techUK Party Conference round-up 2021
For those of you who attended Conservative Party Conference in Manchester earlier this week, we hope you all made it home safely after an intense several days at the Manchester Central convention centre. techUK was active across the party conference season with attendance at business days, panel discussions, speeches, and receptions at Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat party conferences. We’d like to revisit some of the highlights and reflect on some key themes for technology this party conference season.
Political speeches wrap-up
Amidst a ‘back to school’ atmosphere at Conservative party conference, the Prime Minister delivered an energetic – if policy-light – speech aimed at supporters across the UK which focused largely on the government’s Levelling Up agenda. The PM is seeking to shift the UK towards a high skills, high growth, high productivity (and low tax) economy as well as making the UK a “science superpower” leading in technologies including AI, cybersecurity and quantum computing. The PM also pointed out that the UK is one of only three countries in the world to produce more than 100 ‘unicorns’. Moving forward, it will be essential for the government to harness the UK’s tech potential to achieve the high productivity economy it is aiming for.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s speech focused on post-COVID recovery and jobs and skills, and alluded to new policies on innovative technologies including AI, although the speech reference past policies rather than new policy announcements. Meanwhile, the newly appointed DCMS Secretary of State Nadine Dorries shared her views at an event with the Telegraph on plans for gigabit broadband coverage which will be the bedrock for the future of the UK economy, as well as the need for balance between freedom of speech and protection in upcoming online regulation.
While the PM’s speech had perhaps a more diverse reception, Keir Starmer and team will probably be pretty happy with the Labour Party leader’s speech last week in Brighton which sought to draw a line under the Jeremy Corbyn years and received a warm reception in the press. Starmer also spoke about the power of machine learning, AI and cloud computing for transforming public services and boosting the economy. Deputy Leader Angela Raynor announced a package of workers rights pledges including a new single status for all employees and an uplift in the minimum to £10 per hour. While Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves announced that Labour would invest £28bn a year in the UK’s transition to net zero while also saying the party would take a fundamental review of business tax credits and would increase the Digital Services Tax to 12% for one year to raise revenue from tech companies.
TOP FIVE KEY THEMES ACROSS PARTY CONFERENCE SEASON
Innovation and technology
techUK were delighted to host newly appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Chris Philp on a panel in partnership with NVIDIA “Fit for the future: how AI is tackling coronavirus and revolutionising UK healthcare” which discussed how AI and other innovations can support the healthcare sector. We heard how the Government see’s AI as a foundational technology for a number of sectors including healthcare and how the Government’s more outcomes focused approach to AI regulation while support the diffusion of the technology across the economy. The panel also reflected on the importance of explainability, consent and choice are for patients using treatments powered by new technology and the Minister reassured the room that the Government’s plans in no way sought to lower standards or patient safety. Further, the Minister hinted at possible announcements in the Budget and Spending Review due on October 27 to incentivise companies to use greater amounts of data and cloud computing in research and development. The theme of innovation was also picked up by another techUK member, RELX, where Director of Tech and Innovation Sue Daley joined Ministers John Glen and George Freeman to discuss how innovation can drive growth.
- Addressing the skills gap
As well as being referenced in the PM and Chancellor’s speeches, techUK also hosted a panel at Conservative party conference on the importance of digital skills for the post-pandemic era where where we were joined by Matt Warman MP. Panellists talked of the digital skills gap as a ‘crisis’ which needs to be addressed through close cooperation between business and government. Digital skills will be absolutely essential to the UK’s recovery and ensuring productivity gains as we enter a period of inflationary pressure. We have called on the government to support a Digital Skills Tax Credit to incentivise companies to invest in human capital in the same way that companies invest in physical capital.
- Building back better
Growth and recovery was a major theme across party conference season as the UK economy shifts from the pandemic towards growth. techUK joined a wide-ranging panel alongside West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, business minister Lee Rowley and Suzanne Webb MP which covered investment, skills, climate change, and of course the role of innovation and technology as essential parts of the UK’s recovery. The role of SMEs featured strongly across party conference season, including in a panel we organised in partnership with Facebook featuring MSP Paul Sweeney, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Public Finance and Employment in the Scottish Parliament on how digital tools can support UK businesses to grow, as well as a packed tech reception with Shadow Minister for Science, Research & Digital Chi Onwurah MP.
- The climate agenda
The Conservative conference agenda was unsurprisingly bursting with ‘net zero’ themed panels in the lead up to COP26. While financing the transition remains a major talking point, the role of technologies – electric vehicles, hydrogen, renewables, nuclear, carbon capture, and many more – featured prominently as crucial to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement across the party conference season.
- Digital regulation
Digital regulation, and in particular the draft Online Safety Bill was a significant talking point across conference season. Discussions reflected the wide range of views and complexity in this area from free speech to the protection from harm, indicating that this will continue to be a lively debate as the bill continues its journey through parliament into 2022.
As Head of Public Affairs, Ed leads techUK’s strategic engagement with Whitehall, Westminster and beyond. He regularly engages government ministers, members of the UK’s parliaments, metropolitan mayors, and senior civil servants on the role of technology in the UK’s economy and society.
Ed joined techUK in 2021. He has a background advising companies, trade associations and public bodies on government relations and public affairs and has worked in the UK, Brussels, Asia Pacific and Southeast Asia. He has a degree from the University of Manchester in politics and languages.
As Head of Policy Neil leads techUK's domestic policy development. He regularly engages with UK and Devolved Government Ministers, senior civil servants and Members of the UK’s Parliaments with the aim of supporting government and industry to work together to make the UK the best place to start, scale and develop technology companies.
Neil joined techUK in 2019 to lead on techUK’s engagement in the UK-EU Brexit trade deal negotiations, as well as leading on economic policy.
He has a background in the UK Parliament and in social research. Neil holds a masters degree in Comparative Public Policy from the University of Edinburgh and an undergraduate degree in International Politics from City, University of London.