Ed Miliband will likely be denied the opportunity to speak to David Cameron one-on-one on air. (Photo:Getty)
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TV debates: Will Miliband and Cameron ever meet on screen?

A new proposal from Downing Street has thrown the debates into confusion.

The debate around debates has taken another confusing turn. James Forsyth reports that Downing Street has agreed to a single seven-way debate on 2 April.

Under a new format, Ed Miliband and David Cameron would be grilled by Jeremy Paxman before facing questions from a studio audience on Channel 4 on 26 March. Crucially, however, the two leaders would be interviewed separately – they wouldn’t tussle directly.

They would then be joined by the leaders of Plaid Cymru, the SNP, the Greens, Ukip and the Liberal Democrats on 2April. Then on 16 April there would be a so-called “challengers debate” between the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and Ukip.  Finally, on 30 April, Cameron, Miliband and Nick Clegg would each have half an hour with David Dimbleby on the BBC.

There is widespread confusion. None of the smaller parties who would appear in the so-called “challengers debate” appear to have heard of the change in the rules. As for Labour, they are maintaining that they have already agree to attend the debates under the old 7-7-2 format, saying:

Based on the broadcasters’ proposals we have accepted and plan to attend all three debates on April 2nd, 16th and the 30th. If the Tories have confirmed they are to attend to one of these debates then that is progress. It is one down, two to go. But no-one should be fooled: David Cameron is still running scared of a head-to-head televised debate with Ed Miliband.”

Frankly if this new format goes ahead it will be a setback for Ed Miliband – the optics of the seven-on-seven debate will favour the Prime Minister against his opponents. (“To every question, all you would have to do is say ‘Look? This is the chaos that’s on offer’” one Tory mused recently.) And the new alternative to the one-on-one gives the Labour leader all of the disadvantages of being directly compared to David Cameron without the opportunity to take him on.

What appears to have happened is that the broadcasters, faced with the unappetising prospect of an hour of also-rans or a duel between Miliband and an empty chair, have blinked first. Cameron has avoided his two nightmare scenarios – a four-way debate with Nigel Farage and a one-on-one with Miliband. And with the Liberal Democrats appearing to accede to the new format, it looks as if Team Miliband’s dream of the head-to-head clash between their man and David Cameron simply won’t happen.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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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