Government must not ignore the historic international nature of UK IT

We didn’t hear much about the digital economy during the recent political party conferences.

Prime minister Theresa May made a throwaway comment in her big set-piece speech suggesting a recognition that more needs to be done to improve the UK’s broadband infrastructure, but that was about it.

That minor reference wasn’t insignificant though, coming a few days after business secretary Greg Clarke told the Institute of Directors that “broadband and mobile coverage is simply unacceptable in 2016.”

For the last five years we’ve been consistently told by government that we have the best broadband infrastructure of all the big European countries – so it’s quite an about-turn to start talking in those terms. We’ll have to wait and see what it all means.

But the big topic that has concerned the tech community – and many others – was the Tory rhetoric around immigration and overseas workers employed in the UK.

As Computer Weekly highlighted at the time of the Brexit referendum, UK IT remains highly dependent on non-UK skills – in startups, venture capital, IT suppliers, and in IT departments across the country.

As the most international of professions, IT has always been a global melting pot, with skills following demand. If there are plenty of IT professionals in the UK who don’t have UK passports, it’s because we’re a growing digital economy, doing interesting things and attracting the top talent.

Those same reasons also contribute to job creation for UK IT experts too – and explain why we still have a serious digital skills shortage.

Today, many of those overseas IT professionals have come from across the European Union. In recent years many came from India. Going back 10 or 20 years, you couldn’t walk through an IT department without hearing Australian, New Zealand or South African accents. It’s the way it has always been, and it’s one of the reasons we have such a thriving technology sector.

It goes the other way too. Remember that our most famous IT professional, Tim Berners-Lee, worked for Cern, a European venture based in Geneva, when he invented the web. He was a great British tech export.

There are noises coming out of government that senior figures in May’s team recognise the importance and significance of the digital economy to their future plans for the UK. Support for training and development for UK citizens to help bridge the skills gap would of course be very welcome. But we will never take a place among world-leading digital nations if we ignore the historic international nature of UK IT.