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7th May 2024

Stephen McPartland MP: “The UK can become the global superpower for cybersecurity”

Christopher Jackson

I meet the likeable MP Stephen McPartland at the House of Commons and immediately warm to his cheerful, optimistic nature. McPartland is one of those MPs who quietly and behind the scenes make the political weather without the general public being aware of it. The 47-year-old is leaving Parliament at the next election, and if I had to select somebody who embodies what will be lost after the next election when so many experienced members will be retiring, I would choose him. Whatever one’s politics, there will be an awful lot less experience of the kind the current MP for Stevenage in Parliament this time next year.

But before he does leave Westminster, the government has given him an important job to do – a sort of last hurrah. McPartland is leading the independent review into cybersecurity and economic growth.

The review was announced by the deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden in Lancaster House, that impressive venue modelled on the Palace of Versailles. It was an opportunity for the government to announce the Pall Mall Initiative whereby Britain, France and 35 other countries have agreed to increase efforts to stop hackers from targeting companies.

McPartland recalls the seriousness of the mood: “It was announced as quite a big deal. The idea behind it is that cybersecurity is an incredibly important product which the UK has to offer.  We are seen as one of the world leaders and the government’s ambition is for us to become the cybersecurity superpower around the world so that UK technology and investments are seen as amongst the best.”

And so what is McPartland’s role in this? “I have been charged with doing an independent report into how we can change the narrative around cybersecurity so that it is seen as an enabler of economic growth as opposed to just purely a defensive measure.” McPartland is keen to emphasise the momentum which the industry has, explaining that in the last seven years the sector has grown from £5 to £10 billion, and currently employs almost 60,000 people in the UK. He says that the industry can grow exponentially to £40 billion over the next seven years: if such growth were achieved, it could create 120,000 jobs.

McPartland is keen to outline the scale of the opportunities. If we make progress in this area, cybersecurity could become a keystone of our future economy. “We have a greatly skilled workforce,” he tells me. “A lot of our children leaving school and going onto apprenticeships or to university all have technology skills. They have grown up with technology; they understand the importance of security. The younger generation don’t know anything other than technology. So we have a huge advantage there.”

So how can we win the future? McPartland is optimistic on this point too.  “When you look around the world at our insurance, financial and legal systems, we are really respected and it’s a similar situation when it comes to cybersecurity, whether you think of GCHQ or the National Cybersecurity Centre. In addition to that, British intelligence is seen as very high quality.”

But in order to realise these opportunities, we also need to rethink the way we view cybersecurity. McPartland explains: “At the moment, cybersecurity is seen as something IT people do – it’s seen as reactive. But what I’ve been thinking about is the question of how you make cybersecurity an enabler of economic growth.”

To do this McPartland is looking at a range of areas. “One is the question of how you digitise your company faster. In particular, what are the barriers to digitising your company? These could be to do with regulation,” McPartland explains, “or perhaps it might be that there’s some problem in the supply chain.”

Another area the review will look at is exportability. “We’re looking at the question of how we can ensure that the UK is seen as a technology superpower for cybersecurity. It might be that we could provide some kind of internationally recognised standard – almost like a digital City of London so that it is globally recognised that we are the safest country in the world to do business with, and with the safest products.”

That leads McPartland into a third area which his review is looking at. “That’s about closing the skills gap and making sure we can work with the education system and employers to make sure that we have the skills we need. We’re also – and this is the fourth area – looking at the question of competitive advantage. Put simply, if you have got the safest product, you can use cybersecurity as a strategic advantage and it will also help you sell your product. That’s because the person buying your product is not only going to be backed up by great insurance, finance and legal skills but it’s also going to be the safest product.”

I’m interested to delve deeper into the employability issues and ask what kind of changes this deepening understanding of cybersecurity might bring? “There are big changes going on around the world at the moment. Looking at recent legislative trends in Europe and the US, you can actually see that there are going to be some changes at the very top of organisations which are then going to require a whole series of roles from the top down all the way to entry level. Essentially, cybersecurity is going to be very much like health and safety: it is going to be something that is integral to a company’s future. Some of those roles haven’t even been developed yet: this is one of those exciting fields where the solutions are moving at such a pace that it changes what happens behind it.”

How does all this fit in with the buzz around the AI sector? “I know there are a lot of young people who may be very interested in AI but you can’t really have an AI strategy without a cybersecurity strategy. However AI operates, you need to know that AI is secure and then you need to ensure that if somebody is going to use AI in a negative way that your products are then secure from that kind of use of AI. So the very essence of AI is going to create more need for in-depth and innovative cybersecurity.”

Much of what McPartland describes seems to open up onto the need to reskill the existing workforce in order to make cybersecurity an effective priority. When I ask him about this, he says: “There are already companies that are providing advice to boards on the type of questions they need to be asking around cybersecurity. A lot of those boards are very comfortable asking questions of auditors around finances and what they need to know – but they are not really sure what questions to ask around cybersecurity.”

I ask how the situation is for small businesses versus large FTSE 100 companies. McPartland explains: “As part of the review we are doing a call for evidence. Net Zero did 50 odd round tables over a year, and we did 26 of them in eight weeks. These range across the whole of the economic sector in the UK so we have everything from insurance to sports and entertainment. The idea is to get businesses of all different sizes to try and understand what the government can do to help. This is an independent report so although it has been commissioned by government, I can go off and talk to who I need to and then develop the recommendations and then government can respond to them. This is not something the government is telling industry: we are out there asking.”

And what will all this mean for the apprenticeships agenda? “There is a huge opportunity for apprenticeships. I have been a Member of Parliament for 14 years, and the number of apprenticeships in my constituency is massive. In any growth industry there is always huge opportunity for apprentices but the trick is to ensure you channel that growth so that those companies can then go off and hire those apprentices.”

All of this is very exciting and you can feel that McPartland’s is a boyish energy unlikely to be checked by the small matter of not being an MP anymore. As we walk off the Terrace at the House of Commons, I tell him he’s too young to retire – and he laughs it off, evidently happy to be in Parliament now, but knowing that for a man of his talents there will be much to do outside Westminster when that time comes. Meanwhile, once McPartland has handed in his report, the government is expected to respond to it in June. We’ll report back on its reception.


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