Queen’s Speech is a new low even for the Tories

Chi Onwurah 

(Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) and his passionate calls for action. I have become accustomed to feeling disappointment, dismay, despair and, at times, disgust in response to Government pronouncements, but this Queen’s Speech is a new low. The people of my constituency deserve better than this low-growth, high-tax and, increasingly, high-inflation Government. Under Labour we had growth on average of 2% each year, but under the Tories it is averaging 1.5% and is forecast to go negative. The cost of living crisis brought about by this Government has my constituents flocking to food banks. The choice between eating and heating is real in my constituency. Child poverty rates in the north-east rose by more than a third, to 37%, between 2015 and 2019. Some 61% of children in Elswick in my constituency are growing up in poverty—this is in 2022!

What is the Government’s response? This Queen’s speech is remarkable for what is not in it, not what is: there is no emergency budget, with a windfall tax to get money off people’s bills, as Labour has called for; and it contains no employment Bill, although the Government promised one. We needed a real plan for growth to get our economy firing on all cylinders, with a climate investment pledge, and a commitment to buy, make and sell more in Britain. Instead, the Government hike national insurance; cut universal credit; have real-terms pay cuts for public sector workers; freeze the rate of local housing allowance; and freeze the cap on childcare costs that UC claimants are entitled to. Each of those decisions make it even harder for my constituents to deal with rising costs.

The problem is that this Government do not believe that government can make a positive difference to people’s lives. That leaves my constituents with stagnating wages; the north-east regional economy without the investment it needs; hard-working Geordies facing massive technological and economic change without the skills they need; and the Tyne bridge peeling and our buses infrequent and overpriced. It does not have to be this way, because government can be a force for good. Governments can look ahead and plan—although not this Government, obviously.

I want to show how it can be different by looking at one Bill that was actually mentioned in the Queen’s Speech and that really highlights the point, and by looking at where the Government are creating growth: in online crime. Online, the Conservatives are the party of no law and total disorder. The Home Secretary did not even bother to defend her Government’s record when I challenged her earlier. I am an engineer and a passionate advocate for technology and innovation. It has truly distressed me to see technology go from being boring but useful to exciting but exploitative. Our constituents fear that tech is managing them, tracking, monitoring and analysing their every move, and then serving them up to be trolled, exploited, scammed, groomed or just bombarded with advertising and misinformation.

Online harms are not some future threat but an established current reality about which successive Conservative and Liberal Democrat Governments have done absolutely nothing, because they have believed in and, indeed, promoted the silicon valley libertarian lie that Governments could do nothing about the internet. They have thereby allowed monopolistic platforms to acquire more money and power than many Governments have. That power is used to deny workers’ rights in silicon valley and to delay and minimise regulation here.

Successive Conservative and Liberal Democrat Governments chose to leave it to the market, blinded by their belief that the state was too slow or too stupid to regulate to keep people safe and secure online. They did that while actively cutting the parts of the state—such as the police and trading standards—the job of which it is to protect people. We now see the same dogmatic approach in the Government’s attitude to the cost of living. They refuse to take action, such as by introducing a windfall tax, and instead cut programmes, such as the green homes scheme—axed just six months after it was announced—that could help.

Nevertheless, it is possible for Governments to take action. The Labour Government at the time saw the fast-evolving communications landscape of the late ’90s, consulted widely and put in place forward-looking regulation in the form of the Communications Act 2003, which set out a regulatory landscape fit for the next decade. Come 2013, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government chose to ignore the many calls, from me and many others, to do something similar. It is no surprise that the former Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister is now Facebook’s president of global affairs, justifying the online harms that deliver billions of pounds of revenue to that company.

The Online Safety Bill in the Queen’s Speech will not be in place before 2023, so Conservatives have left my constituents unprotected and insecure online for more than a decade. The much-delayed Bill still fails in so many ways. It fails to strengthen child protection across the entire internet; to properly address the harmful impact that social media can have on young people’s  mental health; and to ensure a voice to victims of abuse and harm online. The Bill needs to tackle disinformation online, and to close the loophole that means people are not properly protected from online fraud by ensuring that all platforms take a proactive approach to preventing scams.

The data reform Bill, also in the Queen’s Speech, seems to be more about taking away protections than about giving new digital rights, and the digital markets Bill has no proper enforcer. This Government are constructing a piecemeal, ad hoc and, at times, kneejerk online legislative framework when what we need is a comprehensive, cross-departmental, evidence-based, forward-looking review of digital rights and responsibilities so that we can have a regulatory framework that is fit for the future. This is the security and the respect that the British public deserve in the digital age. It is also mind-numbingly depressing that the Government are repeating their mistakes of a decade ago, ignoring emerging harms, algorithms, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, bossware and data dominance.

There is nothing in the Bill that addresses the decentralisation inherent in web 3.0 reflected in the use of blockchain as part of the future architecture of the web. Although distributed ledger technology has many strengths, there is also a libertarian dogmatic view that the blockchain can replace regulation in Government. That is a lie, and the Government need to show that they understand that—but, clearly, they do not.

We also need more emphasis on people’s rights, on access to algorithms and their regulation. The metaverse poses significant risk to children, with virtual reality chatrooms allowing children to mix freely with adults. Labour has long campaigned for stronger online protections for children and the public in order to keep them safe, to protect their prosperity from scams and online fraud, to secure our democracy, and to ensure that everyone is treated with decency and respect. Governments can act. This one refuses to do so. To be competitive in the global age, we need to empower everyone to be confident digital citizens. That is an economic imperative. An investment now will bear fruit for decades to come.

The Government have failed to rise to the challenge of the digital age, just as they failed to rise to the cost of living crisis, and failed to rise to the challenges of covid, of climate change, and of child poverty. They look at our northern cities and see problems to hide from, not opportunities for investment. Whether we are talking about short-term or long-term planning, this Government are failing. Britain deserves better and I look forward to a Labour Government who are on the people’s side.



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