Bishop of Derby questions the drive for efficiency in the use of technology instead of assisting meaningful face-to-face pastoral engagement

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On the 14th April 2014 the Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Alastair Redfern spoke during a debate on the Deloitte report ‘Technology and people: The great job-creating machine published in August.’ Bishop Alastair spoke about the competing pressures of company supply chains and corporate responsibility, the values of society and the impact technology is having as efficiency cuts across the face-to-face pastoral engagement of professions such as healthcare. The Minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe responded for the Government and addressed a number of the questions highlighted by the Bishop.

The Lord Bishop of Derby: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, for securing this debate; it is an important one. Regarding the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Rees, I am not sure whether I am an AI evangelist—perhaps he can give me some advice afterwards on the criteria to fit into that role. I applaud the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, for his emphasis on being positive and confident.

It seems to me that the subtext of this debate is about change and how it is handled. As the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, made very clear, the outcomes are largely unknown but there is a general sense of the direction that technology is driving in. Given the slightly expanded time, and as a 19th-century historian, I cannot resist giving my own example: there are horrors that many people have seen, where technology then comes to the rescue. In the 1880s, research was done in London showing that, with the increasing travel and increasing amount of horse manure, London would become totally clogged up with all the horse manure. Then, of course, along comes the motor car, horses disappear and the crisis does not happen.

I want to look at four perspectives on the change that this technological revolution is driving us towards, and I am going to have the temerity to suggest that the Minister might like to comment on these potential changes. The first thing we will have to look at is the changing shape of business, as it is business that largely invests in and develops technology. Some noble Lords will know that I do a lot of work in the areas of modern slavery, and sustainability and the environment. It seems to me that there are huge pressures on business at the moment to move from doing what we would call corporate social responsibility—helping out a bit with its profits—to new ways of audit and accountability that make business more of a global citizen and a player in the welfare of society through transparency in what it does and the positive way it tries to do it. It is going to be very important that, in this mode of being a global and a corporate citizen, business takes care to ensure that the benefits of technology are shared properly. That is what accountability will demand in the world in which we are set. The Government may have some comments on how this technological investment and development might be shared properly and on business changing its style, as it is doing at the moment.

My second perspective is about change in the role of work, which is an obvious one. There are of course, again, positive examples of new jobs, especially in the area of technology. However, in the world that I work in, jobs are less secure, they have to be more flexible and many people are on zero-hour contracts. Modern slavery is the second biggest crime in the world and is increasing massively; there is a really dark underside to the changes that technology is driving in the way that people have jobs. Another thing the Government might want to think about and comment on is what will be a responsible compact between business and workers in the future, as technology often requires workers to be extremely flexible, to be moved around and, perhaps, to be on very short-term projects. We are debating trade union legislation in this House at the moment; there will need to be a much more radical understanding of the relationship between business and workers.

The third area of change relates to the political context. The fact is, technological development is not neutral. It is very easy to look at it in a scientific mode and say that it is a neutral thing that can help us to stop having to do that heavy job and to increase our ways of getting a good agricultural return. However, technology has to be framed within a set of values, and we know in this House, as we do in Parliament generally, that people are withdrawing from engaging in the political process and are alienated from being part of it. We need a forum in which the values around which technology is developed can be debated and explored. The present political system is not fit for that purpose; we will need to have other forums such as civil society and local organisations. It will be a government responsibility to make sure that the values we hold, and around which technology is developed, are properly debated and explored.

My last point is about the change in welfare provision. From where I sit, besides all the positives, I see the disintegration of communities, the collapse of families, an ageing population, and more and more people living on their own. A friend of mine is a community nurse and her work practice has changed through technology. Instead of deciding who to visit and how long to spend with them and then writing up the reports at the end of the day, she has a program on her iPad: she has to be somewhere at a certain time and has to send off a report before she goes on to the next place. This technological efficiency totally cuts across the face-to-face pastoral engagement that people need for healthcare to flourish. It is the face-to-face element that we need to invest in if we are to have more people available for work. I am sure that bus conductors were very reassuring for people face to face; we do not want automated Japanese receptionists—we need a welfare system that runs with a strong face-to-face content. I raise these four issues of change that I think need to be thought about very carefully as we face the future of technology.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Baroness Neville-Rolfe) (Con): My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Borwick for securing this debate and Deloitte for its report. We have had a wide-ranging discussion on some of the opportunities and, rightly, some of the challenges that advancing technology presents. I enjoyed the regal veto to the patenting of an Elizabethan stocking machine. I will check the next time I visit my colleagues at the National Archives to see if I can answer his question. I was also fascinated by the cheerfully dressed robo-receptionist in Japan—very James Bond. But can they provide the eye contact which makes for good customer service? On that point, I was struck by the comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby about how changes in community nursing might cut across face-to-face pastoral care. I also thought he was right to emphasise the role that business can play in passing on the benefits of technology to staff and developing responsible supply chains.  …..

(Via Parliamentary.UK)