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Wilf_4x3.jpgWilf Stevenson on the government’s back tracking on its original plans for data protection

Today, we begin Report stage of the government’s Data Protection Bill, with two days of debates this week and a final day in January. In normal circumstances, we would have used the gap since Committee to hone our amendments, build alliances with crossbench peers and others and plan, strategically, to win votes on key issues where we believe Ministers should think again.

But we live in interesting times – as revealed recently during the latter stages of Lords consideration of the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill. Following a fairly normal Committee stage, with no hint of concessions, the government changed gear before Report and delivered a raft of amendments on all our key issues. In the end, we hardly needed to vote at all. And the legislation, having started at our end of Parliament and now with the Commons, has changed out of all recognition – nearly doubling in size. Indeed, to our delight, it has become not so much the framework Bill it set out to be but one with a ‘Financial Inclusion’ mission at its heart.

We now seem to be in much the same situation on the Data Protection Bill. As made clear at Second Reading, Labour supports this Bill and want to make sure it passes – albeit after due scrutiny. But we are also driven by the needs of business to have certainty about the rules that will be applied in this key component of our economy, both in the medium and long term; as well as the need for consumers – especially vulnerable people and children – to be protected in the digital world.

Since Committee stage, Ministers have been at pains to highlight a willingness to find common ground, and to offer meetings and discussions on proposed amendments – many of which we have been able to sign up to. Two of these key issues come up for debate today, on issues that in other times we would have been preparing to push to a vote.

The first deals with the widely held view that the Bill should set out clearly that citizens have enduring and important rights to privacy and the protection of their personal data, as set out in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The government were initially dead set against this approach. But they appear to have modified their position and it is clear that the key question left to be determined is the form of words to be used to amend the Bill rather than the principle itself. Looking at the two related amendments to be debated today – one from ourselves, the other from government – there is more that unites us on the issue than divides. With a bit more discussion, we could arrive at an agreed wording before Third Reading and I hope Ministers will consider that approach.

The second big issue today is over whether or not the government should introduce a statutory code, enforced by the Information Commissioner to set out the standards by which online services protect children’s data. This ‘age appropriate design’ approach was contained in an amendment proposed by crossbencher Baroness Kidron and received all party support at Committee – including major contributions from Conservative backbenchers Baroness Harding and ex-minister Baroness Shields. Again, following discussion and debate, Ministers have shifted their position significantly. There is now an amendment so comprehensive in scope it has been signed by Baronesses Kidron and Harding and the Labour front bench, and it will go into the Bill without a vote.

I would like to think that the reason for the unusual generosity towards our initial amendments to these Bills in the Lords is the force of the arguments we have presented, and the wide level of support we have garnered around the House. But that is clearly only part of the story: I sense that Ministers are at least as concerned about the difficulties that would stem from trying to reverse Lords amendments when the Bill reaches the Commons. Tenuous ‘majorities’, Brexit negotiating headaches and all that…  It is not how peers usually go about our scrutiny and revision role nor how the government normally responds. But if such orchestrated manoeuvring in the dark leads to an Act that gets us to a better place on important legislation, I for one will not be complaining.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara is a member of Labour’s frontbench in the House of Lords and its spokesperson on the Data Protection Bill. He tweets @Missenden50

Published 11 December 2017

Manoeuvres in the dark

Wilf Stevenson on the government’s back tracking on its original plans for data protection

DavidClark.jpgDavid Clark on the dire impact on NHS staff of the Conservative’s running down of our health service

If ministerial rhetoric could solve the problems of the NHS then all would be fine. Sadly, in the real world, rhetoric is no substitute for action. The result is that the government believes its own spin-doctors and simply ignores the greatest crises faced by our health service in all of its 70 years.

International studies show the NHS as the most efficient deliverer of healthcare. With the developments in medical knowledge and technology, the challenges facing the service become complicated. That people are living longer makes this challenge even greater. Ministers simply don’t seem to recognise this basic fact leading to a failure to finance the demands of the British people.

Other developed nations recognise these aspirations and all bar one of the G7 countries spend more on healthcare as a proportion of GDP than the UK. Little wonder, the Head of NHS England, Simon Stevens has argued for an extra £4bn next year. But the Chancellor in his recent Budget statement clearly felt he knew better, offering just £1.6bn.

Across the NHS, staff are struggling to cope – with a critical shortage of (40,000) nurses, short-staffed GPs and almost half of consultant vacancies unfilled. Meanwhile, patients suffer as waiting lists are at the highest level for years.

These alarming facts are the direct responsibility of Health Ministers. The same Ministers responsible exacerbating the nursing shortfall by deciding to cut the numbers in training by over 22,000 in the years 2011 to 2013. Then to make the problem worse, they chose to abandon the well-established bursary scheme and start charging nurses for their undergraduate courses. What a time to attempt such an experiment! And the provisional figures suggest that fewer nurses entered training this year than previously.

The workload of GPs has increased dramatically. Recruitment to UK medical schools has fallen by 13% since 2013 and almost a third of GP partners have been unable to fill vacancies in the last year. As a result, patients are increasingly finding it impossible to get a timely appointment – with the consequence that demand on A&E departments has increased. It’s starting to feel like the bad old days when four hours was the norm.

But the problems go far wider than staffing. Facing an increased winter demand, the government announced that an additional 2000-3000 beds have been found. Those running A&E however, admit that there are only 1000 extra. Patients will have to be treated in corridors and the shortage of basic equipment like drip stands will see doctors ‘hang fluid bags on coat hangers’.

In the past few days, Ministers have argued that the Budget has rectified the problem. Those running the NHS however, see it differently. The National Medical Director tweeted “Worrying that longer waits seem likely/unavoidable”. The NHS Providers stated that “tough choices are now needed and trade-offs will have to be made. It is difficult to see how the NHS can deliver everything in 2018/19.”’

By its very nature, the NHS is a labour intensive organisation yet it being run without either adequate funds or workforce planning. The government has imposed an unfair wage limitation on staff already under great strain. Is it any wonder that many are so demoralised?

Lord David Clark of Windermere is a Labour Peer and a former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

Published 28th November 2017

Pressure point

David Clark on the dire impact on NHS staff of the Conservative’s running down of our health service

MikeWatson.jpgMike Watson on ensuring the UK’s workforce – and employers - are fit for the future

A Labour led debate in the House of Lords tonight will consider the need for a comprehensive strategy for life-long learning and adult re-skilling, in response to the various challenges of technology and productivity; and the changing nature of work. Without a coherent strategy to prepare for a strong and expanding economy for at least the next decade, no government is going to deliver sustained prosperity.

Over the past seven years, Conservative governments have made a comprehensive mess of running the UK economy. Until last week’s Budget, there had been no deviation from the belief that the answer to the 2008 crash was austerity measures designed primarily to make those who contributed next to nothing in the collapse pay the gigantic bill that resulted. Meanwhile those actually involved in the financial recklessness have escaped virtually scot free.

Chancellor Philip Hammond has, like his predecessor, consistently failed to meet debt reduction targets. Now however, he has announced his intentions to react to downward projections for productivity growth in the economy by adopting Keynesian principles – increasing spending and borrowing substantially over the next two years. Better late than never.

The government has also published its ‘Industrial Strategy’ White Paper, which mainly consists of reannounced policies and old spending commitments – revealing once again to be short on details and new ideas. Nothing that will help give businesses the certainty or incentives they need to invest in the face of the confusion surrounding the Brexit negotiations.

According to a recent OECD report, the UK is full of highly-educated workers with skills that do not match the jobs available. Employers are putting too little effort into the right training and need to work more closely with the education system to ensure school pupils, and college and university students achieve what is required. Apprenticeships could be the key to improving our country’s prospects – but a rethink is needed of the levy. Given widespread concern that quantity could undermine quality, Ministers should abandon their ambitious target of reaching three million apprenticeships by 2020.

The main priority for the UK should be lifelong learning, with individuals given the opportunity and incentive to upskill and re-train, learning flexible skills that are not attached to a particular employer. Rising automation and artificial intelligence will make many jobs redundant but will also create new roles requiring some form of formal higher qualification, not necessarily full degrees.

Further Education colleges are key, as they already provide academic, technical and professional education for young people, adults and employers. Yet public investment in FE has been hit harder than any other part of the education system in the last decade. Properly resourced, they could build on their reputation as engines of social mobility, helping businesses improve productivity and driving growth, while being rooted in and committed to communities.

At both local and regional levels there is a need to provide careers information, advice and guidance, making greater use of labour market intelligence and mid-life reviews. More employers need to offer opportunities to adults, particularly those who are older and keen to remain active in employment. This requires long-term investment as well as a culture change at all age levels, perhaps by developing learning accounts to test approaches that could encourage more adults to invest in training.

Labour is committed to investing in lifelong learning, through the creation of a National Education Service for England. Like the NHS, this will be a cradle-to-grave provision, free at the point of use and built on the principle that ‘every child and adult matters’.

Lord Mike Watson of Invergowrie is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords

Published 27th November 2017

Life-long learning curve

Mike Watson on ensuring the UK’s workforce – and employers - are fit for the future

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