Economy: Government Policies — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:12 pm on 24th March 2011.

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Photo of Lord Paul Lord Paul Non-affiliated 3:12 pm, 24th March 2011

My Lords, as is customary I declare an interest: I am chairman of the Caparo Group, a manufacturer of industrial products. First, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, for initiating this debate. In September 1986, when he was Chancellor, he inaugurated our Caparo merchant bar plant in Scunthorpe. I am pleased that this facility, unlike many manufacturing units in the UK, continues to flourish.

It is clear that economic policy is the instrument that makes or breaks a nation. When so much of the UK's destiny is at stake, we must examine the policies that will determine our economic future. There is a great deal of economic knowledge and wisdom in this House and when we discuss economic issues a good amount of debate is focused on dynamic, even glamorous, sectors of the economy such as information technology, financial services and new energy resources et cetera. That is well and good, but it sometimes underemphasises or overlooks the manufacturing sector.

Today, I focus on manufacturing because my entire life has been involved in the manufacturing industry and I am deeply concerned about the current state of it in this country. What is needed are some policy initiatives and a sustained follow-through. I shall suggest a few measures that I believe could soon create the environment in which UK industry could flourish once more.

First, reduce the administrative burden on industry. The present taxation arrangements, pension structures and human resources regulations are needlessly complicated. I congratulate the Chancellor on making an effort yesterday, and I hope that it will be successfully implemented. Secondly, there should a tax distinction between financial services businesses and industrial companies. Manufacturing cash flow requires large outlays over long periods before any money can be recovered, which surely deserves tax recognition. We also need to revise R&D tax credits to encourage investment in practical production processes. Thirdly, we need to stimulate small enterprises, which are among the most innovative businesses, by giving them special capital allowances and lowering their tax thresholds.

Initiatives like the enterprise finance guarantee scheme are supposed to put cash into the economy, with the Government providing guarantees to the lending banks. In reality, banks are still asking small business owners to provide personal guarantees against borrowing. This is why, speaking in this House on 8 December 2008, I suggested creating a state-sponsored national industrial bank. We need that even more today.

Even the United States, the citadel of free enterprise, is talking about setting up a state-sponsored infrastructure bank because it is evident that this is one of the most effective ways to mobilize capital for national purposes. There is a shortage of engineers in manufacturing industry, partly because finance industries offer graduates better incentives. It is expensive for manufacturers to take new people and train them. Why not give capital allowances so that industry can hire people? That would solve the problem of skills shortages and give employment to university graduates, many of whom cannot find a job. There should also be incentives for larger businesses, public and private, to form closer links with universities such as my company has with Wolverhampton University, which has reviewed over 1,000 potentially commercial inventions.

We hear a lot about manufacturing success. However, in the past 30 years manufacturing's contribution to GDP has declined from 30 per cent to 11 per cent. In spite of that, manufacturing is doing well thanks to the efforts of our managers and workforce, and I congratulate them. They have performed with exceptional capability in adverse conditions. Without them there would be hardly any UK industry. Conversely, given appropriate support of the kind that I have outlined, our workers could produce world-class results.

In the mean time, other countries have seized opportunities. China, India, Brazil and other countries have focused on manufacturing. Look at the numerous visits that Western leaders now make to these emerging economies. Statesmanship is now salesmanship. This is surely the grand paradox of our age-leaders who pay obeisance to manufacturing abroad while tending to neglect it at home.

UK Governments always begin by saying that they want to help manufacturing. I do not doubt the good intentions. We in manufacturing are waiting for this Government to put into practice an effective industrial policy, but we should not have to wait much longer. If we do, we risk evolving into a "comprador" nation, simply buying and selling the manufactures of others and servicing their needs. Manufacturing is the bedrock of our independence and, with sensible policy corrections, can be a powerful source of steady employment and social mobility. In the larger sweep of history and in the lives of nations, these are things that really matter.