Stop Rover attacks on Byers, says CBI leader

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The Independent Online

Stephen Byers, the embattled Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, has received a boost after a leading business figure said it was time to "draw a line" under the Rover affair.

Digby Jones, head of the Confederation of British Industry, said arguments over whether Mr Byers knew of BMW's plans to sell the UK car maker would not help the thousands of workers whose jobs were at risk.

But in an interview with The Independent to mark his first 100 days as director general, Mr Jones said the CBI would step up its attack on the Government over the high level of the pound, the regulatory burden and the level of business taxes.

Speaking after meeting executives at Rover's Warwick headquarters, he said: "I feel it is time to draw a line and move on in terms of the Rover issue. The press and politicians jumping on Stephen Byers is not doing much for the primary cause, which is creating jobs for thousands of people who are in an uncertain time.

"Stephen Byers does not get it right all the time, but in my first 100 days he has been a champion of business in the Cabinet."

Mr Jones said he would continue to move the CBI further away from its stance under his predecessor of being seen as closely linked to the Blair administration. "I am a different director general, inasmuch as I come from the regions and I come from business. At times we should be constructively critical of government."

He hinted that the business vote, which helped Labour to power in 1997, would be up for grabs when Britain next goes to the polls, possibly as soon as next summer. "All the political parties will be planning their manifestos and we want to see a clear understanding that business does not need any more legislation," he said.

He said the major issue facing business was the strength of sterling, and he criticised the Chancellor for doing nothing in the Budget to help weaken the currency. "The worry is not just the short-term effect in terms of profits, it is capital investment.

"Overseas companies investing in the UK, and UK companies with overseas facilities, are making investment decisions today that are effective three to five years out. I have visited a variety of plants where they say the next investment in machine equipment will cost a lot of money, and so they have decided to put it overseas because they would otherwise not see a proper return.

"In two or three years' time there will be a foreign competitor beating us on productivity because they have made the capital investment," Mr Jones said.

His comments will be seen as a response to Gordon Brown's speech to the British Chambers of Commerce, in which he urged businesses to improve productivity but made little mention of sterling. Mr Jones said that there were other ways of improving productivity. He said one company was forced to employ two drivers in a lorry travelling between Manchester and Birmingham because the inadequate roads meant it could not guarantee making the delivery without breaking rules on drivers' hours.

"This government is in a good position, with a large majority and a budget surplus, but the £280m for transport in the Budget was woeful compared with what is needed," he said, adding that he hoped for substantial extra cash in the summer's comprehensive spending review.

His other major concern was the burden of legislation on business. "Each new regulation is a straw searching for a camel's back," he said, adding that he wished the Government would back off from imposing regulations.

He also urged the Chancellor to suspend the introduction of the climate change levy, which would impose another tax burden on the very manufacturers already suffering from the high pound.

Mr Jones has moved the CBI slightly away from the strongly pro-euro stance it maintained under his predecessor, Adair Turner. Soon after taking over, he announced that the CBI would no longer actively campaign for the UK's membership, saying it was up the Government to take the lead. This has been seen as the beginning of the end of business's so-called honeymoon with Labour.