What Do The Election 2015 Manifestos Say About Technology?
Is there such a thing as a “technology vote”? Are there people who opt for one party or another simply because of their technology policies? Probably not, but it helps to know what the parties’ views of technology are before you cast your vote.
We examined the manifestos of each of the main parties on the UK mainland and drew out the manifesto pledges on a variety of technology topics.Broadband
One thing almost all the parties have in common is backing for superfast broadband, which is defined as services with speeds of 30 megabits per second or more. The exception is UKIP, which doesn’t mention it. In fact “internet” only appears twice in the UKIP manifesto, both times under the heading of “crime”.
UK residential broadband connections, by headline speed Photograph: Ofcom
According to an Ofcom release earlier this month, one in three residential connections was superfast in November 2014, up from a flat 0% in May 2010, and 25% in November 2013. The proportion of accounts with superfast connectivity is rising by about 4% every six months, though that may change as the cheap connections in urban areas are made. Meanwhile rural areas remain poorly served: average ADSL speeds in rural areas was 3.9Mbps, unchanged from the year before, suggesting a growing digital gap compared to urban areas.
Conservative Party manifesto (page 15): “We will secure the delivery of superfast broadband in urban and rural areas to provide coverage to 95% of the UK by the end of 2017, and we will ensure no one is left behind by subsidising the cost of installing superfast capable satellite services in the very hardest to reach areas. We will also release more spectrum from public sector use to allow greater private sector access. And we have set an ambition that ultrafast [100+ Mbps] broadband should be available to nearly all UK premises as soon as practicable.” It adds (p21): “We will provide rural Britain with near universal superfast broadband by the end of the next Parliament.” On p42 it says it will pay for this by continuing to “top-slice” the BBC licence fee.
Green Party (p49): “Give BT and other public telecommunications operators an obligation to provide affordable high-speed broadband-capable infrastructure to every small business.” Also p62: “Ensure that all have digital access and give BT and other public telecommunications operators an obligation to provide affordable high-speed broadband-capable infrastructure to every household and small business. This in particular will encourage video-conferencing, helping to reduce both business and family travel.”
Labour Party (p20): “Labour will ensure that all parts of the country benefit from affordable high-speed broadband by the end of the Parliament [in 2020].”
Liberal Democrats: (p35/6): “We will complete the rollout of high-speed broadband, to reach almost every household (99.9%) in the UK as well as small businesses in both rural and urban areas.”
Plaid Cymru(p49): “We want to see an improved broadband connection, getting everybody online so that people can do business from home, with a target that all parts of Wales have access to speeds of at least 30Mbps and ensure that mobile phone operators provide a better service in all parts of Wales.”
Scottish National Party (p10): “we will seek additional investment to support a more rapid rollout of superfast broadband and 4G across Scotland and to support wider and affordable access to the internet in our most disadvantaged communities, and for a universal service obligation to be applied to telecoms and broadband providers ensuring everyone is able to access the communications they need.” It adds (p33/4): “Our aim is to deliver a future-proofed infrastructure that will establish world-class digital connectivity across Scotland by 2020, including tackling the digital divide. That is why we are investing in superfast broadband, so that at least 95% of premises across Scotland will be able to access fibre broadband by the end of 2017.”
UK Independence Party: no mention.
Analysis: The Tories’ and SNP aim is more aggressive than Labour’s, and is a reiteration of the aim stated in George Osborne’s last budget, where £1.7bn was allocated (via top-slicing) for the works. That might not be enough to pay for superfast installation in rural areas – which includes most potential SNP seats –where there are fewer potential subscribers per mile of fibre laid. The SNP pledge could therefore be costly, but isn’t costed. Labour has not given a costing for its target. The Liberal pledge of “high-speed” connections sounds like speeds that don’t reach the “superfast” of 30Mbps, or even get near “ultrafast” (over 100Mbps).Taxation
Margaret Hodge MP put the tax-efficient antics of companies such as Google, Amazon and Starbucks under the magnifying lens for a brief frying in the Public Accounts committee. That struck a chord with the public, and political parties are trying to hum a tune to go with it. While none of the manifestos name the big US technology companies that use tax-avoidance tactics – Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and (soon) Uber – it’s clear that their methods will come under scrutiny.
Conservatives (p11): “tackling tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance and tax planning is an important part of our long-term economic plan. We will lead international efforts to ensure global companies pay their fair share in tax”
Greens: (p50/51): “Introduce an urgent programme of legislation, starting with a Tax Dodging Bill designed to reduce the tax gap and establish a general anti-avoidance principle. Our plans include obliging banks to provide information about companies automatically to HMRC, and abolishing the rule that allows non-domiciled residents not to pay tax on foreign income.”
Labour (p18): “Our first Finance Bill will close the tax loopholes that cost the Exchequer billions of pounds a year … end unfair tax breaks used by hedge funds and others … it is by tackling tax avoidance in this concerted fashion that we can reduce the deficit and protect the family budgets of working people.”
Lib Dems (p42): “[We will be] Introducing a general anti-avoidance rule which would outlaw contrived structures designed purely or largely to avoid tax.”
Plaid Cymru (p13): “The cost of tax avoidance and evasion is estimated at £120bn per year across the UK, according to the Ta Justice Network. HMRC needs more staff to crack down on corporate tax avoidance and income tax evasion, and close this ‘tax gap’. Plaid Cymru would reverse the 25% cut in staff started by the last Labour UK government.” On p15 it adds: “We will strengthen tax anti-avoidance legislation to make it harder for companies, individuals and other organisations to avoid paying their rightful amount.”
SNP: no mention. (The SNP would not be able to determine UK tax policy.)
UKIP: (p7): “It is grossly unfair that a few multinational corporations have been able to access all the benefits of our thriving British consumer market without making a proper contribution to the costs of British society. The public has every right to be angry about this. UKIP will not allow large companies to continue getting away with paying zero or negligible corporation tax in Britain. We will bring this unfairness to an end. By restoring British tax sovereignty [by leaving the EU], which we lost when we signed up to the EU, we will end the practice of businesses paying tax in whichever EU or associated country they choose. Our membership of the EU enables companies to avoid paying some UK taxes with impunity and we will close this loophole. We will also set up a Treasury Commission to monitor the effectiveness of the new Diverted Profits Tax and bring in any further measures necessary to prevent large multinational corporations using aggressive tax avoidance schemes.”
Analysis: of the six, UKIP’s is the most aggressive – but would have to be put on hold until the UK left the EU, a process that could take years. Whether it would work is a different question. Labour’s pledge to close the tax loopholes straight away is ambitious, and there are always accountants ready to find new ones.
None of them, including the Lib Dem proposal, would obviously be able to tackle manoeuvres such as Google’s use of Ireland for booking ad revenue or Amazon booking purchases to a subsidiary in low-tax Luxembourg.
Nor do any of them mention IR35 - the tax rules which affect many computer contractors who lessen their tax payments by assigning themselves as the employees of a company they own. The Coalition made noises about reforming it, but didn’t do anything – perhaps because the sums involved are comparatively small, at about £300m annually in tax and National Insurance contributions.Data retention
The Snowden revelations halfway through the last parliament led to profound discussions about surveillance, privacy and the extent of any necessity to inspect or retain personal data. It is here that some big differences open up between the parties.
Conservatives (p63): “We will keep up to date the ability of the police and security services to access communications data – the ‘who, where when and how’ of a communication, but not its content. Our new communications data legislation will strengthen our ability to disrupt terrorist plots, criminal networks and organised child grooming gangs, even as technology develops. We will maintain the ability of the authorities to intercept the content of suspects’ communications, while continuing to strengthen oversight of the use of these powers.”
Greens (p61): “[We will] Oppose any case for secret unaccountable mass surveillance of the type exposed by Edward Snowden. We do accept that government law enforcement agencies may occasionally need to intercept communications in specific circumstances. Such specific surveillance should be proportionate, necessary, effective and within the rule of law, with independent judicial approval and genuine parliamentary oversight. We would replace the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which has failed … [We would] Follow human rights judgments limiting surveillance and data retention in full; [and] support the EU’s proposals to strengthen data protection laws against opposition from large US data-driven companies.”
Labour (p54): “We will need to update our investigative laws to keep up with changing technology, strengthening both the powers available, and the safeguards that protect peoples’ privacy. This is why Labour argued for an independent review, currently being undertaken by David Anderson.”
Lib Dems (p113): “[We will] oppose the introduction of the so-called Snooper’s Charter. We blocked the draft Communications Data Bill and would do so again. Requiring companies to store a record of everyone’s internet activities for a year or to collect third-party communications data for non-business purposes is disproportionate and unacceptable, as is the blanket surveillance of our paper post. [We would] set stricter limits on surveillance and consider carefully the outcomes of the reviews we initiated on surveillance legislation by the Royal United Services Institute and the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation David Anderson QC. We are opposed to the blanket collection of UK residents’ personal communications by the police or the intelligence agencies. Access to metadata, live content, or the stored content of personal communications must only take place without consent where there is reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or to prevent threats to life.”
Plaid Cymru: no mention.
SNP (p21): “We do not support Tory plans for the reintroduction of the so-called ‘snoopers’ charter’, which would see all online activity of every person in the UK stored for a year. Instead, we need a proportionate response to extremism. That is why we will support targeted, and properly overseen, measures to identify suspected extremists and, if necessary, examine their online activity and communications.”
UKIP: no mention.
Analysis: Labour and the Lib Dems are hedging their bets somewhat, by waiting for a review which will report after the election and whose outcome isn’t known. The Lib Dem position is more strongly against the idea of surveillance than the Tories or Labour. The SNP and Greens are both more explicit in their discussion. Plaid Cymru and UKIP don’t seem to be bothered.Digital government and data
The free data revolution started by Gordon Brown’s government, and the Coalition’s opening up of government procurement to smaller companies as well as its implementation of “agile” implementations through the Government Digital Service (GDS) has changed the face of government radically since January 2010. Will that carry on – or stall?
Conservatives (p49): “We will continue to be the most transparent government in the world”.
Greens: p61: “[we will] Oppose the privatisation of data held by the government that should be open to all, such as the Postcode Address File (PAF), or by companies providing public services, such as data on the progress of buses that can be used by smartphone apps to predict waiting times; oppose the sale of personal data, such as health or tax records, for commercial or other ends; use government purchasing power to support open standards in information technology.”
Labour (p18): “[And] we will use digital technology to create a more responsive, devolved and less costly system of government”. Labour’s Chi Onwurah told the Guardian that, among other targets, this would involve trying to get local authorities, which presently tend to develop their own custom software, to create common platforms and share code to create efficiencies; the GDS, she says, has shown some of the way to go there.
Lib Dems (p36/7): “Maintain and develop the award-winning Government Digital Service, and the principle of Digital by Default in public services, pressing ahead with plans to extend this to local government. Continue to release government data sets that can facilitate economic growth in an open and accessible format, including on standards in public services. Ensure the technology implications of government activity are properly considered by introducing Technology Impact Assessments into the policy design process.”
Plaid Cymru: p33: “Increasing reliance upon technology leaves countries open to attack by foreign powers without the need for conventional weapons. We will bolster cyber-security defence capabilities to increase security and prevent cyber-attacks.”
SNP: no mention.
UKIP: no mention.
Analysis: The Green Party’s stance on the PAF is welcome, but too late – the PAF was sold off with the Coalition’s Royal Mail selloff. Both the Lib Dems and Greens take a clear interest in both open data and the progress of the GDS.And the rest...
Beyond those four main topics, the parties’ interests in technology split, with some notable suggestions that could attract attention. Among these, the one which has caused the biggest stir is the Greens’ proposal to change copyright terms (made on p61, in its “Information and Digital Rights” section). It says it would “Make copyright shorter in length, fair and flexible, and prevent patents applying to software”.
This caused a storm on Twitter during the week when authors and musicians digested its potential effects, along with a previous suggestion of a cut in term to 14 years. Caroline Lucas, the Green candidate in Brighton, argues that the proposal is that copyright would expire 14 years after the death of the creator, not 14 years after creation. (The current copyright term is 70 years after the creator’s death.) “What is in the manifesto is a commitment to copyright laws that protect creators.” She added: “Artists and writers have to be able to make a living and fairly benefit from their work. I know that many often live in poverty for years before seeing any financial reward for their work and I would never back any proposal that did not take fair account of that fact.”
UKIP is concerned about “pay-as-you-go” road charging (p37): “From October 2015, the EU will require all new cars to be fitted with the ‘eCall’ system. Ostensibly a road safety measure, this system tracks vehicles using GPS and reports back to a central database. This capability would enable introduction of a Europe-wide road pricing system, on a miles travelled basis, which the EU Transport Commissioner is keen to introduce. We will scrap mandatory fitments of eCall and allow owners who already have eCall installed to disable it on their vehicles.” None of the other parties mentions eCall.
The SNP frets about “fixed odds betting terminals” – the computer roulette (and similar) games found in betting shops (p20): “the Scottish Government needs legislative powers to control the growth and impact of these machines, and we believe the UK government should devolve these powers in full. The problem of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals is linked to the proliferation of betting shops in some communities and so we will continue to argue for Scotland to have full responsibility for the regulation of gambling”.
The SNP also wants to support a Creative Content Fund for the video games industry (p11) “to encourage the formation of new studios and also back the retention of the Video Games tax relief.” Scotland is a key area for video games development, but has been losing out to countries such as Canada. None of the other parties mentions the topic.
How secure is your tablet? The Conservatives say (p59) that as part of a “modern crime prevention strategy to address the key drivers of crime” they would “publish … a ranking system for the security of smartphones and tablets, as well as online financial and retail services.” Though the idea sounds enticing, a Tory spokesperson was unable to give any more detail on whether this would relate to how often items were stolen, or how difficult they were to attack through malware or hacking.
And that’s essentially it. All the parties except, apparently, UKIP recognise the importance of the digital economy: the Lib Dems note that it is growing at over 10% annually, much faster than the general economy, and employs about 1.5 million people. “We need to support this important sector of the economy,” the Lib Dem manifesto says. The question is, are the parties doing enough here there to capture your vote?
You find can find the full manifestos online, in PDF format:Conservative Green Party Labour Liberal Democrat Plaid Cymru (English version) Scottish National Party UK Independence Party