will take its tool eventually. But with a £2 trillion debt and still many months of uncertainty to come, there is a case for the economics that has worked so well until now.

Through the measures seen so far, the Government seems to be doing just that. Taking a page out of Keynesian economics, it’s looking to maintain today’s supply for when demand recovers, hopefully next year. And given how symbiotic our economy is, nothing makes more sense.

Many professional areas can be taken as examples. In consulting, banking and legal services the mix of industries needing support is under a constant shift. Where public sector work may be building up in the short term for areas such as consultancy, the impact of huge retailers or automotive companies shutting down is already playing out, and will do so during the months and years to come

Similarly, jobs supporting the most affected industries ranging from marketing to accounting may take a hit as cuts to the frontline are slimming down operations. Even a coveted career in technology may not be completely safe, since technology changes take years to implement and big players such as Accenture or IBM are already reporting job cuts in the past few months. If the impact is big enough, one way or another thange will reach all of us.

So what is there to do? Isn’t the Government’s job to save jobs? Is it really up to each of us to dash to the office so we can put yet another plaster on the economy? After all, we have already eaten our way towards the hospitability recovery last month.

Well, the fact of the matter is that we can’t just go back to the old ways. You see, there wouldn’t really be the space for all of us to go back in the office due to social distancing.

But we can’t expect that the world we see today is here for the long run. Not in an economy which is 30 per cent based on consumption. Unemployment benefits and a significant decrease in tax receipts will only divert from spending which can help make public services better or ease the debt for future generations. Considering a phased or rotational return to the office may be our best contribution until the tourists are back or workers can re-skill.

An exciting ‘future of work’ revolution is already here – one where we balance our work and home life in hybrid working patterns fit for a highly productive economy. And it may indeed be a useless pursuit to spend the money today in saving something that won’t be required tomorrow. But no revolution comes without pain and time to rebuild is what’s needed now.