HC Deb 31 July 1997 vol 299 cc554-62

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. McFall.]

10.2 pm

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)

I am grateful for the opportunity of this Adjournment debate to make my maiden speech on the last day of this part-Session of this most memorable and historic Parliament. I am proud to be the first Labour Member to represent the constituency of Crosby. Boundary changes have meant that I have two predecessors, and it gives me genuine pleasure to pay tribute to both of them. I inherited the wards of Seaforth and Waterloo from my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Benton). His concern and diligence are legendary in Bootle, and I hope that I can follow in his footsteps and uphold his standards. He is a lovely man and very kind to his constituents.

My other predecessor was Sir Malcolm Thornton, who served in Parliament from 1983 to 1997. Sir Malcolm contributed much to the local community during that time, and he will perhaps be best remembered in the House for his commitment to education and employment. Those are also my passions. I thank him, on behalf of the people of my constituency, for his service, and personally for his magnanimity and charm in defeat.

My wonderful constituency lies between Liverpool and Southport. It is a constituency of great contrasts, including as it does the heart of the Liverpool docklands, where generations of local people have earned their livings. It also includes the residential area of Waterloo—not the scene of Nelson's great victory in 1815 but the scene of the Labour party's great victory in 1997. We then reach Crosby, which is thought to have been established in about 900 AD by Norsemen. The people of Crosby are rightly proud of their ancestry and their community.

Moving further north, we find a pearl on the north-west coast—Formby. It is a place of great beauty, a habitat of wildlife such as red squirrel, beautiful pine forests and the natterjack toad. Formby, too, has a proud history involving the sea, and has provided generations of sailors who served this country with pride. It is said that the first potatoes grown in this country were harvested in Formby, brought there by Sir Walter Raleigh himself. I commend Formby as a place to visit. A stroll through the pine forests cannot fail to refresh and inspire.

I shall now deal with a subject which, as the House will come to know, is my personal passion—engineering. I am a member of a group of people who have traditionally been seriously under-represented in the House and under-rated outside it. I am talking not about women, the disadvantaged or the disabled but about a group of people who have done more to improve and sustain our quality of life than any other group in the world. It is a group of people without whom life as we know it today would simply not exist. We would still be living in caves. In short, I am speaking about engineers and the wonderful, diverse, challenging, rewarding activity of engineering.

I am a chartered engineer, and at the last count there were just seven of us in the House, representing just 1 per cent. of hon. Members. In the German Bundestag, the figure is about 6 per cent. and in the French National Assembly it is about 5 per cent. I intend frequently to speak about engineering during my time in Westminster, not because I am riding a personal hobby horse but because I believe that engineers are vital to the well-being of our nation and because it is in the national interest to ensure that the engineering community is vigorous, healthy and respected.

Engineers are responsible for just about every aspect that makes life worth living. The food we eat, the water we drink and the clothes we wear are all brought to us by engineers. The cars, trains, boats and planes that we travel on are products of engineering, as are the roads, rails, waterways and runways that carry them. The hospitals where we are cared for and the equipment used in them are designed and built by engineers. The communications revolution is theirs; it is also ours.

Engineering is probably the most innovative and exciting profession. Indeed, it reaches parts that other professions could never hope to reach. If invaders from Mars—I expect them very shortly—wanted to disable and conquer our wonderful planet, engineers would be their most sensible and prime target. This country has a national genius for engineering, and some of the finest work in the world is done here. British people record more patents than any other nationality in the world. We continue to do so in the face of adversity that has plagued my industry for the past 20 years.

Engineers are highly successful in both career and salary terms. An engineer has a better chance of becoming a chief executive than a person from any other profession, a better chance of becoming a university vice-chancellor than someone from any other discipline, and a better chance of enjoying his or her job than any other worker. I lost a lot of money coming to this place, but I would not change my decision because I came here to make people more aware of what my profession can offer society. That fact makes it all the stranger that engineering is not a career choice for most of the nation's youth.

I arrived in engineering by accident. I emerged in a wonderful dockland environment, working on huge machines where there was a thump, thump, thump and a grind, grind, grind, but at the end of the day we had produced beautiful things of which we, and the nation, could be proud. The result of the lack of youth involvement is that the profession is not getting its fair share of the nation's top quality young people. As in some other areas, this is especially so for women.

Women mechanical engineers represent only 3 per cent. of the total number of people in our profession. It makes it very lonely. It also makes it very difficult for other women to follow. We cannot deny the contribution that 50 per cent. of the population could make. By not involving women in industry, we lose the chance of doing better, and our nation always deserves to do better. I firmly believe that, although we have the lead in some matters now, that lead could be even greater with the greater involvement from the female population.

We are clearly not lighting the spark of interest in the young. That is a matter that the engineering community must address. It is surely a matter that the Government should address as a matter of urgency. Why? Because, as far as our well-being as a nation is concerned, engineering is an industry that must deliver. It must deliver because of the financial contribution that engineering makes.

It is often said by Government Departments, among others, that engineering accounts for 5 per cent. of gross domestic product in this country. It is a figure that annoys me intensely, because it is based on a deeply flawed definition of what is and what is not an engineering company. Official statistics relating to the engineering sector tend to include only the manufacturing industry, but that is nonsense.

What about construction, petrochemicals and the service industries? Almost all the companies operating in those sectors are engineering-led and dominated. They employ huge numbers of professional engineers, technical engineers, and semi- skilled and skilled workers. They should all be considered when calculating engineering's contribution to GDP. If they were, the true figure would rocket to 40 per cent., so it is easy to understand why we need a world-class engineering base in the United Kingdom to remain competitive. It is easy to understand why we became less competitive in the 1980s, when that figure was not appreciated.

The Labour Government talk a lot about education, health, the environment and other issues which we consider crucial to the nation, and rightly so, but without engineers and engineering, the necessary wealth to pay for all these areas of need would not be created. United Kingdom engineering employs more than 1.7 million people. I feel very proud to represent them this evening. I hope that the House can see them all, because they stand with me now as I speak. I carry their hopes and ambitions, and it is not my intention to let them down or divorce them at any point. They have sustained me and given me great pleasure, and will continue to do so.

UK engineering earned £75 billion in exports in 1995. It contributed in the region of £10 billion in corporation tax. Engineering underpins our whole economy. That is one dimension that distinguishes engineering from science. This is a pithy issue for the House, where engineering is considered to be embraced by science.

Engineering is not science. I am not a scientist. I am an engineer, and so are 1.7 million other people who chose to go into engineering because it is not science. Science is the process of discovering nature and its laws. Without scientists, where would we be? However, engineering is about using those laws to make things. We articulate design. Our job is to take concepts and dreams and make them into reality. In so doing, we make money and create jobs. That is the purpose of engineering. That is what we do very well. We work hand in hand with scientists, but we are mutually exclusive, except on a very narrow boundary.

There is clearly an important link between the two disciplines, but an equally important distinction. Science is a net consumer of national wealth. Some of my colleagues may argue with that. By comparison, engineering is a net generator of wealth. So why do the Government have a chief scientific adviser and not a chief engineering adviser? Perhaps the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry will assure me that he will consider making such an appointment as soon as practicable.

Of course, much of the responsibility for promoting engineering must remain on the shoulders of the engineering community itself, but what can we in the House and in the Government do to help? There is quite a lot that we can do. We need to recognise the contribution that engineers make to the national well-being, and publicly demonstrate our commitment to it.

We need to make positive reference to engineering at every opportunity, publicly encouraging our young people to make it a career choice. In other words, we have a responsibility to talk it up. Talking up engineering means more money for the nation. More money makes us a stronger economy and we need to be a stronger economy on a world platform. We need to allocate parliamentary time to debate engineering matters. Having recently been appointed to the Select Committee on Science and Technology, I hope that engineering will feature strongly in that Committee. We need to allocate Government resources to promoting engineering, and I commend the Government for the initiatives that they are taking. I shall refer to the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts later.

We need to create an education system which better meets the needs of industry. That is clearly a fact and many statistics are available to prove it. We need to listen to the engineering community when formulating policy because many people in the engineering community are desperate to be heard. If we silence them, we lose advantage. We must encourage them to join us. We lose nothing and stand a chance of gaining many things.

Engineering impacts not only on every aspect of our daily life but on every aspect of our political life. Ministers in all Departments should think about engineering when formulating policy. It is quite a clarion call, but it would be a call well worth listening to.

In short, we must give some positive leadership in an area so fundamental to our well-being. We can give a signal to the rest of the country that we believe that engineering is vital. We have kept the profession in the dark for too long. This would surely go a long way to raising the status of UK engineering and persuade the brightest and best of our young people that as a career it is not only exciting and remunerative but highly valued by our peers and the wider public.

On 1 January 1996, an important event took place which historians will look back on as a watershed in engineering history. On that date, our 39 engineering institutions—by the way, I belong to the best, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers—having gone their own different ways for more than 150 years, agreed to bury the hatchet. That was vital, because the various engineering institutions had their own vested interests and failed to come together to lobby Government effectively.

Those institutions decided that it was time to lobby Government effectively after being totally ignored by the Conservative Government for the last 17 years to the detriment of our industry. They formed a partnership with the Engineering Council. The Government subsequently recognised that new beginning by signing a memorandum of understanding with the Engineering Council, the profession's lead body which sets out formally the respective responsibilities of Government and the council in promoting engineering as a profession.

That is an important beginning but should not be seen as an end. There are 1.5 million engineers out there just pleading for the Government to demonstrate that they think that engineering is important. They appreciate—I appreciate—how much they contribute, but it is demoralising that our nation's leaders have seemed unable to find the words to say so. We are fed up with being pilloried. Perhaps if we in the House can pay engineers more than lip service, an arts-graduate-dominated media might follow suit.

I also find it odd that, as the law stands, anyone can call himself an engineer. That is a sad fact. People are prohibited by law from calling themselves a medical practitioner, a lawyer or even a gas fitter unless they are qualified and licensed to practise. The reasons for that are obvious. There are serious safety and ethical ramifications in failing to do those jobs properly.

But consider the anomaly. Someone can legally build a bridge, design an aircraft or put the Jubilee line right underneath the House and jeopardise Madam Speaker's sleeping arrangements without the need for any licensing. Imagine the potential disaster inherent in any of those operations. The majority of problems facing our environment can be solved only by engineers. We talk about sustainable development. Engineering is associated with being the generator of pollutants, but it will also be the solution. We must seek to consult the engineering profession if we are to manage our future more efficiently.

We need to seek the contribution of the profession in a more pro-active way, and I can suggest a forum for doing so. We now have a national register of qualified and competent engineers maintained by the Engineering Council, but it does not have any legal status as yet. It does not encourage the industry to demand that engineers and employers be on the register. If employers do not demand registration, engineers do not always aspire to it.

The Government could correct the anomaly at a stroke by affording the register the same legal status as that held by other professions. I hope that the representatives from my profession can articulate an argument that the Government will find acceptable and that they will introduce the register. That is significant for our nation, and it would afford us a greater status on a world platform. We must allow our engineers to move more freely in a competitive world market.

We are not absolutely criticising the previous Government. There is almost a complete damning, but not quite. The previous Government's "Action For Engineering" initiative was a short burst of hope and was welcomed. Unfortunately, it died a quick death after two years. I urge the present Government to do more and to throw their weight behind the imaginative promotional campaigns emanating from the engineering community.

I refer the House to the YES campaign—the Year of Engineering Success. It is managed by Mary Harris, a wonderful engineer who has done a stalwart job. Unfortunately, the money provided for her lasts for only a year. I ask the Government to consider allowing the YES initiative to come under NESTA—the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

I urge the Government and the House to fix their attention on engineering. Certainly it is the goose that lays the golden egg for all developed nations, and the sooner we accept that and develop policies to match it, the sooner we will be able to draw the full benefit for our national well-being. I am proud to be an engineer and I understand the contribution that engineering makes to this nation. I commend our profession to the House, and I hope it will receive its sympathy, understanding and support.

10.21 pm
The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) on her initiative in raising this subject. We are at the end of this part of the Session and have only a few minutes before the House rises, but that was an excellent maiden speech and I am sad that it cannot lead to a wider debate. I welcome her as a chartered engineer—I think she is the first female chartered engineer to enter the House. She has a long and informed interest in engineering, and I believe that she is a member of the Engineering Council's senate. Her contribution will be valuable and I am confident that she will keep raising the issue of engineering. She brings a clear and articulate passion to the subject.

I am reminded of the first time the word "engineer" was used in the English language. In 1592, Harvey referred to someone who was That dreadful engineer of phrases instead of thunderbolts. My hon. Friend's speech tonight and her skilled, creative and persuasive use of language will carry engineers positively into the future. She is an engineer of phrases and thunderbolts, and I look forward to her contributions in the House.

We recognise the importance of engineers and engineering to the modern British economy and the enormous contribution that engineers make throughout every sector—primary as well as secondary industries, and services. Even the most narrowly defined engineering sector—metal products, mechanical equipment, electronics and instrumentation, electrical equipment, motor vehicles and other transport equipment—accounts for 8 per cent. of the UK's gross domestic product. Engineering sales totalled more than £164 million in 1996.

In other words, it is a massively significant sector. We must recognise that engineers and engineering have a vital contribution to make to our national well-being as well as in a purely economic way. We want to support the Year of Engineering Success as positively and practically as we can.

This year, the national health service will celebrate its 50th anniversary. It is worth reflecting on the vital role that engineers have played in health care, and indeed transport, during that time. We shall also be celebrating the role of science, engineering and technology. I like to keep those three words separate and distinct, rather than just speaking of "science". We shall be celebrating "SET for life" week, and we hope that engineering will have a high profile in that event.

It is through the ingenuity of engineers that our manufacturing industries will develop processes and products that will not only raise the standard of living but give us all a more environmentally friendly future. Better manufacturing processes can help to minimise the environmental impact of products during manufacturing. We are talking about processes as well as products. I was interested by what my hon. Friend said about the quality of life in her constituency. It should be emphasised that engineering industries will be the industries of the future, helping us to clean up the environment and live on a better planet in the coming century.

Engineering is often denigrated. My constituency is based on engineering—my family has an engineering background—but, even there, engineers are always seen as oily-handed sons of toil. I stress the word "sons": they are not daughters. Engineers are seen as semi-skilled, or as people using manual skills. We must not continue to be locked into that "smokestack", "furnace", industrial vision of the past; we must transform it, and see engineering as the industry of the future.

I was impressed by the language used by my hon. Friend, which suggested that engineering could be creative and, dare I say, artistic. At one point, she used the word "beauty" to describe engineered products and engineering processes. We ought to encourage the brightest and best of young people, particularly young women, to take up engineering at schools, colleges and universities, and to enter the profession. I hope that YES will pay attention to that. Perceptions need to be changed, and YES is a small step along the road. I believe that discussions are already under way between the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Engineering Council with a view to increasing the engineering community's contribution to SET week in 1998.

In Japan and Germany, a thorough understanding of technology is considered vital in top management. As my hon. Friend pointed out, there is a higher percentage of engineering graduates in France than in Britain. We must take engineering more seriously, in both industry and academia.

As was pointed out at Question Time today, although women constitute only 13 per cent. of those who study engineering at university, they also constitute 15 per cent. of graduates. In other words, women on engineering courses have a higher success rate than men. We ought to encourage the brightest and the best to see engineering as their future career, because we in Britain have developed engineering skills that are second to none. I hope that those skills can be enhanced in the new century, but we have more work to do. I hope that the development unit for women in science, engineering and technology, which is part of the Department of Trade and Industry, will try to raise the profile of engineering among young women, and will encourage them to take up the subject and build our future.

I appreciate that engineers are not required by law to register. As my hon. Friend may know, the Engineering Council has for some time been considering the pros and cons of mandatory registration, but no formal case has yet been put to the Government. Such a case would, of course, require the unequivocal support of employers, but I promise that, if that support were given, we would consider it seriously.

The Government's chief scientific adviser, who works in the DTI, is a scientist; his predecessor, Sir John Fairclough, was an eminent engineer. I take my hon. Friend's point that science, engineering and technology must be kept distinct. I hope that my hon. Friend will not be offended if I quote the words of a poet. In 1781, William Cowper said of another person: Unless we engineered him with question after question we could get absolutely nothing out of him. I hope that my hon. Friend will engineer Ministers in her Government with question after question so that they echo outside the House and result in engineering being taken much more seriously than in the recent past. Long ago, it was taken very seriously.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

I, too, also congratulate the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) on the style and charm of her maiden speech and on her passionate defence of engineering. The subject is under-represented in the House and the hon. Lady went a long way towards redressing the balance. We look forward to hearing from her again.

Does the Minister agree with Sir Brian Moffat, one of our leading industrialists and engineers, that sterling is now ludicrously overvalued, that engineering will not be enhanced and that there is no sense in further successive interest rises which simply feed the import boom and fuel the high street sales bonanza?

Mr. Battle

The hon. Gentleman's intervention is unusual in an Adjournment debate in that it has broadened the debate, and I have only minutes to reply to his question.

Everyone is concerned to see that the economy does not adversely affect manufacturing—we shall debate that matter elsewhere. I have met representatives of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and I hope in due course to meet the senate of the Engineering Council. It is not my job to spend all my time in a glass box in the Department in Victoria street; my job is to get out as often as possible to meet engineers. In the words of my hon. Friend, I intend to listen and learn from them so that their thoughts and expertise may be injected into our political and parliamentary activities.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o'clock till Monday 27 October, pursuant to Resolution [28 July].

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