If Theresa May wants to solve the ‘backstop’ crisis, she needs to talk to tech

If Theresa May wants to solve the ‘backstop’ crisis, she needs to talk to tech

The question of the Irish border has been causing problems for the Government and with the proposed Withdrawal Agreement causing serious concerns amongst Brexiteers, the DUP have signalled their refusal to go along with Mrs May’s plans.

This so-called ‘backstop’ is one which is baffling the tech industry: a problem of the Prime Minister’s own making for which she has not sought the advice of experts in solving.

There is no reason why the Government should accept the EU’s initial proposal on leaving the Single Market to have a border in the Irish sea, just as there is no need for the tail to wag the dog and the whole of the country stay in a Customs Union, thanks to the improvements in technology.

But it seems that technology is a dirty word in these negotiations, if it has been seriously considered at all.

In September it looked like there may be some kind of solution, with reports that the EU’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier was working on a new “protocol” that would use technology to minimise checks.

But a glance below the headlines showed that this development was less about 21st Century technology and more about mimicking a 1960s supermarket.

You cannot run next generation trade platforms using technology that was designed before we even put a man on the moon, but that was their suggestion.

It is astonishing to think that in this age of unparalleled technological development, our political leaders seem to think that technology from the 1950s is genuinely the answer.

But what should be more astonishing is the apparent refusal of ministers to engage with people who could help them – should they want that help.

I wrote to a number of MPs and ministers, offering information on what was available because, although I do not believe anyone has the product ready to go, I genuinely believe that technology can ensure we have as frictionless trade as possible and we can improve the processes used at other ports in the UK.

When companies meet with potential clients, they listen to their problems and work out what is needed. This has been what is missing in this scenario: what we have had is a few journalists who appear to lean towards Remain responding to initial comments, such as those from Philip Hammond at the Conservative Party conference, saying ‘that won’t work’.

How do they know? Do they have information that the rest of us in the industry, including those who have worked on solutions for ports including Rotterdam and Eindhoven, don’t have?

I believe we have the solution to the problem here in the UK. They are more likely to wear jeans and trainers than suits when they go to work in their distinctly un-corporate office space in Shoreditch or Bristol – and their sector is growing 2.6 times faster than the rest of the economy. Bright young businesses, with their knowledge of smart contracts, distributed ledger technologies and blockchain are much more likely to come up with answers than any number of committees where they still print out pages of documents and agendas instead of looking at them online.

We already have this technology embedded in luxury goods and even designer shoes: tech which will track and trace goods from source to eventual destination with the minimum need for human intervention. In short, we have shoes and bags more technologically advanced than measures being seriously considered by civil servants and negotiators.

Businesses which may wish to trade across borders won’t see the point of backdating their digital processes to be part of some archaic ‘trusted trader’ barcode system. What they would engage with is an innovative system which could improve the current procedures at Dover and Felixstowe and update the SPS protocols at the same time.

I am sure even the most traditional politician has heard of cryptocurrencies. Its security is based on blockchain, which allows us to build an immutable, hack-proof set of data. Distributed across the blockchain, the data is impossible to erase or spoof, creating a highly reliable point of ‘trust’ – a reference point which can be used with confidence and considerably cheaper than these latest ideas.

The industry is waiting for the call from No. 10: we’re here to help.

The tech industry could easily solve the backstop problem