Better broadband and mobile connections, access to IT skills and smarter use of technology in public services are the main things the tech sector would like to see in chancellor George Osborne’s post-election budget today.
There were also calls for work to improve NHS IT, give more government contracts to SMEs and support innovations like ‘big data’, driverless cars and the Internet of Things.
The chancellor's hour-long ‘emergency’ budget speech will provide the first comprehensive view of the government’s economic plans since the Conservative party won an overall majority in May’s general election.
It is the second budget this year, just 16 weeks after the last one in March during the coalition government.
Tech organisations’ main concern was the need to improve broadband and mobile connectivity.
“High-speed internet is almost guaranteed to feature in the budget,” comms company Viasat’s satellite lead, Neil Fraser, said.
The fact the UK’s mobile and broadband coverage “significantly lags behind other countries” is hampering long-term growth, according to IT solutions firm Exponential-E’s CEO Lee Wade.
Natalie Duffield, CEO of wireless connectivity firm intechnologyWiFi, warned 18 percent of British households still lack internet access, despite its “ever increasing importance”.
To combat this problem, Wade suggested Osborne “mandate both mobile operators and broadband providers to improve coverage, service and speeds”.
MTI Technology’s sales SVP Ian Parslow called for long-term investment to ensure fast internet connections across the UK, in contrast to the headline-grabbing £140 million allocated to projects like driverless cars and smart cities in the last budget.
Business software startup Geniac said the government should implement a target of 200 Mbps by 2020 in the UK’s main cities.
The government currently aims for superfast broadband (which it defines as over 24 Mbps) to be available in 95 percent of homes by 2017, revised from an original target of 90 percent by May 2015.
Viasat’s Fraser said a “fixation on a single technology, and a single provider in BT” had led to a one-size-fits-all approach, despite the fact for many locations other options such as satellite would have been cheaper and at least as effective.
There was a clear call for this new budget to be far more ambitious on high-speed internet plans – and more importantly, deliver on its promises.
The lack of access to IT skills was another area where organisations want to see action from the chancellor.
Parslow complained the pre-election budget “made little to no mention” of the issue and said the government is not doing enough to help develop the next generation of IT workers.
Simon Leech, CEO at financial software firm Validis, said getting the right talent was one of his “biggest challenges”.
Parslow said skills within security, business intelligence and data analytics were especially lacking within the UK.
“Addressing the skills shortage in this sector is crucial if the UK wants to continue the economic recovery which was largely stimulated by the IT sector,” he warned.
Wade echoed Parlow’s concerns and called for more government funding for schemes to assist with re-training, apprenticeships and salary support for IT workers.
“It’s time for the Conservative government to deliver on their manifesto promise to create three million new apprenticeships,” said Tim Roe, MD at Rated People.
He said the government should outline how it will help small businesses to take on new apprentices, for example through new National Insurance breaks or training allowance schemes.
Businesses also voiced concerns the government’s immigration rules are choking off their ability to recruit the necessary staff.
Geniac suggested the government should extend study visas for STEM graduates studying from abroad after they leave university in the UK.
Better tech for public services
A number of experts called for the government to make good on its manifesto promise to improve the use of technology in the police, the NHS, the justice system and other public services.
Dr Jonathan Fairhead, director at developer firm iGeek, said more autonomy for clinicians over funding would help to improve the use of IT by the health service.
He called for the government to set up a new funding stream for smaller IT projects within the NHS to help meet regional requirements. “No single project is the same, so a blanket approach when it comes to IT within the NHS does not work,” Fairhead said.
Angelo Di Ventura, director at tech provider Trustmarque, said he expects the government to shave more money off public sector IT budgets amid deepening austerity measures.
However he expressed hope increased value will be placed on the role technology can play in helping to enable savings and a renewed focus on the ‘digital by default’ agenda.
“Now is the time to assess how technology can make organisations more lean and efficient, and improve the quality of public services,” Di Ventura said.
Helen Sutton, MD at software firm Unit4, agreed that digitising government’s back office can help it to avoid “unnecessary and unpopular” cuts to frontline services.
“The Government should consider tech as a long term investment to address the deficit and ultimately enable departments to do more with less,” she said.
In an austere financial climate, the pressure will now be on for delays and budget overruns to government digital and IT projects to be kept to an absolute minimum, according to Andy Soanes, CTO of Bell Integration.
Level the playing field for SMEs
Despite a Tory manifesto promise to spend a third of its budgets with SMEs, the new government is yet to confirm if this pledge has become official policy.
SME Softwire said the existing 25 percent target was a “great initiative” but warned it had not been met.
Dan Beazer, senior consulting analytst at Peer 1 hosting, said “the National Audit Office has direct awards at around 10 percent” and called for the government to “focus on hitting its own targets to open up procurement”.
“It would be great if the budgets put in place around IT SMEs were actually upheld, otherwise the budget promises seem a little empty,” Softwire said.