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Construction Industry: Capacity and Skills

Volume 699: debated on Tuesday 11 March 2008

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as a fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

The Question was as follows:

What is their response to the assessment in the Institution of Civil Engineers’ report The State of the Nation: Capacity and Skills of the impact of the shortfall in capacity and skills on the gap between projected and actual construction costs.

My Lords, the skills challenges facing engineering are well known. The Government support the drive to encourage students to take up engineering careers, working with the sector skills councils and professional institutions. Programmes include Science and Engineering Ambassadors, the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology and other activities. The Office of Government Commerce has established systems providing information about future government demand and the interrelationship of major programmes. Departments undertake assessments of demand and capacity to inform their budget decisions and their risk analyses.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. As he is probably aware, however, the stop-start approach to infrastructure projects cost the country £1.8 billion last year, and with the skills and capacity shortages driving construction inflation rates even higher, that figure could reach £8 billion a year by 2015. That means that by 2015 we will need each year an extra 12,000 or so engineering professionals to cope with the increasing demand and to bridge the skills gap. It also means that we need thousands more engineering undergraduates to be enrolling and starting their courses now, whereas admissions are falling.

Will the Government commit to working closely with industry leaders to create the conditions that will attract the investment levels we need to create the skills innovations that are essential to achieving stability and dampening down spiralling construction costs? Finally, will the Government support the institution’s call for a strategic infrastructure planning body to work alongside the planning commission to achieve the sort of efficiencies that we need now?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, who has a lifetime’s experience and expertise in this industry both at home and abroad. The Government work very closely with the industry. It is the most exciting time for the industry in a very long time because of the large number of projects in the pipeline. Years and years ago there was stop-start all the while but things have got much better. Indeed, the document from the institution of which the noble Lord is a distinguished director said:

“The outlook for the industry has rarely been more buoyant and exciting”.

The Government want to play their part in ensuring that these construction projects are a success.

My Lords, I declare an interest as an honorary fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers and also as the patron of the WISE campaign. The Minister mentioned the UK Resource Centre for Women but I hope that he will also back the WISE campaign. More than anything, we need more scientists and engineers as careers advisers. Does the Minister agree?

My Lords, the noble Baroness also speaks with huge knowledge of the subject. We certainly do need many more scientists and engineers. One rather depressing figure is that women currently make up only 10 per cent of those going into civil engineering whereas they make up 49 per cent of the workforce. The Government are working very hard, with help from organisations such as ICE, to try to break that particular tradition.

My Lords, does the Minister applaud the work of the department of engineering science at Oxford University—I declare an interest as the patron of its centenary celebrations—which is making a very determined effort to increase the number of postgraduate studentships in all branches of engineering, which is one of the things that this report specifically calls for?

My Lords, I certainly praise Oxford University in that respect because this is very important for the country’s future. Earlier it was said that applications for civil engineering graduate courses were on a downward path. In fact, at the moment they are on an upward path. However, I am the first to concede that they need to go on an upward path faster than they are at the moment.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that Cambridge University is pressing for more engineering students? I declare an interest as an honorary fellow of Clare College, which is pressing particularly hard in that direction subsequent to the noble Baroness’s great campaign and honourable life in pressing for women engineers.

My Lords, I am delighted to praise both Oxford and Cambridge universities, although I have a slight preference for one of them. Having said that, I must also say that many other universities in this country do sterling work in this field, as do many schools and colleges of further education.

My Lords, does the Minister think it would be a good thing for the Government to turn more to the learned bodies—the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the institutions—when matters of science and technology face the nation, to get the collective wisdom of the nation’s experts rather than turning to individuals to prepare these reports? I declare my interests as a fellow of the Royal Society, the Royal Academy and the institution.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, who I think was a past president of ICE. I do not disagree with anything that he said.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of these major infrastructure projects are public sector projects? Have the employers involved been asked to sign the skills pledge?

My Lords, many are indeed public infrastructure projects. Infrastructure is due to grow by 5.8 per cent annually between now and 2012. I cannot answer the noble Baroness’s question directly, but I am pretty certain that the skills pledge will have been signed. However, I shall of course write to her.