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Mr. Gray rose--

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) rose--

Mr. Gray: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way to me, rather than to my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell). If the right hon. Lady has available a wealth of statistics stretching back to 1881, perhaps she would care to enlighten the House regarding the number of days lost through strikes in 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978 and 1979?

Mrs. Beckett: There were not as many as in the 1980s. As I have said, none of those issues in any way alters the fact that the Opposition tabled a motion deploring the "growth of industrial unrest" at a time when there is no evidence whatsoever to back up that claim. Indeed, that is typical of the motion as a whole.

Mr. Boswell: I am sure that the right hon. Lady would not seek to mislead the House, but, taking the years that I

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think were cited--I round the figures--the number of days lost was 6 million in 1975, 3.2 million in 1976, 10.1 million in 1977, 9.4 million in 1978, and 29.4 million in 1979. There is no figure comparable with that in the 1980s except for the 27 million days lost in 1984 with the miners' strike. I do not find her figures sustainable.

Mrs. Beckett: It would be superfluous to comment on that. The hon. Gentleman has shot himself in the foot by citing those statistics.

The motion talks of the Government creating a "boom and bust economy". Of course, the Conservatives are the experts. No one has ever been better qualified to talk about boom and bust than they: 18 years in power, unprecedented billions of pounds of windfall profits from the North sea--and they delivered the two biggest post-war recessions, separated by an unsustainable boom.

The motion also talks about the damage to manufacturing from the economic instability that the Opposition claim that we have introduced through

Short-term interest rates are below the level at which they were held for the first 13 years of the previous Government's tenure of office.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham admitted, with even more clarity than previously, that the previous Government made mistakes in the 1990s when they entered the exchange rate mechanism. He commented that entry into the ERM was supported by Labour in opposition, although no one ever suggested that we should go in at the rate we did, which was the achievement of the former Prime Minister.

Mr. Bercow: Will the right hon. Lady give way on that point?

Mrs. Beckett: No.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham was careful to say that the Opposition apologised for that, and that only, as if it was the only mistake to which the Conservative party is owning up. Although he chose to concentrate solely on that period, during their tenure of office interest rates reached 17 per cent. in the early 1980s. At one point in that intensely difficult period, manufacturing output had fallen by nearly 20 per cent. In 1981 alone, 650,000 manufacturing jobs were lost. Between 1979 and 1983, a total of 1.25 million manufacturing jobs disappeared. That was in the early 1980s.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, interest rates reached 15 per cent., manufacturing output fell by more than 5 per cent. and, in 1991 alone, another 400,000 manufacturing jobs were lost. When the Conservatives left office, manufacturing output had increased on average by only 0.5 per cent. in each of their 18 years; so, too, had manufacturing investment.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Beckett: Not for a second.

Britain had its first ever deficit on trade in manufactures--at least the first since the industrial revolution when manufacturing was invented in this

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country. As for jobs in manufacturing, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) pointed out that, when the Conservatives left office, there were 2.5 million fewer jobs than when they came into office. As for the level of sterling, not only did interest rates under the Conservatives reach levels twice as high as they are today, but sterling was at a higher level against the deutschmark than it is today. That was during the period when the shadow Secretary of State was a Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry.

Mr. Gray: As we are getting such a wealth of historical information, perhaps the right hon. Lady will comment on average interest and inflation rates under the last Labour Government. If she is unable to, I am certain that my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) will be happy to enlighten her.

Mrs. Beckett: I would not exactly call this history. After all, the Government have been in office for only 15 months. We are talking about the whole period of office during which the Conservative party was in power. As for the levels of interest rates and sterling, under this Government they are not at anything like the levels that they reached under the Conservative party.

The shadow Secretary of State claims that he acknowledges that and that he and his party have said, "Whoops, sorry," although it was not so full an apology that anyone but he can remember it. He says that we should put behind us their catastrophic record as stewards of manufacturing industry. No chance, I am afraid.

There is no doubt that we can dismiss with contempt most Conservatives' pretensions to speak on behalf of British manufacturing, but that does not mean for a second that I do not fully recognise and acknowledge the genuine concern felt and expressed by British manufacturers at what they see as the current erosion of their competitive position and the sharp anxiety that many feel about their order books, their export prospects and--if the worst comes to the worst--the consequences for employment. At every level, the Government are fully aware both of the importance of the contribution that manufacturing makes to our economy and of the pressures that some manufacturers are presently experiencing. I know that manufacturers' concerns are also heard and heeded by many of my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Back Benches.

Dr. Ladyman: My right hon. Friend makes a powerful case that the Opposition have had some sort of vision on the road to Damascus and are now supporting manufacturing. Does she, like me, recollect that, either when he was an adviser to Mrs. Thatcher, shortly before being elected to the House, or shortly thereafter, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) appeared on television and, when asked about the balance of trade and manufacturing industry, replied, "It really isn't important; it really, really does not matter," and repeated those comments in respect of the balance of trade?

Mrs. Beckett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because I had not remembered that interview--at that time, I was not hanging on the right hon. Gentleman's every word as I do today. I can well believe that the remark can be

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attributed to him, because I am well aware that, at that time, that was the view not only held, but expressed, by the Conservatives.

Miss McIntosh: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Beckett: I shall give way to the hon. Lady, because she asked first.

Miss McIntosh: Can the Secretary of State give me some guidance? If a manufacturing company in the Vale of York wished to approach either her or a fellow Minister, would her door be open to receive a visit from that manufacturer--the Secretary of State for International Development has suggested that such a contact must come directly from a manufacturing company that is worried, perhaps about the minimum wage or about jobs being lost because of the recession--or would she insist that the company went through a lobbying company before being granted access?

Mr. Winnick rose--

Madam Speaker: Order. I must ask the Secretary of State to respond to the hon. Lady before I call another hon. Member.

Mrs. Beckett: I beg your pardon, Madam Speaker. I sought to curtail matters for the convenience of the House. I would say to the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) that, although I cannot undertake to accept every single invitation and request, my door is very much open to manufacturing industry--indeed, I do not wait for manufacturers to come to me; I go to them.

Mr. Winnick: There is indeed concern in the west midlands about the current state of manufacturing industry and we do not attempt to disguise that. However, is it not right to recall that when, under the previous Government, we twice went into recession, it was the west midlands which bore the brunt? From 1980 to 1982, large parts of the manufacturing areas of the west midlands were absolutely devastated, yet the Tory protest at the time was, to say the least, minimal. There are hardly any lessons to be taken from a party that caused so much damage to so many people in the west midlands, the heartland of manufacturing industry.

Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right. I confess that my attitude toward those Conservatives who, at that time, spoke up on behalf of manufacturing industry is rather different from my attitude toward those who did not.

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