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General election 2024: Conservative manifesto promises to continue tech policies

The Conservative Party has launched its 2024 general election manifesto, and its plans for technology should the party be returned to power focus largely on a continuation of existing government policies, rather than any major new commitments.

The Tory manifesto document highlights many of the programmes and investments put in place by the government in recent years and promises to continue them – in line with prime minister Rishi Sunak’s oft-repeated intent to “stick to the plan”.

“A Conservative government will continue to invest in the digital, transport and energy infrastructure needed for businesses to grow,” the document said.

“Over the past 14 years, the Conservatives have turned the UK into a science and innovation superpower,” it claimed, adding that the UK now has the highest level of direct government funding and tax support for business research and development (R&D) of any country in the OECD.

The party said it will hit its target to achieve at least 85% gigabit broadband coverage of the UK by 2025 and nationwide coverage by 2030.

“Our ambition is for all populated areas to be covered by ‘standalone’ 5G mobile connectivity and to keep the UK at the forefront of adopting and developing 6G,” it added.

Promotion and oversight of artificial intelligence (AI) across the UK features heavily in the manifesto, citing the government’s track record on “leading global work on AI safety”. Funding will come from “[continuing] investing over £1.5bn in large-scale compute clusters, assembling the raw processing power so we can take advantage of the potential of AI and support research into its safe and responsible use”.

As previously promised by the government, AI will also play a key role in improving Whitehall productivity by “doubling digital and AI expertise in the civil service, to take advantage of the latest technologies to transform public services”.

To support tech investment by startups and small business, the Tories will increase public spending on R&D to £22bn a year, up from £20bn this year, and maintain R&D tax reliefs. “Recent changes worth £280m a year have simplified and improved R&D tax reliefs, including by bringing more SMEs into scope of the relief,” said the manifesto.

The party reiterated existing plans to improve the use of tech in the NHS, promising to invest £3.4bn in new technology to transform the NHS for staff and patients. Specific policies include: “[Making] the NHS App the single front door for NHS services. Patients will use the App to access their medical records, order prescriptions, book vaccine appointments, access a digital red book and manage their hospital appointments.

“[Using] AI to free up doctors’ and nurses’ time for frontline patient care. [Replacing] tens of thousands of outdated computers, slashing the 13 million hours in doctors’ and nurses’ time lost to IT issues every year and digitise NHS processes through the Federated Data Platform.”

A section of the manifesto focuses on children’s use of technology, and makes a previously discussed commitment to require schools to ban the use of mobile phones during the school day.

According to a fact check published by the BBC, 71.8% of schools in England have already said the use of mobile phones was “not permitted on school premises”.

Nonetheless, the Tory manifesto said: “We need to respond to the concerns many parents have…In the last decade, we have done more to protect children online than any other country. From next year, our Online Safety Act will make it a legal requirement for social media firms to protect children from illegal or harmful content online… But we need to do more to protect young people and empower parents to make decisions in the best interests of their children.”

A new Conservative government would put its guidance on banning mobile phones in the school day on a statutory footing and require all schools to operate a ban, “as the best schools already do”. The party said it will provide funding for schools to help them ban mobile phones where they need it, and urgently consult on introducing further parental controls over access to social media.

“We know this is a complex area and we need more effective age verification and parental controls. That’s why we will consult widely to get this right, including developing the necessary technology, in partnership with other countries who are considering similar measures,” said the manifesto.

In terms of technical education, the party cited the 21 Institutes of Technology the government has established, and said: “We will build on this by creating 100,000 more apprenticeships in England every year by the end of next Parliament.”

Finally, the manifesto promised to continue the government’s work on helping victims of the Post Office scandal, after legislation was passed last month to exonerate the subpostmasters that had been unfairly convicted.

“We will ensure the new redress scheme is in place and ready to make payments to claimants by the end of July. We are clear that the Post Office should be a valuable social and economic asset for communities and businesses for years to come. That requires a change of culture at the top to deliver the scale of change needed across the organisation,” said the manifesto.

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