Theresa May unveiled her new industrial strategy today (January 23) to a chorus of criticisms that the plan is inadequate and does not offer commitment to the single market or the kind of skills investment needed to safely see the UK through Brexit.
“The greatest support the government could provide UK jobs and business is to commit to access to the single market and the customs union. Without this access, manufacturing is going to be seriously hobbled,” said Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey.
The Prime Minister named five sectors that may receive targeting government support: the creative sector, nuclear industry, low-carbon vehicles, industrial digitalisation and life sciences.
May said, “The modern industrial strategy will be underpinned by a new approach to government, not just stepping back but stepping up to a new, active role that backs business and ensures more people in all corners of the country share in the benefits of its success.”
May said the government is prepared to create institutions to generate skills or research, loosen regulation or assist with trade deals, if a sector can show that they measure would help solve specific issues. However any deals will only be on the basis that sectors self-organised and approached the government with their cases.
Twisting in the wind
Unite assistant general secretary Tony Burke said the government was not “stepping up”, but rather taking a hands off approach would leave employers twisting in the wind at a critical time.
Burke said, “This strategy isn’t robust or joined up. There’s too much left to employers, when we need clear involvement from government. There’s no strategy in just letting employers get on with it themselves.”
The strategy also earmarked £170m to be spent on setting up new institutes of technology to close the technical skills gap. The policy was rubbished by the University and College Union as a “relaunched skills strategy” that was a “drop in the ocean.”
According to the non-profit Engineering UK advocacy group, 182,000 skilled workers are needed every year until 2022 to remedy skills shortages.
McCluskey said, “The promised £170m for skills training is nowhere near enough to address the chronic skills shortages, and delivering these programmes will be a tall order for an education sector hollowed out by successive Conservative cuts.
Serious plan needed
“We need a serious plan to address the hundreds of thousands of engineering jobs we need by 2020, assisting employers with decent apprenticeships to over-train to fill to gaps.”
An Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, that will support areas such as smart energy, robotics, artificial intelligence and the 5G mobile network, was announced. However, the fund is being drawn from £4.7bn promised for research and development, which was announced last November.
May also pledged £556m worth of investments for the so-called “northern powerhouse”.
Labour’s shadow business secretary, Clive Lewis, said the current funding figures are not enough.
He said, “We await further detail, but what’s been announced so far will fall far short of getting us back to where we were in 2010, let alone equip our economy for the challenges of the 21st Century.”
McCluskey added that the government’s failure to bring forward a package of support for business in last year’s autumn statement had sent a worrying signal that May did not grasp the full seriousness of the issues facing the economy’s core industries.
“The tests Unite will be setting are simple ones. The government’s purchasing must mean UK firms, products and supply chains are supported. And there must be substantial efforts to improve the infrastructure across this country, better connecting our cities and investing in affordable housing,” McCluskey said.
“No more of what has gone before, PR-heavy gimmicks like the ‘March of the Makers’ which promised much and delivered nothing. More than ever we need action, investment and the coalition of all our talents – including the engagement of unions such as Unite who are on the workplace frontline – to deliver our new economy.”