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[Image:  thePipeLine]


On of the most high profile public successes of newly appointed Culture Secretary Mathew Hancock MP involved a Medieval Chapel.  However, before archaeologists and historians become too excited about the possibility of friendly forces moving into the small suite of  Whitehall offices the 50% downsized Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport [DCMS] shares with the Treasury, thePipeLine has to point out that the Medieval Chapel concerned was a horse; ridden to second place in the historic Newmarket Town Plate by Mr Hancock on 7 July 2016.

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Married with three young children, Mr Hancock was elected to represent the constituency of West Suffolk as recently as the 2010 General Election.

Once at Westminster Mathew Hancock’s voting record indicates a social liberal, voting in favour of gay rights and equal marriage, although his record on human rights legislation is more patchy.  He was also caught out in a serious cultural blunder when he celebrated National Poetry Day in October 2014 by retweeting a limerick which suggested that the Labour Party was “full of queers”.   In response the then Labour Work and Pensions Secretary Chris Bryant MP, responded, also on Twitter,

“Amazed @matthancockmp sends vile tweet about “queers”. Cameron shd sack him now.”

Mr Hancock was clearly stung by the incident, however it had come about, and tweeted a fulsome apology,

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“Previous RT was a total accident. I wholeheartedly disagree with offensive comment in the tweet & am incredibly sorry for any offence caused.”

His record also shows that he has never rebelled against the coalition or Conservative Governments of 2010 to 2015 and 2015 to 2017, which may suggest why his ministerial career began in 2012 and has included junior roles as Minister for Skills, Minister for Business, and Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General.  Indeed, he is now seen as an experienced minister and one of the more useful of the younger MP’s from the Conservative’s 2010 intake, and one who also enjoyed the patronage of former Chancellor George Osborne.

[Image:  @Number10gov]


However, progress has not been entirely smooth.  Privately educated [The King’s School, Chester and Exeter College, Oxford], Mathew Hancock was criticised by right wing commentator Charles Moore in 2016 after he championed the policy of getting employers to ask job interviewees which schools they went to.

More seriously Mr Hancock ran across another embarrassing media bump a year previously in April 2015 when he was criticised after Greenpeace and the Guardian revealed that, while minister for energy and climate change, he had accepted a donation of £18,000 from climate change sceptic Neil Record.  Mr Record is a supporter of the controversial Global Warming Policy Foundation chaired by former Conservative Chancellor Nigel Lawson.  Mr Hancock also faced criticism for chartering a private jet to fly himself and two foreign Office diplomats from Aberdeen to London after signing a climate change agreement.  There were sixteen  commercial flights available to make the journey.

His elevation to the cabinet role of Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is an internal promotion.  Until Prime Minister Theresa May’s reshuffle on Monday [9 January 2018] Mr Hancock was a Minister of State at the DCMS, becoming the first minister with specific responsibility for policy towards the digital economy, in particular policy towards improving access to broadband.  Mr Hancock also had an additional brief taking in responsibility for policy towards the media and the creative industries, including music, film and publishing.

It is this area which will provide two of the most immediate headaches for the new Secretary of State.  The DCMS is already dealing with a certain level of push back over the Government’s stated wish for public service broadcaster Channel 4 to move its entire operation out of London.  Even more controversial is the proposal from Rupert Murdoch to take full control of digital satellite broadcaster Sky.  An issue complicated by the proposed takeover of most of Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, including Sky’s operation, by the Disney organisation which was put in train in the United States late in 2017.  The takeover is subject of an investigation by The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).  This after an earlier investigation by media regulator Ofcom on grounds of media plurality, but the final decision on whether to allow the acquisition lies with the Secretary of State.

With reference to the sporting part of his ministerial brief, in addition to his exploits on horseback, which have also included becoming the first MP in the 21st century to win a horse race, taking first place at the Newmarket July Course in August 2012 and supporting changes to betting rules to ensure fairer competition between local betting companies and those based offshore, Mr Hancock is also an avid cricketer.  He takes the field for the Lords and Commons Cricket team and claims to have taken part in the furthest north cricket match on record during a trip to the Arctic.

There are few recorded statements, or Parliamentary interventions, made by Mathew Hancock which relate specifically to heritage issues.  The most notable was during the debate in October 2012 regarding changes to the rules around Listed Building Consent which came about as a result of the Penfold Review, promoted by Mr Hancock’s mentor George Osborne.  The changes were designed to reduce the number of such consents and the move had faced criticism in some quarters over the short four week consultation period the Government allowed and the suggestion that what the Government saw as necessary liberalisation in the name of certainty and efficiency, might make potentially harmful changes to listed buildings easier.  It was also pointed out that the regime for statutory expert advice might also skew the playing field away from expert groups such as the 20th Century Society, in favour of what critics saw as the more pliable English Heritage, now Historic England.

In moving the new clauses of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill in his role of Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the department of Business and Skills, Mr Hancock said,

” I, like many others in this House, have a special adoration for the heritage of our listed buildings in this country, not least the one in which we are standing. Our approach will also improve the operation of the regime. [Interruption.] I suppose that I should declare an interest, although it is not the one that Mr Wright thinks; I work in a wonderful listed building and I want to ensure that it is protected.”

On the heritage agenda for the new Secretary of State are the place of heritage in the wider economy, with a recent report suggesting that Britain might be at peak museum and that no new Museums should be funded, and the ongoing controversies around the impact of the building of HS2 and the controversial A303 tunnel at the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.  The latter issue is particularly thorny, pitting archaeologist against archaeologist, or more particularly against Historic England, English Heritage and the National Trust Away and the Government against UNESCO.

Away from the immediate, and potentially damaging headlines which could entrap the DCMS, is the pressure to build more housing, particularly in London and the south east of England.  This last issue has already led to pressure to reduce what Sir Mark Boleat, the Chairman of the Housing and Finance Institute, and former policy chairman of the City of London Corporation, called “nice to have” archaeology as a way of reducing the costs of building, or of increasing the profits depending on how you look at it.

Already many in the heritage and environmental sector fear that Brexit, especially a so called “hard Brexit” where the UK crashes out of all European Union structures and rules in March 2019, will lead to just such a relaxation of the environmental rules underpinning commercial archaeology.  These fears have been exacerbated by the Government’s unwillingness, until now at least, to include EU environmental directives, and guarantees of the continuance of the precautionary and polluter pays principles, in the cut and paste of other EU Law into UK Law under the EU Withdrawal Bill.  This issue is likely to raise its head again as the Bill returns to Parliament on 16 and 17 January 2018 and then moves to the House of Lords where it is likely to face fresh amendments.  .

Already the heritage sector has been disappointed by the DCMS shelving a promised review of the United Kingdom’s stance regarding the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.  thePipeLine understand that the decision to shelve the UNESCO review indefinitely was down to overstretch in the DCMS brought about in large part by Brexit related work.   This suggestion is supported by a recent survey by the National Audit Office which found that the DCMS, one of the smallest departments in Whitehall, was dealing with 19 separate Exit workstreams in addition to its regular work.  Some of them incredibly complex and important to the UK’s ability to conduct data exchange and E-commerce securely and even defend the nation’s borders against multi-national crime and terrorism.  For example the four key areas of EU data protection: the General Data Protection Regulation [GDPR], the Police and Criminal Justice Directive (PCJ) the EU-US Privacy Shield and the EU-US Umbrella Agreement are all up for debate and negotiation as part of the Brexit process.

Here, like his predecessor Karen Bradley who has swopped the DCMS for the Northern Ireland Office, during the 2016 EU Referendum  Mr Hancock was a Remainer.  He even got on the wrong side of TV presenter Kirsty Allsopp, by tweeting shortly before the Referendum,

“What kind of country do we want to be? For a tolerant Britain vote Remain #StrongerIn”

adding to his Tweet an advert which read

“Remain kind, Remain open, Remain inclusive, Remain tolerant, Remain together”.

Ms Allsopp replied,

“It is this kind of attitude suggesting that to want to #Leave is unkind. intolerant & exclusive that people so resent.”

Perhaps wisely Mr Hancock did not reply then and while observing collective responsibility and the Prime Ministerial mantra that “Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a success of it”, has largely kept his counsel regarding the details of Brexit since.

Mr Hancock will also be aware of the report by Political Intelligence consultancy the Guide, which reported during the 2017 General Election campaign that,

“However, the next Government faces significant risks when it assumes office in June. A lack of commitment to the Open Government agenda could lead to an over-reliance on a few very large foreign-owned tech companies. These companies may base valuable parts of their business overseas and under the jurisdiction of foreign governments, while keeping sales and marketing teams in the UK. This could reduce the cyber security of public data held by the UK Government. It would also be to the detriment of UK-based tech companies – and especially innovative SMEs.” 

With issues like that in his in-tray, the representative organisations and specialist bodies in the heritage sector will do well to get face time with the new Secretary of State and his senior officials, let alone get the kind of legislative action and Treasury allocations which many believe are required to ensure that heritage protection and support in the UK does not take several steps backwards as the UK moves forward to a Post EU future, or maybe not.

A supporter of Prime Minister Theresa May in the 2016 Conservative Party leadership campaign, another fact which might lie behind his promotion, there is some evidence that Mathew Hancock could be a part of a soft brexit axis in the Government.  Commenting on a position paper released by the DCMS in August 2017 Mr Hancock said,

“In the modern world, data flows increasingly underpin trade, business and all relationships. We want the secure flow of data to be unhindered in the future as we leave the EU.

“So a strong future data relationship between the UK and EU, based on aligned data protection rules, is in our mutual interest.”

There will be many who hope that the DCMS will take the view that the same “mutual interest” will be made to apply towards environmental protections relating to heritage and cultural contact, exchange and funding.

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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