As Mayor of London, Mr Johnson spoke enthusiastically and passionately about wanting London to be a world-class tech hub – to that end he inaugurated London Tech Week in 2014, created the London Tech Ambassadors Group and commissioned a Long Term Infrastructure Investment Plan to ensure the UK capital had the infrastructure and connectivity to support the tech revolution.
Five years on, his first speech on the steps of Downing Street centred on ‘levelling up’ Britain and unleashing its productive power. So how does tech feature on Boris Johnson’s vision for post-Brexit Britain?
It perhaps goes without saying that the tech sector is in a very different place than in 2014. Whilst tech’s fundamental importance of a driver of innovation and growth is still recognised, there is also much more caution about potential harms and unintended outcomes. The last administration tried to walk the tightrope of sounding tough on tech whilst acknowledging that the sector was pushing the UK economy forward. The result was a policy platform that sent very mixed messages on tech innovation. Many felt that Theresa May’s number 10 was simply just not that interested in tech.
So whilst the Prime Minister may have his hands full with Brexit, building a coherent tech policy will be critical to drive the economy forward after Brexit. Let us take a look at some things that should be in his in-tray.
The first thing to understand about the new Government is that it is on an election footing. Whether the Prime Minister wants an election or not, his narrow Commons majority means that even with the Fixed Term Parliament Act it is highly likely that there will be an election soon. This is a government focused on the big picture, determined to take the fight to the opposition and looking for polices that will give it the edge in key marginal constituencies. That’s why policing, healthcare, ports and towns have featured so heavily in the early days of the new Premiership.
Fibre for all
Case in point – fibre for all. The Prime Minister was quick to repeat his campaign pledge to deliver full-fibre broadband “for all” by the 2025 – eight years ahead of the current timetable. This is electorally popular, especially in the Shires, but also hugely ambitious and would require a herculean effort to deliver it (not least it would require engineers to successfully install equipment into 13,000 homes per day every day for the next five years). In an open letter to the Prime Minister telecoms providers have outlined some of the challenges that will need to be overcome in order to meet this new deadline. techUK will want to see 5G given equal importance in this effort to turbocharge the British economy.
Theresa May’s government made a strong commitment to driving UK R&D investment back up to internationally competitive levels. Whilst Boris Johnson has not directly addressed his commitment to the previous administration’s roadmap to 2.4% of GDP spent on R&D we know that this Conservative Government is loosening the purse strings in preparation of a No Deal Brexit. Unsurprisingly perhaps, techUK would like to see money being poured into building regional digital clusters that can drive local economic growth and provide the high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the future.
Matt Hancock has been kept in place as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. techUK was really pleased to see this given the exciting and tech-first approach Hancock has taken to some of the biggest challenges facing the NHS and social care sector. NHSX continues to work on its mission to reduce the burden on clinicians, using technology to improve NHS productivity and patient outcomes with a Secretary of State committed to dragging the NHS into the 21st century, techUK is proud to support these efforts.
More generally we’ve had positive noises about tech and the public sector. With Michael Gove now responsible for Whitehall mechanics we expect, and hope, to see the same reforming zeal he has demonstrated in previous briefs. Our Prime Minister clearly has immense faith in technology to solve public sector challenges, but this will be tested no doubt when it comes to borders. What we do know is that they’re willing to spend money. Already we have seen a promised to recruit 20,000 new police officers. For techUK it isn’t just about bobbies on the beat but connected cops which may be less headline grabbing but will be key to ensuring that these new recruits don’t just end up sat behind desks doing paperwork.
The big challenges
Tech can provide solutions to the big challenges. As Boris Johnson referenced in his first speech as Prime Minister, advances in battery technology can help cut CO2 emissions and tackle climate change for example. AI has already demonstrated its uses in the health sector and robotics and technology could help people stay in their homes for longer as they age. These ‘grand challenges’ is where the UK can make a difference. Johnson has already talked about changing the tax rules to provide extra incentives to invest in capital and research – we will be pushing for smart changes to create the right environment for investment through Brexit and beyond. To us the Global Britain agenda has to be a responsible one – focused on sustainability, ethics and innovation with purpose. We know the civil service has been thinking about this and we hope this new Cabinet provides the impetus to drive this forward.
The big prize for the Johnson administration would be striking a quick trade deal with the United State. While the media will focus in on controversial issues such as access to the NHS and chlorinated chicken, we are already seeing signs that the proposed Digital Service Tax, which would hit large American tech firms, might not survive first impact with US trade negotiators.
Another issue that will be high on the list of UK trade negotiation priorities will be cross-border data flows. The May government made a clear commitment to seeking an adequacy agreement with European Union. Early signs suggest that the Johnson Administration is keen to understand what sort of data flow arrangements could be secured with other countries around the world. Given that Johnson’s right-hand-man, Dominic Cummings, has previously floated the idea of diverging away from GDPR it is interesting that the new Government has not yet made a clear statement on its commitment to pursuing an adequacy agreement with the EU.
The last administration made this a key policy pillar, attempting to address both illegal content and harmful but not illegal content in one fell swoop under a new all-singing, all-dancing regulator. Concerns have been raised about the impact this could have on freedom of expression and the worrying unintended consequences of making private companies the arbiters of what is acceptable online. Boris Johnson will be live to this issue and has continuously been a strong advocate for freedom of expression. The big question will be with Brexit taking up most of the bandwidth, will he show as much interest in this area as his predecessor?