Daniel Zeichner, Labour Member of Parliament for Cambridge and Shadow Transport Minister, has been making headlines recently for his principled stand over Brexit. Given the nature of his constituency he could hardly do anything other than sustain his opposition to leaving the European Union.
Not only is Cambridge home to a world-famous university, but its academic research centres are full of students drawn from all over the globe, not just the EU. The Turing Institute in Kings Cross was spun out of the City and retains close ties, while tech businesses from Microsoft down to start-ups cluster around its tech village. As Zeichner told DataIQ in an exclusive interview: “At the moment, Cambridge is such a powerful brand and a good place to live that people want to be there. My worry is that it is not a given.”
As the son of an Austrian immigrant and a former IT worker himself, Zeichner understands the pressures from both angles. “I worked in the IT sector when it was booming, yet whenever there was a hint of insecurity, people moved on. That is what is happening in and around Cambridge,” he says. “I believe in the end we will come to a sensible arrangement that means people can stay. But it sows seeds of insecurity and our competitors are sniffing around. Why wouldn’t they? It’s a footloose global industry, especially for younger people who will go where they want to go.”
He adds: “Another thing we are looking at is whether we have the right skills in the UK to take this forward. The UK is in a good place generally, but when I go around the tech businesses in Cambridge, I see a lot of people from all over the world, including the EU. A key constraint is having the best people with the best skills. That is one reason why I am so angry about Brexit.”
Pressure from tech firms and workers in his constituency to get clarity on the future of employment in the sector has not only helped Zeichner to maintain his opposition, it also encouraged him to start the All Party Parliamentary Group on Data Analytics. With Jonathan Oates, the Liberal Democrat peer, and Conservative MP Matt Warman as vice-chairs, the APPG fulfils the strict rules on how such groups should be structured and run. It also uses Policy Connect, a well-established network that supports many APPGs, as its secretariat.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron described APPGs as the next scandal waiting to happen and recent media coverage has put Policy Connect under a spotlight. But Zeichner explained: “APPGs are registered with the Commons authorities and there are certain rules that have to be obeyed, such as the number of MPs from all parties. They bring together people with common interests, such as automotive or pharmaceutical. Some people have been concerned that they are a cover for lobbying. Personally, I haven't seen any problems with the groups I have been involved with.”
Government is a big player in the data and analytics world, both as a controller of personal information and as a user of commercial sources and tools. In starting the group, Zeichner notes that, “data and analytics has really taken off and there has been a lot of interest right from the beginning. I was determined that it wouldn’t get captured by one side of the debate. The aim is to inform decision making in this place because it is hard for legislation to keep pace with technology. So we have privacy organisations and industry organisations and we asked them to scope out the common ground.”
MPs struggle to remain informed about the issues on which they are asked to legislate, which is where industry engagement comes into play. “The aim of the APPG, with so much work going on and organisations and academics who know so much more, was to get MPs aware of the issues so we can deal with the difficult trade-offs. APPGs tend to set up events with people from outside and then try to entice MPs along,” he said.
That task is harder than it might seem, not least because, as Zeichner himself admits, MPs often feel like outsiders in rooms full of experts and so can shy away from such contact. “I have an anxiety when I go to an event that I am the person who knows least in the room. That is often the position politicians find themselves in. You have to be upfront about that and be prepared to listen. It can feel scary - and it is,” he said.
But Zeichner has been leading from the front foot, bidding for a special debate on GDPR and Brexit which saw him face off with Matt Hancock MP, Minister for the Digital Economy, in December. He recalled that, “a number of people had pointed out that there are problems ahead if we don’t get this right. He skillfully avoided answering some of those!”
His own position on GDPR is based on the view that personal information belongs to the individual, so has to be used with transparency, consent and trust. That means finding the balance between commercial interests and protecting privacy. “We are also facing some very powerful forces. Google, Amazon, Uber are very well resourced and can seize huge advantage. They do some wonderful things, but they need to find an accommodation that keeps their customers and citizens reassured that they are not working against their interests,” he argued.
In a former role at a major member-based organisation, Zeichner also became familiar with the issues of data matching and automated outbound calling that have been at the sharp end of Government concerns. “Somebody came in with a proposition linking to members’ Facebook and Twitter accounts and I thought, I don’t believe our members want us to do that. We didn’t pursue it for that reason. It showed me how easy it is and how much of ourselves we make available in complete innocence,” he recalled.
Conversely, Zeichner was an advocate of identity cards, but beleves the issue was mishandled, just as was care.data, setting back some major public sector data projects. “The whole ID card issue was very live in Cambridge. I was probably out of step with my constituents in thinking it was better to have it out in the open than not knowing how we are being identified. Looking back, I fully admit it was a terrible muddle because they were not clear what they wanted to do and it was poorly presented,” said Zeichner.
The APPG is starting to gain momentum with its events programme that includes a look at Government data sources and open data in early March. Whether Zeichner is still a shadow Minister by then is likely to depend on how Jeremy Corbyn reacts to his likely decision to ignore a three line whip on the Article 50 vote. But Zeichner can not ignore his constituency’s needs and the data and analytics issues that fuel the local economy, so his work with the APPG, at least, will go on.