Heseltine under fire from engineers over latest gaffe

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The Independent Online

Business Editor

Michael Heseltine was accused yesterday of unfairly maligning Britain's engineering bodies, following a speech in which he slammed them for failing to make any useful contribution to the national debate on competitiveness.

Graham Mackenzie, director general of the Engineering Employers Federation, has written to the Deputy Prime Minister objecting to the new gaffe, made at a conference in London 10 days ago.

The Deputy Prime Minister's criticisms of engineers for failing to speak out on issues of national importance infuriated many engineers and came only days after he angered small businesses by describing how as an entrepreneur he had delayed paying his debts.

Mr Heseltine included industry trade associations and the professional engineering institutions in his sweeping attack on the quality of the engineers' lobbying bodies.

Mr Heseltine told an audience of engineers, including Mr Mackenzie, that he had had to go to the Confederation of British Industry for help in researching his two white papers on competitiveness because he did not think the engineers would have had anything useful to contribute.

Mr Mackenzie said in his letter that it was "manifestly not the case" that the EEF had failed to give worthwhile representation.

"As you know, from the time we launched our industrial strategy document in 1992, you have received consistent and coherent input from the EEF on a range of issues including UK competitiveness, development of education and vocational training and, most recently, on transport policy."

The letter said that Mr Mackenzie believed from his own discussions with Mr Heseltine and his officials that this contribution had been constructive and helpful.

Yesterday Mr Mackenzie said there had been "coherent input" to government from a number of other engineering associations including those representing the motor and aerospace industry.

He believed Mr Heseltine had a habit of deviating from his scripts, that he had got carried away and that his real target must have been the professional institutions rather than the engineering trade associations. Another EEF executive said "it is important that the bloody hard work done here is not misrepresented".

The Society of British Aerospace Companies said it had been praised in Mr Heseltine's last competitiveness white paper and "we find it rather strange to be told one thing with one breath and another with the next".

Meanwhile, the repercussions of the row over Mr Heseltine's apparent endorsement of late payment of bills by small firms rumbled on when a survey by the Forum of Private Business found that one in five firms say late payment is holding back growth.

The quarterly survey of owner-managed businesses showed that the number of expanding firms fell for the second survey in a row. Late payment remained the top problem for nearly one-fifth.