Jo Swinson MP writes: Another week of Brexit chaos, another week of government ignoring the big issues

On Monday morning the ONS revealed that 1.5 million workers in England alone could lose their jobs to automation, with young people, women and the low-skilled most at risk. Just as we start yet another week of absolute chaos in Parliament over Brexit, I am seriously concerned that no one in Government is thinking about how technology will shape our society.

As liberals, we instinctively embrace change, and we want to harness technological progress to solve challenges from disease to climate change. However, we must take steps now to ensure that everyone in society benefits from that progress. This is why we have called on companies with more than 250 employees to develop plans to support staff vulnerable to automation, and for Government to grant every adult £9,000 over their lifetime to fund lifelong learning.

Also on Monday morning, I hosted the second meeting of the Lib Dem Tech Commission together with Professor Sue Black. We started with a discussion about what kind of economy we want to build and broadly agreed that as a country we need to be better at encouraging entrepreneurship and at encouraging individuals to make mistakes and learn from failure.

However, to try something and be comfortable with failing is a luxury that only few can afford at the moment. As a society, we need to offer much stronger safety nets to ensure that many others can transform their ideas into successful businesses.

We also discussed how we could improve the business environment in the UK. Many in the room were keen to make our immigration system easier to navigate and to make it easier for UK businesses to access talent from anywhere in the world. Some suggested significantly increasing the number of exceptional talent visas available, while others proposed ways in which we can make it easier for students to stay on in the UK and use their skills in our economy, instead of going back to their own country.

Finally, we moved on to talk about digital literacy and skills. We need much better funding for initiatives to ensure that everyone can use technology to improve their lives, and can do so safely and in full knowledge of their rights (for example, on how companies can use their data). We also need to think about whether we currently have the right balance in our schools between teaching hard skills such as coding and developing soft skills such as team-working, adaptability and empathy.

Over the coming months, we’ll be looking at the question of ethics in artificial intelligence, so watch this space for the next update. Moreover, we’ll be coming to Lib Dem members with a survey to get your views.

This is a short clip of Jo and Sue Black:

* Jo Swinson is Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire, and was a Minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Equalities Minister from 2012-15.

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  • I agree with the overall intent and thrust of this initiative, although I question some of the details, and look forward to seeing this develop.

  • Martin Land 27th Mar '19 - 5:13pm

    If we have a free market economy it will cope with the employment consequences of automation. The danger comes from automation combined with a Corbyn government which would join Ned Ludd in trying to save jobs that cannot or should not be saved. Government has a role. It can invest in education and re-education. But much of the training needs will be in the post compulsory years and few governments have a very good record on that. The Lib Dems need a strong policy in this area and we will need to stick to the point, not be distracted by other items on our agenda.

  • I very much welcome the survey of members’ opinions. I hope that the questions are not over simplified questions of the type of do you agree or not agree. There is a need to enable members to give their views without giving them the answers. There is also a need to give members access to the raw date, rather than a gloss on the replies.
    However I live in hope.

  • To allow automation to work you need a social society that values retraining and skill upgrade, unfortunately as a society we don’t. If this attitude continues expect General Ludd to return, in one form or another.

  • Sorry, but I’m distinctly unimpressed by this.

    Firstly, do we really want to encourage mistakes? I get that we should be more accepting of business failure in start-ups, and it should be easier for people to change course during their lives, but that doesn’t make mistakes a good thing to be encouraged. Do you want to encourage individuals at your bank to make mistakes?

    Secondly, I seriously question how representative this Tech Panel is if their biggest concern is making the immigration system easier to navigate. This may be an issue for a small number of tech companies, but it’s nowhere near the top of the list for most British employers.

    Couple that with the irony of an article that starts by talking about the threat to jobs by automation. I know it’s not the intent, but some might interpret it as saying that lots of jobs are under threat from automation, and we want it to be easier for foreigners to take the ones that are left, which is a gift to our political opponents.

    I seriously hope that the party takes a far more diverse range of views than are apparent here when making policy.

  • Peter Martin 28th Mar '19 - 6:06am

    There perhaps is a need to show more awareness of contradictory positions. Such as, on the one hand the robots are coming to take our jobs, but on the other we need to allow freedom of movement because the economy is reliant on having lots of overseas workers.

    Martin Land suggests that the “free market” can always be relied upon to solve employment issues. Unfortunately the economic history of the world doesn’t support this view. Yes, we can have relatively full employment but only if currency issuing governments make it happen. It isn’t always a natural condition. The downside is that as we have higher levels of employment we can create higher levels of inflation too, and before levels of unemployment become acceptably low.

    One potential solution is to have a job guarantee scheme which can involve as much training and education as we might wish to include in it.

  • Jo Swinson voted to triple tuition fees to £9,000 and now says ” grant every adult £9,000 over their lifetime to fund lifelong learning”. Doesn’t that seem a little odd?

  • @malc – No it doesn’t seem odd, although it did have me thinking.
    Could the grant be used against a course that qualifies for student loans.
    Also, why not link the grant amount to one year’s tuition fees. Which in turn begs the question is the amount going to be indexed? Which brings us back to individual learning accounts and “trust funds” where say £3000 is deposited on someone’s 18th/21st/25th… birthday and the actual amount available depends on investment performance and when it is spent. Also, where is the industry top-up? surely there need to be incentives for match funding from employers to help address the UK society issues raised by frankie and others.

    It is details like this and others including those raised by Nick and Peter that I also question, however do I think that we (as a society) need to change the current modus operandi that if we need skills we simply import them rather than invest in our existing work force.

    Automation eg. driverless cars and raising the retirement age, are highly likely to massively increase the resident “not economically active” working age population, acting as a massive drag on the economy and massively increasing the welfare bill. Hence (almost) any initiative that says the LibDems want to invest in UK residents is to be welcomed. In this context Nick is right, making the immigration system easier to navigate is largely an irrelevance, particularly given the numbers of people that have been managing to come to live in the UK every year since 1997.

  • Roland

    Surely the cost of a £9,000 grant to everyone would be as expensive as scrapping tuition fees all together. The LibDems would be pledging to spend hundred’s of billions on these grants. It sounds more like something people would expect from Corbyn.

  • @malc – tuition fees… yes at some stage that growing mountain of off-book unpaid debt is going to have to be addressed… [Remember student loans only repay about a third of the total debt, due to large numbers not actually earning enough to repay their loan.]

    Actually, I expect it to be more costly, given currently less than 33% of school leavers go into higher education colleges and universities. Hence why I’m surprised at the lack of industry incentives and thus the whole thing sort of self-finances. [I’m thinking of the car scrappage scheme of a few years back now, which resulted in higher tax receipts than were anticipated without the scheme.]

    It is a long time ago now that I read Ivan Illich’s ideas on a similar but voucher-based scheme (see Deschooling Society) and his argument as to how it could be sustainably funded and thus whether his argument stands the test of time.

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