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General Election 2019: Which manifesto is best for the UK’s tech sector?

Computer Weekly breaks down each political party’s technology policies ahead of the upcoming General Election to see how they compare

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Who should get the technology vote in the UK General Election?

The UK’s major political parties have released their manifestos as they gear up for the third General Election in four years.

The Conservative and Unionist Party, the Liberal Democrat Party, the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Green Party, and the Labour Party have each made commitments to protect the environment, increase research and development (R&D) spend, and challenge big tech.

Similarly, each has pledged to complete the roll-out of full-fibre broadband and promote lifelong learning to support a technologically advanced economy.

While the approach to each of these issues can differ greatly between parties, there are also a number of technology-related issues that are not mentioned in any of the manifestos.

“While tech features heavily in the manifestos of all the main parties, there is often a gap between policy rhetoric and the practical policy suggestions. Technological innovation will be vital for addressing all the major challenges that impact the well-being of people, society, the economy and the planet,” said Antony Walker, deputy CEO of trade body TechUK, which released its own “digital manifesto” setting out how it thinks the next government should approach technology.

“We want to see organisational change in the way that government operates to reflect this reality with clear leadership coming from Number 10 and a minister in every government department responsible for driving technological innovation.”

Below is a breakdown of the manifestos’ main digital plans and technology policies, how they overlap, and how they diverge.

The environment takes centre stage

Climate change has shot to the front of this year’s election agenda, with all manifestos making promises on how to deal with the looming climate catastrophe.

Leading environmental groups, such as Green Alliance and think tank E3G, said this would have been “unthinkable” even five years ago.

While the specific details differ, each party manifesto commits to fighting climate change through investments in infrastructure and technology.

For the Conservatives, this includes an £800m investment in building a deployable “carbon capture storage cluster” by the mid-2020s, a £500m investment to help energy-intensive industries move to low-carbon techniques, and a £9.2bn investment in improving the energy efficiency of schools, hospitals and homes.

Meanwhile, Labour will set up a dedicated “green transformation fund” worth £250bn to directly fund the transition to a low-carbon economy, while the Lib Dems have committed to “a responsible and realistic £130bn package of additional infrastructure investment”.

All parties commit to reaching net zero carbon emissions, with the Conservatives aiming for 2050, the Lib Dems and SNP aiming for 2045, Labour aiming for some time in the 2030s, and the Greens pushing for 2030

According to the Lib Dems, the package 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”.

The SNP will similarly establish a “net zero fund”, which will “help pay for the energy transition through investment in areas such as renewable energy, electric vehicles and carbon capture utilisation and storage”.

It will also bring to market a £3bn portfolio of green projects, to include renewables, waste and construction, and establish a “green growth accelerator” that combines public and private investment to “transform cities and regions”.

The Greens will also invest heavily in their own green new deal, promising a combined investment of over £100bn a year, to cover everything from education and infrastructure to grants that will allow companies to replace old, carbon-intensive technology with low-carbon alternatives. It will also fund the deployment of a carbon capture and storage system to deal with CO2 emissions.

“The fact that all major parties have put the climate emergency at the centre of their manifestos is very positive. The need for action is urgent, and technological innovation has a key role to play in driving the rapid decarbonisation of the UK economy,” said Walker.

“As the host of COP 26, the next government should work with the tech sector to lead the discussion on how technology and digital solutions can drive decarbonisation across all sectors of the economy, including the tech sector itself.”

He added that a recent study by Accenture found that, with the right policy framework, digital technologies could help reduce UK emissions by 24%.

In terms of transport, while all parties promise to electrify cars and public buses, the level and extent of this commitment varies.

The Conservatives, for example, pledge to invest in electric buses, with the aim of creating the UK’s first “all-electric-bus town”, although the manifesto does not say how much will be put aside for this or where it will be.

The Conservatives also promise to “consult on the earliest date we can phase out the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars, while minimising the impact on drivers and businesses”.

Labour, on the other hand, will invest in electric vehicle charging infrastructure and bring bus and rail networks into public ownership. Like the Conservatives, Labour also promises to accelerate the transition of public buses to zero-emission vehicles.

The Lib Dems, too, promise to accelerate the deployment of electric vehicles, which they will do by reducing VAT on electric vehicles to 5% and increasing the rate of charging point installation. By 2030, they claim that every new car or small van sold will be electric.

On top of this, the Lib Dems 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 “will provide £2bn to support this transformation”.

The Green Party will similarly support electric vehicle production and the associated infrastructure with £2.5bn from its £100bn green new deal pot.

The SNP, however, makes the most ambitious electric vehicle pledge, promising that every vehicle will be electric by 2032. 

Despite their commitments to the proliferation of electric vehicles, none of the manifestos comment on the sustainability of increasing electric vehicle production, which will rely heavily on the extraction of lithium, one of the main components needed for energy storage in electric car batteries.

In 2016, a Deutsche Bank investment report predicted huge increases in demand for lithium, while in April 2018, John Burba, CEO of International Battery Metals, described lithium investment and speculation as “the wild, wild west”.

This is important because, despite lithium extraction having a well-documented destructive impact on natural environments, demand for the mineral will only grow.

Each ton of lithium – the equivalent of 14 electric car batteries – will generally require 500,000 gallons of water to refine and wash it. The Washington Post has reported that the Sales de Jujuy lithium plant in Argentina pumps water at a rate of more than two million gallons per day.

“The focus on a green new deal in several party manifestos is to be welcomed. Politics has woken up to the climate emergency, but we can’t underestimate the scale of the change we need,” said Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now.

“Most important, we can’t get out of the climate crisis just by thinking about preserving our way of life in the rich world. So, for instance, simply replacing fossil fuels with renewables isn’t sufficient because there aren’t enough metals in the world for us to make hundreds of millions of electric cars.”

Some of this environmental damage could be alleviated by a move to a more circular economy, whereby commodities are recycled, re-used or remanufactured. However, the Lib Dems and the Greens are the only parties that pledge to make the transition to a circular economy.

The Libs Dems will do this with the introduction of a “zero-waste and resource efficiency act”, while the Greens’ manifesto commits to “designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems”.

The Greens take it a step further, saying their green new deal will develop mechanisms to help make finance and technology more readily available to developing nations, which will be able to craft their own local green new deals.

However, while the Lib Dems and the Greens focus on advocating for a circular economy, Labour promises to take action against companies that are not doing enough to combat climate change.

For example, the party will change the criteria companies must meet to be listed on the London Stock Exchange, “so that any company that fails to contribute to tackling the climate and environmental emergency is delisted”.

While the Greens make no promise to delist companies from the Stock Exchange, the party promises to introduce a new “carbon tax”.

According to the Green Party manifesto, “this will raise the price of processes that use fossil fuels and thus of the products they produce” and “incentivise industry to switch to low- and zero-carbon technology and equipment, as well as encouraging consumers to choose low-carbon products”.

All parties also commit to reaching net zero carbon emissions, with the Conservatives aiming for 2050, the Lib Dems and SNP aiming for 2045, Labour aiming for some time in the 2030s, and the Greens pushing for 2030.

Innovation and the economy

This election has also seen the main political parties take an “innovation-led” approach to the economy, with most promising to invest more in research and development (R&D), which will be directed towards green energy and infrastructure projects.

Both Labour and the Lib Dems have set a target for 3% of GDP to be spent on R&D by 2030, with the latter adding an interim target of 2.4% by no later than 2027, as well as allowing “companies to claim R&D tax credits against the cost of purchasing datasets and cloud computing”.

While the SNP makes no commitments regarding R&D spend, the Conservatives’ manifesto makes a smaller pledge of 2.4% of GDP.

Although it does not say when this would be achieved by, it adds that the tax credit rate would also be increased to 13%, and that the definition of R&D would be reviewed so that investments in things such as cloud computing and data are incentivised too.

“We welcome proposals from both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives to include data and cloud subscription services in the scope of the R&D tax credit scheme. This is something TechUK has consistently called for and reflects the fact that many key R&D inputs are now operational expenditures rather than capex [capital expenditure],” said Walker.

“It is often not well understood that national units within multinationals have to compete with each other to attract investment. R&D tax credits help to sustain the critical mass of R&D activity that is vital to keeping the UK at the forefront of this important value-add activity.”

He added that reforming R&D tax credits would increase the chances of large companies basing their R&D programmes in the UK, and that “further expanding the tax credit system will be vital to hitting both the government’s 2.4% target and TechUK’s target of 3% of GDP spent on R&D”.

Although the Greens do not commit to increasing R&D as a percentage of GDP, they do commit to spending billions on particular research areas.

For example, £6bn will be spent on R&D for industry, while £1bn is set aside for farming and forestry R&D as part of the party’s wider commitment to reorganise the UK’s agricultural sector for the purposes of “agroecological farming”.

All of the parties committed to increasing R&D said much of this would be focused on supporting new green technologies, such as carbon capture and storage systems.

The Greens earmark a further £800m for R&D to develop these systems.

Many of the parties will also set up additional accelerators or funds to further promote the development and adoption of green technologies, especially from startups.

In its digital manifesto, TechUK argued that the next government should expand funding for the existing GovTech Catalyst Fund, which aims to inject innovation into government services by investing in startups and small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to take on specific challenges.

While no party mentions increasing the £20m GovTech Catalyst pot, the Conservatives are particularly supportive of entrepreneurs, promising to continue the Seed Enterprise Investment and Enterprise Investment schemes into the next parliament, as well as to review and reform Entrepreneur’s Relief.

The Lib Dems, meanwhile, will create more catapult innovation and technology centres to direct private investment towards zero carbon and environmental innovation, as well as introduce a startup allowance to help startups with their living costs.

Meanwhile, startups under a Labour government will be able to get smaller loans through its new “post bank”, which will be based in Post Office branches around the country.

The loans will also be available to local cooperatives and other small businesses, which Labour claims will enable “thousands of bottom-up transformational changes”.

The shift in public sentiment against the world’s largest technology companies, which are mythologised as disruptive forces of change and innovation, is also reflected in the manifesto promises.

Labour, for example, promises to cover the costs of its broadband nationalisation through the “taxation of multinationals, including tech giants”, which will also have their “monopolistic hold… on advertising revenues” challenged by the party.

Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems promise a “digital services tax” to ensure, in the words of both parties, that big technology companies and other multinationals “pay their fair share”

On top of this, Labour will establish a “ministry of employment rights” to tackle work insecurity, introducing a legal right for workers to collective consultation in how new technologies will be implemented in the workplace.

The Lib Dems, on the other hand, will develop a mechanism so that the public can share in the profits made by tech companies using their data. These companies will also be forced to provide a clear and concise version of their terms and conditions, to give consumers greater awareness and visibility over how their data is being used.

Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems promise a “digital services tax” to ensure, in the words of both parties, that big technology companies and other multinationals “pay their fair share”.

While it is not promising to tax big technology companies, the Green Party has taken a similar approach to Labour by attempting to “further challenge the control of our media by big tech and unaccountable billionaires”.

To do this, the party “will ensure that a suitable independent regulator is better able to safeguard a healthy plurality of media ownership, to undertake regular plurality reviews and to trigger remedies where necessary”.

The Liberal Democrats, Labour and the SNP each vow to review the IR35 tax avoidance regulations, mounting pressure on the Conservatives to follow suit.

However, Labour’s shadow small business minister, Bill Esterson, has back-tracked on comments he made earlier this week that suggested the party would completely scrap IR35 reforms, which he wrote was “absolutely” an official Labour policy in response to a question posed on Twitter.

Computer Weekly understands that Labour has privately indicated a preference for bringing the private sector into line with the public sector, as far as the IR35 rules are concerned, and has no plans to apply its terms retrospectively.

From 6 April 2020, medium to large private sector firms will join public sector organisations in becoming responsible for determining whether the contractors they engage with should be taxed in the same way as permanent staff (inside IR35) or off-payroll employees (outside IR35).

The introduction of this change prompted mass walkouts of IT contractors across various government departments, who objected to effectively being taxed as permanent employees, despite being exempt from paid holiday and sick leave, when similar changes were rolled out into the public sector in April 2017.

“We are witnessing considerable damage to the financial services sector as contractors are terminated and work moved offshore. The off-payroll tax is turning out to be what everyone expected – damaging to the valuable UK flexible workforce,” said Dave Chaplin, CEO of contracting authority ContractorCalculator.

“It’s even more disturbing that the Conservatives are still purporting to be the party of business and the self-employed on the one hand, yet hitting them with a massive new tax with the other.”

Connectivity and internet regulation

Another big focus in this election is the roll-out of full-fibre broadband to every home and business in the UK, although many of the policies detailed in the manifestos are already public knowledge.

The Conservatives make the most ambitious roll-out pledge, promising all citizens access to full-fibre broadband by 2025.

“We know how difficult it will be, so we have announced a raft of legislative changes to accelerate progress and £5bn of new public funding to connect premises which are not commercially viable,” said the manifesto.

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

They say SMEs will be prioritised for the roll-out, and that “all new homes built from 2022 [will] have full connectivity to ultra-fast broadband”.

Labour’s broadband policy, dubbed “broadband communism” by critics, will see the roll-out of full-fibre to every citizen by 2030, and will establish British Broadband as the vehicle to do it.

This new entity will be split into two arms, British Digital Infrastructure (BDI) and the British Broadband Service (BBS), which will deal with rolling out the network and coordinating the delivery of free broadband respectively.

The SNP pledges to “bridge the digital divide” in an effort to improve the availability and affordability of broadband and mobile services.

“We will press the UK government to reclassify the internet as an essential service and support affordable housing providers to make the service available,” said the SNP manifesto.

“We will also work with broadband and mobile service providers to make more affordable tariffs and packages more widely available – and call for the UK government to legislate for a social tariff.”

The promise of greater connectivity has prompted all of the political parties to double down on protecting citizens, particularly children, from online harms

It will also invest £600m to increase broadband coverage from 95% of premises to 100%.

The Green Party commits to “roll out high-speed broadband”, but does not elaborate on a timescale or funding.

The promise of greater connectivity has prompted all of the political parties to double down on protecting citizens, particularly children, from online harms.

For example, Labour promises to impose fines any on company that fails to deal with online abuse, and introduce a “charter of digital rights” to empower the public.

The Greens will similarly introduce a “digital bill of rights” to fulfil the same function, but go further by promising to “end the sale of personal data, such as health or tax records, for commercial or other ends”.

The Conservatives will “legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online”, although they do not mention any specific legislation, while the SNP is promising to legislate for a statutory duty of care, which would force social media, gaming and technology companies to properly protect their users and tackle unsuitable content.

They also propose establishing a new “online regulator”, funded by a levy on technology companies, with the ability to take block access to sites and take further action through heavy fines.

The idea of a regulating for online harms is also in the Green manifesto, which commits to introducing “a regulatory framework for online harms to ensure social media companies take responsibility for how their platforms are being used and invest in technological solutions to address misogyny and online harassment”.

While the Lib Dems propose similar action, creating an “online crime agency” to deal with illegal content and activity, they make further commitments to ensure that any new technologies are developed and deployed ethically.

One example of this is the introduction of a “Lovelace code of ethics” to “ensure 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 would also convene a citizens’ assembly to determine when and where it is appropriate for the government to use algorithms in decision-making.

“Whether a citizens’ assembly is right or not, it is clear that governing by algorithm experienced a backlash in 2019 and that’s likely to continue into 2020. Some of this is justified when some AI [artificial intelligence] projects have been rushed and had unintended consequences that are not properly understood and prevented,” said Peter Ford, public sector industry principal at Pegasystems, and a past service improvement director at HM Revenue & Customs.

“Good government needs more, not less, intelligent and adaptable automation and AI. These first mistakes must not be allowed to undermine public trust in their government using this technology to personalise and improve important public services.”

Healthcare technology

While all parties say hospitals must be equipped with the best modern technology, there is a distinct lack of clear-cut health tech policies.

For example, Labour pledges to “complete the confirmed hospital rebuilds and invest more in primary care settings, modern AI, cyber technology and state-of-the-art medical equipment, including more MRI and CT scanners”, but does not elaborate any further.

The Green Party simply states it will “support new technologies and approaches that will let us live longer, healthier lives”.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, commit to holding an annual health technology summit, and earmark curing dementia as one of the party’s “biggest collective priorities”, having also pledged to double funding into researching the condition and speeding up trials of new dementia treatments.

While an additional £1bn in funding for social care was announced prior to the manifesto launch, the document confirms that part of this pot will go towards “better infrastructure, technology and facilities”, as well as further investment in “world-class computing and health data systems” to aid research that has the potential to transform diagnosis and treatment.

Education and skills

The proliferation of new technologies in the economy means people will need adequate education and skills to secure the “jobs of the future”, with many parties placing an emphasis on lifelong learning.

“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,” said the Lib Dem manifesto, which proposes a “skills wallet” for every adult in England.

This would give individuals £10,000 to spend on education and training throughout their lives, which they could use on a range of approved education and training providers.

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

The Conservatives take a similar approach with their £3bn “national skills fund”, which the manifesto said would help businesses find and hire the workers they need.

“This fund will provide matching funding for individuals and SMEs for high-quality education and training. A proportion will be reserved for further strategic investment in skills, and we will consult widely on the overall design.”

The proliferation of new technologies in the economy means people will need adequate education and skills to secure the “jobs of the future”, with many parties placing an emphasis on lifelong learning

This will be supplemented by £2bn to upgrade the entire further education college estate, and the creation of 20 “institutes of technology”, which will connect high-quality science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) teaching to business and industry.

To further attract talent and skills, the Conservatives pledge to “create bespoke visa schemes for new migrants who will fill shortages in our public services, build the companies and innovations of the future, and benefit Britain for years to come”.

This includes a fast-track visa for “the best technology and science graduates from the top universities in the world”, as well as a dedicated “startup visa” to attract entrepreneurs.

Labour’s approach to education, on the other hand, is shaped much more to the climate crisis, as evidenced by the introduction of “climate apprenticeships”, which will promote the skills necessary for the UK to become a leader in green technology.

“Under this programme, employers will be expected to allocate 25% of the funds in their Apprenticeship Levy accounts to training climate apprentices,” said the manifesto.

“Targeted bursaries will be available to women, BAME people, care leavers, ex-armed forces personnel, and people with disabilities to encourage them to take up climate apprenticeships – the STEM of the future.”

There is also an emphasis on retraining and upskilling throughout life, with additional educational opportunities to be given to workers in industries most affected by Labour’s proposed industrial transition.

The SNP similarly proposes a “climate emergency skills action plan”, which will promote a “fair and inclusive jobs market” by supporting Scottish people in gaining the skills needed to exist in a technologically advanced economy. 

The Michelin Scotland Innovation Parc – a centre for low-carbon skills and innovation – will also be created, with a £30m investment from the company to be matched by the Scottish government.

The Greens are also committing to invest £2bn a year in training and skills, including apprenticeships, to help people access the jobs created by the transition to a low-carbon economy.

“This unprecedented investment in training and skills will prioritise communities hit hard by economic changes over recent decades,” said the Green Party manifesto.

National security

While the UK-wide party manifestos wholeheartedly back the law enforcement and security apparatus of the British state, technology policy in these areas diverges sharply. In contrast, the SNP makes no technology pledges related to these areas.

For Labour, the remits of both the National Crime Agency and National Cyber Security Centre will be reviewed to see if their powers can be expanded, while cyber security more generally will be overhauled through the creation of a coordinating minister and regular reviews of the government’s cyber-readiness.

The Conservatives promise to create a new national cyber crime force, and to crack down on online crimes by embracing new technologies in law enforcement.

“We will…empower the police to safely use new technologies like biometrics and artificial intelligence, along with the use of DNA, within a strict legal framework,” said the manifesto.

The Conservatives are committed to expanding the use of electronic tagging for those serving time outside of jail.

Labour also pledges to “ensure a modern, technologically advanced police service that has the capacity and skills to combat online crime, supported by a new national strategy on cyber crime and fraud,” although it does not detail what kinds of technologies it would support the police using.

The use of emerging technologies by UK police, particularly live facial recognition, has been controversial.

For example, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), having conducted a 17-month investigation into the use of live facial recognition (LFR) by UK police forces, found that “the absence of a statutory code of practice and national guidelines contributes to inconsistent practice, increases the risk of compliance failures, and undermines confidence in the use of the technology”.

This even prompted the information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, to release a Commissioner’s Opinion, the first of its kind to be issued under new data protection laws introduced in 2018, to help steer the use of LFR by law enforcement bodies.

In March 2019, the commissioner for the retention and use of biometric material, Paul Wiles, also noted the lack of ministerial oversight regarding the use of LFR, telling the Science and Technology Committee at the time that “biometric, by definition, is going to be extremely intrusive of individual privacy, and therefore liberty”.

There are concerns that LFR and other technologies could also further entrench existing institutional biases against minority groups. For example, both Amnesty International and the ICO have found that the Metropolitan Police’s Gangs Matrix disproportionally affects BAME people, with 78% of those listed in the database being black.

Although Labour says it will “work to eliminate institutional biases against BAME communities”, it does not set any specific policies on how it is going to approach this, and does not mention how it would deal with certain technologies that could support these institutional biases.

The Lib Dems take the strongest stand against police abuse of technology, promising to “immediately halt the use of facial recognition surveillance by the police”.

However, they also promise to “invest in officers, training and technology to prevent illegal entry at Britain’s borders”, although the specific technology that will be invested in is not mentioned at all.

The Lib Dems also make the most technology commitments in terms of the UK’s armed forces and military capabilities.

For example, they will 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.

It is unclear at this stage what kinds of principles and limits the Lib Dems will be pushing for, as leader of the party, Jo Swinson, confirmed in an interview with ITV News that she would be prepared to use nuclear weapons.

The SNP is clearer on this point, saying it “will never accept the use of lethal autonomous weapons”, but does not mention any other kind of military technology.

In addition, the Lib Dems want to “strengthen our armed services and address critical skills shortages by recruiting STEM graduates to be armed forces engineers, providing ‘golden handshakes’ of up to £10,000”.

While the Conservatives simply commit to modernising their equipment and improving their capabilities, Labour makes no technology-related pledges regarding the armed forces.

It is interesting to note that, although Labour and the SNP commit to immediately suspending arms sales to serial human rights violators, there is no mention in any manifesto of suspending the sale of surveillance technologies.

David Kaye, the UN Human Rights Council’s mandated expert on freedom of expression, prepared a report for the council’s 41st session in June 2019, which called for an immediate moratorium on the use, transfer and sale of surveillance tools.

Presenting his findings to the council on 26 June, Kaye described the international situation as a “surveillance free-for-all in which states and industry are essentially collaborating in the spread of technology that is causing immediate and regular harm to individuals worldwide”.

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