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Friday, 3 November, 2000, 16:06 GMT
CBI director general answers your questions

The director general of the Confederation of British Industry is seen as the voice of British business.

Digby Jones is in his first year in the post, making his mark by dropping the CBI's high profile campaign for UK adoption of the euro, and instead switching its focus to transport issues.

The CBI is now calling on the chancellor to cut fuel duties for road hauliers as part of a 3bn package of measures to reduce the industry's tax burden.

It is a message that will be repeated next week when Gordon Brown faces business leaders gathered in Birmingham for the CBI's annual conference.

Other topics covered will include the euro, the challenge of the new economy, the forthcoming general election and the role business will play in it, the battle against red tape and the changes to the tax and welfare system.

We put a selection of your questions to Digby Jones who answered them in a live webcast.

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:


BBC News Online: The Independent newspaper quoted you as saying that Britain now resembles a Banana Republic - is that what you really said?

Digby Jones: I certainly didn't. The question that was asked of me yesterday was that with the trains being so severely delayed and with the roads having problems with flooding and everything else - "isn't this like living in a Banana Republic?"

There is seriously good work being done by Railtrack

What I actually said was "I can understand that if there is a lady standing in a bus shelter in Lancashire and not being able to get to work and if there is a businessman who is delayed on a train for many hours - I can see how their frustration would lead them to think that, but it is actually not true". That is exactly how I put it and they have printed it down to, but stopped before the words "it is actually not true".

I am going to write to them today and say I want an apology because it is not true. There is seriously good work being done by Railtrack to get the investment right in this country's railway network after so many years of under-investment.

Matt Jones, North Wales: Why haven't you supported the fuel protesters?

Digby Jones: I will call on anybody thinking of going anywhere near a blockade - just not to do it and the biggest reason of all it is that it is not going to work. We are not France; we don't actually have a government that gives into direct action. We have a democratically elected government, it has a budgetary process and that is the way to run a country and not through blockades.

We are not France; we don't actually have a government that gives into direct action

The second reason is that if you were an investing company sitting in a boardroom in Detroit or in Tokyo today or next week whenever it might happen, and you were looking at television images of blockades around the country - what sort of impression does that give to someone who is choosing to come and risk their capital and create jobs in this country?

Thirdly, the damage it does to the profits of business - remember profits and business mean jobs - it actually means everybody having a better life.

BBC News Online: How does the CBI then think that the Government should respond to the threat of a new wave of fuel protests?

Digby Jones: Now what we have got to do first is wait and hear what the Chancellor says in his pre-budget report, which is coming out next Wednesday. We at the CBI think that he can put 3 billion back into business that would not be inflationary. It would not release an inflationary spiral in wages or in low productivity. It would not raise alarm bells at the Bank of England and that would really help.

Now of that 3 billion we think that about 1.5 billion could go towards reducing the cost to business of the problem of road use tax and in that respect it is not just about fuel it is also about vehicle excise duty.

BBC News Online:But what about normal people who are living in the countryside who have to travel to work - they are not businesses, they do not get tax breaks - what about them?

Digby Jones: For every one of those there is also people in business who are putting petrol in cars to get around and do their daily work, so it is not just about people in rural communities, although they are very important, but it is people across the country - it is a country-wide problem.

Anybody who goes at any time to a blockade frankly is doing the United Kingdom no good whatsoever

It is a big issue and the government have got to look at it, there is no doubt about it. But anybody who starts buying petrol now and panic buying, anybody who goes at any time to a blockade frankly is doing the United Kingdom no good whatsoever.

Matthew, Gloucester: How can the CBI support such a road building programme when we all talk about global warming and the effects of pollution on the environment and overcrowded roads?

Digby Jones: On the road building programme, that we not only support but have called for, is designed to stop the overcrowding on roads and it is designed to make roads more safe; it is designed to get huge articulated vehicles away from villages and build by-passes and deal with the pinch points. It is in fact designed to make roads safer, more friendly and easier on the communities that they serve.

There is nothing wrong with building a road as long as where you build it you are environmentally sensitive

As far as when we have the global warming issue and the environmental problems - why do we support a road-building programme? There is nothing wrong with building a road as long as where you build it you are environmentally sensitive. For instance Twyford Down on the A3. For years that people said you either build it or you don't build it. Has anybody thought of putting a tunnel through there?

BBC News Online: It would cost more money.

Digby Jones: But there is money available and we ought to be taking the environmentally friendly solution to getting a road built where frankly it has got to be built.

You are not going to get people out of their cars

You are not going to get people out of their cars, you are not going to get so much freight onto rail before the infrastructure - the public transport alternative - is up and running and is clean, safe, reliable and working efficiently. There has been years of under-investment and everybody is working hard to put it right and in that respect we do believe we have got to get UK Plc moving; get goods to market; get people to work and get it done now and that is why the roads need to be built.

BBC News Online: So the argument that more roads just attract more traffic doesn't cut with you?

Digby Jones: There are examples where more roads do attract more traffic but that is not always the case and it is the same with the price of petrol, I have yet to see a statistic which says that if you keep putting up the price of petrol people will use their cars less. Because there are so many people, as you said earlier about rural communities, that have to use their cars and it is a cost they have to bear.

People will and have to get in their cars. I think what we have to do is make it more safe, make it more reliable and that will make it better on the communities they serve.

Steve in New York: Doesn't it make sense for Britain to join the euro - after all, the United States has only one currency as well?

Digby Jones: At the conference and here I have changed it from previous years, we are going to have a debate not on the euro but on Europe because I feel very strongly that Europe is UK business's home market.

There are 300 million sophisticated consumers

There are 300 million sophisticated consumers and 60% of what Britain exports goes to Euroland so in that respect I do not want a debate about the euro but I do want one about the single market. It has been shown in Denmark, Germany and France, in the opinion polls, that half the population think the euro is not a good thing politically and half do. Britain is going to have to face up to the same political questions. We have a government that said we are not going to deal with the question of the euro until after the next election. We cannot bring pressure to bear if the politicians have decided that they are not going to deal with it yet.

BBC News Online: In a way you have already answered the question I have here from Charles Havilland. Why have you cut back your campaign for the euro? But to put it further, if there is so much obsession against the single currency in this country, don't you have to start early to do the convincing?

Digby Jones: Yes but I am not a democratically elected politician.

Jonathan Dart, UK: Do you think the UK being outside the euro zone will be a help or hinderance to e-commerce?

Digby Jones: In terms of the euro zone, I don't think the euro is that relevant now. In terms of Europe and the single market - where we have so many countries and so many companies in Europe that are leaders in the world in this field - I have in mind particularly the Nordic nations - and the way that they are setting the pace in so many ways and where we have in Britain a de-regulated economy in so many ways compared with other European countries.

I think therefore Europe is set fair to make sure that it can actually lead in the development of e-commerce

I think therefore Europe is set fair to make sure that it can actually lead in the development of e-commerce. But as the Prime Minister said in Lisbon in March earlier this year, we have got to make sure that Europe is a deregulated society that actually looks outward onto the world and does not put up the fortress blockade and thereby face both the challenges and enjoy the opportunities of globalisation.

BBC News Online: Do you think you have done enough to fight for small businesses, who suffer most under the strong pound and the Government's red tape?

Digby Jones: We have as many small and medium-sized businesses in member terms as we do large ones. It is a mistaken perception that we only have big business membership and we only fight the corner for big business. I, unlike any Director General before, spend a lot of my time getting round the country to see businesses and a lot of those are ones that employ 15, 20, 25 or 30 people. In the CBI we have a council specifically designed to look after the interests of small businesses and I spend a lot of my time campaigning with politicians specifically on that issue.

Guy in Balham: What do business leaders want the Chancellor to say in his pre-Budget report?

Digby Jones: We believe he can put 3 billion back into business in terms of non-inflationary tax cuts. We would like to see, for instance, the abolition of stamp duty on share transfers. Now the City of London is world-class - it is the capital of the world in terms of financial dealings - we have got to keep it there.

One thing about being Number one is that you have to work hard to stay there and one way we could do that is to stimulate more activity in London as opposed to going to Frankfurt, New York or Tokyo and abolish stamp duty on share transfers.

There are companies that are very environmentally friendly

Lastly, another one which is very important, is for the Chancellor to have another look at the climate change levy which is the energy tax brought on to encourage companies to comply with the Kyoto recommendations. That is laudable but the way they are trying to get there is flawed. There are companies that are very environmentally friendly and are still having to write a cheque for the energy tax. That is no way to stimulate growth and productivity in the UK and we would like the Chancellor to look at that again.

BBC News Online: Do you agree with the Shadow Chancellor, Michael Portillo, that Labour has clobbered the economy with stealth taxes and that businesses are suffering?.

Digby Jones: Business has paid 5 billion a year more each year over the last three years. So this Government has clobbered business with 5 billion more each year over the last three years. It is like writing cheques to the Treasury.

Mary in Guildford: Does the CBI still have any relevance today?

Digby Jones: Not only does it have relevance it is quite evident that over the last 10 months I have been doing this job, its relevance is to be seen every day in every way.

Its relevance is to be seen every day in every way

Claire, London, UK
For instance, we did a very important piece of work earlier in the year on how much was needed to be invested by Government and by the private sector to get the transport infrastructure of this country up to a competitive level against our European rivals. That is good quality work, we went public on it in April, we said it needed 180 billion. That is an enormous figure to be spent over 10 years.

BBC News Online: "Why is the CBI always supporting the Government?" Does the CBI feel its influence on Government is growing or waning?

Digby Jones: I think it is so important that everybody understands this - I am not paid by Tony Blair, William Hague, Charles Kennedy or even Signor Prodi in Brussels. I am paid by the businesses in Britain and the job of the CBI is to stimulate and encourage an environment in which business can flourish, jobs can be created, wealth can be created and we have to get it done in a socially inclusive way.

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See also:

23 Oct 00 | Business
CBI urges Brown to cut fuel tax
30 May 00 | Business
CBI boss criticised over dotcom glee
16 May 00 | Business
Blair clashes with business chief
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