Week one of a new government and it’s time to talk tech

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Jul 10, 2024


It is often said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose, but as we contemplate the new government, trying to predict regulatory intentions in every policy announcement and ministerial appointment, what tech prose can the tech bros expect?

In his speech on the steps of Number 10, our new Prime Minister highlighted his commitment to “stability and moderation” and a desire for “wealth created in every community”. Later the same day, his first in government, Patrick Vallance was appointed a minister of state for science in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT). Vallance, formerly chief scientific adviser to the government, knows his stuff and is an excellent appointment.

Days later, when we were still barely recovered from the election daze, the government announced that DSIT will expand in both scope and size bringing experts in data, digital and artificial intelligence (AI) from the Government Digital Service (GDS), the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) and the Incubator for AI (i.AI) to unite efforts in the digital transformation of public services under one department.

Not only is this measure intended to improve the British public’s experience of interacting with the government, it is also expected to “help remove roadblocks to sharing data across the public sector”. This is so important, as is the commitment to “ensure the government has the right infrastructure and regulation to become more digital”.

The new DSIT secretary of state Peter Kyle said: “DSIT is to become the centre for digital expertise and delivery in government, improving how the government and public services interact with citizens. We will act as a leader and partner across government, with industry and the research communities, to boost Britain’s economic performance and power up our public services to improve the lives and life chances of people through the application of science and technology.”

When Labour introduces its legislative agenda on 17 July, I hope to see a number of bills to this end, not least a new Smart Data Bill, a Digital Assets Bill and in case the government doesn’t introduce one, a reappearance of my private members bill on regulating AI. 

Smart data

The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, which was introduced to Parliament in March 2023, was in committee stage with us in the House of Lords when the general election was called, and it was lost during wash-up. There were many issues with the Bill as drafted but one aspect, urgently needed, not least with respect to DSIT’s mission outlined above, is regulatory clarity around smart data. We have the opportunity to build the world’s first smart data economy.

The UK has played a global leadership role in the development of open banking and has the opportunity to take important steps forward on enabling its future, moving towards open finance, and then the wider smart data economy agenda.

I would like to see that stability and planning in action with a five-year roadmap extending open banking to open finance. Making open data available in all financial sectors by 2030, including credit, savings, mortgages, and insurance so that citizens can have a complete picture of their personal balance sheet in one place.

Then perhaps a slightly longer-term plan to extend smart data to most aspects of the UK economy, creating value for consumers and businesses by combining financial data with data from other sectors, energy being an obvious one.

Equally important will be a regulatory regime that ensures competition and fair access and the right infrastructure. We need interoperable standards and data exchange, including digital identity verification.

The increasing digitalisation of market infrastructure potentially leads also to enabling digital assets and tokens to be more widely understood and adopted.

Digital assets

We have the great good fortune in this country to have the tradition of common law that is agile, principles-based and internationally respected. We are equally lucky in terms of the institutions that help maintain that position, not least our Law Commission.

The Law Commission has been addressing the legal treatment of digital assets. These assets, which include crypto-tokens and other forms of digital property, don’t neatly fit into existing legal categories. The Law Commission understand two forms of property – things in possession, which are rights in tangible objects, like a bag of gold; and things in action, which are rights asserted through legal proceedings, such as debts or shares in companies.

However, it is the view of the Law Commission that digital assets don’t fit neatly into either category. They recommend recognising a new class of digital assets that meet specific criteria. These criteria include being neither a “thing in possession” nor a “thing in action.” The goal is to create a clear and consistent legal framework for digital assets, ensuring clarity and security for users and markets. This is in no sense straightforward – I’d be keen to hear people’s views.

AI regulation

My private members bill – the Artificial Intelligence (Regulation) Bill – suffered the same fate as the smart data provisions when, on that otherwise unremarkable wet Wednesday afternoon, the general election was called.

I had drafted and introduced the bill to push the government to consider practical aspects of regulating AI and had managed to get it through all the Lords stages of the parliamentary process before it fell.

The bill put the government’s AI principles on a statutory basis and proposed an AI authority to boost regulatory capability, build public awareness and ensure that wherever intellectual property and copyrighted content is used to train large language models, it is always used with consent, respect and remuneration. 

Another important element of the Bill was the introduction of an AI responsible officer for all organisations that develop, deploy or use AI. I would ask the new government to seriously consider this concept as a further enabler of the safe, ethical, and trusted deployment of AI in the UK.

Currently we are leaving AI regulation to voluntary initiatives from industry and overstretched – and under-resourced – regulators such as the Financial Conduct Authority, Competition and Markets Authority, Ofcom and the Information Commissioner incorporating AI into existing frameworks. It’s not enough and I am well aware that UK-based organisations concerned with compliance are, understandably, looking towards the European Union’s AI Act.

Across the UK, we have the talent, we have the technologies, we have the common law. We need the leadership. Amplifying, updating, future-facing for a new century Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology”. It is this human-led, human-in-the-loop technology which can not only generate growth, but must also put us on a path to increased productivity and wealth created in every community.

Lord Chris Holmes of Richmond is a member of the House of Lords, where he sits on the Select Committee on Science and Technology. He is also a passionate advocate for the potential of technology and the benefits of diversity and inclusion and is co-chair of parliamentary groups on fintech, artificial intelligence, blockchain, assistive technology and the 4th Industrial Revolution. An ex-Paralympic swimmer, he won nine gold, five silver and one bronze medal across four Games, including a record haul of six golds at Barcelona 1992.

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