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By | SA Mathieson 24th April 2015 11:03

Surveillance, broadband, zero hours: Tech policy in a UK hung Parliament

Mixing and matching the party manifesto promises

Election 2015 Five years after its first coalition government for decades, Britain again looks likely to refuse to elect a single party to government.

The Liberal Democrats, which joined the 2010 government as the Conservative’s junior partners, look set to lose a significant number of seats, meaning the party may not have the numbers to form a coalition government with the largest party.

The Scottish National Party, which looks set to win numerous of seats in Scotland – despite losing last autumn’s referendum on independence – has refused to prop up the Conservatives but has offered to support Labour in government, although Labour is not keen.

The anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP), Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru and various Northern Irish parties could also be pressed into service – for a price of course.

With all parties having published their manifestos, how could they combine to impact on tech?

Surveillance

The formation of the 2010 coalition was eased by both Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties being keener on civil liberties than the outgoing Labour government, known for its attempt to introduce ID cards among other delights.

But the Lib Dems were always keenest, and this is obvious from the party’s 2015 manifesto. It features a digital bill of rights including net neutrality, further regulations on CCTV and retention of facial images, prison sentences for “egregious breaches” of the Data Protection Act and the blocking of the "snooper’s charter", the plans previously proposed by the Conservatives which would increase retention of communications data.

Of all the parties, the Lib Dems look closest to the policy wish-list of campaign group Big Brother Watch, although as a non-partisan group it doesn’t endorse any party.

The Conservative manifesto promises to strengthen counter-terrorism powers and mentions the need to “keep up to date” the ability of police and spies to access communications data through new legislation. But it is couched with caveats such as the need to “strengthen oversight of the use of these powers”. Based on the last five years, a new Tory-Lib Dem coalition would be likely to increase surveillance powers fairly sparingly.

Despite its previous record, the same may be true of a Labour-led government. Under Ed Miliband, the party has taken a less strident tone on security and Labour’s manifesto covers surveillance briefly, referring to the need to strengthen both powers but also safeguards and oversight of intelligence agencies – and not a mention of ID cards.

However, a further brake on the surveillance state could well be provided by Labour’s likely partners in government: the Lib Dems or the SNP. The latter revealed in its manifesto launch earlier this week that it would not support the snooper’s charter. The SNP’s opposition to increases in UK-wide surveillance makes sense, as it only answers to its constituents in Scotland and isn’t subject to the same pressures as Westminster parties.

But the SNP doesn’t get away Scot-free on the subject of Big Brother. The SNP-controlled Scottish government has voted to let NHS Scotland’s Community Health Index be used as a multi-purpose centralised identity register – something Westminster deliberately avoided in its Verify identity system, where a citizen’s details are held by one of a number of suppliers. This has landed the SNP government in hot water with Britain’s Information Commissioner.

Business and IT

Every manifesto features a pledge to provide fast broadband to nearly everyone in the next few years, and there is similar cross-party support for the development of hi-tech work around the UK.

If you want to vote for a return to dial-up and having all the tech firms in the south-east, you’re out of luck.

There are some differences. The Conservative manifesto has more on supporting innovators, such as an expansion of start-up loans and investment. Labour focuses more on responsibilities, such as requiring every company to report serious cyber-attacks threatening the national infrastructure. The smaller parties that would support a Tory or Labour government in general would be likely to concur.

Government IT

Government IT policies changed after the last election. Whitehall has moved from – officially at least – big IT deals with big suppliers for bespoke systems to encouragement for SMEs via G-Cloud and multi-purpose systems such as the Gov.uk website (although this has caused its own problems).

However, all the parties have similar things to say in their manifestos about moving more services online, digital by default and the expansion of open data. There are some distinctive ideas: the Conservatives would set up full access to electronic health records (although with an opt-out for sharing), Labour would use online feedback to improve public services and the Lib Dems would let you Skype your GP.

Ovum government analyst Nick Wallace says that the differences are ones of emphasis rather than substance. “The Conservatives would tend to see digital policy as a way of doing more with less, whereas Labour may also try to do things around inclusivity,” he says. “It could just be the same dog washed in either case.”

He adds that the move towards centralising IT in the Cabinet Office and Government Digital Service under the just-ended government reflected civil service thinking. “The role of the politicians is more about which horses they back,” he says. “It’s down to the GDS’s vision, supported by [Cabinet Office minister] Francis Maude with a big pointy stick.”

The Labour manifesto indicates it might decentralise things a little – but that in itself would reflect a school of civil service thought.

Immigration and the EU

IT-reliant businesses often rely on skilled immigrants to fill gaps in their workforce. And this is an area where the parties differ significantly. The Conservatives promised, then failed, to bring net immigration down to the tens of thousands in the Parliament just ended.

As it isn’t possible to control movement of people within the European Union, it clamped down on immigration from outside the EU – something it would continue, retaining an annual cap of 20,700 non-EU skilled economic migrants. The Lib Dems sound more positive, saying the party would “continue to allow high-skill immigration”.

The SNP says that “Scotland needs an immigration policy suited to our specific circumstances and needs”, with the reintroduction of the post-study work visa. Labour proposes that every firm hiring skilled workers from outside the EU (or getting a big government contract) must offer apprenticeships.

Firms trying to recruit from outside the EU will often already have their work cut out. As a result, tech-focused firms generally want easier skilled immigration. “I have never heard anyone in the IT industry express sympathy for the UKIP position,” says Ovum’s Wallace.

As for the UK Independence Party, it sees immigration and the EU as the source of many of Britain’s worries. It is possible that UKIP could help form a government with the Conservatives in the even of no clear winner next month.

If it was up to UKIP alone, skilled immigration would be limited to 50,000 a year from everywhere, including Europe – if Britain voted in favour of a “Brexit” from the EU in an in-out referendum on membership, which UKIP would hold. The Conservative party also plans to offer such a referendum by the end of 2017, unlike Labour or the Lib Dems. However, it is likely to recommend that Britain stays in the EU, whereas UKIP wants Britain out.

Some – but by no means all – business groups and business leaders oppose a referendum on leaving the EU.

Employment law

Zero-hour contracts have become a hot subject, and are used by many British employers, but most emblematically by etailer and cloud-service provider Amazon.

A Labour-led government has pledged to ban such contracts – which make an employee available for work but do not guarantee any hours – as would the SNP. The Conservatives say it would take further steps to stop employers insisting staff can only have one zero-hours deal, but by implication would not abolish them.

The Lib Dems say that flexible contracts can work well in some cases, but adds it would create a formal right to request a fixed contract. While such changes are unlikely to affect skilled IT jobs, they could affect lower-paid ones in start-ups and the media.

The Confederation of British Industry argues the new government should commit to a flexible labour market. Although it doesn’t mention zero-hours contracts specifically, it adds: “Our flexible labour market is an asset and if it is meddled with, we risk ultimately pricing young people and the low-skilled out of opportunities.”

Who governs Britain influences tech

On policies specifically about IT, the parties that are likely to form a government have relatively few disagreements. Where they do, they are likely to cancel each other out: it is likely that the next government will include either the Lib Dems, the SNP or possibly both, which looks set to hinder the introduction of the snooper’s charter whatever happens.

There is, of course, a bigger question: whether Britain can form any government after May 7, given substantial differences between parties on other issues – including paying off the deficit, whether Britain should vote on staying in the EU, and the commissioning of new nuclear weapons systems.

For all that they agree on with regard to broadband and digital by default, the politicians’ biggest problem on May 8 may well be to find any combination of parties that can form a government.

You can read the manifestos of the parties mentioned above plus the Greens below:

Conservatives here.

Labour here.

Liberal Democrats here.

SNP here.

UKIP here.

Plaid Cymru here.

Green Party here. ®

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