Up the City of London

Brian Coleman returns to the City of London

The last time I wrote a column referring to the Corporation of the City of London, Ken Livingstone described me as behaving like a "demented Trot" in calling for its abolition - which, incidentally I was not.

Meanwhile a hard copy of my blog was pinned up on the notice board of the Members room at the Guildhall. I suspect the first time many Alderman and Common Councillors had read anything in the New Statesman.

Although one Common Councilman was very rude to me (and you know who you are Mr Deputy), I was amazed at the number of sensible and well informed members of the Corporation who sidled up to me and remarked that I had raised some interesting points.

Well, the other night the Great and the Good of London Government duly donned their dinner jackets and enjoyed the Lord Mayor’s hospitality at the Annual Government of London Dinner.

To the general astonishment of most, Ken Livingstone wore the regulation Black Tie (is there an election on?) and the number of guests who I spotted in a lounge suit could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The lord mayor actually made a good speech, mainly because he expressed the sentiments that we politicians were thinking, that London and its issues as a capital city are not understood by this government.

And, once again, it has been stuffed on the Local Government Finance settlement.

Ken Livingstone’s response was, sadly, rather long and rambling and, unlike Ken’s normal after dinner style, devoid of jokes, which was probably why one Common Councilman on the top table was sound asleep and at least one London Borough Mayor was nodding off.

Most guests amused themselves by reading the printed copy of the detailed table plan. During his speech Ken could not resist his current obsession of attacking the London Evening Standard which he described as the London Evening Johnson to a murmur of disapproval.

The best speech of the evening was undoubtedly by Councillor Merrick Cockell. He's the leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (and with a name like that he was born to be leader of a Royal Borough!) and Chairman of London Councils.

Letting Merrick speak was a nod from the City that we have London mayoral and assembly elections this year and they had better have a bit of political balance.

After paying tribute to the Corporation and the chairman of its policy and resources committee, the still unknighted Michael Snyder, Merrick - on behalf of all the London Boroughs pleaded for much closer cooperation with the mayor of London - post the elections in May. Probably the one overwhelming theme of Ken Livingstone’s mayoralty has been the constant state of war between him and the London Boroughs whatever their political colour.

The following morning I was again in the City of London attending the City New Year Service at St Michael Cornhill presided over by the redoubtable rector, the Reverend Dr Peter Mullen, who preached a sermon before a selection of liverymen and City worthies that restored one's faith in the Church of England.

Condemning most things liberal and the wishy washeyness of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Mullen suggested that global warming was a pagan myth and the answer to all life’s problems was a firm and robust Christian faith.

In times gone by the rector would have made a wonderful archdeacon but, in these politically correct days, has as much chance of advancement in the Anglican communion as I do of getting positive coverage in the Guardian. The service ended with a robust singing of three verses of the National Anthem including the great line "Confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks".

The City of London remains a defender of those traditions and beliefs that made our country great and over the centuries has confounded and frustrated generations of politicians: long may it be so!

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital