When IT Meets Politics

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June 13, 2016  3:49 PM

Is there really a Digital Skills Crisis?

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Apprenticeship, apprenticeships, BIS, Digital skills, European Commission, Pitcom, Trailblazer

This morning the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee released its report on the “Digital Skills Crisis”  This afternoon the House of Lords debated the government response  to its “Make or Break” report last year . Last week the European Commission published a proposal for a Skills Guarantee . Meanwhile BIS is ploughing ahead with byzantine routines for a return to the type of training grant and levy scheme that was  scrapped (for good reason) in 1980s.  Unfortunately though dead, the idea of grants and levies, job creation schemes for bureaucrats, will not stay buried. In 1992 I helped kill an attempt to revive it with a Bow Group Paper on the theme of “Training for jobs not just jobs for trainers”.  The processes proposed by BIS to fund “approved “training organisations to deliver apprenticeships which meet criteria dictated by officials not employers, make the average European “initiative” look like a model of efficiency.

I therefore applaud the recommendations by the Select Committee that

  • Government needs to work with closely with employers, higher education institutions and schools to understand the apprenticeship marketplace, to ensure that education aligns with industry’s requirements, and that apprenticeships are delivered in a flexible way to adjust to future changes in the digital sector”  (Para 54)
  • Government should emphasise the need for more digital skills components in all apprenticeships … ” (Para 55)
  • should review its Trailblazer initiative, making it more streamlined and accessible … simplifying the scheme’s processes” (Para 56) and
  • … make it easier for industry to partner with universities and colleges to support student teaching … work placements … allow the cost to be written off against the Apprenticeship Levy contributions” (Para 57)

I am less happy with the recommendation that  “The Government should review the qualifying requirements for the new IT roles added to the Tier 2 visa “shortage occupation list” , making it easier and more flexible for SMEs to recruit top talent from outside the EU” (Para 30).  The European Commission proposal for a “Skills Guarantee” to help adults stuck in low paid jobs is more forward looking but the Committee’s recommendation is perhaps inevitable,  given the 50 years of policy failure summarised in my evidence to the House of Lords report (see pages 1057 – 70) and referred to in my blog entry, describing the need to break out of groundhog day, when that report was first published.

The crisis is over. The patient is dead” .

We failed to use the past “crises” as a catalyst for change. Things came to a head during the run up to Y2K and the “false start” of the transition to mass-market, Internet-based on-line systems. My 2001 IT Skills Trends report was about surviving the bursting of the dotcom bubble and preparing for the skills that would be in shortest supply when recovery came – in 2005 – 6. But that recovery did not come. By 2006 demand and salaries for those jobs which could easily be moved off-shore had stagnated. Much of the software and support industry had come to be staffed by a mix of overseas systems development and imported contract labour. We were facing the consequences of our inability to retrain our existing workforce, let alone our failure to educate and train our children.  I stopped writing the reports. They had become too depressing and the only ones taking action were those who helped write them.

An Apprentice Levy without a credible, let alone efficient, Grant process

Today we have a curate’s egg  wth unemployed computer science graduates in parallel with unprecedented shortages of competent and trustworthy recruits for Fintech and Security roles and another exercise to dig up the dodo of levies and grants – this time with the grants ring-fenced to meet the costs of “approved providers”, officials trying to dictate the requirements that employers are allowed to have and different processes for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Last week I attended a briefing session for employers. Those serious about training their future employees with the skills they will need were already looking at how to bypass the system, writing off the levy as a payroll tax on those jobs they could not realistically subcontract or move out of the UK. It was, as the Commons Select Committee has pointed out, not only unfit for purpose when it comes to the needs of SMEs (Para 30), it looks unlikely to meet the evolving needs of those large firms who already train their own and/or those in their supply chains.

But markets do not stand still. The Commons Select Committee call for the annual “dynamic mapping” of initiatives against demand so as to create a long term mechanism for adjusting the strategy (Para 29) is therefore particularly welcome.

The recommendation that Government should commit “to work with the Tech Partnership to develop industry-led, vocationally focused careers advice …” (Para 43) is also most welcome, but this should be extended to cover school-leavers. We can no longer afford to peddle the immoral fantasy that the majority of our children will benefit from starting their working lives saddled with student debt after spending three years to become less employable than if they had been paid to do a graduate level apprenticeship. In 1982, in “Learning for Change” I attacked both

  • “the examination treadmill to which we chain our adolescent youth in a set of puberty rites crueler than those of primitive Africa, At least in Africa they do not label any of the participants as failures” and
  • our confusion of “education” with taxpayer subsidy for the middle class ritual of kicking the fledglings from the nest.

The many recommendations of the Select Committee with regard to computing schools in schools are worthy but the most important boring is  Paragraph 83 where it recommends working with the Tech Partnership “to raise the ambition for, and coverage of, industry led digital training, and to make it easier for business of all sizes to get involved“.

The need to “break open the educational ghettos” has been a key message since  1982, when PITCOM organised for relays of school-children (from 30 schools) to man an exhibition in the Upper Waiting Room of the House of Commons (26 computer systems, up to 14 running at any one time running off three power points, at a time when Parliament had no facilities for schools visits!). That exhibition was attended by 120 MPs: one returning six times to get a group doing Economics A Level to run variations on the Treasury Economic Model – hence my long-standing support for Donald Michie’s idea that MPs should be able to simulate the effect of the legislation, including amendments, which they are expected to approve.

That was over 30 years ago. It is therefore particularly sad that the same messages have to be repeated as though they are new. The reason is linked to the prevalence, evident in paragraphs 70 – 76, that teachers (whether in School, College, University or Industrial Training Centre) have to be expert in IT in order to educate their pupils/students.  If that is correct then there is no solution – other than to rely on those (in other parts of the world) who use their limited supply of skilled educators to supervise the delivery of blended learning (mix of packaged learning materials, personal contact and supervised work experience) by mixed teams of assistants and subject experts: which is what successful digital “informal learning” groups (para 70 – 77) as well as enlightened employers, have been doing since before school computing curricula or computer science degrees were invented.  Hence some of the recommendations in my own submission to the Select Committee


June 15, 2017  11:28 AM

A sinister view of the politics of change and creativity

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
IT politics

It is time to take a different view of the politics of left and right. We sinisters (from Leonardo  da Vinci to Bill Gates) have always been in the forefront of change, cutting through the defences of the ruling dexters of the time using flair and imagination .

I had been planning to blog on the difference between the politics of hope, (Jeremy Corbyn even looks like the Pied Piper), beguiling the young with dreams of a debt free world after spending three years acquiring a degree that employers do not value

and the politics of Fear (Jihadis, Coalitions of Chaos etc.) – but I got bored.

I also realised that 90% of baddies a right handed.

[I gloss over the argument that so are 90% of goodies].

June 10, 2017  12:50 PM

Student social media campaign steals May’s majority from Tory tortoise

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Brexit, Kainos, manifesto

Kainos is the undisputed winner

There are many pages of post mortem in the press today but the list of seats that the Conservatives lost to Labour shows clearly that it was the success of Momentum in registering, capturing and getting out the student vote that enabled Labour to win most of them.  New voter registration peaked at over 450,000 aged under 34 (out of 600,000) on deadline day. Lord Ashcroft’s exit poll analysis shows that they overwhelmingly voted labour . The undisputed winner was therefore Kainos.  Not only did their on-line voter registration service cope with the peak but their constituency MPs now hold the government in their hand.

DUP Policies

I did not cover the DUP policies in my canter through the manifestos (neither did anyone else!) but perhaps the most significant today was a comment in their leaders speech at the launch. She accused Sinn Fein of being “the only party that actually wants to talk up the prospect of a hard border than no-one actually wants“.   In other words, if the EU wants to exclude the UK from a tariff free zone, the DUP will ensure that the Commission has to organise and pay for enforcement, on the other side of the border.

Among the other snippets from DUP policies that give a flavour for what else we can expect them to want from Westminster are:

  • an on-line Civil Justice system similar to those in the Netherlands and Canada
  • “A Department FOR Agriculture and Rural Development, not an EU Police Force” (this attitude helps explain why British farmers as a whole tended to support Brexit)
  • “a cross border tax force of NCA, PSNI and Tax Authorities to ensure no safe havens” (a thinly veiled comment on the many variations on the Double Irish tax loophole)

Competition between Conservatives and a rainbow coalition  

While the Conservatives rebuild their party for an election that may come at any time we should look at what they need to do in they are to stand any hope of recapturing part of the student vote. In parallel we should look at what their competitors need to do to assemble a continental style “rainbow coalition”  capable of actually taking power from the Tories. Finally, for this column, we should look at the implications for the IT community, users as well as suppliers.

So far the evidence of what really motivated the student vote, in addition to the socialist idealism of youth, gives three driving forces behind Momentum’s ability to harness the University vote – in order of priority:

  1. Student Fees, and the prospect of a lifetime of debt (see my blog on this)
  2. The fear that Brexit would mean an end to student exchange programmes like Erasmus 
  3. The fear that Brexit would mean an end to the opportunity for their University to participate in pan-EU research programmes

Leading to a publicly negotiated Brexit?

We can reasonably expect rapid action to address these areas. This may include another “U-turn” by Theresa. This time it would involve a decision to conduct negotiations in public – so that she can demonstrate issue by issue support. Reserving the UK position, “so as to be in a better negotiating position” clearly lost hundreds of thousands of votes on the part of those who were worried about what that position was, if it existed at all.

Playing the democratic card against the unelected Commission has the effect of forcing the back-door lobbyists, across Europe, not just in London and Brussels, into the open. They, like the Commission and the Civil Servants, will fight this approach tooth and nail. But it may, now, be the best way of assembling a winning hand – “in the national interest”.  It may also be the only way of avoiding a second (losable) referendum – with the UK position on changes and non-changes agreed topic by topic – in parallel with an otherwise status quo Brexit. Then would come the rapid implementation of what is agreed followed by long drawn out process of negotiating over what is not.

The Digital  Charter   

The electorate as a whole appears to have been unimpressed by the “Home Office” war against terror spin linked to the potentially popular Conservative Digital Charter. But the majority of students are now female. The debate on Internet privacy and security has so far been almost entirely male-dominated, save for a couple of lobbyists for large ISPs which have just realised they are going to have to change their business models anyway.

I suspect this is an area where the climate of debate could change if the student vote was mobilised after discovering they too were being targeted and victimised in much the same way as the over 65s (for their savings) and under 16s (for sexual exploition). An alliance between them and the care groups (from Citizens Advice and Age UK through Mumsnet to the Childrens Charities) could very easily lead to proposals for draconian legislation – to allow MPs of left and right to posture while they prepare for another General Election in a few months time.

This area needs much better informed debate led by those who want to preserve the Internet as a safe place – with the UK at its beating heart – to ensure that any legislation, assuming the government lasts long enough for it to be passed, is not counter-productive.

The Gig Economy and “Death of  Lobbying”

Significant numbers of students and youngster now work in the “gig” economy. It will be important to find out whether they do indeed value the flexibility or lament the insecurity of income which affects their ability to acquire a permanent home. Either way, as soon as there is serious evidence of support, we can expect a bidding war between government and opposition, regardless of the lobbying of tech employers.

A hung parliament and impending election could lead to a dramatic change in the nature of lobbying in Westminster. Only those MPs with large majorities and no local University will feel safe to take up topics which are not of direct interest to their voters. Meanwhile officials will be unable to progress departmental programmes which do not have widespread electoral support. Few “big” IT-related projects have such support.

Thus we can expect, for example, the smart meter programme to falter and die. Yesterday I was with an elderly friend whose combined smart meter had cost her four call-outs after it had cut her gas supply for no apparent reason. After the last call out it was removed, “on a temporary basis” because the fitters could not find out what was wrong. She does not want it replaced. No amount of lobbying will salvage the smart meter programme until such quality problems are resolved and there are clear user benefits.

Meanwhile the students of the University of Suffolk decapitated the Government Digital strategy as a whole. They voted out the Minister. Suffolk is one of the few Unis to give pride of place on its website for its new Higher and Degree Apprenticeship Programmes. This was not mentioned at all in the Conservative Manifesto as a way of giving would-be students a choice  between a debt and a career. Given that Ben Gummer (supposedly) had joint responsibility for the Conservative Manifesto there is a more than a little irony in their actions.

No new technology initiatives for the foreseeable future

Given the Government’s slender majority we can expect no major technology initiatives requiring a vote in Parliament on anything likely to seriously offend either Conservative backbenchers or the DUP unless they have serious support from Labour and/or the SNP. That will mean a long overdue focus on incremental change.

This also means that existing policies, such as a market led broadband strategy, will roll on. Verify will have to sink or swim, on its merits

Unfortunately parliament has lost a couple of its most IT literate members, Calum Kerr (SNP) and Craig Williams (Conservative).  That makes the role of survivors and elder statesmen, like Matt Hancock (Conservative), Matt Warman (Conservative), Chi Onwurah (Labour) and Stephen Timms (Labour) all the more important – while some very impressive newcomers get their feet.

June 8, 2017  10:21 AM

Adtech industry now under pressure from all sides for ripoffs, fraud and jihadi promotion

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Adtech, Fraud, guardian, Internet, YouTube

The legal action being brought by the Guardian against Rubicon for the “non-transparency” of fees highlights one of the murkier aspects of the on-line world. A competitor to the Guardian told me that around 90% of the fees paid by advertisers in order to feature alongside their “breaking news” stories end up with the adtech intermediaries. Hence the financial squeeze on those, like them, who expect journalists who check their stories. Hence also the sharp rise of fake news under a variety of guises.

The main political parties are the latest to pull their YouTube advertising after seeing Jihadi videos alongside their ads   and the major commercial advertisers are reviewing over $3 billion of adtech spend in the face of evidence of a massive rise in click-fraud.

Hence one of the reasons the Prime Minister’s call to clean up the Internet resulted in rapid claims from Facebook, Google and Twitter about the effort they are already putting in to do so – rather than echoing the calls of the Open Rights Group to “protect” free speech – as opposed to, for example, the “right” not to be trolled when using supposedly reputable services.

Meanwhile some those investors most anxious to stop the bubble bursting (and their protegees losing value) are still hyping the adtech  industry  But those who look ahead are looking to fund, for example, automated transaction analysis and fraud detection.  If those suppliers can indeed demonstrate success in not only halting fraud while in progress, but also enabling legal action to put the perpetrators out of business (alongside who aided and abetted them), we might also see an implosion in the Infosec sticking plaster industry?


June 7, 2017  11:49 AM

Manifestos for Skills and Jobs or for Debt and Unemployment

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
apprenticeships, Skill, Stem, UKIP

The competition for the youth vote, with offers of free tuition fees to all subjects (Labour), or just for STEM subjects (as in the UKIP manifesto) are based on a world view that dates from the late 1960s, when belief in the value of three years at University had taken over from that of two years in the armed forces as a rite of passage. In 2010, when students were rioting against tuition fees, there remained a widespread assumption that “the middle class puberty rite of kicking the fledglings from the nest” had a unique value in helping adolescents  prepare for a world of change. Ian Brown, then at the Oxford Internet Institute, read my blog on confusing puberty rites with education and kindly put the text of the 1982 paper  from which I had quoted, on-line. I do not say he agreed with me. It was more likely that, with pundits once again claiming that robots and artificial intelligence would put us all out of work, he agreed the need to take a cool look at the assumptions behind our educational priorities.

The genesis of “Learning for Change” was an invitation from the late Donald Michie (one of the founders of Artificial Intelligence as a discipline) to deliver a paper to a gathering of the UK technical press of day on the implications for education of a world in which data processing, artificial intelligence and robotics had removed the status of the scholar: ” The possession of book-learning or logical reasoning ability will lose status just as literacy did when everyone could read and write. The human touches of sympathy and creativity will be the hallmark of the high status job.”   I was then asked by Chairman of the Bow Group to put the text into political context, with some recommendations for Government. The result sold out after a truly vitriolic review (whose text I cannot now find) in the Times Higher Education supplement. If you read “Learning for Change” you will see why it was so divisive – and remains so.

Today (and tomorrow) we need to look at the systemic disinformation being fed to children and parents, under the guise of careers advice, regarding the “value” of a University Degree”, as opposed to the value of a well structured apprenticeship,  particularly one linked to a modular degree and/or including the acquisition of globally recognised qualifications.

The value of degree  courses in improving earnings capacity varies as widely as the value of apprenticeships. The much quoted “average”  of #200,000 is from a BIS study , which compared with a control group of those leaving school with two or more A  levels, not with those who had chosen vocational qualifications instead of “A” levels”. There is clear evidence that the value of degrees (by subject and/or university) varies at least as widely as that of apprenticeships (by profession/trade and/or employer). The lifetime earnings of many graduates were below those of the control group average. No-one has done an exercise on the value of apprenticeships – and they would have to begin by defining what they mean – because the comparison of those who, for example, began their apprenticeship as a Chartered Accountant direct from school tend to be three years (or more if the graduate has taken a gap year) further up the management free at every stage. I recently heard of a school-leaver managing (at 21) the development of  graduate trainees older than herself, while being groomed for a senior management role (in the bank) by the time she is 30.

It would be wrong to go as far as the Harvard Business Review in saying “The Degree is Doomed” but the Economist is almost certainly correct in saying that it represents declining value . Not just in the US. Hence the reason leading UK public schools now record those obtaining graduate level apprenticeships with leading employers – for many of which competition is fiercer  than for places with Oxbridge or the Russell Group Universities.  The big difference is that those gaining such apprenticeship often collect globally recognised qualifications as well as a degree on the way and not only have no debt in their twenties but are three to four years further up the management tree with a premium that widens over time.

Waiving tuition fees, leaving graduates with only the borrowings to cover living costs, may win many tens of thousands of votes tomorrow but the expansion of graduate level apprenticeships will do far more to bridge skills gaps and get youngsters into well paid jobs. More-over the  student loan programme already has average interest rates and penalties for early repayment that mortgage borrowers are advised to avoid. If those who earn well above average are to be taxed more heavily to cover the cost of those who do not earn enough to be liable to repay …  The all-up cost of repaying student debt, even as reduced by the removal of Tuition Fees, means that the average value of a degree, even using the BIS measures, will have more than halved by the time this years “crop” of students has graduated.

It is far more important to work to open up the paths between non-graduate, graduate and post-graduate apprenticeships, with content and standards driven by employers not administrators or academics to ensure that all level of apprenticeship operate to world class standards.


June 6, 2017  3:14 PM

Exiling hate preachers to the dark corners of the Internet is a win win strategy

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
"Theresa May", GDPR, Google, Internet, PKI, privacy, Surveillance, WannaCry

The supposed “controversy”  over the Prime Minister’s call for action to clean up the Internet is a powerful example of how fake news can get traction. Google, Facebook and Twitter are now talking about what they are already doing , as though it should be enough, rather than saying it is undesirable or impossible. The advertising boycotts to which I referred earlier this year, allied to the scale of click per view fraud, concentrated their minds more powerfully than government ever could. Their very business models are now at risk.

Meanwhile the LibDems still defend their opposition to the renewal of surveillance powers which enabled the support ring round the Manchester bomber to be identified and picked up so quickly. They claim, like Labour, that more policemen would compensate for a lack of intelligence. Unlike Labour they link this to a claim that Brexit will weaken our ability to co-operate internationally against terrorism. It is as though effective pan-EU law enforcement co-operation was one of the achievements of the European Union. As yet it remains one of the EU’s failures. Operational information sharing remains slow and clunky, hampered by lack of trust and privacy directives, except for a handful of high profile, resource intensive investigations into pan-EU hacking groups. The modest improvements over the recent years are now threatened by interpretations of the GDPR.

The Conservative manifesto (e.g. page 79 – The safest place to be online)  indicate this an area where Brexit is likely to lead to more, not less, effective co-operation – globally, not just with the EU. But this has long been an area where words and actions do not correlate. During a wash-up after the London Riots it transpired that the problem was not a lack of police powers. It was their inability to make timely use of the information on offer from the mobile phone operators. Police funding and manpower were (and are) not the issue.  It made (and makes) far more sense to use the staff and processing facilities of industry (telcos, ISPs, on-line advertisers and retailers, identity service providers, payment service operators etc.), GCHQ and selected Universities and others (as currently being opposed by Privacy International in yet another Court Case) than to duplicate these.

But this raises major governance issues – as covered in the last paper of EURIM-IPPR Partnership Policing Study – the recommendations of which the last Labour Government tried and failed to implement. Interestingly their problem was not Party political. It was that the other tribes of Whitehall (including BIS, DCMS and GCHQ) would not allow Home Office to lead the implementation or the cross-cutting actions necessary.  This year, the many of the ideas have appeared, in updated form, in the Conservative Manifesto – amid commitments to use Brexit to make the UK the safest place to go on-line by becoming a global leader in action against Internet predators and abusers. Hence also my welcome for the involvement, at long last, of GCHQ (via the NCA) after a couple of NHS trusts were  brought down by Wannacry.

No wonder the LibDem remoaners are so upset at such a neat way of exploiting the opportunities that come from being outside the conflicting EU directives and regulations and thus able to combine the “equivalences” already agreed with those outside the EU and WTO rules . I too am miffed at realising that I wasted three decades of my life trying to reform the EU from within. Yesterday I was involved in an interesting argument as to whether 70 years of peace in Europe was an achievement of NATO or of the EU – the overwheening ambition of whose “President” nearly brought that peace to an end with an attempt to “embrace” not only those parts of the Ukraine “stolen” from Poland but those which were part of Mother Russia.

Meanwhile the Open Rights Group and others appear to have confused defending the use of strong cryptography with opposing attempts to identify, isolate and/or “remove” on-line criminals, terrorists and other predators/abusers.  Exiling extremists to the dark corners of the Internet, where they can  more easily be identified by traffic analysis, is a win-win strategy at many levels.

Perhaps the most important, however, is the way that such an exile makes it harder for DAESH to use mainstream social media to proselytise, with claims they represent the teachings of the prophet, as opposed to the ramblings of  post-Baathist blasphemers piggy-backing on the doctrines of an obscure 18th Century iconoclast (who was savvy enough to do an alliance with a local warlord whose descendants acquired control of the land under which sat 20% of the world’s oil).  ISIL/DAESH represents Islam about as much as the wee wee frees represent Christianity. But it is well-funded and professional in its use of fashionable social media to recruit “lost” souls among teenage western muslims. Forcing it to use services more commonly associated with drug dealers, fraudsters, pederasts, dissidents, spies and the paranoid, is a major blow to its presence, prestige and ability to recruit.

We should also remember that many of those who currently pose the greatest threat make little use of western PKI-based crypto, designed for those who have never met. They use older, simpler, methods based on the physical exchange of information (and/or sim cards) at training camps, religious meetings or on pilgrimage. The need is therefore to identify, track and trace them and their contacts using “sigint”, alias the “big data” analysis of traffic, as pioneered by the “registry” of Bletchley Park (to track the German Order of battle, including staff movements between units as well as of unit). We here much about Enigma and a little about Colossus  but almost nothing about the Registry. That is because many of its methods are still in use today, including by Google (whose business is largely based on processes invented, but never patented, decades before the company was borne). The difference is that today the sigint can be processed in real time by Big Data Barons who regard your on-line footprints as their digital chattels to be sold to who-ever will pay. Hence the wider need for section 5 of the Conservative Manifesto.

As I pointed out again in my recent blog on the irrelevance of the GDPR, the importance of strong crypto is to ensure data authenticity and integrity, not “merely” confidentiality.  Its defence should not be muddled with the need for Governments to respond to public opinion in the face of perceived current threats.  Our children may be at statistically more risk from a vicious dog or drug-addled teenager with a knife – but social cohesion in significant parts of the UK depends on “removing from sight” (both on-line and off-line) the 20,000 or so UK converts to a blasphemous 21st Century hybrid between Baathism and Wahabism.


June 2, 2017  9:14 PM

Manifesto Plans for Digital Britain

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Brexit, Broadband, Conservative, Crapband, GDPR, manifesto, Plymouth, Verify

I have now read many comparisons of the party manifestos but, as I have said previously, most  commented on what they wanted or did not want to see. The most succinct is that produced by Public Technology Net – but it may be too succinct. Tech UK has looked at the manifestos from the perspective of suppliers of technology and published its own.  Meanwhile Think Broadband examined the Conservative , LibDem  and Labour manifestos from the perspective of  Broadband obsessives. Many of the promises on technology issues appear similar at first sight. What is different is the context and the detail, if any, given as to how they will be achieved. I promised that I would do a canter through the Conservative Manifesto taking topics in the order in which they appear. I have not been able to make time to complete this to my satisfaction. What follows is far too long and I may return to issues, topic by topic – but here goes.

I will leave out Brexit. In my previous blog I explained briefly why we have so much less to fear from “Hard Brexit” and a new relationship based on true partnership, than we have to fear from getting embroiled in the detail of the forty years of fudged compromises on which I (and my father before me), spent so much of our lives. To those who say I was too brief, I would say that I find it painful to admit that I wasted so much of my life examining the entrails of intractable problems (trying to find “acceptable ambiguities” to “harmonise” that on which there was no real agreement) or irrelevant, unworkable and/or counter-productive “solutions” (like the GDPR). I voted remain, but Juncker made clear that “reform” was not an option. The English and Welsh took him at his word.  It is now apparent that the lifeboats are in better shape than the Titanic.

As I go through the Conservative manifesto I will digress to make comparisons with the other manifestos. I will also comment on how wider issues affect the IT and digital communities, users not just suppliers.

The first section of the Conservative Manifesto is about “A strong economy that works for everyone “.. It contains a pledge (Page 14) to the stick to the promise of  cutting Corporation Tax 17% and the promise of  “a full review of the business rates system to make sure it is up to date for a world in which people increasingly shop online.”  These, plus the pledge for a simpler tax system “especially for self-employed people and small businesses“, need to be juxtaposed with those in the section on “New Rules for a Changing economy“, including on “Rights and protections in the ‘gig’ economy“:

In the modern economy many people choose jobs like driving, delivering and coding, that are highly flexible and can be mixed with other employment. This brings considerable advantages to millions of people but we should not ignore the challenges this kind of employment creates. These workers are officially classed as self-employed and therefore have fewer pension entitlements, reduced access to benefits, and no qualification for sick pay and holiday pay. Yet the nature of their work is different from the traditional self employed worker who might be a sole trader, a freelancer or running their own business.

We will make sure that people working in the ‘gig’ economy are properly protected  …  to ensure that the interests of employees on traditional contracts, the self employed and those people working in the ‘gig’ economy are all properly protected.”

This leads into a section on “Stopping tax evasion” with the “tougher regulation of tax advisory firms … further measures to reduce online fraud in Value Added Tax.”

The clear aim, in marked contrast with other parties,  is to to increase tax take by reducing headline taxes and closing loopholes. The biggest of the latter are those used by major players in the on-line world to avoid paying tax other than via Luxembourg or the Crown Dependencies. How much of that which is done over the Internet is really more efficient in any sense other than the ability of those running the business to avoid local tax?

Those whose prime reason for outsourcing is to cut pension liabilities need to be concerned over the section on protecting private pensions: “tighten the rules against … abuse, and increase the punishment for those caught mismanaging pension schemes … new powers to issue punitive fines for those found to have wilfully left a pension scheme under-resourced … disqualify the company directors … a new criminal offence for company directors who deliberately or recklessly put at risk the ability of a pension scheme to meet its obligations.

The following section on “Reforming rules on takeovers and mergers” contains an explicit reference to telecoms, i.e. BT: We welcome overseas investment and want investors to succeed here but not when success is driven by aggressive asset-stripping or tax avoidance. We shall also take action to protect our critical national infrastructure. We will ensure that foreign ownership of companies controlling important infrastructure does not undermine British security or essential services. We have already strengthened ministerial scrutiny and control in respect of civil nuclear power and will take a similarly robust approach across a limited range of other sectors, such as telecoms, defence and energy.

The section on A Modern Industrial Strategy begins with spreading wealth and opportunity across “every community in the United Kingdom, not just the most prosperous places in London and the south east”.  This depends on spreading reliable, resilient gigabit connectivity, not just a Universal Service Obligation, across the entire UK although that comes later in the manifesto. What follows is an emphasis on skills: rebalancing effort from academic to technical, but not at the expense of offending the academic lobby.

Our modern industrial strategy … will help young people to develop the skills they need to do the high-paid, high-skilled jobs of the future … make a modern technical education available to everyone, throughout their lives, to provide the skills they need. We will remove the barriers that hold back small firms with big potential – and let them compete when government itself is the buyer … we will deliver the … broadband – that businesses need.

… we will work to build up the investment funds of our universities across the UK. … larger, aggregated funds to increase significantly the amounts invested in and by universities … universities to enjoy the commercial fruits of their research, through funds that are large enough to list, thereby giving British investors a chance to share in their success … £23 billion National Productivity Investment Fund … include £740 million of digital infrastructure investment …

The skills we need ... the next Conservative government will give Britain the technical education it has lacked for decades … but we must also address the immediate needs of those sectors of the economy suffering shortages in skills. We will … ask the Migration Advisory Committee to make recommendations …. about how the visa system can become better aligned with our modern industrial strategy … to set aside significant numbers of visas for workers in strategically-important sectors, such as digital technology, without adding to net migration as a whole.

However, skilled immigration should not be a way for government or business to avoid their obligations to improve the skills of the British workforce. So we will double the Immigration Skills Charge levied on companies employing migrant workers, to £2,000 a year … using the revenue generated to invest in higher level skills training for workers in the UK.

The revelations emerging after the collapse of British Airways systems after outsourcing to an Indian-multinational, whether the staff and the equipment who failed were in Mumbai or  Heathrow (immigrants with Tier 2 visas in place of the in-house staff who had been made redundant) gives context to this section. I gave numbers and links in my most recent blog .  Arguments based on the very small number (under 300) of those coming in under the “exceptional talent” route must be viewed alongside the 50,000 or so “technicians” imported each year. Those who wish to remain free to import staff with genuinely scarce digital skills have to be seen to help use the revenue generated by the increased levy to reduce their own dependence on imported talent. Meanwhile the Labour party comments about re-introducing Tier 3 visas and relaxing controls on their dependents look like a red rag to a working class bull.

The sections on “freedom of movement” to and from the rest of the EU need to read in the context of wishing to maintain the current reciprocal arrangements for Britons working or retired across the rest of the EU. The resolution will almost certainly entail moving towards processes common across most of the EU. These restrict access to benefits, housing, schooling, health care etc to those with evidence of “entitlement”, whether as a local resident or because they can produce evidence that their employer or their home government will pay. Vince Cable is right in pointing that such a move did not require Brexit – but he should also say why he did not propose this while the LibDems were in coalition. The reasons, which link to the “real” case for ID cards (alias joined up identities for dealing with central and local government) reflect credit on none of the main parties – nor UKIP.

We should remember Michael Howard’s consultation on entitlement cards and original objectives of the Government Verify programme when reading the later section in the Manifesto on the “relaunch” of the Verify programme (page 81) and that on restoring confidence in our democracy by addressing electoral fraud (page 43). “We will legislate to ensure that a form of identification must be presented before voting, to reform postal voting and to improve other aspects of the elections process to ensure that our elections are the most secure in the world. We will retain the traditional method of voting by pencil and paper, and tackle every aspect of electoral fraud.

Backing small businesses

We will ensure that 33 per cent of central government purchasing will come from SMEs by the end of the parliament … ensure that big contractors comply with the Prompt Payment Code both on government contracts and in their work with others. If they do not do so, they will lose the right to bid for government contracts.

This pledge presents a major challenge to the dinosaurs of the IT world, whether outsourcers or systems integrators. It also needs to be read alongside the earlier comments on tax reform and the self employed. Until the rise of inflexible outsourcing and PFI contracts, many departments made extensive use of ad hoc teams of  individually checked and vetted individuals of known competence to supplement the skills of their in-house teams. If the 33% target is to be taken seriously it implies a return to that approach – perhaps using registers of consultants and their skills maintained by professional bodies, trades unions and/or trade associations.

Six years ago, before I retired from EURIM I was seeking support for a programme to look at the reform of public procurement . The evidence then in front of me suggested savings of 25 – 50% (or more) from cutting out the procurement overheads which had caused markets to implode around a small group of consultancies and contractors with whom officials might spend years specifying and negotiating an inevitably doomed mega deal – before they retired to join them as advisors.

Not surprisingly that programme had to be dropped for lack of support.  Turkeys do not not vote for Christmas. Times appear to have, however, changed.

The NHS has just dropped plans to force all public sector contractors inside IR35 The reason given in the article are to do with IT consultants walking out but the need to attract back the many GPs and Consultants who retired last year to avoid pensions caps may also have had something to do with it. Perhaps the time has come to roll back on Tony Blair’s assault on small businesses in every part of the economy, from road transport to health care, with the IT SME world slaughtered en passent.

Prosperous towns and cities across Britain (page 24) and Shared Institutions of the Union (page 34)

move many of the functions of central government out to cities around Britain where possible and to see our vast cultural assets reach people around our country too … combined authorities, mayoralties and local enterprise partnerships … responsible for co-ordinating their own local industrial strategy … bringing together local businesses, political and public sector leaders to drive growth and economic regeneration … Starting with the UK Government’s arm’s-length bodies, we will start moving significant numbers of UK Government civil servants and other public servants out of London and the south-east to cities around the UK. We will ensure that senior posts move too, so that operational headquarters as well as administrative functions are centred not in London but around Britain. And we will do so in a way that encourages the development of new clusters of public services, private businesses and, where appropriate, universities.

This will require investment in high capacity the broadband infrastructures to support the decentralised civil service functions, driven by local partnerships organising their own programmes. Hence the critical importance of attracting investors to fund the necessary construction – using utility business models underpinned via leasing contracts and regulatory certainty.

back new scientific and technical institutions … universities make their full contribution to their local community and economy, sponsoring local schools and being creative about how they can open up opportunities for local people

Some Universities, usually former Polytechnics, welcome the idea of becoming a local enterprise hub. Others, including most members of the Russell Group, think it detracts from their status as global research hubs. A few see no conflict. One example of the latter is Plymouth, home to most of the world’s expertise in Oceanography and much of the UK’s in both Marine Engineering and in measuring the effectiveness  of Medical treatments. We need more of those who cheerfully combine both approaches (as interestingly do some of the oldest, but not newest, Cambridge Colleges).

Our Countryside Communities

Around the world a growing number of high tech businesses are based in rural areas with world class communications. The Conservative and LibDems are competing for the rural vote. Banks and Government agencies have been seeking for over a decade to herd us on-line to be fleeced . But many, from most of those aged over 65 to those living in inner city “not spots” or rural areas served by crapband are now among the “digitally excluded”.

The Conservative pledge to “enhance the provision of public services in rural areas” is therefore likely to be electorally popular, as is the means: “We will safeguard the post office network, to protect existing rural services and work with the Post Office to extend the availability of business and banking services to families and small businesses in rural areas. A third of all SMEs in rural areas use their post office weekly and our ambition is that all routine small business and consumer banking services should be available in rural post offices. We will support pharmacies and village schools in rural areas.”

But we also need to revitalise and reintegrate the Post Office/Royal Mail  network in urban areas, where a visit to a sub-Post Office to do business with some-one you recognise and who recognises you, or from a regular postman, who you know and who recognises you, is one of best ways of reducing the rising tide of linked on-line crime, courier fraud and impersonation. Hence my recent blogs on the saga of West Norwood sorting office

Leaving the European Union

We want to agree a deep and special partnership with the European Union. This partnership will benefit both the European Union and the United Kingdom: while we are leaving the European Union, we are not leaving Europe, and we want to remain committed partners and allies to our friends across the continent.

no deal is better than a bad deal for the UK … control of our own laws … control immigration and secure the entitlements of EU nationals in Britain and British nationals in the EU … maintain the Common Travel Area and maintain as frictionless a border as possible for people, goods and services between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Workers’ rights conferred on British citizens from our membership of the EU will remain. We will pursue free trade with European markets, and secure new trade agreements with other countries. We want to work together in the fight against crime and terrorism, collaborate in science and innovation – and secure a smooth, orderly Brexit. And we will protect the democratic freedom of the people of Gibraltar and our overseas territories to remain British, for as long as that is their wish.

As we leave the European Union, we will no longer be members of the single market or customs union but we will seek a deep and special partnership including a comprehensive free trade and customs agreement. There may be specific European programmes in which we might want to participate and if so, it will be reasonable that we make a contribution. We will determine a fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing member state, in accordance with the law and in the spirit of the UK’s continuing partnership with the EU …

We want fair, orderly negotiations, minimising disruption and giving as much certainty as possible – so both sides benefit. We believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside our withdrawal, reaching agreement on both within the two years allowed by Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union.

a Great Repeal Bill .. will …  convert EU law into UK law, allowing businesses and individuals to go about life knowing that the rules have not changed overnight. This approach means that the rights of workers and protections given to consumers and the environment by EU law will continue to be available in UK law at the point at which we leave the EU. The bill will also create the necessary powers to correct the laws that do not operate appropriately once we have left the EU, so our legal system can continue to function correctly outside the EU. Once EU law has been converted into domestic law, parliament will be able to pass legislation to amend, repeal or improve any piece of EU law it chooses, as will the devolved legislatures, where they have the power to do so.

… additional bills to ensure that when we have left the EU there is a clear statutory basis for United Kingdom authorities to exercise powers that are currently exercised through EU law and institutions.

… We will not repeal or replace the Human Rights Act while the process of Brexit is underway but we will consider our human rights legal framework when the process of leaving the EU concludes. We will remain signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights for the duration of the next parliament.

As I said in my blog on why WTO “rules” are better than a bad deal, my own view is that the reason markets were not panicking, at least not until they began to fear a hung parliament, was that they could see an orderly process toward a new and more productive relationship with a reformed EU. There is an expectation that the Commission will move away from its current “non-negotiation” position before it is sidelined as time runs out and we are into WTO dispute processes under International, not EU, law.

The United Kingdom is a global nation.

If that view is correct, those running international businesses are far more interested in what we aim to do after Brexit with our new freedom of action, than the details of Brexit itself.

Do we really intend to exercise the leadership stated on page 38, including as a “global champion of free trade” while also leading “a global effort to close down online spaces for those who abuse children, incite violence or propagate hate speech … ” , taking up “leadership in a new arena, where concern is shared around the world… the regulation of the use of personal data and the internet “… strengthening  “Britain’s response to white collar crime by incorporating the Serious Fraud Office into the National Crime Agency, improving intelligence sharing and bolstering the investigation of serious fraud, money laundering and financial crime … and the response to cyber threats on private businesses, public services, critical national infrastructure, and individuals, working with the National Cyber Security Centre to prevent attacks wherever possible and with the police and international law enforcement agencies to ensure perpetrators are brought to justice.

If so, the paradox is that Brexit will lead to an increase, not a decrease, in practical pan-European co-operation, but in the context of helping make a reality of global co-operation.

World Class Technical Education

Labour has promised to scrap tuition fees for those going to University, thus leaving graduates with “only” the debt from their living expenses. By contrast the ambitious Conservative plans to reform technical education at every level can be seen as giving students the option of “graduating with a career not a debt” (my words).

“For too long in this country, technical excellence has not been valued as highly as academic success. We want British technical education to be as prestigious as our world leading higher education system, and for technical education in this country to rival the best technical systems in the world.

This will require bold reform of the funding, institutional and qualifications frameworks for technical education, in partnership with British industry. We have already introduced high quality apprenticeships that can reach to degree level and beyond for the 200,000 young people who choose to enter full-time vocational study after their GCSEs each year. We now need to go further to improve technical education and offer young people a real choice between technical and academic routes at sixteen.

… replacing 13,000 existing technical qualifications with new qualifications, known as T-levels, across fifteen routes in subjects including construction, creative and design, digital, engineering and manufacturing, and health and science. We will increase the number of teaching hours by fifty per cent to an average of 900 hours per year and make sure that each student does a three-month work placement as part of their course. And we will extend our reforms to the highest levels of technical qualification.

… invest in further education colleges to make sure they have world-class equipment and facilities and will create a new national programme to attract experienced industry professionals to work in FE colleges.

… new institutes of technology, backed by leading employers and linked to leading universities, in every major city in England. They will provide courses at degree level and above, specialising in technical disciplines, such as STEM, whilst also providing higher-level apprenticeships and bespoke courses for employers. They will enjoy the freedoms that make our universities great, including eligibility for public funding for productivity and skills research, and access to loans and grants for their students. They will be able to gain royal charter status and regius professorships in technical education … anchor institutions for local, regional and national industry, providing sought-after skills to support the economy, and developing their own local identity to make sure they can meet the skills needs of local employers.

… a major review of funding across tertiary education as a whole, looking at how we can ensure that students get access to financial support that offers value for money, is available across different routes and encourages the development of the skills we need as a country.

We will put employers at the centre of these reforms. We will deal with local skills shortages and ensure that colleges deliver the skills required by local businesses through Skills Advisory Panels and Local Enterprise Partnerships working at a regional and local level. We will deliver our commitment to create 3 million apprenticeships for young people by 2020 and in doing so we will drive up the quality of apprenticeships to ensure they deliver the skills employers need. We will allow large firms to pass levy funds to small firms in their supply chain, and work with the business community to develop a new programme to allow larger firms to place apprentices in their supply chains. We will explore teaching apprenticeships sponsored by major companies, especially in STEM subjects.

Lastly, we will make the system easier for young people taking technical and vocational routes. We will introduce a UCAS-style portal for technical education. We will introduce significantly discounted bus and train travel for apprentices to ensure that no young person is deterred from an apprenticeship due to travel costs.”

One of the issues for IT and Digital Employers is how they are going to work with and through bodies like the new Institute for Apprenticeships . This is more important than trying to find short term wriggle room on Tier 2 or other Visas, or agonising over the meaning of freedom of movement. It should not, however, be either/or but both. We need to link the definition of skills in shortage (to justify visas) to the definition of those for which training should be expanded. Thus, if there really is a shortage of curry chefs or network engineers, those seeking visas should also be helping organise training programmes and apprenticeships to produce those with at least the level of skill of those they are seeking to import.

Career learning

The Conservative objectives also extend to those already in work

We will in the next parliament produce the best programme of learning and training for people in work and returning to work in the developed world.

We will help all workers seeking to develop their skills in their existing jobs by introducing a new right to request leave for training for all employees. Alongside this, we will help workers to stay in secure jobs as the economy changes by introducing a national retraining scheme. Under the scheme, the costs of training will be met by the government, with companies able to gain access to the Apprenticeship Levy to support wage costs during the training period.

We will break down the barriers to public sector workers taking on more qualified roles because of their prior educational attainment. For instance, we will ensure that teaching assistants can become qualified teachers and healthcare assistants can become nurses via a degree apprenticeship route, in addition to other routes.

We will equip people with the digital skills they need now, and in the future, by introducing a right to lifelong learning in digital skills, just as we have done for literacy and numeracy.

For businesses employing former wards of the care system, someone with a disability, those with chronic mental health problems, those who have committed a crime but who have repaid their debt to society, and those who have been unemployed for over a year, we will offer a holiday on their employers’ National Insurance Contributions for a full year … targeted support for young people between the ages of 18 and 24 so that everyone, no matter what their start in life, is given the very best chance of getting into work.

support companies to take on parents and carers returning to work after long periods of absence and back similar schemes in the public sector, including the country’s biggest employer, our NHS.”

I am particularly pleased to see the reference to returner programmes, linked to reference to the gender pay gap (on page 56), because this is one of our biggest pools of untapped labour and one where the IT industry is at its most remiss – despite the clear potential shown by successful programmes in the past.

The sections on “Cutting the Cost of Living“, “A Restored Contract between the Generations” and “Our National health Service” also contain pledges relevant to the world of IT and Telecoms:

We will make billing for telecoms customers fairer and easier to understand, including making clear when a customer has paid off the price of their handset  …. strengthen the hand of online consumers. We will act to make terms and conditions clearer, and end the abusive use of subscription services, including by making it clearer when free trials come to an end. Promote technological solutions to prolong independent living …

increase the Immigration health Surcharge to #600 for migrant workers and #450 for international students to cover their use of the NHS  (competitive to the costs of health insurance paid by UK nationals working or studying overseas) …

support GPs to deliver innovative services that better meet patients’ need, including phone and on-line consultations and the use of technology to triage people so they see the right clinician more quickly … give  patients, via digital means or over the phone , the ability to book appointments, contacts the 111 service, order repeat prescriptions, and access and update aspects of their care record, as well as control how their personal data is used. We will continue to expand the number of NHS approved apps that can help monitor health care… live publication of waiting times

Section 5 of the Manifesto is headed “Prosperity and Security in a Digital Age and begins with reference to A digital charter that balances freedom with protection for users, and offers opportunities alongside obligations for businesses and platforms … two fundamental aims …

  • make Britain the best place to start and run a digital business …
  • make Britain the safest place in the world to be online

Including with “access to the best talent from overseas to compete with anywhere in the world” and the UK funds repatriated from the European Investment Fund put into British Business Bank to provide:  a sustainable business model for high-quality media online, to create a level playing field for our media and creative industries … skills and digital infrastructure that creative companies need … favourable tax arrangements … creative industries tax credits scheme … robust system for protection of intellectual property … with strong protections against infringement.

… make doing business online easier for companies and consumers .. the right to insist on a digital signature … digital cancellation of contracts …  digital companies to provide digital receipts, clearer terms and conditions when selling goods and services online and support new digital proofs of identification … same protections in online markets as they have on the high street … broadband switching easier and pricing more transparent.

… ensure that consumers and businesses have access to the digital infrastructure they need to succeed … Universal Service Obligation … gigaspeed connectivity …full fibre connection voucher for companies ..  major fibre spines in over a hundred towns and cities … ten million premises connected to full fibre and a clear path to national coverage over the next decade.

By 2022 we will extend mobile coverage further to 95 per cent geographic coverage of the UK. By the same date, all major roads and main line trains will enjoy full and uninterrupted mobile phone signal, alongside guaranteed WiFi internet service … roll out of a new 5G network providing gigaspeed … majority of the population covered by a 5G signal by 2027.”

The headline difference between the Conservatives and the other parties appears to be over the gigabit and 5G ambition, the pace of change and the reference to fibre spines to link the hundred or so would-be “smart cities”. Meanwhile the LibDems refer to investing #2bn in local community broadband and Labour says that “on one day one we will instruct the National Infrastructure Commission to report on how to roll out Ultrafast (300 mbs) across the UK within the next decade”. On March 23rd I spent a day at an NIC consultation event at which we were given to understand they were planning to have such a report ready before the summer break. That was before the election was called. Meanwhile Sadiq Khan may be about to launch a exercise to look at installing 4G across the London underground  London is now the only big City without full mobile connectivity above and below ground.

The big question is which party will be more effective at attracting new investment into new players. Analysts do not believe BT can afford the investment needed to hold onto its current market share. Hence the main reason its share price is down 30% over the past year. Meanwhile its competitors appear to have found ways of building new, more reliable, networks  for less than the cost BT claims for upgrading existing ones. Will they be given the incentives to do so? Will the Conservative  plans to overhaul our sclerotic planning processes so as to pull forward investment in new homes also help cut the cost/delay of building and installing new communications infrastuctures?

The devil will be in the detail – one of the reasons this blog is delayed is the time it has taken to write up a couple of events on that detail – e.g. how getting council highway departments (and their outsourcing operators)  to work with (instead of against) those building new networks could more than halve both the cost and time necessary. In this context I commend the excellent report published by BSG on 23rd May.  It was released during purdah so has had limited publicity.

The safest place to be online

The LibDems appear more concerned over freedom of speach, with players like Google and Facebook trusted to set their own rules, while GCHQ and law enforcement are not. Meanwhile as Tech UK pointed out, the Labour Manifesto is technology lite.

The Conservatives believe “we must take steps to protect the vulnerable and give people confidence to use the internet without fear of abuse, criminality or exposure to horrific content… online rules should reflect those … offline … as unacceptable to bully online… as difficult to groom … as hard for children to access violent and degrading pornography … and as difficult to commit a crime …

Where technology can find a solution, we will pursue it. We will work with industry to introduce new protections for minors, from images of pornography, violence, and other age-inappropriate content not just on social media but in app stores and content sites as well. We will put a responsibility on industry not to direct users – even unintentionally – to hate speech, pornography, or other sources of harm. We will make clear the responsibility of platforms to enable the reporting of inappropriate, bullying, harmful or illegal content, with take-down on a comply-or-explain basis.

We will continue to push the internet companies to deliver on their commitments to develop technical tools to identify and remove terrorist propaganda, to help smaller companies build their capabilities and to provide support for civil society organisations to promote alternative and counter-narratives. In addition, we do not believe that there should be a safe space for terrorists to be able to communicate online and will work to prevent them from having this capability.

We will educate today’s young people in the harms of the internet and how best to combat them, introducing comprehensive Relationships and Sex Education in all primary and secondary schools to ensure that children learn about the risks of the internet, including cyberbullying and online grooming.

… We will give people new rights to ensure they are in control of their own data, including the ability to require major social media platforms to delete information held about them at the age of 18, the ability to access and export personal data, and an expectation that personal data held should be stored in a secure way.

… an expert Data Use and Ethics Commission to advise regulators and parliament on the nature of data use and how best to prevent its abuse. The Commission will help us to develop the principles and rules that will give people confidence that their data is being handled properly. Alongside this commission, we will bring forward a new data protection law, fit for our new data age, to ensure the very best standards for the safe, flexible and dynamic use of data and enshrining our global leadership in the ethical and proportionate regulation of data. We will put the National Data Guardian for Health and Social Care on a statutory footing to ensure data security standards are properly enforced.

We will continue with our £1.9 billion investment in cyber security and build on the successful establishment of the National Cyber Security Centre through our worldleading cyber security strategy. We will make sure that our public services, businesses, charities and individual users are protected from cyber risks. We will further strengthen cyber security standards for government and public services, requiring all public services to follow the most up to date cyber security techniques appropriate.

In general the Conservatives appear to be consistent in wanting the same law to apply on-line and off-line: At a time when the internet is changing the way people obtain their news, we also need to take steps to protect the reliability and objectivity of information that is essential to our democracy and a free and independent press. We will ensure content creators are appropriately rewarded for the content they make available online. We will be consistent in our approach to regulation of online and offline media

I look forward to discovering what this means in practice. Some years ago I enjoyed a small round table on the plans of the old Press Complaints Commission to try to cover on-line media. Guido Fawkes (Paul Staines) and myself were the only practicing bloggers present. Computer Weekly was then part of Reed Elsevier and I had to abide by our intrepretation of PCC rules. Guido/Paul  did not. I still agree the principle. I remain as sceptical as Guido/Paul over the practicality of setting up suitable processes although I abide by the the same “rules” as I did then (checking the provenance of my sources but only attributing them if they are content).

The section on Digital Government and Public Services contains some great aspirations:

a new presumption of digital government services by default and an expectation that all government services are fully accessible online, with assisted digital support available for all public sector websites … every person can find out up to date information about roadworks, planning applications and bus routes online … ’schools maps’ … operational performance data of all public-facing services for open comparison … central and local government … required to release information regularly and in an open format, and data will be aggregated and anonymised where it is important to do so … digital transformation fellowships, so that hundreds of leaders …  open data … .

But …  “assisted digital” really has to be available for all. Those developing the user interfaces need to develop them for ease of access over the equipment used by the blind, deaf and those with limited dexterity and their trusted carers . They should not be allowed to regard such facilities as add-ons. They are not add-ons for those most dependent on public services. They should be at the heart of the specification. A consequence of following such design disciplines is systems that are faster and easier to use over mainstream equipment.

.. common platforms across government and the wider public sector … one single, common and safe way of verifying themselves to all parts of government …  using their own secure data that is not held by government. We will also make this platform [Verify] more widely available, so that people can safely … access non-government services such as banking … rationalise the use of personal data within government, reducing data duplication across all systems … ’Once-Only’ principle in central government services by 2022 and wider public services by 2025.

The concepts behind the Verify programme are admirable but for systems to be capable of use by trusted carers (or other intermediaries) requires that those running the Verify programme start to listen to their advisory committees and stop trying to plough ahead with solutions that only fit that 80% of the population who are reasonably fit and well and lead reasonably orderly and simple lives. Early in my career I learned that the “once only” principle is a dangerous illusion. It makes for simpler systems but even before the rise of hacking and deliberate fraud there were often good reasons for duplication and variation (e.g. different part numbers for components that were supposedly interchangeable but came off different production lines and failed in different ways). There are similar situations with regard to, for example, human identities and medical diagnoses. Most of the common excuses for duplication are, however, not good. We do indeed need to rationalise the use of personal data and reduce duplication while introducing robust but humane processes for helping those who may, or may not, have been impersonated. But we also need to recognise the limits.

We also want to use digital innovation to help tackle the great challenge of an ageing population, in conjunction with our social care reforms set out in chapter four. We will support new providers seeking to use digital technology to monitor long-term conditions better, deploy carers to patients or support better domiciliary care away from hospitals.

This is, perhaps, one of the most important sections in the manifesto. The first event organised by PITCOM, back in 1981, was on Computer Based Aids for the disabled. It was opened by a young Sir George Young as Minister. The technology was already up to the job. It could cut costs significantly. The problem was moving funding between pots. It still is. Today the technologies to aid remote consultation and diagnosis and give more control over their environment to the physically frail, as well as to monitor their condition and better enable their carers to look after them, are a fraction of the cost.  They should enable us to be able to afford to care for an aging population (me!!!!) without having to rely on armies of immigrants. The big need is for tech entrepreneurs to appreciate that the elderly control far more of the UK’s disposable wealth than the young and are willing to pay for that which is fit for purpose. As the wealthy buy assisted technology the costs of installation and maintenance (not just production) begin to come down,  until the not so wealthy can afford it. Ultimately, it will become commonplace – and may even be adopted by the NHS. This was one of the future growth markets  identified in “No End of Jobs” (Bow Group 1984) as being capable of more than filling any gaps in the employment market created by automation.

Digital infrastructure

Then come the other uses of technology to: transform the management of our national infrastructure … autonomous vehicles …  improve our railways … efficient use of our electricity infrastructure and electric vehicles …  manage our airspace … support for businesses developing these new technologies, creating a better environment for them to be tested in the UK.

Digital Land

Central to upgrading the UK telecommunications and energy infrastructures at affordable cost is the three dimensional mapping of the UK, above and below ground, to enable sharing and avoid the “accidental excavation” that accounts for around 20% of all major network outages. It also helps transform land management at all levels from flood prevention and farming to identifying unused or under-used inner city properties to help meet the targets for new homes. The proposal is to: combine the relevant parts of HM Land Registry, Ordnance Survey, the Valuation Office Agency, the Hydrographic Office and Geological Survey to create a comprehensive geospatial data body within government, the largest repository of open land data in the world. This new body will set the standards to digitise the planning process and help create the most comprehensive digital map of Britain to date.

It could also put the UK in the frame as the global test bed for  secure inter-operability standards in a 5G world – the obvious way forward from the interim report of the Future Communications Challenge Group.

Finally we have a Framework for Data and the Digital Economy 

a regulatory framework in law to underpin our digital charter and to ensure that digital companies, social media platforms and content providers abide by these principles … a sanctions regime to ensure compliance, giving regulators the ability to fine or prosecute those companies that fail in their legal duties, and to order the removal of content where it clearly breaches UK law … an industry-wide levy from social media companies and communication service providers to support awareness and preventative activity to counter internet harms, just as is already the case with the gambling industry.

Just as we led the world in regulating embryology … if we create the right system of governance for the digital economy and use of data, we will attract the right businesses who want to become the global centre for data use and research.

and An international settlement

open discussions with the leading tech companies and other like-minded democracies about the global rules of the digital economy, to develop an international legal framework that we have for so long benefited from in other areas like banking and trade.

There is little doubt that, if we get it right, the UK could become the most trusted place to base a global information business, as it is currently for a global money (aka financial services) business. But that means recognising that trust is earned, not claimed. Britain became globally trusted after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which demonstrated that the King/Executive had come under the rule of law. 

Whether we are still trusted in the same way, afrer teh recent Home Office reinvention of the Crown Prerogative is for others, not us, to judge. But London is unique in that you can do business in whatever language, under whatever law and jurisdiction you wish. Our membership of the European Union was beginning to jeopardise that status, whatever other benefits it brought. We must ensure that our post-Brexit policies exploits, not jeopardise, that advantage.

I will not try to some up. Tomorrow I may start to try and unpick some of the themes.


May 27, 2017  7:05 PM

Are WTO rules better than a bad Brexit deal?

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Brexit, GDPR, ITU

I have just been reading a piece by a former WTO Deputy Director General on the practical effect of reverting to WTO Rules. It is one of a series which includes summaries of the practical effects on Tariffs and Country of Origin , on Financial Services, Data Transfers and existing Trading Relations with the EU. Taken together they explain the lack of panic among those doing business across borders, as opposed to those who, like me, have spent decades trying to make a reality of the single market (digital or otherwise) and fear that our supposed “achievements” will be swept away.

The reasons for the lack of panic appear simple:

  1. Except for some agricultural products, the tariffs are modest compared to currency movements.
  2. In the event of dispute, the status quo remains until agreement is reached or the procedures exhausted. The latter can take decades.
  3. The most significant pan-EU agreements are local implementations of global agreements negotiated via the WTO or other bodies (e.g. the ITU). They are not affected by Brexit.
  4. The City of London has more experience in negotiating and interpreting trade deals than all the commercial centres of Europe, let alone Brussels, added together. Its only serious rivals (including for regulatory arbitrage) are Hong Kong (including for China),  New York and Singapore.
  5. The digital single market, let alone the digital single market, are still work in progress. It remains easier, quicker and cheaper to do many, perhaps even most,  cross-border on-line transactions via operations based in the US or other off-shore locations

The relevant wording from the Conservative Manifesto is:  “We will ensure immediate stability by lodging new UK schedules with the World Trade Organization, in alignment with EU schedules to which we are bound whilst still a member of the European Union. We will seek to replicate all existing EU free trade agreements and support the ratification of trade agreements entered into during our EU membership. We will continue to support the global multilateral rules-based trade system …”

Of course the objective is more positive:  “a new deep and special partnership with the EU, which will allow free trade between the UK and the EU’s member states … [with] … as few barriers to trade and investment as possible …”  . But if the Commission is allowed by the member states to play mind games in an attempt to extract billions to shore up its budgets, the end game is now apparent. It will take a decade or more for the Commission to impose any significant changes but only two years for its own finances to implode unless Germany agrees to cover the hole left by the departure of the UK.

The issues with regard to the free movement of data are rather more interesting.

The Conservative commitments to workers rights in a gig economy, to giving us control over our own data and to public sector data governance intercept a number of current EU initiatives, not just only the implementation of the on-line predators friend, the General Data Protection Register. Meanwhile the speed with which the Greater Manchester Police appear to have been able detain the ring of support behind the Arena Bomber  illustrates the importance of the recent UK legislation which prevented the previous powers of GCHQ from lapsing as a result of judgements in the European Court. The ironies include the role of Brexit Minister in the EU Court case and the concern of many member states that Brexit will lead to reduced access to information collected under powers which they collectively (via the EU) oppose. I need to spend more time unpacking these before blogging in more detail.


May 27, 2017  6:45 PM

BA systems collapse after offshoring adds context to “freedom of movement”

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo

The collapse of the systems which British Airways outsourced to India after making a thousand or so UK IT staff redundant helps put the debate over freedom of movement into context.

India accounted for 55% of the 56,000 Tier 2 visas issued in the year to March 2016 and ICT for 42%.  Delving into the tables behind the charts it is apparent that over 7,000 companies are registered to sponsor visas for intra-company transfers. The size of the immigration “industry” appears rather greater than UK demand for those being imported. Hence the tension between those wanting to import “talent” from “the rest of the EU” and those wanting to import from “the rest of world” (i.e. India) which lies behind the confused arguments over “freedom of movement”. Hence also the anger of those ICT consultants, often members of IPSE, who voted leave because uncontrolled immigration was depressing their contract rates. But they are even more angry about the tax advantages (particularly with regard to expenses) enjoyed by contractors from India.

None of the manifestos even attempts to address the latter – but GMB’s criticism last year of the British Airways outsourcing deal with Tata Consulting Services helped lead to the Conservative manifesto promise to double the skills levy on the Tier 2 visas which had been used to support the outsource deal. Players like Tech UK who have criticised that levy should, instead, look at how their members can work with and through, for example, the Tech Partnership, (the voice of digital employers) to ensure that the funding pledged for improving UK technician (including graduate and post graduate technicians) skills is well spent. The skills issues do, however, go rather wide than current definitions of “digital” – hence the time I am spending on the DPA regional skills pilots – to demonstrate the value to participants of joining up their activities at the operational level – bypassing the politics (departmental, professional and trade association, not just Parliamentary) of London.

May 21, 2017  9:39 AM

Looking behind the Digital Manifesto Bingo

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Digital skills, Labour, Libdem, techUK

I have been reading the Tech UK responses to the party manifestos. Their caution reflects the concerns of their larger members, particularly of currently dominant ISPs, telcos, suppliers and service providers.

Some of these could seriously lose out if the post-Brexit political programme really does lead to a market-driven transition to a “gigaplus” world in which:

  • SMEs get 33% of government spend,
  • the same legislation/regulation/taxation applies on-line as off-line and
  • those who move IT offshore or import talent are “encouraged” to help train the natives.

But those who expect to “win” are also cautious. Implementing the pledges, so as to deliver the visions, will not be easy. As the Prime Minister says in her forward: “They do not offer a quick fix”.

Moreover, success requires large multinationals, (as well as the pension and sovereign wealth funds investing in those who will challenge the current market leaders over the next decade or so), to decide that post-Brexit UK is a good place in which to invest in profit-taking (and therefore tax-paying), global (not just pan-EU) production and service hubs.

What the manifestos mean

Tech UK has produced a great, judgement free, summary of the party manifestos: simply count the number of times that key words appear in them:

Keyword  Conservative    Labour    LibDem

Digital           66                    9                  8

Technology  66                  15                 23

Data              33                    2                  6

Cyber            12                    4                  2

But what do the words actually mean?

The interpretations of the technology commentators are largely based on what the industry lobbyists want or fear them to mean. We should also look at what the authors of the manifestos meant them to mean. Manifestos are produced much faster than laws but, as Bismark said of the latter , the process is best not observed too closely. They are always compromises between pressures from ideological and sectoral interest groups, including the factions within the parties. Some of those mounting pressure are well organised, well known and articulate. Some are well-funded and/or politically well-connected. But the referendum saw the  revolt of “middle England” against the Westminster Village and the Metropolitan Elite. London and those City complexes with Russell Group Universities voted remain. The rest of England and  Wales voted leave. I have not looked at the split in Scotland but suspect it is similar.

The Parties have responded to that revolt in different ways. Labour has gone back to its roots. The LibDem are in denial. The Conservatives are looking for a new consensus.  The slogan may be “Strong and Stable” but the Conservative contains a vision for the market-driven use of technology to help bring about a transformation of society as a whole – to make post-Brexit Britain a globally competitive, socially and geographically inclusive digital hub. That vision includes using gigaspeed infrastructure to spread high tech jobs, innovation and wealth creation across the whole country. It is, for example, about slashing the cost of using new technology to support “assisted living” for an aging population, without the need to suck in ever more immigrants and depress wages for care assistants.

But the manifesto also reflects an awareness that some of the players in the “gig” economy have behaved very badly to both customers and employees, denying both the rights and choices they expect in the real world economy and displaying a patronising contempt for the digitally excluded and those worried about on-line safety and security. We should therefore recognise that behind the qualified support for the references to technology initiatives, there is very real opposition from those in the IT industry who fear the they will be left behind or whose current business models are threatened. To quote Machiavelli: “There is nothing more difficult … than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institutions and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new ones

Even where there are cross-cutting visions behind the party manifestos, these will have been cut into pieces to meet the concerns of the focus groups assembled by polling gurus, before being stitched back together in rhetoric to which the gurus think swing voters will respond. Back in 1979 one of my roles was to produce sound bites, for which I could produce robust peer-reviewed back up, to be used by two of Mrs Thatcher’s most trusted script-writers. Over recent years my main role has been to help those 40 years younger than me to understand the issues – hence much of the material I have publicised in this blog. I have never, (because I am a “dangerous enthusiast”), been trusted to actually help write a manifesto – as opposed to suggesting or commenting on content.

Over the next couple of days I plan to approach the task of helping readers understand what the Conservative Manifesto means to those interested in matters IT/Digital (users, technicians and professionals not just suppliers), in three main ways:

  • a canter through the manifestos in the order in which topics appear
  • a look at how they reflect the visions of those who sought to influence party policy
  • a commentary on the challenges of getting the tribes of Whitehall to co-operate in implementing joined-up, cross-cutting policies in time to make a success of Brexit.

Among the topics I expect to highlight, on the way, are:

The need to enlist support from those who want to see change brought forward, in order to cut through the regulatory and other obfuscation that will be used by those who want to delay it.

The need for the supporters of change to work together, publicly and openly, to help put flesh on what are inevitably outline proposals, to ensure that the objectives are met in ways that benefit the country as a whole, not just their own sectoral interests.

The need to motivate short, medium and long term investors, because the UK may now be heading in the direction of solvency but is in even more debt than seven years ago.

I will. however, begin today with a few thoughts one of my own hobby horses: the need to transform our education and training system to give the skills of the present and future to the many, not just the few. A century long focus on academic excellence has given us world class universities and research centres but is also one of the main reasons we are so dependent on imported technicians. Those who wish to remain free to import world class post-graduate talent (not just from the EU) need to be seen to help use the doubled revenue from the Tier 2 skills levies to rapidly expand the use of, for example, blended learning “boot camps” to turn native talent into billable technicians, within months not years.

The Digital Policy Alliance has been asked to look at how to encourage employers to engage with those looking at how to ensure the new linked skills and immigration policies are implemented in ways that really do reflect their needs, bearing in mind the need for co-operation across Government Departments and Agencies who are not used to co-operating with each other.  The headline questions remain as specified when I took charge of the relevant Conservative Technology Forum studies. I am in the process of handing those studies over the next generation – to refine and implement the answers on an all-party basis, with many more employers engaged alongside training providers at all levels to show that they work. Before the election was called I was told that ministers from at least two departments were planning to look at STEM Plymouth, to which the first all-party, local digital skills pilot is coupled. The idea for such pilots was first announced shortly after the 2015 election . It have taken two years to get the first under way but I understand it will be ready for public announcement in mid-July – and hope that the new ministers will be able to attend and/or otherwise welcome the progress made during the election purdah.


May 18, 2017  9:37 AM

Royal Mail Plans to work with Post Office to recapture Internet Delivery from White Van man

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo

I am delighted to report progress since I blogged on Royal Mail’s failure to organise local collection points to replace sorting offices it was planning to close.  I have received an e-mail from the Office of the Chief Executive of Royal Mail regarding plans for West Norwood, where I live.

“We have been using the Delivery to Neighbour process for a number of years now and more recently we have been giving our customers the chance to choose which of their neighbours they would like items to be left with.  It has proven very successful in allowing our delivery officers to deliver mail first time.

“The feedback we have received from our customers has prompted us to look into the possibility of a local Customer Service Point in the Post Office; this is something that we are currently considering along with Post Office Ltd.

I also learned that the “Local Collect” , which I knew was available in Rural Areas, is also now available in urban areas.

“Some Post Offices do offer a Local Collect service, as you’ve described, with a £1 fee when collecting your item.  West Norwood Post Office at 12 Knights Hill, London, SE27 0HX does offer Local Collect, so if an item is undelivered you can follow the instructions on the ‘Something for you’ card and pay the fee on collection.  This service is offered in 10,500 Post Offices, for more information please see our website.”

My e-mailed reply of welcome concluded:

I look forward to the completion of negotiations with  the Post Office when this service becomes not only only free but widely promoted as part of an exercise to recapture the Internet Delivery market from White Van Man“.

My personal interest in this subject was partly as Chairman of Thurlow Park Conservatives, (our  action team of prospective councillors were photographed in support of the demonstration convened by the local labour MP, Helen Hayes which I mentioned in my previous blog), but more particularly in memory of my late Uncle, William D’Oyley Arthurton, who I mentioned in my first blog on this subject .

Not only did he lead the National Federation of Subpostmasters in their attempts to negotiate genuine modernisation with John Stonehouse, Tony Benn and Sir Ron Dearing, but his first sub post office, in Foulsham (since moved) was a steam-age one-stop-shop for all local dealings with government, with an attached postman and the sorting office in a back room, though, unlike some, he did not have the local telephone exchange behind the counter. His last sub-post office, Walton, used the extended Post Office opening hours and Girobank to capture the business of the freight forwarding companies shipping through Felixstowe.

He, and his fellow subpostmasters had visions for locally integrated, but also computer-assisted, services that I do hope the new Government will “help” Royal Mail and the Post Office to rekindle.

Today their visions, I met some of his younger colleagues at his funeral, include to help:

  • liberate our suburban streets from jams of delivery vehicles of all shapes and sizes
  • enable the vulnerable and elderly to personally identify themselves to some-one local who knows them – despite the attempts of everyone else to herd them on-line to be fleeced.
  • address the current plague of on-line crime (integrating phishing, vishing and courier fraud) by providing an integrated chain of trust based on physical, not merely digital, trust.

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