Inequality in Britain is wrong - both morally and economically. Lord Prior reflects on his new ministerial post
- Credit: PA
The level of inequality in Britain is 'morally' and 'economically' wrong, the government's newest business minister has said.
Lord Prior, who joined the newly created Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy department in Theresa May's mini House of Lords reshuffle, welcomed the change to his portfolio which will see him move from the Department for Health.
The former North Norfolk MP heralded Brexit as an opportunity to overcome 'historically very low' productivity with a new industrial strategy.
He takes up the new post amid growing inequality. A report earlier this year by Oxfam said Britain's richest 1pc are 20 times wealthier than the poorest 13 million people.
Questioned about whether he was comfortable with the widening gulf between vast executive wages and flat wages at the other end of the spectrum, Lord Prior said: 'The level of inequality has become too high frankly. Part of the strategy is to spread some of the opportunities and wealth creation much more widely. There are not enough well paid jobs for well-trained technical people. There are too many people working in the service industry on minimum wage type jobs. I don't think it is sustainable in the long run. It is not morally right, but it is not economically right either. There is a strong moral argument that we have an obligation as a society to let many more people share in the prosperity we are creating. 'We have to up our productivity. It is too low compared to other industrialised counties. In part it is due to education. Think of the number of people who go to university and come out with a degree and come out with a low paid job. It is a nonsense. We want far more people trained in engineering and computer science, robotics, artificial intelligence.
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'All those kinds of areas which is where the future is. We can do a much better job than we have done in the past.
'All developed countries have our kinds of issues. Brexit gives us a really good opportunity to look at ourselves hard in the mirror and see where we can do better,' he added.
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A former British Steel employee in the 1980s, Lord Prior said that he had seen first hand the culture of heavy industry – steel, ship building, coal mining – in the north and Midlands.
'Those parts of England, but also Scotland and Wales, never recovered from the profound structural change that happened there.
'A chance to re-look at that and try and attract more high value manufacturing into those areas would chime with what I feel as well. It is a big important opportunity.'
'I think the main question that we are trying to address is that wealth creation is unevenly distributed around the country, So much is concentrated in the south-east – Oxford, Cambridge and the London area. Large parts of the country have been left behind.
'I think we are very keen to develop a strategy which tries to spread wealth more evenly across the country. Looking very much in the north-east and north-west and other parts of the country away from London.'
Questioned about whether that was a legacy of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, he said it was possible to go back that far, but also pointed out that it was 40 years ago.
'It is a very good question we haven't answered very well. It is in part an educational issue I think. The decline of the old apprenticeship model was never properly replaced.
'We don't have enough well trained technical people in this country. We don't have anything like the same system of technical training they do in Germany. I think, secondly – you can see it in America as well – so much of the new technology has been built around world-class universities. You see that in Oxford, Cambridge and London as well. Particularly in the life sciences area – AI, robotics.
'They have been concentrated around those areas. Actually there are signs that things are changing in Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh. There is quite a lot to build on.'
But he said they needed to bring together academic research with high-value manufacturing and an entrepreneurial culture like that found in places like California and Boston in the United States 'in spades'.
'Whether there is a lack of long term capital in the UK or quite what it is – we are not as good at commercialising our knowledge as they are in the US.
'There is a lot we can learn from other countries.'