The report, entitled “Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future”, urges the incoming Government to seize the opportunity to secure the UK’s place as a global digital leader and makes some significant recommendations. Key recommendations are: treating the internet as a utility and prioritising and regulating it in the same way as other essential utilities, making digital literacy a core subject, as important as English and Maths and putting a single “Digital Agenda” at the heart of Government with a Cabinet Minister responsible for it. Chris feels strongly about the need to set more ambitious goals and urges the next Government to adopt the Committee’s recommendations.
Chris is delighted to announce a new role as spokesperson for Blind Veterans UK, the national charity for blind and vision impaired ex-Service men and women. The charity was founded on 29 January 1951, to provide support and services to blinded World War I veterans. Exactly 100 years on from its foundation, a specially commissioned survey into public attitudes has found a “major positive shift” in the public’s perception of blindness. 65% of the general public have indicated that if they were to lose their sight, it would not mean that their “lives were as good as over”. Chris is pleased with the survey’s findings and observes that “the amazing stories of blind veterans supported by the charity show that its support can make a life-changing difference and can spur people on to do inspirational things, contrary to any negative views about blindness limiting a person’s ability.” Watch Chris’s birthday message to Blind Veterans UK.
Ever had a bonkers idea, you know, the sort that arrive in the wee small hours, they seem marvellous at the time; rubber feet to stop shoes and socks getting wet, chocolate beds in case you get the munchies… that kind of thing?
When we wake most of us rightly smile, then neatly fold and place these ideas in the locked drawers of our dreams, dazzling in the dark but when such magic is exposed to the gathering light of day….
Well, here’s the thing, some of these dazzlements make their way into the dystopic day and the dream becomes the nightmare it always would.
One such idea is “shared spaces”, innocuous sounding I agree until I set out its central proposition; put buses and blind people, white cane users and white vans, guide dog owners and gas guzzlers, toddlers and tankers in the same “shared space” and see what happens. The proposition is predicated on the belief that everyone will behave better, have a more inclusive, interactive experience if all those tedious traffic signals, pelican and zebra crossings, pavements and street markings were all swept away. I mean, whoever came up with such a lunacy as lights to tell vehicles or pedestrians when to stop or go, audible signals to enable blind and visually impaired people to have the comfort and the confidence to cross- crazy huh ?
There is nothing ”shared” in this “space”. There is nothing inclusive in the concept. I’m all for innovation and improvement but a scheme which relies exclusively on eye contact means that I can’t use it, and neither can millions of others. Even if I could are we really suggesting that a driver looked at by a plaintive pedestrian will behave better, slow down and wave them across? In reality, research has shown that in streets with high volumes of traffic, pedestrians are more likely to give way to vehicles. The same research showed women and older people also felt intimidated by the shared space and preferred previous road layouts and conventional crossings.
This was the subject of the short debate last Thursday [read debate here] to question the government and draw public attention to just what is going on out there in this “shared space”. It is pleasing to note that a scheme in Gloucester is being reconsidered and local authorities in Blackpool and Warwick have already performed well executed U-turns. I strongly suggest that all others follow suit.
Chris spoke at a conference organised by Demos that was focussed on exploring how policy can build character. The particular question Chris considered was whether sport, art and extra-curricular activity build character? This is an important area and one Chris feels passionately about.
One of the policy areas I am particularly interested in is youth unemployment. Today, as part of the Westminster Education Forum, I chaired a panel discussion on course development in higher education. One of the key questions was about engaging employers in the design and delivery of courses. Getting employers involved at this stage will ensure graduates leave with the necessary skills required for employment.
Currently, although youth unemployment figures are down to an almost all time low of 14.9%, the not so great news is that young people are disproportionately unemployed, trapped in the bottom half of the skills hourglass and less likely than previous generations to acquire new skills once they’ve got into work. Young people need careers, not just ‘any job’ but sustainable employment.
What can be done? There is significant consensus among organisations and charities on some key elements and particularly on the importance of employer engagement. We need a joined up, local approach. Education must be joined to the workplace. Local employers should work with schools to give experience and information about the local labour market. We also need greater ‘employer ownership of skills’. This means employers and industries need to agree and communicate which skills and qualifications they value and need. In a digital age this is particularly important for ‘future proofing’ not just our young people but the economy as well.
Clearly, thinking about different ways of engaging employers is important and in the Lords I asked if the government would insert a condition into all public procurement requiring bidding businesses to offer high-quality apprenticeships. This would serve to ensure more companies offer the kind of decent in work training opportunities our young people need. Greater collaboration between business and government should also aim to create more middle-ranged jobs, so there can be genuine progression up a career ladder and less of a trap in the low skilled ‘any job’ bulge at the bottom.
Another area that needs to be ‘joined up’ is overall responsibility for the problem across departments. The Department for Education, Department for Work and Pensions and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills all have accountability for some of the services which can transform a young person’s transition from school to work, but they all work to different objectives, and the young people most likely to end up in the unemployment statistics fall through the cracks. The success of London 2012 shows what we can achieve when we cut across Whitehall departments and invest responsibility in one person to allow them to achieve a clearly defined goal. The growing consensus, that we can completely eradicate youth unemployment, points toward the opportunity to create an even greater legacy – if it can be grasped.
Chris took part in a trial of an amazing new device, currently at prototype stage, that equips blind people with extra tools and information when navigating city centres, including accessing public transport.
Speaking on Radio 5 live Chris described the headset as “your navigator, personal guide, transport information, local historian, all the (information about) shopping stuff… It’s absolutely incredible. And it’s the confidence it gives you. It was the first time I had done that route and it just felt so comfortable.”
The technology – developed by Microsoft, Guide Dogs and the UK government’s Future Cities Catapult – takes the form of a smart headset paired with a Windows Phone app, which has been designed for people with sight loss.
The headset is a modified pair of headphones, which hooks over the wearer’s ears and rests on their jaw bone, transmitting sound to their inner ear using vibrations. This means that the wearer can hear sound from the headphones and from their environment simultaneously.
Microsoft has added a small 3D-printed box on the back of the headset containing an accelerometer, a gyroscope and a compass, as well as a GPS chip, so that the user’s position can be tracked.
Click here for further media coverage of the device…
For the first time since participating in the Seoul Games in 1988, Chris travelled back to Korea to give the keynote speech at the 2014 Inclusive Sport and Society Forum. The Forum was organised by the Korean Paralympic Committee just ahead of the Incheon 2014 Asian Para Games and was attended by UN Special Advisor on Sport, Wilfried Lemke, and International Paralympic Committee President, Sir Philip Craven. Themes developed at the conference were the integration of disabled and non-disabled sports and social inclusion through sports.