Tories have been ordered to be full of ho, ho, ho this Christmas. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Commons Confidential: A shocking secret Santa

Plus: an unexpected gnome.

The Chancer of the Exchequer, George Osborne, is playing Scrooge by threatening permanent austerity, yet word went out from Tory HQ for MPs and candidates to be full of ho, ho, ho. So Andrew Atkinson, the Conservative challenger to Labour’s Ian Lucas in Wrexham, donned the full outfit to play Santa in the Welsh town.

Festivities were moved to the Pentre Gwyn Community Centre after the usual venue, Kingsley Circle, was shut by council cuts. Atkinson is a hard-line deficit slasher so his sack is no doubt full of redundancies, payday loan forms and bedroom tax penalties. The music teacher playing carols nearly fainted with shock at the Tory’s cheek. Lucas needs to buy his wife, for it was her, smelling salts for Christmas.

Lord Palmer’s family pile, Manderston in Berwickshire, boasts the world’s only silver staircase. The convivial aristo, scion of the biscuit family and hereditary peer, is friendly with Labour MPs over the border in Northumberland.

I detect a touch of the Downton in the relationship. The Old Etonian once invited, I hear, Blyth Valley’s rough-hewn Ronnie Campbell to polish the banister. Campbell, an ex-miner, was equally unable to assist when Palmer inquired if the MP knew anybody willing to clean the Edwardian stately home.

The tea room talk is of the strained friendship between Margaret Hodge and Tessa Jowell. The pair were sisters in arms but the London mayoralty has come between them. Jowell’s tossed her hat in the ring while the chair of the public accounts committee hedges her bets. The influential post in the Commons is occupied by an opposition MP, so should Labour win the election, Hodge would be out of one job and free to run for another. Every cloud has a silver lining. For somebody.

Tory, Lib Dem and Labour whips have one thing in common: contempt for the Tory minister Matt Hancock. I hear he’s so despised that the party enforcers share text messages about him. A Tory I’ll decline to identify showed Labour whips a text ordering Tory MPs to huddle around Hancock in the Commons to signal support.

On the edge of Harold Wilson’s grave sits a small, red-hatted gnome. The political editor of the FT, George Parker, spied the garden sentry on a visit to the Isles of Scilly. The figure is, presumably, a tribute to the Labour premier’s dig at the tax-dodging “gnomes of Zürich”, the Swiss bankers. When Cameron shuffles off this mortal coil, a tin of baked beans would be appropriate to commemorate food banks.

What attracted the BBC’s Paul “Are you going to resign, minister?” Lambert to Ukip? There’s the £100,000-plus salary and that’s more than double the money Labour dangled in front of the gobbiest man in TV. 

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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