Howard plans to cut red tape in bid to win back the business vote

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Indy Politics

Michael Howard has set out a 10-point action plan for industry as he seeks to win back the business vote that defected to Labour eight years ago.

Michael Howard has set out a 10-point action plan for industry as he seeks to win back the business vote that defected to Labour eight years ago.

The Conservatives outlined plans to streamline the Department for Trade and Industry, cut red tape and boost skill levels in the economy. The proposals also included a crackdown on business crime and more support for exporters.

But Labour hit back in a day of sniping over business and the economy, saying that even Margaret Thatcher would not have countenanced the policies put forward by Mr Howard.

The Government also claimed the endorsement of a string of senior business figures and used the renaissance of 11 major cities to capitalise on Labour's reputation for economic stability.The three parties made their case for economic competence in a series of speeches to yesterday's British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) annual conference.

Launching his policy document, Mr Howard pledged that Britain would "change direction" under a Tory government, looking to the United States, rather than Europe, as the model for its economy.

He said: "I don't want British business to be burdened with all the regulation and red tape that weighs down on business in continental Europe.

"When you hear Gordon Brown going on about the need to make the European economy more like America's, you might think he agreed with me.The great irony is that he's actually making Britain's economy more and more like those of continental Europe. Europe should be a market for British business, not an economic model."

He argued that Britain's economic growth was slower than in any other major English-speaking nation and its per capita income was, for the first time, lower than Ireland's. Mr Howard said that the Tories would give business a government that was "on its side, not in its way"and promised a "government that spends within its means, a government that doesn't take risks by over-spending and over-borrowing, a government that won't hand over control of our interest rates to the European Central Bank".

Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, condemned the Tory document as "utterly threadbare" and contrasted Mr Howard's leadership with the Thatcher years. She said: "Nobody could ever say that she failed to grasp the centrality of the economy to any serious election campaign.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer said: "While Labour will lock in the stability that is the top priority of business, the reckless and irresponsible Conservative proposals - that Mrs Thatcher would never have countenanced - would put stability at risk."

Lord Newby, a Liberal Democrat trade spokesman, said that the party would "set free" business leaders by slashing red tape. The Liberal Democrats would abolish the Department for Trade and Industry, scrutinise business regulations and overhaul business rates.

Bill Midgley, the chairman of the BCC, welcomed Mr Howard's promise not to raise business taxes in the first year of a Tory government. He welcomed pledges to cut red tape and boost skills, but warned: "Many promises in these areas have been made in the past. Employers will be looking for the next government to deliver."

Kevin Hawkins, director general of the British Retail Consortium said: "Promises and plans to reduce the burden of regulation are easy to make, but everything will depend on whether they are fully and wholeheartedly implemented."