lords, morality

Assisted Dying – my view

Today the Lords debates this very difficult moral question. There are over 125 speakers limited to 4 minutes each. Rather than take up more of my peers’ time it seems more efficient to blog my views. One day maybe this approach will be embraced and such expression could be appended to the Hansard record.

This issue has generated a lot of correspondence – more than I have had for some time. Much is hand written, normally personal and very thoughtful. Opinion is evenly divided, although emailers seem more against and hand writers more for Charlie Falconer.

I am not religious. I note that Christian opinion is now split and I will say no more on the faith based arguments than to say that it seems we are happy to “play God” in preserving life, we “play God” when we put animals out of their misery, and in my irreligious state I don’t see the logic which says assisted dying is any different.

I am also not a medical professional. This bill would ask a lot of them and I hear the difficult ethical arguments. Much as with abortion we should not require any doctors to make these difficult decisions to assist suicide, it should be something they are ethically comfortable with.

Given what I am not I must therefore start with what I believe, based on my own experience.

As I was growing up my father had cancer on a number of occasions. Over thirty years before he died he was given a 50:50 chance of survival, and the same ten years later. His desire to live through that sickness, I suspect largely for his family, combined with the NHS to keep him going for many years. I am therefore cautious about how we define terminal illness.

I have been deeply moved by those who also were given a few months, were very depressed, but are now still alive and enjoying a quality of life. With this bill some of those people may have felt too much of a burden and been helped to die.

I also remember well my grandmother’s acute pain when she died and how grateful she seemed for her doctor being generous with the medication at the end. I strongly believe that this empathy is what most of us would want for ourselves in a similar position. That is why I support this bill, but I also know that this sympathetic use of potentially lethal pain relief is a treacherous place for doctors.

My own experience has therefore informed my thinking on Assisted Dying. This is a profoundly difficult issue where the balance between safeguarding the vulnerable and safeguarding the needs of the individual in tragic circumstances need to be weighed up very carefully.

I support the bill at second reading. However I will also want to see close scrutiny as it is improved by the parliamentary process, to ensure we learn from international experience and get the best safeguards in place that we can.

Image from http://www.theguardian.com/society/joepublic/2010/jan/12/assisted-dying-doctors-terminally-ill

Data, digital, Politics, Security

Your Privacy at Risk – Your Security Enhanced?

This is the text of my speech today in the Lords on the controversial Data Retention & Investigatory Powers Bill

My Lords, I have to start—like the noble Lord, Lord Butler, who made such an excellent contribution—by saying that the Government’s handling of this Bill has been a disgrace. I cannot repeat any better why it is a disgrace, and it would be ridiculous of me to try to compete with the noble Lord’s analysis. To have given Parliament three days when they have had three months to consider their response is a disgrace. Although my ministerial experience, at just five years, is much more limited than that of the previous speaker, whom I equally respect, particularly his experience as Home Secretary, I know that when there was the threat of a case in the European Court, Ministers would receive a risk analysis. I find it difficult to believe that no one in the Home Office had a plan B. If they were to lose that case, the thinking was not going on within government as to how they were going to handle losing the case and the uncertainty with which they would then have to deal with the RIPA powers. So I am afraid that that is my starting point.

I would also strongly agree with my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon and others when they say that there is a need for Parliament to be seen to address the very real public concerns over the balance of privacy and security and the desire for personalisation of digital services. Some of us use digital services very heavily and are only just becoming aware of how much our desire for all those personal services that come through on our phones and tablets generate metadata that are now the subject of this legislation. Given the need for Parliament to be seen to address and debate, and lead a debate in the wider public, on those concerns, it is an affront to see the legislation railroaded using the fast-track mechanism. The basis of my comments is to analyse whether some of that is justified.

Yesterday, as is my wont, I gave some friends and some of their family who are over from Canada a tour of the Palace of Westminster. Highlights of that tour are always things such as the Magna Carta; there is a copy in the Content Lobby, and we will enjoy celebrating its 800-year anniversary next year. Then there is the statue of Lord Falkland, where the sword was cut to allow a suffragette called Marjory Hume to be taken off to prison in 1909, and the plaque commemorating Nelson Mandela speaking in Westminster Hall. Best of all is the broom cupboard in the Crypt, where Emily Wilding Davison hid on the night of the 1911 census, and the phrase at the end that Tony Benn put there:

“By such means was democracy won for the people of Britain”.

That tour contains in its highlights all those moments where we recognise hard-won civil liberties for us as individuals, both here and around the world. It is incumbent on us as a Parliament and those who serve at any given time in this Parliament to protect those liberties as strongly as we protect the safety and security of the people in this country.

We also need to remember that we have a different tolerance of our own privacy, because we agree to become public figures when we agree to come here, than do most people who live in our country. The information in Who’s Who would probably allow anyone who wanted to steal some of my information to do so, because it has my mother’s maiden name as well as my date of birth, which are the sort of questions that you get asked online. We understand that when we fill out the entry in Who’s Who and we are aware of the risks that we take when we do so. I hope when we make up our security information online that we are also aware of it and are accordingly cautious.

We also need to be aware of the issue of metadata. When I sat in the audience in the Donmar Warehouse theatre a month or so ago, as a guest of my noble friend Lord Mitchell, watching the play “Privacy”, we heard gasps from the audience when they found out how the default settings on an iPhone mean that Apple knows exactly where we are and exactly when at any given time, unless we change those settings. They were some of the greatest moments of theatre that I have seen in some years—it was my first profession— when I heard the gasps of the audience who saw the pictures of their houses flashed up on the back of the screen, because the researcher had researched them using metadata to show where they all lived. That is metadata, the subject of the Bill—and that is something that we have to be cautious about.

There has been a breakdown of trust in recent years between the people of this country and the state, particularly those pursuing criminal investigations. This is because of Hillsborough and Savile; because of phone hacking, and plebgate. We must have an active debate on a regular basis because of PRISM and because of the powers that the private sector and, through it, the state and GCHQ have to access our data. As a Parliament we have been remiss in not debating Snowden as actively as we should have and as actively as they have done in the US. If we do not, I think we are failing the public

I am persuaded by the arguments that Clauses 1 to 3 are necessary. I believe that security and the ability to continue criminal investigations mean that we have no choice but to pass Clauses 1 to 3 of this Bill. This was well put by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. We need the status quo for criminal investigations.

I welcome the concessions that my right honourable friend the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, has won in getting the RIPA review and six-monthly reporting into the legislation. I worry that the thinking behind these reviews is through the prism—if that is not the wrong word—of security and law enforcement as the starting point, rather than the data privacy of individuals. I should also like to see a review of the operation of the Information Commissioner’s Office. According to its website, it is:

“The UK’s independent authority set up to uphold information rights in the public interest, promoting openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals”.

That office needs to be the guardian of members of the public on these issues. I hope the Minister will be able to give an assurance from the Dispatch Box that the Information Commissioner’s Office will be included in some of that review work.

Clause 4 concerns what I will call the new powers overseas because I cannot pronounce extraterritoriality very well. I struggle to see the emergency for this to be included in a fast-track Bill. In the report of the Constitution Committee, published today, paragraph 11 says:

“It is not clear why these provisions need to be fast-tracked”.

It may not be fashionable to quote Liberty but it says that Clause 5 of DRIP, read together with Clause 4 (8), gives the Government “new, express powers” to go to foreign webmail providers and demand that they hand over or obtain communications data. The objectives of the snoopers’ charter are therefore met via another route. That is their charge. If the Minister were able to respond to that, I think that supporters of Liberty would be pleased to hear it.

As I am sure your Lordships will all have done, I have received a letter from a list of highly credible legal experts on internet law. These are professors from a whole range of our best universities. They say that this clause,

“introduces powers that are not only completely novel in the United Kingdom, they are some of the first of their kind globally”

The letter continues,

“the proposed Bill arguably breaches EU law to the extent that it falls within the scope of EU law, since such mass surveillance would still fall foul of the criteria set out by the Court of Justice of the EU in the Digital Rights and Seitlinger judgment”.

They would say that the reassurance which the Minister gave, following my intervention, is not true. I am sure that everything the Minister is saying is on good advice and in good faith. I know him to be a completely honourable and truthful man and I do not question what he is saying. However, I would value it if he were able to publish or circulate to Members of your Lordships’ House the advice he has received that this legislation, particularly Clause 4, is not in further breach of EU law, and that it will not extend the legal rights—not the practice but the legal rights—of government in respect of these matters.

On balance, very reluctantly, I support the Second Reading of this Bill, but I question whether Clause 4 should continue to be in the Bill.


A New Chamber for Parliament?

This is my evidence to today’s meeting of the Digital Democracy Commission in Parliament:

Let me start by saying how delighted I am to be asked to give evidence, and that I think the work of this commission is vitally important.

It feels like the public’s engagement with politicians and Parliament is at an all time low – although not necessarily engagement with political issues. Some of the reasons for this are related to digital technology – the expenses scandal wouldn’t have happened without the ability to leak records digitally; the hacking scandal wouldn’t have happened without intercepts of digital technology.

But it is also true that digital technology is the most powerful communication and engagement set of tools ever invented. The opportunity exists to mitigate some of the disengagement by using the power of interactive communications technology. Ultimately it also needs bigger political reform, but that is not for today.

In thinking about how Parliament might do that I want to avoid the usual mistake of starting with the technology. Instead we need to think about the three main functions of Parliament – the formation and scrutiny of the Executive, of Government; making law, the legislative function; and being the voice of those the elect MPs, the representative function.

I believe that digital tools can help with all three.

Let me start with the representative function, something I now observe rather than participate in.

Parliament spends a fortune on free post for Parliamentarians to assist communication with constituents and the public. The building, especially the Palace, is littered with landlines for the same purpose. Neither of these are means of communication that either of my twentysomething children want to use.
If, however, I want to use reasonable video conferencing to visit a school classroom remotely, or a business or whatever, I can’t book anything. If I want a template and some help in easily creating a YouTube video to communicate with constituents Parliament is silent.

These are all easily fixable and could be funded by reducing the reliance on paper-based communication with outside world.

But there is also a problem that too many Parliamentarians view social media like Twitter and YouTube as additional broadcast medium. They are not. They are means of interaction and exchange. Parliamentarians are inundated with emails but few know how to manage interaction and meaningful feedback to people who correspond with them – beyond employing more staff.

This needs thought, and training in using tools like Storify.

I think we need to offer people the option of voting using the same mobile technology they use for secure online banking. It would certainly be more secure than postal voting. If we were to follow Estonia down that road we could also offer that technology to elected representatives to communicate with their registered voters.

Then thinking about the legislative function, I think the Lords is a good place to experiment. It wouldn’t interfere with the legitimacy of the representative chamber and plays to the Lords strength as the House where legislation is improved.

Experimentation should be around a fourth House of Parliament after the Queen, the Commons and the Lords – the House of the Public.

We should experiment with wiki-legislation to inform the Lords prior to the committee stage of bills, much as public evidence informs the initial stage of committee scrutiny in the Commons. This wiki stage could also be summarised in a report by a citizens’ jury taking evidence from experts.

And then, the scrutiny of the Executive.

When I was a minister the scrutiny I feared most was the select committees. These however mirror the vertical silos of Whitehall rather than the horizontals of peoples’ complicated lives. We should consider a digitally enabled childrens commission, a commission of elderly citizens, perhaps another of disabled people, or parents. Parliament could, through citizens’ juries or another longer term arrangement, form select commissions of the public, like this one, to question ministers. If I was in the Government that would really focus the mind!

Finally, I should mention the additional challenge of how technology is changing our relationship with news – the traditional means Westminster communicates with the public.

Many of us now get a personal newsfeed and watch the national news far less. This amplifies the views of people we follow, who we normally agree with, and interested are in. We are essentially amplifying our own noise and filtering out things we don’t want to hear. That re-affirms the importance of Parliamentarians who try to understand issues in a wider context of the connectedness of things, but is also a huge challenge.

Tackling that re-affirms the need to assist Parliamentarians to engage with their constituencies and communities, and not just rely on traditional communication.

Health, Tropical medicine

More for Less: A Break Through for those on the Frontline Fighting Malaria?

This is a blog I wrote for start up I am helping with, they are testing a technology with a huge potential in the fight against the world’s biggest killer.


Yesterday ianxen.com received many messages from people battling malaria on the ground. A typical example was from Juliana in Uganda, she said:

“The xRAPID is a very good innovation. It will improve and simplify Malaria diagnostics which is one of the biggest challenges of malaria treatment. I am from Uganda and our health system struggles with diagnostics because there are few laboratories as well as few competent personnel. Malaria is endemic in over 95% of the country.

“In Uganda, RDTs (Malaria Rapid Diagnosis Tests) are used at low level health facilities where microscopy can not be conducted. Use of RDTs has challenges of quality, storage, stock management and too many brands which have made RDTs inefficient…xRAPID should adequately address the weakness of RDTs and Microscopy.”

According to the World Health Organisation in 2012 32.7 million people in Juliana’s country lived in a high transmission zone. In the same year the number of confirmed cases soared from less than 10 cases per 1000 to over 70, whilst the test positivity rate remained constant. Malaria related deaths appear to be rising.

In five years up to 2012 the USAID | DELIVER PROJECT procured 77,362,340 malaria RDTs, at a cost of $42,748,752. This is the best bet where microscopy is limited, but as Juliana reminds us the results are limited.

IanXen RAPID is yet to be fully tested, but early trials suggest it is quicker, easier and much cheaper to test for malaria using automated diagnosis through the iPhone. But what of reliability?

The prototype has proven to be 98% accurate. If this is verified with industrial production this will be a real break through. It will deliver what policy makers anywhere and everywhere want – more for less. More reliable testing, for more people, more quickly – and at a fraction of the cost.

Watch this space!

digital, education

Tech is all very well but the inspiration comes from the people

I have been in Atlanta since Friday night for the ISTE conference.  It has been a great chance to catch up with new and old friends, make some business contacts and reflect on this education business I am working in.

First thing is that maybe the US is getting civilised! They have given so much to the world, for better or worse, but it is nice to see the Americans importing some great things.  When I lived in Detroit 30 years ago you had to work really hard to find any decent beer – I had to go to Mexico to find good dark beer.  But now, even in Atlanta the home of Coca Cola, they have so much really good local beer from IPA to brown ale.  Where there is good beer, football is not far behind and this country is currently World Cup mad! We’ll see at 4pm local time how long that last when the USA plays Belgium.

In between soccer games I have also been having an extended discussion about teaching and teachers.  Last week I was part of an Education Fast Forward debate on the latest OECD TALIS results.  I led a session on this here at the conference yesterday.  This survey of over 100,000 teachers in 34 countries told us a lot including:

  • the esteem of teaching is very variable and correlates to higher student achievement, and…
  • most teachers value 21st century pedagogies but teaching practices don’t always reflect that, and..
  • the more teachers collaborate with each other the higher is their self esteem and job satisfaction, and…
  • appraisal and proper feedback improves teaching, and…
  • behavioural issues equate to lower job satisfaction, but class size doesn’t

On Sunday I also led a discussion on how we get a common narrative across the Atlantic on digital education.  We had started this in London as I sought to bring together the eLearning Foundation and the One to One Institute, and were delighted that Brian the head of ISTE invited us to continue the discussion here. Thanks to Intel we also had dinner together and were lucky enough to be joined by Guy Hoffman.  Guy’s TED Talk on robots with soul has been watched over 2.4 million times.

Guy’s work in giving robots body language is telling us so much about ourselves.  He gave me so much to think about with his inspirational technology, and how he is relating it to people.

But probably most inspiring in this sea of education technology has been the people.  The great thing about ISTE is the thousands of teachers giving up time to be here.  This is best encapsulated by the VW Camper Van positioned as you enter the exhibition area.

The very simple technology of wipeable pens is capturing what teachers think education will look like in 25 years.  Plenty see it being student centred, 24/7, schools without walls, teachers as facilitators etc.  Always positive and always believing in children.  And then my favourite:

it will be what we make it, so let’s get cracking!!

What better way to sum up why we are all here.