Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:40 pm on 26th April 2018.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier in the other place. We welcome it in its generality, although I have some comments about individual points. The most striking thing is that there is no reference in the Statement or the papers that accompany it to the excellent report recently published by your Lordships’ Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence. It may just be a case of the Government getting their retaliation in first. I hope not; I hope that in time they will respond positively and carefully to the various recommendations made by that excellent report and look forward to returning to the topic then.
AI clearly presents huge opportunities for the UK, and it is important that the Government are taking it seriously, as I think they are in the Statement. Responsibilities go with that initiative, as is evident in some of the points made, but I shall probe further on them.
On R&D spend, which is at the heart of the Statement, as reflected in the press statement issued jointly by DCMS and BEIS, the ambition is to get to 2.5% of GDP, with an eventual target, although it is not quantified, of more than 3%. Sweden, Austria, Germany, Belgium and Finland all have R&D expenditure of more than 2.5%, and South Korea spends more than 4% of GDP on R&D. If the UK really seeks to be a leader in AI and technology innovation, as we hope it does, why is the target so modest?
My second point is about the link back to young people and the school curriculum. It was suggested that the Government discouraged the independent review led by Professor Wendy Hall and Jérôme Pesenti from looking at the curriculum in primary and secondary schools, which you would think would be part of the process of trying to get our country as a whole geared up to do more across AI. If they were told that they could not go there because looking at the curriculum is very thorny and difficult, what on earth are the Government going to do about it? There is good news in the extra funding for teachers, but teachers do not create curricula; curricula have to be created in the wider context of education. I should be grateful if the Minister would comment on whether there is to be movement on that.
Also in education, there is the rather curious phrase that the Government are going to “create” 200 PhDs, as if they are something that you just print or issue, like coinage. Further reading and looking in more detail at other parts of the Statement should reveal that this will be funding for a welcome increase in the number of people taking PhD programmes. Presumably they will be independently offered by universities, not simply created by government diktat. However, are we not in the middle of a crisis of funding for higher education? Where in the Statement—I could not find it—is any reference to how the students will live on the additional PhDs that are being created? To narrow my question down, will the PhDs mentioned be part of the independent review of higher education, which is looking primarily at undergraduate courses but needs to look also at masters and PhD students?
We have looked at digital infrastructure time and again in this House, and each time the Minister has come to the Dispatch Box and talked about what progress has been made he has been met by a torrent of scepticism and concern that the reality is rather different from what the Government think. At the heart of this must be a commitment from the Government to get ahead of the rather unaspirational USO that they are about to introduce and go to fibre to the premises. FTTP broadband is the only way we can take the benefit of the technology, invest and get the returns that we will need as a country. We are so far behind the EU average on FTTP, which is 24% penetration. We are at about 2.7% penetration. Countries such as Portugal, Latvia and Lithuania have coverages of 86%, 85% and 81% respectively. What are the Government going to do about that? This will not get us to where we need to be.
On visas, there is a welcome suggestion that tier 1 numbers will be doubled, although that takes us to only 2,000—presumably per year. Will the Government reflect on whether that will be sufficient to reach the ambitions set out in the Statement?
I have two final points. In the Data Protection Bill, we have been concerned about whether sufficient resources and powers are available for the Information Commissioner to carry out her very responsible job of trying to ensure that we have a proper data regulatory structure. I understand that amendments are to be tabled that will increase the powers of the ICO, and look forward to discussing them when they reach the House—perhaps next week or the week after—but the question of resources is still open-ended. It seems that the Government will back and expand our AI activity. If that is the case, can they assure us that the additional resources required by the Information Commissioner’s Office will be provided at the appropriate time and that she will have the powers she needs?
Finally, on the very welcome news that the centre for data ethics and innovation is beginning to take shape and apparently has a budget of £9 million, what exactly is its current status? As I understand it, no legislative process has taken place, and I would be interested to know the timetable for that. Will the funding be limited to £9 million, or will other funds be available? More importantly, will it have a statutory position? The Government rightly pick up the need to ensure that all the work that is going on and is foreshadowed in the Statement will be effective for our economy, but it will be effective only if people trust that their data will not be abused and that there is appropriate understanding and a proper regulatory processes in place which engage with the ethical issues. We need a little more information on that. I should be grateful if the Minister could respond on when that will happen.