In a recent meeting with the Lords EU committee three senior UK tech sector figures discussed their views on the impact for their industry and how they see the current plans for leaving the EU.
They expressed how for many, leaving the EU without a good trade deal would be unthinkable, beyond comprehension for some.
Antony Walker, CEO at IT industry body, TechUK, told the committee. “For me it is quite hard to think through a no-deal scenario because it will be so disruptive. I think many take the view that it would be such a negative outcome for the UK economy that it won’t happen. The scale and complexity of no-deal is so great that it is genuinely difficult for companies to think through and mitigate.”
A status quo transitional agreement of at least two years is the minimum requirement that the UK tech sector needs to remain competitive, he added. “Everybody in the sector wants clarity by March.”
“We are very clear that we want a status quo transitional agreement. If we are going to make a success of Brexit we are going to have to prepare and plan so we need that time. Two years is the absolute minimum time required.”
Even with a good deal there will be challenges. At the top of the list are a shortage of investment funds and a shortage of talent in the future along with current uncertainty.
Simon Hansford, CEO at UK cloud hosting supplier UKCloud, said the industry needs to know quickly what the final relationship will look like or decisions cannot be made about the future. “It is the uncertainty that will kill us. We have multiple multi-million-pound investment decisions that need to be made but that depends on capital, certainty and access to people.”
He said small and midsized It businesses are most affected by uncertainty about the future UK and EU relationship. “There are very few SMEs that have the will and resource to invest in the unknown.”
Similarly, Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates said that start-ups are not in a position to prepare for the unknown because are so busy trying to get their businesses up and running. “Contingency planning for Brexit is not high on their agenda,” added.
If the UK closes its doors to free movement of EU citizens the access to good talent will diminish and this in itself will cause uncertainties.
Walker at TechUK said about 8% of talent working in the UK tech sector are from the EU. These are highly skilled and talented people with most earning salaries between £45,000 and £80,000 a year, he added.
The number of EU workers in the UK tech sector would have to increase as the industry grows because the pipeline of UK talent can’t meet the demand, according to Walker.
“There is a global race for tech talent and if you want to be a leading global digital economy you have to be open to the best global talent,” he said. “Sadly, at the moment the message that is going out around the world is not that the UK is open and we need to fix that.”
Shaw at Tech London Advocates said that regular surveys of the organisations community reveal that the shortage of talent is their biggest concern.
He echoed Walker’s fears that the UK no longer appears open to talent. “Some of the talent from around the world that was planning to come here is now thinking twice because what is coming out of the UK, related to Brexit, is [uncertainty for them].”
Meanwhile Hansford at UKCloud described the difficulties this shortage is causing the supplier.
“We have about 50 vacancies at the moment in a business with 200 employees. This is our single biggest inhibitor to growth and clearly if talent disappears or becomes harder to get it becomes even harder for us,” he said.
On top of this funding for the tech sector in the UK post Brexit will be more difficult to come by as funding set aside for the EU tech sector has been stopped for UK companies.
Shaw at Tech London Advocates said although nothing has been announced EU Investment Fund funding has slammed to a halt for UK start-ups.
“The European Investment Fund effectively stopped investing in the UK. There was no public message about this as they won’t disclose it but it did stop. What can we do now to prepare the British Business Bank to fill that void,” he added?
Beyond funding and recruitment problems start-ups face other challenges. Shaw told the committee that companies in the UK fintech sector will be hard hit for example s UK finance firms lose their rights to trade freely across the EU, known as passporting rights.
The executives facing the committee asked for the government to increase communication about Brexit progress with the tech industry. They said since December there has not been a reduction in information.