HL Deb 26 January 1983 vol 438 cc249-52

2.43 p.m.

Lord Sandys

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a Statement on the success of Information Technology Year.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, Information Technology Year has been an outstanding success in raising the general level of awareness of new technology among businessmen and the general public, and in encouraging its wider application. An opinion poll conducted at the start of the year showed that only 17 per cent. of those interviewed were aware of IT; by the end of the year this figure had increased to 62 per cent.

Lord Sandys

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that very encouraging reply. Can he tell the House whether it is the Government's intention to follow this up, especially with regard to industry?

Lord Glenarthur

Yes, of course, my Lords. We have made significant progress in encouraging the application and use of information technology. During the year a number of new schemes were introduced by the Department of Industry to help industry develop and use new products. These include schemes for flexible manufacturing systems; computer-aided design, manufacture and test; micro-computers for GPs, launched by my noble friend Lord Trefgarne; software products; the small engineering firms' investment scheme and fibre optics.

It might also be helpful to your Lordships if I say that nearly 80 information technology centres have been approved, with more opening up soon, to reach a total of 150. In the future, of course, the Government will take maximum advantage of what has been achieved in IT awareness during 1982. There are many ways in which this can be done, and possibly one of them will be by using the skills and expertise of regional committees which did so much to promote the success of IT 82.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, I should like to ask the Minister whether, despite all that he has said, the fact still remains that there are well over 3 million unemployed in this country?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I think it will be through information technology, among other things, that the level of unemployment will probably be reduced, because this country has a wealth of expertise in the area, and through developing it we will probably be able to reduce the number of unemployed.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, can my noble friend give any idea of the relative sources of information technology hardware British made, as opposed to perhaps Japanese and foreign made?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, there is a great deal being done in this country at the moment to promote hardware. I cannot give the names to my noble friend at this particular moment, but I would certainly be happy to supply him with them in due course. It might also be worth bearing in mind that many advances are being made in software as well as hardware, and there is a trend towards the design of these things being software-led and not hardware-led.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the Minister did not mention universities, polytechnics or other colleges in the list that he gave. Can he tell the House what part they have played in these activities, bearing in mind, of course, that the production of technologists and engineers by the universities will be of paramount importance over the next few years. and also bearing in mind the savage cuts which the Government, through the UGC, have imposed on these colleges?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, at the younger end of the education scale nearly 6,000 secondary schools have applied for 50 per cent. funding for a microcomputer under the Micros for Schools Scheme, and virtually every secondary school now has at least one micro. In addition, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced the extension of the scheme to primary schools from 1st October 1982, and over 3,500 of these schools have already applied. I can also tell the noble Lord that, under the Department of Education and Science's microelectronics education programme, provision has been made in the current financial year for some 11,000 advisers and teachers to receive training for microcomputers in education.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that at the moment there are almost 4,000 university lecturers on the dole? Is he aware that the technological universities, such as Bradford and Salford, have had cuts of 40 per cent. imposed on them in the last two or three years? Is he aware that those universities are to have a further heavy cut imposed on them, and is he aware that the polytechnics are to have a cut of 10 per cent. imposed on them this year? Is that the way in which to encourage information technology, or any other kind of technology?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I really think that that question is rather wide of the mark. If the noble Lord puts down a Question on that specific subject I am sure that it will be adequately answered.

The Earl of Bessborough

My Lords, I am sorry that I have not given my noble friend notice of this question, but would he not agree that it is very important that we should continue this work within the European framework, and especially the European Strategic Programme for Research in Information Technology—the ESPRIT programme?

Lord Glenarthur

Yes, my Lords; I quite agree with what my noble friend says.

Baroness David

My Lords, is the Minister aware that one computer in a secondary school, which may have as many as 1,000 pupils, or even one computer in a class of 30, is not really of very much use? It is not much use having the computer if you do not have the softwear or the staff. Of course, the same goes for primary schools; one computer is not enough. What the Government have done is really just a gimmick.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I do not think that that is the case at all. I quite agree with the noble Baroness that to have more than one computer is highly desirable. Nevertheless, these machines cost money and someone has to decide from where the money has to come. The suggestion of its being a gimmick is simply not the case at all. I think I said in answer to an earlier question that there are those who believe that in the future people in this country will be either computer literate or computer illiterate. That is why it is so important to start our young people off very early with the skills and the knowledge of this scheme.

Lord Blyton

My Lords, I lived a long time and I remember that at one time we spoke about rationalisation; now it is the development of technology. Is not the basis of it all that we should produce more with less labour involved in the process of producing it? Does not that mean more unemployment, bearing in mind the 4 million unemployed that we have today?

Lord Glenarthur

No, my Lords; I do not agree with the noble Lord. I believe that it is through the development of technology that we shall be able to compete in the world and be able to create jobs. I believe that there are various parts to any strategy which might exist and I think I can say that our information technology industry and business in general need a modern and comprehensive information technology infrastructure, just as previous industrial revolutions demanded a transport infrastructure of roads, canals, railways and that sort of thing.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord can tell the House how far the universities are able to benefit financially and help their funds from money raised by the sale of technology and new prototypes to industry? Is not this a help to university funds, or to what extent are they able to do this?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I do not think I can give the noble Viscount an answer to that without due notice. The Government have announced their intention to increase the programme of recruitment by the universities of additional researchers and lecturers, particularly in the field of scientific research. An additional provision of £13 million is also to be made in 1983–84 for the expansion of research and the training of qualified manpower in fields related to IT.

Lord Somers

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us how soon it will be possible for scientific research to have been carried forward so that people no longer need to use their brains?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, there are those who believe that in due course computers may be able to think without being programmed, but I think we are a little way off that yet.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, this Question has already gone on a long time, but is the noble Lord able to give us briefly any information about the development of the Open Tech, which I think was not among the agencies to which he referred when replying to the noble Lord, Lord Sandys?

Lord Glenarthur

No, my Lords, I am afraid that I have not got that information, but I shall find out and write to the noble Lord.