Lord Sugar phubbed in peers' debate on 'digital understanding'

We trawled through 32 Lords debating so you don't have to

Fellow peers phone snubbed (or phubbed) Lord Sugar's speech in a debate last week, which included calls for an ID card system to be resurrected and plenty of hand-wringing about the Government Digital Service.

In what might sound like an oxymoron, 32 Lords stepped forward to air their thoughts in a debate brought by Baroness Martha Lane Fox asking that the House takes note "of the case for improved digital understanding at all levels of United Kingdom society".

Kicking off the discussion, Lane Fox gave a speech covering everything from "emotionally manipulative advertisements" online, Amazon delivery drivers receiving as little as £3 an hour with no breaks, and Home Secretary Amber Rudd's inability to understand how technology affects her brief.

She also dredged up some questionable figures that the Government Digital Service has saved £4.1bn by "by not creating expensive and complicated apps and by salvaging doomed projects such as universal credit" as well as welcoming the development of a digital charter.

"Members from all over the House will speak and, if a 700-year-old institution can see the value of digital understanding, I have no doubt the rest of the British public can too."

Not necessarily a statement to inspire confidence.

Lord Sugar, in his trademark "no bullshit" schtick, said everyone has a profile somewhere in the cloud. "Let me tell your Lordships, it is not going to go away. All we can do is be very careful and wary of what we do online. I am afraid that any discussion today about trying to stop this will be wasted. What I would say is very simple: 'Get over it. It has happened.'

"Can we stop it? The answer is no: we are digitally marked and that is the end of it." Well, if the former Apprentice star says so...

He also used the opportunity to highlight his displeasure at being phubbed by his grandkids.

"I have seven grandchildren and on the very odd occasion that I am blessed with their coming to my home to have dinner, they sit around the table with their faces buried in their smartphones, to such an extent that I have banned the devices from the dining room. I deduce from this that something cannot be right."

Unfortunately, though, it transpired his fellow peers were doing the exact same thing during his speech, as noted by Lord Giddens. "Quite a few noble Lords were looking at their devices while [Lord Sugar] was speaking, and he has so far looked at his device three times since he finished speaking."

So Sugar was phubbing Giddens' speech attacking peers phubbing his phub story?

Giddens concluded: "Let us reintroduce human contact wherever we can where at the moment we have robotic automated voices. Let us contain and humanise the robots."

Some more, err, practical considerations were also put forward. For example, Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb used the platform to criticise the Met Police's recent use of facial recognition technology.

She noted last year their use of the technology proved useless, "so that was OK, but this year it proved worse than useless, with 35 false matches and one wrongful arrest of someone erroneously tagged as being wanted on warrant for a rioting offence," she said.

"I see two particular problems for the police force: understanding what there is in terms of digital products, and having the judgment to know what is appropriate to use.​"

Lord Knight of Weymouth pointed out that the government's controversial National Pupil Database, which contains 20 million records and growing, be evaluated. "The NPD routinely collects highly sensitive data about all the nation's children and shares them across government departments, with academics and with private companies.

"There is little transparency as to why it collects what it does, it is a workload pressure on teachers and I hope that the Minister can help them quickly address concerns about this data collection."

Lord Maxton, on the other hand, took a more pro-database state stance: "The only way you can ensure that everybody has access to the internet and the skills needed is by introducing a smartcard or an ID card – whatever you like to call it." Sensible policies for a better Britain indeed.

Meanwhile, in defending GDS's disastrous Verify programme, Baroness Finn demonstrated she had clearly not used the platform herself.

"Cross-government platforms such as Verify are designed for the user so that digital government is consistent and easy to deal with. Their use by departments is set to save billions of pounds, yet they are resisting their use."

The debate certainly shone a light on some people's digital understanding, at least. ®

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