Algorithms: Public Sector Decision-making

Lord Taylor of Warwick’s speech in the House of Lords, 12th February 2020

My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for securing this timely and important debate. It is over only the last 20 years that we have seen the meteoric growth of artificial intelligence. When I was discussing this with a friend of mine, his response was: “What, only 20 years? I’ve got socks older than that.” That is probably too much information—I accept that—but there is no doubt that the use of this kind of AI-driven data is still very new.

The use of such technologies was still the stuff of science fiction when I was first elected as a district councillor in the West Midlands. When I was chancellor of Bournemouth University, the impact of data analytics was very apparent to me. It was my privilege in 1996 to present the Bill that established the use of the UK’s first ever DNA database. As vice-president of the British film board for 10 years, I saw the way in which AI simply transformed what we all see on our computer and cinema screens.

I was recently honoured to chair the Westminster Media Forum conference looking at online data regulation. A major theme of the conference was the need to balance—it is a difficult balance—the opportunities provided by these new technologies and the risks of harming the very people this is supposed to help.

The next decade will be like a “Strictly Come Dancing” waltz between democracy and technocracy. There has to be a partnership between government leaders and the tech company executives, with ethics at the centre. As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, one in three councils uses this AI-driven data to make welfare decisions, and at least a quarter of police authorities now use it to make predictions and risk assessments.

There are examples of good practice. I was born and raised in a part of the world universally regarded as paradise. It is called Birmingham—just off the M6 motorway by the gasworks.

I am pleased that all seven local authorities in the West Midlands Combined Authority have appointed a digital champion and co-ordinator, but in other areas evidence is emerging that some of the systems used by councils are unreliable. This is very serious, because these procedures are used to deploy benefit claims, prevent child abuse and even allocate school places.
Concerns have been raised by campaign groups such as Big Brother Watch about privacy and data security, but I am most worried about the Law Society’s concerns. It has highlighted the problems caused by biased data-based profiling of whole inner-city communities when trying to predict reoffending rates and anti-social behaviour. This can cause bias against black and ethnic minority communities. The potential for unconscious bias has to be taken very seriously.
As far as the National Health Service is concerned, accurate data analysis is clearly a valuable tool in serving the needs of patients, but according to a Health Foundation report of only last year, we are not investing in enough NHS data analysts. That surely is counterproductive.

I would like the Minister to answer some questions. Who exactly is responsible for making sure that standards are set and regulated for AI data use in local authorities and the public sector? Will it be Ofcom, as the new internet regulator, the Biometrics Commissioner or the Information Commissioner’s Office? Who will take responsibility? What protection is there in particular to safeguard the data of children and other groups, such as black and ethnic minorities? What are the Government planning to do about facial recognition systems, which are basically inaccurate? That is really quite frightening when you think about it.

AI and data technology are advancing so fast that the Government are essentially reactive, not proactive. Let us face it: Parliament still uses procedures set down in the 18th century. It took the Government three and a half years to pass the Brexit Bill, whereas it can take less than three and a half seconds for somebody to give consent, by the click of a mouse, to their personal data being stored and shared on the world wide web.

I do not think we should be in awe of AI, because ai is also the name of a small three-toed sloth that inhabits the forests of South America. The ai eats tree leaves and makes a high-pitched cry when disturbed.

Seriously, it is vital that there is co-ordination between national government, local authorities, academic research, industry and the media. At the heart of government data policy must be ethics. Regulation must not stifle innovation, but support it. We are at the start of an exciting new decade of 2020 vision, where democracy and technocracy must be in partnership. You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.