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September 6, 2022updated 07 Sep 2022 8:26am

Nadine Dorries resigns: What should the next UK digital secretary prioritise?

Michelle Donelan has been selected to replace Dorries at the head of Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport.

By Sophia Waterfield

Nadine Dorries has resigned from her role as UK digital secretary. The MP, who has held the position since last year, said that she was “humbled” that the new PM, Liz Truss, asked her to remain in post, but that she would be returning to the back benches. Michelle Donelan has been confirmed as her replacement.

UK Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries giving a speech.
Digital secretary Nadine Dorries has resigned, leaving the new candidate to pick up controversial bills such as the Online Safety Bill. (Photo courtesy of DCMS)

In her resignation letter, Dorries said that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport had “achieved so much” since she was appointed to the role by outgoing PM Boris Johnson last September, and that the department was filled with civil servants who were “bursting with drive and talent”.

“As you will know, many underestimate DCMS; it is the smallest policy and delivery department in Whitehall, but this department packs a mighty punch,” she wrote to Johnson.

The appointment of Donelan was confirmed last night. She is the MP for Chippenham and former universities minister, and has been in parliament since 2015.

Dorries, meanwhile, could take up a seat in the House of Lords, as it is heavily rumoured she will be knighted by Johnson in his resignation honours list. But now she has has left the DCMS role, what should Donelan expect when they walk into the job? And, importantly, what does the UK tech industry need from them?

The new digital secretary will have a wide-ranging portfolio at DCMS

When it comes to digital, DCMS has most recently been working on the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill – the UK’s post-Brexit replacement for GDPR – and the Online Safety Bill, which is designed to protect people from harmful online content.

The Data Protection Bill was due to have its second reading in the House of Commons yesterday, however it was postponed due to the announcement of Truss winning the Conservative party leadership election.

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“The second reading of the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill has been postponed. The bill will continue its journey through the House of Commons in due course,” a government spokesperson told Tech Monitor.

DCMS is also supported by 47 agencies and public bodies such as regulator Ofcom, executive agency Building Digital UK, the Science Museum Group and public corporations such as BBC and Channel 4.

What will the new digital secretary need to prioritise?

While the data legislation and other projects such as the UK’s gigabit broadband roll-out form an important part of DCMS’s work, tech industry leaders who spoke to Tech Monitor said they hope to see action from the new digital secretary to address the digital talent gap, advance digital healthcare and boost the UK’s tech sustainability.

Mayank Prakash, president of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT says: “Unprecedented inflation is putting people and businesses under real pressure and there are continued uncertainties over public health as winter approaches and over our security, precipitated by tragic events in Ukraine.

“Technology can be our competitive advantage if we grow trust, particularly in online safety and digital privacy, and we are also in an era where technology is democratising resources and unlocking innovation at an unprecedented pace.”

However, he warns that the UK is “constrained by the technology skills gap” in the labour market and that the UK’s leadership needs to prioritise this so investment can be made in diverse talents.

According to the UK government’s Data Skills Gap report, the economy requires between 178,000 to 234,000 data roles with almost half of businesses (46%) struggling to recruit them. Digital skills can include data, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity skills.

Save our chips: digital secretary must oppose foreign acquisitions

The digital secretary will need to work with other government departments to follow the lead of the US in protecting home-grown industries, argues Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates.

“The next UK Digital Minister will inherit a substantial in-tray when their appointment is confirmed,” he says. “An immediate priority will be working with the Business Minister to develop a world-leading strategy which safeguards UK assets – particularly semiconductors – against foreign acquisition.”

In July 2022, the US passed the Chips and Science Act, which is partly designed to protect its own semiconductor industry. The act provides funding to help build domestic semiconductor manufacturing, design and research and strengthen supply chains, and the US government has taken an aggressive stance against US chip technology being sold to China.

Shaw believes that the UK needs to follow suit: “The Digital Minister must demonstrate how they intend to nurture and develop important economic and security assets to avoid another scenario like the current investigation into the sale of Newport Wafer Fab.”

In May of this year, the UK Government opened a national security investigation into the sale of Newport Wafer Fab by Chinese-owned Nexperia, after facing criticism for being slow to take action on the sale during a global chip shortage.

Fundamental review by digital secretary needed into online safety

The Online Safety Bill should also become a priority for the new DCMS head, as only 14% of technology professionals believe it is “fit for purpose” according to a BCS member poll. But cybersecurity recruitment and qualification should fall under the new minister’s remit, says BCS.

“IT professionals are committed to building a safe online world, with a focus on education and guidance alongside proportionate regulation,” explains Prakash. “We need cybersecurity practitioners who are professionally registered, and whenever possible be Chartered.”

According to a government report, a third of all businesses lack the advanced cybersecurity skills they needed to keep safe.

Tech Monitor is hosting a roundtable in association with Intel vPro on how to integrate security into operations. For more information, visit NSMG.live.

Read more: Data Reform Bill consultation ‘rigged’ say civil rights groups

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