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May 19, 2017

What the Conservative election manifesto means for UK tech

by John_A

Strong and stable. Strong and stable. Strong and stable. Following Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative party has put forward its manifesto for the UK general election in June. Many of its 86 pages focus on strong leadership, a strong economy (are you getting the picture?) and the need for a “smooth, orderly” exit from the European Union. A large chunk, however, is also dedicated to science and technology, and how the government would support research, technical training and fledgling startups. In fact, the government considers “fast-changing technology” to be one of five key pillars essential to its success in the next parliament.

Technology

If elected, one of the party’s first priorities would be to create a “digital charter.” The new regulatory framework, drawn up with charities and technology companies, would aim to govern the way users and businesses act online. “This charter has two fundamental aims: that we will make Britain the best place to start and run a digital business; and that we will make Britain the safest place in the world to be online,” the manifesto reads. Regulators would be able to sanction companies who fail to abide by these rules, which include removing content that breaks UK law.

The Conservatives would also introduce “an industry-wide levy” against social media companies and communication service providers to fund “awareness and preventative activity” to counter harmful behaviour on the internet. Beyond the new charter, the party wants a “modern industrial strategy” that can help businesses “at every stage of their growth.” The initiative would include new, regional offices for its startup-focused British Business Bank, and fresh rules designed to promote trade and online commerce — businesses, for instance, would be able to insist on digital signatures and have the right to cancel any contract digitally.

A re-elected Conservative government would also help to shield young people from pornography, violence, and other mature content online. That goes not just for social media, but apps and the wider web too. Technology companies, the party says, would be responsible for this and need to implement stronger reporting tools with a “comply-or-explain” feedback system. Theresa May’s cabinet would also “push” companies to improve their monitoring tools and proactively remove “terrorist propaganda.”

The manifesto mentions a data-centric bill of rights for citizens too. It would force social media companies to store user data securely and offer simple export and removal tools. In addition, the government would draft a new data protection law to enforce best practices and guarantee the UK’s “global leadership in the ethical and proportionate regulation of data.”

None of that matters if you can’t get online, however. The Conservatives are, therefore, promising simpler broadband switching and pricing, as well as universal access to “high speed broadband” by 2020 (this is already part of its Universal Service Obligation, however.) That same year, it wants 10 million premises to have “full fibre” access and “major fibre spines” in 100 towns and cities. There would also be “a clear path” to nationwide fibre coverage within 10 years (though how that would be achieved is a mystery). The manifesto also promises “uninterrupted mobile phone signal” on roads and railway lines, and Wi-Fi access on all major trains.

Environment

The Conservatives want “reliable and affordable energy” by almost any means necessary. The right-leaning party promises to “maintain” its position on offshore wind, but wants to avoid building new, large-scale onshore wind farms. Solar, tidal and nuclear are barely mentioned in the manifesto. “Above all, we believe that energy policy should be focused on outcomes rather than the means by which we reach our objectives,” it reads. Instead, the party wants to develop the nation’s shale industry.

So that means fracking, right? Well, maybe. The Conservatives say non-fracking drilling will be permitted, and everything else will be decided by the National Planning Regime. Extraction will only proceed, however, if the party can “maintain public confidence in the process,” rigorous environmental protections and “ensure the proceeds of the wealth generated by shale energy are shared with the communities affected.” To uphold this promise, it wants a new Shale Environmental Regulator, formed from bits of the Environment Agency, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Health and Safety Executive.

Out on the streets, the party wants every car and van to be zero-emission by 2050. The party will also ensure that smart meters are offered to every household and business by the end of 2020, encouraging responsible energy consumption and accurate, consistent billing. They’ll be rolled out alongside a broader push to bring all “fuel poor homes” up to a Band C energy rating by 2030. “We pledge to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it,” the manifesto reads.

Health and education

Technology should play a greater role in our nation’s health and education systems, according to the current government. The Conservatives want to create “institutes of technology,” backed by employers and paired with established universities, in every major city. These would provide degree-level technical training in a range of technology and science based disciplines. Students would have access to loans and grants — similar to university students — and more vocational routes, such as apprenticeships and employer-bespoke courses, should that be their preference.

The Conservatives would also push ahead with its proposed T-Levels, a revamped form of technical qualification. These would replace 13,000 existing courses and span 15 “routes” including construction, creative and design, digital, engineering and manufacturing, health and science. Finally, the party is promising a “right to lifelong learning in digital skills,” similar to adult literacy and numeracy, sometime in the future.

On the health side, the Conservatives are promising better digital tools for patients. These would let you book appointments, contact the 111 service, order repeat prescriptions and update parts of your own care records. The number of NHS-approved apps would also be boosted and live wait times would be piloted for hospital A&E rooms and other emergency services.

The economy

Much has been said about the “gig economy” and how drivers working for Uber, Deliveroo and other similar companies should be treated. The Conservatives aren’t against the concept, but recognise that there are “challenges” associated with this new and constantly evolving form of employment. “These workers are officially classed as self-employed and therefore have fewer pension entitlements, reduced access to benefits, and no qualification for sick pay and holiday pay,” the manifesto reads. “Yet the nature of their work is different from the traditional self-employed worker who might be a sole trader, a freelancer or running their own business.”

If elected, the Conservatives would focus on ensuring people in the gig economy “are properly protected.” A report is currently underway by Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, and the party would take his findings under consideration to figure out how employees, self-employed and “gig economy” workers are all treated fairly.

In the Spring 2017 budget, the UK chancellor Philip Hammond provided more detail on the National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF), a project designed to support science and technology. Today’s manifesto provides a little more detail on the scheme, promising £740 million for digital infrastructure, £1.1 billion for local transport and £250 million for skills by 2021. In addition, the fund will provide £170 billion for housing, economic infrastructure, research and development over the next parliament.

The Conservatives have everything to lose. The most recent polls give them a wide margin over Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and many have predicted them to win by a landslide. Labour has started to close the gap, however, and as we’ve seen with both the EU referendum and the US presidential election — polls often aren’t reflective of public sentiment. The Conservatives need to be careful, then, and manage their message of “strength and stability”. That mantra has become a bit of a joke but the general concept holds — a vote for the Conservatives, the party argues, is a vote to maintain the nation’s current, steady if undewhelming trajectory.

Source: Conservative Party Manifesto 2017

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