Robots in the workplace could lead to 'reindustrialisation' of the North

Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves. Picture Tony Johnson.
Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves. Picture Tony Johnson.
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Automation and robotics could lead to a “reindustrialisation” of the North, the chair of an influential Parliamentary committee has claimed.

Rachel Reeves, Labour MP for Leeds West, heads up the Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee which this week urged the Government to bring forward proposals for new tax incentives to encourage investment in robots to boost productivity.

Previously, reports have suggested between 150,000 and 400,000 jobs in Yorkshire could be lost due to automation.

But Ms Reeves said instead of losing jobs, if managed in the right way, better use of technology could breathe new life into northern industry.

She said: “I think this is an opportunity for some reindustrialisation a lot of jobs have been lost in the north of England, have been outsourced overseas. I think there is an opportunity, if we can create factories and workplaces with a high skill people working alongside machines that we can bring jobs back to this country that previously were outsourced to low cost labour places.

Read more: Tax breaks for businesses which use robots urged by committee chaired by Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves

“Actually, I think that our competitive advantage in the future is going to be in high skill high tech. And if we can develop those technologies and skill people up, then I think there's a really exciting future for high tech manufacturing in towns and cities in in Yorkshire. Now repair tech.”

Ms Reeves pointed towards a scheme called Made Smarter North West, intended to boost UK manufacturing productivity and growth across the North West, delivered in partnership with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, North West Local Enterprise Partnerships and North West Business Growth Hubs.

She said feedback from that was positive but the committee was “concerned that it represents almost the entire extent of the Government’s attempt to increase automation in UK businesses”. The committee recommended it was rolled out across the UK.

Ms Reeves said: “The evidence suggests and the people who we spoke to during the course of our inquiry suggests that it's going really well. But the Government haven't reviewed it themselves. They don't seem to have any plans to roll it out to other parts of the country.

“And if it is the success that people say that they think it is, then let's get it to Yorkshire and other parts of the UK because there are lots of small businesses who I meet in my constituency or when I'm out and about as chair of the select committee, who they don't know what is available to automate parts of their work.

“Businesses might offshore some of their jobs, because they think that they can do it cheaper somewhere else but actually we can bring back some jobs, as evidenced in our inquiry, that you could actually have some degree of reindustrialisation, or new manufacturing and industrial jobs come to the UK, if they are high productivity, and using the smartest, newest technologies. And so actually, there are real opportunities for jobs growing.

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“People worry about what the future is going to be like with automation. I think the problem of the British economy is that we've got too few robots, not that we've got too many.

“The truth is, our productivity has been very weak for the last 10 years. And I'm sure one of the reasons is that unlike in the first industrial revolution, we're not at the forefront of this one. And we'll miss out on jobs and opportunities, and some of the best paid high skilled jobs.

“And there's different types of job opportunities that come. And there's also going to be the skills in servicing the robots, working alongside them doing the programming.”

A study by West Yorkshire Combined Authority found last year that robots and automated technology threaten to make more than a third of jobs in West Yorkshire obsolete within 20 years,

The report said more than 400,000 jobs in the region are at risk, with low-skilled and manual work potentially worst affected by automation.

A separate report from the Office for National Statistics found nearly 150,000 jobs in Yorkshire were at a high risk of automation.

But Ms Reeves said the key was making sure people had the chance to change industries and learn new skills and trades.

She added: “We need to ensure that people who are working in jobs that are at high risk of automation, are given the opportunity to reskill. And one of the reasons why people worry about this is that people remember back, especially in places like Yorkshire, to what happened to some of the mining communities, where jobs, livelihoods and whole communities were devastated because the Government closed down industries, without a concern of what jobs people are going to do in the future, in a really brutal way.

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“And what we must not allow to happen is for automation to replace jobs, in factories, in towns and communities, and for those people to languish without jobs and without hope.

“That requires really ensuring that people have the skills.

“I believe that there are going to be plenty of jobs in the future, but they are going to be different types of jobs requiring different skills. And there's absolutely no reason why people doing jobs today can't get the skills and the knowledge to benefit and flourish in a different type of economy.

“But that requires government and business working together to ensure that people can take advantage of those opportunities, I do understand the concerns people have and if Government get this wrong, it could be devastating for some people in some communities.

“But if Government get this right, I think there's opportunity for more interesting jobs, more secure jobs, better paid jobs in the future.”