The UK tech sector is a shining example of success. This country has been a magnet for top international talent, creating a ferment of innovation and entrepreneurialism. At the heart of this success lies a culture of openness – to ideas, to talent and to collaboration. Liberal Democrats treasure this. Our whole ethos is to foster a free and open society and to nurture creativity.
Yet Brexit would turn this upside down. The tech sector relies on freedom of movement – of people, of data and of ideas. How many tech businesses do you know that do not employ foreign nationals? Cross-border hiring has become central to the sector’s success, which is why it is just crazy to close our doors to EU nationals and present ourselves as isolationist Little Englanders, as Johnson’s Conservatives want to do with their ultra-hard Brexit stance borrowed from Farage and the far right.
Leaving the EU would present major concerns for data transfer, too: 75% of the UK’s cross-border data flows are with EU countries. Data is the lifeblood of the sector, and making Britain a “third country” under EU data protection directives through Brexit would be just shooting ourselves in the foot.
As I know well from being an MP in Oxford, when it comes to academic and applied research, our EU membership has fostered international collaboration and been a key ingredient of success in fields from artificial intelligence (AI) to clean energy and genetics. Let’s not throw this away. Why put hurdles to clamber over in our own path, as the Tories are insistent on?
It is clearly in the interests of the whole tech sector to stop Brexit.
Beyond this, the Liberal Democrats’ vision is for a society that reaps the benefits that the fourth industrial revolution represents and curbs its potential harms.
We will give all citizens access to superfast broadband, wherever they live in the country. Liberal Democrats will spend £4bn over five years installing hyperfast fibre-optic broadband across the UK. Unlike Labour, which wants to spend £100bn on a completely unnecessary nationalisation, we will work with the private sector, rather than against it, in the broadband roll-out.
We will prioritise small and medium-sized businesses, on which so much of our economy depends. And we will invest in mobile data infrastructure and expand it to cover all homes. Liberal Democrats will reform building standards to ensure that all new homes built from 2022 have full connectivity to ultra-fast broadband and are designed to enable the use of smart technologies.
If businesses and society as a whole are to prosper from everything the digital revolution offers, it is essential that we equip our workforce with the skills they need as we move into the third decade of the 21st century.
At the youngest age, we must educate children so that they have the knowledge, skills and character to thrive – and this is what drove me to set up the Future Perfect Education Commission. For those already of working age, Liberal Democrats will create new skills wallets, giving people £10,000 to spend on approved education and training courses. Adults will receive £4,000 at age 25, £3,000 at age 40 and £3,000 at 55. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour has any plan as creative, inspiring or realistic as this to boost productivity for the nation and for individuals.
But skills alone are not enough. Investment in research and development (R&D) is critical. The Conservative government under Cameron, May and Johnson has allowed R&D to remain stuck at 1.7% of GDP – far below our key competitors, such as France (2.2%), the US (2.7%) and Germany (2.9%). Liberal Democrats will increase national spending on R&D to 3% of GDP. We will publish a roadmap to achieve this ambition by the earliest date possible, via an interim target of 2.4% of GDP by no later than 2027.
In the Lib Dem spirit of partnership between private and public sector, we will build on the industrial strategy developed by Liberal Democrat ministers in government, and create more catapult technology innovation centres, encouraging the interchange of ideas and investment between academia and business, with public sector support.
While Labour is falling over itself to increase taxes, Liberal Democrats will use the tax system to encourage growth in new jobs and businesses. We will allow tech companies to claim R&D tax credits against purchases of datasets and cloud computing, and will introduce tailored tax support measures to support growth in the creative industries, including video gaming, which represents such an important UK tech success story.
Unlike the Tories, who put profit before principles, we believe that the brave new world of AI that we are entering must be guided by firm ethical principles that put protecting citizens’ rights at its heart. “Do no harm” is as important to tech development as it is in medicine, so we want to see a new “Hippocratic oath” for computer programmers that will help ensure all new tech products are ethical by design and protect against practices such as racial bias, addictive content or exploitative methods.
We will require companies to provide a short, clear version of their terms and conditions, setting out the key facts as they relate to individuals’ data and privacy. None of this will be burdensome and we believe that all good tech companies will aspire to these standards
To give consumers confidence – and to incentivise good practice – we will introduce a kitemark for companies that meet these targets.
Overall, our ambition is for the UK to lead the world in ethical, inclusive new technology. Unlike Labour, we will enable innovators and entrepreneurs to experiment and take risks; and unlike the Conservatives, we will take on concentrations of power that stifle competition, limit choice for consumers and hamper progress. Only the Liberal Democrats can ensure that the tech sector remains as shining in the future as it is today.