The Conservative Party manifesto for the 2015 general election promises to continue key technology policies in areas such as skills, startups, broadband and digital public services – but will bring back controversial plans for monitoring the internet.
Much of the Tories’ digital policies build on existing work as part of the coalition government, highlighting progress with technology startups, superfast broadband roll-out, and introducing “digital by default” services.
“More tech companies are starting up here than anywhere else in Europe,” said the Tory manifesto document. “We will provide rural Britain with near-universal superfast broadband by the end of the next parliament and we have already created 20 high-quality digital services, which include apprenticeships applications and tax self-assessments.”
Increasing access to high-speed broadband and mobile coverage are mentioned on several occasions in the manifesto.
“We have set out a plan to invest over £100bn in our infrastructure over the next parliament. This will fund the biggest investment in rail since Victorian times, and the most extensive improvements to our roads since the 1970s. And it will give us the most comprehensive and cheapest superfast broadband coverage of any major European country,” it said.
“We will secure the delivery of superfast broadband in urban and rural areas to provide coverage to 95% of the UK by the end of 2017, and we will ensure no-one is left behind by subsidising the cost of installing superfast capable satellite services in the very hardest to reach areas. We will also release more spectrum from public sector use, to allow greater private sector access. And we have set an ambition that ultrafast broadband should be available to nearly all UK premises, as soon as practicable.
“We will hold the mobile operators to their new legally binding agreement to ensure that 90% of the UK landmass will have voice and SMS coverage by 2017. We will continue to invest in mobile infrastructure to deliver coverage for voice calls and text messages for the final 0.3–0.4% of UK premises that do not currently have it. We will ensure that Britain seizes the chance to be a world leader in the development of 5G, playing a key role in defining industry standards.”
Part of the funding for improving communications infrastructure will come from “topslicing” the television licence fee, in a similar manner to how the licence fee supported the roll-out of digital TV.
The coalition government has overseen the rise in UK tech startups, and the Conservatives aim to continue that growth, especially in financial services.
“We will help new and existing challenger banks to inject fresh competition into the market for personal current accounts, mortgages and business loans, including through the British Business Bank, while backing the financial technology revolution. We will improve our support for investment into startups and roll-out our innovative Help to Grow scheme, which will plug a £1bn finance gap for firms that are looking to expand, invest and take on new employees,” said the manifesto.
“We will also treble our successful Start Up Loans programme during the next Parliament so that 75,000 entrepreneurs get the chance to borrow money to set up their own business. We will raise the target for SMEs’ share of central government procurement to one-third, strengthen the Prompt Payment Code and ensure that all major government suppliers sign up.”
A plan to ringfence banks’ high street branches from their investment arms by 2019 at the latest will also bring IT challenges for technology teams and suppliers to those banks.
Skills and research
The Conservatives will continue to push for more apprenticeships – an area that has included technology skills – but the manifesto did not make specific mention of further changes relating to digital apprenticeships. However, science and technology innovation was highlighted as areas of success and for further support.
“We will invest new capital on a record scale – £6.9bn in the UK’s research infrastructure up to 2021 – which will mean new equipment, new laboratories and new research institutes. This long-term commitment includes £2.9bn for a Grand Challenges Fund, which will allow us to invest in major research facilities of national significance, such as the new Alan Turing Institute. We have boosted research and development tax credits and we will continue to support our network of University Enterprise Zones, ensuring that Britain’s world-beating universities can make money from the technology they develop,” it said.
“We will direct further resources towards the Eight Great Technologies – among them robotics and nanotechnology – where Britain is set to be a global leader. We have delivered a network of catapult centres – R&D hubs in the technologies of the future – and we will create more to ensure that we have a bold and comprehensive offer in place for Britain’s researchers and innovators.”
In Whitehall, the drive to reduce IT spending and introduce “government as a platform” through the work of the Government Digital Service (GDS) is set to continue under a Tory administration.
“We have reduced the cost of government, by selling empty buildings, managing big projects better, shrinking the civil service, reforming pensions, moving more services online, and improving contracting. We plan a further £10bn annual savings by 2017-18 and £15-20bn in 2019-20,” said the manifesto.
“We will save you time, hassle and money by moving more services online, while actively tackling digital exclusion. We will ensure digital assistance is always available for those who are not online, while rolling out cross-government technology platforms to cut costs and improve productivity – such as Gov.uk.”
Elsewhere, the Conservatives promised further investment in technology for train passengers: “We will introduce smart ticketing and we are investing millions of pounds in fitting out trains with new Wi-Fi equipment and improving mobile phone signals, which will benefit passengers on trains across England and Wales.”
Plans for NHS electronic medical records and greater use of healthcare technologies were also mentioned in the manifesto, with a passing reference implying the controversial Care.data programme for sharing medical data will continue: “We will give you full access to your own electronic health records, while retaining your right to opt out of your records being shared electronically. We will increase the use of cost-effective new medicines and technologies, and encourage large-scale trials of innovative technologies and health services.”
Cyber crime and surveillance
Unlike Labour, the Tories made specific mention of enhancing the UK’s ability to deal with the growing cyber-crime threat. “We will improve our response to cyber crime with reforms to police training and an expansion in the number of volunteer ‘Cyber Specials’. We will use the Police Innovation Fund to accelerate the adoption of new technologies, including mobile devices, that will transform the service the public receives,” said the manifesto.
“We are developing a modern crime prevention strategy to address the key drivers of crime. We will publish standards, performance data and a ranking system for the security of smartphones and tablets, as well as online financial and retail services.”
But more controversially, the party intends to return to its controversial Communications Data Bill covering internet snooping by security services, which was rejected during the coalition government as a so-called snooper’s charter.
“We will keep up to date the ability of the police and security services to access communications data – the ‘who, where, when and how’ of a communication, but not its content,” said the manifesto.
“Our new communications data legislation will strengthen our ability to disrupt terrorist plots, criminal networks and organised child grooming gangs, even as technology develops. We will maintain the ability of the authorities to intercept the content of suspects’ communications, while continuing to strengthen oversight of the use of these powers.”
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