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Conservative Party manifesto promises to ‘face up to fast-changing technology’

Tories aim to create a digital charter, continuing a “digital by default” government and a dynamic digital economy

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At the launch of the Conservative Party’s 2017 general election manifesto, prime minister Theresa May pledged to harness “the power of fast-changing technology” and continue to create digital and online public services.

The 88-page manifesto committed the Tories to the use of common platforms across the public sector, including continuing the roll-out of the government’s identity assurance platform Gov.uk Verify. 

It promised to make the platform – which has so far struggled with low uptake – available more widely in other areas, such as online banking, despite calls for a “rethink” of its business case. 

“We will set out a strategy to rationalise the use of personal data within government, reducing data duplication across all systems, so that we automatically comply with the ‘once-only’ principle in central government services by 2022 and wider public services by 2025,” the manifesto said.

The Tories also promised to continue plans to publish data on the performance of public-facing services, both in central and local government, and to introduce “digital transformation fellowships”, bringing in tech leaders to help government deliver better public services.

The manifesto also set out plans to overhaul the NHS, promising “the most ambitious programme of investment in buildings and technology the NHS has ever seen”.  

This also includes a review of the NHS’s internal market and, by the next financial year, the Tories aim to make “non-legislative changes to remove barriers to the integration of care”.

“We will empower patients, giving them a greater role in their own treatment and use technology to put care at their convenience,” the document said. “In addition to the digital tools patients already have, we will give patients, via digital means or over the phone, the ability to book appointments, contact the 111 service, order repeat prescriptions, and access and update aspects of their care records, as well as control how their personal data is used.”

Digital charter

As well as continuing to drive the government’s digital policies that are currently in place, the Conservatives also pledged to create a digital charter, which aims to make the UK the “best place to start and run a digital business” and the “safest place in the world to be online”.

“A Conservative government will develop a digital charter, working with industry and charities to establish a new framework that balances freedom with protection for users, and offers opportunities alongside obligations for businesses and platforms,” the manifesto said.

It will also establish a regulatory framework underpinning the charter, to which digital companies and social media platforms will be held accountable. This includes giving regulators the power to fine or prosecute those failing to adhere to the laws.

“Some people say that it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet,” the manifesto said. “We disagree. While we cannot create this framework alone, it is for government, not private companies, to protect the security of people and ensure the fairness of the rules by which people and businesses abide. Nor do we agree that the risks of such an approach outweigh the potential benefits.”

Digital economy and skills

May also pledged to deliver “the world’s most dynamic digital economy, giving digital businesses access to the investment, skills and talent they need to succeed”.

This includes establishing new institutes of technology, which will provide degree-level and above courses in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, as well as apprenticeships.  

“We will ensure digital businesses have access to the best talent from overseas to compete with anywhere in the world,” the manifesto said. “This will be complemented by at least one new institute of technology in the UK, dedicated to world-leading digital skills and developed and run in partnership with the tech industry.”

However, one of the most contentious policies in the manifesto is the Tories’ plans to double the Tier 2 skills visa charge from £1,000 to £2,000.

Read more about the general election

The UK’s digital and tech skills gap has been well documented, with a Science and Technology Committee report last year indicating that the skills gap costs the UK economy £63bn a year.  

Antony Walker, deputy CEO of trade body techUK, said this news was “unwelcome” for UK tech firms. “With domestic shortages in critical tech roles ever more pronounced, this move is another barrier for scaling companies accessing the talent they need to grow,” he said. “Global Britain must be powered by a new wave of dynamic, innovative companies. Now is not the time to pull up the drawbridge further.

“The vast majority of demand for Tier 2 skilled worker visas comes from the UK’s most digitally intensive sectors. The UK’s startups and SMEs are crying out for more talent – from cyber security specialists to big data analysts, to software developers – and are already facing uncertainty on securing talent from the EU.”

Infrastructure and broadband

Earlier this year, May launched an Industrial Strategy green paper, with plans to upgrade infrastructure that will be funded by a £23bn national productivity investment fund. 

“This will include £740m of digital infrastructure investment – the largest investment in railways since Victorian times,” the manifesto said.

It said the party will expand its “programme of support” for businesses developing new technologies such as autonomous vehicles, railway technologies and smart grids.

The Conservatives also reiterated their plans for a universal service obligation, ensuring that every household and business has access to superfast broadband by 2020.  

“We will introduce a full fibre connection voucher for companies across the country by 2018, and by 2022 we will have major fibre spines in over 100 towns and cities, with 10 million premises connected to full fibre and a clear path to national coverage over the next decade,” the manifesto said. It added that mobile coverage will be extended to cover 95% of the UK’s geography by 2022.

“By the same date, all major roads and main line trains will enjoy a full and uninterrupted mobile phone signal, alongside a guaranteed Wi-Fi internet service on all such trains,” the manifesto said.

“We will continue to release more spectrum from public sector use to allow greater private sector access and begin the roll-out of a new 5G network, providing gigaspeed connection to your smartphone. We plan to have the majority of the population covered by a 5G signal by 2027.”

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