At a Labour fringe on British manufacturing, jointly hosted by the New Statesman and EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey expressed dismay at the lack of government action over its own “Made Smarter” review: “there doesn’t seem to have been dramatic action since.”
The review, which was published in October 2017 and led by manufacturing and engineering industry experts, made a number of recommendations to ready the industry for the approaching fourth industrial revolution. Long-Bailey complained that in the government industrial strategy white paper, published earlier this year, “there was a line that said ‘oh yeah, we’ve had the Made Smarter review, we’re having a look at it’”. “All of [the recommendations in the review] I agree with and fully support,” she declared. “They [the review body] essentially wanted to transform British manufacturing.”
Discussing the challenges facing UK manufacturing, chief executive of the EEF Stephen Phipson said that the “number one” concern among EEF members was skills, and a lack of appropriately skilled workers or prospective workers. He argued that existing measures – particularly the apprenticeship levy – had not had the desired effect. “So far we haven’t really achieved anything with the current apprenticeship programme under the levy … we average each month between 30 and 50 per cent less apprentice starts than in previous years … that effect in the sector will happen in five and ten years’ time, not immediately.”
On the subject of skills, Shadow Minister for International Trade Bill Esterson said that the UK would not “be able to expand our manufacturing base in the short and medium term unless we use workers from EU and non-EU countries … we’ve got to have an immigration policy that meets the needs of the economy, not arbitrary targets.” Both Esterson and Long-Bailey cited a lack of infrastructural investment as a major barrier to manufacturing growth, and highlighted Labour’s pledge for a £250bn infrastructure fund, which Phipson welcomed.
On the subject of the government’s industrial strategy, Long-Bailey claimed not to have “a problem” with its “principles”, but “what I do have a problem with is the fact that it’s under-resourced and it lacks detail, so that’s where [Labour] would be working on it quite significantly”. Phipson said that the “speed of implementation” was the most concerning aspect. “The government is totally distracted on Brexit; these things have taken a long time to push forward.”
Rushing off to her next event, Long-Bailey urged the government “to implement the made smarter review as quickly as possible, in full, with adequate resource”. Phipson stressed to the audience once more that “we need to see the skills agenda being the number one [consideration].” “That is the biggest message we get from everybody.”