View from City Road: Hot air and platitudes in 168 pages

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The Independent Online
Was it fresh or hot air that came pouring out of the Department of Trade and Industry yesterday?

Competitiveness: Helping Business to Win is the DTI's first big policy statement since the now defunct Enterprise Initiative. The title alone augurs badly - it is as difficult to speak as it is to spell. Sadly, the cynics, who always said the paper would be more words than action, were not to be disappointed.

Launched by no fewer than eight Cabinet ministers as the great white hope of British business, this weighty 168-page tome contains the odd breath of fresh air but the great bulk is of the hot variety - a cobbled together collection of known initiatives, stale ideas, platitudes and public-relations- speak of little import or substance.

If this is the half-term manifesto billed in some Tory Party circles, this surely is a Government heading for electoral disaster. It's about as flat, uninspired and frankly irritating as the Citizen's Charter.

'It is an enormous task to correct over 100 years of relative decline,' says the White Paper. Yes, we would all agree with that, and it is fair to say the analysis of Britain's competitive position that kicks the paper off is equally sound and conventional. Defining the problem is the easy bit, however - what about solutions?

The tone is positive and in showbiz terms - for the hustings - it makes all the right noises. Nonetheless, most of it is flam and some of it outright cowardly. The Government backs away, for instance, from legislating on late payment of bills, a huge problem for most businesses.

The pounds 300m to be spent on education and training initatives is a real and meaty enough exercise and the idea of tarted-up 'modern' apprenticeships, German style, is worth discussing, as is the general diploma at GCSE level (which you could variously regard as a throwback to the pre- war matric exam or a low-level version of the baccalaureat).

But that's about as far as it goes. The charitable view is that this rather flimsy and unoriginal report has been emasculated by interdepartmental bickering and the Treasury's opposition to mentioning anything that costs money.

The sequence of already known Government initiatives thrown into the pot in an attempt to pep the whole thing up - such as the privatisation of the CAA, whose place in the paper is justified by an otherwise waffly section on infrastructure - only makes matters worse.

Whole sections are devoted to measures already well previewed, such as the endlessly debated deregulation initiative. Also included is a thumbnail sketch of the Treasury's already well publicised investigation of whether dividends are too high. The essential taxation conclusions are predictably missing.

Hold on to your hats, but there will be 'six sectoral working groups' to work with the City to improve the flow of finance for innovation and a survey of the 100 top companies to identify best management practices - a scheme which amounts to workfare for business schools.

The standard sign of ministerial desperation at not having anything concrete to say - a swipe at overpaid bosses and a promise of more disclosure - is included, too.

Finally, there are endless lists of new government inquiries or measures which on closer inspection turn out to have been announced already. For example, the paper lists a 'new initative' in the form of a White Paper on the BBC, an essential part of the infrastructure. Hang on. Haven't they told us that already? Ah well.

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