Digital Economy Bill

Written evidence submitted by the Co-operative Group (DEB 19)

About the Co-operative Group

The Co-operative Group is the UK’s largest consumer-owned co-operative with interests across food, funerals, insurance, electrical goods, and legal services. The Co-op has a clear purpose of championing a better way of doing business for our members and communities. We have over 3,700 trading outlets in communities throughout the UK, over 70,000 colleagues and an annual turnover of approximately £10 billion. We are putting membership back at the heart of our business as we rebuild our Co-op, and over 5 million Co-op members are currently receiving new membership cards; members will receive a 5% reward for any purchases they make for of Co-op own-brand products and services, with a further 1% directly benefiting local causes.

The Digital Economy Bill: the Co-op’s perspective

The Co-op’s ambition is to develop and deliver a digital strategy, with our members at its core, which will define the organisation’s future. We are at a relatively early stage of this journey, but are convinced of the potential to translate the best of our heritage, such as accountability to our members, community engagement and campaigning on our members’ behalf, to the digital era. There are new opportunities to explore in the nascent ‘digital economy’, in products, platforms, and ventures which will make Co-op membership into a seamless physical and digital experience, as well as making the Co-op a stronger business from which our members will get tangible benefit. Our values and principles of member democracy, openness, honesty and inclusivity will be central to these 21st century opportunities for community inspired co-operation.

The Co-op welcomes the thrust of the proposals contained in the Digital Economy Bill, and awaits with interest the forthcoming Digital Strategy. Our outline thoughts about those elements of most immediate relevance to the Co-op and our members are set out below.

· Part 1: Access to Digital Services

Improving digital access for all, through the introduction of a Universal Service Obligation, is vital if, as a society, we are committed to widening inclusivity and deepening accessibility. An expedited planning process for physical, digital infrastructure is imperative if the ambition to give people a legal right to request a broadband connection is to be met.

At the same time, however, it is important that these measures are seen as the starting point to society’s ambition and as an enabling framework rather than as a regulatory constraint to future ambition. Digital innovation is fast-paced. Tomorrow will be different from today. The Digital Economy Bill is a welcome step in the right direction, but its measures will need to be future proofed to allow for future developments, be they technology-driven, such as increased broadband speed and the emergence of 5G and NewG services, or changing geo-demographics – be they urban, suburban or rural - of where and how people live and where organisations and businesses choose to locate.

· Part 5: Digital government and Data Sharing

We believe that enhanced access to data and greater effectiveness of its use has the potential to stimulate growth, ingenuity and innovation which are vital to the future success and productivity of the British economy. As like any other business, improved use of data will make us a more efficient and agile business. But for the Co-op as we look to our future, a more agile use of data will enable us to become a truly member-centric organisation, connecting our members’ many and various touch points in terms of when, where and how they trade with us, how Members’ Voice is brought into our decision-making, and leveraging the community causes that our members champion. To realise that ambition, we set out to be a trusted custodian and responsible broker of data to, with and for our members.

That ambition is primarily within our own sphere of influence. It is for us to establish and maintain trust with our members, and the data element of that relationship is vital.

The government, however, does have a role to play in shaping both the public policy debate about how data is best used for social purpose and in enshrining consumer safeguards. The provisions in the Bill are a good step forwards. As we develop data trust with our members, we face the risk, very much outside of sphere of influence, that inappropriate use of data by other organisations, can undermine the trust so carefully established.

It is imperative that there are appropriate checks and balances to both safeguard individual data, and also to allow for data sharing where there is clear and agreed social purpose. Policy priorities do not remain static and it is important that a level of future proofing is created to allow for data sharing both between different public authorities, and at different levels, and also between state providers of services and those organisations, increasingly drawn from civil society, who provide services to communities.

We also recognise the competitive advantage to be gained by organisations and individuals who are skilled at extracting value from data. Crucial to this is the business of connecting datasets together. Often this connecting process requires using key public datasets as a form of glue. The more difficult and expensive it is for innovators to gather these connective datasets, the less we can expect modern British data businesses to thrive.

Co-op has previously put on public record its concerns about the government’s proposals of last March to move Land Registry operations to the private sector. If implemented through private ownership of the data held by the Land Registry, such a move risks raising barriers to future innovation and business growth. Public data should be Open Data.

· Digital Skills

A final area of real importance to the Co-op, is our focus on digital skills, where we look very much to the forthcoming Digital Strategy if not the current Bill. During the Second Reading of the Digital Economy Bill, reference was made to the UK’s digital skills base and that upwards of 1.3 million people in 2014 were employed within the digital economy.

The Co-op is currently investing significantly to build its digital capability through people. But there are two aspects of the current UK digital employee population which should sound a warning note for us all. Firstly, the further one moves geographically from London, the numbers of those employed in digital sectors falls away dramatically. In 2014 in London and the South East combined, 662 000 people were employed in digital; in the North West where the Co-op has its origins and where our support centre is based the number is just 95,000. Secondly, there is profound gender imbalance in the sector. For the Co-op, we are intent on addressing these two issues of rebalancing the economy and better gender balance, by investing in digital capacity and capability through a new Manchester-based digital hub for fledgling businesses and also by supporting gender diversity. Our sponsorship of the first Girls Geek Academy in Liverpool is but one example.

Our organisational values and the potential of the digital economy share one key attribute: that co-operation is better than insolation. The Digital Economy Bill is a welcome step in the right direction in fostering improved collaboration. But legislation will only ever be part of the solution if we are truly to unlock the potential of the new emerging digital economy.

10 October 2016


Prepared 10th October 2016