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Prime minister Theresa May has announced the expansion of a visa scheme for top overseas talent and additional funding to support the tech sector in an attempt to demonstrate the government’s commitment to the UK IT industry post-Brexit.
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As part of a package of measures intended to “ensure Britain remains at the forefront of global innovation”, the Home Office will double the number of Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visas available per year, allowing up to 2,000 of the most highly skilled people to come from overseas to work in the UK, in high-demand areas including the tech sector.
The expansion of the visa scheme follows a 152% increase in the number of visas granted through this route. The Home Office wants to work with organisations across the UK to ensure wider take up of the additional visas outside London. Home secretary Amber Rudd will ask for advice from technology experts to help improve the application process.
In addition, the government is giving £21m to Tech City UK - the government-backed support group for tech startups - to grow its nationwide network of startup hubs, currently based in 30 locations around the country. Tech City UK and sister organisation Tech North will combine and be renamed Tech Nation, building 11 regional clusters, focusing initially on Scotland, the Midlands, Wales, Northern Ireland and London.
GovTech and broadband
A £20m “GovTech” challenge fund is also being established to encourage better use of technology in the public sector, and connecting tech suppliers to potential customers in government.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has launched a £2m broadband voucher scheme for companies in Aberdeenshire, Bristol/Bath and North East Somerset, Coventry and Warwickshire, and West Yorkshire, to help pay for high-speed fibre to the premises (FTTP) connectivity.
The government has been prioritising full-fibre broadband since chancellor Philip Hammond announced a £400m fund in his 2016 Autumn Statement to help speed up roll-out of FTTP networks.
The voucher scheme follows the success of a similar programme that ended in 2015 which gave grants worth up to £3,000 to more than 40,000 businesses around the UK to help fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) broadband roll-out.
May also announced the start of a £20m training programme previously announced by DCMS in February this year which aims to train 6,000 teenagers in cyber security skills by 2021.
She added that two million people have now received free digital skills training from businesses such as Barclays, Cisco, Google and Lloyds Banking Group, under the Digital Skills Partnership launched by DCMS in March.
On 6 November, May challenged UK companies to “embrace technological change” in a speech at the CBI conference. In her announcement of the new package of measures today, she said, “It is absolutely right that this dynamic sector, which makes such an immense contribution to our economic life and to our society, has the full backing of government.”
The UK tech sector is already creating jobs at twice the rate of the rest of the economy, and May highlighted the importance of investing in digital innovation.
“Helping our world-class entrepreneurs and innovators to succeed is how we lay the foundations for our prosperity and build an economy fit for the future. Technology is at the heart of our modern industrial strategy, and we will continue to invest in the best new innovations and ideas, in the brightest and best talent, and in revolutionary digital infrastructure,” said May.
“As we prepare to leave the European Union, I am clear that Britain will remain open for business. That means government doing all it can to secure a strong future for our thriving tech sector and ensure people in all corners of our nation share in the benefits of its success.”
Startup support - Brexit worries
The government announcement was welcomed by some of the leading figures in the tech startup scene.
Sherry Coutu, chair of Founders4Schools and the Scaleup Institute – recently voted the most influential woman in UK technology in Computer Weekly’s annual list – said: "The digital tech sector is a key component of the UK's competitive advantage and these new measures are welcome news for innovative small and medium-sized businesses and third-sector organisations by helping to create the conditions in which they can scale up."
Brent Hoberman, co-founder and chairman of Founders Forum, and co-founder of Lastminute.com, added: "I welcome the UK government's recognition of the importance and positive impact of the tech sector. These measures announced today will help reinforce the UK's European leadership in technology and entrepreneurship."
However, Antony Walker, deputy CEO of tech sector trade body TechUK, said that while the extra Tier 1 visas are welcome, the government needs to go further on immigration issues, especially with Brexit on the horizon.
“For this announcement to be truly valuable, the government must couple it with further flexibility on Tier 2 high-skilled talent. It must also address concerns about the speed and costs associated with Tier 1 and 2 visas to ensure they can be used by companies large and small," he said.
“While this announcement shows the UK’s desire to be open to talent once we leave the EU, it alone will not compensate for the impact of Brexit. There is still a huge amount of work to do to clarify the rights of EU citizens that already work in the sector and to build a fit-for-purpose immigration system once we leave the EU. We ultimately need a light-touch UK/EU visa system based on an ‘ESTA for work’ model where companies can quickly and easily self-certify EU workers taking on roles," he added.
"The tech sector is increasingly the backbone of the economy, and making sure it can thrive post-Brexit is in everyone’s interest.”
Some £93m is being invested by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in artificial intelligence (AI) over the next four years as part of the £1bn Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. And DCMS is spending £17m to support various initiatives related to robotics and AI.
In last year’s Autumn Statement, Hammond also offered £400m to venture capital funds through the British Business Bank; £390m for future transport technology including a £100m investment in “testing infrastructure for driverless cars” and £450m to trial digital signalling on railways; as well as a £750m investment fund for trials of 5G mobile networks.
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