Byers sets up taskforce to fight for industry's needs

MPC expected to cut rates further this week despite rising confidence
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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT is to establish a heavyweight taskforce to champion the interests of manufacturing in the wake of persistent criticism from industry of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee.

Leaders of both sides of industry have been invited to a "summit meeting" to advise on the terms of reference of the new group set up by Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Although the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, is likely to play down the significance of the move, the MPC will inevitably be expected to take its views on board.

Both unions and management in the manufacturing sector have long attacked the interest rate-setting committee for being dominated by figures from the City and academics with little hands-on experience of industry.

The MPC meets this week, with most City economists expecting a further quarter-point cut in rates to 5.25 per cent, despite evidence of improving business and consumer confidence.

A survey from the Engineering Employers Federation showing a deepening of the recession in manufacturing is certain to be a factor influencing the MPC's decision. The survey predicts 100,000 job losses this year and shows that all key measures of activity - output, home orders, exports, employment and investment - are down on the previous quarter.

Apart from putting pressure on the MPC to keep interest rates as low as possible, the taskforce will also be expected to pronounce on the euro and the needs of manufacturing in both the short and long term. Demands for more capital investment and higher productivity will also be addressed.

The decision by Mr Byers to set up the high-powered group will also be seen as a tentative move to challenge the power of Mr Brown, who clashed on several occasions with Mr Byers' predecessor, Peter Mandelson.

Roger Lyons, general secretary of the Manufacturing Science Finance union, said yesterday that the establishment of the taskforce would not mean the end of difficulties for the manufacturing sector, which had lost some 100,000 jobs in the last 12 months.

He said the value of the pound and the fact that British interest rates were nearly double those in the euro zone were particular problems. However he regarded the move as a "step in the right direction". He said that Mr Byers had shown a "real commitment" to manufacturing and the people who work in it.

"You can't feed more than 50 million people on an island like ours by solely relying on the creative sector and the after-midnight industries," Mr Lyons said.

"It's not a question of emphasising the old smokestack industries - we are concerned about the whole of manufacturing, including the software business. We want to establish the kind of wealth-creating engine that a modern society needs."

Mr Byers is expected to invite leaders of the Trades Union Congress, including Mr Lyons, and senior representatives from the Confederation of British Industry, the Engineering Employers' Federation and the Chemical Industries Association.

Trade unionists north of the border have floated the idea of a separate taskforce for Scotland.