Orders of the Day — Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:51 pm on 10th March 1999.

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Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry 4:51 pm, 10th March 1999

My hon. Friend is quite right, and I have raised that issue in the House. The Government have failed signally to speak up for the London art market. They do not seem to realise how important it is. They have not promised or threatened to use the veto, which is the very least they should do given the serious threat that is posed to the future of that important market, on which many jobs and much income depend.

The Government conjure up an image of a future Britain as a province of Europe fit for spin doctors to practise in. Our vision of reality will be distorted not by smoke from the factory chimney, but by the smoke in our eyes from the lobbyists, public relations professionals and high-tech wizards who surround the new Labour project.

This Budget is proclaimed as a Budget that will provide more work for people. Yet, as we heard this afternoon, one of its important themes is to take a lot of work away from the Secretary of State. We are told that he is to give up the day job—dealing with competition in the United Kingdom market—which is now to be carried out by a new, enlarged and expensive quango situated further away from parliamentary scrutiny. The reason that we have been given is that we cannot trust politicians—I suppose that shows a little self-knowledge on the part of the Government. However, there are many occasions when the Secretary of State should be prepared to make decisions in the public interest. He should decide how much competition will be introduced and promote that cause.

I asked the Secretary of State a series of questions following today's statement, and I received absolutely no answers. When I write to the right hon. Gentleman, I am told that he cannot answer my letters and that I should ask my questions in the House of Commons. When I question him in the House of Commons, I receive no answers. Is that because the Secretary of State does not have any answers, or because he so hates democracy that he is not prepared to make any answers available through Parliament to the press and wider public?

Why can the Secretary of State not tell us whether he wants to introduce competition into the car or brewing industries or any other areas that I asked about today? Why is it such a secret? I do not believe that the Secretary of State is unable to make a judgment on those matters, and I do not believe that he can get away with the excuse that they are not his responsibility. Until he has given his job away, they are very much his responsibility. Business must know where it stands. It is in flux, thanks to the new legislation introduced by the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, and the Secretary of State owes it to the House this afternoon to provide answers to those important policy questions.

This Government, above all else and to a greater extent than their predecessors, pride themselves on their close day-by-day—even hour-by-hour and minute-by-minute— links to the media. How can we believe that the Government are free to make impartial decisions in the area of media competition when they owe so many favours in that field? When I asked the Secretary of State to make it absolutely clear that the one case in which his argument may have force—the media—would be transferred to his independent authority, he was unable to give me that reassurance and went on to say that he is about to decide on one of the most sensitive and important cases of all—whether BSkyB should take over Manchester United.

It is a great pity that the Secretary of State does not realise the logic of his position. He tells us that there are times when a Minister is compromised by the interests of the Government generally, yet when we have the best example of a case in which that problem could arise, it is the one case in which he will make the decision and leave himself in considerable difficulty. Perhaps he will help to resolve that conundrum when he responds to the debate.

I come from a constituency which, along with others, is leading the software, internet and communications revolution. I agree that all those sectors will be more important in the future and will provide many good jobs in the years to come. However, man does not live by mobile phones and e-mails alone. We still need clothes, food and houses. We still need to make things as well as say things. It would be wrong to write off the one fifth of our economy that is based on manufacturing.

The new industries do not welcome the siren call of the new regulators. The Government threaten them with e-commerce legislation. When I met representatives of the Federation of Electronic Industries the other day, they agreed with me that elements of the new law are more likely to stifle than to stimulate the new technology.

What should the Chancellor have done in the Budget? He should have taken to heart the Prime Minister's words about doing things the American way. He should have apologised for tax increases past and avoided all stealth taxes future. He should have put off the regulations that now threaten much British commercial success. He should have struck out boldly for a freer market. The Budget could have offered a prosperous future for manufacturing. Instead, the Chancellor chose to ignore the pleas of British industry. He will live to regret that.