Trade minister backs ‘engineering czar’ role to raise industry profile

POLITICS: Delegates at Labour’s annual conference in Brighton focus on the UK’s manufacturing sector problems

TRADE minister Richard Caborn this week backed the idea of a government-appointed ‘engineering czar’ – a position that could be created to promote a wide range of engineering disciplines and raise the political profile of manufacturing.

The move would follow in the mould of the ‘drugs czar’ and ‘e-business czar’, both of whom report to the prime minister, with remits extending beyond a single government department.

Speaking at a fringe debate at Labour’s annual conference in Brighton over the health of the country’s manufacturing sector, Caborn said the idea of an engineering czar was ‘worth exploring’. His comments came in response to calls from DavidMarshall, director general of the Society of British Aerospace Companies, for a powerful figurehead to champion the UK’s engineering and manufacturing industries.

Marshall said: ‘There is now a chief scientist or adviser invirtually every department of government. I haven’t yet found a chief engineer. Why not?’ Marshall’s call echoed a similar demand by AEEU leader Sir Ken Jackson – himself tipped as a possible candidate for such a post – at the TUC conferenceearlier this month. Caborn told delegates in Brighton that he saw the value of the proposal ‘I’ll take it on board and think about it, because positions like that can send a hell of a message out,’ he said. ‘Although I can’t say yes or no here, I think it is well worth exploring and I will speak to Stephen Byers about it,’ added Caborn.

Addressing the debate, which was jointly organised by the Engineering Employers’ Federation and the SBAC, Caborn defended Labour’s record on manufacturing, claiming the government had provided a stable environment in which decisions on future investment could be made.

He admitted the UK has a ‘major problem’ with skill levels and uneven economic growth across different regions, but claimed initiatives such as the Regional Development Agencies were starting to address these.

Caborn claimed the UK’s biggest challenge was to convert technical expertise and innovation into commercial successstories here, rather than see them used by overseas firms. ‘We’ve got the best intellectual property anywhere, but too often our inability is to transfer it into real wealth creation,’ said Caborn.