Berry last blog

Since newstatesman.com relaunched on 30 November 2006 Sian Berry has been a regular contributor on h

Yes, I know I promised to file a blog on eco-towns a fortnight ago. However, I have to confess I was tempted into moonlighting it away to the Telegraph, who are running a series of stories on what they are calling ‘Gordon’s poll tax’. So, for an update on the impressive number of campaigns that have emerged to oppose the fifteen shortlisted eco-town sites, you’ll have to read my article here.

In other news, therefore, the Greens have scored a second decent result in a by-election with our best ever mid-term Westminster score of 7.4 per cent and second place in Haltemprice and Howden.

Congratulations to Shan Oakes, who blogged her determined campaign for this site, and who worked incredibly hard to win many new voters in a seat we haven’t contested for many years.

This comes just two weeks after an excellent third place for our candidate Mark Stephenson in Henley, on an election stage that carried a full slate of parties, and where we beat a Labour candidate for the first time in a parliamentary election.

Interesting developments also in the Census Alert campaign to prevent arms company Lockheed Martin running the 2011 Census. No, not the response from the government to our petition, which we received this week. Their three paragraph missive said nothing much, other than they were getting everyone to sign agreements to look after our personal data properly, which is not particularly reassuring.

However, the Treasury Select Committee have been taking up the cause, rightly supporting our concerns about how the US Patriot Act (which forces US companies and their subsidiaries to hand over any data they hold that is deemed of interest to their country’s intelligence agencies) would apply to any work done by Lockheed on our Census.

In a recent report, the committee put in a strongly worded request for more work to be done, saying: “We remain concerned that the personal information gathered through the 2011 Census could be subject to the United States Patriot Act and therefore we ask the government to take clear legal advice and advice from the US State Department and to publish it in response to this Report.”

We’re now looking forward to reading this advice. If the legal position continues to be a grey area then, faced with the choice between breaking UK privacy laws and the Patriot Act, which government would Lockheed choose to ignore? The point of our campaign remains that it would be better to ensure the Census data is not allowed anywhere near Lockheed Martin by removing them from the procurement process altogether.

And finally, goodbye, as this will be my last blog for this site. From this week I will be going, if not undercover, then at least behind the scenes to work full-time in the Green Party press office. We have an extraordinarily important two years ahead of us, with European elections in 2009 followed (or possibly preceded) by a general election in which we have our best chance ever of making a breakthrough into Parliament.

With no elections I can personally fight until 2010 at the earliest, I have decided the best way I can serve my party is to help promote the excellent work of Greens around the country, and to help Caroline Lucas MEP make history by winning in Brighton Pavilion, where we already have a majority in local election votes.

Westminster elections are, of course, a world away from local polls, so winning there will be a tough and exciting challenge, but also a huge opportunity to make a real difference to UK politics which I am looking forward to with great relish.

I will miss the opportunity to blog here though. Not the angry and libelous comments I get in response, naturally, but it has been a privilege to be able to highlight the work of a wide range of campaigns and causes on this site. Over the past 22 months, lots of green issues have obviously had an airing, from the campaign to stop Heathrow expansion to the exploitation of Mongolia’s natural resources and the failings of the Tory Quality of Life review.

But I’ve also been able to bring up much wider issues, including local high streets, fair pay campaigns and free and open source software. I hope the New Statesman will continue to give all these issues prominence and trust it will find someone to replace me who has even more to talk about.

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
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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