Wednesday saw a unique opportunity for the tech industry to put their Brexit questions to the man in the know, as we hosted Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, Dominic Raab for a tech town hall meeting. The room was filled with members of the UK tech industry, with thousands more joining in with lively questions on social media, and tuning in to the live stream.
Held at Rocketspace, we kicked off with an intro from Passion Capital partner, HM Treasury Fintech Envoy and Tech Nation Chair, Eileen Burbidge. She explained that while “we are in uncharted territory”, the fact that the Secretary of State had taken time out of what is a crucial week for Brexit to listen to and answer questions, was “a reflection of the importance of the tech sector”.
“What you do matters”
This was reiterated as Raab spoke about his vision for an ‘outward-looking Brexit’ with consideration of and appreciation for the thriving and highly-productive UK tech sector. He opened by listing a litany of colossal stats demonstrating the tech sector’s domestic strength and international influence, including that London alone is home to a fifth of Europe’s unicorns. He explained that the government want the tech sector to be at the forefront of a cutting edge economy. “What you do matters, because you are so good at it. The tech sector is delivering jobs for the future.”
In his opening statement the Secretary of State also addressed legitimate concerns over things like data protection (“we want to make sure that the data that has been exchanged before we leave is protected properly after we leave”), financial services (“there is real scope for building on the third party equivalence regime that we have with the EU, effectively a relationship with regulatory equivalence”, and access to talent (“Let’s make sure we are open to getting the very best talent here from the rest of the world, there is great value to the UK economy”).
Our CEO Gerard Grech then kicked off the questioning. Noting that some of the UK’s most innovative startups have emerged straight out of the UK’s world-leading universities – Cambridge is a thriving AI and Deep Tech hub – he asked how our universities’ research links, grants, and knowledge sharing with the EU be preserved and enhanced after Brexit. The Secretary of State noted that exchange programmes such as Erasmus will still be available without EU membership, but that it was also important to create a sustainable economy that is attractive to those coming from overseas.
The first question from the room came from Becky Hill from The Register who asked about post-Brexit Data Protection considerations. Raab said “we will comply with EU data protection initially. In future we will have the opportunity to depart from that but would make sure that we have equivalent levels of data protection. I think this will be bottom up rather than top down. We intend to maintain world-leading standards of data protection.”
Grech then chose another hand from the crowd, an investor who highlighted challenging hiring conditions for UK tech companies and investors. “The UK – with its levels of education, more liberal economic approach, will remain attractive to investors. But we will also have the right balance of restoring confidence in our immigration system. We do need to increase productivity. I’m certain that the issue will not be hiring top talent, but when it comes to low-skilled workers there will be a drive to pay people more. From a lower and middle-income aspect, we do need to have a pro-consumer Brexit that lowers prices in stores” said Raab.
Giles Herrington from TechUK, also in attendance, asked about provisions for services, and the possibility that the UK could lose the role as a ‘bridge’ to the EU. Raab responded that “we want to have smart regulation that suits the comparative economic advantage that we have. A lot of regulatory standards come from global standards. After Brexit, we can take up our position on these global bodies. We will have a greater influence not less.”
Ask not what your country can do for you
Grech then turned things around a little by asking the Secretary of State what he would like to see from the tech sector in the next 3-5 years, did he have any asks for them? After all tech companies are pretty good a problem solving. Raab acknowledged “you are the innovators, keep doing what you are doing! I am worrying about jobs for the next generation and worrying about those jobs being well enough paid. We in Government need to be providing the infrastructure” for tech companies to create well-paid high-skilled jobs.
The last question again came back to Artificial Intelligence, touched upon earlier, when Raab was asked whether leaving the EU could boost the AI sector in the UK. Raab answered “I think if we get it right. We want to maintain integrity of data flows. The aim is to get smart regulation at home within the equivalence approach whilst forging relationships with global markets. What will determine the future of the sector is businesses investing and government doing more to support such as the Chancellor’s recent announcements in the budget. Soft power and our world-class universities will be the driver.”
A tech Brexit
After his lengthiest and most in-depth public Q&A since becoming Secretary of State, Raab added to the rapt room, “keep doing what you’re doing! We want a global Brexit that works for your sector and the young people in this country. The reason the tech sector matters to people like me is productivity, innovation and dynamism. We will be pursuing a global brexit, an outward-looking Brexit and a tech Brexit.“