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The UK’s new prime minister, Theresa May, has shuffled responsibility for digital policies in a shake-up of government ministers.
Ed Vaizey, who had been the minister responsible for communications since 2010 and for the digital economy since July 2014, has left government and returned to the back benches. He is replaced as minister for digital policy by Matthew Hancock, previously the Cabinet Office minister in charge of digital government.
Hancock has been one of the government’s most vocal supporters of digital technology’s potential to transform the economy and the workings of government, having given a number of high-profile speeches on the topic since his appointment after the 2015 general election.
One of Hancock’s first priorities will be the government’s digital economy strategy, which was delayed by the EU referendum. Insiders say the plan has also been slowed down by wrangling between Whitehall departments due to its nature as a cross-government strategy with many different stakeholders.
One of the most controversial aspects of Hancock’s job – and formerly for Vaizey – will be broadband policy. Vaizey was criticised for his constant support of BT’s superfast broadband roll-out at a time when many people and small businesses left outside of BT’s plans were complaining about the poor availability and quality of services they received.
Vaizey admitted that broadband was one of the most frequent complaints he received from his fellow MPs lobbying on behalf of their constituents.
BT is currently in discussions with telecoms regulator Ofcom, which wants to see a faster roll-out of fibre-to-the-premises broadband than BT has so far been willing to offer. Hancock will have an important role to play in supporting Ofcom’s proposals.
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Hancock’s former role as Cabinet Office minister has been taken by Ben Gummer, who was promoted from parliamentary under-secretary of state for quality at the Department of Health into his first Cabinet job. Gummer takes over responsibility for the Government Digital Service (GDS), and for the roll-out of GDS’s own strategy, which has yet to be published because of delays in the wider digital economy plan.
George Freeman, formerly parliamentary under-secretary of state for life sciences – a job that included data and technology policy in the NHS – has moved to a newly created role as chair of the prime minister’s policy board. No replacement has yet been announced for Freeman’s former role. The controversial Care.data project, which fell under Freeman’s remit, was cancelled this month.
Meanwhile, Baroness Joanna Shields continues as minister for internet safety and security, a post she has held since May 2015; and Baroness Lucy Neville-Rolfe keeps her job as minister for intellectual property in the newly created Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.