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House of Lords

Thursday, 5th March 1998.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield.

Engineering Skills

Lord Evans of Parkside asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have any proposals to reduce the shortage of skilled engineers in the United Kingdom.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Simon of Highbury): My Lords, engineering is a term that includes many different specialisms and a wide range of expertise within them. From time to time there may be shortages in one or more of the skill categories. These may result from mis-matches between the particular capabilities employers want and those possessed by the applicants. There can also be some discrepancies between the remuneration packages that companies want to pay engineers and those available to qualified individuals in other sectors of the labour market. In some instances, such as the automotive sector, where parties identify the need for collective action, the Government are participating in initiatives to address such shortages. Overall, and most importantly, the Government attach a high priority to raising skill levels in the workforce generally across the board.

Lord Evans of Parkside: My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that most interesting reply. However, is he aware that the car company Land Rover recently announced that, because of a serious shortage of British engineers, it would be forced to recruit over 100 engineers from Europe? I should point out that this is a company in the West Midlands. Is my noble friend also aware that some people within the engineering industry blame our education system for pushing youngsters away from engineering, while others in the industry point to the fact that the industry itself killed off the old apprenticeship scheme which not only produced qualified engineers but also produced men--and women--who became skilled craftsmen? Will my noble friend consider bringing together organisations such as the Engineering Employers' Federation, the TECs and the University for Industry to ensure that they put engineering skill training at the very top of their agendas?

Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, it is always a matter of concern when highly successful businesses are meeting constraints when they want to expand, especially in the labour market. As I said, the DTI has been involved, particularly in the West Midlands, along with local partners and vehicle manufacturers in initiatives to increase the supply of skilled engineers.

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I should point out to the House that the media report about Land Rover failed to mention that at that stage it was only advertising the posts on the Internet. The company then clarified the position with the local press. I am glad to say that that achieved a quite strong reaction. It was reported as a shortage of UK engineers, but basically it involved automotive engineers. Since then, Land Rover has received a further 250 applications over the Internet and another 100 by post, most of which have been from British engineers. Therefore, I believe that the company is getting the desired result; indeed, it was quite good publicity.

As regards apprenticeships, I can tell my noble friend that we would certainly support an apprenticeship scheme and have always done so. I believe that that is something for the Engineering Council and the many bodies which represent engineering across the country to develop.

The Viscount of Oxfuird: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the comprehensive labour market survey commissioned by the Engineering and Marine Training Authority covering over 22,000 companies, for which 4,500 replies were received--some 20 per cent.--indicates that the engineering industry is not suffering from the desperate skill shortages that some would have us believe? Perhaps a little more responsibility and research on the part of members of the media might prevent these rather bogus exercises having to take place in determining such definitions.

Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, I tried to say in my original Answer, although I probably did so in a rather long-winded way, that I believe there are mis-matches and that what we should be doing is trying to make less use of categories to define differences between engineering skills and moving people from particular skill bases to the shortage areas where they are required. I very much agree with the point of view expressed by the noble Viscount.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, the noble Lord indicated in his initial Answer that the situation varied according to different parts of the country and according to skills. Is he aware that there is a particular shortage in the south-east? I happen to be in the energy business and we are finding it extremely difficult to recruit heating engineers to carry out essential work on combined heat and power and other essential energy saving schemes. Have the Government anything in mind to remedy this situation?

Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, sectoral shortages and regional shortages have much to do with remuneration packages. We know perfectly well that the competition for qualified people in the south-east is higher than in other parts of the country. I do not think this is a government issue; it is for employers to decide whether remuneration packages are adequate, and that the correct value can be attributed to the efforts of those people when they are in the business.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that our country's true wealth creators

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are engineers? Does he believe that our country's best managers in industry come from the engineering profession, and that everything should be done to encourage engineers to lead British industry?

Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, I think that if I answer the first part of that question in the affirmative I shall have to answer many more questions. Of course engineers play a strong role in our businesses. I have worked in the petroleum sector, with its strong offshore engineering industry, and I am well aware of the contribution engineers can make. However, I can think of other skill bases which are also required to make our country successful. Engineers can make good managers too and we need more of them in more of our businesses.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, is not one of the problems in this country, unlike say Germany, that the word "engineer" covers everyone from the person who mends my Hoover, to the civil engineer who designs bridges and structures, to the mechanical engineer who designs machinery or the electronic engineer who designs circuits? Is not the problem in this country that we do not attribute enough status to the latter kind of engineers who have the intellectual ability which leads to the creation of the wealth that we need?

Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, there is a great deal in what the noble Lord says. The Engineering Council and the Engineering Employers' Federation have recently considered categorisation. They are trying to attribute greater status--if that is the appropriate word--and certainly encourage greater understanding of the vital role that those in categories other than chartered engineers can play. It is absolutely right that we should laud the contribution that many kinds of engineers can make, not just chartered engineers. I refer particularly to those who are involved in the application of engineering rather than discovery. That is an important area.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, does the Minister recall that some years ago the Equal Opportunities Commission ran what was known as the WISE campaign, that is, Women Into Science and Engineering? That was taken up by the then engineering industry training board, which made great attempts to try to ensure that women were trained for engineering. What are the Government doing to support such steps, because surely that is important?

Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, the Government are aware that we want the best people of any sex and in any shape or size. Good employment should be inclusive. We have a shortage of good people from wherever they may come.

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Overseas Territories: Administration

3.16 p.m.

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What are their plans for the future administration of the remaining dependent territories, and what changes to the nature of citizenship they have in mind for their peoples.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, the future administration of the overseas territories will be based on the principle of a modern partnership with obligations for both sides. A White Paper will be published later this year which will contain details of the conclusions of the review of policy towards the overseas territories ordered by the Foreign Secretary in August last year. On citizenship, the Government are considering sympathetically offering full British citizenship to the remaining overseas territories which do not have it. But there are complex issues which need to be resolved before a decision can be made.

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