Just before Peter Mandelson left office at the Department of Trade and Industry, he produced the Competitiveness White Paper which met with broad acclaim.
I cannot overstate the importance of this White Paper as a manifesto for the DTI. This is the year of delivery for the Government. For my department, that means implementing the White Paper.
In two weeks’ time I will publish a plan to show exactly how the 75 commitments in the White Paper will be implemented. And in a move that will keep civil servants quaking in their boots, next to each commitment will be the name of the civil servant responsible for delivering that commitment.
Our major task is the fundamental change of British attitudes towards enterprise. We must end the poverty of ambition that has held us back for too long.
In a survey, third year undergraduates were questioned on whether they would consider setting up their own business, on leaving university. About 7% said yes. Compare that with the situation in the US where, in a similar survey, some 68% of students said they would consider this.
The time is right to embark on a crusade for greater enterprise throughout the economy and begin a fresh campaign to encourage responsible risk taking.
In government, business, academia and throughout society, we must foster a new spirit that is prepared to seize opportunities to turn new ideas into successful products and services and is committed to constant innovation and improved performance.
As well as changing attitudes, we must also prepare the UK to take advantage of the new knowledge-driven economy.
Success in this fast-moving world depends critically on how well we exploit our most valuable and distinctive assets: our knowledge (including our world-class science and engineering base), our skills and ideas. The first industrial revolution was based on investment in capital and machinery. The revolution we are going through now requires investment in people skills learning and education.
Preparing Britain for this new world will be a great challenge but, I also believe, a great opportunity.
Building a knowledge-driven economy is not just about creating high-tech firms, based on leading- edge science. That’s a mistake too many make.
Some people have misinterpreted the Government’s Competitiveness White Paper. They thought that with its focus on knowledge, it had nothing to offer traditional manufacturing.
Far from it. The Competitiveness White Paper recognised that we must also improve the performance of older, more traditional sectors. For them, too, harnessing knowledge is just as important to future success.
I want to touch on three areas that I consider to be of the utmost importance for 1999.
First is science and engineering. These are a major priority, for they underpin our quality of life and are an invaluable source of wealth, economic regeneration and employment. British science and engineering are, and must stay, world class. Our science and engineering base is a critical source of competitive advantage a fount of ideas and skilled personnel.
But as recent events have shown all too clearly, without public confidence and understanding, our ability to lead in science-based industries is put at risk.
This Government is ending years of neglect in scientific research. In partnership with the Wellcome Trust, we will be investing an additional £1.4bn in the science base over the next 3 years.
We will also be taking action to increase the extent to which British science transfers into hard commercial success.
Second, I am sure that few people would disagree that the UK potentially has a serious skills problem. In some sectors it already suffers a shortage of people with appropriate engineering, electronic and leading- edge technology skills.
Many nations face similar difficulties. But our competitive position depends on how well we address this fundamental issue. I intend to work closely with David Blunkett to promote ideas as to how we can invest in skills, as well as how we can create an enthusiastic learning culture in our workplace.
We have already asked the National Skills Task Force and the Information Age Partnership to produce a national strategy for meeting our skills needs, which we will publish before the summer.
I know the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) has already been involved in our discussions on driving forward the skills, education, and lifelong learning agenda. I urge IEE members to consider what more you can do both as an institution and through your individual companies in this vital work.
I also want my Department to work closely with the IEE and others in the engineering community to raise young people’s awareness about the importance of engineering to our economy, and of the exciting career opportunities available. I know that John Battle has recently announced financial support for the Quinco campaign to promote engineering. I wholeheartedly support this initiative.
I want to work closely with you all on my agenda to create a more enterprising, knowledge-driven UK economy.
Only by encouraging greater enterprise and responsible risk- taking in industry will we create a more affluent, more successful Britain with opportunities for everyone to fulfil their potential.