Tech nerves fray on Brexit latest

With the return of parliament, post-summer focus sharpens on the Brexit agenda in front of us all. Two massive issues face the technology sector – immigration and data protection. Industry nerves are frayed to say the least about leaked thinking on the former, with anxiety rising on the latter. Julian Blake reports.

Houses of ParliamentWith summer all but over, even the vaguest notion of a respite from Brexit has been well and truly abandoned. Parliament is back, and with it the arrival of debate on the EU withdrawal bill, which will dominate the coming session. With Labour now firmly opposed, the Conservative government could well stand or fall with the bill.

The withdrawal bill and wider Brexit-related proposals have huge implications for almost everyone working in the technology industry, not least because of the implications for accessing talent, as well as wider business confidence. Data regulation too is causing serious concern.

The immigration implications of Brexit continue to cause high anxiety among digital industry professionals, especially with the contents of a leaked Home Office document setting out proposals to restrict EU immigrants from living in the UK.

The document suggests a clear ‘UK-first’ immigration policy, ending freedom of movement immediately after Brexit, and permits for most workers lasting only for up to two years. Only those with real expertise would be able to stay in the UK longer, and there would be severe restrictions on families joining each other here.

Restrictions along these lines are likely to hit sectors like hospitality and retail hardest, because of the lower specialist skills they need. Tech, on the other hand, will need specialist talent, and a new points system will most likely control visas.

But the new and unwelcoming climate for EU citizens looks certain to hit the numbers of skilled tech workers who choose the UK as a place either to work or to study.

Reflecting the thinking of many digital leaders, Labour’s London mayor Sadiq Khan this week called the leaked immigration plan “a blueprint for strangling London’s economy”. Both the Institute of Directors and the CBI say the economy would be hit hard by the proposals.

Industry lobby body Tech London Advocates tweeted that the “UK tech community must unite against leaked Brexit immigration plan, to protect our digital economy”. TLA has already warned of multiple serious problems on talent, business confidence and investment as a result of Brexit.

Labour has said it will “immediately guarantee existing rights for all EU nationals living in Britain”. Last month it announced a shift to a soft Brexit policy, which commits a future Labour government to membership of the single market, including support for free movement of labour.

Compared to immigration, the issue of data protection post Brexit may not seem quite as dramatic or serious, but it is becoming clear that future regulation has implications for UK tech competitiveness, consumer protection and national security.

The issue is coming to a head with the new EU general data protection regulation (GDPR) coming into force for all member states next May. In essence, the GDPR regime strengthens privacy protections, gives regulators new powers to take action against breaches of the rules, and puts a new onus on firms to protect people’s data. It puts clear blue water between the position of the EU and the less regulated USA.

With Brexit, the UK government’s new data protection bill, due for publication this month, will set out how the UK will exempt itself from GDPR. In a paper last month, the government set out its thinking for a “shared approach” that “could ensure personal data would continue to move back and forth between the UK and the EU in the future in a safe, properly regulated way”.

The new government paper says the UK accounts for 11.5% of all global cross-border data flows, and was worth £118bn in 2015. Yet it also acknowledges that 75% of these global data flows are within EU countries. The government agrees that “any disruption to these cross-border data flows could be costly to both Britain and the EU.”

romilly-dennys-main-5612367c06a5bWhile welcoming the paper as “a step in the right direction”, Romilly Dennys, executive director at policy lobbyist Coadec (pictured), said that “at this time of intense upheaval, the government must avoid any moves towards digital protectionism in the name of ‘robust safeguards.’ Now is not the time to create self-imposed digital barriers, but to do all that is possible to create a regulatory landscape that encourages growth, innovation and scale.”

Commenting on the data changes, TLA founder Russ Shaw said: “As the US and UK continue to go down separate paths on data protection laws and regulation, it is imperative that we remain connected with the EU and not lose access to the digital single market. The future of our tech businesses and entrepreneurs needs to be protected, and ensuring continued collaboration in the digital sphere is a key step along the way.

“GDPR will usher in a new era of data protection, and it is crucial that the UK is aligned with this if we are to remain Europe’s leading tech economy.”