Conservative Conference took place this week with the backdrop of the UK’s growth since the pandemic having been upgraded for the period since the pandemic and it is clear now that our economic performance has been better than any other country in Europe.
The impact of the pandemic and the Ukraine war is still big on the public finances however, just as it is pressuring household budgets. It is good to hear in that context the Government’s continued determination to focus on getting inflation down, but also good to hear continued support for working families and those who are more vulnerable.
It was welcome news in particular that the Government is acting to meet our manifesto commitment of boosting the wages of the lowest paid with a commitment to raising the minimum wage to two thirds of median earnings. This means an increase of over £1,000 a year for a full time worker and will amount to £9,000 more per annum than they were able to earn in 2010.
One project we have had to reassess is the proposed HS2 rail upgrade north of Birmingham. It has become so expensive that it doesn’t make sense any more, especially when there are other needs for regional transport that we need to focus on such as the A303 dialling in the South West.
The modern world is changing fast and I took the opportunity to speak at a session, hosted by Big Brother Watch, on the need for the preservation and bolstering of personal freedoms. Because of society’s increasing reliance on technology and the omnipresence of sensors of one kind or another generating data about us and our activities there are many technical opportunities for companies and governments to rollout out surveillance and censorship. We saw it with the “debanking” issue during the summer and it has been a live issue in debates about how to frame legislation such as the Online Safety Bill.
There is more discussion coming on the framing of the Data Protection Bill and I am particularly keen to make sure any work on Central Bank Digital Currency in the UK does not lead to less availability of traditional cash and banking or enable an erosion of people’s rights to transact with each other in private or otherwise lead to systems of “social credit”, surveillance and censorship such as are being pursued in China. The UK was the birthplace of modern human rights and the rights of individuals and their interests not to have interference from the state, and this is a legacy we should seek to extend at home and abroad.
With the advent of increasingly capable artificial intelligence that uses data in more and more creative ways it is essential that core ethical standards about the use of and access to data and systems are established. The UK can play a key role in this but not if it takes the approach that humans are to be managed via corporations and governments rather than given robust and permanent tools to act and think for themselves.