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Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Will the right hon. Gentleman immediately withdraw that preposterous comment, which I never made? Will he accept that I thought that the Leader of the Opposition gave a superb speech yesterday, which tore the Government to shreds? The right hon. Gentleman should heed my right hon. Friend's message.

Mr. Mandelson: I think that the right hon. Gentleman has thrown in the towel already. He should not allow himself to be goaded so easily. On hearing the result of the Conservative party leadership election, he said that the worst of all six candidates had been chosen.

Mr. Redwood rose--

Mr. Mandelson: A denial?

Mr. Redwood: That was another misstatement by the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Mandelson: What a way to speak of one's leader. We certainly would not get away with it in our party--the men in the dark would not stand for it.

What, after the rhetoric was finished, was left of the bathroom sponge? In my view, there was very little. The Conservatives cannot oppose the investment and reform in schools. They do not dare oppose the money for and change to the national health service. They would not

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know where to start in presenting an alternative to welfare reform and, in the fight against crime, they are precisely nowhere.

That is not surprising from a party that, in 18 long years, talked a good game but travelled backwards. It has now decided to win back the political middle ground by lurching further to the right. In the process, it has offered no new ideas, no shred of analysis and no proposals to modernise Britain--nothing, zero, zilch. While the Government modernise, they sloganise.

The Government will stick to their guns. We will not be deflected--however many battalions of hereditary peers are thrown in our way--from our programme to strengthen democracy, to create opportunity and higher living standards and to bring about improvement for the many and not the few.

The Government's legislative programme for this Session is founded on the twin themes of modernisation and fairness. Labour's first Session in government for18 years saw an unprecedented programme of legislation--47 Acts of Parliament in 18 months. My Department has been at the heart of that effort.

What a contrast with the previous Administration. In the two Sessions before the election in May last year, the Department of Trade and Industry took through just two programmed Bills--just two. In the Session that has just gone, we put five Acts on to the statute book.

The Competition Act 1998 will finally reform a competition regime that was widely regarded as out of date, toothless and badly in need of a rethink. We did that--the Tories promised to do so, but delivered nothing. Now, of course, the right hon. Member for Wokingham claims that he never supported that reform anyway. How comforting that must be to business--to know that all the time he was representing their interests as the Minister responsible for competition, he never actually believed in it.

The National Minimum Wage Act 1998 is a key part of the Government's commitment to fairness and decent minimum standards. The Wireless Telegraphy Act 1998 will encourage the efficient use of an increasingly scarce resource which will be vital to our drive to build a business environment that fosters innovation and encourages enterprise in the information age. The Fossil Fuel Levy Act 1998 is a clear commitment to the promotion of renewable energy sources. Last but not least, the Late Payment of Commercial Debts Act 1998 establishes the principle that small firms cannot and should not be bullied by larger competitors. Five Acts were initiated from my Department, Madam Speaker, compared to none at all from the Conservative Government in the Session before the election.

Our commitment to legislation which is based on modernisation and fairness will continue in the coming Session. First, we will aim to modernise employee relations so as to promote partnership at work and underpin a flexible and efficient labour market. What is clear to everyone bar the Conservative party is that workplaces where there is mutual respect and minimum standards of protection, safety and consultation, work better and more productively.

If businesses are to be competitive, to innovate and to anticipate their customers' needs, they need the whole- hearted commitment of their employees. That commitment

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will be given by people who feel that they are treated reasonably and fairly. That underpins our proposed legislation.

We will introduce a forward-looking Bill to modernise our framework of employment law. The Bill will honour all the commitments that we gave in the White Paper which we published earlier this year. It will address family-friendly employment practices, to reflect the fact that the labour market is changing and needs more, not less, flexibility to enable men and women to cope with home and work; it will provide new rights for individuals at work, including greater protection against unfair dismissal; and establish a new statutory procedure for the recognition of trade unions.

We have listened carefully to all the responses to the White Paper, and they have helped us to develop and to refine the detail; to fill in the gaps; to ensure that the proposals will work well and strike a fair balance; and, yes, to give reassurance, where justified, to employers who are understandably concerned about the impact of the proposed legislation on their businesses.

Let me make this further point, too. Our measures are well judged for our country's needs. Others in Europe may have their own views on what is appropriate for their domestic needs. In this matter of collective rights and workplace relations, where there are wide differences of practice between member states, subsidiarity is important--that means each acting according to his own need and his own willingness to sign up. I would like all in the European Union to respect that principle in employment and social legislation.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow) rose--

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) rose--

Mr. Mandelson: The second item of proposed legislation being prepared by my Department goes to the heart of Britain's economic future--the harnessing of the internet to business, and the contribution that electronic commerce will make to our competitiveness. Electronic commerce is radically changing the nature of individual businesses, markets and entire economies. However, most of our laws--in the United Kingdom and elsewhere--were designed to regulate the trade in physical goods. The countries that first succeed in adapting their legal and regulatory environment to the requirements of electronic commerce will achieve all the advantages of the first mover. We must be the trail-blazers, at the front of the pack.

There is a hugely important leadership role for my Department in partnership with the private sector. It must become nothing short of a national crusade for Britain to become world leaders in internet business and in generating electronic profits. That is why the Government have set the ambitious goal of creating in the United Kingdom the best environment in the world for electronic trading by 2002.

The White Paper on competitiveness, which I shall publish shortly, will set out our strategy for achieving that. At its heart will be legislation to ensure that businesses and consumers have the same confidence in electronic transactions as they do in pen-and-paper agreements.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Mandelson: No.

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Those exciting developments are part of the fast evolving knowledge economy. With ever greater computing power and more connected, more international networks, the result is global competition on a vast scale, with low barriers to market entry and mind-boggling innovation.

Mr. Bercow: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Mandelson: No.

For the weak and uncompetitive in our economy, for those who are unwilling to change, this revolution will pose a threat. Only for the competitive and strong, for those who are open to new ideas, it presents a major opportunity.

Mr. Hayes: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Mandelson: No.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: I fear that it will be a point of frustration.

Mr. Paterson: Correct, Madam Speaker. I have been in the House only 18 months, but I understand that it is the convention that one does not interrupt a ministerial statement but that one is allowed to ask to intervene during a debate. Is this a statement or a debate?

Madam Speaker: This is undoubtedly a debate, but of course it is for the Minister or whoever has the Floor to determine whether to accept an intervention. That is not a matter for the Chair.

Mr. Mandelson: It is for all the reasons that I have given that we put so much stress on raising companies' competitiveness. To create and safeguard the employment that we need, we must ensure that the weak in our economy become the strong. Let us be clear: the knowledge revolution is not a revolution of an elite of knowledge-based services or high-tech businesses. It applies to such businesses, of course, but it applies to all businesses: to large and small; to manufacturing and services in all parts of the country.

Some question the relevance of the knowledge economy to manufacturing, but they forget about design, product control, market creation, marketing itself and best practice management, all of which require knowledge workers. To take an example that is topical this afternoon, farming is still one of the most manual of industries, but many modern tractors are mobile offices, and some even have satellite location devices installed.

The truth is that competitive advantage increasingly depends on knowledge: on new ideas for new products. Better use of knowledge means designing products that better suit customers' needs, creating less pollution, higher profits and more rewarding jobs. [Interruption.]

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