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6.44 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Mr. Ian McCartney): First, I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) and for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) for both the content of their speeches and the enthusiasm for Government policy that they expressed.

I understand that, on the right occasion, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) enjoys a Big Mac. Let me tell him that I am one Big Mac that he will not be devouring tonight. His speech evoked a sense of deja vu; one would have thought that the Conservative crew had never been in government, or left an inheritance for Labour to clear up.

Under the Conservatives' tutelage and during their period of responsibility, 2.5 million manufacturing jobs were lost. They discouraged investment in manufacturing, to the extent that investment grew by only 0.5 per cent. per annum. The value of manufacturing imports exceeded that of exports by more than £100 billion. Among manufacturing companies, insolvencies quadrupled under the previous Government. Like the electorate, industry wants an end to those disastrous policies. It wants an end to instability, which our policies are designed to achieve.

Today, Dun and Bradstreet reported that manufacturers now expect a growth in sales, orders, profits and employment; that is a radically different view from that expressed by Conservative Members. The Institute of Directors reports three quarters of manufacturers performing well or very well. More than twice as many manufacturers expect to increase investment as expect to cut it. That is not a sign of a Government's policies in crisis. Many other independent forecasters, including the Confederation of British Industry, expect manufacturing output to grow both this year and next.

The Opposition have tabled a spurious motion on recession and a crisis in employment relations. The right hon. Member for Wokingham has been unable to give a single, sustainable, fact-based argument that the problems that the Labour Government are now tackling are not the legacy left by him and his right hon. Friends.

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The right hon. Gentleman has a bit of a reputation for economic forecasting. In 1989, he said:

Within in a year, we had embarked on the longest recession for 50 years. Two days earlier, in a similar debate, he had gone one better by saying:

    "About one third of the unemployed in Britain are in London, the south-east and East Anglia, and in all those parts of the country it is possible to find a job. One has only to walk down the high street to see the jobs on offer. They almost fall out of the shops."--[Official Report, 10 January 1989; Vol. 144, c. 748.]

Within four years of that remark, unemployment had risen from 1.8 million to 3 million. Economic forecasting is not one of the right hon. Gentleman's strongest skills. He apologised for the 1990s, but, like some Rip van Winkle, he appears to have forgotten that the Conservative Government were in control of the economy during the 1980s as well. I hope that he does not mind my saying that he debates economic issues as effectively as he sings the Welsh national anthem.

Mr. Redwood: To say that there are many jobs available at a particular time is not to make a forecast for four years hence. What has the Minister to say about the headline of the "Business Day" section in the Evening Standard tonight, which says:

The article contains a long catalogue of complaints about ineptitude, inadequacy and failure to make decisions that business needs. Will the Minister get in touch with business and understand that there is a serious crisis?

Mr. McCartney: The right hon. Gentleman should stop overdosing on Viagra. He is over-excited. One point is absolutely certain--my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and other Ministers in the Department have proved since the first day of this Government that we are effective not only individually but collectively. We are one of the best Departments in the Government. Under the previous Government, job insecurity was rife, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend and I do not suffer from it.

The right hon. Gentleman alleged that we had made a £25 billion tax raid on companies. The Government will cut corporate tax bills by £4.5 billion, and we have cut corporation tax by a full 3 per cent. That is the lowest ever rate in the UK and the lowest of any major industrialised country. We have cut corporation tax twice and increased capital allowances for small firms; we have cut capital gains tax on long-term investment; we have cut taxes for working families on low incomes; we have cut national insurance contributions on employment; we have cut VAT on fuel from 8 per cent. to 5 per cent.

The election of a Labour Government has prevented further Tory tax increases such as VAT on food, children's clothes, books, newspapers and fares.

Mr. Redwood: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. McCartney: The right hon. Gentleman should quit while he is ahead, but I shall give way.

Mr. Redwood: If the Government have made all those cuts in business taxes, why does the Chancellor's Red Book show a £25,000 million increase in the business tax burden?

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Mr. McCartney: That is related to growth in the economy. The Government are directly reducing taxes for business.

I shall concede one point to the right hon. Gentleman: the Government have introduced one tax--the windfall tax--and I am proud of that. The previous Government allowed privatised utilities to make bumper profits while unemployment among young people and older workers increased to the point at which there was mass unemployment everywhere in Britain. We introduced a windfall tax to fund the new deal. I am proud of that, and the public are proud of it. The new deal is seen as one of the most successful programmes for introducing, at last, training and work opportunities for young people and older workers. The previous Government abandoned them year after year.

The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) spoke about employment relations. Looking back at the inheritance that we received when we came into office, we can see that, shamefully, under the previous Government, the International Labour Organisation listed the UK, along with Burma, as a country that was imposing limitations on workers' rights to the extent that we were not complying with our international obligations--Burma, I ask you. That is a regime known for its cruelty to all its citizens. We were bracketed with that country for our lack of compliance with ILO conventions.

The previous Government abolished wages councils, denying more than 2 million workers protection against poverty pay. They burdened the tribunal system with huge delays because of the increasing number of people who felt that they had been unfairly treated in the workplace. They systematically failed to work with trade unions and listen to their views.

The previous Government were even taken to the European Court. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), had a record as long as his arm of losing cases in the European Court for denying British people their rights. The man was a scandal and, if it had not been for the election, he would probably have been locked up because of his long record of failure to comply with the law.

Believe it or not, the previous Government went to court and lost because they did not want the lowest-paid workers in Britain to have three weeks' paid holiday--four weeks by the turn of the century. That is the previous Government's record, which we had to follow.

The hon. Member for Daventry raised the issue of today's rail strikes. The previous Government lost almost 900,000 working days in transport and communications in their last year of office. None of us wants strikes. The whole purpose of partnership is to reduce conflict in the workplace. The previous Government had a clear record of policies that led to substantial numbers of days being lost through industrial action in the rail industry.

Mr. Boswell: Will the Minister tell the House whether the rail union is today striking against the policies of the previous Conservative Government or those of the present Labour Government?

Mr. McCartney: The position is clear--the hon. Gentleman left us a legacy of under-investment, poor industrial relations and a demoralised work force. It has been left to this Government to start investing to clear up the results of their policies.

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Opposition Members do not believe in partnership, but they are very isolated. Even Sir Stanley Kalms, the Tory party's biggest fund raiser, announced last week a recognition arrangement between his company and the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union. Levi Strauss, United Distillers, PowerGen, Tesco and Lucas are all making similar moves. Across Britain, employers are moving towards partnership and fairness in the workplace. Only the Conservatives, wedded to the past of under- cutting and under-resourcing people in the workplace, do not believe in partnership and a joint approach to solving employment problems. They do not believe in trade unions having the right to exist in the workplace. They do not believe that unions are good for partnership.

Our White Paper has pledged funds to contribute to the training of managers and employee representatives to assist and develop partnerships at work. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment announced a £2 million fund for union learning to support innovation in promoting learning and skills at work and to stimulate new partnerships. Would the Conservative party reverse that policy? Would it repeal the "Fairness at Work" White Paper proposals for funds to improve training and education in partnership for managers and employees? Would the right hon. Member for Wokingham withdraw funding for better relationships in the workplace? Would he repeal the proposals to give people the right to paid holidays? If he opposes those proposals, will he state whether the Conservatives, if they ever won an election, would repeal those new rights?

People are sick and tired of the Tories' old agenda. They want to move towards partnership in the workplace. That is why "Fairness at Work" has been overwhelmingly accepted. The right hon. Member for Wokingham has been waxing lyrical about why, even now, he opposes a minimum wage of £3.60, but he had to admit, under pressure, that he has a part-time job paying £12,000. Will he confirm that he has also been given 100,000 share options for a part-time job? He opposes a national minimum wage of just over £7,000 for someone who is working full time. He is guilty of double standards and hypocrisy.

We need no lessons from the right hon. Gentleman about the importance of establishing a minimum wage. Will he fight the next election on wage cuts by pledging to remove the right to a national minimum wage? I am giving the right hon. Gentleman the opportunity to answer. Will he oppose the continuation of the national minimum wage at the next election, possibly forcing wage cuts on many low-paid workers?

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