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Lords Diary: Lord Clement Jones

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Down the corridor in the Commons, early November was dominated by No 10’s Owen Paterson U-turn and in Glasgow by events at COP26 – but for me it was an opportunity to raise a number of issues relevant to innovation and the development of technology and the future of our creative industries. It started with the great news that Queen Mary University of London, whose council I chair, after many trials and tribulations, has agreed a property deal next to our Whitechapel campus with the Department of Health and Social Care. It paves the way for the development, with Barts Life Sciences, of a major research centre within a new UK Whitechapel Life Sciences Cluster.

And tied in with the theme of tech innovation, a couple of welcome in-person industry events too – the techUK dinner and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales’ annual reception – where a new initiative, to increase investment in the UK’s high-growth companies, was launched. Guest speaker Lord Willetts made the point about the UK’s great R&D but relatively poor track record in commercialisation.

All highly relevant to a late session on the second reading of the bill setting up the new ARIA (Advanced Research and Development Agency). A cautiously positive reception, as most speakers were uncertain where it fits in our R&D and innovation landscape. It may be designed to be free of bureaucracy, but the question arises, how does that reflect on the relatively recent UK Research and Innovation infrastructure? 

The risks posed by some new technology were highlighted in my oral question the day before on whether the UK will join in steps to limit Lethal Autonomous Weapons. The MoD still seems to be hiding behind the lack of an agreed international definition whilst insisting, not very reassuringly, that we do not use systems that employ lethal force without “context-appropriate human involvement”.

Other digital harms were to the fore with successive sessions of the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill. The first, taking evidence from Ofcom CEO Melanie Dawes; in command of her material, but questions still remain over whether Ofcom will have the powers and independence it needs. Then a round table looking at how and whether the bill protects press freedom, and our final evidence session with Nadine Dorries, the new secretary of state, in listening mode and hugely committed to effectively eradicating harms online. There are many improvements to the bill needed but we are up against the necessity for early implementation. 

The news broke that facial recognition software in cashless payment systems had been adopted in nine Ayrshire schools

And, so, the Lib Dem debate day. The first on government policy and spending on the creative sector in the United Kingdom superbly introduced by colleague Lynne Featherstone. I focused on a number of sectors under threat: independent TV and film producers, publishers, from potential changes to exhaustion of copyright, authors, from the closure of libraries and the aftermath of Covid, and the music industry, from lockdowns and post Brexit inability to touring in the EU. The overarching theme of the debate so relevant to innovation and our tech sector was that creativity is important not just in the cultural sector but across the whole economy – a point it seems well taken by the minister, Stephen Parkinson, in his new role, with a meeting with his (also new) ministerial counterpart in the Department for Education in the offing.

Back to technology risk, in the next debate, about the use of facial and other biometric recognition technologies in schools. A little over two weeks before, the news broke that facial recognition software in cashless payment systems had been adopted in nine Ayrshire schools. Its introduction has been temporarily paused, and the Information Commissioner’s Office is now producing a report, but it is clear that current regulation is inadequate. 

Quite a week. It ends with a welcome unwinding over a Friday evening negroni and excellent Italian meal, with close family, some not seen in person for two years! 

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