New CBI chief starts with a swipe at the Chancellor

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The Independent Online

Richard Lambert, who was appointed as the new director-general of the CBI yesterday, clashed immediately with Gordon Brown, criticising the "unbelievably complicated" tax system created by the Chancellor.

The former Financial Times editor and member of the Bank of England's rate-setting Monetary Policy Committee, who will take up the £300,000-a-year CBI post in July, also took the Government to task over the UK's energy policy and the mismatch between public and private sector pension provision.

Although the FT came out in support of Labour during his editorship and Mr Lambert has since chaired a taskforce for Tony Blair, he denied his appointment marked any softening in relationships between business and the Government after the combative stance taken by his predecessor Sir Digby Jones.

"Is this a sign of a rapprochement between the CBI and the Government? I very much doubt it," Mr Lambert said, adding he had never been a member of any political party and had never made political donations or loans. "I can categorically state that I have no political baggage."

As if to emphasise his independence, Mr Lambert dismissed Mr Brown's Budget as "a political event not an economic one", adding the Chancellor's speech had been like "listening to the manager of a Soviet tractor plant reciting the latest production figures".

He said the Chancellor had failed to tackle strategic issues in his reforms of tax. "I would prefer a coherent view of the whole tax system. I am not in favour of little pots of money being put away here, there and everywhere. The tax system is unbelievably complicated."

Mr Lambert, who joined the FT as a trainee companies reporter at 22 after graduating in history from Oxford, was selected for the CBI post from a list of more than 700 potential candidates drawn up by the headhunter, the former Tory minister Virginia Bottomley. This was whittled down to 40, then 20 and then seven, of which two were women. Finally, the choice came down to two - Mr Lambert or the CBI deputy director-general John Cridland.

It is no secret that Sir Digby would like to have seen the CBI appoint its first woman director-general, but the organisation's president John Sunderland said Mr Lambert had been the outstanding candidate in the field for his "enthusiasm for the job, belief in the importance of wealth creation and desire to take on the challenge" of the CBI.

Mr Lambert admitted to being "delighted and a little terrified" at the prospect of his new role as he appeared before the media yesterday at a hastily convened press conference. His appointment had not been due to be announced for another fortnight but was brought forward after a leak.

He said his job would be to ensure the CBI remained the central voice of business but not "a policy think-tank for business". He said the two most pressing issues facing industry were energy costs and pensions.

"Everywhere I went around the country as a member of the MPC, energy was top of the agenda. People are completely bewildered by the fact that a country which was an exporter of gas now finds itself in a position where its gas supplies are insecure."

The other big anxiety was pensions. Mr Lambert made veiled criticisms of the new Pensions Regulator for the demands being put on companies to plug deficits in their schemes. He also highlighted the much more favourable pension arrangements for public sector employees compared with those for people working in private industry, where final-salary schemes are fast disappearing. "This is something which drives business people round the bend and I sympathise with them. Having a pension support system that is so very different for the public sector as opposed to the private sector is not sustainable."

Mr Sunderland, who was at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne yesterday instead of being beside his new director-general, said Mr Lambert's track record gave him "the credibility and strength to be listened to by business, international organisations and governments around the world".

Mr Lambert said his qualifications for the job were "a deep and long-standing knowledge of how business and the economy work" and a familiarity with Whitehall, Westminster and the media. He said the challenge for business in the next few years would be to replace consumer and government spending as the driving force behind the UK economy.

He described the organisation he is about to lead for the next five years as being in "robust shape", adding the CBI's influence had never been greater than in all the years of its existence.

Mr Lambert also said it was not a job he had thought about doing until he was approached but once he had been, he quickly decided it was "a real cracker, a job I would kill for".

Having resigned immediately from the MPC to avoid any conflict of interest, he will spend a month travelling the country listening to the views of CBI members before starting work in July. Mr Lambert admitted Sir Digby, the CBI's longest-serving director-general, would be a hard act to follow. "There is only one Digby and if I tried to match his energy, drive and human 'tornadoism', I would blow up after two weeks in the job."

The CV

* Born: Manchester, 1944

* Personal: Married with two grown-up children. Hobbies include theatre, museums, galleries

* Educated: Grammar school, then Fettes College, Edinburgh, and Balliol College, Oxford

* Career: 1966-2001 FT, rising from trainee reporter to editor in 1991

2002-2003 Chaired two government reviews of BBC News 24 and university-business collaboration

2003-2006 Member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee

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