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Remaining in the EU is essential if the UK wants to be a global technology leader

This blog post is part of our Essential Guide: Brexit and the UK technology sector - read our analysis of the implications

Here at Computer Weekly, we want what’s best for the UK tech sector and the people who work there – that’s why we believe that remaining in the European Union (EU) is vital at such a critical time in the transformation of our industry.

But let’s be clear – if the country votes for a Brexit on 23 June, it’s not a binary outcome that means the end of UK IT. Innovative tech companies will still do well, startups will still find customers and investors, IT leaders will still transform their organisations, and IT professionals will still be in high demand.

We believe, however, that being in the EU means that everyone will be able to do all those things – and more – so much better than they will in an isolationist UK.

Already most interest groups in UK tech have come out in favour of remaining – tech startups, leading suppliers like BT and others, industry bodies such as TechUK, and many top CIOs. This is a sector in broad consensus about the UK’s role on the international technology stage.

What if we leave? Let’s look at some of the major challenges facing UK IT at the moment.

The biggest issue is skills – the lack of digital skills across the board has a huge economic cost, as much as £63bn a year according to some estimates. We simply don’t have enough people with the tech skills we need in this country, and we’re already heavily reliant on EU migrants – and non-EU – to fill those gaps.

Tightened immigration rules for non-EU IT workers has already caused problems for tech startups and for IT departments – 10 years ago there were thousands of Australian, New Zealand and South African IT professionals in IT teams, for example, but they have largely gone elsewhere since it became much harder to obtain working visas.

If a tech startup can’t find the skills it needs, or an IT supplier, or an internet company, or the CIO of a multinational, they will move jobs to where they can find them.

There are measures in place to address the skills gap, but they are largely focused around education and early careers such as apprenticeships. Even if they all work – and progress is slow – it’s a decade at least until the additional skills mature. With the pace of the digital revolution accelerating, we simply cannot wait that long.

It’s also fair to say that IT is among the most international of industries and as such it matters little whether we’re in the EU, since our tech sector can trade globally online. That’s true – but that international perspective is also why so much overseas investment comes into UK IT. We’re the bridge to Europe for every country where English is the language of business and technology. You don’t build one end of a bridge in a dead end.

In telecoms, you could argue that leaving the EU would rid us of state aid rules that prevent the government from large-scale investment in fibre broadband of the sort seen in countries beyond Europe. But with the majority of forecasters predicting at least a short-term decline in the UK economy after Brexit, spending priorities will be elsewhere and broadband cash hard to come by. We risk leaving our digital economy stuck in the mud.

Let’s also not forget that the EU has worked to bring down mobile roaming charges across Europe – which you can bet would go straight back up if we leave.

The EU, for its many faults, has been a bulwark against the excesses of US tech giants like Microsoft, Google and Facebook. It’s unlikely that a post-Brexit UK would sign up to EU data protection rules and would tend towards the more laissez-faire US attitude. Think about the effects on privacy and surveillance of a UK government unhindered by the EU courts that have ruled against threats from transferring our data overseas.

The UK government has been a leading proponent of the EU’s Digital Single Market (DSM), and the opportunities that presents for exporting our digital capabilities across Europe. Leaving the nascent DSM would be a huge blow for tech startups, and a big influence on where US and Asian IT companies decide to invest. Many of those startups – often funded by US and other overseas investors – would no doubt find Berlin a more convenient hub to build their future.

Perhaps more than anything, it’s the timing of a potential Brexit that would harm UK tech the most.

The digital revolution is in its early days – the equivalent stage of waving red flags to warn pedestrians of a passing car – and the next decade will determine the economies, businesses, governments and workers that become leaders of the digital world.

The UK is exceptionally well placed to capitalise on that opportunity – but even a short-term economic shock from Brexit would be enough to put us back by years. Once we lose that leadership role, it will be too late to win it back. Talk to the majority of experts in UK technology and they will tell you that EU membership has played a vital role in getting us to the starting blocks as one of the favourites. We cannot afford a false start.

Of course, Computer Weekly’s opinion and the future of the tech sector will not be the deciding factor when people come to place their vote on 23 June. But for the importance of the UK’s role in the global technology industry and our own digital economy, we hope they vote to remain.

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"Tightened immigration rules for non-EU IT workers has already caused problems for tech startups and for IT departments – 10 years ago there were thousands of Australian, New Zealand and South African IT professionals in IT teams, for example, but they have largely gone elsewhere since it became much harder to obtain working visas."

Is an argument for Brexit.

The rules were tightened because of the amount of uncontrolled immigration from Europe as the only immigration that can be controlled is non EU.

The building industry and car washing industry has benefited from free movement of unskilled labour primarily from eastern Europe, at the expense of IT.

I'd rather have a needs based immigration policy, that is not discriminatory over where you are born / live. 
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"Tightened immigration rules for non-EU IT workers has already caused problems for tech startups and for IT departments – 10 years ago there were thousands of Australian, New Zealand and South African IT professionals in IT teams, for example, but they have largely gone elsewhere since it became much harder to obtain working visas."

This is a very strong argument for Brexit, have a skills / needs  based immigration policy. Rather than unfettered low wage low skilled economic migrants from Eastern Europe?
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"Tightened immigration rules for non-EU IT worker has already caused problems for tech startups and for IT departments – 10 years ago there were thousands of Australian, New Zealand and South African IT professionals in IT teams, for example, but they have largely gone elsewhere since it became much harder to obtain working visas."

Is a strong argument for Brexit.  
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Although I believe its best for the UK to remain with the EU, I don't believe that IT hardware or software will be impacted in any way at all - companies will always buy the best solution they can afford irrespective of where it is made or who the controlling company is. The more significant issue is the regulations and standards of such system - ISO is recognised as a good standard (EU based) and often adopted UK standards - this again I do not believe would change if we are in or out.
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ISO has got nothing to do with the EU. It's an international standard.

Personally #Leave is the way for the UK to go, Why be a big part of an every smaller EU  GDP. Lets be positive and do as our ancestors did, and take our skills to the big wide world.
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'Tightened immigration rules for non-EU IT worker': Yes, this is causing problems as some of my USA IT clients who want to expand into UK have found when they want to bring an overseas IT specialist to the UK. At the same there are plenty of untapped sources of IT talent within the UK given the gender imbalance that exists in the technology sector. Some of the steps to address this are long term e.g. Encouraging females to study for STEM subjects and be attracted to the highly creative roles that exist. This will take time to follow through the talent pipeline. In the short term the culture can be made more inclusive for women and other under represented groups so they are attracted to it as well as retained. Sadly the Brexit campaign is over-shadowed by exclusion rather than inclusion, driven by distrust of those different to us. Diversity in teams promotes innovation. What both campaigns have failed to address is arguing for a more robust democratic system that gives people more of a voice about their working lives based on fairness, justice, inclusion, sustainability and empowerment. IT is about creating meaningful products and services used by everyday people so the sector should be representative of them. As a sector based on modernity it has an opportunity to take a lead on diversity and inclusion; to promote a sense of global citizenship and employee voice. The Women in Technology topic will be covered at the Milton Keynes Technology Exhibition on 22 June at MK Football Stadium courtesy of the organisers, Movey Ltd. There is huge growth potential for technology in Milton Keynes as it has so much to offer as a modern city located centrally but it needs a joined up approach between investment, jobs, skills, education and an inclusive culture that binds us all together for shared prosperity. That's why community cohesion is so important to sustainability.
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the UK would do better to take lead in globle curency
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Some even speculate that GBP will suffer if the UK exists from the European Union. For those who are in currency trading, the coming time will be quite busy...

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