Dear digital minister, a little more clarity - anything, really - on Brexit, please

The government’s digital minister, Matt Hancock, is a busy and enthusiastic advocate for the UK’s digital economy. In the past month alone, he’s given five speeches, published an independent review into making the UK a world leader in artificial intelligence, and signed a deal with Canada to work together on digital government.

If some parts of his speeches can be a little, well, repetitive, that can be forgiven in the light of the many digital initiatives that come under his remit. And no doubt his predecessor in the job, Ed Vaizey, might raise an eyebrow at Hancock’s recent description of himself as the UK’s “first ever digital minister” – especially since Vaizey claimed to have created the role, back in 2014.

Tory party rivalries aside, Hancock should be congratulated for throwing himself into the role with gusto. There’s one little problem though.

Computer Weekly chaired a panel debate at this week’s Supercharging the Digital Economy event, organised by technology trade association TechUK – following on from Hancock’s opening keynote. We asked the audience of tech sector leaders a simple question: Will Brexit help or hinder the development of advanced technologies in the UK?

More than 90% of the delegates in the online straw poll said, “Hinder”. About 4% answered, “Help”. The rest weren’t sure.

That’s an overwhelming statement of the single biggest concern the UK digital sector is worried about at the moment. And yet, not once did Hancock mention or even acknowledge the Brexit elephant in the room during his talk.

He doesn’t avoid the issue entirely – in a speech to the Institute of Directors on 17 October, he said: “Pushing for a good deal for the tech industry is a core part of our Brexit negotiations.” You should hope so, too.

Computer Weekly is by no means the first, and we won’t be the last to say that we urgently need greater clarity on the UK’s post-Brexit future. The release this week of the list of industries covered by the Department for Exiting the EU’s Brexit impact assessments included IT, software and services, and telecoms – we’re all waiting to see if those critically important reports are published.

The government is right to put an emphasis on the digital economy as central to the UK’s future success outside the European Union – it would be just as central if we remained. But ignoring the genuine fears of the industry’s leaders helps nobody.

If Hancock is the cheerleader for our digital future, he needs to address the concerns of the sector with more than the standard government platitudes about Brexit – our technology leaders deserve to be offered clarity and confidence.

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