Engineering

Prayers – in the House of Commons at 10:50 am on 20th March 1996.

Alert me about debates like this

11 am

Photo of Mr Tim Rathbone Mr Tim Rathbone , Lewes

I welcome this opportunity to raise in the House once again the all-important subject of engineering. I can vouch for the operation of the ballot in obtaining this slot for an Adjournment debate, having waited for months for my lucky day to arrive. No element of choice is involved.

In these days of political correctness, I must declare my interest in this subject. First, I am a founder member of the all-party engineering development group and, for the past four years, I have had the honour to be its chairman. Secondly, I am a parliamentary adviser to Seeboard, my local electricity company—now also a gas supplier—and to Chanel, an industry leader in fashion and fragrance. Both companies draw on engineering talent for their success and I accentuate that point because it shows the diversity of engineering operations in industry. Thirdly, I must declare my position as a business adviser to Lexion, which is a growing management consultancy deeply involved in improving the performance of many varied engineering companies in Britain and elsewhere.

I am not alone in my interest in this debate this morning, as you can see, Mr. Deputy Speaker, from the number of colleagues who are here. I wish to record apologies from some of my hon. Friends who would have liked to have been here and from whom the House would have been interested to hear, but who have been kept away, mostly by service on Select Committees. I mention especially my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) and my hon. Friends the Members for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson), for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) and for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce).

To put the debate in its proper context, I remind the House that engineering is Britain's biggest profession by a long chalk, and that it is the greatest contributor to Britain's gross national product. Engineering is one of our key national capabilities, as was so aptly pointed out by Dr. Alan Rudge at the launch of the new Engineering Council last month. He said: Engineering encompasses issues which impact upon every aspect of social and business life. Engineering is about innovation, wealth creation, quality of life and even national survival … it is also concerned with the effective management of Time, Money, Technology and People. In all of these aspects the Engineering Profession can make a contribution which deserves to be heard. I am glad to have this opportunity to add a parliamentary voice to that statement this morning.

I shall put in a word here about the new Engineering Council, to place it on record. It was launched in February with two specific aims—to unify the engineering profession and to establish a new, forward-looking relationship and partnership between the council and the 39 engineering institutions. At its launch, the council was described by the Deputy Prime Minister as a vital first step towards a stronger voice for engineering in Britain. That it is already happening.

It is crucial that the engineering profession is properly understood and respected, that the contribution of engineers is heard and that young people are attracted to a career based on engineering. I pay tribute to Sir John Fairclough, who launched and worked so hard to achieve the initiative to unify the profession. I wish Dr. Alan Rudge very well as the first chairman of the new Engineering Council senate.

It is a happy coincidence, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Energy will know, that the debate coincides with SET 96, the third national festival of science, engineering and technology, which is taking place under the auspices of the Department of Trade and Industry all this week. The subtitle of SET 96 is "The Essence of Trade and Industry", which correctly positions our debate today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister for Science and Technology on that initiative and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Energy will transmit those congratulations to him.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Science and Technology has shown a considerable grasp of the fast-changing issues and he has dispelled many of the fears of the prophets of doom about the move of the department to the DTI last summer. He has led the efforts to improve the integration of competition, innovation, technology, science and engineering, and continually drawn attention to the importance of training in primary science and mathematics as the cornerstone for competitiveness in SET-based industries.

SET 96 follows up the DTI's Action for Engineering campaign of last autumn and is a further step forward in the Government's activities to promote engineering in this country and abroad. It is due to be followed by the Year of Engineering Success—YES—which will run all through 1997 and is due to be launched in Parliament at the end of this year. It is a co-operative initiative by the engineering profession, employers, industry, business and the Government. It will mark and remind people of the vital role of engineering in our country's economic success in an increasingly competitive world, and of the contribution that engineering makes to our lives at home, at work, in transportation, in health care, in communications, in leisure and, not least, in our future environment.

It is of long-term importance that better public awareness and appreciation must increase the interest of more able children in engineering and technical courses at school and in the pursuit of engineering studies in further education. I shall return to that subject in a moment.

It is no mistake that the name of the YES promotion spells "yes". The intention is that, by the end of 1997, when opinion-formers are asked if they think engineering is important to the economy, they will respond yes; when school children are asked if they are interested in a career in engineering, they will say yes; and when parents are asked if they would be pleased for a child to become an engineer or technician, they will say yes. The promotion must establish engineering as a preferred profession for young people and an exciting route for any ingenious and resourceful student with an eye to the future.

Much has already happened in previous years to advance our argument. The Royal Society of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce continues to make a valuable input to developing new ideas and approaches. The society was the patron of Industry Year, ran a series of seminars on manufacturing and wealth creation in the economy, conducted an erudite and deep study of the workplace of tomorrow, and continues to contribute a series of lectures and other activities. The BBC, which is so often criticised in the House—and with some justification—featured last winter a special television session celebrating engineers and their achievements, which was an immense success. The Engineering Training Authority continues to focus on the skills and training needs of engineering manufacturing industry. Year after year, the Engineering Employers Federation makes an important contribution to knowledge about engineering and the environment in which it operates.

Engineering institutions such as the Institution of Electrical Engineers are establishing engineering centres to provide local access to best practice, information and advice, and schemes such as the continuing performance project update and develop technical and non-technical skills. In addition to the many institutional programmes, the Engineering Council organises initiatives aimed at promoting engineering through, for example, Young Engineers for Britain—an annual competition that attracts entries from more than 1,200 budding inventors between the ages of 11 and 19. Women into Science and Engineering aims at attracting more women to engineering. The proportion of women engineering undergraduates has more than doubled during the period of that campaign, but remains at 15 per cent. The Environment Award encourages engineers to take account of environmental issues and to find solutions to environmental problems. Neighbourhood engineer schemes link professional engineers and technicians with local secondary schools. They support teachers and give pupils valuable insights into engineering as a career. The technology enhancement programme funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation aims at improving technology, science and mathematics teaching. There is also the DTI-inspired action for engineering programme, but the Government must continue to give even stronger support in informing British people of the vital role that engineering plays in our national life and well being.

The Royal Academy of Engineering continues its good work of encouraging and maintaining excellence under the presidency of Sir William Barlow. Among all its activities, perhaps the most prestigious is the award of the qualification FEng—fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering—to those distinguished engineers who meet the demanding professional requirements of that title, who number fewer than 1,000. It is high time that that qualification was considered on a par with a fellowship of the Royal Society, for it is just as meritorious and important.

The academy provides on a cost price basis the parliamentary group's administrative back-up; without that help the group would not be as effective as it is. The group's membership comprises 98 Members of Parliament, 36 peers, 23 individuals and 136 corporations and universities. Our secretary, Jennifer Lindley, makes it all tick, and we are all very grateful to her.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman , Huddersfield

As I was in Committee, I missed a couple of minutes of the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks. While he is thanking various parties for their contributions, I am sure that he will mention the role of universities in innovation in engineering. Many fascinating and exciting best practices are to be found at universities such as Warwick, Huddersfield and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, but there is concern among the heads of innovating institutions about the tremendous pressure on their departments following the most recent round of budget cuts.

Photo of Mr Tim Rathbone Mr Tim Rathbone , Lewes

The hon. Gentleman entirely correctly anticipates comments that I shall make later.

All the endeavours that I described have the one aim of building a better future for British engineering as a wealth creator. Concern about the future of engineering equates with concern about the future of the United Kingdom. Wealth creation starts with engineers. Innovative British engineering solutions are world beaters. One good example is an ultrasonic gas meter just the size of a brick, which won the 1995 Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert award for its revolutionary design, and orders for it are coming in from all over the world. We must encourage and develop more success stories.

Improving the quality of life is as important as wealth creation. Solutions to pollution and environmental degradation continue to come from scientists and engineers. Leanburn engines, battery-powered cars and fuel cells will help to control vehicle emissions, and all our lives will benefit. The technology foresight exercise identified key areas of research that are critical to wealth creation. The Government must continue to support and expand support through research councils, the UK engineering base and the key technologies that technology foresight identified. Let us be clear that technology foresight will fail if industry does nothing. The Royal Academy of Engineering is actively encouraging industry to take a long-term view of markets and technological opportunities, and to spend more on research and development to take advantage of them.

Returning to the crucial requirements for success, we must improve the teaching of basic mathematics in schools. Worrying statistics from a recent Exeter university study of mathematics abilities in Great Britain and other countries were presented at a conference in Birmingham yesterday. Young people in Germany, Poland or Singapore—to pick just three examples—are far ahead of their British counterparts at the age of 13, and they are even further ahead at 14. It seems that teachers in Britain are unwilling to correct mistakes or to demand precise and exact work; that children are allowed to resort to calculators at too early an age, before they have achieved a proper understanding of numbers; that there is too little streaming to speed comprehension and improvement, especially of high achievers and low achievers; and that, too often, the qualifications of primary school teachers of mathematics are too low.

National wealth creation depends on the training of young people to levels at least as high as those in other industrialised countries, and it must start with a good foundation in basic mathematics. Teaching standards need improvement, whatever other changes may be made to our school systems. To achieve that—here I touch on the point made by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman)—we must continue to put new technology into our schools and adapt teaching and learning procedures to give all students the necessary knowledge and skills that they and our country need. That leads me to engineering education in universities.

There is a desperate need for more of our most able young people to go into engineering, which is a fascinating, broad, challenging and rewarding area of study and work. There is a shortage of top-quality chartered engineers and incorporated engineers, in part because too many students, even those who may be more naturally practical, are tempted into more theoretical areas of study. The universities have a role to play in that. Engineering should be used more widely as a general education leading to a variety of careers.

In that context, I must mention engineering at the University of Sussex, in my constituency. Since the university's initiation in 1965, engineering has functioned there as a closely integrated school of studies. By avoiding a conventional departmental approach to engineering, which can create barriers between civil, mechanical and electrical engineering, the Sussex school has been able to establish a range of highly successful interdisciplinary degree programmes and well-funded industrially relevant research activities, the quality of which is recognised both nationally and internationally.

Because of its unified nature and relatively small size, the school can respond more rapidly to developments in the engineering profession—most of which occur at the interface between traditional disciplines—than most of its competitors. In that way, engineering, in all its parts, is made more interesting and relevant. Even in Sussex there is room for more women applicants to take advantage of that.

Young men and young women should know that graduates from engineering and science-based courses are finding it easier to get satisfactory jobs than are many other graduates. What is more, they are attractive to a range of employers and are involved at the cutting edge of industry and business. It is also quite clear that graduates are now entering a well-paid profession. The Engineering Council's recent survey of salaries shows that the median annual salary for a chartered engineer is in the region of £35,000. It is also clear from recent studies that engineering is the best route to promotion to the very top of UK business.

There are some concerns, however, and I come to the point raised by the hon. Member for Huddersfield. The recent cuts in capital funding for universities announced in last November's Budget will have a particularly bad effect on departments of engineering and science, where investment in technological and research facilities needs to be increased. Retraining and re-education are of growing importance. It has been estimated by the Institution of Electrical Engineers that the half life of a technical degree is now only four years. Professional engineers need to keep their skills and knowledge up to date. Universities have increasingly to cater to that need.

There is a need for better research and for better funding of it. If Britain is to increase its productivity and competitiveness in Europe and the world, policies that attract innovative graduates into research are essential. It is relevant that the Science and Technology Committee in another place made the point that the absence of career opportunities for researchers is one factor in the lack of attractiveness of science to school children.

As I reach my conclusion, I must make a few wider comments on aspects of wealth creation that affect engineers, engineering companies and everybody else. We have a hard-won low level of inflation. Whatever else we do, we must maintain it; it influences all the costs of manufacture. A properly maintained value for sterling is important to raw material costs and the costs of outsourcing, and a competitive exchange rate is an important base for export sales. The national business overhead is being better contained in Britain than in many other countries, and more successfully than in previous years—but more effort is always needed to keep down business rates, the cost of national insurance, the hidden costs of less than good transport systems, the costs of meeting legislative requirements and much more. All are real costs for business and can be to the real detriment of engineering success.

We must see what more can be done to encourage and to help small firms. More than 95 per cent. of engineering firms have fewer than 200 employees, and more than three quarters have fewer than 20 employees. Many of the engineering industry's suppliers and customers are also small companies. I realise that this is close to the Minister's heart, as he was responsible for the Department of Trade and Industry's small firms in Britain initiative last year. I urge him to seek out better methods of equity finance for small firms; more help for small firms in managing their finances and their businesses; opportunities to reduce regulation on their operations, as outlined by the Prime Minister only last week; and better and more continuous Government strategy for house building, construction, infrastructure inputs and export development, in which all small firms, particularly small engineering firms, have a vital interest.

Every engineer knows how important it is to know how the various parts of any system interrelate and to have a vision of the purpose of all endeavour. That is a good approach for government as well.

The quality of our education output—to put it in manufacturing terms—is not good enough, particularly considering the considerable sums that are spent on it. The fact that many technology and science courses are undersubscribed demonstrates either that pupils are not made aware of the interesting careers available in engineering and similar professions, and the importance to the future prosperity of our country, or that they consider the discipline of study in those subjects too hard compared with the softer options of the humanities, business studies or media studies, which are so popular. That problem arises particularly if they have not had the necessary basic training in mathematics and sciences early in their school career.

Perhaps the problem arises from a lack of reliable careers advice in schools or from the professions, although the Engineering Council has a number of programmes that aim to encourage schools and their pupils to consider this career option. A constituent of mine wrote recently: I have found engineering to be most rewarding in terms of job satisfaction, contact with people, overseas travel and living abroad and seeing an end product benefiting the community". We can all draw inspiration from that.

Photo of Mr Gordon Oakes Mr Gordon Oakes , Halton 11:27 am, 20th March 1996

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) on the precision of his speech, which is very apt in a debate on engineering, but most of all on raising this subject. As he said, this is Science, Engineering and Technology Week. Yet this one-and-a-half-hour debate on a Wednesday morning is the only contribution that the House is making to what should be a focus event throughout the nation. For once, the media are doing something about it—usually, they do not—but, alas, we are not, except for the hon. Gentleman. I do not acquit my own party in any way. We had a Supply day on Monday, and there are many things that we could debate about science and engineering, but we chose not to. We are as much to blame as the Government.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman , Huddersfield

I have just come from the industry forum of the Labour party, in the City of London. Hundreds of people were there for the launch, by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, of an event tied in with this week, so the Labour party, in many respects, has been fully and actively involved in this week.

Photo of Mr Gordon Oakes Mr Gordon Oakes , Halton

I am delighted to hear it. I was not talking about what the Labour party is doing in the country as a whole; I was talking about what we are doing in the House. It is only because the hon. Member for Lewes raised the subject of science, engineering and technology that we are talking about it today.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned some of our past engineering achievements. They are indeed outstanding. In the last century, our nation led the world in railway and marine engineering; in this century, we have led the world in aeronautical and nuclear engineering, telecommunications and television. All those developments emanated from this country. But do we still lead the world in engineering? Alas, I think not. We should analyse what went wrong and, by means of national policy, endeavour to put some of it right.

Only a couple of years ago, the channel tunnel was opened, linking this country with continental Europe. One hundred years ago, such an enormous engineering achievement would not have been celebrated just in Kent; it would have been celebrated in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Edinburgh and the north of Scotland. There would have been festivities—all manner of events in recognition of that tremendous achievement. In fact, very little credit was given to the engineers who built the tunnel in the face of enormous difficulties. There was carping criticism about the cost and the time that the work took, but we did not hear anything about what had been achieved. The hon. Member for Lewes was right to raise this subject, because the nation is no longer achieving such things.

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, engineering has many spheres, and we could lead the world again in the next century—which is now approaching. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the environment. If we are to maintain our present standard of living, and keep our atmosphere and water clear and clean, chemical engineering is the only answer. Some organisations may disagree; presumably, they would like us to go back to living in caves. That is one solution, but it is not what the British people want.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned both chemical and electrical engineering. Given the present level of pollution, we must invent an electric car that is economical and non-polluting, and the only people who can do that are electrical and mechanical engineers. Work is already under way, but are the resources sufficient?

Debates about water are taking place in various parts of the country, including your part of the world, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can the nation really afford to let its fresh, clean rain water flow into the ocean without conserving it? We need barrages. Barrages need not be the enemies of ecology; engineers can be eco-conscious and enhance the ecology of an area, provided that such considerations are built into their plans. Civil engineering has enormous potential not just to conserve this country's resources, but to provide a better environment and give a lead to the rest of the world.

Will we be at the forefront in the next century, as the hon. Gentleman and I hope? I do not know. I am not happy with the way in which the Government have dealt with the whole question of science, engineering and technology. Three years ago, a White Paper was produced, and was widely welcomed in the House. I spoke in the debate on that White Paper, as did many of my hon. Friends and members of the Liberal party. We all praised the present Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who was then the Minister responsible for such matters. The White Paper was imaginative. What has happened to it? An imaginative Department was created, making science, technology and engineering a priority, and—vitally—a Cabinet Minister was there to fight its corner in the Cabinet. When the present Chief Secretary left that Department, however, the steam seemed to go out of it. Science, technology and engineering became just another aspect of the Department of National Heritage, along with the citizens charter and the lottery. That is no way in which to treat the subject.

The present position is even worse. The Department of Trade and Industry now deals with science, technology and engineering. Short-termism is inevitable in that Department, because there is not enough interest in blue-sky projects. The Department will want to link science and technology, and confine itself to specific, narrow projects. That is where the research money will go. Moreover, no Cabinet Minister is involved other than one with a conflict of interests—the President of the Board of Trade. His job is to consider the needs of industry, and not necessarily to put science or engineering first. We need to think again about which Department should deal with science.

When I was Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, I was unhappy with the way in which that Department treated science. I fought hard for it, but it was treated as an afterthought, and I shed no tears when it was moved elsewhere. The present Department for Education and Employment might be a better home for it—certainly better than the Department of Trade and Industry.

There is no proper investment in engineering, in terms of either resources from industry or research and development funding. The White Paper discussed where the expert teams from the defence industry would go. In fact, they have dispersed and disappeared, rather than being harnessed to the vital tasks involved in civil engineering.

Most hon. Members will have received a copy of a brilliant paper entitled "Policies for the Next Government", issued by the Save British Science Society. Reading it over the weekend, I encountered a chilling phrase. Professor Alec Broers, head of engineering at Cambridge university and vice-chancellor elect, says: The market for the best academics is now international, with competition both from the USA and, increasingly, from technical universities in the Far East. In a couple of recent instances Cambridge has been unable to attract a candidate to a Professorial chair because it has failed to match the salary and research facilities of rival universities". The man who said that is a fellow of the Royal Society. He has a distinguished record with IBM in America, and was probably foremost in the field before he went to Cambridge. We are not talking about some obscure new "Johnny come lately" university; we are talking about Cambridge, which was once known throughout the world for its science and engineering expertise, but which now cannot attract professors. That is the result of more short-termism—short-term contracts for lecturers, instead of proper contracts. That is where we have ended up, with all research harnessed to narrow instead of blue-sky projects. One of the foremost universities in the world cannot attract a professor.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the median salary in engineering is about £35,000 a year. Engineers receive only £1,000 a year more than us—that is how poor the salary is. What is the median salary of accountants, barristers and brokers in the City? It is considerably more than £35,000 a year, but the engineer is doing more good in relation to this country and to the future of humanity than the lot of them put together.

I agree with all the hon. Gentleman's remarks on education. Fortunately, Sir Ron Dearing is considering this country's higher education. He should take account of this debate and of the needs of the engineering profession.

The Save British Science Society document makes the excellent point that specialisation, involving basically the study of three arts subjects or three science subjects, is too narrow. In the overwhelming majority of cases, those subjects are not mixed—either science or the arts is studied. It was so when I was at school and it has become far worse. The document advocates the study of five subjects, although possibly not at the present high level.

Photo of Mr Gordon Oakes Mr Gordon Oakes , Halton

Yes, the baccalaureate idea.

If a person is entering the science discipline, three of the subjects that he studies should obviously be science subjects, but two should be arts subjects—for instance, history, a language or English. Similarly, a person intending to pursue a course in the arts should take two science subjects because, to be an educated man in the present world, he must have some knowledge of science.

One of the difficulties in the House is that far too few engineers and scientists come here. Considering the candidates, from all political parties, for the next general election, I believe that that will become worse. Many of the people coming in have no knowledge of other subjects. They have arts degrees and have no knowledge of industry or of basic science. That is bad for the country, because we are too arts dominated. It is bad, too, for scientists not to study an arts subject, because they end up being treated just as back-room boffins. They need a wider base than just science, just as the arts graduate must have a knowledge of science.

I passionately agree with the hon. Gentleman's views on mathematics. It is too easy for a youngster at an early age to take the easy option and to opt out of mathematics.

That happens all the time. Such youngsters have no mathematical knowledge. It is not possible to have an innumerate engineer—it is a contradiction in terms. I am talking not just about the people at the top—the professors of engineering—but about site engineers and senior foremen in engineering. They cannot be innumerate and be an engineer. It is a waste of resources, therefore, to allow youngsters at an early age to opt out of mathematics and thereby debar themselves from the engineering profession, which, at a later stage, they might wish to join and make a significant contribution to. They have banned themselves from a whole technology by opting out of mathematics at too early an age.

In the old days, for example, we had to do Latin to enter certain universities. There is much sense in that. Mathematics should take an equal position. Engineers must do mathematics. They may achieve only a low level of mathematics, but at least they will be numerate and have knowledge of mathematics, no matter what university course they take.

The hon. Gentleman hinted at this when talking about the way in which engineers are regarded. In this country, we give too low a profile to engineers—a far lower profile than they are given in France, America or Germany in particular. An engineer can be anything from a distinguished professor to a chap mending a car in a garage—all are given the generic term. We do not give sufficient honours in our honours list to scientists and engineers. They should be at the head of that list because of their contribution to knowledge and to the economy of this country.

Photo of Mr Tim Rathbone Mr Tim Rathbone , Lewes

It is kind of the right hon. Gentleman to let me interrupt. A number of engineers are honoured in the honours list, but, unfortunately, when they are listed, they are never identified as "FEng", in the way that someone is identified as "FRS". I hope that that might be changed.

Photo of Mr Gordon Oakes Mr Gordon Oakes , Halton

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is right.

Having been a Minister with responsibility for education, I know that, only too often, we get crazes in education. During those crazes, we are apt to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Over the past 20 years, there has been a craze against apprenticeships and for people to remain in full-time education until they graduate. With that, we threw out the baby with the bathwater.

Some of our finest engineers, not only those on the ground, but those becoming distinguished heads of engineering, worked in a factory and went to night school to do their degree. They maintained themselves doing a useful job for the community, with money in their pockets while they were working. Before they became a BEng or a BSc, they had work experience and learned that they needed to know, not just about engineering, but about human resources and how to persuade fellow workers to do something in the way in which they wanted them to do it. We must reconsider that route. We threw away the old apprenticeship route, and we should bring it back, probably on a wider basis.

I have spoken for long enough. I address my remarks as much to Labour Front-Bench Members as to the Government, because we are moving closer and closer towards a general election. This subject is not for party political battle, as it involves this country's survival. I hope that, if we are in government, which I hope we shall be—although I shall not be here—we shall have a dramatic policy for science and engineering.

I do not necessarily want to bring back the old Ministry of Technology. Although that was a much-maligned idea, it had brilliant potential. It seized the country's imagination, but it was destroyed by the jealousy of other Departments and, being a new Department, it made many mistakes. We could learn by those mistakes, but one thing is certain: we must have in the Cabinet a Minister who is directly responsible for science, engineering and technology. In that way, we could be great again.

The future of engineering is bright. We must remember that we are still the great nation of George Stevenson, of Brunel and of some of the greatest names in engineering that the world has known. We can be at the forefront of world engineering again if it is properly handled.

Photo of Mr David Ashby Mr David Ashby , North West Leicestershire 11:48 am, 20th March 1996

How much I agree with what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone). I only hope that he is successful in persuading those on the Government Front Bench of the merits of what he has had to say to the House today. So often in some of the best debates, such as this, the press is noticeably absent, which may be one reason why we can be so frank and honest in what we have to say.

We say that this is not and should not be a political issue. But I do not see why we should not have innumerate engineers because, after all, there are many illiterate teachers. There lies the rub. I often ask myself why we do not have cross-party support on our efforts to raise standards in education. We need cross-party support, but virtually everything that the Government have done has been criticised. Real efforts have been made to try to debunk them, to make them look ridiculous and to persuade people not to improve our standards. Britain will never improve until we improve our standards.

I am looking at the time and I realise that there are others who want to speak. They will be able to have a real go at me for bringing politics into this. We have had a high-flown and interesting debate, but I want to talk about the ordinary people, the small jobbing engineers, the majority of engineers up and down the country employing fewer than 100 people.

I must declare an interest. I am chairman of such a company. I want to give the House some of the benefits—if they are benefits—of my experience in that area in the hope that somehow we can obtain some vital improvements in those small companies. We hear about all the big companies, but it is the small jobbing engineers who support them, making small parts so that the big companies can get on with what they are trying to do.

I am the chairman of a family company. I have a small, probably non-declarable—I have never tried to work it out—equity interest in the company. But in all fairness to the House, I should say that close members of my family have larger interests, indeed controlling interests.

Such companies produce goods and services for so many companies and are involved in many manufacturing processes. It was hard for companies such as mine during the recession. We had nil, even negative, growth, and it was a matter of battening down the hatches as far as we could. Even now, such companies have many difficulties. Profits are extremely tight. We are talking about extremely small margins. Many are producing not long runs, but small runs of high-quality products.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes said, being in engineering is exciting and innovative. It requires a high degree of skill and an even higher degree of perfection. The achievement that is possible in engineering can lead to high self-esteem.

I echo what has been said. How I wish that in our society we praised and lauded the ability of engineers, as happens on the continent. I can think of many times when I have been on the beach in Italy where being a dottore, an avvocato or even an onorevole, an Italian Member of Parliament, is nothing. What Italians want to hear is someone calling himself ingigniere. If we could only give such esteem to engineers, we would have people queuing up to become engineers and to achieve as engineers, as happens in other countries.

As has been said—I look at the time again and I do not want to go on repeating it—training is important to companies such as mine. The problem is not only the training of people, but the keeping of young qualified people. We train people and give them all the opportunities, only to lose them to the larger companies that can afford higher wages. Companies such as mine with small profits cannot afford to pay some of the wages that are paid by the larger companies, even though we recognise that we must provide the training because we need the skills. We want to be able to make larger profits so that we can pass them on to our work force, so keeping them, and thus keep our engineering alive. It follows, therefore, that companies such as mine have real continuing problems. If we are to survive, those are the matters that we must address.

As my hon. Friend said, engineering is time, technology and people. If we are to make bigger profits, we must acquire ever better technology and we must be ahead all the time. Coming out of the recession, if we are to survive so much competition and such tight profit margins, it is essential that we keep ahead in research and development. That is vital. If we are to have any success, we must put our profits back into research and development in order to ensure that we are ahead. That is not sufficiently recognised by those in government, especially the Treasury, which could do so much to help small engineering companies—or any company—to keep ahead of the competition in Europe and in the world in research and development.

In this age, it is also essential that we keep up with the ever-changing and more efficient technology, and that means machines. Machines not only wear out, but they change and become more and more efficient. There are new technologies in machining and tooling that provide that efficiency.

We have a work force whom we need to pay more, we need money for research and development and we need new machinery, if we are to increase our competitiveness and pay for the people whom we so much require. For a small business such as mine, a new machine may represent a year's profits, yet it is essential that we buy it. In such a situation, what will happen to research and development and to our ability to keep our work force in this age of competitive wages? There is nothing left for increased wages; nothing left to ensure that the life-blood is there for the continuity of the company.

Small companies prosper in the present climate, but they could prosper more. We must reduce overheads and costs. Reducing bureaucracy frees up management and reduces overheads. That is an essential point. We need less bureaucracy. Less time should be consumed in filling out forms and other unnecessary things, so that business is free to get going. To employ people on such unnecessary work cuts severely into the resources available for all the other things that are so necessary for small companies.

But most of all, small companies would be helped by an improvement in the taxation climate—by the ability to write off capital machinery costs more quickly. I cannot understand why the Government cannot target businesses such as mine, so that we could write off such costs more quickly. Why cannot we target real producing machinery, which will improve our competitiveness and the way in which we operate, giving us a real chance? Why cannot such capital be targeted, even for one year, at a time when such a boost is needed? It would make an enormous difference to companies such as mine, if they were targeted at the next Budget, for example. I know that my company needs new machinery urgently, but it cannot afford it.

Running a business is a balancing act. If such machinery were an approved tax target, it could be bought in the coming year and set the company up for two, three or four years. I am not talking about fat cats earning profits. I do not make such profits, have dividends or employ any fat cats. I employ people who are doing extremely well and I want to go on providing them with jobs. Such provision is vital to British industry and to the future of Britain.

My plea is that we should look at the tax climate for companies such as mine—most importantly tax write-offs on capital, which have been shown to be vital. I am not talking about extra cars. I do not want tax write-offs for cars for my employees. My salesmen can keep their three-year-old models going. I want help with vital capital machinery. That is the life-blood of the company in which I am involved and of thousands of other companies.

12 noon

Photo of Mr David Chidgey Mr David Chidgey Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, but frustrated that there is so little time available. I shall try to be brief. I am grateful for two reasons—first, because my constituency owes its very origins to engineering development and prosperity and, secondly, and perhaps more important, because I am a chartered engineer. Indeed, I understand that I am one of only five hon. Members who are fellows of the Institution of Civil Engineers. The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) said that civil engineering is the largest profession in the country, yet we are clearly sorely under-represented in the place where decisions are made that affect the advancement of my first profession.

In considering the future of engineering, we need to understand how we have developed in the past. It is important to remember that, until 200 years ago, all engineering was military engineering. As we began to think about clean water, transport and public health, a distinction between civil and military engineering became apparent. Indeed, the very first articles of association of the ICE's charter say that the society was set up to direct the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man". The remit of engineers is much broader than is often interpreted.

Civil engineers and others of their ilk are responsible for many of the essentials of modern life, including the muscles and sinews that hold society together such as bridges, roads and railways; the heart and lungs of our society where natural resources go in and waste comes out to provide clean water, and so on; safe, sustainable and effective transport to enable us to move around; energy to make it work such as gas, oil, hydro-electric, tidal and wind power, and most important, renewable sources of energy. Engineers are also deeply concerned with the environment, reducing pollution, containing coastal erosion, restoring contaminated soil and disposing of hazardous waste. They are trying to create sustainability in our economy and perform most important tasks and bear great responsibilities.

History shows that advancement in engineering and science is exponential. Only 50 years ago, the concept of intercontinental air travel was considered rather like taking an expedition into the unknown, with all the vagaries of a safari in darkest Africa. Rocket science was hit and miss. I remember reading a book when I was a boy entitled "Will Man Ever Reach the Moon?" Computers were virtually unknown, and certainly unimaginable to most people. Yet only 50 years on, we take flights to New York, Moscow and Sydney and are given the same assurances on such trips as our grandparents were when they booked a train journey from London to Birmingham. We plan and execute interplanetary voyages to the further reaches of the universe and they hardly warrant a newspaper headline. Computers are expanding at such a rate that something called Moore's law has been established, which tells us that microchips double in power and halve in price every 18 months. It is therefore clear that opportunities for the advancement of engineering and science are phenomenal.

It is against that background that we need to consider the future of engineering—especially in the United Kingdom—the provision of human resources, the strengthening of our economy through engineering and the importance of engineering to the well-being of our nation. It is appropriate that we are debating the future of engineering in National Engineering, Science and Technology Week. It is also important to note that, in September, the Year of Engineering Success will be launched, to which reference has been made, which will celebrate engineering and show our confidence in the future.

Science is about discovery driven by curiosity. Technology is about how to make things work, and engineering is about creativity driven by a desire to make a better world. Making that happen is a tremendous responsibility for the profession and the Government to bear.

The future of engineering depends on the future of engineers, technicians and crafts people. As a chartered engineer, I am very conscious of the failures of my profession. I understand that the Engineering Council is striving to unite all sorts of engineers under one umbrella, which has been required for some time. We need to maintain high standards in education, training and experience if we want more high-quality engineers. We must allocate adequate resources to premier engineering faculties in Britain's leading universities and to industry. Planning is vital to the future of engineering. How many mechanical, electrical, civil and aero-engineers will we need?

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman , Huddersfield

I know that time is limited; I shall not be making a speech. Do not let us replicate the problem raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes). All our universities have great strengths in engineering. They are diverse and we should not be referring to a premier league. Some of the new universities have streaked up the innovation and enterprise ladder.

Photo of Mr David Chidgey Mr David Chidgey Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point that is certainly within my concept of the future of further education and engineering.

Britain's engineering schools are competing with schools in France and Germany to produce international engineers. We must get away from the idea of British engineers training and working only in this country. We must accept that more and more undergraduates are undertaking four-year master of engineering degrees to develop the skills that they need, and are spending a year at universities in other parts of Europe. I note your signal, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I shall conclude soon.

It is vital that we dedicate resources to the training and education of our engineers and technicians. I say that as a governor of my local further education college in Eastleigh. Unless we provide education and skills by encouraging young people to undertake further education to attain basic skills in mathematics, so that they are able to complete courses successfully and attain further skills to match those held anywhere else in the world, we will have great difficulty in continuing to promote and develop our economy. The future of engineering depends on our ability to attract the brightest young men and women into engineering. To do so we, as a nation, must be prepared to reward them properly.

Photo of John Battle John Battle , Leeds West 12:09 pm, 20th March 1996

I, too, welcome the debate. We are indebted to the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) for getting engineering on to the agenda. The fact that not all the hon. Members who wished to speak have been called and that some have had their remarks curtailed proves that the debate could have lasted much longer—perhaps it should be allowed to do so at some other time. We are also indebted to the hon. Member for Lewes for his insistence that we debate this matter.

The debate is more than timely because it coincides with a report published today by the Engineering Employers Federation which presages gloomy prospects for the engineering industry. The Minister might think this is humorous, but the federation's survey, which covered 16,000 firms and monitored trends in late February and early March, spells out that, in business terms, engineering is in a worse state than it has been for years. Growth is slowing and there is a danger of it tilting backwards, and it is proving harder to gain entry to export markets in France and Germany.

The best that the survey suggests is that the engineering industry is still under incredible pressure and is not springing back from recession, as some other industries might be. Our manufacturing industries are still in a very difficult position, and engineering is absolutely fundamental to that manufacturing base.

This is Science, Engineering and Technology Week. Some people ask why it should be called SET Week, but it is important that we keep science, engineering and technology linked and never let them be prised apart. The vital role of engineering in our scientific and technological development is sometimes missed entirely.

Many hon. Members have mentioned speaking to young people. It is the young who should be encouraged to understand, embrace and take up engineering. Our society is plagued not only by a lack of understanding of mathematics—I am tempted to say that we are in a culture that is anti-science and anti-technology—but by a fundamental lack of understanding of many of the processes of engineering and technology.

I have with me a piece of exemplary engineering—a titanium hip joint. I remember taking it to a school and asking children to tell me what this wonderful object could be. They could tell me about the high technology involved in hip joints being put into their grandfathers and knew how, after the operation, their grandfathers could walk, at first with a stick, and later run and play football again. When I asked where a titanium hip joint was made, few of them could link the object to a forge. Few could understand the process of modern forging or how such objects were made.

Professor Alec Broers, vice chancellor-elect of Cambridge university and head of its department of engineering, called for the quality of engineering students to be increased and mentioned the need to encourage women to go into engineering. He recently said that too many leaders in all areas of national life were ignorant of technology, and that their ignorance distorts judgement and slows the acceptance of advances essential to business, industry, government and services. My own city of Leeds was built on manufacturing and, in this century, that has meant principally engineering. The clothing and textile industries were the largest employers until the end of the last century. The clothing industry was in decline from the 1870s, and engineering and printing have been the key manufacturing industries of the city in this century.

It is interesting to recall that, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, 17,500 jobs were lost in manufacturing while, at the same time, another 17,500 jobs were developed in the service industries—in the public service, such as in shops and offices, and in financial and retail services. Those of us who were concerned about our declining manufacturing base at the time were met by Lord Young of Graffham, the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who, amazingly, dismissed manufacturing, remarking that Britain would thrive if only more people would eat out. I hope that that radical market view—that we need not worry about manufacturing but should look more to tourism, hairdressing and McDonald's for our economic future—is now being dismissed.

It was not until the publication in 1985 of a House of Lords Select Committee report on British manufacturing, however, that the Government began to acknowledge once again the need for manufacturing—and the underpinning of manufacturing, as the technology foresight reports now acknowledge, by a strong engineering base.

As has been said, Britain has for centuries embodied discovery and application in science, engineering and technology with names such as Newton, Faraday, Watt, Brunel, Bell, Rutherford and Whittle. We are the birthplace of the television, the computer and the jet engine, and we are now at the forefront of the new biotechnology industries. What we take for granted in everyday life is developed from British engineering skills, but we must not allow our very maturity and the richness of our tradition to limit our vision, our capacity to learn or our readiness to respond to new challenges. We need to raise our sights out of the fag end of this century—if I can put it like that—well into the next century. Next year is to be the Year of Engineering Success and could be used as a platform to carry forward a positive vision of the future of engineering.

It is important to dwell for a moment on what the Government have done. They have reduced spending on research and development by a massive 12 per cent. in the past 10 years. In other words, when it comes to budget priorities, it seems that science, engineering and technology are being pushed down the ladder. According to the Government's own figures, spending on science is projected to fall a further 7 per cent. in real terms by 1997. The number of United Kingdom researchers has fallen whereas the number in our competitor countries has risen.

Even our national research laboratories are being fragmented and privatised. Recently, the National Engineering Laboratory was sold at what I understand is now termed a "negative value" of £1.95 million. In other words, people were paid to take it into the private sector, thus reducing our national capacity. It would seem that our research capacities are being internalised as the operations of private companies rather than being used as national back-up.

Figures for 1995 from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show that the percentage of gross domestic product spent on research and development in the United Kingdom is a mere 2.19 per cent.—less than the United States and Japan. The UK now employs 40,000 people fewer in R and D than in 1981.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman , Huddersfield

My hon. Friend puts his finger on the problem. There are many issues on which there is all-party agreement, but in terms of budgets and allocations and getting research and development priorities right, we must highlight party political as well as cross-party aspects.

Photo of John Battle John Battle , Leeds West

I accept what my hon. Friend says. We must know the truth about the figures so that we can agree on them and do something about them. I know that my hon. Friend is most concerned about higher and further education. The fact that there have been cuts of up to £300 million to the Higher Education Funding Council, and that the funding for capital—for the laboratories at universities—has been cut, seems to suggest that the Government could be in danger of devouring the very seedcorn that we need for future development. I hope that all hon. Members agree about that so that we can make representations at Budget time for proper back-up for science, engineering and technology; otherwise, it will be seen that the Government are not enabling science, engineering and technology to flourish.

Engineering could be vital to the future of our country in terms of the new industries—especially the new environmental industries—developments in transpor-tation, energy, alternatives and renewables, telecommuni-cations and even cleaning up the environment. Yorkshire Water has been mentioned. The irony, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) said, is that it was our great engineers who built incredible reservoirs with such vision and capacity in the last century. Why are we not applying our best technology to dare I say it—look again at the aquifer in Yorkshire and open up the bore holes so that we have local supplies of water again? There are technological options that have not been properly explored.

As the hon. Member for Lewes said, there are developments such as leanburn engines and battery-powered cars and buses that could create wealth, add to the quality of our lives and take us through into the next century. Positive proposals should be built on—even small ones. The Royal Academy of Engineering has pioneered the visiting professor scheme. We could build on the technology transfer models of Cambridge and Imperial college. In my city, the Leeds engineering initiative pulls together the training and enterprise council and private industry to push the profile of engineering to ensure that its 1,800 engineering firms network their activities, win markets and so perform better than the national average.

The models in Leeds could be used nationally. They are practical partnerships that the Labour party not only advocates but practises. There is no room for complacency, but for 15 years at least the Government's fundamental approach has been one of failed laissez-faire, leaving manufacturing and engineering to wither and die. Our approach would develop engineering enterprise through genuine partnership. We have always believed, and continue to believe, in the need for a manufacturing base to underpin our economy and a strong engineering framework to hold it up. The Government could do much more, although I suspect that they are waking up too late.

Photo of Mr Richard Page Mr Richard Page , South West Hertfordshire 12:20 pm, 20th March 1996

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone), not on getting this slot—that is like getting a few numbers on the lottery—but on his choice of subject. As has been said, we would need another couple of hours to scratch the surface of this important matter. My hon. Friend and I were members of the all-party engineering development group, which for several years stressed the crucial need for the United Kingdom to strengthen its engineering capacity. It gives an important insight into the requirements of engineering. My hon. Friend served as chairman, while I was a spear-carrier. He gave a masterly round-up, which I endorse.

I shall not discuss small firms even though I am the Minister responsible for them, because that would hijack the debate and its emphasis would be lost. All hon. Members stressed the importance of engineering. We agree on that, although the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) introduced a discordant note near the end with which I disagree. Time is not on my side to rebut fully everything that he said.

We have continually emphasised the importance of engineering in the 1993 White Paper "Realising our Potential: A Strategy for Science, Engineering and Technology", in the 1994 White Paper "Competitiveness: Helping Business to Win" and in the 1995 White Paper "Competitiveness: Forging Ahead". As night follows day, there will be a follow-up in 1996.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman , Huddersfield

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr Richard Page Mr Richard Page , South West Hertfordshire

I shall not give way because I have only eight minutes and I have much to add. While the hon. Gentleman would like to get his thruppenceworth in, I have a couple of pounds' worth to contribute which is much more important than anything that he could possibly say.

Let me put a handle on how important engineering is to the United Kingdom. In 1994, the latest year for which figures are available, the gross output of UK engineering was £114.6 billion—£38 billion of gross value added, which is 31 per cent. of gross value added by all manufacturing. There were about 1.156 million engineering jobs in November 1995 compared with 1.121 million a year earlier—an increase that is at odds with what the hon. Member for Leeds, West said. In November 1995, engineering employment accounted for 29.8 per cent. of manufacturing employment. In 1994, exports of £71.5 billion—more than half our manufacturing exports—came from engineering. In 1995, our trade deficit was £1.53 billion, a decrease of 64.9 per cent. on the year before. That improvement is again at odds what the hon. Member for Leeds, West said.

An activity is as good as the people involved in it, and engineering is no exception. Let us be blunt: despite our best efforts so far, the UK does not, as yet, compare as we would wish with overseas competitors. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes mentioned mathematics. I was trained as a mechanical engineer and I can only endorse its importance.

After the publication of the London Mathematical Society report "Tackling the Mathematics Problem", my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment wrote to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, the Office for Standards in Education and the Teacher Training Agency for their advice on current maths issues. Initiatives and changes are coming from that. For example, maths has been identified by the TTA as a priority for in-service training and it has commissioned research into the effective teaching of numeracy. That evidence will be disseminated to teachers.

My hon. Friend talked about calculator-free examinations and classwork. I went round a primary school in my constituency only last week and found eight and nine-year-olds using calculators. It speeds things up, but I wonder whether it is the right way to get into children's minds how sums work before they start to use electronic supports. A calculator-free test for 11-year-olds will be introduced in 1996. The SCAA has been asked to consider a mental arithmetic test for 11 and 14-year-olds for next year.

In the United Kingdom, as hon. Members have said, only 12 per cent. of science and engineering graduates are in engineering. In Germany, the figure is 18 per cent.; in France, it is 21 per cent. Germany produces a third more engineering and technology PhDs per head of population than we do and five times as many of its people are qualified to MSc standard. The in-company training of engineers is an important feature in Japan and other competitors. I agree that we need to thrust forward to try to improve the concept of and approach to engineering.

We are starting to tackle the problem in a sustained and dynamic fashion. For example, as has been mentioned, this is the third annual Science, Engineering and Technology Week. I disagree with the right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes), who made some solid points. However, it is a matter not only of throwing money at a problem but of enthusing the hearts and minds of people in the industry so that they take the drive forward and do not sit around waiting for tablets of stone from politicians, some of whom have little industrial or practical experience in the sectors on which they pontificate.

This is the third annual Science, Engineering and Technology Week. Today has been earmarked as Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Day to raise awareness of that. Several thousand events will take place across the UK over the next few days. They range in location from Penzance to the Orkneys and in topics from astrophysics to zoology. It is one of the biggest annual celebrations of science, engineering and technology in the world. Down in the bowels of the Department of Trade and Industry, there is a most impressive exhibition which runs all week. I went yesterday and came away most impressed.

The technology foresight programme was alluded to obliquely by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Ashby). He put his finger on the point and pressed hard the need to keep up with innovation and development. Time is not on my side to go through all the key points that are emerging from the foresight initiative, but they will be an important message to and support for engineering.

I was impressed by the fact that the hon. Member for Leeds, West brought his hip replacement. He is planning for the future. I must chide him slightly on his selective quotations from the Engineering Employers Federation report, because I can selectively quote back by pointing out that Forty-one per cent. of the firms say that output is rising whilst only 28 per cent. reported a decrease … Larger firms report a downturn in new orders from the UK market but a positive trend in export new markets. Only the smaller firms"— this will interest my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire— with fewer than 100 employees indicate a positive trend in UK new orders. The importance of engineering is recognised fully throughout the House. Those involved in engineering are literally engineers for change and they are crucial in bringing about the sustained development and expansion of our economy that are necessary. I assure the House, as I assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the Government are fully committed to driving forward the engineering sector to bring the success and the growth that it warmly deserves.