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We face 'critical choice' - Osborne

Britain faces a "critical choice" at the general election over the "big differences" between the main political parties' economic policy, George Osborne has said.

The Chancellor, addressing delegates in Birmingham at the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) annual conference today, was commenting as he set out his vision on securing what he called the country's economic prosperity.

He also said his job would have been "incredibly difficult" if he had failed to get the backing of the smaller business community for his austerity measures when he first became chancellor, and thanked them for their support.

Mr Osborne also signalled the Conservative Party's commitment to reducing the national debt, saying it "would be madness" to change course now.

Taking to the stage in the International Convention Centre's windowless main hall, he referred to the today's eclipse which had coincided with his arrival.

"In ancient days, druids and Roman auguries would look at an eclipse and ask whether it heralded times of chaos and prosperity," he said.

"I want to talk to you about how we can secure a future of prosperity.

"I'd like to think it's metaphor - that as I'm speaking, the shadow is passing away from the sun and the sun is shining again."

He thanked small businesses and the FSB for backing his economic plan after the Coalition Government took power, saying they "did not waver".

"If you had said 'you know what the Government needs to do is change course and the Chancellor needs a plan B', that would have been incredibly difficult for me to resist," he said.

"Because you stuck with the Government, you were able to see off those who always want to borrow to the point it's unaffordable and taxes have to go up. So it's a heartfelt thank you I offer to you today."

There was applause, as the Chancellor referenced changes made to employment tribunals meaning claimants now have to make a contribution to have their case heard.

He said since the measures had been introduced, the number of tribunals had fallen by 80% since the Government came to power.

The abolition of the annual tax return was also welcomed by many delegates, with Mr Osborne telling them: "You should be working to build your businesses, not working for the taxman.

Returns are being replaced in 2016 with online digital accounts.

He also made a pledge on reviewing business rates, earning further applause in the main hall.

"I'm deadly serious about a review of business rates," he said, adding that "things have changed" since the last overhaul. "This is my commitment to you," he said.

"We will make a major change to business rates and have it in place by 2017."

He said the policy of reducing national debt should continue, adding continuing private sector growth was the key to funding public services like the NHS and defence.

"You are the people who enable us to do that," he added, saying that more than 750,000 small businesses had been created since the Coalition came to power.

The Chanellor added: "I am completely on your side, I back you 100%.

"Britain is making a come-back - let's see it through."

Labour leader Ed Miliband and Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg, are also addressing delegates today.

Responding to Mr Osborne's speech, John Allan, FSB national chairman, said: "The Chancellor rightly thanked small firms for their contribution to the UK's economic recovery and we welcomed his commitment to backing small businesses if the Conservatives return to power."

He added: "The Chancellor's commitment to reforming business rates will be received well by small businesses up and down the country.

"Business rates cause so many problems for our members, often holding back their growth plans.

"For many firms, they are the biggest costs they face after rent and staff wages.

"A new system must be in place in 2017 and support measures must continue until we have fundamental reform."

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