The move has been condemned by a number of large trade unions and some Labour MPs. They have pointed out that there is more to consider in these giant mergers than just ensuring fair competition. Who, for instance, is going to take account of the effects of these mega-deals on consumers, on employees or on the environment?
It is another example of the way governments throughout the capitalist world are increasingly taking their hands off the levers of fiscal control and leaving the banks, financial centres and the markets to just get on with it.
The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, has already handed the power to set interest rates to a committee chaired by the Governor of the Bank of England -- a measure to prepare the ground for Britain's eventual entry into European Monetary Union.
Far from being a sign of economic health, the shift towards "hands-off government" reflects the crisis of the capitalist system -- a system driven to desperate measures by saturated markets, investment capital having to scour the earth to find profitable ventures, intensifying inter-imperialist rivalries and the scramble for profits in a world suffering a crisis of over-production.
These forces lead the capitalist class in every country to take tougher and tougher measures against the working class, to get rid of any restraints on markets, employets, banks and big business and to seek inequitable world trade rules to further disadvantage the mass of the peoples in the developing world.
And it is clear from the Idnd of changes being introduced by the British government that the "hands-off" approach is only for the benefit of capital. When it comes to the rights and interests of the working class the government intends to keep its laws and controls very much in place.
The anti-union laws introduced under the previous Tory administrations are virtually untouched. Even the few measures that are of benefit to working people are constantly under attack as pressure is stepped up by the bosses' organisations.
And so we see Stephen Byers one minute offering big companies a clear run for their mergers and take-overs and the next moment he is watering-down the "Working Time Regulations" which had been promoted as a measure to protect employees from long working hours.
The 48-hour week which the Regulations appeared to be introducing was attacked from the start by the bosses. The government capitulated to the bosses by allowing fixed contract workers, who can decide their own hours, to work longer than 48 hours. Now Stephen Byers says employers won't have to record the hours worked by those who opted out of the maximum 48-hour week.
This may sound as if the only workers to suffer longer hours will be those who have "chosen" to do so. But we all know that workers can all too easily be pressured into "choosing" what is best for the boss, especially in firms that are not unionised and in areas of very high unemployment. And we know too that what happens in one workplace soon has an effect on other workplaces.
It's a similar story to the much vaunted national minimum wage. Govemment spin made it sound like a big reform for millions of low paid workers. It turned out to be a very tiny crumb with very tiny teeth to back it up.
The fact is, there's no substitute for trade union organisation and working class struggle when it comes to the fight for better pay and shorter working hours.
The current gang of right-wing class collaborators leading the government have no intention of fighting the bosses on our behalf. On the contrary, they are at pains to help the capitalist class in every way.
John Edmonds, leader of general union GMB summed it up in his response to the new rules on mergers when he said: "public interest is to be sacrificed on the altar of unfettered capitalism".
We have no choice but to fight our own corner and make our own demands.
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MANUFACTURING Industry in Britain faces a very grim future with 160,000 job losses expected within the next 18 months according to a report published last week.
The independent National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) prepared the report as the first in a series of quarterly reports for the Institute for Manufacturing.
It says: "We are expecting further cuts in employment over the coming years. From the firstquarter of 1998 to the second quarter of 1999, manufacturing employment is estimated to have fallen by about 160,000.
"A similar fall is in prospect for the next year and a half."
The report calls on the government to make some drastic policy changes in an effort to avert this disaster by either raising taxes or cutting public spending.
Since public spending has been cut every year for the past two decades there is not a lot left that can be cut.
On the other hand, taxes in Britain for the very wealthy remain very low.
Factories are now engaged in a desperate struggle for survival. Oil prices are rising rapidly and the costs of other raw materials are rising at the fastest rate for nearly two decades.
Profitability is falling as manufacturers try to keep prices down in spite of their rising costs. They are facing intense competition and the only way they can square the books is to cut jobs.
While industry is now reliant on oil, RJB mining last week announced the closure of the North Selby pit with the loss of 300 jobs.
The closure is part of a £100 million cost-cutting programme and reduces the number of RJB pits from 18 in 1994 to 12 now.
The mine is a part of the huge Selby complex, supposedly the jewel in the crown of the British coal industry.
The oil companies are also shedding jobs in spite of increased profits. BP Amoco last week announced that it will cut an extra 4,500 jobs by the end of next year in order to achieve target cuts of $4 billion (£2.5 billion).
The troubled Rover plant at Longbridge is still not out of the woods in spite of the deal struck earlier this year between the government and the parent company BMW.
They are still waiting for the European Union to clear the £l52
million of taxpayers' money to be given to the company as part
of a £3 billion investment package.
And BMW's net profits have dropped almost 27 per cent as a result of the problems at Rover.
Workers are losing faith in the future of the plant. More than 20 per cent have left over the past year, reducing the total to 31,000.
British Airways also seems poised to shed thousands of jobs after it announced plans last week to embark on new cost-cutting and axe passenger routes. This follows an 84 per cent fall in pretax profits.
Cuts could affect cabin crews, baggage handlers and check-in staff. The company lost £125 million two years ago through a strike after it tried to impose cuts in jobs, terms and conditions.
The TGWU union said it hoped BA will not want to repeat the mistakes it made then and will consult unions thoroughly about proposed changes.
The service sector is also losing some of its better paid jobs as the big banks begin another round of redundancies.
The NIESR report blames the usual suspects: the high value of sterling and the decline in export markets because of the current global recession.
It also gives the lie to government claims that the British economy is somehow escaping that recession unscathed.
Current employment figures are very misleading because of a big increase in very low paid jobs -- often part-time, on short contracts or casual, in the service sector, especially around London and the south-east of England.
The Institute for Manufacturing gave the bosses' point of view of the grim prospects. Chairperson Sir Ian Wrigglesworth said: "Some people might consider this the death-knell for manufacturing in the UK.
"They would be wrong. What we are seeing is the renaissance of manufacturing in the post-industrial era."
This is surely another way of saying that Britain is no longer an industrial country -- but never mind, the bosses have found other ways to make profits and that's all that matters.
The report indicates that there will be a "two-speed" economy with manufacturing remaining in the doldrums while the total number of jobs actually increases -- but the jobs will all be the low-paid, service sector Macjobs.
In this way the bosses will once again make the workers pay for the crisis with swingeing cuts in living standards.
The workers thrown out of decently paid industrial jobs will be forced -- by the terms of the Job Seekers' Allowance -- to take new jobs at much lower wages and on much worse terms and conditions.
Most important of all, these new jobs are rarely unionised.
The £3.60 an hour minimum wage will become the average wage. Bosses will be able to impose contracts where workers sign away their statutory rights to sick pay, holiday pay, protection against long hours and so on.
All these statutory provisions don't mean a thing if the boss has the power to blackmail workers into surrendering their rights.
The trades unions are already giving priority to recruiting in these areas but this needs to be stepped up.
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by Caroline Colebrook
THE NUCLEAR Installations Inspectorate last Monday expressed fears for the future safety of eight nuclear power plants belonging to British Energy in the light of plans to cut jobs.
The regulator expressed these concerns after an investigation into the likely impact of the reductions in staffing levels in a report which warned that job cuts had gone too far.
The NII said they had no plans to close any plants at the moment but worries had been raised about their future safety.
The reports caused British Energy shares to drop by three percent.
But British Energy responded by announcing even more job cuts. A spokesperson said: "We don't think we've cut too many jobs. This is a reduction programme that started a couple of years ago and we said at the time these reductions would be achieved safely."
British Energy was created three years ago by the merger of Nuclear Electric and Scottish Nuclear and since then has already shed 1,500 jobs.
Currently Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers is planning to privatise up to half of British Nuclear Fuels and the industry as a whole is looking to make itself as profitable as possible -- by cutting jobs.
At the British Energy annual meeting last month, chairperson Sir John Robb said he wanted to see savings of another £20 million a year.
A BE spokesperson said: "We have plans for more manpower reductions but these are not technical specialist staff in areas covered by the nuclear installations inspectorate. These are purely commercial."
The draft NII report is said to have suggested that British Energy has cut staff to levels where there would be no one qualified to deal with "a severe accident" at the £2 billion reactor at Sizewell, though British Energy deny this.
NII chief inspector Laurence Williams said: "The safety of nuclear power stations is of paramount importance and we in NII have to look to the future, detect safety trends and anticipate dedining standards. We cannot afford to wait until it is too late."
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By Steve Lawton
VLADIMIK Putin, former KGB security head, was appointed Prime Minister of Russia last Monday, following President Boris Yeltsin's sacking of Sergei Stepashin, just back from the troubled republic of Daghestan. This is the fourth replacement in less than two years.
At the same time Yeltsin officially declared elections to the 450-seat lower house of parliament (Duma) open -- set for 19 December.
Presidential elections then take place six months later in July 2000 when the President's second term comes to end, assuming the Russian constitution isn't changed in the meantime and Yeltsin himself survives.
Putin's appointment through the revolving door, launches a leadership battle among the top dogs and their alliances are sure to shift loyalties and manoeuvre accordingly.
Much of that power is based on ill-gotten proceeds from privatisation and theft, and some of the expected contenders are being investigated for corruption -- and eyes are turning to Yeltsin's affairs also now.
But this showcase electoral politics hides a volatile convergence of government inertia and break-down with the wider growing impatience and fear that Russia is under threat -- economically and territorially.
Putin himself has made use of the Daghestan conflict by suggesting that he was perhaps the ideal candidate to bring down a firm hand in dealing with the rebels.
And the IMF has agreed to another loan of $4.5 billion, a spokesman suggesting policies not personalities determined the decision.
But so-called recent recovery news in the Russian economy has largely resulted from oil price rises and Ruble devaluation -- much of that has manifested itself in rising imports.
Outgoing Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, clearly mindful of the Russia-Chechenia war of 1994-6 which ended in the loss of Russian control, warned that Russia could also lose Daghestan.
The Chechen government has denied involvement, but Daghestani security services said the gunmen mostly Daghestani rebels -- received military training in Chechenia.
Daghestan's people are in a dire state. Around 200 families control its wealth and hold power; the rest are said to be way below the Russian standard of the poverty line.
It fits into the bigger picture of the encirclement of Russia, extending ultimately from US-Nato positions, and not surprisingly as the Nato-led occupation of Kosovo, Yugoslavia is consolidated.
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THE LABOUR government is planning to ban strikes in a public service for the first time as the Fire Brigades Union is preparing for nationwide industrial action to protect its national bargaining structures.
The plans were revealed last week in a leaked letter written last month by the then Home Office Minister George Howarth.
It contained a threat to "take further measures" to prevent the disruption of the fire service. It described the strike as "unjustified and disproportionate".
Mr Howarth said the government "fully supports the employers" and says the firefighters' current terms and conditions of employment are "outmoded and unjustified".
The letter says strike action would be a "relic of an old and discredited confrontational approach to industrial relations".
FBU general secretary Ken Cameron said it was "an absolute disgrace that the government should be making these kind of threats to remove our democratic right to take industrial action."
He also accused the government of "interfering in the dispute in support of the employers without having the decency to meet the union and find out our point of view."
Prime Minister Tony Blair is understood to have discussed proposals from Home Secretary Jack Straw to outlaw industrial action in the fire service and impose binding arbitration but decided to wait until a national strike is called.
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