The Liberal Democrat culture spokesman Don Foster has outlined his party's policies on strengthening the digital economy, using open source in government IT and protecting consumer data, among other issues.
The interview is part of ZDNet UK's Tech election 2010 series, where we ask the nation's parties to outline their technology policies in the run-up to the May general election.
The Liberal Democrats, who have never formed a government, were the only major party not to vote for the Digital Economy Bill, which became law on 8 April. In this interview — conducted before the bill was passed — Foster explains what his party would do for the technology industry in the UK if it is elected to power for the first time.
Q: What would your party do to promote and strengthen the UK technology industry?
A: I would like to highlight our plans in two key areas: skills and funding.
We need more focus on the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. We will improve the teaching of STEM subjects through measures such as expanding the TeachFirst programme to get more top graduates in our classrooms, reforming the existing bursary system for university students so that bursaries are awarded on the basis of studying strategic subjects — such as sciences and mathematics — as well as financial hardship and opening up opportunities for more vocational subjects like engineering.
The UK generates many of the world's most important new ideas. However, all too often, there is a lack of funding needed to commercialise these ideas. We will introduce Local Enterprise Funds, tax efficient investment vehicles to provide seed capital to start-up/early-stage businesses. These will overcome a key barrier in developing new ideas through to commercial products and services.
We will investigate approaches such as cloud computing and open-source software.
What is your long-term strategy for the digital economy?
The Liberal Democrats recognise the need for investment in our digital infrastructure to ensure everyone has access to broadband. We have supported the government's plans for a broadband tax in principle, but believe there are some flaws in the way it has been designed. In particular, we are concerned by reports that some people may be charged more than once, and we have called for exemptions for pensioners and the least well-off members of society.
We also believe investment must be targeted first at the remote and rural areas that are least likely to be provided for by the market to ensure these areas don't get left behind and the digital divide doesn't widen.
As part of any investment in this area, the Liberal Democrats will support initiatives that promote digital inclusion and the organisations — like public libraries — that deliver them. It is vital that everyone is equipped with the skills needed in the digital age and people aren't socially or economically disadvantaged by being digitally excluded.
What role should technology play in government transparency and interaction with the public?
Technology and the internet provide a huge opportunity for the government to be more open and to connect with the public. This government has an extremely poor record on transparency — repeatedly blocking the release of expenses details, for example — and the Liberal Democrats have long argued that more information should be made available to the public. For example, we would extend Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation to private companies delivering monopoly public services like Network Rail.
Liberal Democrats' culture spokesman Don Foster Credit: Jennifer Pack
Allowing people to access government services online can also save time and money. Central and local government have an important role to play in making public services easily accessible online and in encouraging and enabling people to use them.
What role should open-source software play in local and national government use, and what would you do to promote its use over that of proprietary software?
The Labour government spends £16bn a year on IT, but has a very poor record on IT procurement and has regularly been criticised by the National Audit Office. The Liberal Democrats will improve government IT procurement, investigating the potential of different approaches such as cloud computing and open-source software.
Open-source software can be cheaper than proprietary or bespoke software, and we believe government should consider open-source solutions in all IT procurement. The Liberal Democrats will conduct a full review of IT procurement procedures and work with industry to improve cross-government working practices and save money.
How would you balance citizens' online privacy against protecting commercial interests? The cases of Phorm and the Digital Economy Bill's copyright clauses are relevant to this question.
Our goal is to support the creative industries while, at the same time, fully acknowledging the issues of rights and freedoms for the individual that arise as internet technology advances. The Liberal Democrats are unconvinced of the merits of measures such as...