Rory Stewart in the House of Commons.
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Senior Labour figures back Rory Stewart for top defence post

Tessa Jowell, Bob Ainsworth and Dan Jarvis endorse the Tory MP as defence select committee chair. 

One small but significant change to the way parliament works in recent years has been the election of chairs to select committees. Previously they were in the gift of party whips. The innovation has been welcomed by MPs who felt that the authority of the legislature had been systematically undermined by an over-mighty executive (although that is more of a hazard when one party has a commanding majority).

One such election happens tomorrow when a new chair will be named for the defence select committee. It is a significant post given the sensitivity of the issues in hand – the future of funding for armed forces in an era of budget austerity; rolling anxiety about Britain’s appetite for military intervention; rapidly shifting views of what constitutes a sensible strategic deployment of limited resources as the nature and scale of new threats emerge and old ones recede.

By predetermined allocation the job goes to a Conservative, but the race is fiercely competitive within that pool. All MPs get a vote, which means candidates have to demonstrate a capacity to work with opposition colleagues. Other attractive criteria include, naturally, experience and expertise in defence matters and a record of independence. The latter point is emphasised by those parliamentarians who see the committee chair as a place where policy rigour and free-thought must trump obedience to the party line.

An early favourite was Keith Simpson, a junior minister at the Foreign Office. Now the lead contenders are said to be Rory Stewart, an author, expert on Afghanistan and former diplomat in Iraq and Julian Lewis, a former front-bencher who shadowed the armed forces portfolio in opposition. Other candidates include Bob Stewart, a former Army officer and Julian Brazier, a junior minister under John Major and a territorial army veteran. At the back of the pack are Crispin Blunt, Tobias Elwood and James Gray.

Tory backers of Rory Stewart are today gladdened by a potentially vital intervention from the Labour camp. Three prominent opposition MPs – Tessa Jowell, Bob Ainsworth and Dan Jarvis – have backed Stewart in an email circulated to colleagues. The latter two signatories in particular will attract note since Ainsworth is a former Defence Secretary and Jarvis served in the Paras and is often cited as one of Labour’s stars-yet-to-rise. Whether their intervention makes a difference will become clear tomorrow. Meanwhile, the effusive tone of the endorsement makes interesting reading for followers of such matters:

 

Dear Colleagues,


We are writing to ask if you might support Rory Stewart to be Chair of the Defence Select Committee. He is a fresh and independent voice and a very thoughtful analyst of UK Defence Policy. He has challenged the government's Afghan strategy, calmly and with real impact. But he continues to argue ‎that interventions are sometimes – as in Bosnia or Rwanda - necessary.‎ He does this on the basis of a unique experience working in and with the military across all the major conflicts of the last two decades.


Having served briefly as an infantry officer in the Black Watch, he served with the Foreign Office in Indonesia, in Bosnia, in Montenegro in the wake of the Kosovo campaign and in Iraq (where he as the deputy governor of two provinces in Southern Iraq). He then left the Foreign Office to set up an NGO, Turquoise Mountain, in Afghanistan. He spent three years living in Kabul establishing a clinic, a primary school, and leading an urban regeneration project. He was appointed Professor of Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School and lectures in Defence Colleges and universities in the US and Britain. He has written three books on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Intervention, focused on defence policy.


He has demonstrated over four years on the Foreign Affairs Committee, that he is a collegial, non-Partisan colleague with exceptional experience and knowledge of recent conflicts. He is not tied to the ‘Cold War’ but instead has reflected deeply on future challenges from Human Rights to Cyber-Security. We feel he would be a dedicated, intelligent, fair and open-minded Chair, never afraid to hold the government to account. We would be very grateful if you would consider voting for him.

 

With best wishes,

 

Tessa Jowell

Bob Ainsworth

Dan Jarvis

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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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