Wednesday 25 May 2022
Financial Exclusion (Liaison Committee Report)
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am delighted to open this very timely debate on the Liaison Committee’s follow-up report on financial exclusion. Perhaps I should explain the use of the word “timely”. I am referring not to the fact that it is now over a year since the publication of that report and 11 months since the Government’s response, but rather to the extreme salience of financial inclusion and exclusion, given the unprecedented cost of living crisis which is affecting so many people so acutely. First, I declare my interests in the register, particular as a member of the Financial Inclusion Commission and as president of the Money Advice Trust.
Turning briefly to the history of the report, I reflect that it has had a long gestation period. The original Select Committee, which I had the honour to chair, reported in March 2017, with 22 wide-ranging recommendations calling on the Government, the Financial Conduct Authority and the banks to give much greater priority to tackling financial exclusion and ensuring that vulnerable customers were getting a fairer deal. When we debated the report alongside the Government’s response, in December 2017, I well recall expressing my disappointment with what I felt was a somewhat lacklustre and dispiriting response, particularly the rather dismal tally of recommendations that had been accepted. As we debate today the Liaison Committee’s follow-up report, published in June last year, and the Government’s response, I have to confess to a rather similar feeling.
I thank all the members of the original Select Committee and am absolutely delighted that the noble Lords, Lord Shinkwin and Lord Holmes, with all their commitment and expertise in this area, are both speaking today. I thank the Liaison Committee for conducting a follow-up inquiry. I think these follow-up inquiries are an excellent innovation, helping to ensure transparency and hold the Government to account on their response to Select Committee reports. Finally, I thank the excellent committee staff who assisted both the original Select Committee and with the follow-up report. I must particularly thank Lucy Molloy for her outstanding support.
The follow-up report contained 19 recommendations, covering such critical issues as access to cash, digital inclusion, basic bank accounts, bank branch and ATM closures, the role of the Post Office, control options, affordable credit, the Help to Save scheme, financial education, government leadership and the need for proactive regulation, and more besides. This demonstrates how multifaceted any serious attempt to tackle financial inclusion needs to be and why a strategic and co-ordinated approach among all the key players is vital. I will be able to focus on only a small number of these issues today, but before doing so I wish to reflect on the current state of financial inclusion in the UK.
I begin by acknowledging that there have been some positive steps, most particularly the inclusion in the Queen’s Speech of legislation to safeguard access to cash—albeit two years after it was first announced in the 2020 Budget. I strongly welcome this as a means of ensuring that the 5.4 million adults in the UK who rely on cash are financially included. Three years ago, the Access to Cash Review warned that Britain was
“sleepwalking into a cashless society.”
This has been exacerbated by Covid. As recent research from the RSA has shown, some 10 million people would struggle to cope in a cashless society and 48% of the population would find it problematic if there was no cash available.
I also recognise and welcome the steps the Government are taking, including the recent consultation, to bring “buy now, pay later” products within the scope of FCA regulation—a good example of the need for more proactive regulation. However, there was no specific mention of it in the Queen’s Speech and I would be grateful if the Minister could say exactly when the “buy now, pay later” regulation is expected to come into force.
With so many bank branches and ATMs closing, it is vital that other facilities—such as enhanced Post Office services or new shared banking services or hubs, based on the existing pilots—come on stream. The recent levelling up White Paper mentions bank closures in both rural and urban areas but contains no specific policy measures to address them, hence my disappointment that our recommendation that the Government formally review the powers available to the FCA to mitigate the negative effect of the closure of bank branches and free ATMs was rejected.
More government action is urgently needed to ensure that the rapid expansion of alternatives for people wishing to use face-to-face services, including community banking hubs and Post Office services, are available within a reasonable distance, taking account of public transport and accessibility needs. Indeed, I still have the words to the committee of the money advice expert Martin Lewis ringing in my ears:
“To answer your question whether it is socially responsible for banks to be closing branches in the middle of this, I never attribute social responsibility to banks; that it is something that banks need to do. They are there to make money for their shareholders. Surely, it is for regulators and politicians to make sure that, if we need them to keep the bank branches open, they do so.”
While we must protect access to cash, we also need effective action to support cash users who can do so to make the move to digital payments; this needs focused and co-ordinated work on digital inclusion, and I ask the Minister to set out what the Government are doing in that area.
Since our follow-up report in 2021, which reflected the massive impact that the pandemic had had on people’s financial resilience, the soaring costs of living, with prices now rising by 9% a year, have placed yet more pressure on the most financially vulnerable. Indeed, when we made our recommendations last year, the evidence suggested that 27 million adults in the UK—more than half the adult population—were financially vulnerable. It is clear that this has become more dire for millions of people across the country, with many now unable to afford basic food and heating.
Research from the Money Advice Trust shows that some people are already having to go without in order to try to get by financially. Specifically, the research shows that, in the past three months, 12% of UK adults —equivalent to 6.2 million people—had gone without heating, electricity or water due to the rising cost of living, 8% had gone without food, and 25% had used credit to pay for food or bills because they had no other way to pay for them. Given that some price rises have only just come in, and with the strong likelihood of worse to come, particularly with energy prices rising again in October, there is great concern that more people will fall into debt, particularly on household bills, or end up going without essentials.
Equally worrying is the poverty premium, which means that poor people still pay more for essential goods and services compared to those on higher incomes. The poverty premium costs the average low-income household £490 a year, meaning that low-income and vulnerable consumers still struggle to afford, have to pay extra for or are unable to access appropriate products and services such as utilities, insurance and credit.
The energy poverty premium is particularly acute. Research commissioned by Fair By Design found that being on the best energy prepayment meter tariff could still be £131 more expensive than the best online-only fixed tariff. This must end. For households living below or around the poverty line, it has been estimated that the elimination of the poverty premium could potentially release an extra £4 billion per year into the local communities and economies that need it the most. So I ask the Minister to explain what immediate action the Government are taking to help to alleviate the poverty premium.
I want to focus on the case set out clearly in chapter 3 of the report for more proactive leadership and regulation by the Government and the FCA. I am particularly disappointed that our recommendation for a statutory duty for financial inclusion for the FCA was not given more consideration. The financial services Bill that was announced in the Queen’s Speech is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redesign financial services regulation to ensure that the regulator and the industry better serve the needs of customers. I strongly believe that this can be achieved only by giving the FCA a “must have regard” duty to financial inclusion, to ensure that it is both prioritised and enforced within the financial services sector.
I recognise that there are different views and different ideological approaches here, but I still have the words of so many of the eminent witnesses to the follow-up inquiry ringing in my ears. With the exception of Ministers, they were adamant that clear FCA objectives and a duty of care to customers were required to bridge the gap between the commercial interests of the financial services providers and the societal needs to achieve financial inclusion. As Natalie Ceeney, who chaired the Access to Cash Review, told the committee:
“the fundamental issue [is that] there are market segments that commercial models will never address. They are never going to be commercially viable to support the most vulnerable and the poorest.”
The sometimes glaring gap between social policy and regulatory policy—with the Government and the FCA pointing the finger at the other as being responsible for action—lies at the heart of many of our recommendations.
The new consumer duty, currently being consulted on by the FCA, as well as its consumer vulnerability guidance, will not address this as it deals with the experience of consumers who currently do have access to financial products and services, rather than the accessibility of those products for those currently totally excluded. The only way to ensure that low-income or vulnerable consumers can access essential products and services is to give the FCA a clear remit on financial inclusion.
Many of our witnesses lamented the lack of an overall financial inclusion strategy. While the deliberations of the Financial Inclusion Policy Forum clearly continue to be helpful, and the national financial well-being strategy produced by the Money and Pensions Service is welcome, our expert witnesses felt that they were no substitute for a strategy that could galvanise financial inclusion efforts at a national level, bring together the various strands of work across all sectors and monitor implementation. I agree.
I still strongly maintain that if such a strategy were presented to Parliament annually as a Command document, as we originally recommended, it would allow for proper scrutiny and parliamentary debate. Of course, the Government now produce an annual financial inclusion report, including, for the first time, forward plans and activities. I looked at the most recent report, published on 21 December 2021, and saw that the forward plans section comprised four whole paragraphs covering just over one side of paper. That is not a strategy.
To conclude, despite my disappointment at the lack of progress in key areas since we reported, I firmly believe that this is an issue whose time has come. I look forward to hearing the expert contributions of other noble Lords and the Government’s response. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate and to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler. I was also privileged to serve on the original committee. The noble Baroness said that it has been a while since the updated committee report. I am not saying that the first report on financial exclusion was done a long time ago, but I was a young man then. Things take time.
This afternoon, I shall focus on cash, debt, regulation and financial technology, hereafter referred to as fintech. As the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, pointed out, it is positive that, in the upcoming financial services and markets Bill, we have the opportunity to see the Government’s commitment to the future of cash in the UK. Can the Minister tell me what is the Government’s intention for the acceptance of, as well as access to, cash? The difficulties around being able to access cash are one thing, but if there is no place to spend it, what is the purpose of cash? It loses its currency. So many places are going cashless. I do not single it out, but I saw earlier today that Center Parcs is cashless. As many families approach the Whitsun break, they will find that their cash has no currency there, as well as in many other venues around the country.
In last year’s Financial Services Bill, I was delighted that the Government accepted my amendment on cashback without a purchase. The purpose was largely to try to fill the gap where so many banks have stepped away, with closed branches and ATMs, to enable cash to get into the hands of consumers in the community. More than that, research published in December last year demonstrated that the vast majority of uses of cashback without a purchase had been for £20 and below. It serves a market that even ATMs had not really served prior to that point, so it was a very positive intervention.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, pointed out, it is critical for the Minister and for everybody to understand and appreciate that cash still matters. It matters materially to millions. They cannot just be shut out of economic and thus social activity or society itself. As the noble Baroness also pointed out, it would be helpful for the FCA, as the regulator, to adopt a key role when it comes to promoting and having regard to financial inclusion. Will the Government reconsider the role that the FCA can play in this space?
Similarly, so much of the regulatory approach looks to areas around enabling financial services, but it is also important to look at the whole question of debt. Does the Minister agree that it is high time that we regulated debt advice services, which are often not performing the purpose that we might imagine? Online particularly, they are taking money for debt advice off people who are already in financial dire straits. Whatever we may think about debt, its devastating impact cannot be overstated. Of those in debt, 400,000 contemplate suicide, and 100,000 attempt it.
I have always believed that financial technology—fintech—has a potentially transformational role to play when it comes to financial inclusion. In saying that, I declare my fintech and technology interests as set out in the register. For example, as we saw at the outset of the pandemic, Starling Bank, a new neobank, produced its Connected card to instantly, effectively and positively help those who were socially isolating at that stage and throughout the pandemic. Fintech offers the opportunity to reimagine risk and take a whole new view of credit, not to increase risk in lending activities but to reimagine and reassess it, crucially in real time, and to use that data positively to enable and financially include.
I believe that open banking and open finance can have an incredibly positive role for all consumers. They can bring people into financial inclusion if we get it right. To illustrate the problem briefly, let us imagine a payment app. It could be the best piece of financial technology ever created, yet if it is in the hands of somebody who does not have the digital skills to use that app, that payment is not being made. Similarly, if that app is in the hands of someone who does have the skills to use it but is in an area of low or no connectivity, that financial payment is not being made.
This underscores the multiple nature of what is required for financial inclusion and how it is inextricably linked with digital inclusion and financial education. A good example of where this comes together in a positive way is what GoHenry, an excellent fintech business, is doing in its tremendous work with financial education for young people through their teenage years.
The initial Select Committee report and the Liaison Committee’s follow-up report make the case clearly. There is much to be done if we are going to enable and deliver financial inclusion for everybody across the United Kingdom. It makes economic sense and it makes social and psychological sense because if we financially include, everybody benefits.
My Lords, I note that the noble Lord, Lord Davies, is not able to be with us, so the Committee get me. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, for introducing the debate. I hope that I will not upset too many people by the time I finish speaking, but the most obvious point of the lot seems to me to be that one way of tackling financial exclusion is to give people more money. We can try all the sticking plasters in the world, but the fact is that a lot of people in society are struggling to get by, and their number seems to be going up. Their financial problems will not go away because the FCA passes a regulation. Having said that, there are, of course, many very useful things in here.
I gave up money when Covid arrived and our local shop put up a notice saying, “We no longer accept cash”. I said to the very nice Turkish gentleman who runs it, “Why is that?”. He said, “Because the coins could give me Covid”. I said, “I don’t think they could, but I am quite happy to use my debit card in here.” I then thought about it and decided that I do not need money. I can honestly say that I have not carried any money for well over two years—so I am useless to tramps, for instance.
When we look at access to cash, let us realise that the world is changing. I am old enough to remember the Daily Express launching the “Save our Sixpence” campaign. It did not get very far, and most people today do not know what a sixpence is. Time moves on, and we are using less and less cash. When I go into my local stores today, very few people appear to be paying with money—and I am talking about the local Co-op, not expensive stores in expensive locations. We have to realise that we are heading towards if not a cashless society then one where cash is less of a factor. I do not think that we should resist this. It is rather like cheques. I got my cheque book out the other day to write a cheque—incidentally to a Member of this House for one of the APPGs—and it was the first time I had used it for a year, and that was because the APPG did not know how to accept electronic payments. You can see that there is still some education needed, even in this House. The world is changing; that is the point I am making.
Part of digital inclusion has to be to put some effort into getting people, particularly of my generation, behind the computer. It is, of course, gradually catching on, and most of my friends transfer money electronically. It is also an education and class issue. We need more digital inclusion. I notice that all the schemes which were running around the time of the Labour Government —which my wife made quite a bit of money out of, incidentally—to teach the silver generation how to use a computer seem to have disappeared. They did some good—not a lot, but a certain amount. Their weakness was that, when the Government sent money to Cambridge City Council—a very good Labour Council, let me say—it looked very carefully and decided to put its money into local libraries in the poorest areas of Cambridge. This was 20 years ago, when I was much less competent with technology, so I thought I would slip down there; it was a bit much, but I went down to see. I drove down there and, lo and behold, the car park was full of Chelsea tractors, Mercedes-Benz and BMWs, as the middle class of Cambridge had pounced on the idea that there were free lessons to be got from the council in a very poor area. The one thing I did not notice was any people who looked particularly poor. When we are looking at digital inclusion programmes, we need to target them.
Similarly, I just say a word on basic bank accounts. They are an extremely good idea but one of the groups with the greatest difficulty with bank accounts that I have come across is people newly arrived in Britain. I do not just mean refugees on the shores of Dover, but also students. EU nationals used to have tremendous difficulties in opening bank accounts because they could not provide most of the documents; they did not have a council tax bill, utility bill or whatever. In a university town such as Cambridge, it was a major problem faced by many overseas people—and indeed still faced by many.
I have another one or two small points. I welcome the resolution to better regulate buy now, pay later. It is an anomaly. It has crept through, because it is a new idea that managed to get round all the regulation. Clearly, it is another form of credit and it should be subject to some rules, so I certainly welcome that. I hope that the Minister can tell us what the phrase in the government response means when, in answer to our point that
“This legislation should be brought forward without delay”,
“The Government will publicly consult on policy proposals, and will then bring forward secondary legislation … as soon as parliamentary time allows.”
Does the Minister have any estimate that he can give us? I notice that we have a little time spare in the Lords. We managed to get the Second Reading of a Bill through in about an hour and a half yesterday and I do not think that this one would take much longer.
I turn to my next point. I am interested to read about the no-interest loan pilot. I counsel the Government to be very careful. A no-interest loan is still a loan and will still go into that order of priorities, and the one who chases the softest gets the least. More years ago than I remember, I was involved in advising the system in Bangladesh, of all places, on setting up loans for the village co-operatives. The one abiding lesson that I came away with was that you needed to have community contribution and coherence. If you just gave a loan to an individual person, they tended to disappear or put it right down the scale; if you gave it to a community group—an identifiable source—you would find that the community would exert some moral pressure on it getting paid back.
I have one other point. Financial learning begins at home, of course. We all know that the first seven years of a child’s life is when most of it is shaped, and that includes their attitude to money and to parents and many other psychological things. I was brought up by a grandmother born in Victorian England. She had a very strict attitude to credit—she did admit that mortgages could exist but she did not go much further than that. She used to say, “If you can’t afford it, boy, save up for it. Don’t you borrow—all the banks will get your money.” I think she saw banks roughly as most people see terrorists; she was not very fond of banks. It is important that, through schooling and through parental education, we help to educate children about money. What they learn in those first 10 years they will probably carry through the rest of their lives.
My Lords, I thank the Liaison Committee and all its members for the excellent report. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, in this debate. I should just tell him that I applied for a credit card not so long ago. I put down that I am a retired pensioner and put in only my state pension amount. Very soon, a sign appeared saying that I was not eligible for a credit card, which was just a reminder to say, “You’re too old, you’re too poor, go away”. It is a form of financial exclusion encountered by many people every day.
A major cause of financial exclusion and any social exclusion is poverty, which is increasing but the Government are doing little to tackle it. Trickle-down economics does not work: the rich keep getting richer while normal people struggle to make ends meet. The Government’s tax policies are regressive, employment laws are not enforced—as clearly shown by the P&O Ferries case—workers’ share of GDP continues to decline, pensions are inadequate, benefits lag behind inflation and redistribution is not a government priority. Is it any surprise that we have financial exclusion, which is really the tip of an exclusionary iceberg?
Financial services have increasingly moved from brick and mortar buildings and humans to cyberspace. According to Ofcom, some 1.5 million people do not have access to the internet. Broadband is expensive and paying £30 to £40 a month is beyond the reach of many, especially now that they are facing a cost of living crisis. Even if people manage to buy a computer, the rate of obsolescence is increasing as operating systems rapidly change. It is hard to see how many of the poor can continue to replace their computers every four or five years.
Might the Government consider adopting the Labour policy of giving free broadband to everybody? I remember during Covid going to a supermarket and seeing some young schoolchildren outside, huddled around a tablet. I asked them what they were doing; they did not have broadband at home and this was the only way they could catch a signal. It was bitingly cold, but there they were. Maybe the Government should provide free iPads to the needy as well as free broadband, which is essential.
I will confine the rest of my comments to banks, which are a vital part of our social infrastructure. The branch network plays a major role in the provision of savings, borrowings, financial services and finance for businesses, SMEs and local entrepreneurs. However, the bank branch network has been shrinking at an accelerating rate. Many villages and districts no longer have a bank branch, and post offices are closing too. People are left without financial services. The closure of local branches is a major reason why some traders—as they told me for a research project I did—demand payment by credit or debit card. They do not want to hang on to cash overnight as it is simply not secure; in the absence of a bank branch, they do not want any cash, which means a lot of poor people cannot afford to buy their goods and services.
Why are we witnessing this disappearance of bank branches? There are many reasons, one of which is mergers and consolidations. Lloyds TSB, HBOS and Halifax combined to form Lloyds Banking Group; inevitably, many branches vanished as they were not going to compete against each other. Santander acquired Abbey National, Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley; once again, lots of branches had to close.
The merger and takeover policy has been informed primarily by the need to compete at the global level, rather than ending financial exclusion. The social consequences of those mergers do not appear to be considered at all. Banking executives have sought to increase the size of banks to justify their mega pay packets. Maintaining an effective and efficient branch network is not part of any of their performance-related pay algorithm—it does not come into it at all. The bank websites continue to tell us that they are socially responsible, but that does not come into it either. A programme of bank branch closures has been pursued to cut costs and increase profits, rather than do what is good for the community. SMEs are left without good financial and banking advice; bank managers, because there are no bank branches, have absolutely no idea what is happening in the local community—where they could invest better, or what kind of diamonds or winners they can pick.
Under FiSMA, the FCA is required to
“promote effective competition in the interests of consumers”.
The FCA website says that one of its duties is to
“make markets work well—for individuals, for business, large and small, and for the economy as a whole.”
It is hard to see how any of these duties are met by unrestrained bank branch closures. Branch closures result in exclusion. Many citizens, especially the elderly and low-income groups, do not have access to a good broadband connection or a computer. Some people are told to go to libraries—so I went to look at the libraries, where many of the computers appeared to be steam-powered, incredibly slow and utterly unsafe. Nobody should really be accessing their financial services and banking from the library computers—and about 20% of libraries have vanished since 2010. We had a banking crash, and what did the Government do? Did they punish the bankers? No, they shut libraries everywhere. I do not know what the link is, but that was their solution. So again we have a problem.
Those who have mobile phones may not have access to strong wi-fi signals. Trekking to another town is not an easy option for the elderly, infirm, women with small children and local entrepreneurs. People have said that they could not afford to go to another town, or that they are a one-man operation and it basically means that they have to shut down their business for an afternoon; they are really stuck. Branch closures are actually transferring costs from banks to people, in the form of transport, time, pollution, road congestion, search and cyber risks, and many more. It is not a costless thing for banks to do; all they are doing is to shuffle costs.
ATMs can dispense cash, but they are dependent on the vagaries of the banks’ IT systems. How many times have we read that those systems have failed? They also need to be replenished, and they always offer a very limited amount of cash. Again, that hinders many who are less well off. Even worse, I visited for this research project many poorer areas, and what did I find? Every ATM was charging a fee for withdrawal of cash, which is punishing people for poverty.
SME lending growth is restricted on average by 63% in areas where a bank branch closes, and where the last bank in town is closed the reduction in lending to banks was about 104%—a massive reduction. If people go to a bank branch in another town, they will do their shopping there and spend their money there, which means that their local town goes into a spiral of decline, because people are simply not shopping there at all.
I suggest that we need to put responsibilities on banks to do certain things. At the moment, banks rely on voluntary codes for closures. That is simply not acceptable. Stakeholders are consulted after a decision to close a branch has been made, but not before. I asked the bank to show me the financial calculations explaining why the local branch was being shut, and they said, “Oh, we can’t show you that.” If they had shown me, I could have unpicked the financial numbers quite easily and made an alternative case, but they were not willing to show me. People have hardly any notice, and basically human interest is not really taken into account. Banks should consult local customers first and show their financial numbers, explaining why a branch is being closed, and there should be an ombudsman to adjudicate on disputes. If a bank wants to shut down a branch, it should not be able just to get away with it.
We need a simple test: a bank must show that after the closure of a branch the local financial infrastructure is no worse off. If it is, the bank cannot close the branch; it can move it into a post office or a supermarket but it cannot simply walk away. Banks should have to pick up the costs. That fact is shown in the US Community Reinvestment Act 1977, which ought to be examined, as we can learn something from it.
Banks will not like that suggestion but I shall tell the Committee what we are doing for the banks, and I am asking for very little in return. We bail them out; we shower them with billions in quantitative easing; the public or the state acts as their lender of last resort; the Government provide the Financial Services Compensation Scheme; the Government send millions of customers to banks by ensuring that pensions and social security are paid through the banking system; and banks get their raw material, which is cash, almost free, while charging 40% interest on overdrafts. All I am saying is that banks need to give something back to the community. They should not be able to destroy local economies by simply closing local branches and walking away.
My Lords, the Liaison Committee follow-up report is called Tackling Financial Exclusion: A Country that Works for Everyone? The recommendations made in the original 2017 Select Committee report found that, four years on, financial exclusion is still highly prevalent in the UK—that is,
“the inability, difficulty or reluctance to access mainstream financial services, which, without intervention, can stimulate social exclusion, poverty and inequality.”
Particularly at risk are those on low incomes, those living in poverty, young people, older people, people with difficulty in accessing banks and those lacking digital access.
The committee found that, despite the UK being at the forefront of the global financial industry and a leader in the fields of financial services, technology, fintech and innovation, financial exclusion is still a significant problem, saying that
“a sizeable number of UK citizens lack access to even the most basic financial services, while still more are forced to rely on high-cost and suboptimal products which can prove damaging to their long-term financial health.”
We heard earlier about the role of the “poverty premium”, where poor people pay more, which exacerbates the effects of financial exclusion. We have heard from virtually every speaker about the closure of bank branches and the growing emphasis on digital services. In one way that is a good thing, but it also intensifies financial exclusion.
The committee has made lots of recommendations, calling on the Government, regulators and industry to help those experiencing these difficulties. The recommendations also focus on supporting the financial capabilities of future generations. For example, the report says that financial education should be added to the primary school curriculum. Will the Minister confirm whether that is happening?
The Government responded, of course, and made the distinction between financial inclusion and financial capability. The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield, said that the response lacked a sense of urgency and ambition. Does the Minister agree that there is a lack of urgency and ambition? On that note, I thank the noble Baroness for leading this debate.
In April 2021, as we have heard, the Liaison Committee published a follow-up report examining the progress by the Government and key stakeholders. The date shows that it came in the midst of the pandemic, and the Covid-19 pandemic made it particularly important to not only understand but take action on tackling financial inclusion. The follow-up report found that, four years on, financial exclusion is still highly prevalent in the UK, exacerbated by the pandemic, with millions experiencing low financial resilience. That is an important point: financial resilience is the ability to cope financially when faced with a sudden fall in income or unavoidable expenditure. Of course, as has been mentioned earlier, we are living through this now with the cost of living crisis, which, again, is exacerbating the situation. We need inclusive financial services, leadership from government and proactive regulation, and of course there is now the Financial Inclusion Policy Forum.
We have heard lots about access to cash already, and the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, spoke about digital exclusion. During the pandemic, I saw that this was so sadly apparent. Take digital access for schoolchildren as an example. On the one hand there is the child in their own room in their own house, with fast wi-fi and their own laptop, with a school providing education, and where they did not miss a single class, not even a singing lesson or an art lesson. At the other extreme there is the child in a 10th-floor council flat, with no wi-fi and no laptop, missing out completely on their education. There were issues of digital access, digital poverty and digital literacy, and it was sad to see.
On the lack of skills, according to the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, 1.5 million people have no access to the internet. We are the sixth largest and one of the most advanced economies in the world; how can we have a situation like that? There should be 100% broadband coverage in the country. Have the Government urgently raised their ambition from 85% percent to 100% broadband coverage?
Basic bank accounts are an essential requirement. We have bank branch and ATM closures. We still need cash. There is the role of post offices, affordable credit, the Help to Save scheme, debt advice, financial education, control options, the FCA’s objective, the duty of care to customers, which we heard about, and the Government’s financial inclusion strategy.
The FCA responded to the committee’s follow-up report, saying
“there are themes that relate to areas we are actively working on”,
which included a financial inclusion objective, a duty of care, control options, affordable credit, bank branches and ATM closures, digital inclusion and access to cash. The Financial Inclusion Commission, which is an independent body, commented on the report and also spoke about the adoption of regulation for “buy now, pay later” products. On one hand, these give financial access; on the other hand, they can be very dangerous.
The Financial Inclusion Commission gave some facts: 12.5 million UK adults have little or no confidence in their ability to manage money; 22% of all adults in the UK have less than £100 in savings; one in five adults would not be able to cover more than one month of living expenses if they lost their source of income. Just imagine what is staring us in the face with the cost of living crisis at the moment. One million people in the UK do not have a bank account and 16% are borrowing to pay for essentials because they have run out of money.
The Money and Pensions Service’s excellent report, The UK Strategy for Financial Wellbeing 2020-2030, said that
“a financially healthy nation is good for individuals, communities, business and the economy.”
Its vision, according to the report, is
“Everyone making the most of their money and pensions.”
It suggested five ways to drive change at scale: financial foundations; a nation of savers; credit counts; better debt advice; and a future focus for all adults. It says that while financial well-being is good for individuals, communities, business and the economy, poor financial well-being affects tens of millions of people and is holding our country back. The report says that
“9m people often borrow to buy food or pay for bills.”
That figure has probably escalated hugely since then because of the cost of living crisis; does the Minister agree? The report also said that
“22m people say they don’t know enough to plan for their retirement. And 5.3m children do not get a meaningful financial education.”
OECD figures place the UK well down the rankings of G20 countries, behind France, Norway, China, Indonesia.
The MaPS states:
“Financial wellbeing is about feeling secure and in control. It is knowing that you can pay the bills today, can deal with the unexpected, and are on track for a healthy financial future. In short: confident and empowered.”
If this is the case, businesses also benefit, because if people do not fall behind on their bills and their payments businesses have healthier profits and cash flows and do not need to write off debts. People with good financial well-being will spend in a way that is sustainable, and the wider economy, of course, benefits as well.
In a recent survey when it produced this report, the MaPS found that 1.7 million people said that they had received debt advice. It estimated that a further 3.6 million people needed debt advice because they had regularly missed payments throughout the previous six months. On targeting the strategy at those most in need, of the 40 million people of working age, 22 million said that they do not know enough to plan their retirement: 66% of 18 to 24 year-olds; 64% of working-age women; 48% of those approaching retirement. These are stark figures. In addition, there are 12 million people aged 65 and above, among them 5.4 million aged 75 and above.
When we talk about financial exclusion we are talking about vulnerability. We are talking about people with physical and mental health issues, individual personal circumstances, age—as I outlined—financial crime and gender. We are also talking about tackling digital inclusion; some 11.9 million people do not have the basic digital skills for day-to-day life in the UK.
The noble Lord, Lord Holmes, spoke about fintech. The Kalifa Review of UK FinTech in 2021—led by my friend Ron Kalifa, a fellow Zoroastrian Parsi—talked about “Inclusion and Recovery”, and
“Supporting citizens and small businesses to access more, better and cheaper financial services—and doing so in a sustainable way to help ‘build back better’.”
The report recommends industry-wide coalitions on key issues such as financial inclusion. Does the Minister agree that there should be industry-wide coalitions?
I make one final point. Regardless of technology, people need to have the ability to speak to somebody. The branch in which I opened a bank account before I started at university does not exist anymore. The ability to walk in there and speak to someone does not exist. That is the case for so many people. It is so important that you can speak to somebody when you need to; we have to enable that access.
To conclude I will quote the Money and Pensions Service:
“a financially healthy nation is good for individuals, communities, businesses, and the economy. A successful strategy will need to influence a wider system of regulations, products, services and culture.”
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield, on securing this important and, as she reminded us, timely debate. I am pleased to have this opportunity, despite the amount of time that has passed since the original committee issued its first report, to thank her for her continuing leadership on this issue, both as chair of the original ad hoc Select Committee—on which I was privileged to serve, with my noble friend Lord Holmes and others, when a new Member of your Lordships’ House—and in persuading the Liaison Committee that the issue we are considering today merited a follow-up inquiry and report.
The challenge of tackling financial exclusion is surely worthy not just of the work on which the noble Baroness has so ably led but of ongoing attention by the Government, the Financial Conduct Authority and the wider financial sector. For if there is one clear message that emerges from this report, and from what I am sorry to describe as a rather underwhelming response from the Government, it is that there is still a lot more to be done in this space, as my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond has already said.
As other noble Lords have also said, it is important to consider the current context of today’s debate. That context is rapidly worsening as the poorest in society, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria said, in particular face massive cost of living pressures, which does not seem to be reflected in the Government’s response. I ask myself how best to describe the Government’s response. “Detached”, “sedate” and “academic” are words that come to mind, as do the terms “divorced from the wider context”, “no sense of urgency”, as the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, mentioned, and “a missed opportunity”.
As a committee, we were mindful of our chair’s helpful advice that our original recommendations should be measured and realistic. The recommendations in the follow-up report, which include reiterations of our original recommendations and some new recommendations, are consistent with that advice. Of course, the original and subsequent recommendations were made before rising inflation, interest rates, food prices and utility bills combined to such toxic effect, compounding the difficulties already faced by those who are financially excluded. Like others, I would have thought that that would make the recommendations even more pertinent; however, the Government’s response has disabused me of such logic.
At a time when Gus Alexiou, a journalist at Forbes who draws on his own lived experience of disability, writes of some disabled people worrying about not just how they will put food on the table but how they can afford to power the vital medical equipment necessary to keep them safe at home, the Government’s equivocal response to the report seems surprisingly counterintuitive. Mr Alexiou explains that the medical equipment includes ventilators, nebulisers, oxygen concentrators, feeding pumps, SAT machines, seizure alert mats, kidney dialysis machines and rising beds. According to the UK-based pan-disability Scope, there are currently 900,000 people with disabilities living in fuel poverty, which could rise to about 2.1 million in October if typical annual domestic bills reach their predicted figure of £3,000. I speak with some personal experience of the medical equipment he mentioned because I have had to use nebulisers and have relied on oxygen concentrators and I still bear the scars, literally, of having a PEG—a feeding pump—to keep me supplied with essential nutrients when I was unable to swallow for five months following neurosurgery some years ago. I have been there—I have worn the T-shirt, as it were—and that was without having to worry about any financial considerations because I was in hospital at the time and I was not financially excluded. Mr Alexiou concludes:
“What is far less difficult and actually, all too easy, is to get away with side-lining the suffering of millions of disabled people because you can be confident that everyone else just has too much on their plate and is busy looking the other way.”
Hard-hitting stuff maybe, but I suspect that it will resonate with a lot of disabled people, a lot of whom identify as financially excluded. I am not saying that this is deliberate, but I am saying that, ultimately, a key factor in the Government’s failure to seize the opportunity that responding to this report presents stems, I believe, from a lack of lived experience of financial exclusion and of disability at senior levels of the Government, the Treasury and the DWP. Otherwise—to pick just three examples of recommendations in the report that have already been touched on and that the Government have rejected—the Government would understand the importance of formally reviewing the powers available to the FCA to mitigate the negative effects of bank branch and free ATM closures; of expanding the remit of the FCA to include a statutory duty to promote financial inclusion as one of its key objectives; and of introducing a requirement for the FCA to make rules setting out a reasonable duty of care for financial services providers to exercise towards their customers. This would, of course, as has already been explained, be very different from the new consumer duty proposed by the FCA.
I think that the Government can do better than this. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to show in his remarks that the Treasury, in particular, is willing to revisit the committee’s modest, measured proposals in the light of a rapidly deteriorating economic situation both globally and here in the UK. In my view, the Prime Minister has given fantastic leadership on Ukraine. That now needs to be replicated here at home with the cost of living measures to be announced imminently. I really hope that they will include measures to tackle financial exclusion, as outlined in these recommendations.
This report reflects well on your Lordships’ House. It is carefully considered and is testimony to the added value that your Lordships’ House brings to political debate. I close by once again thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield, for her leadership. I am sure that this is far from the final word that she and others will have on this issue.
My Lords, I start with a couple of thanks, echoing the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, both to the Liaison Committee task force that worked on the original report and drove the follow-up report and to my noble friend Lady Tyler of Enfield for her leadership. I also think that we need to give an award today to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for the most radical solution that has been brought before us. It is one of those “the emperor has no clothes” moments: if you want people not to be financially excluded, make sure that they have enough money to be able to manage.
However, we all know that that is not the reality of the world that we live in today. Financial exclusion, as so many people have said, has become even more of a disadvantage with the cost of living soaring. Excluded people have even fewer tools for managing costs. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, talked about the low financial resilience that so many people experience, but I was also very focused on the discussion by the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, of people with disability. They carry an absolutely undue burden that becomes far more acute in times like this, particularly people who are dependent on electricity, but even beyond that.
Others, including my noble friend Lady Tyler, have referred to the poverty premium, with examples of people on prepayment meters paying more for energy than those on direct debits, and by far. Finally, there is the process of claiming the Government’s £150 council tax reduction, which I think we will hear today is far more difficult for those on prepayment meters. We are in a very difficult and critical time.
I want to focus, though, on the issue of banking. Some 1.5 million people have no bank account and many more lack access to short-term affordable credit, with something like 2 million to 7 million people a year using high-cost credit—and within that group, as many as 66% could be classified as vulnerable. I have thought for many years that these people could be helped by better education and capability, by keeping bank branches open or by replacing them with community banking hubs—a project on which I will say a little more in a few minutes. But looking at a report from Barclays, I was stunned to see that it said that most people who do not have a bank account today have had one in the past. For many of these people the experience of a perilous fall into an overdraft, with its costs and fees, proved such a negative experience that they left banking altogether. Frankly, I do not know whether most people at the bottom end of the scale who find themselves in overdraft realise that, as bank customers, they are really paying for the costs of free in-credit banking for far better-off people. We have a real inequity in the banking system as it functions today.
It is also true that many people find it much easier to control their money when they rely exclusively on cash. It may not be the most effective or efficient way of managing payments but it allows them control. With cash disappearing, I am very glad that we now have an access-to-cash provision that will be engaged through the financial services and markets Bill. However, I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes. It is not just the supply of cash that matters; it is whether or not entities will accept cash. Like him, when I went through my community I found so many places that now want only contactless payment, even for the smallest of purchases, and will no longer take cash. We have a far more complex problem here, unfortunately, than that which I suspect the financial services and markets Bill will tackle.
The answer I often hear is that fintech has a great deal to offer. I fully accept that fintechs have been springing up, providing mechanisms such as “jam-jars” to help people budget or using a broader set of factors in their credit judgments. But as so many have said—the noble Lords, Lord Sikka and Lord Holmes of Richmond, and others—this requires access to the internet, probably a smartphone and a confidence with technology, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, that does not exist in many of the excluded segments of the population. Even open banking offers a path only for those who have an existing financial product. The use of the internet as the key to financial access also carries the disadvantage that it makes impulse spending very easy and opens people up to pressure from irresponsible marketing. I hope that the Government have taken note of that from many of the civil society groups which have been tracking those kinds of behaviours.
Over and again, we have tried to find an answer by using the Post Office. Of course post offices are important, but I am frankly becoming completely disillusioned with their potential to provide more than very basic banking services. Community hubs are the latest idea: a shared banking services arrangement, with the Post Office actually providing the front counter. But as proposed, they will exist only where the banks have no branches and if those banks themselves actually agree. The banks should not be the decision-makers on whether a community hub should exist or not. As they are conceived now, community hubs continue the notion that financial inclusion is defined by access to a high street bank and the facilities it offers.
I find myself turning to routes that have worked well in other countries but never seem to have gathered sufficient momentum in the UK. The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, touched on this in a sense when he referred to the Community Reinvestment Act in the United States, which started out as a civil rights Act but evolved into a mechanism to create banking organisations dedicated to and set in their local community and which targeted services to it. Sometimes you find them in the form of credit unions and sometimes in the form of community banks, which are quite blended in the United States. Their great advantage is that they do not “put up with” disadvantaged or low-income people or see them as a way to perhaps offset fees from their better-off customers; they welcome these people as the core of their customer base and design services to meet their needs. The issue is achieving this at the scale and with the coverage required. That in turn means very significant investment.
Giving the FCA some powers—at the very least to have regard to financial inclusion—might help us drive towards a network of something like community banks and credit unions, which would meet some of this need. I would hope that it would make the FCA more proactive. However, frankly, after so many years of discussion I am pretty much out of patience and wonder whether the only way to achieve this is basically through legislation. I ask the Government to consider making it a condition for a banking licence for a bank above a certain size—in effect, the high street banks—to either provide effective services to the unbanked and underbanked sectors of the population or invest in an organisation that can, which is usually the preferred option in the United States.
When I was in the US, I saw really successful partnerships between the equivalents of the major high street banks and local community banks and credit unions. Ironically, they were really popular with the executives of the significant major banks. They would almost fight each other for the opportunity of having a day or two working at the community bank because it was a chance to interact with normal people. Big banks were able to provide very low-cost technical services, regulatory advice, human resources and all kinds of back-up for the relatively small local banks. The costs of running a community bank are much lower than those of trying to provide the same services out of the equivalent of a high street bank because they do not have the burden of trying to carry the high costs of the investment banking portion of an organisation or the very high exceptional salaries of so many senior bankers in the major banks.
Would-be entrepreneurs get to start businesses and go on to become significant clients of sponsoring major banks, and it becomes a route to opportunity. Even more importantly, in the United States you find that charities and civil society groups join the partnerships, providing a huge range of support and advice for individuals and helping the community bank target what it does so that it directly meets the needs of the clients that come in through its doors.
I feel that this has always been rejected in the UK because it does not have a “Made in Britain” stamp on it. In some ways, you could say it is picking up some of the roles of the old savings and loans, and perhaps of the branch banks we used to have long before the days of mergers and acquisitions. I ask the Government to get serious and look at this. We have talked and talked—I have been in webinar after webinar—and we are really making very little progress. Today’s economic crisis ought to underscore to us that this problem, above all, must be treated with urgency.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield, on securing this debate. It returns us to the topic of her committee’s 2017 report. This was, of course, supplemented by the Liaison Committee’s follow-up inquiry, which is the formal subject of this debate. I am grateful to both committees for their work in this important area, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, for their ongoing interest. I pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, who has pursued many of these issues tirelessly across different Bills. He enjoyed some success on the matter of cashback during last Session’s Financial Services Bill. I suspect that we will revisit some of his other amendments when the financial services and markets Bill is brought forward.
Five years have passed since the publication of the original committee report. Tackling financial exclusion is a long-term project; we cannot expect every aspect of that challenge to be addressed in a few years, and there can be no doubt that the pandemic slowed progress. However, it is regrettable that solving many of these problems remains as urgent in 2022 as in 2017. Thankfully, in recent times, we have seen some innovative approaches from financial institutions to improve financial inclusion.
During an Oral Question on 22 March, I cited a joint project between HSBC, Shelter and other homelessness charities to ensure that certain individuals with no fixed address can access basic banking services. These kinds of initiatives are hugely important, helping people to break the cycle which prevents them claiming social security or holding down a job. Welcome as these schemes are, they can only ever benefit a relatively small proportion of those who find themselves excluded from the financial system. What we really need, and what I hope the financial services and markets Bill will finally offer, is a coherent, joined-up approach to financial inclusion. That means the Treasury taking responsibility where that is appropriate to empower the regulators if they are lacking the right tools to act.
The Government recently published a summary of responses to their access to cash consultation. That document also outlined in brief terms how they intend to use the forthcoming Bill to preserve cash for those who want to continue using it. We broadly welcome the intent, but I hope that the Minister will use today’s debate to signal how the Treasury intends to act in other areas. For example, even if access to cash is preserved, what about protecting access to physical bank branches? Research from Which? published in April warned that almost half of the UK’s bank branches have disappeared. Those that remain are increasingly offering reduced services or closing earlier in the day. This is by no means a new phenomenon, so why have the Government not acted to prevent these closures?
Elsewhere, the Financial Conduct Authority’s regulation of the “buy now, pay later” sector is gradually coming on stream. However, the regulator has been clear that it expects the worsening cost of living crisis to push more people towards these new credit options, increasing the overall risk level. What assessment have the Government made of people’s increased reliance on personal credit? Will the new Bill address that? Can the Minister comment on the FCA’s consumer duty and whether the upcoming legislation will seek to strengthen it? It is worth remembering that the Government moved in these two areas only because of sustained pressure during the last Financial Services Bill. Much of that pressure was exerted by my noble friends Lord Stevenson of Balmacara and Lord Eatwell, but they were supported by noble Lords across the House and campaigners outside this place. How can we be confident that external voices are being heard as the Government put their legislative package together?
We may have come a long way on tackling financial exclusion, but the job is by no means done. I hope the Minister will recognise that fact in his response, and that the Treasury will avail itself of the experience of those who have spoken in this debate.
I will end on a slightly tangential point, if noble Lords will allow. These are very tough times for many across the country. Those with good access to financial products are struggling enough, but those excluded from them face what can only be described as an impossible task. Yesterday, people found out that the energy price cap is likely to increase by a further £800 in October. This situation is simply not sustainable so, while we await the financial services and markets Bill with interest, will the Government—I hope today or tomorrow—do the right thing and bring forward an emergency Budget? The Chancellor’s stubborn refusal to act can only harm efforts to provide people of all backgrounds with the financial security that they so desperately crave.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, for initiating this important debate, as well as other noble Lords for their helpful and thoughtful contributions. There is much to cover; I will do my best. Tackling financial exclusion to ensure that everyone in all corners of the UK, regardless of their background or income, has access to fair and affordable financial products and services remains a key priority for the Government—more so in the context of the cost of living challenge, to which I will turn soon, which is already impacting the most vulnerable.
The Liaison Committee’s initial report on financial exclusion, and its follow-up report to which the Government responded a year ago, made some important suggestions. To reassure the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, we really are taking those suggestions seriously. Some progress has already been made; I listened carefully to the remarks by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and I think she acknowledged that, but I say at the outset that much more needs to be done. I very much relish the opportunity to discuss these issues again today. I wish to address the themes raised, and I will start by focusing right away on banking and cash.
In the space of just a few years, technology has transformed the way that we access and make use of financial services. Until only a few years ago, I went into my local bank branch for any financial transaction; now I happily conduct pretty well everything online and have found it relatively straightforward. New opportunities and flexibility are of course welcome but, importantly, we also have an obligation to make sure that no one is excluded, which is of course the subject of today’s debate.
While eight out of 10 consumers use contactless payments and seven out of 10 use online banking, which are significant figures, the Government understand that physical cash—old-fashioned notes and coins that may still be kept under people’s mattresses—as well as access to a physical bank branch are still an important part of millions of people’s lives. The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, eloquently gave her own statistics in this respect and it was alluded to strongly by my noble friend Lord Holmes.
I take note of my noble friend Lord Balfe’s point about educating people, especially the elderly, to become more digitally aware. He is right but he should recognise, as I think we all do, that there are some who simply will not pick up the bat. That is why, for example, the Government have made legislative changes to support the widespread offering of cashback without a purchase by shops and other businesses, and why we will be legislating to protect access to cash in the upcoming financial services and markets Bill as soon as parliamentary time allows.
My noble friend Lord Holmes and the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, asked about helping those who wish only to use cash, which is a fair point. The Government’s plan for legislation will ensure that people can continue to take out or pay in cash in order to support the use of cash in daily life and its continued acceptance by business. Following the Government’s commitment to legislate, firms are working together through the Access to Cash Action Group to develop new initiatives to provide shared services.
As mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, the Government understand people’s concern when their bank takes the commercial decision to close a local bank branch, and I have seen this locally where I live. Firms themselves are best placed to make the commercial decision required to operate their businesses for their customers but we believe that the impact of branch closures should also be understood, considered and, where possible, mitigated so that all customers, wherever they live, continue to have access to face-to-face banking services.
This matter was a strong theme in this debate. It was raised by the noble Lords, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Sikka, and the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, herself. Let me expand on this and take account of the comments by Martin Lewis which were alluded to. In September 2020, the FCA published guidance for regulated firms setting out its expectations for banks, building societies and credit unions when they are considering closing branches or ATMs. It requires them to notify customers and the FCA of upcoming branch closures and to consider the provision of alternatives for customers. Alternative options for access can be via telephone banking, digital means such as mobile online banking, and the Post Office. The Post Office banking framework allows 99% of personal banking customers and 95% of business banking customers to deposit cheques, check their balance and withdraw and deposit cash at 11,500 Post Office branches in the UK.
The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, expanded on this theme and asked about banks consulting customers when closing. Although I have alluded to that, I shall add to what I said because in September 2020, the FCA published guidance for regulated firms setting out its expectations for banks, building societies and credit unions when they are considering closing branches or ATMs.
Noble Lords should also be aware of the introduction of shared bank hubs, an important industry initiative which was launched last year. This was alluded to by the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer. I took note of her scepticism about this initiative but also very much took note of her ideas, particularly those that have come from the US. I will certainly take them back. We believe that these hubs provide cash and basic banking services, including counter services run by the Post Office, as well as a dedicated space where community bankers from major banks can meet their customers, and that this is a viable alternative solution to offering bank services. That will help to answer questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, who made the point that it is important to have an individual—a person—with whom you can have a face-to-face meeting, and I agree with him.
Eight additional bank hubs have been announced following independent assessments by LINK of the access-to-cash needs of local communities after the closure of a core cash service, in areas such as Brixham in Devon, Carnoustie, which I happen to know is near Dundee, Knaresborough and Syston. The industry has committed that from summer 2022 communities can also request a review. The Government very much look forward to seeing the results and their impact on communities.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, asked about whether there is a condition for high street banks to provide services for the unbanked or to invest in an organisation. The Government believe that it is vital that everyone is able to open a bank account if they wish to do so. That is why the nine largest personal current account providers in the UK are legally required to offer fee-free basic bank accounts to customers who are unbanked, so that people can manage their money on a day-to-day basis effectively, securely and confidently.
Linked to this is the important issue of digital inclusion, which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler. Banking hubs are potentially vital for those who might be vulnerable, digitally excluded with no access to a computer or the internet or, indeed, simply do not wish to access financial services digitally. We have to recognise that. The Government recognise that digital inclusion needs to be promoted alongside financial inclusion, and we are committed to ensuring that everyone has access to the digital infrastructure and skills necessary to participate fully in society, including in rural areas where staying connected can, as we know, be more challenging.
The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, asked about access to broadband; I think this was also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. To help those in financial difficulty to stay connected, social tariffs are available which offer low-cost landline and broadband services. The Government and Ofcom also agreed a set of commitments with the UK’s major broadband and mobile operators to support vulnerable customers.
A question was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, about broadband, and I want to expand on this a bit further. In 2021, the Government launched Project Gigabit, which committed a landmark £5 billion to support the rollout of gigabit connectivity in the hardest to reach areas. I am pleased to say that more than 67% of UK premises can now access—
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. On that £5 billion, it seems that it is given to Openreach and others, and they keep the resulting assets as well as the income stream. What do we get, as members of the public, in return? It seems it is a win-win situation for the providers. They should be providing public access through their normal service, but they do not want to do that. They seem to be winning on every count and the public are left with empty pockets.
That is a very specific question from the noble Lord. I will write to him about those services, particularly how the £5 billion is used, which is a very fair question. What I can say, which the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, will not like, is that it is not 100% coverage, but we have, I have to say, made a great leap forward since 2019, when coverage was a mere 8%. From his particular position at the CBI, he will acknowledge that—I hope that he will.
Of course, all these issues are relevant to help people manage their personal finances, particularly when things turn tight. That was another theme that I expected to be raised today, as indeed it was, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, with his question about an emergency Budget, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, on affordability matters. Let me just say a little bit about that. The Government really appreciate that families up and down the country are facing an unprecedented cost of living challenge, with the rising price of food, fuel and goods hitting people’s pockets. I listened very carefully to the speech from my noble friend Lord Shinkwin on how the disabled in our society are particularly negatively affected. Of course he is right, and he will know about that.
The next few months will be difficult, and we know that people are concerned. These are partly, indeed mainly, global trends driven by global challenges, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has deepened a severe shock in energy prices. While the Government cannot eradicate these global pressures, we are helping where we can and are providing more than £22 billion of support to families this financial year. We are providing direct support for energy bills, with a £9 billion energy package announced in February. This will provide 80% of households with at least £200, with the vast majority receiving £350. We are also making sure that work pays. We have increased the national insurance threshold to £12,570 from July, saving the typical employee £330 a year. We are supporting the most vulnerable in society with the cost of essentials such as food, clothing and utilities by providing an additional £500 million for the household support fund.
The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, asked what the Government are doing to alleviate the poverty premium, and I hope that I can give her an answer to that. On universal credit, we are increasing work allowances and reducing the taper rate, which means that the lowest-earning 1.7 million people in society receive an extra £1,000 per year. An analysis shows that fiscal decisions made by the Government are progressive and place the highest burden on the highest earners.
Along the same theme, the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, raised a question about the Government’s tax policy. I think he stated that he thought it was regressive. I just come back to him on that to say that Treasury analysis published as part of the Spring Statement shows that fiscal decisions made since the 2019 spending round are progressive, placing the largest burden on the highest-income households as a proportion of income. The poorest 60% of households receive more in public spending than they pay in tax, and households in the lowest income decile will, on average, receive more than £4 for every £1 that they pay in tax.
My noble friend Lord Shinkwin raised a point about disability and fuel poverty. In answer to that, 2.2 million low-income households will receive a £140 rebate through the warm homes discount. The Government are increasing the WHD by one-third, with 3 million households now receiving £150. I hope that that provides small examples of what the Government are doing. As I say, we recognise that this is a challenging and uncertain time for people. Just as we stood by people throughout the pandemic, the Government stand ready to do more to support people across the UK with their costs of living. However, I am afraid that is all that I can say on that subject at the moment.
I turn to the important area of access to fair and affordable credit, which can be life-changing for people, helping them to meet a sudden expenditure or to take steps to build a better life. The Government recognise the important role that credit can play in helping people to manage their finances, but also crucially understand the need for it to be handled carefully so that it does not turn into unsustainable debt. We are committed to supporting initiatives that expand the provision of fair and affordable credit.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked about the assessment that the Government have made about people’s increased reliance on personal credit, which is a fair question. The Treasury regularly monitors changes in the consumer credit market, including the impact of economic developments, as part of its normal process of policy development.
The Government have allocated £100 million of dormant assets to Fair4All Finance, whose work has focused on supporting affordable credit. This includes £3.8 million funding for that initiative to pilot a no-interest loan scheme, which is specifically designed for consumers in vulnerable circumstances and is already, we believe, improving lives. The NILS pilot is novel and unlike anything that the Government have done previously in this space, so it is right that the pilot is allowed to be tested for optimal methods for delivering these loans. The pilot aims to test the benefits to consumers, society and the economy and to show whether a permanent, nationwide NILS can be delivered in a sustainable way. It will test several variables, including loan amounts, repayment periods and terms, eligibility and payment rates. My noble friend Lord Balfe is right that it needs to operate with care so that debt is managed prudently, a point that I made earlier. We are pleased that industry also recognises the value of expanding provision, with JP Morgan’s corporate social responsibility fund planning to contribute £1.2 million to expand this pilot.
I move on to buy now, pay later, expanding further on the theme of credit. I note some noble Lords’ concerns about this area, as raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler. We recognise that it can give rise to consumer detriment, which is why the Government announced their intention to regulate these products and published the consultation last October. It closed on 6 January, and we are now reviewing responses and considering next steps, including timings. We will take this work forward as quickly as possible. I am afraid that that is the best that I can do to answer the question from my noble friend Lord Balfe.
Along the same theme, we are taking further measures to help people who are experiencing financial difficulties and will require additional support. That is why, among other things, the Government continue to provide record levels of funding for debt advice via the Money and Pensions Service, which noble Lords will recognise used to be the old MAS. We know that debt can feel overwhelming; often what people most need is the time and space to find a sustainable way out of it.
My noble friend Lord Holmes asked whether the Government agree that debt advice should be regulated. Yes, debt advice is a regulated financial activity, which means that most firms that provide debt advice must be authorised and regulated by the FCA. When a person gets debt advice, they can check that a firm is regulated on the FCA register. That is also why the Government launched the Breathing Space scheme, which gives those in problem debt legal protection against creditor action, enabling them to seek professional advice and rebuild their finances.
Given the clear connections between people’s mental and financial health—another theme that has been alluded to today—the scheme also ensures that those who are undergoing mental health crisis treatment can access even stronger protections. I am pleased that over 60,000 people have already taken advantage of Breathing Space in its first year, including almost 1,000 people who have entered a mental health “breathing space”.
However, that is just the first part of the scheme and we are now working on the second element: the statutory dept repayment plan. This will enable people struggling with problem debt to enter formal agreements with creditors so they are able to repay what they owe over a more manageable timeframe. On 13 May, the Government launched a public consultation on draft SDRP regulations with the aim of laying those by the end of the year. We intend for the scheme to start in 2024.
I hope I can cover everything. I have a little more to say, particularly on financial education, which was raised by my noble friend Lord Holmes, the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer. This is a very important area that is rather close to my heart; I personally firmly believe in it. It is important that people grow up to make sound decisions about how to run their financial lives, whether that is to secure a mortgage, take out credit, save up for a holiday or plan their retirement, an issue that was also raised. Financial education in England is covered within both the citizenship and the mathematics curricula. Primary schools, for their part, are strongly encouraged to teach citizenship, including financial education. I recognise, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said, that it is not just the young who need educating; it is the less young too, particularly those who are looking to plan for retirement, as he mentioned.
I want to say something about saving. I recognise that this is a difficult subject because we know that many people are not able to save and are struggling simply with the business of managing the costs of living. So in fear of being frowned upon by the grandmother, I think it is, of my noble friend Lord Balfe, I draw noble Lords’ attention to the Government’s Help to Save scheme, which offers a 50% bonus on up to £50 of monthly savings for a maximum possible bonus of £1,200 over four years to help people to build a savings buffer for a rainy day. I just wanted to touch on that.
Finally, and importantly, the theme was raised of the FCA and the matter of “having regard to”. The Government take a comprehensive and strategic approach to tackling financial exclusion, including working closely with the regulator, industry and the third sector. This was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. A key mechanism to foster that collaboration is the Financial Inclusion Policy Forum, co-chaired by Treasury and DWP Ministers, launched in 2018 to provide leadership and develop solutions, including some that I have already highlighted. I know that some noble Lords are slightly sceptical about that; I have read the report and the comments made by the Liaison Committee, and I have read our own response. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and my noble friend Lord Holmes have called upon the Government to formalise collaboration on financial inclusion further by asking the Financial Conduct Authority to have regard to financial inclusion in the context of the future regulatory framework review. I want to give some reassurance that I know senior officials and Ministers in the Treasury are considering these suggestions carefully and will respond as soon as possible.
To conclude, clearly there is more to be done but, as today’s debate has demonstrated, a good of deal of work is already in train to tackle financial exclusion and to help those who are vulnerable or who face financial difficulties. I thank everyone who has contributed today. It has been a very informative and useful debate, and I have certainly learned a lot myself.
My Lords, this has been an absolutely excellent debate. I thank all noble Lords who have contributed and the Minister for his response. I know that time is extremely tight so I will really say only two things.
First, I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, that the recommendations made in the original 2017 report, and reiterated in the Liaison Committee report, are even more important today than they were then given the context in which we are operating. Many noble Lords have given excellent ideas and suggestions, which I really hope will be pursued. I agreed with most things that most of them said—not quite all, but I do not have time to go into that. I totally take the point that the problem for many people at the moment is simply not having enough money, a point acknowledged in the Select Committee report.
Secondly, like other noble Lords, I very much hope that we see very soon from the Government a package of support, particularly on increases to benefit and state pensions to help people who are struggling so much at the moment. Perhaps the Minister could convey my request to the two designated Ministers for Financial Inclusion, John Glen and Guy Opperman, to consider meeting me and other former members of the Select Committee so that we can see what more can be done in this area.
AI in the UK (Liaison Committee Report)
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, the Liaison Committee report No Room for Complacency was published in December 2020, as a follow-up to our AI Select Committee report, AI in the UK: Ready, Willing and Able?, published in April 2018. Throughout both inquiries and right up until today, the pace of development here and abroad in AI technology, and the discussion of AI governance and regulation, has been extremely fast moving. Today, just as then, I know that I am attempting to hit a moving target. Just take, for instance, the announcement a couple of weeks ago about the new Gato—the multipurpose AI which can do 604 functions —or perhaps less optimistically, the Clearview fine. Both have relevance to what we have to say today.
First, however, I say a big thank you to the then Liaison Committee for the new procedure which allowed our follow-up report and to the current Lord Speaker, Lord McFall, in particular and those members of our original committee who took part. I give special thanks to the Liaison Committee team of Philippa Tudor, Michael Collon, Lucy Molloy and Heather Fuller, and to Luke Hussey and Hannah Murdoch from our original committee team who more than helped bring the band, and our messages, back together.
So what were the main conclusions of our follow-up report? What was the government response, and where are we now? I shall tackle this under five main headings. The first is trust and understanding. The adoption of AI has made huge strides since we started our first report, but the trust issue still looms large. Nearly all our witnesses in the follow-up inquiry said that engagement continued to be essential across business and society in particular to ensure that there is greater understanding of how data is used in AI and that government must lead the way. We said that the development of data trusts must speed up. They were the brainchild of the Hall-Pesenti report back in 2017 as a mechanism for giving assurance about the use and sharing of personal data, but we now needed to focus on developing the legal and ethical frameworks. The Government acknowledged that the AI Council’s roadmap took the same view and pointed to the ODI work and the national data strategy. However, there has been too little recent progress on data trusts. The ODI has done some good work, together with the Ada Lovelace Institute, but this needs taking forward as a matter of urgency, particularly guidance on the legal structures. If anything, the proposals in Data: A New Direction, presaging a new data reform Bill in the autumn, which propose watering down data protection, are a backward step.
More needs to be done generally on digital understanding. The digital literacy strategy needs to be much broader than digital media, and a strong digital competition framework has yet to be put in place. Public trust has not been helped by confusion and poor communication about the use of data during the pandemic, and initiatives such as the Government’s single identifier project, together with automated decision-making and live facial recognition, are a real cause for concern that we are approaching an all-seeing state.
My second heading is ethics and regulation. One of the main areas of focus of our committee throughout has been the need to develop an appropriate ethical framework for the development and application of AI, and we were early advocates for international agreement on the principles to be adopted. Back in 2018, the committee took the view that blanket regulation would be inappropriate, and we recommended an approach to identify gaps in the regulatory framework where existing regulation might not be adequate. We also placed emphasis on the importance of regulators having the necessary expertise.
In our follow-up report, we took the view that it was now high time to move on to agreement on the mechanisms on how to instil what are now commonly accepted ethical principles—I pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate for coming up with the idea in the first place—and to establish national standards for AI development and AI use and application. We referred to the work that was being undertaken by the EU and the Council of Europe, with their risk-based approaches, and also made recommendations focused on development of expertise and better understanding of risk of AI systems by regulators. We highlighted an important advisory role for the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation and urged that it be placed on a statutory footing.
We welcomed the formation of the Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum. It is clear that all the regulators involved—I apologise for the initials in advance—the ICO, CMA, Ofcom and the FCA, have made great strides in building a centre of excellence in AI and algorithm audit and making this public. However, despite the publication of the National AI Strategy and its commitment to trustworthy AI, we still await the Government’s proposals on AI governance in the forthcoming White Paper.
It seems that the debate within government about whether to have a horizontal or vertical sectoral framework for regulation still continues. However, it seems clear to me, particularly for accountability and transparency, that some horizontality across government, business and society is needed to embed the OECD principles. At the very least, we need to be mindful that the extraterritoriality of the EU AI Act means a level of regulatory conformity will be required and that there is a strong need for standards of impact, as well as risk assessment, audit and monitoring, to be enshrined in regulation to ensure, as techUK urges, that we consider the entire AI lifecycle.
We need to consider particularly what regulation is appropriate for those applications which are genuinely high risk and high impact. I hope that, through the recently created AI standards hub, the Alan Turing Institute will take this forward at pace. All this has been emphasised by the debate on the deployment of live facial recognition technology, the use of biometrics in policing and schools, and the use of AI in criminal justice, recently examined by our own Justice and Home Affairs Committee.
My third heading is government co-ordination and strategy. Throughout our reports we have stressed the need for co-ordination between a very wide range of bodies, including the Office for Artificial Intelligence, the AI Council, the CDEI and the Alan Turing Institute. On our follow-up inquiry, we still believed that more should be done to ensure that this was effective, so we recommended a Cabinet committee which would commission and approve a five-year national AI strategy, as did the AI road map.
In response, the Government did not agree to create a committee but they did commit to the publication of a cross-government national AI strategy. I pay tribute to the Office for AI, in particular its outgoing director Sana Khareghani, for its work on this. The objectives of the strategy are absolutely spot on, and I look forward to seeing the national AI strategy action plan, which it seems will show how cross-government engagement is fostered. However, the Committee on Standards in Public Life—I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Evans, will speak today—report on AI and public standards made the deficiencies in common standards in the public sector clear.
Subsequently, we now have an ethics, transparency and accountability framework for automated decision-making in the public sector, and more recently the CDDO-CDEI public sector algorithmic transparency standard, but there appears to be no central and local government compliance mechanism and little transparency in the form of a public register, and the Home Office appears to be still a law unto itself. We have AI procurement guidelines based on the World Economic Forum model but nothing relevant to them in the Procurement Bill, which is being debated as we speak. I believe we still need a government mechanism for co-ordination and compliance at the highest level.
The fourth heading is impact on jobs and skills. Opinions differ over the potential impact of AI but, whatever the chosen prognosis, we said there was little evidence that the Government had taken a really strategic view about this issue and the pressing need for digital upskilling and reskilling. Although the Government agreed that this was critical and cited a number of initiatives, I am not convinced that the pace, scale and ambition of government action really matches the challenge facing many people working in the UK.
The Skills and Post-16 Education Act, with its introduction of a lifelong loan entitlement, is a step in the right direction and I welcome the renewed emphasis on further education and the new institutes of technology. The Government refer to AI apprenticeships, but apprentice levy reform is long overdue. The work of local digital skills partnerships and digital boot camps is welcome, but they are greatly underresourced and only a patchwork. The recent Youth Unemployment Select Committee report Skills for Every Young Person noted the severe lack of digital skills and the need to embed digital education in the curriculum, as did the AI road map. Alongside this, we shared the priority of the AI Council road map for more diversity and inclusion in the AI workforce and wanted to see more progress.
At the less rarefied end, although there are many useful initiatives on foot, not least from techUK and Global Tech Advocates, it is imperative that the Government move much more swiftly and strategically. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM recommended in a recent report a STEM diversity decade of action. As mentioned earlier, broader digital literacy is crucial too. We need to learn how to live and work alongside AI.
The fifth heading is the UK as a world leader. It was clear to us that the UK needs to remain attractive to international research talent, and we welcomed the Global Partnership on AI initiative. The Government in response cited the new fast-track visa, but there are still strong concerns about the availability of research visas for entrance to university research programmes. The failure to agree and lack of access to EU Horizon research funding could have a huge impact on our ability to punch our weight internationally.
How the national AI strategy is delivered in terms of increased R&D and innovation funding will be highly significant. Of course, who knows what ARIA may deliver? In my view, key weaknesses remain in the commercialisation and translation of AI R&D. The recent debate on the Science and Technology Committee’s report on catapults reminded us that this aspect is still a work in progress.
Recent Cambridge round tables have confirmed to me that we have a strong R&D base and a growing number of potentially successful spin-outs from universities, with the help of their dedicated investment funds, but when it comes to broader venture capital culture and investment in the later rounds of funding, we are not yet on a par with Silicon Valley in terms of risk appetite. For AI investment, we should now consider something akin to the dedicated film tax credit which has been so successful to date.
Finally, we had, and have, the vexed question of lethal autonomous weapons, which we raised in the original Select Committee report and in the follow-up, particularly in the light of the announcement at the time of the creation of the autonomy development centre in the MoD. Professor Stuart Russell, who has long campaigned on this subject, cogently raised the limitation of these weapons in his second Reith Lecture. In both our reports we said that one of the big disappointments was the lack of definition of “autonomous weapons”. That position subsequently changed, and we were told in the Government’s response to the follow-up report that NATO had agreed a definition of “autonomous” and “automated”, but there is still no comprehensive definition of lethal autonomous weapons, despite evidence that they have clearly already been deployed in theatres such as Libya, and the UK has firmly set its face against laws limitation in international fora such as the CCW.
For a short report, our follow-up report covered a great deal of ground, which I have tried to cover at some speed today. AI lies at the intersection of computer science, moral philosophy, industrial education and regulatory policy, which makes how we approach the risks and opportunities inherent in this technology vital and difficult. The Government are engaged in a great deal of activity. The question, as ever, is whether it is focused enough and whether the objectives, such as achieving trustworthy AI and digital upskilling, are going to be achieved through the actions taken so far. The evidence of success is clearly mixed. Certainly there is still no room for complacency. I very much look forward to hearing the debate today and to what the Minister has to say in response. I beg to move.
My Lords, what a pleasure it is to follow the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. It was a pleasure to serve under his chairmanship on the original committee. I echo all his thanks to all the committee staff who did such great work getting us to produce our original report. I shall pick up a number of the themes he touched on, but I fear I cannot match his eloquence and nobody around the table can in any sense match his speed. In many ways, he has potentially passed the Turing test in his opening remarks.
I declare my technology interests as set out in the register. In many ways, the narrative can fall into quite a negative and fearful approach, which goes something like this: the bots are coming, our jobs are going, we are all off to hell and we are not even sure if there is a handcart. I do not think that was ever the case, and it is positive that the debate has moved on from the imminent unemployment of huge swathes of society to this—and I think it is just this in terms of jobs. The real clear and present danger for the UK is not that there will not be jobs for us all to do but that we will be unprepared or underprepared for those new jobs as and when they come, and they are already coming at speed this very day. Does the Minister agree that all the focus needs to be on how we drive at speed in real time the skills to enable all the talent coming through to be able to get all those jobs and have fulfilling careers in AI?
In many ways this debate begins and ends with everything around data. AI is nothing without data. Data is the beginning and the end of the discussion. It is probably right, and it shows the foresight of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, in having a debate today because it is time to wish many happy returns—not to the noble Lord but to the GDPR. Who would have thought that it is already four years since 25 May 2018?
In many ways, it has not been unalloyed joy and success. It is probably over-prescriptive, has not necessarily given more protection to citizens across the European community, and certainly has not been adopted in other jurisdictions around the world. I therefore ask my noble friend the Minister: what plans are there in the upcoming data reform Bill not to have such a prescriptive approach? What is the Government’s philosophy in terms of balancing all the competing needs and philosophical underpins to data when that Bill comes before your Lordships’ House?
Privacy is incredibly important. We see just this week that an NHS England AI project has been shelved because of privacy concerns. It takes us back to a similar situation at the Royal Free—another AI programme shelved. Could these programmes have been more effectively delivered if there had been more consideration and understanding of the use of data and the crucial point that it is our data, not big tech’s? It is our data, and we need to have the ability to understand that and operate with it as a central tenet. Could these projects have been more successful? How do we understand real anonymisation? Is it possible in reality, or should we very much look to the issue around the curse of dimensionalisation? What is the Government’s view as to how true anonymisation occurs when you have more than one credential? When you get to multiple dimensions, anonymisation of the data is extraordinarily difficult to achieve.
That leads us into the whole area of bias. Probably one of the crassest examples of AI deployment was the soap dispenser in the United States—why indeed we needed AI to be put into a soap dispenser we can discuss another time—which would dispense soap only to a white hand. How absolutely appalling, how atrocious, but how facile that that can occur with something called artificial intelligence. You can train it, but it can do only pretty much what datasets it has been trained on: white hands, white-hand soap dispensing. It is absolutely appalling. I therefore ask my noble friend the Minister: have the Government got a grip across all the areas and ways in which bias kicks in? There are so many elements of bias in what we could call “non-AI” society; are the Government where they need to be in considering bias in this AI environment?
Moving on to building on how we can all best operate with our data, I believe that we urgently need to move to have a system of digital ID in the UK. The best model to build this upon is the principles around self-sovereign distributed ID. Does my noble friend agree and can he update the Grand Committee on his department’s work on digital ID? So much of the opportunity, and indeed the protection to enable opportunity, in this space around AI comes down to whether we can have an effective interoperable system of digital ID.
Building on that, I believe that we need far greater public debate and public engagement around AI. It is not something that is “other” to people’s experience; it is already in every community and impacting people’s lives, whether they know it or want that to be the case. We see how public engagement can work effectively and well with Baroness Warnock’s stunning commission decades ago into IVF. What could be more terrifying than human life made in a test tube? Why, both at the time and decades later, is it seen as a such a positive force in our society? It is because of the Warnock commission and that public engagement. We can compare that with GM foods. I make no flag-waving for or against GM foods, I just say that the public debate was not engaged on that. What are the Government’s plans to do more to engage the public at every level with this?
Allied to that, what are the Government’s plans around data and digital literacy, right from the earliest year at school, to ensure that we have citizens coming through who can operate safely, effectively and productively in this space? If we can get to that point, potentially we could enable every citizen to take advantage of AI rather than have AI take advantage of us. It does not need to be an extractive exercise or to feel alienating. It does not need to be put just to SEO and marketing and cardboard boxes turning up on our doorstep—we have forgotten what was even in the box, and the size of the box will not give us a clue because the smallest thing we order is always likely to come in the largest cardboard box. If we can take advantage of all the opportunities of AI, what social, economic or psychological potential lies at our fingertips.
What is AI? To come to that at the end rather than beginning of my speech seems odd. Is it statistics on steroids? Perhaps it is a bit more than that. AI, in essence, is just the latest tools—yes, incredibly powerful tools, but the latest tools in our human hands. It is down to us to connect, collaborate and co-create for the public good and common good, and for the economic, social and psychological good, for our communities, cities and our country. If we all get behind that—and it is in our hands, our heads and our hearts—perhaps, just perhaps, we can build a society fit for the title “civilised”.
My Lords, it is a significant pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Holmes. I admire and envy his knowledge of the issue, but mostly I admire and envy his ability to communicate about these complex issues in a way that is accessible and, on occasions, entertaining. A couple of times during the course of what he said, I thought, “I wish I’d said that”, knowing full well that at some time in future I will, which is the highest compliment I can pay him.
As was specifically spelled out in the remit of the Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, the issues that we are debating today have significant economic, security, ethical and social implications. Thanks to the work of that committee and, to a large degree, the expertise and the leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, the committee’s report is evidence that it fully met the challenge of the remit. Since its publication—and I know this from lots of volunteered opinions that I have received since April 2018, when it was published—the report has gained a worldwide reputation for excellence. It is proper, therefore, that this report should be the first to which the new procedure put in place by the Liaison Committee, to follow up on the committee’s recommendations, should be applied.
I wish to address the issue of policy on autonomous weapons systems in my remarks. I think that it is known throughout your Lordships’ House that I have prejudices about this issue—but I think that they are informed prejudices, so I share them at any opportunity that I get. The original report, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, referred to lethal autonomous weapons and particularly to the challenge of the definition, which continues. But that was about as far as the committee went. As I recollect, this weaponry was not the issue that gave the committee the most concern—but that was as far as it went, because it did not have the capacity to address it, saying that it deserved an inquiry of its own. Unfortunately, that has not yet taken place, but it may do soon.
The report that we are debating—which, in paragraph 83, comments on the welcome establishment of the Autonomy Development Centre, announced by the Prime Minister on 19 November 2020 and described as a new centre dedicated to AI, to accelerate the research, development, testing, integration and deployment of world-leading artificial intelligence and autonomous systems—highlighted that the work of that centre will be “inhibited” owing to the lack of alignment of the UK’s definition of autonomous weapons with the definitions used by international partners. The government response, while agreeing the importance of ensuring that official definitions do not undermine our arguments or diverge from our allies, responded further, and at length, by acknowledging that the various definitions relating to autonomous systems are challenging and, at length, set out a comparison of them.
Further, we are told that the Ministry of Defence is preparing to publish a new defence AI strategy that will allow the UK to participate in international debates and act as a leader in the space, and we are told that the definitions will be continually reviewed as part of that. It is hard not to conclude that this response alone justifies the warning of the danger of “complacency” deployed in the title of the report.
On the AI strategy, on 18 May the ministerial response to my contribution to the Queen’s Speech debate was, in its entirety, an assurance that the AI strategy would be published before the Summer Recess. We will wait and see. I look forward to that, but there is today an urgent need for strategic leadership by the Government and for scrutiny by Parliament as AI plays an increasing role in the changing landscape of war. Rapid advancements in technology have put us on the brink of a new generation of warfare where AI plays an instrumental role in the critical functions of weapons systems.
In the Ukraine war, in April, a senior Defense Department official said that the Pentagon is quietly using AI and machine-learning tools to analyse vast amounts of data, generate useful battlefield intelligence and learn about Russian tactics and strategy. Just how much the US is passing to Ukraine is a matter for conjecture, which I will not engage in; I am not qualified to do so anyway. A powerful Russian drone with AI capabilities has been spotted in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukraine has itself employed the use of controversial facial recognition technology. Vice Prime Minister Fedorov told Reuters that it had been using Clearview AI—software that uses facial recognition—to discover the social media profiles of deceased Russian soldiers, which authorities then use to notify their relatives and offer arrangements for their bodies to be recovered. If the technology can be used to identify live as well as dead enemy soldiers, it could also be incorporated into systems that use automated decision-making to direct lethal force. That is not a remote possibility; last year the UN reported that an autonomous drone had killed people in Libya in 2020. There are unconfirmed reports of autonomous weapons already being used in Ukraine, although I do not think it is helpful to repeat some of that because most of it is speculation.
We are seeing a rapid trend towards increasing autonomy in weapons systems. AI and computational methods are allowing machines to make more and more decisions themselves. We urgently need UK leadership to establish, domestically and internationally, when it is ethically and legally appropriate to delegate to a machine autonomous decision-making about when to take an individual’s life.
The UK Government, like the US, see AI as playing an important role in the future of warfighting. The UK’s 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy sets out the Government’s priority of
“identifying, funding, developing and deploying new technologies and capabilities faster than our potential adversaries”,
presenting AI and other scientific advances as “battle-winning technologies”—in what in my view is the unhelpful context of a race. My fear of this race is that at some point the humans will think they have gone through the line but the machines will carry on.
In the absence of an international ban, it is inevitable that eventually these weapons will be used against UK citizens or soldiers. Advocating international regulation would not be abandoning the military potential of new technology, as is often argued. International regulation on AWS is needed to give our industry guidance to be a sci-tech superpower without undermining our security and values. Only this week, the leaders of the German engineering industry called for the EU to create specific law and tighter regulation on autonomous and dual-use weapons, as they need to know where the line is and cannot be expected to draw it themselves. They have stated:
“Imprecise regulations would do damage to the export control environment as a whole.”
Further, systems that operate outside human control do not offer genuine or sustainable advantage in the achievement of our national security and foreign policy goals. Weapons that are not aligned with our values cannot be effectively used to defend our values. We should not be asking our honourable service personnel to utilise immoral weapons—no bad weapons for good soldiers.
The problematic nature of nonhuman-centred decision-making was demonstrated dramatically when the faulty Horizon software was used to prosecute 900-plus sub-postmasters. Let me explain. In 1999, totally coincidentally at the same time as the Horizon software began to be rolled out in sub-post offices, a presumption was introduced into the law on how courts should consider electronic evidence. The new rule followed a Law Commission recommendation for courts to presume that a computer system has operated correctly unless there is explicit evidence to the contrary. This legal presumption replaced a section of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, PACE, which stated that computer evidence should be subject to proof that it was in fact operating properly.
The new rule meant that data from the Horizon system was presumed accurate. It made it easier for the Post Office, through its private prosecution powers, to convict sub-postmasters for financial crimes when there were accounting shortfalls based on data from the Horizon system. Rightly, the nation has felt moral outrage: this is in scale the largest miscarriage of justice in this country’s history, and we have a judiciary which does not understand this technology, so there was nothing in the system that could counteract this rule. Some sub-postmasters served prison sentences, hundreds lost their livelihoods and there was at least one suicide linked to the scandal. With lethal autonomous weapons systems, we are talking about a machine deciding to take people’s lives away. We cannot have a presumption of infallibility for the decisions of lethal machines: in fact, we must have the opposite presumption, or meaningful human control.
The ongoing war in Ukraine is a daily reminder of the tragic human consequences of ongoing conflict. With the use of lethal autonomous weapons systems in future conflicts, a lack of clear accountability for decisions made poses serious complications and challenges for post-conflict resolution and peacebuilding. The way in which these weapons might be used and the human rights challenges they present are novel and unknown. The existing laws of war were not designed to cope with such situations, any more than our laws of evidence were designed to cope with the development of computers and, on their own, are not enough to control the use of future autonomous weapons systems. Even more worrying, once we make the development from AI to AGI, they can potentially develop at a speed that we humans cannot physically keep up with.
Previously in your Lordships’ House, I have referred to a “Stories of Our Times” podcast entitled “The Rise of Killer Robots: The Future of Modern Warfare?”. Both General Sir Richard Barrons, former Commander of the UK Joint Forces Command, and General Sir Nick Carter, former Chief of the Defence Staff, contributed to what, in my view, should be compulsory listening for Members of Parliament, particularly those who hold or aspire to hold ministerial office. General Sir Richard Barrons says
“Artificial intelligence is potentially more dangerous than nuclear weapons.”
If that is a proper assessment of the potential of these weapon systems, there can be no more compelling reason for their strict regulation and for them to be banned in lethal autonomous mode. It is essential that all of us, whether Ministers or not, who share responsibility for the weapons systems procured and deployed for use by our Armed Forces, fully understand the implications and risks that come with the weapons systems and understand exactly what their capabilities are and, more importantly, what they may become.
In my view, and I cannot overstate this, this is the most important issue for the future defence of our country, future strategic stability and potentially peace: that those who take responsibility for these weapons systems are civilians, that they are elected, and that they know and understand them. Anyone who listens to the podcast will dramatically realise why, because already there are conversations going on among military personnel that demand the informed oversight of politicians. The development of LAWS is not inevitable, and an international legal instrument would play a major role in controlling their use. Parliament, especially the House of Commons Defence Committee, needs to show more leadership in this area. That committee could inquire into what military AI capabilities the Government wish to acquire and how these will be used, especially in the long term. An important part of such an investigation would be consideration of whether AI capabilities could be developed and regulated so that they are used by armed forces in an ethically acceptable way.
As I have already referred to, the integrated review pledged to
“publish a defence AI strategy and invest in a new centre to accelerate adoption of this technology”.
Unfortunately, the Government’s delay in publishing the AI defence strategy has cast doubt on the goal stated in the integrated review’s commitment of security, defence, development and foreign policy that the UK will become a “science and technology superpower”. The technology is already outpacing us, and presently the UK is unprepared to deal with the ethical, legal and practical challenges presented by autonomous weapons systems. Will that change with the publication of the strategy and the establishment of the autonomy development centre? Perhaps the Minister can tell us.
My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests as an adviser to Luminance Technologies Ltd and to Darktrace plc, both of which use AI to solve business problems.
I welcome the opportunity to follow up the excellent 2018 report from the Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence. In 2020 the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which I chair, published a report, Artificial Intelligence and Public Standards. We benefited considerably from the work that had gone into the earlier report and from the advice and encouragement of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for which I am very grateful.
It is most important that there should be a wide-ranging and well-informed public debate on the development and deployment of AI. It has the potential to bring enormous public benefits but it comes with potential risks. Media commentary on this subject demonstrates that by swinging wildly between boosterism on the one hand and tales of the apocalypse on the other. Balanced and well-informed debate is essential if we are to navigate the future successfully.
The UK remains well-positioned to contribute to and benefit from the development of AI. I have been impressed by the quality of the work done in government in some areas on these underlying ethical challenges. A good example was the publication last year of GCHQ’s AI and data ethics framework—a sign of a forward-looking and reflective approach to ethical challenges, in a part of government that a generation ago would have remained hidden from public view.
The view of my committee was that there was no reason in principle why AI should not both increase the efficiency of the public service and help to maintain high public standards, but in order to do so it had to manage the risks effectively and ensure that proper regulation was in place, otherwise public trust could be undermined and, consequently, the potential benefits of AI to public service would not be realised. The Liaison Committee report gives me some encouragement about the Government’s direction of travel on this, but the pace of change will not slow and continuing attention will be required to keep the policy up to date.
Specifically, I welcome The Roadmap to an Effective AI Assurance Ecosystem by the CDEI, which seems to me, admittedly as an interested layman rather than a technologist, to provide realistic and nuanced guidance on assurance in this area—and it is one where effective independent assurance will be essential. I therefore ask the Minister how confident he is that this guidance will reach and influence those offering assurance services to the users of AI. I welcome the consultation by DCMS on potential reforms to the data protection framework, which may need to be adjusted as advances in technology create novel challenges. I look forward to seeing the outcome of the consultation before too long.
The Government’s AI strategy suggests that further consideration will be given to the shape of regulation of AI and is to be published later this year, specifically considering whether we are better to have a more centralised regulatory model or one that continues to place the responsibility for AI regulation on the sectoral regulators. Our report concluded that a dispersed vertical model was likely in most areas to be preferable, since AI was likely to become embedded in all areas of the economy in due course and needed to be considered as part of the normal operating model of specific industries and sectors. I remain of that view but look forward to seeing the Government’s proposals on the issue in due course.
One area where we felt that improvement was needed was in using public procurement as a policy lever in respect of AI. The public sector is an increasingly important buyer of AI-related services and products. There is the potential to use that spending power to encourage the industry to develop capabilities that make AI-assisted decision-making more explicable, which is sometimes a problem at present. The evidence that we received suggested that that was not being used by government, at least as recently as 2020. I am not sure that we are doing this as well as we should and would therefore welcome the Minister’s observations on this point.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Evans, and thank him in this context for his report, which I found extremely helpful when it was published and subsequently. It has been a privilege to engage with the questions around AI over the last five years through the original AI Select Committee so ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, in the Liaison Committee and as a founding board member for three years of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. I thank the noble Lord for his masterly introduction today and other noble Lords for their contributions.
There has been a great deal of investment, thought and reflection regarding the ethics of artificial intelligence over the last five years in government, the National Health Service, the CDEI and elsewhere—in universities, with several new centres emerging, including in the universities of Oxford and Oxford Brookes, and by the Church and faith communities. Special mention should be made of the Rome Call for AI Ethics, signed by Pope Francis, Microsoft, IBM and others at the Vatican in February 2020, and its six principles of transparency, inclusion, accountability, impartiality, reliability and security. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has led the formation of a new Anglican Communion Science Commission, drawing together senior scientists and Church leaders across the globe to explore, among other things, the impact of new technologies.
Despite all this endeavour, there is in this part of the AI landscape no room for complacency. The technology is developing rapidly and its use for the most part is ahead of public understanding. AI creates enormous imbalances of power with inherent risks, and the moral and ethical dilemmas are complex. We do not need to invent new ethics, but we need to develop and apply our common ethical frameworks to rapidly developing technologies and new contexts. The original AI report suggested five overarching principles for an AI code. It seems appropriate in the Moses Room to say that there were originally 10 commandments, but they were wisely whittled down by the committee. They are not perfect, in hindsight, but they are worth revisiting five years on as a frame for our debate.
The first is that artificial intelligence should be developed for the common good and benefit of humanity; as the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, eloquently said, the debate often slips straight into the harms and ignores the good. This principle is not self-evident and needs to be restated. AI brings enormous benefits in medicine, research, productivity and many other areas. The role of government must be to ensure that these benefits are to the common good—for the many, not the few. Government, not big tech, must lead. There must be a fair distribution of the wealth that is generated, a fair sharing of power through good governance and fair access to information. This simply will not happen without national and international regulation and investment.
The second principle is that artificial intelligence should operate on principles of intelligibility and fairness. This is much easier to say than to put into practice. AI is now being deployed, or could be, in deeply sensitive areas of our lives: decisions about probation, sentencing, employment, personal loans, social care—including of children—predictive policing, the outcomes of examinations and the distribution of resources. The algorithms deployed in the private and public sphere need to be tested against the criteria of bias and transparency. The governance needs to be robust. I am sure that an individualised, contextualised approach in each field is the right way forward, but government has a key co-ordinating role. As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, we do not yet have that robust co-ordinating body.
Thirdly, artificial intelligence should not be used to diminish the data rights or privacy of individuals, families or communities. As a society, we remain careless of our data. Professor Shoshana Zuboff has exposed the risks of surveillance capitalism and Frances Haugen, formerly of Meta, has exposed the way personal data is open to exploitation by big tech. Evidence was presented to the online safety scrutiny committee of the effects on children and adolescents of 24/7 exposure to social media. The Online Safety Bill is a very welcome and major step forward, but the need for new regulation and continual vigilance will be essential.
Fourthly, all citizens have the right to be educated to enable them to flourish mentally, emotionally and economically alongside artificial intelligence. It seems to me that of these five areas, the Government have been weakest here. A much greater investment is needed by the Department for Education and across government to educate society on the nature and deployment of AI, and on its benefits and risks. Parents need help to support children growing up in a digital world. Workers need to know their rights in terms of the digital economy, while fresh legislation will be needed to promote good work. There needs to be even better access to new skills and training. We need to strive as a society for even greater inclusion. How do the Government propose to offer fresh leadership in this area?
Finally, the autonomous power to hurt, destroy or deceive human beings should never be vested in artificial intelligence, as others have said. This final point highlights a major piece of unfinished business in both reports: engagement with the challenging and difficult questions of lethal autonomous weapons systems. The technology and capability to deploy AI in warfare is developing all the time. The time has come for a United Nations treaty to limit the deployment of killer robots of all kinds. This Government and Parliament, as the noble Lord, Lord Browne, eloquently said, urgently need to engage with this area and, I hope, take a leading role in the governance of research and development.
AI can and has brought many benefits, as well as many risks. There is great openness and willingness on the part of many working in the field to engage with the humanities, philosophers and the faith communities. There is a common understanding that the knowledge brought to us by science needs to be deployed with wisdom and humility for the common good. AI will continue to raise sharp questions of what it means to be human, and to build a society and a world where all can flourish. As many have pointed out, even the very best examples of AI as yet come nowhere near the complexity and wonder of the human mind and person. We have been given immense power to create but we are ourselves, in the words of the psalmist, fearfully and wonderfully created.
My Lords, the report Growing the Artificial Intelligence Industry in the UK was published in October 2017. It started off by saying:
“We have a choice. The UK could stay among the world leaders in AI in the future, or allow other countries to dominate.”
It went on to say that the increased use of AI could
“bring major social and economic benefits to the UK. With AI, computers can analyse and learn from information at higher accuracy and speed than humans can. AI offers massive gains in efficiency and performance to most or all industry sectors, from drug discovery to logistics. AI is software that can be integrated into existing processes, improving them, scaling them, and reducing their costs, by making or suggesting more accurate decisions through better use of information.”
It estimated at that time that AI could add £630 billion to the UK economy by 2035.
Even at that stage, the UK had an exceptional record in key AI research. We should be proud of that, but it also highlighted the importance of inward investment. We as a country need to be continually attractive to inward investment and be a magnet for it. We have traditionally between the second or third-largest recipient of inward investment. But will that continue to be the case when we have, for example, the highest tax burden in 71 years?
AI of course has great potential for increasing productivity; it helps our firms and people use resources more efficiently and it can help familiar tasks to be done in a more efficient manner. It enables entirely new business models and new approaches to old problems. It can help companies and individual employees be more productive. We all know its benefits. It can reduce the burden of searching large datasets. I could give the Committee example after example of how artificial intelligence can complement or exceed our abilities, of course taking into account what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford so sensibly just said. It can work alongside us and even teach us. It creates new opportunities for creativity and innovation and shows us new ways to think.
In the Liaison Committee report on artificial intelligence policy in the UK, which is terrific, the Government state that artificial intelligence has
“huge potential to rewrite the rules of entire industries, drive substantial economic growth and transform all areas of life”
and that their ambition is for the UK to be an “AI superpower” that leads the world in innovation and development. The committee was first appointed in 2017. At that stage, it mentioned that the number of visas for people with valuable skills in AI-related areas should be increased. Now that we have the points-based system, will the Minister say whether it is delivering what the committee sought five years ago?
That was in February 2020, from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, whom I congratulate on leading this debate and on his excellent opening speech. What policies have the Government recently announced? There is the National AI Strategy. One of the points I noticed is that the Office for Artificial Intelligence is a joint department of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, responsible for overseeing the implementation of the national AI strategy. This is a question I am asked quite regularly: why in today’s world does digital sit within DCMS and not BEIS? They are doing this together, so maybe this is a solution for digital overall moving forward. I do not know what the Minister’s or the Government’s view on that is.
The CBI, of which I am president, responded to the UK Government’s AI strategy. I shall quote Susannah Odell, the CBI’s head of digital policy:
“This AI strategy is a crucial step in keeping the UK a leader in emerging technologies and driving business investment across the economy. From trade to climate, AI brings unprecedented opportunities for increased growth and productivity. It’s also positive to see the government joining up the innovation landscape to make it more than the sum of its parts … With AI increasingly being incorporated into our workplaces and daily lives, it’s essential to build public trust in the technology. Proportionate and joined-up regulation will be a core element to this and firms look forward to engaging with the government’s continued work in this area. Businesses hope to see the AI strategy provide the long-term direction and fuel to reach the government’s AI ambitions.”
An important point to note is that linked to this is our investment in research and development and innovation. This is a point that I make like a stuck record. We spend 1.7% of GDP on R&D and innovation, compared with countries such as Germany and the United States of America, which spend 3.1% and 3.2%. If we spend just one extra percent of GDP on research and development and innovation, an extra £20 billion a year, just imagine how much that would power ahead our productivity and AI ability. Do the Government agree?
We have heard that the White Paper on AI governance has been delayed. Can the Minister give us any indication of when it will be published? Business has recognised the importance of AI governance and standards in driving the safe and trustworthy adoption of AI, which is complicated by the variety of AI technologies that we have heard about in this debate. Use cases and government mechanisms, such as standards, can help simplify and guide widespread adoption. What businesses need from AI standards differs by sector. To be effective, AI standards must be accessible, sector-specific and focused on use cases, and the AI standards hub has a critical role in delivering and developing AI standards across the economy.
The report AI Activity in UK Businesses was published on 12 January this year and had some excellent insights. It defined AI based on five technology categories: machine learning, natural language processing and generation, computer vision and image processing/generation, data management and analysis, and hardware. The report says:
“Current usage of AI technologies is limited to a minority of businesses, however it is more prevalent in certain sectors and larger businesses”.
“Around 15% of all businesses have adopted at least one AI technology … Around 2% of businesses are currently piloting AI and 10% plan to adopt at least one AI technology in the future … As businesses grow, they are more likely to adopt AI”.
Linked to this is the crucial importance of start-ups and scale-ups, growing companies and our economy:
“68% of large companies, 34% of medium sized companies and 15% of small companies have adopted at least one AI technology”.
It is used in the IT and telecommunications sector, the legal sector—it is used across all sectors. Large companies are more likely to adopt multiple AI technologies and there are innovative companies using multiple AI technologies as well.
Tech Nation had an event, “The UK and Artificial Intelligence: What’s Next?”, in which there were some useful insights. For example, Zara Nanu, the CEO of Applied AI 1.0, talked about gender diversity in AI and how important it is that you have more women. Just 10% of those working in the talent pool are women; for STEM it is 24%. As president of the CBI, I have launched Change the Race Ratio to promote ethnic minority participation across all business, including in AI. Sarah Drinkwater made the point that the UK is well positioned to continue attracting talent on the strength of its investment landscape, world-class universities and culture. We are so lucky to have the best universities in the world, along with the United States of America. I am biased, but the fact is that a British university has won more Nobel prizes than any other, including any American university, and that is the University of Cambridge. It was of course excellent that the Government announced £23 million to boost skills and diversity in AI jobs by creating 2,000 scholarships in AI and data science in England. This is fantastic, music to my ears.
To conclude, I go back to the 2017 report Growing the Artificial Intelligence Industry in the UK. It asked, “Why does AI matter?” and said that:
“In one estimate, the worldwide market for AI solutions could be worth more than £30bn by 2024, boosting productivity by up to 30% in some industries, and generating savings of up to 25%. In another estimate, ‘AI could contribute up to $15.7 trillion to the global economy in 2030, more than the current output of China and India combined. Of this, $6.6 trillion is likely to come from increased productivity and $9.1 trillion is likely to come from consumption-side effects.’”
This is phenomenal, huge, powerful and world-changing. However, it will happen only if we have sustained collaboration between government, universities and business; then we will continue to deliver the amazing potential of AI in the future.
My Lords, I join in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, on his able chairmanship of the Liaison Committee report as well as the report that he chaired so ably in 2017. I was fortunate to be a member of that committee, and it was a steep learning curve. The noble Lord has comprehensively covered the key areas of the development of data trusts, the legal and ethical framework and the challenges of ensuring public trust. I had planned on speaking to the threat of bias in machine learning and the threats in some rather unfortunate circumstances, but that has been ably covered by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, so I can delete that from my speech and speak for two minutes less.
In welcoming the national AI strategy published in September last year, I shall focus my remarks on what needs to be achieved to retain—and I stress the word “retain”—the UK’s position as a world leader in AI and, in the words of Dame Wendy Hall, to remain an AI and science superpower fit for the next decade. I am cognisant of the three pillars of the national AI strategy being investing in the long-term needs of the AI ecosystem, ensuring that AI benefits all regions and sectors, and, of course, the governance issues, which I shall not address in my short speech today.
AI has already played, and continues to play, a major role in transforming many sectors, from healthcare to financial services, autonomous vehicles, defence and security—I could not possibly speak with the able knowledge of the noble Lord, Lord Browne—as well as climate change forecasting, to name but a few. Fintech has played, and continues to play, a major role in embracing AI to tackle some of the challenges in financial exclusion and inclusion, a subject ably covered in the previous debate. The healthcare sector also provides some of the most compelling and demonstrable proof that data science and AI can generate with advances in robotic surgery, automated medical advice and medical imaging diagnostics. Autonomous vehicles are soon going to be deployed on our roads, and we will need to ensure that they are safe and trusted by members of the public. Moreover, the Royal Mail is planning to deploy 500 drones to carry parcels to remote locations.
Are we building AI to the right applications? It is difficult to apply standards for AI when it is constantly evolving. AI can be equipped to learn from data that is generated by humans, systems and the environment. Can we ensure that AI remains safe and trusted as it evolves its functionality? To build AI that we can export as part of our products and services, it will need to be useful to and trusted by those countries where we seek to sell those products and services. Such trustworthiness can be achieved only through collaboration on standards, research and regulation. It is crucial to engage with industry, universities and public sectors not just within the UK but across the globe. Can the Minister elaborate on what the UK Government are doing to boost strategic operation with international partnerships?
I join in applauding the work of UKRI as well as the Alan Turing Institute, which has attracted and retained exceptional researchers, but a lot more investment is needed to retain and expand human resource expertise and further implement the AI strategy. It was conceived during the pandemic, but new threats and opportunities will invariably arise unexpectedly: wars, financial crises, climate disasters and pandemics can rapidly change Governments’ priorities. Can the Minister clarify how it will be ensured that the AI strategy remains relevant in times of change and a high priority?
The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, spoke about how the UK and various businesses are embracing AI, and I shall talk briefly about the AI SME ecosystem. Our report in 2017 recommended that the Government create an AI growth fund for UK SMEs to help them to scale up. Can the Minister elaborate on what measures are being taken to accelerate and support AI SMEs, particularly on the global stage?
I share the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that the pace, scale and ambition of the Government do not match the challenge of many people working in the UK. I hope there will be more funding and focus on promoting AI apprenticeships, with digital upskilling as well as digital skills partnerships. For the AI strategy to succeed, we need a combination of competent people and technology. We are all aware of the concerns about a massive skills shortage, particularly with data scientists. We have been hearing about the forthcoming government White Paper on common standards and governance, although it is difficult to apply standards for AI when it is constantly evolving.
In conclusion, while we have seen huge strides and advances in AI in the UK, we need to ensure that we do not take our foot off the pedal. How do we differentiate UK AI from international AI in terms of efficiency, resilience and relevance? How can we improve public sector efficiencies by embracing AI? China and the United States will invariably lead the way with their huge budgets and established ecosystems. There is no need for complacency.
My Lords, I welcome the quality of this debate. In their speeches the noble Lords, Lord St John and Lord Bilimoria, have given us some of the more optimistic sides of what AI can deliver, but every one of the speeches has been extremely thoughtful.
I look forward to the speeches of the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, and the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, two Front-Benchers who, I may say, I always admire as they speak common sense with clarity. Thus having blighted two careers, I will move on.
I also thank noble Lords—because he will be too modest to do so—for their comments about my colleague, my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones. He told us that a new AI development could do 604 functions simultaneously. I think that is a perfect description of my noble friend.
I come to this subject not with any of the recent experience that has been on show. This might send a shiver down the Committee’s spine but in 2010 I was appointed Minister for Data Protection in the coalition Government, and it was one of the first times when I had come across some of these challenges. We had an advisory board on which, although she was not then in the Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, made a great impression on me with her knowledge of these problems.
I remember the discussion when one of our advisers urged us to release NHS data as a valuable creator of new industries, possible new cures and so on. Even before we had had time to consider it, there was a campaign by the Daily Mail striking fear into everyone that we were about to release everyone’s private medical records, so that hit the buffers.
At that time, I was taken around one of the HM Government facilities to look at what we were doing with data. I remember seeing various things that had been done and having them explained to me. I said to the gentlemen showing me around, “This is all very interesting, but aren’t there some civil liberties aspects to what you are doing?” “Oh no, sir,” he said, “Tesco knows a lot more about you than we do.” However, that was 10 years ago.
I should probably also confess that another of my responsibilities related to the earlier discussion on GDPR. I also served before that, in 2003, on the Puttnam Committee on the Communications Act. It is very interesting in two respects. We did not try to advise on the internet, because we had no idea at that time what kind of impact the internet would have. I think the Online Safety Bill, nearly 20 years later, shows how there is sometimes a time lag—I am sure the same will apply with AI. One thing we did recommend was to give Ofcom special responsibility for digital education, and I have to say, although I think Ofcom has been a tremendous success as a regulator, it has lagged behind in picking up that particular ball. We still have a lot to do and I am glad that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford and others placed such emphasis on this.
I note that the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, has put down a Question for 20 June, asking, further to the decision not to include media literacy provisions in the Online Safety Bill, whether the Government intend to impose updated statutory duties relating to media literacy and, if so, when. That is a very good question. Perhaps we could have an early glimpse at the reply.
A number of colleagues mentioned education. Many of us are familiar—although he never actually said it, as often with quotes—with Robert Lowe at the passing of the 1867 Act, not that he was very much in favour of it: “I suppose we must educate our masters”. I think there is a bit of a reverse now and the challenge is to ensure that both parliamentarians and the public have enough knowledge and skills to ensure that AI and other new technologies do not become our masters. In many ways, Parliament is still an 18th-century concept and I worry whether we have the structures to take account of these matters. What I have always refuted, though, is that AI and the related technologies are too complex or too international to come within the rule of law. It is important that we do not allow that.
I also think that we should take a couple of lessons from science fiction. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four warned of the capacity, particularly of the totalitarian states, to usurp civil liberties using technologies which in themselves may have positive value but have sinister implications. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, made a very powerful speech about some of the questions about defence—and one could also say about our police and security services—and how those are kept within the rule of law and proper political accountability. I have always been governed by two dictums. One was Eisenhower’s warning against the power of the military-industrial complex, a very powerful lobby now reinvigorated by Ukraine to urge on all of us a new arms race. Of course, we must respond to the threats posed by the Russians, but also to watch on what roads we are being taken. A number of points have been made on this.
The other dictum came from my old boss, Jim Callaghan, when it was just me and him together. He had been briefed by one of our security services and he said to me, “Always listen to what they say but never, never suspend your own political judgment.” I think it is important, in this fast-moving, complex world, for politicians not to be frightened to take on the responsibilities. One of my favourite films is “Dr. Strangelove”, where we saw how preordained plans could not be prevented from disaster. These are very high-risk areas.
I welcome the efforts to promote ethical AI nationally and internationally but note that paragraph 28 of the document we are considering today says:
“This guidance … is not a foundation for a countrywide ethical framework which developers could apply, the public could understand and the country could offer as a template for global use.”
This is all work in progress, but this debate is important because, as Parliament develops its skills and expertise, it must take on the responsibility to make informed decisions on these matters.
My Lords, I am glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord McNally, not least because of the generous observations he made about the similarity between me and the Minister, in a way that I am sure we both welcome.
I start my comments by expressing my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and all members of the committee. It is quite clear from this debate and the worldwide acclaim the committee has received just how insightful and incisive its work was. We also understand from the debate what a great catalyst the report has been for the Government to take action, and I am sure we will hear more about that from the Minister.
The development of artificial intelligence brings endless possibilities for improving our day-to-day lives. From its behind-the-scenes use in warehouse management and supply chain co-ordination to medical diagnosis and the piloting of driverless cars, artificial intelligence is being increasingly used across the country. The Government’s own statistics show that 15% of businesses already utilise it in at least one form.
I thank your Lordships for what they have brought to this extremely enlightening debate. I am struck not just by the amount of potential benefits and advances AI brings but by how those advances and potentials are matched by questions—ethical and practical challenges, with which we are all wrestling. This debate is a fantastic contribution to airing and addressing those points, which will not be going away.
As a nation, the UK is in a fortunate position to harness this potential. We have world-class universities, a culture of technological development and our strategic position, but the industry will need the support of the Government if it is to prosper. As the noble Lord, Lord Evans, rightly said, this includes the deployment of public procurement as an impact and lever. I hope the Minister will reflect on how that might be case.
However, as we have heard throughout this debate, there are associated risks with the development of new technologies and AI is no exception. As my noble friend Lord Browne so expertly set out, we have before us a changing landscape of conflict. Within that, AI can play a key role in weapons systems. On my point about the number of questions it raises, to which the right reverend Prelate also referred, is it right to delegate a machine to decide when and if to take a life? If the answer is so, it raises another set of questions which there will be no dodging.
In the last few weeks alone, we have seen more evidence of privacy breaches in the AI industry, and there have been numerous incidents globally of facial recognition technology, in particular, inheriting the racial bias of engineers. For that reason, ethics have to be central to our support for artificial intelligence and a condition for any projects that receive the support of government. If AI is developed in a vacuum of regulation, it will reflect biases and prejudices, and could reverse human progress rather than facilitate it.
The right reverend Prelate reminded us that, as with the Online Safety Bill and in fact so much of the legislation that we concern ourselves with, this is very much a moveable feast and we have to keep pace with it, not hold it back. That is a huge challenge in legislation but also in strategy.
As with any development of technology that brings prosperity, jobs and economic benefits, steps must also be taken to ensure that the benefits are experienced by towns and cities across the UK. That means driving private investment but also placing the trust of public support in new and emerging markets that are outside London and the south-east.
It is also important that new developments are sustainable and considerate of their implications for the natural environment, with AI being seen as a tool for confronting the climate crisis rather than an obstacle. Around the world it is already being adapted for use in mitigation and adaptation to climate change, and there are clear opportunities for this Government to support similar innovations to help the UK to meet our own climate obligations. I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on how that may be the case in respect of the environment.
We have to be alert to the consequences of AI for the world of work. For example, Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, pointed out earlier this year that employment rights have to keep pace. Again, we have to keep up with that moveable feast.
The question for us now to consider is what role the Government should take to ensure that the development of AI meets ethical, economic and environmental objectives. The committee was right to point to the need for co-ordination. There is no doubt that cross-departmental bodies, such as the Office for Artificial Intelligence, can help in that regard. Above all, we need the cross-government strategy to be effective and deliver on what it promises. I am sure the Minister will give us some indication in his remarks of what assessment has been made of how effective the strategy has been to date in bringing various aspects of government together. We have heard from noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that some areas certainly need far greater attention in order to bring the strategy together.
Given the opportunities that this technology presents, the plan has to come from the heart of government and must seek to combine public and private investment in order to fuel innovation. As the committee said in the title of the report, there is no room for complacency. I feel that today’s debate has enhanced that point still further, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about the strategic plans for supporting the development of artificial intelligence across the UK, not just now but for many years ahead.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and all noble Lords who have spoken in today’s debate. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that all the considerations we have heard have been hugely insightful and of very high quality.
The Government want to make sure that artificial intelligence delivers for people and businesses across the UK. We have taken important early steps to ensure we harness its enormous benefits, but agree that there is still a huge amount more to do to keep up with the pace of development. As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said in his opening remarks, this is in many ways a moving target. The Government provided a formal response to the report of your Lordships’ committee in February 2021, but today’s debate has been a valuable opportunity to take stock of its conclusions and reflect on the progress made since then.
Since the Government responded to the committee’s 2020 report, we have published the National AI Strategy. The strategy, which I think it is fair to say has been well received, had three key objectives that will drive the Government’s activity over the next 10 years. First, we will invest and plan for the long-term needs of the AI ecosystem to continue our leadership as a science and AI superpower; secondly, we will support the transition to an AI-enabled economy, capturing the benefits of innovation in the UK, and ensuring that AI benefits all sectors and parts of the country; and, thirdly, we will ensure the UK gets the national and international governance of AI technologies right to encourage innovation and investment, and to protect the public and the values that we hold dear.
We will provide an update on our work to implement our cross-government strategy through the forthcoming AI action plan but, for now, I turn to some of the other key themes covered in today’s debate. As noble Lords have noted, we need to ensure the public have trust and confidence in AI systems. Indeed, improving trust in AI was a key theme in the National AI Strategy. Trust in AI requires trust in the data which underpin these technologies. The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation has engaged widely to understand public attitudes to data and the drivers of trust in data use, publishing an attitudes tracker earlier this year. The centre’s early work on public attitudes showed how people tend to focus on negative experiences relating to data use rather than positive ones. I am glad to say that we have had a much more optimistic outlook in this evening’s debate.
The National Data Strategy sets out what steps we will take to rebalance this perception from the public, from one where we only see risks to one where we also see the opportunities of data use. It sets out our vision to harness the power of responsible data use to drive growth and improve services, including by AI-driven services. It describes how we will make data usable, accessible and available across the economy, while protecting people’s data rights and businesses’ intellectual property.
My noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond talked about anonymisation. Privacy-enhancing technologies such as this were noted in the National Data Strategy and the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, which leads the Government’s work to enable trustworthy innovation, is helping to take that forward in a number of ways. This year the centre will continue to ensure trustworthy innovation through a world-first AI assurance road map and will collaborate with the Government of the United States of America on a prize challenge to accelerate the development of a new breed of privacy-enhancing technologies, which enable data use in ways that preserve privacy.
Our approach includes supporting a thriving ecosystem of data intermediaries, including data trusts, which have been mentioned, to enable responsible data-sharing. We are already seeing data trusts being set up; for example, pilots on health data and data for communities are being established by the Data Trusts Initiative, hosted by the University of Cambridge, and further pilots are being led by the Open Data Institute. Just as we must shift the debate on data, we must also improve the public understanding and awareness of AI; this will be critical to driving its adoption throughout the economy. The Office for Artificial Intelligence and the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation are taking the lead here, undertaking work across government to share best practice on how to communicate issues regarding AI clearly.
Key to promoting public trust in AI is having in place a clear, proportionate governance framework that addresses the unique challenges and opportunities of AI, which brings me to another of the key themes of this evening’s debate: ethics and regulation. The UK has a world-leading regulatory regime and a history of innovation-friendly approaches to regulation. We are committed to making sure that new and emerging technologies are regulated in a way that instils public confidence in them while supporting further innovation. We need to make sure that our regulatory approach keeps pace with new developments in this fast-moving field. That is why, later this year, the Government will publish a White Paper on AI governance, exploring how to govern AI technologies in an innovation-friendly way to deliver the opportunities that AI promises while taking a proportionate approach to risk so that we can protect the public.
We want to make sure that our approach is tailored to context and proportionate to the actual impact on individuals and groups in particular contexts. As noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, have rightly set out, those contexts can be many and varied. But we also want to make sure our approach is coherent so that we can reduce unnecessary complexity or confusion for businesses and the public. We are considering whether there is a need for a set of cross-cutting principles which guide how we approach common issues relating to AI, such as safety, and looking at how to make sure that there are effective mechanisms in place to ensure co-ordination across the regulatory landscape.
The UK has already taken important steps forward with the formation of the Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and others have noted, but we need to consider whether further measures are needed. Finally, the cross-border nature of the international market means that we will continue to collaborate with key partners on the global stage to shape approaches to AI governance and facilitate co-operation on key issues.
My noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond and the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Weardale, both referred to the data reform Bill and the issues it covers. DCMS has consulted on and put together an ambitious package of reforms to create a new pro-growth regime for data which is trusted by people and businesses. This is a pragmatic approach which allows data-driven businesses to use data responsibly while keeping personal information safe and secure. We will publish our response to that later this spring.
My noble friend also mentioned the impact of AI on jobs and skills. He is right that the debate has moved on in an encouraging and more optimistic way and that we need to address the growing skills gap in AI and data science and keep developing, attracting and training the best and brightest talent in this area. Since the AI sector deal in 2018, the Government have been making concerted efforts to improve the skills pipeline. There has been an increased focus on reskilling and upskilling, so that we can ensure that, where there is a level of displacement, there is redeployment rather than unemployment.
As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, noted with pleasure, the Government worked through the Office for AI and the Office for Students to fund 2,500 postgraduate conversion courses in AI for students from near and non-STEM backgrounds. That includes 1,000 scholarships for people from underrepresented backgrounds, and these courses are available at universities across the country. Last autumn, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that this programme would be bolstered by 2,000 more scholarships, so that many more people across the country can benefit from them. In the Spring Statement, 1,000 more PhD places were announced to complement those already available at 16 centres for doctoral training across the country. We want to build a world-leading digital economy that works for everyone. That means ensuring that as many people as possible can reap the benefits of new technologies. That is why the Government have taken steps to increase the skills pipeline, including introducing more flexible training routes into digital roles.
The noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, was right to focus on how the UK contributes to international dialogue on AI. The UK is playing a leading role in international discussions on ethics and regulation, including our work at the Council of Europe, UNESCO and the OECD. We should not forget that the UK was one of the founding members of the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence, the first multilateral forum looking specifically at this important area.
We will continue to work with international partners to support the development of the rules on use of AI. We have also taken practical steps to take some of these high-level principles and implement them when delivering public services. In 2020, we worked with the World Economic Forum to develop guidelines for responsible procurement of AI based on these values which have since been put into operation through the Crown Commercial Service’s AI marketplace. This service has been renewed and the Crown Commercial Service is exploring expanding the options available to government buyers. On an international level, this work resulted in a policy tool called “AI procurement in a box”, a framework for like-minded countries to adapt for their own purposes.
I am mindful that Second Reading of the Procurement Bill is taking place in the Chamber as we speak, competing with this debate. That Bill will replace the current process-driven EU regime for public procurement by creating a simpler and more flexible commercial system, but international collaboration and dialogue will continue to be a key part of our work in this area in the years to come.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, spoke very powerfully about the use of AI in defence. The Government will publish a defence AI strategy this summer, alongside a policy ensuring the ambitious, safe and responsible use of AI in defence, which will include ethical principles based on extensive policy work together with the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. The policy will include an updated statement of our position on lethal autonomous weapons systems.
As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, there is no international agreement on the definition of such weapons systems, but the UK continues to contribute actively at the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, working closely with our international partners, seeking to build norms around their use and positive obligations to demonstrate how degrees of autonomy in weapons systems can be used in accordance with international humanitarian law. The defence AI centre will have a key role in delivering technical standards, including where these can support our implementation of ethical principles. The centre achieved initial operating capability last month and will continue to expand throughout this year, having already established joint military, government and industry multidisciplinary teams. The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation has, over the past year, been working with the Ministry of Defence to develop ethical principles for the use of AI in defence—as, I should say, it has with the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles in the important context of self-driving vehicles.
The noble Baroness, Lady Merron, asked about the application of AI in the important sphere of the environment. Over the past two years, the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence’s data governance working group has brought together experts from across the world to advance international co-operation and collaboration in areas such as this. The UK’s Office for Artificial Intelligence provided more than £1 million to support two research projects on data trusts and data justice in collaboration with partner institutions including the Alan Turing Institute, the Open Data Institute and the Data Trusts Initiative at Cambridge University. These projects explored using data trusts to support action to protect our climate, as well as expanding understanding of data governance to include considerations of equity and justice.
The insights that have been raised in today’s debate and in the reports which tonight’s debate has concerned will continue to shape the Government’s thinking as we take forward our strategy on AI. As noble Lords have noted, by most measures the UK is a leader in AI, behind only the United States and China. We are home to one-third of Europe’s AI companies and twice as many as any other European nation. We are also third in the world for AI investment—again, behind the US and China—attracting twice as much venture capital as France and Germany combined, but we are not complacent. We are determined to keep building on our strengths, maintaining and building on this global position. This evening’s debate has provided many rich insights on the further steps we must take to make sure that the UK remains an AI and science superpower. I am very grateful to noble Lords, particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for instigating it.
My Lords, first I thank noble Lords for having taken part in this debate. We certainly do not lack ambition around the table, so to speak. I think everybody saw the opportunities and the positives, but also saw the risks and challenges. I liked the use by the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, of the word “grappling”. I think we have grappled quite well today with some of the issues and I think the Minister, given what is quite a tricky cross-departmental need to pull everything together, made a very elegant fist of responding to the debate. Of course, inevitably, we want stronger meat in response on almost every occasion.
I am not going to do another wind-up speech, so to speak, but I think it was a very useful opportunity, prompted by the right reverend Prelate, to reflect on humanity. We cannot talk about artificial intelligence without talking about human intelligence. That is the extraordinary thing: the more you talk about what artificial intelligence can do, the more you have to talk about human endeavour and what humans can do. In that context, I congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Holmes and Lord Bilimoria, on their versatility. They both took part in the earlier debate, and it is very interesting to see the commonality between some of the issues raised in the previous debate on digital exclusion —human beings being excluded from opportunity— which arise also in the case of AI. I was very interested to see how, back to back, they managed to deal with all that.
The Minister said a number of things, but I think the trust and confidence aspect is vital. The proof of the pudding will be in the data reform Bill. I may differ slightly on that from the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, who thinks it is a pretty good thing, by the sound of it, but we do not know what it is going to contain. All I will say is that, when Professor Goldacre appeared before the Science and Technology Committee, I think it was a lesson for us all. He is the chap who has just written the definitive report on data use in the health area for the Department of Health, and he deliberately opted out, last year, of the GP request for consent to share data, and he is the leading data scientist in health. He was not convinced of the fact that his data would be safe. We can talk about trusted research environments and all that, but public trust in data use, whether it is in health or anything else, needs engagement by government and needs far more work.
The thing that frightens a lot of us is that we can see all the opportunities but if we do not get it right, and if we do not get permission to use the technology, we cannot deploy it in the way we conceived, whether it is for the sustainable development goals or for other forms of public benefit in the public service. Provided we get the compliance mechanisms right we can see the opportunities, but we have to get that public trust on board, not least in the area of lethal autonomous weapons. I think the perception of what the Government are doing in that area is very different from what the Ministry of Defence may think it is doing, particularly if they are developing some splendid principles of which we will all approve, when it is all about what is actually happening on the ground.
I will say no further. I am sure we will have further debates on this and I hope that the Minister has enjoyed having to brief himself for this debate, because it is very much part of the department’s responsibilities.
Committee adjourned at 7.48 pm.