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Give digital IDs to all, urge Tony Blair and William Hague

One-time rivals unite to demand radical tech revolution in the British state.

Oliver Wright, Policy Editor | Steven Swinford, Political Editor

February 22 2023, The Times

Everyone in Britain should be given a digital ID incorporating their passport, driving licence, tax records, qualifications, and right to work as the cornerstone of a “technology revolution”, Sir Tony Blair and Lord Hague of Richmond say today.

Writing in The Times, the former prime minister and former Conservative leader say that the British state is no longer fit for purpose and must be dramatically reshaped if the country is to avoid being left behind by global technological advances.

The two men, who stood opposite one another at the dispatch box, say that there must be a cross-party consensus to “radically” change politics, putting technology at the heart of the NHS, schools and other public services.

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Today they are publishing a report that includes more than 40 recommendations on how to use technology to transform the economy and society.

These include:

  • Curtailing the power of the Treasury to “micromanage” spending on science and technology, which they say has led to years of underinvestment in new technologies.

  • Appointing “executive ministers”, who are not MPs or peers, to rewire Whitehall’s approach to science and technology

  • Encouraging the use of artificial intelligence assistants in schools to help teachers and provide personalised support to pupils at home.

  • Using tax breaks to encourage the creation of super-pension funds that will be able to invest in UK start-ups and potential high-value businesses.

  • Streamlining the planning system to allow laboratories and other technology infrastructure to receive approval in six months.

As part of the plan they call on the government to introduce a digital ID that people could have on their mobile phones. This would enable people to prove who they were and also potentially contain their educational qualifications and right to work in the UK.

In their report Blair and Hague argue that many people are living in an “entirely digital age”, doing their shopping, accessing their bank accounts and booking flights “with the tap of a watch or phone”.

They argue that in time the digital ID could make it “simpler and easier to access benefits” and enjoy tailored support and public services.

They acknowledge that plans for digital identification have proved contentious — after strong criticism, Blair abandoned his attempt to introduce them when he was in office — but argue that in the age of smartphones the existing approach is “illogical”.

In their Times article they say that the world is going through a technology revolution “as huge in its implications as the 19th-century Industrial Revolution”. They write: “We both believe the challenge is so urgent, the danger of falling behind so great and the opportunities for Britain so exciting that a new sense of national purpose across political dividing lines is needed.”

They say that Britain is lagging behind competitors, with a significant decrease in the share of global investment in life-sciences research and development. Attempting to achieve “any political dream of left or right” would “come to little” unless the UK could “lead in science, technology, and innovation”, they add. “Technology is not some geeky side issue to be got to once the ‘real political debates’ have raged,” they write. “It is the issue.”

As the report was being published it emerged that the business department had returned £1.6 billion of funds to the Treasury that had been allocated for science investment, including the EU’s Horizon Europe programme or a domestic alternative.

Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, said: “How does this sit with the government’s stated mission to have the UK as a science superpower? The Treasury must ensure that this money is reinvested in research in the coming years.”

In their report Hague and Blair argue that the UK has been held back by Whitehall decision-making that is not suited to the rapid nature of technological advance. In particular, they highlight the “extensive bureaucracy by the British state” and “accountant” mindset of the Treasury as key impediments to growth.

They add: “Spending is subject to extensive bureaucracy, which also micromanages it into small, siloed pots and creates continual annual funding cliff edges rather than facilitating sustainable investment.”

They praised Rishi Sunak’s decision to create a Department for Science, Innovation and Technology but said that it would need to hire technical talent, which may require relaxation of Whitehall recruitment rules.

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