Digital Question Time: Growing UK tech

Europe, growth initiatives for startups and a mature conversation with the IT industry were among the hot topics discussed at our political debate

Europe, growth initiatives for startups and the need for a mature conversation between politicians and the IT industry about security, were among the hot topics discussed at a Computer Weekly debate on government digital policies, held yesterday (9 February) ahead of the general election in May.

UK minister for culture and the digital economy Ed Vaizey, Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister for digital government Chi Onwurah, and Liberal Democrat  spokesman Julian Huppert,  were panellists at #DigitalQT - the Big Digital Debate event organised by Computer Weekly, TechUK and BCS - the Chartered Institute for IT.

Supporting tech startups

Asked how governments can better support tech startups, Vaizey said: "It has taken a while to realise but it is about money. Look at Mark Zuckerberg. What type of VC (venture capitalist) in the UK would punt £100m at a Facebook?"

Labour's Onwurah called for greater support to help startups break into international markets. She said: "At a government level we need a louder voice in international forums." While this is one of the roles of UK Trade & Industry (UKTI) she said that UKTI needed more skills around the digital economy: "There are some technology and cultural barriers. The kinds of services and scale we want our companies to achieve will only be achieved if we are open too and even quite aggressive at doing business globally."

Onwurah said there was also a need for government to support and help companies build trust between buyers and sellers in international markets.

It has taken a while to realise but it is about money. What type of VC in the UK would punt £100m at a Facebook?

Digital economy minister, Ed Vaizey

The Liberal Democrat perspective from Huppert, was that the UK was not good at dealing with failures of startups. He said: "I have issues with VCs that do not get it - we are not good at failure - we need a low-risk environment so tech companies can fail."

Onwurah wanted to see greater support to help companies develop to the next level: "There is a big gap in the second stage, for mid-cap investment.” She said there was a knowledge gap and the government needed to do more to promote more knowledgeable capital.

But she warned that much of the current emphasis around Tech City was too London-focused. "Tech City is in London, and attracts fintech. We need to get the brand of Tech City nationally."

In terms of skills and job prospects, the  IT industry has shifted to a point where people want to be at a startup rather than a blue chip IT firm, according to David Evans, membership director at BCS. He said: "Years ago there was an ambition to work for the big consultancies, and they used to have eye watering starting salaries. Anecdotally, people in universities are now starting up their own businesses. Once you get past funding the question I get asked is where to find good developers that fits in with their culture."

The European question

Vaizey was asked whether a potential EU referendum to leave Europe would put the future of the UK's burgeoning tech startups at risk. He said: "The digital single market is a great opportunity for a business based in the UK to sell to a consumer in another member state with the least amount of friction. It is important for us to push that. Our agenda is to make sure Europe makes crucial reforms. The European economy is stagnating. We want to reform the EU to push an agenda for growth."

Speaking about his own constituency of Cambridge, home to one of the UK's first technology hubs, Huppert said: "As David Cameron runs up a white flag to the UKIP tendency and  every time gets into more and more trouble, when I speak to companies in Cambridge they are very worried about the outcome of the referendum and also the [referendum] process - the uncertainty and the business chaos. I don’t think anyone would say the European Union couldn’t be reformed, but then I don’t think Whitehall couldn’t be reformed."

Legislation and tech industries

The panel tackled the question of government and societal challenges that lead on from technological advancements around data protection, state surveillance of internet traffic and use of encryption backdoors by the security services.

Huppert warned: "We need to make sure we do not do anything daft that drives the rest of the world away, which is why the Prime Minster’s desire to have backdoors in technology would absolutely slam doors around the world to a huge amount of exports. If you knew that any British product necessarily had a government security services backdoor, no bank would buy it; no business would buy it."

The Prime Minster’s desire to have backdoors in technology would absolutely slam doors around the world to a huge amount of exports

Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrats

Commenting on the impact of EU data protection reforms, Onwurah said: "There are a number of concerns by companies about the reforms. We will not necessarily support everything proposed [in EU data protection reform], but we need a coherent approach to data protection and usage across Europe."

For Vaizey, the IT industry needs to get more involved in politics to counter fears over privacy. "Just as the challenge was not to elect a technologically illiterate politician, the challenge for the tech industry is to meet politicians half way," he said. 

"Politicians reflect the concerns of society as tech becomes ever more prevalent. The Prime Minister is entitled to say, 'We have a very sophisticated tech industry - I have a duty to promote those industries and I have a duty to keep our citizens as safe as possible'.'" 

Vaizey said there needs to be a grown-up conversation between the technology industry and civil society: "We need to meet somewhere in the middle and talk about it."

Julian David, CEO of TechUK, the IT industry trade association: said: "The Prime Minister made an important intervention last year on protecting children online and the tech industry was able to respond. We had a good summit earlier this year looking at child safety online. The same approach needs to be taken with cybercrime. There has to be a clear legal framework, and it has to be transparent."

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