The ‘jury is out' on whether the tenth Digital Secretary in ten years can overcome the challenges facing the UK tech sector, despite new figures suggesting that investment in the industry is bouncing back since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nadine Dorries MP, appointed as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport last week in the latest Cabinet reshuffle, replacing Oliver Dowden, gave her first speech today at the opening of London Tech Week, where she called herself a "newbie" and committed to ‘listening' to what the industry needs from government.
Dorries' time as an MP hasn't included much work in the digital sphere to date, but has seen unsuccessful attempts to block same-sex marriage, reduce access to abortion counselling and introduce the promotion of abstinence to girls in sex education. She also temporarily had the whip removed in 2012 for an appearance on reality TV show ‘I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here', having not informed the Conservative Party about her decision to do so. Dorries was the first to be voted off the show by the public.
However, now as the latest Digital Secretary, Dorries will oversee a number of challenges facing the tech sector in the wake of Brexit and COVID-19, including the government's controversial plans to reform GDPR - and calls to reform immigration visas in order to attract talent.
Opening London Tech Week, Dorries said:
Can I first say how honoured I am to be opening London Tech Week.
It's been a baptism of fire. I only took over the role of Digital Secretary on Wednesday - and I'm already here amongst you, three days later, kicking off the biggest tech event in Europe. That's just quite amazing.
Though I'm a newbie, I know I'm in a room with some of the best tech minds around. And it's great to see you all in person. I think I've taken over this role at just the best time.
And I and everyone else in the government are acutely aware of how important the tech industry is to this country. It's going to be absolutely essential to our COVID recovery.
‘UK tech is booming'
Dorries pointed to the latest data from Tech Nation - a government quango that aims to ‘fuel the growth of UK tech - which found that start-ups and scale-ups raised £13.5 billion during the first half of 2021, which is three times what was invested in the first six months of 2020.
It also states that the UK now has more than 100 tech unicorns and 153 ‘futurecorns' - high growth companies that have the potential to become unicorns. Tech Nationals Head of Insights, George Windsor, said:
We are in the midst of the fastest and most astonishingly high growth we've ever seen in the UK tech ecosystem, so much so that when it comes to the size of VC investment rounds, we are going to have to re-evaluate what we think of as being significant.
Tech Nation said that investment into UK tech in the first half of 2021 was almost exclusively made into later stage companies in the form of ‘mega rounds' valued at £72 million or more. London attracted the bulk of investment, followed by Bristol, Birmingham and Cambridge. Tech companies in Scotland have raised £53.3 million so far this year, and those in Northern Ireland have attracted £18.8 million. Windsor added:
We are starting to see a step change in how the UK is being viewed on the global stage. The UK is a mature ecosystem that's growing like an extremely nascent one, which is incredibly interesting.
There wasn't a great deal of substance from Dorries during her first speech as Digital Secretary about what the government plans to do to support UK tech industry, but she did say that whilst the UK has "cracked start-ups", it is now time "to go big" and pave the way for a "new generation of British tech titans". She said:
I intend to do a number of things to make that happen.
First, I'm going to listen. I'm going to hear what the people have to say in this room - and across the wider tech industry - and I want to hear the things you think we could do to drive UK tech up to even greater heights.
I already know, for example, that one of the things you most need is stable regulation. That's why this government has made it a priority to pull everything we're doing on tech into one coherent strategy.
We published the Plan for Digital Regulation in July, and that plan sets out our overall vision for tech in the years to come. Innovation is at the heart of that plan, and I want to work with you to set the right rules for the next era of tech.
We at diginomica have our own view of the government's plans for digital regulation, but Dorries also believes that a shift in culture is needed in the UK to really drive future investment. Dorries added:
As your new Digital Secretary, I'll stand back where I need to - but I'll also act where I need to. However, as much as it's about government doing all those formal things I've just mentioned, it's also about cultural change.
This is a country known for its entrepreneurial spirit. For pioneering discoveries and scientific breakthroughs. And yet I know that amongst tech entrepreneurs, the UK can still be seen as a bit "stuffy".
Some institutional investors continue to treat the tech industry with suspicion, or balk at the amount of change the industry is driving. Well, that era is officially over.
To this government, it doesn't matter what you look like, it doesn't matter where you came from. What matters is who you are. You are the entrepreneurs of today. And we're on your side, and we're ready and waiting to celebrate your success with you.
I can hear the tech industry breathe a collective sigh of relief! But ultimately there are some big systemic challenges that Dorries should be addressing first and foremost, which Russ Shaw CBE, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates and founding partner of London Tech Week, pointed to. Shaw said:
The jury is still out on whether Nadine Dorries will be a natural champion of UK tech, but showing immediate support for London Tech Week is a step in the right direction.
The new Secretary of State inherits a British tech sector that is creating jobs, attracting investment and driving world-class innovation. However, there are significant challenges that need to be addressed - from a continued lack of diversity and inclusion in tech to establishing immigration visas for international tech talent that are affordable and efficient, from managing the evolution of GDPR to maintaining a regulatory environment that is envied worldwide.
London's tech companies will be paying close attention to whether the tenth DCMS Secretary of State in ten years backs the capital's most successful industry. Whilst today's speech didn't offer any surprises, for now we will have to take her involvement in London Tech Week as a positive sign of things to come.
At this point, the role of Digital Secretary is like a rotating door of politicians that are looking to make a name for themselves as they eye ‘bigger and better opportunities'. Matt Hancock did fairly well out of the post, after all (until he didn't).
We will have to wait and see what Dorries brings to the table, but I hope that her promise to listen to the industry to understand what it needs is sincere. For example, as Shaw notes, introducing new visa schemes for attracting talent post-Brexit is something that could be quickly remedied. We look forward to seeing what action is taken in the coming weeks and months.