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Ben Bradley

Senior policy manager, techUK

An alternative Queen’s Speech: four bills to unlock the potential of UK tech

For the past three years, parliamentary and public debate has been dominated by a single issue: Brexit.

With a new prime minister and a new Queen’s speech, this is an opportunity to look to past Brexit and to set out a new vision for the economy.

Support for the technology sector, and the development and deployment of technology across the economy, needs to be at the heart of this vision. Technology is one of the fastest growing sectors and holds a unique place in boosting the productivity of businesses, large and small, with research showing that businesses who adopt technology grow two and half times faster than their rivals.

If the government truly wants to “turbocharge” the economy and unlock the potential of tech for society, the bills outlined below are key.

1) A Digital Infrastructure Bill

Moving to full fibre connectivity by 2025 has been one of Boris Johnson’s clearest domestic priorities but achieving this goal will require a herculean effort. It will require 13,000 engineer visits every day for the next five years, something that no other country in Europe has come close to.

This does not mean the ambition for world-leading digital connectivity is wrong. 5G and full-fibre broadband will be essential elements of the UK’s digital fabric and the underpinning for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, driving smart manufacturing, enabling free ports and unlocking up to £173 billion of GDP growth over the next decade.

But in order to meet the targets, government and Ofcom need to take significant action and a Digital Infrastructure Bill could aid this. The deployment of fibre infrastructure in the planning system is a must, as is extending the current business rates holiday for at least the next 15 years to allow for long-term investment decisions to be made; and adopting the National Infrastructure Commission’s plans to significantly reform wayleaves. Just as a railway station was essential for a Victorian town, we need these digital foundations to be a leading tech-driven global economy.

2) A Digital Plugin Bill

Action to boost digital infrastructure must also be matched with steps to incentivise demand, ensuring businesses as well as individuals make full use of the new opportunities that will be on hand. The Digital Plugin Bill will help the UK receive the maximum benefits that increased connectivity will bring, turbocharging the delivery of the Government’s ambition to ensure that investment in leading technologies translates into the development of a world beating digital economy.

The Digital Plugin is a three-pronged approach. Firstly, it will build on the Government’s City Deals to empower local areas to become Digital Clusters to attract investment, talent and opportunities for growth through the use of regulatory sandboxes, reduced tax burdens for local headquartered companies, financial support and dedicated support to manage the immigration system.

This will be combined with a Digital Business Link to provide local businesses in the region with access to expert advice and guidance. This will support companies in adopting new and emerging technologies from basic office functions like mobile email and the creation of websites through to the use of cloud computing and AI tools.

Finally, the bill could create a Digital Adoption Fund, a targeted, time-limited measure to help small businesses become adopters of productivity boosting tech. The adoption fund would provide a short-term boost to business investment among small businesses, while also providing long-term productivity benefits, and as a result further tax receipts to the wider economy.

3) An Innovate Britain Bill

After Brexit, the UK will be presented with an opportunity to re-signal and reaffirm its position as a world-leader in researching, developing and commercialising the technologies of the future. Our universities are the envy of the world, but the number of spin outs remains low.

If the UK Government wants to meet its ambition of 2.4 per cent of GDP spend on R&D, and techUK believes we must be more ambitious (3 per cent), then the introduction of a UK ARPA could be a significant piece of the puzzle. The Innovate Britain Bill should also introduce reforms to the UK R&D tax credit system, such as widening the definitions and eligibility criteria to allow more businesses – large and small – to take advantage of these reliefs.

4) A Talent-Magnet Bill

The government must reintroduce the Immigration Bill in the new session as a priority to create a new approach to immigration – one that is open to supporting our sector and the wider economy, but with new methods to build in public trust and confidence.

The future immigration must not use salary as a proxy for skill and should be led by business needs. The proposed £30,000 salary threshold must be lowered to bring it into line with the proposed skills threshold and the labour market. In addition, it is vital that the new system is easy to navigate for individuals and employers alike. The current system is too fragmented, with a plethora of charges and add-ons bolted on to the core cost of recruitment. Any new system must be streamlined and easy to navigate.

The Queen’s Speech offers an opportunity for all of us, not just government, to lift our heads up from the immediate issues facing the country to think carefully about the UK we want to live in and contribute to. Tech can help solve some of the biggest challenges facing us from the productivity puzzle to the climate emergency but we need to create the right conditions and empower businesses and individuals alike to embrace technology and innovate for the future.

Ben Bradley is a senior policy manager at techUK