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Mr. Bercow rose--

Mr. Paterson rose--

Mr. Mandelson: It does not surprise me that Opposition Front Benchers have no interest in the future

25 Nov 1998 : Column 214

of the economy. They are chattering among themselves. To give them the chance to recover their posture, I shall give way, not to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) but to the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), who is wearing a more highly coloured tie.

Mr. Paterson: I am touched by the compliment to my tie, but I wish to bring the Secretary of State back to the subject of the debate--trade and industry. Why do countries that have pursued the employment policies pushed through by his Government have levels of unemployment two or three times higher than those of this country, which is enjoying the benefits of the policies of the previous Government?

Mr. Mandelson: The hon. Gentleman must realise that we have no intention of introducing any legislation that presents a burden on business and reduces the competitiveness of British firms. Our aim in employment legislation is simply to increase flexibility in our labour market and also--I am sorry it is an alien concept to Conservative Members--to introduce an element of fairness and minimum standards of safety and protection for people who work in this country. I do not expect the hon. Gentleman to support that, given what he believes in and the party to which he belongs, but that is what we believe in and what we intend to do.

Mr. Bercow rose--

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) rose--

Mr. Mandelson: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady).

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way to me. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) is performing a service for other Opposition Members who wish to intervene.

The Secretary of State suggested that he has no intention of adding costs to industry, which bemused Conservative Members. Has he read the submission by the Engineering Employers Federation to the Department of Trade and Industry about the enormous complexity of the regulations on the national minimum wage, and does he accept that there is a problem?

Mr. Mandelson: I do not know what the problem is to which the hon. Gentleman refers. The Confederation of British Industry has made it clear that it is content with the way in which the Government have introduced the national minimum wage, and it has co-operated with us throughout. The CBI and others are now considering the draft regulations that we have published which will cover the implementation and enforcement of the national minimum wage. We look forward to hearing everyone's views in the consultation, and I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that every comment and observation submitted to my Department about those regulations will be carefully considered.

Mr. Bercow rose--

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) rose--

Mr. Mandelson: I give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Sheerman: The Opposition have brought the Engineering Employers Federation into the debate,

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but those of us who regularly meet its representatives hear what they say about the inheritance of 18 years of failure to educate and train people in the new technologies. That is the real burden that our industry faces, especially engineering. It faces the lack of modern apprenticeships and not enough well-trained workers. That deficiency in skill levels is undermining our performance and it is an inheritance from that lot--the Conservatives--who have nothing to boast about.

Mr. Mandelson: Yes, and every business and employers' organisation I talk to knows that we have to make up for the lost time under the previous Administration. Those businesses and employers organisations have a profound understanding of where our economy is going and the challenges posed to every business by the creation of a knowledge-driven economy.

Mr. Bercow rose--

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) rose--

Mr. Mandelson: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis).

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way and for bringing into the debate some of the real issues, one of which is the knowledge capital that we need for the next millennium. Why did not the Government include in the Gracious Speech a Bill to cover lifelong learning, especially as they published a Green Paper about it in the previous Session? Such a Bill should be at the heart of the Government's intentions for the development of human capital, and would address the point made by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman).

Mr. Mandelson: The very important initiative that was heralded by the lifelong learning Green Paper is already up and running. It has already been established that the headquarters of the university for industry will be in Sheffield. That represents an extremely important step forward for the knowledge capital to which the hon. Gentleman is referring. It creates huge opportunities for many millions of people in this country.

We need only look at the sources of competitiveness and lower costs that come from the development of the knowledge-driven economy. For example, General Motors saved $1.5 million on painting costs through the better use of information, and the General Electric Lighting company secured a 30 per cent. cut in procurement labour costs through internet purchasing.

In common with companies, countries need to stay ahead of the game or they will be replaced by new entrants.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Mandelson: If my hon. Friend will allow me, I wish to make some more progress.

The forthcoming White Paper will set out how the Government plan to help build a knowledge-driven economy, to put the future on Britain's side and to reverse

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this country's economic decline of the past 20 years or more. It will set out what we are doing to enhance the capability of business, how we plan to help businesses to collaborate with each other to compete and to collaborate with others in the public sector and in education, and how competitive markets should drive innovation and enterprise.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Mandelson: Let me make some more progress.

We have strengths on which to build in this country. We have a world-class science base, we have enterprising people--many with the right skills, but others willing to acquire them--and we have a strong digital infrastructure.

The Government are playing their part, with £1.4 billion additional funding in science announced in the comprehensive spending review, a programme of investment in education that is one of the largest committed by any Government anywhere and a programme to build up the skills of those starting new and innovative businesses. I set Business Links a challenge to support 10,000 such businesses a year by 2002. We are developing more imaginative ways of financing growth businesses and new measures to spread the adoption of digital technologies by small and medium-sized firms.

To underpin all those measures, we need a culture change to support enterprise, to applaud success and to remove the stigma of honest failure. Here again, the Government must give a stronger lead, and I shall be announcing measures to address that aspect, too.

This is not about Government telling business what to do. It is important that we lead through our own activities, in particular by working towards the Prime Minister's target that 25 per cent. of Government services should be available electronically by 2002. I stress that the greatest contribution the Government can make to enterprise is by ensuring that open and transparent markets provide the spur to business to innovate and become competitive. That is a key role and responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry. We must ensure that all our policies--across the board--promote innovation and risk-taking, and help build the knowledge-driven economy in which enterprise flourishes.

When I spoke of the knowledge-driven economy and the importance of electronic commerce in our previous debate, the right hon. Member for Wokingham, the shadow spokesman, shouted, "Rubbish" and, "Claptrap." That is not surprising from someone who inhabits Planet Zog and remains blissfully unaware of the conditions and challenges facing business in the real world. I believe that he is wrong. In fact, he is more than wrong; he is being quite stupid. He refuses to see the opportunity that the information age and the knowledge-driven economy present to reverse the long years of decline that the Tories did nothing to prevent.

We are not going to take chances with Britain's future.

Mr. Barry Jones: Will my right hon. Friend please give way?


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