Heseltine slams Euro-whingers

British business should stop "whingeing" about problems with the European single market and should work with government to find solutions, according to Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade.

Speaking at the Institute of Directors' annual convention, Mr Heseltine's Euro-enthusiasm put him at odds with his host, which consistently urges members to look beyond Europe to the global marketplace.

Mr Heseltine called on industry to bring its problems to the DTI and to help him to indentify areas of concern. "We have got to work constructively in Europe. No one wins by whingeing," he said.

He pointed out that Europe accounts for nearly 60 per cent of Britain's export of goods. "The UK's home market is now the European Union. Europe is the base from which to attack the fast-growing markets of Asia, South America and elsewhere."

Mr Heseltine's comments were in stark contrast to earlier remarks by Lord Young of Graffham, president of the IoD. Opening the conference, Lord Young said that Britain sold more to the rest of the world than to Europe, adding: "I suspect we always will."

Lord Young said: "If you read the papers, watch the television - or, worse still, listen to Parliament - you would think that Europe was the be all and end all of our existence." A single European currency would only affect an "ever-reducing minority" of the UK's overseas trade.

The IoD is due within weeks to publish a detailed analysis of the single currency. Tim Melville Ross, its director-general, said that the balance of the arguments were strongly against a single currency for "generations" to come.

"In theory, it is a sensible part of a single market. But there are so many fundamental differences between the UK economy and the rest of the European Union that it will take generations before a single currency can be adopted by the UK in a way not to cause significant economic damage," he said.

Peter Sutherland, director-general of the World Trade Organisation, later joined battle, criticising Eurosceptics who fail to grasp the importance of the European Union.

"I hope it will increasingly be realised that support for European integration is not only compatible with Britain's traditional commitment to free trade, but that it is in fact essential to the effective implementation of this commitment in the economic conditions of the new century," he said.

Separately, Mr Melville Ross tried to play down earlier statements that British business expects Labour to form the next government. "A lot of UK businessmen think that the outcome of an election is a Labour government. I must accept that on the basis of opinion polls that it is the most likely outcome, but opinion polls change and they can be very unrepresentative," he said. He stressed that the IoD would work with whoever was in power, adding: "There is a plan for fairly continuous dialogue with senior Labour politicians.

"We would press on them the same issues as we press on the Conservatives. The need under a Labour administration would be all the greater to press those issues."

Hugh Jenkins, chief executive of Prudential Portfolio Managers, was one of few to touch on the thorny issue of boardroom pay and perks.

He said that businesses needed to be able to attract the right people with the right pay package.

"As investors in a great many UK companies, we are very concerned at this time that companies may find it more difficult to make suitable board appointments if there is a general rejection of performance-based remuneration," Mr Jenkins said.

Open, market-related compensation and practices did not act against the interests of shareholders when properly administered, he added.