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October 25, 2022

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak urged to keep ‘technology superpower’ promise

Rishi Sunak told tech can solve the big problems but needs investment in skills and infrastructure as he takes over as Prime Minister.

By Ryan Morrison

Rishi Sunak previously pledged to make the UK a “science and technology superpower” as prime minister and now he is in office, as the only leading Conservative MP to gain enough support from fellow MPs, technology industry associations plan to hold him to his promise.

Rishi Sunak promised to fix the mistakes made by Liz Truss and continue the levelling up agenda during his first PM speech. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak promised to fix the mistakes made by Liz Truss and continue the levelling up agenda during his first PM speech. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

During his earlier campaign for the top job against short-term prime minister Liz Truss, Sunak pledged a cross-government taskforce approach towards science and technology, an increase in public R&D spending and to put “science and innovation at the heart of government”.

As he takes over 10 Downing Street, the new PM will be faced with an overflowing in-tray of problems including the cost-of-living crisis, the fuel crisis, the war in Ukraine, growing demands for a general election and in-fighting within his own party.

During his first speech as prime minister outside 10 Downing Street, he said: “Right now our country is facing a profound economic crisis. The aftermath of Covid still lingers, Putin’s war in Ukraine has destabilised energy markets and supply chains the world over.”

Paying tribute to Truss, he also said, “mistakes were made” and that he was elected to fix those mistakes, which will include “placing economic stability and confidence at the heart of this government’s agenda”, adding he’d do all he could to protect people and businesses.

‘Golden age’ of tech

Tech industry leaders say despite his heaving workload, he needs to keep his pledge to the industry if he wants to see it grow and continue the ongoing “golden age” that saw start-ups and scale-ups valued at more than $1trn, a growth rate six times faster than the rest of the UK economy.

Tech jobs saw staggering growth during the coronavirus pandemic as companies adapted to more remote work. The number of people employed in the sector rose from 3.3 million in 2020 to 4.7 million in 2022. The value of the UK tech sector has been on an upward trajectory for more than a decade. It is now 17 times more valuable than it was in 2012, worth an estimated £947bn to the UK economy.

Rashik Parmer, CEO of BCS said technology can also help to solve the big problems facing the country, but effort needs to be put into solving the technology skills shortage and have "more highly skilled professionals working for the public good".

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“The UK economy needs between 178,000 to 234,000 data roles, with almost half of businesses struggling to recruit them,” said Parmer, with data coming from the government’s own Data Skills Gap report. “Our IT workforce underpins our modern world; investing in tech, data, AI and cybersecurity skills is vital to the UK PLC’s competitiveness.”

Tech Nation's chair Stephen Kelly said Sunak must “ensure a strong pipeline of government backing is available” if he wants these fast-growing scale-up businesses to continue to expand, describing them as “the engine room of growth, exports, and employment for the UK”.

He said there are more than five million people working in tech in the UK and the sector has “become the beating heart of UK growth” so a strong robust strategy from the government to “continue building a vibrant ecosystem” that will boost homegrown talent and companies is vital.

Pro-tech approach is needed

CEO of UK tech industry body techUK, Julian David, was hopeful that Sunak would continue the pro-tech work he started during his term as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Boris Johnson.

"During his time as chancellor Mr Sunak had a strong understanding and belief in the role of the UK tech sector as a driver for economic growth,” said Mr David.

"To get the UK back on track to deliver long-term economic growth, Mr Sunak’s government will need to deliver on the digital infrastructure, digital skills, and regulatory certainty that businesses need to invest and innovate for the long-term benefit of the UK.”

Parmer agrees, explaining that “teaching AI, data science and cybersecurity, starting in primary school, is essential for young people to thrive” and that the UK needs to double the number of students leaving school with a high-quality computing qualification to meet growing demand.

During his first speech, Sunak confirmed support for the levelling up agenda established by Boris Johnson that will see economic growth throughout the country, and promised to continue to support businesses in the tough economic climate.

Declaring: “I am not daunted, I know the high office I have accepted and I hope to live up to its demands but when the opportunity to serve comes along you cannot question the moment, only your willingness.

“I stand here before you ready to lead our country into the future, to put your needs above politics, to reach out and build a government that represents the very best traditions of my party. Together we can achieve incredible things, we will create a future worthy of the sacrifices so many have made and fill tomorrow and every day thereafter with hope.”

Read more: How can the new prime minister help UK tech get back on its feet?

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