Business breakfast digests anti-tax message

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair presented himself yesterday as tough on inflation, anti-tax and sceptical about Brussels red tape, confidently answering questions from Birmingham industrialists on the first stop of his nationwide tour to persuade business they could do business with a Labour government. He also signalled Labour would drop its policy of imposing a levy on companies which do not spend a minimum amount on staff training.

Several of his sell-out breakfast audience said they were "very impressed", and John Hawksley, president of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry, welcomed his declaration that "we have no plans to increase tax at all".

A week after his speech to the TUC, when he pledged a Labour government would listen to employers and unions equally, Mr Blair set out his pro- business stall. He stressed his commitment to low inflation, which has attracted some criticism within the Labour Party. He denied his stance was "too tough" and said if inflation was not held down, "we will find the pain in the end is far tougher than the short-term gain".

He said he sympathised with firms' complaints about excessive legislation. "Though I speak as a strong pro-European, I do think some of the legislation that comes out of Brussels is unnecessary, restrictive and burdensome," he said.

Asked about Labour's policy at the last election of a training levy - attacked by the Tories as a "tax on jobs" - he said the issue was now being looked at by the party's Economic Policy Commission. "My view is that we should be looking at how we stimulate the individual at the workplace ... the greatest problem is getting young people to believe that [training] is their passport to success," he said.

Labour's policy document, A New Economic Future for Britain, published by Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor in June, includes the training levy as one of three options. The others are an entitlement to a number of "learning days" each year for all employees and "individual learning accounts", personal funds to which employers would contribute which could only be spent on approved education and training.

Mr Blair's performance was well received, with two main objections. Several business people doubted his ability to carry his party with him in government. Laurie Elba asked him: "Are the rest of the people in the party able to deliver - are they as enlightened as you?"

Mr Blair replied: "This is a question that is often put to me. I stand here as the duly elected leader of the party ... It can't be said that everyone in the Labour Party agrees with me, but the centre of gravity in the party is moving one way."

Several employers attacked Labour's plans for a minimum wage. One said: "Why put our workers out of jobs and give their jobs to workers in the Far East?" Mr Blair accepted that if the minimum wage were set too high "then jobs will be lost", but promised to consult employers before setting a "sensible" level.