Article 50: Three crucial things UK tech and digital industries want after Theresa May officially signals Brexit

 
Lynsey Barber
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Article 50: Bye-bye Europe, hello unknown

As the long-awaited day of Britain officially signalling it is leaving Europe draws near, the UK's tech and digital industries will be hoping for several things.

Many may be watching from behind their fingers after Article 50 is triggered tomorrow, since the overwhelming majority (around 80 per cent) of the tech industry were remain supporters.

Here's what the sector is looking for as we wave bye-bye to Europe...

Say no to WTO

World Trade Organisation rules are the most likely plan B of Brexit if fresh deals can't be agreed within the two year time frame

While the tech sector is unlikely to be as hard hit as other sectors, a failure to negotiate anything better is not a great outcome for tech.

Read more: The government's tapping up Lloyds, Barclays and Google for digital skills

“Digital is one of the fastest growing sectors in Britain, accounting for 16 per cent of GVA (gross value add), 24 per cent of total UK exports, and three million jobs," said Tech UK chief executive Julian David.

"A smooth conclusion to these negotiations is vital for this innovation to continue to thrive. A chaotic Brexit that results in the UK falling back on WTO rules will benefit no on."

Single market access

The digital single market (DSM) is a major project of the European Union and also covers the free flow of data across the bloc's country borders.

For e-commerce, the government has signalled that it wants to continue to play a proactive role in negotiations and votes on rules governing how products are bought and sold online by consumers and companies. Nesta points out those in the UK are more likely than EU countries to buy things online.

The EU commons select committee has called on the government to outline policy objectives for each of the 12 major initiatives of the DSM. Some may be achieved through laws made solely in the UK, but others may need bilateral agreements, and the committee wants greater clarity from the business department on which need which.

Read more: May announces £170m for technical education in Brexit industrial strategy

"This strong domestic market means that British on-line retailers are well placed to serve consumers," Nesta said in a submission to Parliament.

"This offering also spreads to non-domestic markets with 16 per cent of the 1.2bn parcels generated by on-line shopping going over-seas. Of this approximately 50 per cent goes to Europe. So it is clear that the European market is an important one for British enterprises that do business on line and the agreements with the EU following Brexit need to reflect this."

It's been suggested that one of the big achievements of DSM, the dropping of roaming charges, may not apply in future to those in the UK, however, this may in fact come down to a company level decision - no company is going to put its head above the parapet to charge customers if their competition does not. Sky told a separate committee that dropping the charges was critical to the competitiveness of the UK mobile market.

Skills, skills, skills

By far the biggest concern of the tech industry is access to talent. This was an issue before the vote for Brexit, but leaving the EU has magnifies it many times.

It's estimated that around 30 per cent of those working in UK tech startups are EU nationals.

When the home secretary Amber Rudd suggested their could be a crackdown on foreign workers being hired by companies, there was outrage, highlighting just how sensitive a subject it is.

Tech policy group Coadec has called for a new post-Brexit Visa scheme and has warned that the UK's shortfall in tech skills could reach 800,000 by 2020.

While there was a bit of a climb down by Rudd, Prime Minister Theresa May has signalled she is still committed to reducing immigration to under 100,000 per year and this has caused serious concern.

“If the Prime Minister sticks to her commitment to continue attracting the world’s best and brightest, then Brexit could represent an opportunity for UK technology, our economy’s fastest-growing sector," said Tech London Advocates founder Russ Shaw.

"Reforming immigration to attract entrepreneurs and technical workers from outside the EU would allow us to better compete with Silicon Valley."

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