Earlier this week we held an online event to formally launch Digital Tories, joined by 70 participants from across the Party and a punchy panel – Damian Collins MP, Rt Hon Jeremy Wright MP QC, Lord James Bethell and Gareth Elliott from Mobile UK. A big moment for Digital Tories and we wanted to make sure our supporters who couldn’t make the event are looped in to the discussion. The agenda was specifically broad – laying out the panoply of digital policy issues to quench all interests. 

After a welcome from Damian Collins MP who describes Digital Tories as the home of conservative conversation on the digital world’s disrupting on how we live and work together we dived in to the panel discussion; 

What tech has got to do with politics?  

Not only is technology important when Parliament is communicating with citizens, which it has been relatively slow to adopt, it has the potential to transform democratic engagement and representation too. Parliament has a responsibility to lead on ensuring society has the right skills to digitally engage and contribute to the digital economy. Lastly, we must also accept that as technology transforms how we live and work together, politicians of the future must have a firm understanding of how it works. The days of ‘sorry I don’t understand tech’ are over. 

The world around is changing, supercomputing, intelligent robots, self-driving cars and automation of services. It affects our economies, industries and the way we live and work together. We are in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. What must we do to ensure the country is ready for it?

Building the right foundations for the digital economy will be critical to success. We need the right digital infrastructure if the UK is going to compete at the forefront of the fourth industrial revolution, coupled with the right digital skills to develop and make the best use of this infrastructure. The rate of digital adoption we’ve seen in the COVID era has changed how we work and live at a pace no one had expected, we must accept that it’s here to stay and bring 5G investment to the fore as quickly as possible.  

Industries need to work together to bring the benefit to the whole of society, we see this brought to life in the life sciences sector where genomics, artificial intelligence and big data are bridging improvements in healthcare. 

We’ve talked a lot about Algorithms, how they shape how citizens see the world and shape perception and behaviours – do we need to do more to protect society online? 

We all have a responsibility to protect society online, including the companies that develop the algorithms who have a duty of care to their users. 

Jeremy Wright led the publishing of the 2019 Online Harms white paper, he commented that we need to understand the algorithms built into search engines to address online harms and place a greater responsibility on digital platforms to display search results that are helpful and not harmful. He called for a balanced and sensible regulation of these platforms to protect society online. 

COVID has changed how we work, and flexible working could be more permanent. Netflix buffering although frustrating for many of us, didn’t impact our economy. Now we’re working from home, it does. Has this changed how we prioritise and invest in digital infrastructure? 

Gareth from MobileUK explored how society is becoming increasingly digitally dependent, and described the need for digital infrastructure for the UK stay connected for work. Adding that we need to bring 5G in as soon as possible and also look to understand new technologies in development to keep up with the fast pace. Importantly though, we need to couple this with the right digital skills to develop and make the best use of the infrastructure. 

This infrastructure doesn’t appear by magic, we need a workforce to deliver it and the services that run over it. The digital skills gap is expanding – 27-33% across deep tech skills, what more can we do to invest in our digital workforce pipeline? 

In this matter we must look at digital skills in the broadest sense. Lord Bethell brings this to life by explaining how sharing patient data within the NHS is transforming our response to COVID and tracking the spread of the virus. This required not only a shift in mentality but also highlighted the importance of ensuring new doctors and nurses have the right digital skills to facilitate. This extremely positive upskilling is already underway in the NHS. 

Instead of a stiff Q&A, the conversation continued into the breakout rooms, a smaller group hosted by a panel member and a Digital Tory. This gave participants a chance to discuss matters close to their hearts with the Parliamentarians in a far smaller group. After a tiny tech glitch (whoops!), consensus was the break out groups are a great idea. 

Some highlights from the breakout: 

1.     Lord Bethell started the Q&A, moderated by Alice Hopkin, by discussing the work that has been done by this government to build a Covid testing system the size of Tesco from scratch. He went on to discuss the different testing techniques which are being developed using different technologies, like breathalysers and a way to detect Covid just through the sound of a cough. A great question was asked about how healthcare will change now that society is becoming used to connecting online. Lord Bethell suggested that doctors and GPs are favouring having remote surgery appointments so that they can fit in more patients safely and are able to work from home. 

2.     In the breakout room with Damian Collins MP, moderated by Pierre Andrews, CWO’s Susan Coleman raised the importance of transforming the school curriculum to introduce science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in a way that breaks down traditional stereotypes and introduces all students to the opportunities of working in tech – an issue that Susan has previously written about for us here. Damian agreed that very soon, all sectors of employment will be digitally-enabled; promoting STEM skills is crucial. The conversation then moved on to what can be a Conservative view of speech regulation, in light of current debates around COVID disinformation and social media, and the upcoming Online Harms Bill. Who regulates the regulator? Damian made the point that freedom of speech does not mean freedom of reach: people are free to express their views, but they don’t have a right to have those opinions amplified to millions of people, who never asked to see them, on social media via opaque algorithms whose only aim is to make you stay online for longer. Ultimately, it should be for Parliament to decide what a new duty of care for social media giants towards their users should look like; a principle that falls well in line with the societal responsibilities at the core of One-Nation Conservatism. Damian then went on to make this point at Health Questions to Matt Hancock and PMQs to Boris Johnson this week, and wrote about it for Politics Home

3. In the breakout room with the Rt Hon Jeremy Wright QC MP, facilitated by Mike Rouse, the conversation focused on the need for proper regulation in the online space, but there was also a discussion amongst participants on whether Ofcom has the capacity and capability to carry out such a role. Jeremy’s thoughts were that a separation between content and infrastructure needs to take place with appropriate regulation of both. There was a general consensus that as Conservatives we did not want to see unnecessary regulation and prefer a market-driven approach, but that in the online space the need for better regulation was now urgent.

Donna ended the launch event by explaining what to expect from Digital Tories next; more panel events, theme weeks and membership options coming soon.