Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:08 pm on 8th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour 4:08 pm, 8th December 2008

My Lords, I declare my interest as a fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology and my role as a lay governor of Aston University. I want to say a few words about our role in using science and technology in the economy. I believe that there remains an anti-science and technology culture in the media and public life, which permeates our education system and into the schools. I acknowledge the efforts of many people to try to change that situation.

Our nation is small relative to the emerging economies. Quantity will never be our unique selling point; quality will. So it makes sense to sell science and technology to our best brains and to get the discovery under way early in young minds. The Science Council's recent survey showed that of the 1,000 16 to 18 year-olds questioned, only 28 per cent saw science as relevant to their lives. Not only is this at variance with reality, but it means that many youngsters are cutting themselves off from exciting and lucrative careers in a range of industries—industries which they may not immediately be concerned with or connect to science and technology. Finance, fashion and sport all use science and technology.

I should like to give three examples of how science and technology affects business and our economy. The first is fashion, which is of much interest to youngsters. A recent edition of the journal of the Institution of Engineering and Technology was devoted to "power dressing" or "haute-tech couture". Engineering companies and fashion houses are collaborating on wearable electronic garments that are as revolutionary as the first fob watch was 400 years ago. There are applications for such clothing in fashion, sports, medical and work wear. I shall highlight just two of the examples the journal gave.

Rachel Bagley, a fashion design graduate from South East Essex College, created a collection to show how wearable electronics can contribute to reducing a wearer's carbon footprint by use of solar panels in dresses to power iPods and other devices. John Batchelor, at the University of Kent, has developed a circular antenna that looks like a button on a pair of jeans but which is designed to communicate in two modes—around the body and away to other devices. With touch panels integrated into sleeves in fully washable garments, the potential is very significant. Science and technology, fashion and clothing and fabric design is a hell of a mixture and incentive to offer our younger generations to get involved in business.

My second example is from the world of motorsport. Unlike my noble friend Lord Drayson, I am just an interested anorak who, as an engineering apprentice in the 1950s and 1960s, had the odd fleeting dream as I read about Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn and the Marquis De Portago, but it went no further. Motorsport employs some 30,000 professional engineers in this country. In the past year I have visited McLaren and Honda. This very day last week I was at the Honda plant. Obviously the news from Honda is not good, and we hope that a new buyer will come forward to continue not only with the team but with its world-leading materials technology, which is vital to our business. The MoD might not tap into it, but I can assure noble Lords that US defence equipment manufacturers queue up to learn what UK motorsport is doing in materials technology.

The land speed record for diesel cars is held by the UK's JCB Dieselmax, designed and engineered in Coventry by Visioneering. The engine was modified by Ricardo in Leamington and the gear box and transmission by Xtrac of Thatcham. The Motorsport Industry Association tells me that the sector is a hotbed of SMEs which average a couple of dozen employees and a turnover of some £4 million. They have an export level of 65 per cent and high R&D investment levels at 30 per cent, double that of pharmaceuticals.

One of the SMEs I mentioned, Xtrac, is now the world's leading manufacturer of motor racing transmission solutions, supplying all levels of motorsport and, because of transfer technology, the aerospace and marine industries. Xtrac started from a shed in 1984 and now has sales of some £40 million. The majority of its engineering staff are bachelor or master-level graduates. The company has taken on three student engineers every year since 1998 and still commits 30 per cent of sales revenues to R&D.

I should also like to highlight the world-acknowledged record in ultra-fast optical transmission technology and research achieved by the Photonics Research Group at Aston University. It is one of the largest such groups in the UK and is working to exploit new fibre-optic technology for business which I saw on a recent tour of the labs. My noble friend Lord Drayson, who is also an ex-Aston graduate, was there. We saw, for example, tiny single-fibre sensors the size of a hair that are embedded for a lifetime in structures such as aircraft and bridges, replacing the old, worn-out and unreliable technology of the conventional electrical strain gauges. The value of pinpoint and accurate pressure readings for economic and safety purposes is self-evident. A large patent portfolio has already led to the formation of several start-up companies. Partners among the big players are National Grid, BP, the US Air Force, the MoD and Tarmac.

We are undertaking a technical adjustment of our economy on a fairly grand scale. I am not saying that this readjustment is only on the margins but we can, I hope, manage it so that to a large extent we are in control. This is the very time to push on with investing in research in these areas. As I said, quantity will never be our USP but quality will and, if we can get a grip on exploiting these new technologies and in due course take a world lead in that regard, in the current economic situation that has to be a good investment from the point of view of both the public and private sectors.

Having lectured the House over the past seven years, I am very conscious that with the Clock showing six minutes, I am into the seventh minute and therefore my time is up. However, as I make what is in effect my maiden Back-Bench speech in your Lordships' House after seven and a half years of membership, it would be remiss of me if I did not say thank you for all the support, and indeed scrutiny, that I have experienced in four different ministries. I also appreciate the support that I received when I was regulating the House as deputy to my noble friend Lady Amos after 2005. That regulation was not easy—indeed, sometimes it was hard—but I hope that it was fair. Nevertheless, it could not have been done without the support of the House, and for that I am extremely grateful.