Sian goes to Climate Camp

I wonder how many people have decided this week that, actually, they don’t think expanding airports

I joined the Camp for Climate Action near Heathrow on Sunday, a few hours before the start of the 24 hours of ‘mass action’. As I walked up from the A4, chased by the dreadful roar of planes landing behind me every 30 seconds, I wondered if I was heading in the right direction. Where were the posters and stickers on every lamppost – the typical signs of being in the area of a demonstration? Around me an ordinary west London morning was happening, with people picking up papers and catching buses as usual.

Then I remembered. The people I knew were at the climate camp were real greens; not into careless vandalism, but practising what they preached; literally ‘being the change’ they wanted to see; building a camp based on self-reliance and low-impact living. I bet myself right then that there wouldn’t be single piece of non-biodegradable litter left in that field at the end of this.

I finally got confirmation I was on the right road when a police roadblock came into view, followed by the camp itself. I went in, past the Met photographers and a press enclosure worthy of a Big Brother eviction (but with much longer lenses).

The atmosphere was satirical, serious, determined and friendly. I got my bearings, bumped into plenty of people I knew - some I hadn’t seen for ages - and everyone I spoke to was excited at the attention created by the camp. The compost toilets were excellent and, after a short visit, and joining up with some fellow (capital G) Greens, I discovered the range of ‘actions’ I could take part in.

I decided to go for whatever the biggest group was doing, which was a press photo followed by a ‘family-friendly’ march. Joining a large group preparing for the press call under a banner with the best slogan I’ve seen in ages: ‘We are armed – only with peer-reviewed science’. We all took copies of the executive summary of a Tyndall Centre report to attach to our hands (“Without swift action to curtail aviation growth, all the other UK sectors will have to almost completely decarbonise by 2050 to compensate” - quite).

After brandishing our scientific reasons for protesting at the press, we set off for the village of Sipson – along with nearby Harlington, set to be subsumed under the planned third runway and new flightpath. Other, smaller, groups took a range of routes to the headquarters of BAA, of which several made it. They are still dug in there as I write, while others have reached the British Airways cargo terminal.

At Sipson we were joined by protesting locals and marched – very slowly thanks to the police halting things regularly for no reason – along the route of the proposed runway, accompanied by music from the Rinky Dink pedal-powered sound system.

The self-discipline and seriousness of the camp has wrongfooted most of the press pack. Earlier in day, I was sent to review the Sunday papers on Radio 4, so had to read almost every word of the coverage – of which there was a huge amount. On its own, getting so much attention for a neglected, yet massive, failing in government policy is a real achievement. But I also noticed how the nature of the coverage had changed over the week.

Every paper had sent in undercover reporters in an attempt to root out any shred of trouble or hypocrisy they could find. But their attempts to paint the protestors as a fringe outfit failed by their own admission. Again and again these journalists brought up caricatures of the green movement, but all were forced to qualify their reports with phrases such as ‘of course the protestors are right’ and ‘I found it hard to find anyone without a PhD’.

The thing is, this is no longer the 1990s, and protest camping is no longer something only a tiny minority can conceive of. The policy changes the campers want to ram home with this week’s actions are now desired by a majority, and there are now many, many people with first-hand experience of direct action who make up the constituency the camp emerges from.

These might include people whose first experience of marching was in February 2003, who then joined the World Development Movement or got on a coach to Edinburgh with Oxfam for the G8 in 2005. Not flying and holidaying in the UK also means that, for many more, camping holds no fear.

Will the camp succeed? I wonder how many people have decided this week that, actually, they don’t think expanding airports and ruining all our other efforts to stop climate change is a good idea. Whatever the other achievements of this week’s camp, whole pages seriously questioning the government’s aviation policy – including in the Mail on Sunday – can only help.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
Show Hide image

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