HC Deb 29 January 1997 vol 289 cc331-40 1.27 pm
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)

I wish to discuss the Year of Engineering Success, which was launched by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade last Wednesday, and also to propose two changes in legislation that would encourage more students to become engineers. Before I begin, I wish to thank my constituent, John Evans of Lichfield, and Steve Potter, of the House of Commons Library, for their research, some of which I will be using today.

Engineering is big business. The United Kingdom engineering industry employs 1.8 million people, with forecast total sales for 1996 of £163.5 billion and exports of £81.5 billion. It is successful in comparison with other industries: the average share price of United Kingdom engineering companies rose by 120 per cent. between September 1992 and the middle of 1996, compared with a 70 per cent. rise in the FTSE share index during the same period. Despite that, engineering still suffers from a poor image, especially as a career choice among young people.

The Year of Engineering Success was launched on 22 January, and followed a meeting four years ago between the then President of the Board of Trade, now my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Institution of Electrical Engineers, of which I happen to be a member. The initiative is the most recent of an on-going series to raise the profile of engineering as a career choice and as a significant contributor to the economy.

The Government state that YES recognises the potential impact of engineering on society from its traditional industrial applications to modern, applied technologies, such as keyhole surgery and virtual reality. It will co-ordinate a range of events that will take place throughout the year, is being supported by more than £1 million-worth of investment from the Government and the private sector—including companies that have recently been privatised, such as British Airways, British Gas, BP, National Grid, National Power, Rover Group and Vickers—and involves the engineering institutions.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

As I am sure my hon. Friend knows, a launch of the Year of Engineering Success in Parliament in December—sponsored by the all-party engineering development group—made two points, on which I am sure he will touch. One is that every year should be a year of engineering success, and the second is that this year provides a chance to draw attention to the career opportunities of engineering and the requirement for better school education in mathematics and physics, and better further education to take advantage of those opportunities.

Mr. Fabricant

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, I recall attending that very opening ceremony in the other place last year. I shall be touching very shortly on the question of education, especially for those entering university. I support everything that he has said.

The events taking place during the Year of Engineering Success will be organised by a group of committees and will centre on the many key areas of engineering applications, including energy, construction, transport, agriculture, the environment and communications.

In fact, I understand from the Institution of Electrical Engineers that, today, it and GEC Marconi will be announcing jointly a new initiative to assist in-service training of teachers in electronics, which is one of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) mentioned. The scheme will be known as "Marconi Days" and is expected to provide training for up to 1,000 teachers annually. The detailed programme will be developed with the teaching profession, and pilots are expected to be launched in the autumn.

The application of engineering in industry is one of the central strands of the Government's science policy that was published in 1993. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes has said, this year should not be the only year of engineering success. Indeed, there have been previous such years, and I hope that there will be many in future. I shall point out the dangers that face us, which could result in years of engineering failure—but I shall reserve that until the end of the debate.

The practical and financial benefits that engineering can bring about when applied to industry are well documented. One engineer who invented a new type of metal nut to overcome a glitch in the air-powered starter motor of a type of jet engine, has saved his employers, British Airways, a potential £1 million a year in quicker aircraft turnarounds.

At the other end of the scale, many people have heard of the Scottish engineer who has designed an automated cash dispenser that uses friction rather than the present vacuum system to pick up notes. His invention, on which he worked during his university course work in mechanical engineering, has won several awards, and will double the speed that cash machines take to dispense money—which will not be pleasing to some of my colleagues whose wives use their cards to dispense cash.

One of the best publicised inventions by a British inventor in recent months has been of the clockwork radio, which was invented by Trevor Baylis. Baylis decided to invent the clockwork radio after watching a television programme about how difficult it was to get educational information on AIDS to people in Africa because batteries were expensive or unobtainable and electricity supplies erratic.

Through my former company, I supplied and installed systems for Radio Uganda and Uganda Television. Part of that work was funded by the World Health Organisation for the very purpose of conveying educational information on AIDS. How good it is that the output of my excellent radio studios will be well received on clockwork radios. Twenty thousand such clockwork radios are produced every month in a South African factory, which employs more than 150 staff, most of whom are disabled.

All is not rosy, however. A former colleague of mine, John Forrest, chairman of a working group established by the Royal Academy of Engineering, has said: The UK produces some of the best engineers in the world but many firms, especially small and medium ones, are complaining they cannot recruit the right kind of engineer. Encouraging more young engineers to train to the level to meet industry's needs is one of the main objectives of the YES campaign.

The Engineering and Marine Training Authority has recently produced a survey, which was conducted for it in December 1996 by MORI. Schoolchildren aged between about 14 and 16 years were asked, "How much do you know about engineering?" "Not very much." answered 45 per cent. of them, "Nothing at all," said 39 per cent. and only 11 per cent. said that they knew "a fair amount/a great deal" about engineering. That is a sad indictment of the present position.

More worryingly, when the children were asked, "How likely or unlikely are you to consider a career in engineering?", 62 per cent. said, "Very unlikely," and 14 per cent. said, "Fairly unlikely." That is worrying for a nation that became Great Britain through engineers such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who put the "great" into Great Britain and gave us the wherewithal to form an empire.

How can we overcome the problem? I should like to propose two remedies. The first is to broaden the education system, and the second is to raise the status of engineering in the United Kingdom. I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister for Science and Technology is not responsible for education matters, so I shall be relatively brief on the first issue. I ask him to pass on my comments.

I believe that Britain breeds inarticulate engineers and innumerate art graduates. Either way, Britain often ends up researching wonderful products and leaving the development to the Japanese or the Americans. Both research and development are important; the two go together. A broad base of knowledge is needed so that scientists and engineers can communicate the details of their work and financial accountants and marketing men can understand the potential of that work.

We specialise far too early in our education system. We have, of course, introduced national vocational qualifications, which have provided a port of entry into further and higher education for many students who might not otherwise have got there. But what of academic students? In England and Wales, the A-level system, the so-called "gold standard", forces 15 and 16-year-olds to choose just two, three or sometimes four subjects in which to specialise. That has to be wrong.

Scotland's system of highers and the German gymnasium matriculation all offer a wider choice of subjects to study before entering university. Fifteen-year-old artists do not abandon science and mathematics; scientists do not abandon history, languages or literature. Semi-A-levels, as I call them, such as "use of English" and "general studies" are merely tinkering with a flawed system and are no substitute.

The Department for Education and Employment argues that English and Welsh students could take GNVQs or AS-levels, but all universities say that they prefer the depth of A-level courses. I am not sure why that is. With the proliferation of examining boards and the variety of options available, there are about 253 alternative syllabuses—or is it syllabi?—for maths alone. [Interruption.] It is a gerundive, so it is syllabi.

Universities cannot begin their courses where A-levels leave off. Far from being the gold standard, A-levels have damaged our education and economy for years. The means of entry to higher education should be reassessed and reformed. One of our goals for the 21st century should be to say goodbye to the schoolboy specialist and greet the schoolboy polymath.

The question of raising engineers' status directly affects the Minister's Department. I believe that we could achieve that aim by the statutory registration of engineers. The Law Society was founded in 1825, followed in 1832 by the British Medical Association. Those and other professional groups secured statutory registration, but engineers did not.

We are all no doubt familiar with the proliferation of titles containing the word engineer. Examples include the sign, "Environmental Engineers" on trucks belonging to waste disposal companies; I believe that toll collectors on freeway bridges in America are members of the Brotherhood of Professional Engineers; and the lad who replaces one's car exhaust is often mistakenly referred to as an engineer.

Historically, "engineer" was the term used for military practitioners who dealt with all aspects of engineering. The word "ingénieur" was first used in 17th-century France as a professional title for a scientifically trained technician in the public service. In Britain, the title "engineer" was probably first used for a non-military individual in 1702, to describe a George Sorocold of Derby.

To avoid confusion and to distinguish themselves from their military colleagues, the civilians adopted the description of civil engineer. The first in Britain to use it was John Smeaton, in 1768, not long after he completed the Eddystone lighthouse.

The Society of Civil Engineers was formed in 1771. Soon, all non-military engineers adopted the title, regardless of whether they specialised in engines, canals, roads, bridges or other branches of engineering. We are all familiar with James Watt, Thomas Telford, George Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Who has not felt pride in the achievements of the canal era and the railway age, when British engineers led the world? Indeed, I recently visited Sweden and travelled on the railway line between Gothenburg and Stockholm; that line was built by British engineers.

The designers of many magnificent mediaeval cathedrals, including the glorious 800-year-old cathedral at Lichfield, which thousands of people visit, would, in today's terminology, be called structural engineers. As technology developed, the civil engineering profession gradually became subdivided, and today we have mechanical and other types of engineer. Gone for ever are the days when non-military practitioners were all called civil engineers.

Despite the long and honourable history of engineering in this country, engineers have been hard done by compared with architects. I shall explain that carefully, as the former chairman of my local Conservative association is an architect. The professional activities of architects have always been intimately linked with those of engineers. As late as the 1920s, there were architect members of the Institution of Civil Engineers, even though the Royal Institute of British Architects had been established in 1834.

There are other examples of the close relationship between engineers and architects. The Civil Engineers and Architects Journal was popular in Britain between 1837 and 1868, and the American Society of Engineers and Architects was founded in 1852. On the continent of Europe, the two disciplines remain to this day closely connected, and many practitioners are proud to describe themselves as architect-engineers.

In the construction industry worldwide, the initials AEC stand for architecture, engineering and construction, thereby testifying to the continuing close association between those related activities. In this country, the title of architect was safeguarded by the Architects (Registration) Act 1931, but the title of engineer remains unprotected. As a result, the law allows an unqualified or inexperienced individual to adopt the description, regardless of fitness for purpose.

In New Zealand, legislation was enacted 72 years ago for the registration of engineers, and several other countries have introduced similar provisions. Paradoxically, statutory registration is already mandatory in the United Kingdom for small groups of engineers. For instance, the Reservoirs (Safety Provisions) Act 1930 restricts the design and inspection of large reservoirs to suitably experienced civil engineers appointed by Government.

More recently, on 3 September 1985, the then Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher, addressing the first assembly of the Engineering Council, said: It is for the Government to create the right background conditions, but it is you engineers who can grasp the opportunities and make our future prosperous and I am here today for one reason: to show the importance this Government attaches to your work, your profession and your role in our future. Our country's success needs you. The Minister should note the words It is for the Government". In February 1992, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), then Minister for Housing and Planning, announced an intention to review the Architects (Registration) Acts and appointed an assessor, Mr. Warne, who considered observations submitted by several professional organisations. He found that the Institution of Civil Engineers saw no major reason for maintaining the system of registration for architects alone", and said that the institution envisaged a much wider issue of statutory registration of all professional members of the construction industry". That would include civil engineers. However, nothing has happened.

On 2 February 1996, at the inauguration of the reformed Engineering Council, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said: You know my view that engineers and engineering are exceptionally important but their full potential is not being realised in certain key respects. A number of steps are needed to remedy this, including: fundamental reform of the selection, education, training and use of engineers and technicians. He went on to say that a subsidiary objective was to ensure that the importance of engineering to the British economy, as recognised in the Science and Technology White Paper, is properly reflected in Government policies". I believe that the time is right to ensure that the term engineer is used correctly in this country, to raise the status of engineers and to encourage more students to study engineering. One valuable way of achieving that is to follow the path of other countries and adopt a statutory register of engineers.

The law and its administration need not be complex. We already have the title of chartered engineer. Corporate members of existing engineering institutions, such as the Institution of Electrical Engineers, the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers may all be chartered engineers. All those institutions have high standards for corporate membership: at least a first degree in engineering, and senior professional experience.

No new bureaucracy need be established. I propose simple legislation stipulating that only a chartered engineer may legally call himself, or herself, an engineer. I hope that the Minister will consider that.

What of the future? As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes said, we want not only this year, but many years of engineering success in the future. The Engineering Employers Federation has produced a booklet entitled, "Engineering: Creating Wealth for our Future". Referring to the future of the United Kingdom within the European Union, it says: the UK should retain its Social Chapter opt-out because labour market restrictions should be reduced, and not increased. The best way to provide improved employment conditions is through enhanced international competitiveness, rather than legislation. It also says that we require national rather than EU legislation". I certainly agree with that.

The EEF also talks about creating a flexible labour market. It says: The EEF does not support the introduction of a National Minimum Wage since it would indirectly reduce the competitiveness of the engineering industry by increasing the costs of many contracted-out services. It would also have an inflationary impact upon pay structures as it would inevitably result in pressures to maintain existing pay differentials. Furthermore, any regular increase in a National Minimum Wage will open the real possibility that, during pay negotiations, this will be regarded by employees and their representatives as the minimum acceptable increase, irrespective of their employer's economic and financial circumstances and labour market conditions. These are the people who know. These are the people who work in the engineering industry. These are the people who employ people in the engineering industry. Yet the Labour party talks about the very policies that the EEF says would create unemployment and destruction of the engineering industry in Britain.

My saddest fear for engineering is that, if perchance there were a Labour Government, we would see not years of engineering success but years of engineering failure.

1.50 pm
The Minister for Science and Technology (Mr. Ian Taylor)

This has been a truly excellent use of these short debates. A cornucopia of information about the engineering industry came forth from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant). I give him full credit for initiating the debate and giving us all the information, indeed for being a veritable polymath—an engineer who can correct his own gerunds. He is a great tribute to the House of Commons.

I genuinely congratulate my hon. Friend, because he is one of the people, a little like myself, who started life with the disadvantage of studying economics. But he rose above that and became a chartered engineer. He is a fellow of the Institution of Electrical Engineers—one of only two in the House The other happens to be an Opposition Member, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Ban (Mr. Rooker). I am reliably informed that there are only six chartered engineers in the House of Commons. I am sure that, if I have got that wrong, I will receive letters from colleagues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) also took part briefly in the debate. I recognise all the work that he does as chairman of the all-party engineering development group in the House and elsewhere to advance the interests of the engineering industry.

The backdrop to the debate obviously has the support of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Engineering Council, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire referred, as well as the various chartered institutes and many others with an interest in engineering. The Year of Engineering Success is one of those wonderful inventions which, while it uses the term "year", is slightly elastic. I have been participating in the Year of Engineering Success since last summer, but it will run until the end of 1997. Mary Harris, who is running it, is a fireball of energy, and is doing a wonderful job in activating people at all levels to support the cause.

My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade formally launched—any year has to have a formal launch as well as informal ones—at the BBC on 22 January. We decided that it was highly appropriate to launch the year at the BBC, because of the excellence of the engineering that has enabled us now to accept broadcasting as one of our daily pleasures; and we are about to anticipate the next leap forward in broadcasting in terms of the digital age. The BBC engineers and all those engaged in the 60 years since television began, which we celebrated only recently, are the embodiment of what engineering can do and how engineering at the forefront of technology enables something which is otherwise simply a good invention or a good idea to become something that we can all enjoy.

The importance of engineers in the translation of a brainwave into something which can go into mass production and become available at a price that people can afford is often underestimated The skill of engineering at all stages of history has been most remarkable. I pay tribute to Trevor Baylis, who invented the clockwork radio, and the work that he has done for inventors, but many inventors need engineers to help them carry their ideas through to the marketplace.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire made two central points, first about education and secondly about the status of engineering. In the few moments that remain. I should like to respond to those points.

As my hon. Friend rightly says, education is obviously broadly a matter for the Department for Education and Employment, but, as Minister for Science and Technology, I have a profound interest in the subject. We need to ensure that more of our young people have an opportunity to prepare themselves for a career in engineering. That means that they need to be numerate, although perhaps in the context of the House too much stress on numeracy this week is not appropriate.

Young people need to have an excitement about the opportunities available to them through the sciences if they are to meet the qualifications required and the hurdles set for them to go into engineering in later life. Therefore, at school it is necessary to trigger that enthusiasm and give young people the belief that the career they might want to follow will be worth while.

The education figures are not that discouraging. I do not have time to go through them all, but we have seen an increase in the past year, for example, in the number of students taking mathematics and computing at A-level. We have also seen a worrying fall in chemistry and physics. Biology was about even.

The figures are not absolutely clear. One of the things that Sir Ron Dearing will have to do in his review for the Government of the future of higher education is to take account of the work that he has already done on A-levels and vocational qualifications to see how we can increase the opportunities for our best young people to go into science, engineering and technology at university. A survey in 1992 showed that 29 per cent. of all degrees awarded in Britain were in science or engineering, with engineering disciplines accounting for almost half.

The other aspect is the status of engineers. It is worthwhile underlining the fact that the job opportunities for engineers are extremely good That is part of the status. There are 84 chartered engineers on the boards of the top 100 companies. The Royal Academy of Engineering tells me that one has a higher chance of being a director of one of the leading companies in Britain if one is an engineer than if one is an accountant. That is a promising opportunity for those who are looking to come into the market.

Of the engineering graduates going into the job market, 37 per cent. secured places on graduate training schemes, compared with an average of 25 per cent. of all graduates; and 75 per cent. of engineering and technology graduates are able to secure first jobs in the career of their choice. Engineering graduate salaries are higher than those of many of their peers. The average starting salary of an engineer is £15,900, compared with an average starting salary for all graduates of £12,250.

it is important to bring such statistics out into the open, because too often it is thought that potential engineers will be in a difficult position. Not least, it is important to stress that the unemployment rate for engineers, at 2.5 per cent. in the United Kingdom, is significantly lower than general unemployment of 6.5 per cent. and graduate unemployment of 5 per cent. Those statistics underpin the good news about engineering.

The task for the Year of Engineering Success is to take that good news and broaden the appeal of engineering and increase the estimation of the value and status of engineers in our society and what they contribute. I understand the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire made about the legal use of the term "engineer" I know that it is a regular subject for discussion I pay tribute to all those people who have made the effort to become chartered engineers, and to the incorporated engineers who do a great deal of the day-to-day engineering tasks in industry and elsewhere. I also pay great tribute to those in the science world who do basic research in engineering and make a long-term contribution to the success of the economy. All of them have their merit.

I should certainly like to raise the status of engineers, and I shall consider carefully what my hon. Friend has said, but the Year of Engineering Success is a tremendous tribute to the work now being done by those companies which back it in conjunction with the Department of Trade and Industry. I hope that it is genuinely a success, because the British economy will increasingly need engineers to be competitive in this difficult world, adding value, coming forward with ideas, and making them available to members of the general public.

If more of the general public looked around their households, they would clearly see how many of the products on which they depended—

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.

    1. c340
    2. LEVER PARK BILL 15 words
    3. c340