What should the government do with blockchain?

Today I’ll be asking the government what they have learnt from an ongoing trial in which benefits are paid to people via a system using blockchain (or distributed ledger) technology. A blockchain is an asset database that can be shared across several networks, and the trial – run by fintech company GovCoin and researchers at University College London – pays participants through an app on their smart phone which connects them to various services.

I passionately believe in the potential for technology to transform our lives for the better and think it essential that both government and society start from the point of a considered can, rather than a fearful can’t. I hope that learning more about the Govcoin trial will help us all understand, and be part of, the changes that are coming. I also believe the government needs to look wider than the Department for Work and Pensions for applications of this technology; across Whitehall and the whole public sector and also seriously consider the move from proof of concept to pilot to scale.

Advances in technology can absolutely be about empowering, enabling and creating closer more effective relationships. Distributed ledger techonology, if applied properly by seriously addressing issues of privacy, security, identity and trust, can offer incredible benefits to us all, including, but not limited to, reduced costs for government (and taxpayer) and better services for individuals.

As a member of the Lords Committee on Financial Exclusion our report, published this weekend, found that more than 1.7m people in the UK do not have a bank account, further estimates suggest at least 600,000 older people are financially excluded. A combination of  distributed ledger technology and developments such as the Payment Services Directive 2 (PSD2) could lead to greater financial inclusion of people currently on the fringes of the financial system. These are serious and tangible benefits.

Another significant area of potential is the transformation of the relationship between government agencies and citizens. Greater transparency and trust should lead to a more equal, connected and far closer relationship. But this will not happen as a matter of course and there needs to be a principles-based, appropriate framework that is underpinned by an understanding of the philosophical, psychological and legal issues at play.

The best way for the government to move ahead with the work is to adopt clear, honest communication with the public. There must be clarity about what the government is trying to do and how to get there – and crucially how it’s a joint endeavour. This means a further shift towards user-centric service design and co-production that sees people as active parties, rather than passive recipients. People must understand the value of their data and have ownership of it. The Digital Economy Bill, currently making its way through parliament, offers a start in dealing with some of these questions and considerations but lacks ambition and has provoked understandable concerns regarding privacy and data sharing powers.

Why did the blind man cross the road?

Lord Holmes and Lottie at side of Exhibition Road as taxi passes

I have been campaigning for some time against a street design approach known as “shared space” which has, de facto, led to the creation of unsafe environments which discriminate against blind people and negatively impact the vast majority of users.

The Department for Transport defines shared space as:

A street or place designed to improve pedestrian movement and comfort by reducing the dominance of motor vehicles and enabling all users to share the space rather than follow the clearly defined rules implied by more conventional designs.”

The key part here is a desire for “all users to share the space” so “traffic signals are often removed, with indications of priority at minor junctions omitted… conventional kerbs are omitted and pedestrians share an undifferentiated surface with vehicles.”

On Wednesday I gave evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee whose inquiry into disability and the built environment has asked “to what extent do shared space schemes in roads and highways cause barriers for disabled people and how can these be resolved?”

Throughout the course of my campaign, increasing numbers of professionals have responded by asserting that shared space is no longer a useful term. Indeed, the man who claims responsibility for introducing the term in 2003, Ben Hamilton-Baillie, who also gave evidence, claimed that “the term has stuck in ways it was never meant to.” Discomfort over the term has even extended to one local authority currently introducing a scheme in Bodmin, where the council website now statestechnically we are not delivering a true shared space scheme.”

Whilst, like any campaigner, I am pleased to have arrived at an area of consensus, and I can certainly agree that “shared space” is a complicated, confusing and contested term I would also have to insist that as long as the government continues to use the term in official guidance the confusion will continue.

A further area of agreement that all sides have arrived at is the need for much better data. It seems very hard to find evidence that satisfactorily answers questions about the accessibility of these schemes as it is so rarely included as an objective, or indeed consideration, of a design plan.

Clearly, arguing about a definition of shared space is far less useful than taking a closer look at design components and what impact those features have. I am in no way opposed to: innovation and change, a more attractive public realm, or town centre regeneration but it is absolutely essential to look at how this is achieved.

If inclusive design is not the bedrock from the outset, schemes will inevitably fail, exclude, cause confusion, chaos and significant potential cost to councils facing legal challenges and further works. Pedestrian crossings are a key area. Of the 14 local authorities enacting U-Turns on their so called shared space schemes, 11 have reintroduced crossings.

The DfT have suggested that a review of shared space currently underway by the Chartered Institute of Highway Transportation will reconcile many of these concerns although CIHT stated yesterday at the evidence session that although their review will make recommendations it will NOT be sufficient to update guidance and that that would require further input from the government.

Real change will only be achieved when local authorities put inclusive design at the heart of any work in the public realm and this means asking at the outset “how does a blind person cross the road”?

 

Hinkley – is there a point?

Despite the deals, dual fuel and constant noise about changing your supplier, domestic suppliers of energy still appear to make the process opaque and painful.  But if you think that’s pain, how about paying almost three times the market price for electricity, indexed to inflation for 35 years – that’s the Hinkley Point proposition.  A risk free investment guaranteeing bumper returns, all paid for by UK electricity consumers, yip, that’s you and me.

We have brilliant manufacturing and engineering businesses in the UK, Rolls Royce to name but one, but what is the British involvement in Hinkley?  It is German and French technology funded by Chinese and French state owned business.  The British role, oh yes, to grotesquely overpay for the power it produces.

There is a case, a good case, for nuclear as part of our energy plan going forward.  Nuclear can play a key part in our decarbonisation commitments, new nuclear technologies such as AP1000 and the ABW reactors should prove much better value than Hinkley’s European Pressurized Reactor [EPR].  We need to invest, not least in research, to enable British business to be at the centre of the boon that will certainly be there for nuclear providers for decades to come.  We need the engineering, the construction, the manufacturing boost and it wouldn’t be a bad thing to have a piece of the IP in this area.

Hinkley, however, neither makes any economic nor technological sense. The numbers don’t work, EDF no longer have the dosh and the proposed EPR is proving practically unbuildable.

Let’s be bold, let’s show political courage and cancel this part of the nuclear plan rather than keeping fingers crossed that the French Government will walk.  No Hinkley in no sense means no nuclear, or even necessarily a decline in new nuclear over the coming 20 years, it only needs to mean a change in the timing of those new reactors coming on grid.

For the sake of the UK tax payer, for the sake of the UK electricity consumer, it’s high time we pulled the plug on this parlous power project.

 

NOBILITY ON MOBILITY

I grew up in working class Kidderminster and am now in the House of Lords.  I haven’t the first idea how this came to pass but I guess social mobility must be in it somewhere.

It was that and more which made me delighted to be part of the select committee on social mobility, our report is published today.

Our report focusses not on those on the A-level University pathway, nor on the NEETs, both groups pretty well served, from policy, think tanks and successive Governments at least.  No, our focus was the large group in between, those who we found suffering incoherent options, chaos and confusion.  Those who we concluded were experiencing a terrible muddle in the middle.

We wanted to be sure that our recommendations wouldn’t add to the policy fragmentation which has hindered progress and clarity. Instead we recommend a cohesive system: a core curriculum for those aged 14 –19, with tailor made academic or vocational elements, a gold standard in careers advice, and careers education in schools that empowers young people to make good decisions about their future.

This system needs to be underpinned by reliable and publicly available data. It needs to be properly funded, owned by a single Minister, and monitored for success. Only by taking these actions can we make sure that all of our young people have the best chances of success.

We also need to see an end to the inequality between university and other routes, inequality in terms of funding, inequality in terms of thinking.

What is perhaps most pressing though for policy makers and frankly, for us all is the revolution currently underway which will leave our labour market changed beyond recognition, most pertinent here, so many of those jobs which were the enablers of social mobility from the sixties onwards, those jobs, swept away on a tide of turmoil and tech.

In the UK 35% of jobs are in danger of automation, by the same token, over one million new jobs required in the digital sector by the end of this decade alone.  What these new opportunities will require is far more focus on skills rather than subjects and resilience rather than rote learn.

What we need is focus, on the individual. What services and support, can be wrapped around them, not least careers education and guidance, character education, communication skills, team working, self-management and self belief to name just some.

As communities, as a country, we can no longer continue to tolerate this lack of focus on such a large group of our young people, this waste, this wanting.  We need to smash the silos; between Government departments, between different routes, silos of thinking, silos that stifle, silos that stunt.  The silos must be smashed, individual’s purpose must be pushed to the fore and then, then we can unleash the talent.

Thinking outside the box

Last Tuesday I took part in the debate considering the report of the Lords Communications Committee on Women in News and Current Affairs Broadcasting. The report was excellent, not least as a result of the superb stewardship of the Committee Chair, Lord Best.

The picture painted by the report was not bright, a world far more reminiscent of Ron Burgundy than 21st Century Britain.  A world in which older women in particular find themselves at a severe disadvantage both on and off screen.

It seems to me a scandal that so many older women in TV still feel that work dries up when they get to a certain age or when they have children; there are some women who have said they have had to get a facelift to maintain their TV career beyond fifty. Recently Anne Robinson asked what chance a female version of Evan Davis would have of securing that prestigious role? Where are the female Dimblebys, John Simpsons, Alastair Stewarts or Adam Boultons? What sort of message does the lack of their female counterparts send out to young women contemplating a career in television journalism? If young women don’t think they can have a fulfilling career in television that talent will go elsewhere.

It’s a scandal that goes all the way to the top. Women, who make up half the viewers of television aren’t represented at board level at our major broadcasters in anything like the numbers they should be; the BBC executive board has two female executive directors, Channel 4 has one and that is it.

The lack of diversity is not just a question of gender, last year, out of the 62 directors at the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Ofcom, only one was non-white and none were disabled.

I welcome the fact that the industry itself has recognised that it has a problem and has committed to doing something about it; we have seen some ambitious plans published by BBC, Sky and C4.

With Lord Hall at the helm of the BBC and David Abrahams at Channel 4, we have reasons to be positive going forward.

However, this is not a new issue. Groups like Women in Film and Television, PACT, trade unions and Directors UK have been talking about this for decades and there has been very little movement. 

 That is why, in the debate, I called for two things:

Firstly, all the main broadcasters must end the practice of unpaid internships. This patronage is both rife and rigging the system in favour of those who are wealthy and connected rather than those who are talented.

This is not limited to the broadcast industry but the broadcast industry, if they addressed this could be a beacon of good practice and lead the way for the rest of our economy

Secondly, I asked broadcasters and producers to follow new guidance just produced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission which I launched at the Edinburgh television festival two weeks ago

It is worth paying tribute to my Rt Hon friend Ed Vaizey who enabled this project to get underway, he has demonstrated sustained commitment to driving the diversity agenda since arriving at DCMS.

Entitled “Thinking outside the box”, the guidance was drawn up following extensive consultation with the industry, and provides clarity about the initiatives and practices that are permissible in law.

 It busts common myths about barriers that exist and provides a series of case studies from the sector to encourage broadcasters, independent production companies and industry bodies to make it easier to boost diversity.

Now we’ve produced this guidance, I believe there can be no more excuses for not taking meaningful action to improve the situation.  It is not just about doing the right thing, it is about getting the best creative and competitive edge.

 

If you can’t stand, you can’t sit

Friday saw the 2nd reading of Lord Faulkner of Worcester’s Accessible Sports Grounds Bill.

Across the chamber there was support for what the Bill was seeking to achieve- reasonable access for disabled spectators to sports grounds, not least those of football’s Premier League.  I was delighted to take part in the debate on the Bill.

It is an excellent Bill, a straightforward Bill, a Bill which demonstrates many things, not least Lord Faulkner of Worcester’s long standing support for those who simply want to access sport.

The mechanism for achieving this aim simple, that clubs failing to meet the minimum guidelines would not be licenced with a safety certificate and so be unable to stage matches.

Just three of the 20 Premier League stadiums currently reach recommended spaces for wheelchair users. The Football Task Force, of which the Premier League was a part, said in 1998 that these numbers should apply to all grounds and these guidelines were then also outlined in the 2003 Accessible Stadia guide for new stadiums.

During the debate, I set out new cases of potential discrimination at some of our top flight clubs:

  •  Liverpool: During the last match of the season at Anfield, there was a planned pre-match celebration in recognition of Steven Gerrard’s last game for the club. A small group of fans displayed a large banner in front of disabled fans which completely blocked their view of the pitch. When the disabled fans asked a steward to intervene, a fan became extremely abusive and violent. He said: ‘F9ck Off. I will punch your lights out. We will get all you wheelchairs out of this ground for good. I’m going to put you in the ground.’
  • Manchester United: In May, an elderly male, in his 80s with a walking stick and a male in his 20s who had a cast on his foot and was on crutches were refused to Old Trafford due to the walking stick/crutches they had. Manchester United stewards, who claimed they could be used as weapons, were dealing with the incident. The walking sticks/crutches were taken off them and given back at the end of the game, posing a significant health risk should there have been the need for an evacuation. A statement from a police liaison officer from the time questioned a complete lack of ‘common sense’ given it was obvious the individuals required these aids. It said: ‘to say they (the stewards) were unhelpful would be an understatement. The steward’s attitude and their lack of helpfulness were astounding.’

I have no desire to necessarily single out the stewards, although I would be very interested in the diversity and inclusion training they received.

  • Chelsea: Despite its wealth, the club has recently told its disabled supporters that there is no intention to make further improvements until the stadium redevelopment is completed in 2022 as it can’t move existing fans from their preferred seat. In response, a Chelsea disabled fan who was too scared to be named, said: “This is completely unacceptable and the club never seems to have a problem in moving fans to make way for new hospitality and media spaces.”

Poor access and discrimination against disabled fans has tarnished the reputation of football for too long.  Unless action is taken soon to address the glacial speed of progress, major sponsors should think long and hard about whether it remains ethical to continue with  their relationship with football.  Following the debate I have written to all Premier League sponsors and broadcast partners to seek their views on this matter.

The time for the same old feeble excuses has passed, particularly hiding behind the age of stadiums to explain inaction.

It seems clear that, when there is a need to bring in new technology, more camera positions, space for different rights holders, changes are made in a trice. Many stadiums have been virtually rebuilt from the inside out, with significant additions to VIP, hospitality and media areas.

If you can make the Cambridge college that I went to accessible, with buildings that date back to the 15th century, it is entirely possible to solve this problem. It’s time for Premier League clubs to show leadership and stop treating disabled fans like 2nd class citizens.

Football is our national sport.  Sadly, all too often, for many disabled supporters, the beautiful game is an ugly, ugly experience.

Time to stop sharing?

Lord Holmes on BBC Breakfast - interview on Exhibition Road - onscreen "Lord Holmes of Richmond, Report author"

Today I have published detailed research into so called “shared space”.  This is the architectural conceit, the planning folly which proposes that the removal of kerbs, road markings, controlled crossings such as zebras and pelicans and so on leads to a better experience for all users of our streets.  To be clear this means no road or pavement, just space, buses and blind people, toddlers and trucks sharing this same space.  Unsurprisingly, the research findings do not support a sunny view of shared space.

 

Sixty-three per cent of respondents reported a negative experience of shared space. Even more worrying than that, thirty-five per cent said they actively avoided shared space, that’s over a third of people planned out of their local community, their local shops, their local support services.  This type of totalitarian planning would make even an old style Soviet feel some shame.  The research also indicated a significant under reporting of accidents in these shared spaces.

 

The findings are stark, the solution clear, an immediate moratorium on all shared space schemes until thorough impact assessments can be conducted.  This must be combined with a central record of accident data including “courtesy crossings”, which must be defined and monitored.  There is also a need for updated Department for Transport guidance to enable local authorities to fully understand their obligations, not least in relation to the Equality Act.

 

Patrick McGloughlin, Secretary of State for Transport, when questioned by the Transport Select Committee on exactly this just before the end of the last parliament acknowledged that Government guidance on shared space must be improved stating,  “We need to review and update the guidance that we are giving” (Q.30)  I look forward to hearing more from Patrick McGloughlin on how that commitment is progressing

 

Has so called “shared space” achieved an inclusive experience for all, no, it most certainly has not.  Has it opened up our high streets, increased safety and usability, again, no it has not. Shared space is not a safe place nor a pleasant place, it has turned high streets into traffic free for alls, it has caused confusion, chaos and catastrophe.

 

In the words of survey respondents, shared space is:

“Lethally dangerous” (Pedestrian)

“Absolute nightmare that I avoid if I can.” (Driver)

“Shared space is a false promise with poor delivery” (Cyclist)

Full Report

Two eyes in inclusion?

Please tweet using #stopsharedspace

 

 

 

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