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Brexit: Tech industry demands Whitehall publish digital strategy now

Neil Merrett Published 29 June 2016

Calls among several recommendations set out by techUK to try and protect key technology initiatives, including commitment to cross border data sharing


Industry association techUK has called on the government to immediately publish its planned digital strategy revamp in draft form, with a view to introducing further amendments that may be required to address the UK's position outside of the EU following last week's referendum.

The call is one of several recommendations set out by the organisation today with regard to producing a "strategic and comprehensive" plan for the technology sector ahead of the Article 50 clause being triggered that will require discussions to begin over the UK's departure from the bloc.

While the exact impact of these changes and the structure of government and its functions are being considered, techUK has said Whitehall, acting through the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), should look to rewrite its overarching digital strategy with industry assistance.

"The government should publish the existing strategy now as a draft and seek inputs from business about how it can be made fit for purpose for the challenges and opportunities ahead. The UK has one chance to get this right," said the association. "The approach must be strategic and comprehensive, looking at the whole of the UK's tech ecosystem. It will fail if it is a collection of headline grabbing gimmicks. "

Ensuring access to the European single market, retaining skills and talent, as well as ensuring the facilitation of regional and international data flows were also set out as key priorities for the government as part of plans to protect the technology industry.

"Maintaining access to the single market must be the number one objective of any new relationship with Europe," the industry body argued.

From the perspective of data management, and Britain's role in helping formulate the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), techUK said the ability to move information across borders without significant barriers was vital to innovation.

"Any changes in the UK's relationship with Europe must not impede the ability of data to flow freely to and from the EU. New European data protection laws are likely to enter into force before the UK leaves the EU," said the trade body.

"Urgent consideration should be given to the relative merits of maintaining, adapting or completely re-legislating the UK's data protection laws. It seems likely that the UK will may have to strike some form of agreement similar to the EU US Privacy Shield in order to ensure cross border data flows."

Potential impacts on the UK's own Investigatory Powers Bill, currently being scrutinised by the House of Lords, should be considered too, techUK said.

The trade body also demanded that key policy and funding decisions not be delayed by the outcome of the referendum, despite the fluid nature of UK politics at present.

"Government must demonstrate that uncertainty does not have to mean paralysis. There are many policy and funding decisions that should not be delayed by the EU referendum outcome. For example, reforms to planning rules and wayleaves that would dramatically reduce costs and delays in rural communications infrastructure deployments should now be fast tracked," said the association.

"Meanwhile, government must listen again and be willing to compromise on big initiatives such as the Apprenticeship Levy. Strong and legitimate business concerns must be addressed if the Levy is to succeed."

From a Whitehall perspective, the consensus seems to be that it remains too early to give any commitments to how digital initiatives may change in post-referendum Britain, with the political 'dust' needing to settle and a new prime minister to be appointed.

However, the Cabinet Office has announced that Oliver Robbin, Home Office second permanent secretary for borders, immigration and citizenship, was head of new EU unit that will set out future options for the structure of government outside the EU.

Robbin, a civil servant who has also worked in the Treasury during his political career, will start his new role with the unit on July 4.

Unveiled by outgoing prime minister David Cameron this week, the EU unit has been formed to review and provide information to the cabinet and his successor - once appointed in the coming months - on how best to negotiate the UK's exit plan.

"The new EU unit in Whitehall, led by a new permanent secretary Oliver Robbins, will examine all the options and possibilities in a neutral way and set out costs and benefits to enable the right decisions to be made," said Cameron.

Robbins said it was a huge responsibility to support Cabinet thinking about the issues that arise from exiting membership of the EU, working alongside the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Letwin.

Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, who last week pledged to try and ensure the Civil Service operated "business as usual" in light of the referendum outcome, said Robbins has a wealth of government, international and negotiating experience.

"I have every confidence that he will offer the very best advice and support to the government through these unprecedented times to ensure we secure the best possible deal for the UK," Heywood said.

Cameron has said that the EU Whitehall unit is intended to engage and impact all Whitehall and devolved organisations, though opposition parties in parliament have called for some involvement in the process before exit discussions commence with the EU.

Related articles:

Prime Minister unveils 'Whitehall unit' to oversee EU exit plans

Public sector IT industry braces for post-referendum uncertainty

Technology sector supports Remain in EU referendum

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