Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Harriett Baldwin.)
Sir Edward, I am delighted to lead this debate under your watchful and noble eye—that is a prediction for the future, I hope. I am particularly delighted that the Backbench Business Committee has allowed this debate on Thames valley technology, because it seems to me that all the good things that we want for society in the future will be based on technology.
Let me explain what I mean. Whether we are talking about empowering citizens and voters with more information through the internet and online services; empowering consumers with lower prices, through greater access to competitive pricing on products and services; enriching the academic world, and enabling it to thrive through online access to research material and to coursework for students; driving economic growth through the creative industries; recreational activities such as gaming; more serious activities—business activities—relating to pretty much every area of our lives, including financial technology, banking services or business-to-business services, the digital world is at the heart of facilitating that growth.
As someone who came to Parliament from a technology background, building technology businesses both online and offline, I am not only fascinated by the developments taking place, but very cognisant of the benefits that they will bring for democracy, education and economic growth. Digitisation has the potential to bring new products to market, boost jobs and growth and transform the way we work. Even in this place, that transformation has started to happen, with Hansard online and with TheyWorkForYou, through which we are held to account for how long we speak, what we speak about and how we vote—not that that is a signal that I wish to speak for the full 90 minutes today, because I want to leave plenty of time for other hon. Members to intervene and make observations about their constituencies.
I am pleased that the Government have played a very positive role in encouraging and facilitating the digital sector and the creative industries, and in making digital Britain something that can be achieved in reality. As chairman of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and of the parliamentary space committee, I have seen at first hand the strides that we have made in this Parliament, both within Parliament, with the use of scientific knowledge and of the digital, and in the wider economy. We have a thriving space industry and plans for driverless cars. The broadband roll-out is almost there; we hope that it will be there shortly. There is also the place of computing in the national curriculum. All those things show that the Government are helping to move the economy and society in the right direction. Nevertheless, there is some way to go to remove the obstacles that remain in the way of a fully digitised economy.
As the title of the debate suggests, I want us to stop and stare and focus on the Thames valley region. It includes my constituency of Windsor, which is at the forefront of digital innovation, but also areas across Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Digital technologies and businesses have quite a large presence in my constituency, and I think that has been instrumental in some of the results that we have seen locally. Since 2010, unemployment is down by half and youth unemployment is down by two thirds. I think that that partly reflects the fact that 13% of businesses in the Windsor constituency are involved in information and communications technology industry activities, compared with the national average of about 8%. The number of enterprises operating in the tech sector in the Thames valley grew by 13% between 2011 and 2013, and the area boasts the second highest start-up rate outside London. Thames valley, Berkshire, is home to the offices of more than 200 Fortune 500 companies, including Konami, which relocated its European headquarters from Germany to the Windsor constituency last year, as well as 11 of the top 15 global software companies, so in the Thames valley, we really are a powerhouse.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that more companies will move to the Thames valley when they can arrive at Heathrow and turn left? The new rail spur will be an enormous boost. It will bring 42,000 jobs to our region, when it happens. Is he, like me, dismayed that it is taking until 2021 for it to happen, and that Network Rail feels that it has to have a pre-consultation, a formal consultation, a post-consultation, and then a consultation on the planning permission? People in the Thames valley are looking at those kinds of delay with frustration, because they want these infrastructure projects to go ahead.
My hon. Friend makes the point in a passionate way, and I wholeheartedly concur. Whether we are talking about Crossrail or the new link from Heathrow to mainline railway stations and the mainline network, these are arteries that will pump business, commuters and tourists into the Thames valley, and it is deeply frustrating that sometimes these projects take such a long time. Clearly, we have a planning framework. Perhaps the new Government will take a look at that. However, there is no doubt—I do not think that there is any controversy—about the benefits of having better rail links, better transport links generally and better broadband links to Berkshire and the Thames valley. That will make a huge difference and will add to the growth that we are seeing.
The wider Thames valley region can be seen as the largest technology cluster—I will come to clusters in a moment, because I am sure that you, Sir Edward, are fascinated by technology clusters—in Europe, with its unique blend of established technology corporates, innovative start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises, which together account for 16% of all enterprises in the sub-region. That is double the national average, which stands at 8%. The proportion of people employed in the ICT sector is more than twice the national average in Windsor and Maidenhead.
The region is also home to world-class research facilities such as the university of Reading and the Atomic Weapons Establishment. The region is a natural fit for developing trends in ICT, such as big data and financial technology services. A new multimillion-pound world-class environmental science big data research and analysis centre is due to open at Reading university later this year.
Just last month, I visited an exciting new company in my constituency that is at the forefront of a sea change in the way finance is raised for property development. Proplend is a peer-to-peer lending site for property owners. It allows them to find alternative finance, and to circumvent the tightly controlled financial services industry, which in many cases is still too worried about the risk of lending to smaller clients because of the bureaucratic burden of doing so. That is not to say that the banks and the big corporates do not have a place among the new lenders, but for the first time in 100 years, we have seen new challenger banks begin to appear on high streets. That is pretty significant, because challenger banks are able to appear on the high street only because of the digitisation of banking. The overheads are so much lower and the ability to monitor, regulate and provide services is so much easier through technological means.
I was proud to be at the opening of a branch of Metro bank in Windsor in 2013. Metro bank is the first new high street bank in the UK for more than a century. Those types of financial innovation will help to transform the way we do business, but also, with access to the internet and digital technologies, we will be better able to educate our young people as well as our graduates, and we will be in a better position to enrich the lives of so many people.
With public services coming online at an ever-increasing rate, it is important that in areas such as Thames valley, Berkshire, and across the country, broadband roll-out continues rapidly. That is why I am glad that the Conservatives in leadership have made vital changes over the past few years. A personal favourite of mine was the decision to put computing at the heart of the national curriculum. When I was at school, computers were hardly in evidence. We had punch cards to do our maths tests in the mid-’70s, but that was about it. Now, ICT lessons are not just about learning how to use PowerPoint, a spreadsheet, a word processor or presentation software; they are more about the process of learning and analysis required to create programmes. The digital and technology worlds encourage that sort of analytical thinking, because in order to solve a problem, one has to understand it and be able to encode and systematise it. Such analytical thinking is incredibly helpful if we want to live in a society that is rational and able to solve its own problems.
This is probably a reflection of my age, but children now learn programming and coding of the sort that in my generation, one learned only after one had finished school and university. After I studied agricultural economics for my BSc, I was immediately attracted to the information technology industry, because I recognised the overwhelming power of the internet and the digital to accelerate economic growth and the social and economic developments that we want. That is why the new curriculum is important. The Government’s work to attract qualified teachers and retrain existing ones is also welcome.
The Government have identified eight great technologies to focus on, which include big data and the space industry. We often think of space as being like “Star Trek” and involving manned space flight, but there is more to it than that. I know from my time as shadow Science Minister many moons ago that the space industry has for many years achieved double-digit growth of 10%-plus. On average, for the past 10 or 15 years, it has experienced 7% to 8% growth per annum. Space is not just about exploration and “Star Trek”; it is about our mobile phones and our ability to communicate, to access broadband and to access public services.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. He is an agricultural economist by training, and farming is also affected by space. A farmer can now drill a field of corn using satellite technology, which requires less input—fewer sprays and fertilisers. That keeps our rivers cleaner. A different sort of person is required to come into the business. My hon. Friend is making a powerful case about education, but I am interested to know how he believes we can ensure that more people understand that some jobs that were once considered to be manual and functional now require a high degree of understanding about IT.
Absolutely; the landscape, if I can put it in such a way, in agricultural businesses, estate management and farm management has changed enormously. Satellites and GPS guide some of the new combine harvesters and planting devices, and the digital world permeates almost every part of our lives. If we look at farming productivity across the world—some developing countries are one step ahead of the UK in this regard—we see that many of the newer farming technologies in use are based on the digital. Companies across the Thames valley are, and have been, instrumental in developing some of the devices and monitoring technology required for modern farming. There is a massive population explosion across the world; we are heading towards 7 billion people on the planet, of whom perhaps 64 million or 65 million will be the UK. They will all need to be fed, and the digital world and digital technologies will enable us to make the great leaps in productivity that will be required.
If we consider what it means to be a human being, our DNA is ultimately digital. Initiatives such as the human genome project, and the 100,000 genomes project in the NHS, will enable the world to make huge leaps forward in health care technology based on the digital world. I cannot overemphasise the importance of such new technology and development. As a Conservative, some people might expect me to be nervous about such dramatic and radical changes to the way in which we live. In fact, the digital is an evolutionary process. There are big leaps from one decade to the next, but every single process in technology is incremental.
As I have said, the Government have identified eight technologies on which to focus. I am particularly pleased about big data and space, because digital technologies in space allow us to monitor earth’s systems, so we can see where there is a forest fire or a tsunami and work out where emergency services need to be deployed. Clearly, those technologies have a military application as well. They also govern our mobile phones, broadband technology, GPS in our vehicles and so many other things.
I look forward to seeing the way in which big data will transform our public services. Government projects, many of them run from within the Thames valley, are already looking at and analysing all the data sets that the Government have at their disposal through public bodies, and working out whether those data contain patterns. We have recently had some debates about security, particularly in the light of the threat from ISIS and home-grown terrorist challenges. By looking at patterns of data, one can identify activity that may need to be looked into. Without digital development, it would be tricky to analyse those data.
ICT is not simply about business; it is also about research. The Government’s decision to protect the £4.6 billion science budget—I claim a small amount of credit for that from my time as shadow Minister—has helped to keep us ahead of the global curve in new developments when it comes to technology and the digital. It would have been easy after the last election, especially given the constrained financial situation in which we found ourselves, with a £160 billion deficit, to say, “Right, let’s cut the budget for science and research.” Thankfully, we refrained from doing so. I echo William Waldegrave, who said that even in straitened times, the two budgets that one must never cut are those for basic scientific research and for security. We must always take those matters seriously, and I am glad that the coalition Government have done so.
Thames Valley Berkshire local enterprise partnership has been instrumental in driving growth in technology. The LEP has established a Berkshire business growth hub to support and upskill small and medium-sized enterprises, and it will invest EU funds to fast-track the creation of the first ever science park in the region. I am always nervous about mentioning the EU, because doing so tends to lead to a fairly strong reaction. It is useful to gain EU funds in this case, however. We pay into the EU, so bidding for EU funds and getting them back to the UK is a jolly good thing to do.
I apologise for intervening yet again, but my hon. Friend has touched on the European single digital market, which is worth mentioning in this context. It can bring our constituents, particularly in the Thames valley, the benefit of a proper single market. That is what most of our constituents want from our relationship with the European Union.
I am sure that it would. My hon. Friend brings me on to my next point, which is that although there may be many negatives to being members of the European Union, the single market is one of the great benefits. Our great challenge, particularly in the digital world—as I can see from the businesses in Windsor and across the Thames valley—is to ensure that competition continues and that there is a level playing field for the supply of goods and services through digital media. There are questions about whether some larger companies, search engines and suppliers of goods and services across the EU are in a monopolistic position. It is easy for us in this place sometimes to suspend our view that markets should be competitive because, somehow, digital is different, but digital is exactly the same as everything else albeit at a far more rapid pace. It is vital that Britain is part of a functioning single market that offers fair competition in both the digital and terrestrial worlds. We will never stand by and allow the manufacturer of a particular good or service to have 95% market share. In the same way, it is important that both the EU and the UK ensure that competition exists in the digital world so that people have a choice about where they get their goods and services online.
Thames Valley Berkshire is working with neighbouring LEPs to align resources behind the 5G innovation centre at the university of Surrey. In 2014, the LEP injected a significant amount of money, about £145,000, in Connect Thames Valley Tech—ConnectTVT—to identify and support at least 100 start-up companies by the end of 2015. New developments bring new challenges as well as opportunities, and some issues surrounding those new developments have rumbled on without a clear attempt to draw lines and clarify what the Government should be doing. I will highlight a handful of areas that an incoming Government will need to address in Thames valley, given the high presence of digital businesses and the high levels of economic growth and employment in the area. I am interested in the Minister’s comments, but these are not demands; they are observations. I recognise that, with the work that has already been done, there may be other areas to address.
An awful lot of our private data are out there held by commercial companies, the Government and the public sector, as well as on our home devices, iPhones and PCs. Do those data belong to us as citizens? Do they belong to the Government, God forbid? Do they belong to those private companies? Although many services, sites and businesses have good privacy statements covering people’s information when they access goods and services, I am not sure that many people read those privacy statements. It is important that, at some point, we know to whom those data belong. With the incredibly quick advance of digital, the data that we put on individual websites or applications can easily be spread and shared with all sorts of people whom we would not wish to have them.
A case in point might be 23andMe, which is an American service through which people can analyse their DNA. I had a go the other day, and it is fascinating. My results show that I am clearly not a superhuman, but I should hopefully live a relatively long time. If we are having our DNA analysed—our DNA is at the heart of whom and what we are—we need to be clear about who owns those data. If someone is processing our data, we need to know how long they are able to hold on to them and whether they are allowed to pass them on. Although the privacy statements and data-handling statements on such websites may be attractive, are we secure in the way in which those data are held, used and owned?
The second important area—I have touched on this already—is competition. We sometimes glaze over when people start talking about digital. We think it is all modern and trendy, and perhaps some of the principles that we hold dear in terrestrial marketing and businesses are not necessarily the same in the digital world, which is a strange place in which things happen quickly. With the permeation of digital throughout all our lives, it is more important than ever that the online economy is as competitive as the rest of the economy. Some good headway has been made, particularly with search engines, at European Union level, and I am glad that some of that regulation has rippled through to the UK. I am sure we could have done that ourselves but, given that the EU has done the work, it is good that the regulation has rippled through into our legislation. We must never forget that it is not just growing businesses or innovation but competition between businesses that drives down prices and spurs innovation. There may be more work to be done to ensure that we do not have any closed shops on the internet. We have had a challenge with our energy firms and, to be honest, many energy firms are now largely digital. They may supply some goods and services, but their main processes and main business are digital. We could learn some lessons from the apparent lack of competition within the energy markets.
Centrica, which is a fantastic business, employs hundreds of people across my Windsor constituency. I have been to see its trading floor and some of its operations, and it is striking that about 80% of those staff are in the digital world. They do not do much with gas and the supply of energy; they use programmes, algorithms and applications to supply goods and services. They are technicians, programmers and analysts; they are not gas workers in the traditional sense.
The third part of ensuring that Thames valley tech is healthy for the future is in addressing bureaucracy. Unforeseen obstacles created by old regulations often cause difficulties for businesses. We should encourage a technology neutral approach to disruptive innovation that provides a framework for “permissionless creativity.” The Minister is behind this country’s creative industries, and he has done an awful lot in his portfolio to ensure that those industries thrive, but we need to be clear that inventors, particularly in the digital world, should not be hampered by regulations that were never meant to govern what they do. There also needs to be clarity on intellectual property that allows inventors to profit from their products, and particularly from newer products and services that are being created day by day, week by week and month by month in the Thames valley and beyond. We also need to ensure that structures are in place so that corporations, particularly in the IT sector, are not able to hoard patents and hold up progress in those markets.
The fourth area is the concept of clusters. A lot of good work has been done on clusters. When I was shadow Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr Willetts) and I had a close look at the definition of a technology cluster. That issue faces the Thames valley head on. I read with great interest the “Tech Nation” report by Tech City, which was released just a few weeks ago. It is a fantastic report that canters through all areas of digital technology, including both the benefits and the challenges to the nation. One little area about which I am slightly concerned is the lack of clarity on the definition of a technology cluster. The report sometimes refers to Oxford, the Berkshire cluster or the Reading cluster, and in the not-too-distant future, if we are to take technology clusters seriously, we need a better working definition of what they are and of their benefits and disbenefits. On its own, the Thames valley might constitute the biggest technology cluster in the whole of Europe, which is a key point. From my understanding of the area—my Windsor constituency is very high tech—I think that Thames valley is the largest technology cluster in Europe, but the Government need to do a little more work on the definitions in terms of investments and enterprise zones.
The fifth and final point is that we cannot have a thriving technology cluster unless businesses and homes in the region have significant levels of broadband access. I am delighted that the Government will certainly meet their broadband roll-out targets in the Windsor constituency. The other day, I mentioned in a question on the Floor of the House that, in the past, my wife sometimes looked at me suspiciously because I was up very late at night fiddling around on the internet and she was wondering what I was up to. [Laughter.] Exactly. Then I simply point out that our broadband access is so slow that when I log into the House systems to do my constituency correspondence, it takes an awfully long time. Thankfully, a few weeks ago, superfast broadband rolled out to my area of Old Windsor, and now it is like lightning; I can go to bed at a reasonable hour. That is my excuse, anyway.
Access to superfast broadband is important. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) pointed out, although farmers must log in online to get their rural farm payments, a huge number of farms throughout the United Kingdom do not have access to broadband, so they cannot. I would nudge the Minister on this issue, although I appreciate that we are now at the end of the coalition period and might need to wait several weeks to find out what happens next. An opportunity may well have been missed on this issue. We have been rolling out fibre, which is of course essential for the majority of households in this country, but if we want 100% superfast broadband coverage, it can be done within a few weeks.
I will explain how. Although we will reach 90% and potentially 95% coverage within the next couple of years, there are certain areas where it is not economically viable to install fibre 2 miles down a country track to get to two or three homes. However, we already have satellites that can give 30, 50 or 60 MB links straight from the skies. Ultimately, although the investment has been worth while and roll-out is pretty much on track—that is a great step forward, and I thank the coalition Government for it—we must open our minds in the next Parliament to achieving broadband roll-out to every part of the country using satellite broadband. I am a bit disappointed that we did not pursue that route more actively earlier. It is no deep criticism, however, because we are pretty much on track; I simply nudge the Minister in that direction, should he be in the same job after the election, as I hope he will be, although preferably as a right hon. Member. Is he a right hon. Member at the moment?
Okay. Preferably he will have “right hon.” at the beginning of his title. Some great broadband pilot schemes are coming from the Minister’s Department, which are welcome, including the point-to-point beaming of broadband to smaller villages and hamlets around the country, but again, I would like a little more focus on using solutions that are already available to access hard-to-reach areas.
We have many great businesses in Windsor. Indigina Technologies and Imagebase Technology do software design, and Honeycomb Digital does digital marketing. When it comes to education, of course, we also have East Berkshire college and many others running new technology curriculums, giving young people practical skills in state-of-the-art classrooms and making good use of broadband locally.
I am a great believer in the power of science, technology and the digital. To be party political for a moment, I believe that the digital world is part of the Conservative vision of the world. It changes the data asymmetry between Governments and public services, enabling citizens to see the same level of data. If we use it correctly, citizens will certainly become more powerful, and the state will gradually become less powerful. It is interesting that the Thames valley is rather Conservative in the complexion of its MPs, which is a good thing—
It is also significant because consumers get choice, and technology is a wonderful way of presenting choice. I hope that in years to come, through some of the wonderful and innovative companies in my constituency and across the Thames valley, new applications will be developed so that even when we decide that we want to use a public service, it will be easy to do so on our iPhones, smartphones and PCs.
To give an illustration, somebody with a family who is reasonably well-to-do may want to take their child to a doctor or go to a doctor themselves, or have an operation at a particular time. Clearly, that might not be possible on the NHS, due to waiting lists and the routine that must be followed; it can take eight or sometimes up to 12 weeks to get to that position. If there were an application, the digital world could deliver a choice. Someone who could afford to pay and chose to pay—there would be no coercion—might be able to go to a particular site that said, “You can have an appointment with your local GP in about a week’s time, or you can have an appointment on Sunday afternoon at 3.27, when you want it, but you will have to pay for a private GP.” It might also show slots for the less well-off supported by voluntary sector organisations and charities. Technology can present consumers and public service users with choices.
That is not to say in any way that the NHS should not exist in its current form, free at the point of delivery; it is just about leveraging more resources. If people have an easy choice before them to receive a service in a different way using their own resources, existing resources remain in the NHS. That is a great way to boost resources in the NHS. There are so many ways that technology can empower consumers and citizens. It is incredibly important that we push on and ensure that we are not resistant but ready to embrace the benefits that digital technology can bring by boosting innovation, growth and citizen and consumer power, and by enhancing people’s experience not just with gaming but with education and access to research.
Finally, I welcome the coalition Government’s work on this issue. We need to consider satellite broadband and review what we mean by clusters and what the Government’s role is in supporting them, but on balance, I think the glass is half-full. We live in a far better place technologically than we did five years ago. I hope that that process continues, and that my constituency continues to be at the heart of those innovations. The whole constituency of Windsor is a great place to live, and Thames valley Berkshire is the largest and one of the most dynamic digital clusters in Europe. Long may it reign.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I wish you and other hon. Members a happy St Patrick’s day.
I enjoyed the contribution of the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie). He hinted, far too modestly, at his considerable knowledge and experience of the technology sector, having been an entrepreneur in the field before coming to the House. He has demonstrated that passion and knowledge admirably. I praise him for his great work as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on space. It is a leading technology not only in Britain but for the rest of the world. Britain is well placed to be a leading player in the space industry of the future. I agree with the ambition to secure 10% of the global space market, which represents £40 billion, by 2030. It is incredibly admirable how he advocates for the space industry in this House and throughout the Houses of Parliament.
I welcome the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey). His constituency covers a large part of the area discussed by the hon. Member for Windsor. On the space industry, the Minister will be aware that Harwell in his constituency is the nucleus of a great and exciting emerging space industry cluster; that must continue in future.
It is clear from the contribution of the hon. Member for Windsor that the Thames valley has considerable strengths in the technology sector. As he mentioned, the area boasts the European and global headquarters of more than 200 Fortune 500 companies, such as Microsoft, Oracle, Vodafone, Fujitsu, Johnson & Johnson and Honda. Huawei, one of the fastest-growing telecoms companies in the world, recently moved its European headquarters to Reading.
One structural weakness of the British economy is the widening productivity gap between us and the rest of our economic rivals, but the technology sector shows that we in Britain can resolve that. It has demonstrated the highest productivity of any sector in the UK economy, and has powered ahead in the past 10 years.
This sector has enormous potential. TechUK estimates that the internet of things will reach a global market value of $7.3 trillion by 2017. The hon. Member for Windsor mentioned big data. Big data and data analytics will have a global market value of $32.4 billion by 2017. And wearable technology will be worth $70 billion by 2024. The world is changing fast, but it is clear that the Thames valley can develop and evolve its comparative advantages in this important sector, and create more jobs and wealth, not only for itself but for the rest of the United Kingdom. However, in order to achieve that potential, the area needs to address several elements, as we heard time and time again during the hon. Gentleman’s remarks.
The first point that I will address is skills. The UK Digital Skills Taskforce, led by Maggie Philbin, has stated that we face a growing shortage of digital skills. The Science Council has stated that the information and communications technology work force will grow by 39% by 2030, and O2 concluded in 2013 that around 745,000 additional workers with digital skills would be needed just to match existing demand between 2013 and 2017. Baroness Lane-Fox has gone further, saying that a million new tech jobs will be needed by 2020.
The Thames valley is well-placed to take advantage of this growth, but skills shortages remain a problem for the area. I want to avoid engaging in partisan hectoring and criticism, but how are the Government addressing this problem? In order to have a long-term industrial strategic approach, it is necessary, with the full co-operation and indeed leadership of industry, to marry up business policy with education and skills policy, and to ensure that they are aligned. The hon. Gentleman talked about coding and computing being part of the curriculum, which is a very welcome step, but how will we in this country ensure that we gain the digital skills that we need by making sure that, from the earliest possible age at primary school, the curriculum is developed through, so that the workers of the future will be well-placed to get well-paid, fulfilling tech jobs?
It is important to link different parts of business policy with other aspects of Government. So, does the Minister think that the Government’s immigration policy addresses this issue? I am not suggesting for one moment that we have an open-doors policy, but ensuring that the UK is a great destination, both for inward investment and global talent, is incredibly important. Has the Minister considered several points made by techUK about the field of immigration, such as reinstating the two-year post-study work visa and extending the tier 1 exceptional talent visa beyond start-ups to scale-ups, which I will come on to in a moment? How are we making sure that immigration policy is geared up towards fulfilling the potential of the technology sector?
One of the problems regarding skills could be exacerbated by the magnet of London’s Tech City pulling talent away from the Thames valley and other regions. Richard Devall, a partner at the law firm Pitmans, has recently been quoted as saying:
“We have become an established tech region at the expense of home-grown start-ups. Local and even global talent is going to places like London because it is perceived as ‘where it’s at’. People still don't know what the Thames Valley offers. The pull of London’s east end Tech City is immense for a young techie and the Thames Valley is losing out, certainly on global talent.”
The Thames valley area is often seen as a destination for large and mature companies in the tech space. There is nothing wrong with that whatsoever, as large companies provide great employment and can nurture a wide cluster or ecosystem of companies through their supply chain. Nevertheless, this issue has been identified as a challenge for the Thames valley, not only by Richard Devall but by Louize Clarke, co-founder of ConnectTVT, a new accelerator community in Reading. She said:
“It appears we have decided as a region that we are going to be mature, and not do anything to attract the next generation of technology start-ups. We are just not looking at that community locally, and they are going elsewhere. Yet, if you support a start-up community it will help improve local talent, because not all start-ups succeed, and people within them learn, then go into other local businesses.”
I fully accept that this sector is not the sole responsibility of Government, but what are they doing? Are they working together with the local enterprise partnerships to ensure that start-ups, scale-ups and the whole cluster or ecosystem that the hon. Gentleman for Windsor mentioned is actually being developed in the Thames valley?
As part of that wider cluster, procurement can be used to stimulate growth and scale-up in smaller firms. The Government have a target to ensure that 25% of central Government spending on procurement is being awarded to small and medium-sized businesses. Given that we are now in 2015, when the target was meant to be met, could the Minister update the House as to how the Government are progressing towards achievement of that target? Also, given the strength of the tech sector in the Thames Valley, how does that area fare when it comes to winning contracts from both central and local Government?
More emphasis should also be given to scale-up companies. An excellent report last year by Sherry Coutu, who is herself a prominent tech entrepreneur, stated that if we closed the gap of scale-up between ourselves and the US and other leading economies, in the short term—within three years—an additional 238,000 jobs and £38 billion in additional turnover would be possible, and in the longer term—by 2034—150,000 net additional jobs and £225 billion additional gross value added in the economy could be provided.
That excellent scale-up report from last year, with its ambitious but achievable recommendations, does not seem to have progressed with Government. Can the Minister give the House an update as to how the Government are taking forward the recommendations in the report? Can we expect to see a detailed Government response before Dissolution? How will the Government ensure that local decision-makers—particularly LEPs, which are mentioned a lot in the report and which are very relevant to the Thames valley—are included in the planning for the report’s implementation and delivery?
We have heard from a number of hon. Gentlemen today—both the hon. Member for Windsor and the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who is no longer in his place—about how infrastructure is vital if the Thames valley area is to achieve its vision of prosperity. From a northerner’s point of view, the tech sector in the Thames valley is often seen as being the M4 growth corridor, which gives an indication of the importance of the road network. However, the importance of rail has also been mentioned in the debate today.
In addition, will the Minister accept that in order to attract global talent and inward investment, a co-ordinated aviation strategy is also needed? In the debate today, we have only heard about aviation in passing. However, discussion of Heathrow’s future is important. What should the Government be doing with regard to a swift implementation of the recommendations of the Davies airport commission, to ensure that our international competitiveness is not compromised and that linkages with the growth hubs of the world are developed?
On the subject of infrastructure, the Minister will recall that about a week ago we had a debate in Westminster Hall on broadband; he will remember because, to be honest, he was quite grumpy, with respect to the success of the broadband roll-out.
Broadband has again been referred to a number of times in today’s debate. The hon. Member for Windsor mentioned how broadband can be not only about fiddling late at night but about ensuring that broadband connections are the arteries of economic growth in the future economy. How can we ensure that that is the case? And what is happening with regard to roll-out of broadband, both in the Thames valley generally and in its rural areas?
I would suggest that linked with all of this debate is an emphasis on the need for long-term policy stability and certainty that transcends Parliaments, ensuring that it is recognised that the future of this country’s prosperity is based upon embracing a knowledge-based economy and ensuring that Government can work together with industry to achieve the tech sector’s enormous potential and benefit from its comparative advantages. That being the case, the Minister will know the importance of a long-term innovation strategy in science, particularly when it comes to providing a long-term funding framework to develop science, innovation, research and development.
I am very conscious that tomorrow is the Budget and I know that the Minister will not pre-empt any announcements that the Chancellor might make. Nevertheless, could he give an indication of the Government’s position on making sure that that long-term funding framework for science and innovation, which is necessary to exploit the advantages that the tech sector can provide, is being recognised and put forward by Government?
My final point is about Europe and the EU. Europe is an important part of our marketplace and of how we will derive prosperity. The development of the European digital single market is an important part of the tech sector’s future. I agree with techUK’s firm assertion that the EU digital single market should be shaped and led by Europe’s most successful digital economy, which is the UK’s economy. We should be leading, not following. We should be shaping it according to our own interests, not sniping on the sidelines. That being so, will the Minister explain how he, and other colleagues—but particularly him, because he takes an interest in this—are shaping the European digital single market and ensuring that it is to our key advantage?
This is an important debate. The tech sector is a key part of future economic growth, prosperity and employment for this country, with a particular emphasis on a knowledge-based economy. The Thames valley is well placed to be at the forefront of that sector. However, it requires a co-ordinated, integrated industrial strategic approach that is industry-led, with join-up between central Government and local government and industries. Huge prizes are on offer with regard to the tech sector and we can achieve those with such a co-ordinated approach. I know that the Minister will want to talk about how Britain can succeed in the tech sector, both now and in future.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward? I wish you a happy St Patrick’s day. As a descendent of Henry VII, Lord of Ireland, I know that this day in particular means something to you.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) on securing this important debate. He spoke without hesitation, deviation or repetition for 37 minutes. He could have spoken for a lot longer, because he has a great story to tell about the successes in the Thames valley, including in his own constituency.
I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) for his slightly shorter, but no less potent, contribution. Were things to turn out differently, he would make a fine Business Minister. Sadly, as his party is going to lose the election, we can simply dream of what might have been.
Let be begin with some important statistics about the Thames valley, Berkshire. Business start-ups are at an all-time high. Almost 9,000 businesses started up across the Thames Valley Berkshire local enterprise partnership area in 2014, an increase of nearly 50% on the year before. My hon. Friend talked about the importance of the IT sector, and no wonder, because it represents about a quarter of the gross value added in Berkshire, compared with just 6% nationally.
As a Government, we are supporting the growth in Berkshire. As my hon. Friend mentioned, under the growth deal there will be some £100 million-worth of investment. We estimate that that could bring up to 20,000 jobs and 12,000 homes and £40 million-worth of public and private sector investment. In addition, we have supported 10,000 new homes in Wokingham with £24 million. We are investing in transport infrastructure, with £10 million for Maidenhead station. The huge redevelopment of Reading station is costing some £800 million.
I will talk about broadband later, albeit more philosophically than previously. The hon. Member for Hartlepool was right to say that I was grumpy in last week’s debate about broadband. Not that I spent any time on Twitter during my hon. Friend’s speech, but a Deloitte media and telecoms conference is going on at the moment, and the Twitter feed is all about how grumpy the BT man is during his presentation. He is obviously as fed up as I am with hearing the criticisms of the broadband programme, which has been hugely successful, particularly in Berkshire, where £6 million of investment will ensure that we reach 97% coverage by 2017. More than 6,000 homes there had broadband by the end of last year, thanks to this programme.
I will talk about education in some detail as well. My hon. Friend mentioned the £2.3 million that the Government have invested in three new solutions labs, in partnership with local further education partners, to provide science, technology, engineering and maths skills. We think that the solutions labs will bring 250 new jobs to the area, as well as 130 level 3 apprenticeships, 210 higher apprenticeships, 220 level 3 STEM qualifications and 140 STEM traineeships.
It is important to recognise the contribution of the British Business Bank in investing in British businesses, providing more than £890 million of new lending to 21,000 small businesses.
The “Tech Nation” report, mentioned by hon. Members, shows that one in five enterprises in the area we are talking about are tech companies. Indeed, as my hon. Friend said, some of the biggest technology companies in the world are based in Reading, including Oracle, Microsoft, Symantec, Huawei and Nvidia.
The university of Reading is home to a number of science and tech-based specialisms. It has just received a catalyst fund grant of almost £6 million from the higher education funding council for a multi-million pound environmental data centre.
These are all good news statistics for the Thames Valley Berkshire area. Given that I am standing in for the Business Minister, as usual—it seems to be my main role in life: it is nice to find a role after all these years—I shall use this opportunity to big up the Thames Valley Berkshire LEP neighbour, the Oxfordshire LEP, the star of which is, of course, my own constituency of Didcot and Wantage.
My hon. Friend, who is chair of the parliamentary space committee, talked a lot about the success of the space sector. The hon. Member for Hartlepool was kind enough to point out the role of Harwell—in my constituency—in that sector. My hon. Friend will be interested to know that three years ago, there were about 200 high-tech posts in the space sector and now there are nearly 500, and it is estimated that in the next 15 years there will be 5,000 posts, making Harwell the largest multinational space complex in Europe.
Harwell is where the satellite applications catapult is based. My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor, and my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), talked about using satellites to help farmers, which is precisely what the satellite applications catapult is there to do. It is there to show lots of businesses that may not think that satellites have any role to play in their business how those can help them enhance what they do.
In the past 18 months, the UK’s space gateway at Harwell campus has grown from just over 40 to 60 organisations, and only 10 years ago there were fewer than five. This summer, both the European Space Agency’s European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications building and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory space environmental test building will open on the campus.
Just down the road, as part of this Thames valley success story, 1,000 additional jobs have been created at Milton Park just in the past 12 months. Of course, we remain the UK’s, and indeed the European, centre for cryogenics. All this is good news.
Let me start to address points put to me both by my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and the hon. Member for Hartlepool. We always listen with great care to what my hon. Friend says. He has a distinguished track record in technology and science and is known in this House as a thoughtful and intelligent man. Therefore when he raises issues they are worth addressing and considering.
My hon. Friend’s first point was about data ownership. He is right to raise this issue. All sorts of metaphors can be used, including big data being the big oil of the 21st century, or whatever, but there is no doubt that data are the currency driving the 21st century technology economy and, as such, a relatively dry subject has moved up the agenda. The ownership and use of data is an important issue.
The European Commission and the European Parliament are due to conclude a data protection directive, which could be a big prize, giving Europe one data protection regime across all 28 member states. I am fond of saying that, in many respects, it may be the most important piece of economic legislation that Europe passes in the next decade, because if its final iteration is too bureaucratic or business-unfriendly, it could have a big impact on business. However, we start rightly with the principle that the citizen owns their own data and should have control over how those data are used. It is a circle that has to be squared. The citizen has to trust and understand how the data are being used, but at the same time businesses need to be able to use those data to function efficiently and provide the services that many people want.
I am sorry not to reach a clear conclusion on my hon. Friend’s contribution. I am simply acknowledging that this debate will continue.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s kind words. The other issue that he alluded to was closed shops on the internet. He is right that that will provoke debate and policy developments over the next few years. Clearly, the large tech companies play an increasingly important part in our lives, whether they are Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon or others, but it is important that we remember the first principles of open competition. The competition authorities have the requisite powers to stop any potential abuse of market power, not that I am suggesting that there is any at the moment. It is one of those debates that we will continue to have. As for the permissiveness of creativity, we have undertaken some important intellectual property reforms over the past few years. The Government remain committed to the protection of intellectual property, and that is right and proper, but we also recognise that intellectual property has to be up to date in how it is used in the digital age.
My hon. Friend talked about clusters and Tech Nation. The clusters identified in the “Tech Nation” report were in essence self-identifying and organic, but I take his point that we should be accurate when we identify a cluster, and at least use the same name consistently so that people are used to it. Tech City has done a great job in bringing together the 20 or so clusters identified in the “Tech Nation” report to share best practice. I agree that Thames valley is the largest tech cluster in Europe. When politicians say that they want to create a Silicon Valley in the UK, I say, “You already have it. If Cambridge is included, you have effectively got a Silicon Valley in and around London.” There are Silicon Valleys all over the UK, and that is the great strength of technology. In any major city in the UK, from Dundee to Brighton, there are important tech clusters, which often specialise in particular areas.
My hon. Friend concluded by talking about the importance of access to broadband. I was disappointed to hear that he had only just got superfast broadband, but given the size of his estate, it is not surprising. The huge amount of engineering and the massive length of fibre that had to be rolled out to reach his study will have taken years of digging. I am glad that BT has finally made it past the ornamental cannon to the front door, through the scullery and into the study. He is a passionate supporter of satellite. I have never been against it; my only point throughout the entire debate has been that satellite does not provide the mass market solution. It will be appropriate in certain places. One of the pilots to identify how to bring broadband to the most difficult areas—what we call the last 5%—has been a satellite pilot. It is not beyond the wit of man to speculate that satellite may well prove to be one of the solutions put forward to reach the final 5%. His point was well made.
The shadow Minister expressed his concerns, which the Government share, about skill shortages. It is important to stress that every country in the world and every developed nation in the world is aware of skill shortages. The debate is happening in America and in the major economies of Europe. How do we upgrade people’s skills to cope with a fast-moving technology economy? The shadow Minister and my hon. Friend were right to say that virtually every business is a digital business, whether it is a very small business that needs its own website and e-commerce software or the largest businesses that rely on data management software to manage the work force and stock and so on.
We have made great strides. Not only have we put coding on the curriculum, which is a long-term investment, but we are beginning to properly audit further education and higher education courses to ensure that they are fit for purpose. We have launched degree apprenticeships, which are effectively employer-led degrees where people will spend as much time working with an employer as they will at university. That is a fundamental change that has been brought about by technology. The world of work and the world of study will necessarily have to blur, because, funnily enough, it will be the world of work that has the most up-to-date technology and a much greater understanding of how that technology will be used in the real world. There is also our huge push on apprenticeships, where we focus on technology apprenticeships. In Didcot, for example, I was pleased to meet six apprentices at Harwell last Friday. I am pleased that Didcot university technical college is due to open in September. UTCs are another innovation that recognises the need to develop the proper skills required for the work force.
We welcome “The Scale-Up Report” by Sherry Coutu. It made a valuable contribution to the debate. We are not planning a formal response to it, but Sherry Coutu remains an important adviser to Government and politicians of all colours. Her passion is for the technology sector, and she has been a great advocate for it. She pioneered “Silicon Valley in the UK”, where tech companies from Silicon Valley came over to meet tech companies in the UK. We are taking forward a lot of her recommendations. Many were already in train. Baroness Joanna Shields has pioneered the Future Fifty, where 50 fast-growing companies in the UK are identified. The Government work with them and offer mentorship in the belief that they should stay in the UK, eventually float in the UK and grow to be significant British businesses.
The shadow Minister rightly mentioned aviation, which is not part of my brief. The Davies report will be important and will drive the debate forward. When it is published after the election, I am sure all parties will study its recommendations. I have covered broadband and why it makes me grumpy. So far as long-term science funding is concerned, all I can say is that we clearly have a Chancellor who is passionate about the science base and who recognises that scientific research is an incredibly important and fundamental starting point for our leadership in so much of the technology sector.
The shadow Minister also mentioned procurement. I do not have the exact figures in front of me on the Thames valley businesses that have succeeded in getting procurement services from Government, but I will happily write to him on that. As he well knows, the Government are committed to opening up Government procurement to small businesses. We have launched an improved Contracts Finder website. We have made the process far less bureaucratic, for example by redrafting the pre-qualification questionnaire. We have also improved our record on late payment by ensuring that the public sector will pay undisputed invoices in 30 days.
Finally, we talked about the digital single market, which could be a great prize for this country and for Europe. We often talk about Europe in very negative terms, but a digital single market where UK tech companies can sell their wares to a marketplace of 500 million consumers with uniform consumer protection, uniform terms and conditions and secure delivery and carriage would be a great prize that we can work towards together as a family of European nations. I know that you, Sir Edward, will take that closely to your heart. On that note of hope and aspiration, it is time to conclude my remarks.