U.K. Government Keeping An Open Mind On Bitcoin, Says Digital Economy Minister

Ed Vaizey, the U.K.’s minister for the Digital Economy, has said the government is keeping an open mind about digital currencies as it continues a review of Bitcoin and its ilk which kicked off this summer.

The minister was speaking during a wide-ranging on-stage interview with TechCrunch’s Mike Butcher, taking place yesterday at Disrupt Europe.

The U.K. government announced a review of unregulated digital currencies back in August, at the same time as launching a new financial trade body for the fintech sector, called Innovate Finance.

Asked whether the Bitcoin review will result in legislation or policies to actively encourage cryptocurrency technology companies, Vaizey said the government is still looking at the tech, but sees potential for e-payments to bring multiple benefits to consumers and businesses.

An uncertain and globally uneven regulatory environment around digital currencies injects an additional risk factor into this category of startups.

We are very strongly of the view that London and the UK can take a lead in fintech.

“We’re doing a major program of work looking at opportunities in digital currencies,” he said. “I think the Chancellor again, when he launched this new trade body, had a good look at that.

“We want to make these e-payments faster, quicker, we want to make it as safe as possible. And we want to look at the kind of technologies that the digital currencies use to allow end systems to operate in a de-centralized way, with no intermediaries. We want to look at how the new technologies can benefit consumers and the wider economy. So that’s something the Treasury is very interested in.”

He added that the Chancellor’s focus is on using payment systems and digital currencies as a way to push forward financial technologies in “innovative ways”.

“We are passionate about the sector. We’ve got research going on about what kind of work we can do to turbocharge fintech so along with other areas of innovation — whether it’s 5G or the Internet of Things — we are very strongly of the view that London and the UK can take a lead in fintech. So again it’s about focusing our research, looking at the opportunities and government working as a partner of the financial industry to see if we can grow those opportunities.”

On the Internet of Things, Vaizey said the government is especially interested in how the proliferation of connected objects can play a role in enabling smarter cities.

“We want to do a lot of research but also practical work in terms of looking at if the Internet of Things can make an impact on how we live in cities, as well as across all the other sectors where it’s going to have an impact — whether it’s education or health in particular. So these are all areas where we want to be a world leader,” he added.

Vaizey noted the government’s chief scientist will soon be publishing a report that will detail the various factors that need considering — such as standards — in order to smooth the rollout of the Internet of Things.

“Banging on about tech is one of the first things a government should do, even before you introduce the policies. Tell people you’re interested and want to have a conversation,” he continued.

“Internet of Things — we’ve said we’re interested. The Prime Minister when he went to CeBIT announced, I think, £25 million of investment in the Internet of Things research. We’ve got Glasgow as a future cities demonstrator where they’ve got lampposts that talk to each other. Milton Keynes is another one.”

“We regard the U.K. as one of the best places to start a tech company — and that is something we’ve achieved over the last few years. And part of it comes from talking about it — which I know sounds a bit trite, but actually if you keep talking about how you want to attract technology investment, how you want people to come here and start up companies,” added Vaizey.

“When we started Tech City I wasn’t involved with it. I was very nervous. I thought it was going to be some kind of 1970s style government intervention. But actually I was convinced when an investor came and said what Tech City did for us was it sent out a signal to us and the rest of the world that the U.K. was interested in supporting tech.”