Business leaders gave a distinctly lukewarm welcome to Gordon Brown's pre-Budget report yesterday.

One called it "more of a social manifesto than a detailed economic plan".

A panel convened by Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry summed it up by saying there was "not a lot to help business".

And from the Black Country came complaints that the end of the freeze on fuel duty would damage competitiveness.

At Birmingham chamber, Steve Brittan, managing director of BSA Machine Tools, Parveen Mehta, director of Minor, Weir and Willis, Richard Farnsworth director of tax at PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ian Cochrane tax director at KPMG, joined James Cooper and Kasia Kurowska from the Chamber's policy team, in criticising the Chancellor for not identifying how the extra funding he announced was to be spent.

They welcomed the spending boost on education and the promise to double the number of graduates.

But the panel warned that having the appropriate qualifications for the needs of business was the important issue.

Kasia Kurowska said: "The Chamber has lobbied hard on the importance of developing skills and education to ensure the UK is economically competitive in the future and is pleased to see the Government taking action.

"However, there remain some outstanding issues which funding alone will not solve.

"The image of apprenticeships needs to be improved to ensure the government reaches its target.

"Apprenticeships are predominately seen as a second-class qualification to GCSE and A-Levels by both students and parents.

"We welcome the Government’s aim to increase the number of graduates by five million in 2020 but the emphasis should be on the quality of those graduates and not the amount.

"We must ensure that graduates and apprentices undertake vocational qualifications that ensure they are ready for the world of work. At present business tells us this is not the case."

The panel agreed that there was nothing in the pre-budget statement to relieve the ever-present pressure of increasing costs and that the rise in fuel tax would have a damaging effect.

The panel was also happy to see the further investment in transport infrastructure but warned that it should not be concentrated on London and the South-east and that the needs of the West Midlands should be a priority.

Ian Brough, chief executive of Black Country Chamber of Commerce, said it was felt that businesses were easy targets for the Chancellor in his bid to boost his green credentials.

"It's all too easy for Gordon Brown to wield the stick on fuel duty, but he has a long way to go to convince the wealth creators that he is on their side.

"Most businesses have no option but to move their goods by road, so fuel for their vehicles is not a luxury – it's their lifeblood.

"Our members now face the prospect of paying even more to take their vehicles on to roads that cannot take the strain, to compete with foreign companies who are being handed yet another advantage."

Louise Bennett, Mr Brough's counterpart at Coventry and Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce, welcomed the emphasis on improving skills, but said it remained to be seen whether any of the Chancellor's proposals would ultimately achieve anything.

"It was good to finally hear that the Government recognises the fact that the emergence of economies such as India and China present both an opportunity and a threat to the UK," Ms Bennett said.

"For too long there has been a sense that the UK has buried its head in the sand, believing that India and China would be low-cost mass-producers.

"That, frankly, is nonsense as they are producing ten times the graduates that we are."

Picking up on the skills theme, John James, chairman of the Institute of Directors in the West Midlands, welcomed the appointment of Sir Digby Jones to spearhead the drive to raise levels, but warned that "fine words now need to be translated into action".

Extra spending was not necessarily the solution to the problem.

"Better use of existing funding is what is required. IoD research shows that the UK has the least efficient education system in comparison with virtually all the leading economies," Mr James added.

The voice of the hard-pressed high street, Kevin Hawkins, director of the British Retail Consortium, said: "I give the chancellor six out of ten on the story so far, which is more than a pass mark in the average school exam these days.

"Retailers are under huge pressure from above-inflation increases in rents, rates, wage bills, energy costs and taxes, but clearly the pre-Budget report is more of a social manifesto than a detailed economic plan." Simon Jonsson , head of tax at KPMG in Birmingham, said there was nothing in the report for small and medium-sized businesses.

"If the Government wants to stimulate UK plc to compete more vigorously on the worldwide stage, then they will need to introduce more solid and tangible measures to incentivise SMEs," he said.

More Birmingham Post pre-Budget stories:

>> Brown blasted for 'feeble' report
>> Brown fails to go green
>> Sir Digby sets sights on skills
>> Political Editor Jonathan Walker gives his opinion
>> Birmingham Chamber of Commerce & Industry's reaction
>> Air fares to rise
>> Pension fear over u-turn
>> Brown cautious but not frugal

>> Read Gordon Brown's speech in full
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