Fourth Industrial Revolution [08/09/2016]

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You can watch my speech and the full debate by clicking here.

It is impossible to be from Inverclyde and not to reference the lessons of history when talking about how we can best implement new technologies in our economy. I hope other Members will forgive me for indulging in a short history lesson, but without Greenock-born James Watt we would not be talking about a first industrial revolution, never mind a fourth.

Many Members will be aware that Inverclyde was once a world leader in technological innovation. For hundreds of years we led the way in shipbuilding innovation, with ships such as the Port Glasgow-built PS Comet, which operated the first commercially successful steamboat service in Europe. That technological innovation created thousands of jobs and led to a massive increase in manufacturing production.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries Inverclyde’s shipyards remained world-leading innovators, building the advanced warships of the day and the most cost-effective merchant vessels, which expanded our influence in the world. It was an imperfect industry, but people could take pride in their work, and we can declare without hesitation that this was an integral part of Scotland’s story as a nation.

In the 1980s the UK Government withdrew public funding for shipbuilding. The subsequent collapse of the industry meant that, by 1986, Greenock and Port Glasgow’s male unemployment rate had risen to 26%. The UK Government told us the private sector would create jobs where publicly supported industries had failed. I will concede they were partially correct about that—a McDonald’s restaurant is now situated where the walls of the Scott Lithgow shipyard once stood.

In 1988 Margaret Thatcher visited Greenock’s IBM plant to highlight how we would transition to new industries and lead the way in an electronics revolution. However, the revolution has been short-lived, and IBM will permanently end its involvement with the Spango Valley site in Greenock later this month. The first three industrial revolutions brought success to Inverclyde, yet they ultimately ended with periods of rapid decline. These eras created wealth for factory owners and multinational technology companies, but too often the workers were left to pick up the pieces when these industries ended. As a result, Inverclyde now suffers from a high rate of depopulation, and the remaining local businesses and public services are struggling to survive under the long shadow of those historical failures.

The point of that history lesson is this: Inverclyde shows us that technological innovation will never reach its full potential if it lacks a social conscience. The motion before us states that

“the UK is a in a strong economic position to take advantage of the Fourth Industrial Revolution”.

In my constituency, we have not yet resolved the issues arising from the decline of the previous technological ages. Undoubtedly the fourth industrial revolution can be part of the solution, as long as constituencies such as mine receive adequate levels of support; otherwise, this innovation will only reinforce inequality as the more developed parts of the economy continue to benefit the most from rapid technological advances. The UK Government have an obligation to offer more assistance to Inverclyde, given their catastrophic failures of the past. The Government took extraordinary measures to destroy industry in Inverclyde; I would now like them to take extraordinary measures to help us take advantage of the fourth industrial revolution.

Renewable energy will be a major component of Scotland’s future technological innovation. Inverclyde would be well placed to take advantage of these developments. Inverclyde is one of the few areas with the geography to utilise nearly all forms of renewable energy. We have a coastline and can therefore contribute to tidal power, and we have enough rural space and hills to facilitate wind farms. The burns that run off those hills can power hydro schemes, as they did in the past, and while solar will never fulfil all our requirements, it could be a valuable contributor. Further, we are already a producer of biomass fuels, and wood chips produced in Inverclyde are being used all over Scotland. Inverclyde has a large amount of unused industrial land, and these sites could be centres of manufacturing once again, while our port facilities mean that we are able easily to export the completed products to their required destinations. Every renewables business that we establish would result in associated benefits for suppliers and other local businesses.

While I welcome the UK Government’s decision to bring industry strategy back on to the policy-making agenda, I fear they will not prioritise the needs of constituencies such as Inverclyde. Where the UK Government do have power, we are witnessing a lack of vision. Renewables could transform Inverclyde, yet policy decisions made here in London are stifling the industry’s potential. The UK Government have shown a complete lack of foresight in withdrawing much of the financial support that was available for the renewables sector, so not only are the UK Government the chief architect of a social and economic disaster in the west of Scotland, but they are actively damaging industries that could make the area vibrant once again. The fourth industrial revolution promises us so much—“smart” manufacturing, increasingly integrated technologies, and even white goods and household appliances that connect to the internet—but what my constituents are really asking for is employment: not low-level, poorly paid jobs, but skilled, high-value employment that will boost other businesses and educational institutions in the area.

The industrial revolution failed to lift the landed poor out of poverty. It created vast amounts of wealth, but increasingly that wealth is being accumulated in a smaller and smaller section of society. I want the UK Government to demonstrate two things: first, how they plan on driving forward the fourth industrial revolution; and secondly, how this technology will be used to benefit the social and economic situation of everyone in society. With an astute eye for the future, the fourth industrial revolution could lead to a period of unrivalled prosperity for this country, but without the Government’s stewardship, these new technologies will only reinforce social, gender and regional inequalities.

James Heappey MP (Intervention)

The hon. Gentleman was not in the Chamber yesterday afternoon when I spoke in the climate change debate, so I thought I would inform him that through employing some of these new technologies, Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust in London has been able to install in a hospital a combined heat and power system that saves it £2 million a year on its operating costs. It has done that not through Government promotion but because the technology is there and it has sought to adopt it, and it is doing immediate good for that public service.

Ronnie Cowan MP

I have wonderful examples of the same thing in my own constituency. Biomass fuel heating is a fantastic innovation if used properly. At the same time, the Government are reducing tariffs on various sorts of wind energy and solar power. It is part of the whole mix if we are going to get this right.

I want to see a fairer and more prosperous society that has employment and opportunities for our young people. Without this sense of progress and social justice, technological advancement will only work against those that need the most assistance. It is time for the UK Government to show how their industrial strategy will benefit working people—and if they are unwilling to do so, transfer the powers to Scotland and let us get on with the job.

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