SRA Innovate “must work even harder” to combat digital exclusion

Vegro: Regulation questions

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) must work “even harder” through its SRA Innovate programme to encourage technology that helps reduce digital exclusion, the regulator’s new executive director for strategy and innovation has said.

Tracy Vegro, appointed in February this year, said the pandemic had stimulated innovation at a “faster pace” than before but had also thrown up issues as to how it was regulated.

Speaking at a Labour Party fringe event hosted by the Institute for Government and sponsored by the SRA, Ms Vegro, a former civil servant, said that for the SRA the digital divide and the need for access to justice went together.

“There may be a double whammy if those not accessing technology are also the ones not accessing justice anyway,” she said.

Ms Vegro highlighted the winners of the Legal Access Challenge, run by the SRA and Nesta Challenges with government money – RCJ Advice and Rights of Women and Mencap and Access Social Care.

She said SRA Innovate, which helps legal services providers develop their businesses in new ways, should be “working even harder” to help combat digital exclusion.

Ms Vegro said it should be “brokering” agreements with tech investors and giving “early judgements” on what new ideas would be approved.

Earlier in the session, Chi Onwurah MP, shadow minister for science, research and digital, said that because the pandemic had shifted so many services online, digital regulation for the benefit of all took on a “greater significance”.

She went on: “The pandemic should be making us think what digital government looks like.”

Ms Onwurah said there was no “coherent regulatory framework” for data in the public sector and she was “sick of hearing” that the public sector should just follow the private one.

She said Labour launched its Digital Future consultation paper last month, seven years after its Digital Review.

“It’s important that we get the principles right, rather than just get excited about the latest technology.”

Ms Onwurah said the figure of 10m for the number of digitally excluded people in the UK had been “around for a while”, and, as unemployment increased when the furlough scheme ended next month, an opportunity arose to make digital training accessible.

She added that there were lots of different initiatives in this area but “no way of knowing which you could access”, so the government should “bring them together”.

Ivana Bartoletti, co-founder of the Women Leading in AI network and technical director at Big Four accountants Deloitte, said the virus had accelerated the adoption of technology, but there were “not many checks and controls”, and the “element of trust” was crucial.

Ms Bartoletti said that following the exams “fiasco”, people had realised that data was “not neutral”, and just because facial recognition technology was available did not mean it had to be used.

“Algorithms can replicate bias and technology scale up inequality,” she said. “We need redress when somebody is subject to a wrong decision made by a machine.”

Ms Bartoletti called for “massive” government investment in privacy-enhancing technology.

She added that the government should “listen to researchers and not just tech firms” and make sure the public was involved in its discussions.

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