'Rip-off Britain' rebounds on Byers and DTI

Sonia Purnell
Sunday 02 April 2000 00:00
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Stephen Byers, the embattled Trade and Industry Secretary, will be asked to justify the existence of his entire department this week in the wake of the BMW and Rover debacle.

Conservative members of the Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee, which has summoned Mr Byers for a grilling on the affair on Wednesday, believe it may no longer be possible for one department to look after the interests of both consumers and industry.

They fear that his Rip-Off Britain campaign, designed to help shoppers by highlighting high prices for goods in this country, may have been a contributory factor in the decision by BMW to pull out of its struggling British subsidiary.

Christopher Chope, Tory MP for Christchurch, said one of the key lines of inquiry would be "whether as Secretary of State it is possible any longer to wear two hats - one as consumer champion, the other as supporter of industry".

Mr Chope accused Mr Byers of placing "a lot of emphasis on the Rip-Off Britain campaign, raising alarm bells about the price of cars in this country and suppressing demand in the car market at a crucial moment. Rip-Off Britain was all about appeasing populist noises at the Labour party conference.

"But everyone who believes in UK plc thinks this is a disaster. So we must ask him do we need a DTI? Supporting both consumers and industry is, after all, perhaps impossible, as this has shown."

Mr Chope's comments come at a time when the DTI is already under pressure from the Treasury, which has increasingly invaded its traditional territory. Recently, for instance, it was Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, rather than Mr Byers who announced an increase in the minimum wage.

With few real powers to help industry beyond regeneration grants after its demise and the death of full-scale Government intervention in industry even under a Labour government, the DTI has increasingly struggled to account for its seven ministers and no fewer than 11,000 staff.

As Mr Chope will put it next week: "This whole mess raises the question of just what do all those people in the DTI do.

"Back in June last year there was great sounding of trumpets about the Rover aid deal with £152m. But by December, still nothing had happened, and all that time the problems for BMW were getting worse. So what was Byers and the department actually doing?"

This conundrum has perhaps been behind the notoriously fast turnover of Trade and Industry Secretaries, who rarely last more than a year in the post.

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