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General Election 2019: The Lib Dems’ technology policies and digital plans

With the UK gearing up for its third General Election in four years, Computer Weekly outlines the Liberal Democrat Party’s main technology policies and digital plans, as laid out in its manifesto

The Liberal Democrat Party has pledged to accelerate the deployment of low-emission technologies, invest heavily in digital infrastructure and startups, and protect UK consumers from being exploited by big tech.

In their 100-page General Election manifesto, released on 20 November, the Lib Dems have made a number of pledges that focus on harnessing the benefits of new technology, with the aim of creating an “innovation-led” economy.

“Our ambition is for the UK to lead the world in ethical, inclusive new technology, including artificial intelligence,” said the manifesto.

“We will invest in education to equip people with the skills they need – whether to use new technology or to create it – while also attracting and welcoming the best talent from around the world. We will enable innovators and entrepreneurs to experiment and take risks, while taking on concentrations of power that stifle competition, limit choice for consumers and hamper progress.”

Below is a breakdown of the Lib Dem manifesto’s main digital plans and technology policies.

The economy and the environment

The Lib Dems have made a number of pledges to realise their “vision for an innovation-led economy”.

This includes an increase in national spending on research and development (R&D) to 3% of GDP, with an interim target of 2.4% by no later than 2027, doubling innovation spend across the economy and creating more “catapult” innovation and technology centres to direct private investment towards zero-carbon and environmental innovation.

In terms of R&D, the Lib Dems say they will also “allow companies to claim R&D tax credits against the cost of purchasing datasets and cloud computing, simplifying the regulatory landscape and speeding up regulatory change”.

For startups, the Lib Dems would create a new “startup allowance” to help these businesses with their “living costs”, and have said they would support fast-growing businesses seeking to scale up.

Investment in UK digital startups would also be supported by “reforming the British Business Bank’s support for venture capital funds to enable it to help funds ‘crowd in’ new backers, rather than acting as a funder of last resort”, said the manifesto.

Growth in the creative industries, including video gaming, has also been singled out as a priority, with the Lib Dems pledging to continue backing “tailored industry-specific tax support” and “modern and flexible patent, copyright and licensing rules”.

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The Lib Dems have also said they are committed to “a responsible and realistic £130bn package of additional infrastructure investment”, which, in terms of technology, will prioritise converting the rail network to ultra-low-emission technology and use public money to attract private investment by providing £5bn of initial capital for a new “green investment bank”.

To prepare further for the economies of the future, the Lib Dems have also promised a transition to a “circular economy” by introducing a Zero-Waste and Resource Efficiency Act, which would emphasie “maximising recovery, reuse, recycling and remanufacturing”.

A big part of this would be the move to electric vehicles, which the Lib Dems hope to accelerate by reducing VAT on electric vehicles to 5% and by speeding up the installation of charging points. “We will ensure that, by 2030, every new car and small van sold is electric,” said the manifesto.

This accelerated transition to ultra-low-emission transport across the board would be helped by taxation, subsidy and regulation, according to the manifesto, which promises a net zero-carbon economy by 2045.

Specifically, the Lib Dems say they will “ensure that all private hire vehicles and new buses licensed to operate in urban areas are ultra-low-emission or zero-emission vehicles by 2025, and we will provide £2bn to support this transformation”.

Big tech, artificial intelligence and personal data

As part of a commitment to address an “unbalanced and unfair” taxation system, the Lib Dems have vowed to “take tough action against corporate tax evasion and avoidance, especially by international tech giants and large monopolies”.

This includes introducing a General Anti-Avoidance Rule and improving on the Digital Services Tax “to ensure tech giants pay their fair share”.

The Lib Dems also aim to develop a mechanism so that the public can share in the profits made by tech companies by using their data.

Tech companies would also be forced to provide a concise version of their terms and conditions, so consumers are aware of the facts relating to their data and privacy.

The Lib Dems have also made specific commitments to ensure new technology is developed and deployed ethically.

One example is to introduce a “Lovelace code of ethics” to “ensure that the use of personal data and artificial intelligence is unbiased, transparent and accurate, and respects privacy”.

The code of ethics would be supplemented by giving the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, established in November 2018, the power to “call in” products that appear to breach it.

The Lib Dems also say a “citizens’ assembly” would be convened to determine when it is appropriate for the government to use algorithms in decision-making.

Education and skills

The Lib Dems have explicitly committed themselves to supporting the UK’s tech sector by “teaching core skills, such as logic, verbal reasoning and creativity, in schools”.

All courses related to digital technologies would also include specific teaching on ethics, as well as the proposed Lovelace code.

However, the Lib Dems’ broadest educational commitment is to lifelong learning. They say: “Skills learned at 18 or 21 will not last a lifetime and it has never been more important for people to continually develop new skills.”

To help with lifelong learning, the Lib Dems have proposed a “skills wallet” for every adult in England, giving them £10,000 to spend on education and training throughout their lives.

“The government will put in £4,000 at age 25, £3,000 at age 40 and £3,000 at age 55,” said the manifesto: “Individuals can choose how and when to spend this money on a range of approved education and training courses from providers that are regulated and monitored by the Office for Students.”

A Lib Dem government would work closely with industry to identify the skills needed most, and to evaluate and certify courses.

The existing Apprenticeship Levy would also be expanded into a wider Skills and Training Levy to help the workforce prepare for the disruption ahead, said the manifesto, and 25% of funds raised by the levy would go to into a “social mobility fund” targeted at areas with the greatest skill needs.

Digital infrastructure

As part of their £130bn infrastructure package, the Lib Dems have pledged to prioritise the installation of hyperfast fibre-optic broadband across the UK, with a particular focus on connecting hard-to-reach rural areas.

To do this, the Lib Dems say they would “invest £2bn in innovative solutions to ensure the provision of high-speed broadband…working with local authorities and providing grants to help areas replicate the success of existing community-led projects”.

The party has also said that small and medium-sized businesses will be prioritised for the roll-out, and that “all new homes built from 2022 will have full connectivity to ultrafast broadband”.

National security

The Lib Dem manifesto also briefly outlines plans to invest in border control technology, the intelligence services and the military.

For borders, the Lib Dems say they will “invest in officers, training and technology to prevent illegal entry at Britain’s borders”, although it is unclear exactly what technology this refers to.

The Lib Dems also want to “recruit and retain people with the skills needed for 21st century warfare”. Specifically, they want to “strengthen our armed services and address critical skills shortages by recruiting STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] graduates to be armed forces engineers, providing ‘golden handshakes’ of up to £10,000”.

On top of this, the Lib Dems would promote an international treaty to establish principles and limits on the use of technology in modern warfare, and invest in capabilities to help the security services counter cyber attacks.

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