Tom Watson challenges George Osborne to review rise of robot workforce and impact on Britain's economy

Lynsey Barber
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Tom Watson says the government is unprepared (Source: Getty)

Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson has accused the government of being unprepared for the rise of a robot workforce, suggesting a royal commission should be set up to investigate the impact of increasing automation ahead of the chancellor's budget next week.

A new industrial strategy should be at the heart of the response to the increasing automation of jobs, said Watson, writing for the Guardian.

"The question facing us as a nation is how do we make technological change our ally not our foe? We can’t leave it to fate, as the current chancellor and his colleagues at the Department for Business are doing," he said, adding that automation was the most urgent issue facing Britain.

"There is no minister for this new technology. No special cabinet committee has been set up to come up with solutions. There is no royal commission to look at the economic impact robots will have, or the ethical dilemmas they will pose. Where is the new institution that brings together trades unions, employers and government to establish how the time liberated and wealth created by robots is equitably shared?"

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"Too many senior Tories think they are powerless to act – they wrap their powerlessness up in economic and political libertarianism, and pray to the gods of the free market. They eschew any role for government, and reject most notions of an industrial strategy," he said.

Several reports on the issue of automated jobs, from banks and consultancy firms to the World Economic forum, have suggested millions of jobs will be lost in the coming years.

Watson revealed these technological developments changing the way we live and work would be at the forefront of Labour's own strategy.

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"The Labour party will be at the forefront of developing a new industrial strategy, fit for the second machine age and the epoch of drones, bots and artificial intelligence," he said.

"This new industrial strategy must address head-on the hourglass economy, the future of the professions, the skills gap, the need to spread prosperity not concentrate it in fewer hands, and the threats as well as the potential of change. None of that will be easy, but all of it is necessary if the UK is to claim its share of the benefits that automation will bring."

Osborne is expected to announce a trial of driverless lorries in next week's budget speech. The government has also provided millions of pounds in funding for testing driverless car schemes across the country.

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