Chancellor's Budget boost for tech is tempered by Brexit realities

Gone, or so it seems, are the days when Computer Weekly laments after every Budget statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer that tech has been overlooked. There is little doubt that government now realises that support for, and investment in, the technology sector is critical to the UK’s future.

Of course, we can and will still observe that there is more to do, but Philip Hammond’s latest Budget put at least a small finger in many of the necessary pies – startups, R&D, skills, digital government, broadband and more – even if he did anger the IT contractor community by extending controversial IR35 reforms to the private sector.

Hammond’s digital services tax – targeting the big web giants and their creative tax accounting – has unsurprisingly been attacked by the tech industry, but putting aside the rights or wrongs of the policy, it’s another reflection of the growing importance and influence of the IT world on government decision-making.

As with so much coming from the UK government, however, the positive Budget announcements exist in a parallel world to the uncertainties and concerns over Brexit.

A few days earlier, digital minister Margot James told Parliament that she still cannot guarantee a data-sharing agreement with the European Union in the event of a no-deal Brexit. As Labour’s Liam Byrne, who was questioning James at a session of the European Select Committee, said: “Without data sharing our exports will grind to a halt”.

That same week, a National Audit Office report on the UK border’s preparedness for leaving the EU found that 11 of the 12 “critical systems” at the border are at risk of “not being delivered on time and to acceptable quality”.

Not quite Hammond’s previous glib and spectacularly uninformed observation when asked about a possible digital solution to the Irish border issue, where he proclaimed: “I don’t claim to be an expert on it but the most obvious technology is blockchain.”

Congratulations to whichever tech lobbyist persuaded whichever civil servant to tip the Chancellor on that fantastical idea.

The government’s new-found love for the tech sector is welcome, but its desire to make technology a panacea for all the ills of Brexit needs quickly to be tempered.

For technology leaders, the dilemma continues – eager to take advantage of Westminster’s tech-friendly approach, but fearful that a bad Brexit of whatever form might rapidly unravel the advances made in recent years.

We look forward to a future Budget where support for tech is not just welcome, but unequivocal and full of certainty.

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