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Digital Technology: Skilled Workforce

Volume 782: debated on Monday 27 March 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to boost and sustain the pool of skilled workers from the United Kingdom in the digital technology sector.

My Lords, as set out in the UK Digital Strategy 2017, we are taking steps to develop the digital skills needed for our world-leading digital economy. We have revised the computing science curriculum and are undertaking work to increase advanced digital skills in areas such as cybersecurity and data. We have introduced digital degree apprenticeships and are reforming technical education, including creating a specialist digital route with a clear pathway to employment.

I thank the Minister for his reply and celebrate the £6.7 billion invested in tech businesses in this country last year, making us the leading European country in this sector, with a tech sector growing at twice the speed of any other in the economy. Nevertheless, I refer him to the government agency Tech City’s own report, which states that the tech sector employs proportionally more non-UK nationals than any other industry, and the report by the Coalition for the Digital Economy, which predicts an 800,000-person shortfall in skilled employees over the next three years in this area, an issue which is made far worse by the delay and difficulty in obtaining visas. I ask the Minister to meet me and others from the sector to discuss how best to plug this current gap in skills and enable the UK to sustain its present advantage in what the Prime Minister has called a key sector in our post-Brexit economy.

The noble Lord is right to focus on the success of the digital sector. We are listening very carefully to the views and concerns of the tech sector. We already frequently meet representatives at senior civil servant level and ministerial level and have had a number of round tables to consider that. In the 12 months to December 2016, more than 30,000 people were sponsored as skilled workers in the information and communications sector.

Is the Minister aware of a very specific problem that will arise in this area caused by the so-called hard Brexit? Although British universities now teach only digital electronic engineering, many manufacturing companies still need analogue electrical engineers. Is the Minister aware that most of those people now come from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria? Will he confirm that they will continue to be allowed to come and work here?

As many Ministers have said before in this House, we are very concerned that people who have the requisite skills continue to be able to come to work in this country during the negotiation process and after it. We are doing our best to make sure that those skills are analysed and that we come to a satisfactory negotiated settlement with the EU.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware that there is a very simple way to solve this problem, which is to correct the gender balance. Only 1% or 2% of people in this sector are women. What special programmes do the Government have to correct this problem?

The noble Lord is right. Actually 17% of people who work in the tech sector and 9.5% of students taking computer science A-levels are female, yet women make up almost half the workforce. We are taking forward plans. There are a number of programmes already in place to do that: CyberFirst Girls Competition, the TechFuture Girls programme, Code First: Girls, techmums, Mums in Technology, Microsoft’s DigiGirlz events and a number of others. It is absolutely on the radar screen.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the importance of the enterprise investment scheme in stimulating equity investment in a lot of these new digital companies? It is one of the reasons why so many have got off the ground.

I am aware of the enterprise investment scheme. It is one of the ways that we can promote start-up companies. It is more risky, but there are advantages to it, so I take my noble friend’s point.

My Lords, will the Minister pay particular attention to the unrealised potential and contribution to our digital economy of thousands of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds? The highest barrier to entry and to the realisation of their ambitions to set up their own business is having somewhere from where they can operate—business premises. Will the Minister undertake to convene a meeting of Ministers in other departments—the Department of Health, DCLG and so forth—that are overseeing an increasing number of empty buildings that could provide office space for these young people to realise their ambitions and potential?

The noble Baroness is right to address those issues. One of the things we are doing as part of the digital strategy is to convene the digital skills partnership, and my department will be leading. That will bring other parts of government together in addition to businesses, national and local charities and local authorities to make sure that we address digital skills in a more collaborative way and that digital skills are better co-ordinated and targeted more effectively.

My Lords, since digital skills are becoming as important for our future competitiveness as literacy and numeracy skills, can the Minister give us an assurance that all new standards for apprenticeships and the new T-levels will be required to include a digital skills element?

One of the things we are introducing is the Institute for Apprenticeships, which will be operating from next month, to make sure that employers and young people taking apprenticeships are able to input to make sure that the courses that are provided are up to the requisite standard and provide things that employers want.

My Lords, the Government have said they recognise the need to work with the creative industries, which have a global reputation for training, on how to increase apprenticeship levels but without destroying the four voluntary levies currently run by Creative Skillset. What progress have the Government made on this issue and, in particular, will they be able to protect the skills investment fund?

I will have to write to the noble Lord on this. We are working, as I mentioned, with the Institute for Apprenticeships and are reforming apprenticeships. We have also established the National College for Digital Skills, which opened in 2016 and will train 5,000 students. In addition to our work with schools, technical education, higher education and, very importantly, lifelong learning, there is a lot going on in this sector.