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Government lays out future trade plan for UK tech

Measures aim to create jobs and increase technology exports, as well as encouraging international investments into the UK

The UK government has announced a new trade strategy with a number of measures to boost the country’s technology industry, including increased exports and international investments.

International trade secretary Liz Truss announced the plans, developed in partnership with the sector, as a response to industry calls for support for UK tech. The strategy is also intended to foster the development of companies over the long term and support their recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Now is the time to harness our talent and potential and unleash it on the world stage,” said Truss, announcing the strategy.

The measures, announced jointly by the Department for International Trade (DIT) and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) during London Tech Week, are expected to support UK tech companies, which, according to official figures, contributed £149bn to the UK economy in 2018 and employ more than 2.9 million people.

Last year, the UK attracted a record £10.1bn worth of investment (up 44% on 2018), more than Germany and France combined. The goal of the new measures is to ramp that up and help companies make the most of international trade and investment opportunities, including additional future free trade agreements.

According to the DIT and DCMS, UK tech will focus on strengthening the readiness to export of scaleups and increasing tech exports to fast-growing international markets, including the Asia-Pacific markets of Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia.

As part of the plan, an £8m Digital Trade Network led by DIT and DCMS for Asia Pacific has been launched to support the internationalisation of UK tech businesses in that region.

UK tech scaleup experts Tech Nation will join the Digital Trade Network, which will see UK firms participate in an international mission to Asia Pacific. This is part of Tech Nation’s programmes in fintech, artificial intelligence (AI) and cyber, to support companies’ expansion into the region.

Truss added: “Trade agreements we are negotiating with key partners will go further than others in addressing barriers to digital trade, opening up huge opportunities for our exporters and also for inward investment into the UK.”

She said the government wants the UK to be “the leading global voice in digital trade” and an “intellectual driving force” in technology. The goal is for the UK to also “break new ground” in trade policy and push forward ideas such as a global single market for digital trade.

This week, the DIT started negotiations with Japan in areas such as provisions on digital trade, professional and financial services and support for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), with the greatest benefits expected in Scotland, London and the East Midlands. Talks about free trade agreements are also taking place with the US.

Many technology sub-sectors are seeing increased demand because of the coronavirus, such as edtech, medtech, fintech and cyber security, which, according to the government, will lead to more export opportunities.

The new measures also include an expansion in support for DIT’s High Potential Opportunities tech programme, to drive foreign direct investment into sub-sectors including 5G, Industry 4.0, photonics and immersive technology. A new fintech campaign in the UK has also been announced to promote companies that enable “digitisation and resilience” in priority export markets.

The government said the initiatives are aimed at “ensuring the UK remains the most attractive destination for tech investment in Europe post-coronavirus” by promoting “the full spectrum of UK tech capability to overseas investors and identify emerging growth markets for UK firms”.

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Meanwhile, a Tech Exporting Academy involving a group of professional services companies – Linklaters, Deloitte, KPMG, BDO, Taylor Wessing, EY and Clifford Chance – has been launched to provide expert advice in areas including legal, tax, intellectual property, regulatory and compliance, to help reduce the time to market for growing SMEs seeking to export and support their entry into priority markets.

According to the government, the support of the consulting firms will also ensure women tech founders are represented in the cohorts of companies selected to take part in the academy.

Also, a new DIT platform has been launched to enable more UK tech firms to take part in international industry events and showcase their capabilities to investors virtually. Specific campaigns will focus on edtech, medtech, cyber, virtual reality, gaming and animation.

A new tech network has also been announced to boost scaleups in England and their ability to grow international tech partnerships, with the creation of 25 “export champions” in the region encompassing the northern cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull and Newcastle, as well as the Midlands, London and the South. DIT and DCMS will also work with devolved administrations to support business internationalisation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The new measures follow a debate in the UK tech industry that had been taking place before the escalation of the Covid-19 pandemic, around the need to revamp global trade policies for the sector.

According to a report launched by trade association TechUK in January 2020, the UK should liberalise its digital trade policy, under principles such as the opposition to data localisation in exchange for market access to fend off the trend towards “digital protectionism”.

Research by Sage UK suggests that 37% of UK SMEs are looking to grow their trade in international markets over the next three months.

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