Britain’s tech sector is one of the great success stories of recent years.
Having experienced something of a renaissance in the early part of this century as UK entrepreneurs sought to emulate the successes of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, it now generates £170bn a year for the economy, a figure which has increased by £30bn in the last five years alone.
But many in the sector feel its success comes in spite of, rather than thanks to, the government, whose efforts to support it have tended to extend to half-hearted promises of super-fast broadband at every Budget time, and not a lot more.
Tech types could be forgiven for feeling betrayed by the Conservatives’ election manifesto. The 88-page document, published yesterday, may have pledged to deliver the “world’s most dynamic digital economy”, giving businesses in the sector “access to the investment, skills and talent they need to succeed”. But it also dealt entrepreneurs a crushing blow: under the next Tory government, the cost of the Tier 2 visa, which is used by many tech firms to recruit workers with skills they cannot find in UK, will double.
The Immigration Skills Charge, which was only introduced in April, will go up from £1,000 to £2,000, the manifesto said. This is utter madness, and risks plunging into crisis a sector which already faces a woeful skills shortage. Smaller firms, which form most of the digital sector, will be badly hurt by such high barriers to growth. At the other end of the scale, Barclays has warned that restrictions on access to global talent poses a bigger risk than Brexit, while Google voiced similar concerns ahead of its move to a new Kings Cross HQ.
The manifesto also promised to “equip people with the digital skills they need”. But even if that pledge leads to a tangible shift in skills (a big if) it is unlikely to kick in for several years as the generation currently in school climbs up the career ladder.
Britain’s tech sector has emerged as one of its great strengths in recent years, and if the government plays its cards right, it could help bolster the UK’s position during Brexit negotiations. Theresa May concedes that negotiations will not be plain sailing, so now is the time to give the industry a helping hand, rather than a slap in the face.