|Previous Section||Home Page|
(1A) It shall be a condition of purchase for any undertaking proposed for sale under this section that the business shall not be re-sold within a period of five years without the consent of employees in the undertaking'.
No. 4, in clause 2, page 2, line 29, at end insert--
(1A) In giving effect to subsection (1) above, no single buyer may own more than two of the subsidiaries set up for disposal'.
Column 757No. 5, in clause 3, page 3, line 7, at end insert
and in giving such directions the Secretary of State shall direct that no fixed assets shall be sold by a disposed undertaking within a period of five years without the consent of the Secretary of State'.
Mr. Wilson : We now come to the disposal of assets of the Scottish Transport Group. The key amendment is No. 3. Amendment No. 5 deals with the assets of the undertaking and states that they should not be disposed of within five years after privatisation.
The Bill is a potential asset stripper's charter. There is no hypothesis in that. We have only to look at what has happened in England and Wales to see why the fears that Opposition Members are expressing are so strongly founded. We have only to look at the string of sell-offs of assets of the former National Bus Company groups after privatisation to demonstrate conclusively that those are not far-fetched fears or exaggerated concerns. It is the reality. Unless safeguards are introduced, sell-offs will occur.
I want to look in particular at the case of Hampshire Bus which was based in Southampton. It was sold as part of the National Bus Company sale to a company about which we have heard a great deal in our deliberations, Stagecoach, which is based in Perth. Hampshire Bus was sold for £2 million. It owned two bus stations in Southampton. One was used for city buses and the other for long-distance coaches. At the time of privatisation it was well known that the city bus station was subject to a compulsory purchase order by the council and would be taken over for whatever sum. I have been unable to establish precisely what the sum was. It was apparently part of a complex transport property transaction.
As I observed on Saturday when I visited Southampton, that site is now the scene of development building work. What was wholly unacceptable and certainly played no part in the deliberations prior to privatisation was that the coach station would also be sold. That was the surprise packet that Stagecoach pulled out of the bag. Having bought Hampshire Bus for £2 million, it sold the coach station for £4.1 million within a fortnight of the initial purchase. The profit on that deal was £2.1 million, with the great majority of assets still in hand.
Since then Stagecoach has disposed of a large part of the bus operations. They were sold to Solent Blue Line, which is a subsidiary of Southern Vectis on the Isle of Wight. It is believed that the selling price for the mobile assets of Hampshire Bus was about £1 million. We now know that Stagecoach has obtained a minimum of £5.1 million for the £2 million worth of public sector assets. As I observed in Southampton, that leaves a problem for the travelling public. It can be defined as a lack of bus stations. Solent Blue Line no longer operates any sort of bus station in the town centre. Anyone who wishes information about bus services goes to a bus. "Where better?", Tory Members may ask. A bus has been turned into a mobile information centre, giving details of the times of services and other facilities provided. The bus stops in Southampton are ranged along the pavements with the various companies using those facilities--that is perhaps too strong a word--which leads to congestion.
Column 758The operational station--the enginering workshop and so on--which was previously accommodated within the bus station has been shunted off to a glorified shed on what can best be described as a piece of waste ground. That is the joy of privatisation in that particular case. Solent Blue Line offers no proper facilities, such as canteens, for workers and they cannot all crowd into a bus to take advantage of such facilities as it provides.
The progression has been as follows : Hampshire Bus was sold to Stagecoach for £2.1 million. Its city bus station was sold for development and its long-distance coach station was wholly unexpectedly sold for £4.1 million. Half the buses were sold for £1 million. The remaining facilities for city bus travellers are virtually nil.
Although Hampshire Bus's successor, Stagecoach, in what we were told was splendid entrepreneurial fashion, doubled its money in a fortnight by selling the coach station, it still left the problem that some people wanted to travel by coach. Fortunately, Southampton is under Labour control and there is an interest in providing public services. Despite the fact that the public purse had been so shamefully ripped off by the sales and the asset stripping, it was left to the ratepayers, through the local authority, to pick up the tab. Because of Stagecoach's speculation, the ratepayers of Southampton have had to fork out £138,000 to provide another coach station. The good, sturdy, private sector alternative would have been to leave people waiting in the rain. After all, why do they need a coach station? If Stagecoach has sold it, why should the contemptible consumers of bus services not just be left to suffer from market forces imposed on them by the Government through privatisation? The people of Southampton have paid £138,000 to assist Stagecoach towards its profit of a minimum of £3.1 million.
In the last few minutes of the Committee stage we had an interesting debate when the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) defended what had happened. He said that it did not matter how the £3.1 million was acquired and that it was what the company did with the money that mattered. So long as it invested the money in buses, that was all right. That is an extraordinary doctrine of private enterprise. In other words, it is defensible to buy public assets cheap in order to sell them dear. It is a disgrace to the word "enterprise" to attach that claim to it.
Mr. Bill Walker : The hon. Gentleman should look a little more carefully at what I said. I have not yet seen the Hansard report of our proceedings, but I said that the assets of any company are its resources, which are human as well as physical. Buildings and buses, as well as employees, are its assets. It is how the management employs those assets to the benefit of the whole that matters. It does not matter that a company has large capital assets if they are under-employed and if the company is going broke. It makes no difference. Management is required to maximise the use of assets. That is exactly what I said.
Mr. Wilson : That is a sophistication of what the hon. Gentleman said and the record will show that. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is distancing himself from what happened. If so, I welcome that.
Clearly, this case was an outrageous fraud on the public purse. Someone has said that the assets of Hampshire Bus were worth £2 million. Within weeks Stagecoach had turned them into £5.1 million and still had half the
Column 759operation left. Does the Minister care to defend that? If nobody does, why the hell are the Government doing this again under this Bill? There is nothing in the Bill which gives the slightest safeguard against that sort of asset stripping by the same companies to which sections of the National Bus Company were sold.
We are playing for big stakes here. There are many big sharks waiting for the wee Minister to announce the terms of these sales. My advice is that the development value of Buchanan street bus station in Glasgow is £4 million. The development value of St. Andrews square bus station is extremely difficult to assess because in the last year alone commercial property values in the centre of Edinburgh have literally doubled. The best estimate that I can get is that it has a development value of £15 million. Even the Southampton example pales into relative financial insignificance compared with the huge sums that are at stake in the sale of the Scottish Bus Group companies. The Minister will have to agree that nothing in the Bill would stop whoever buys Eastern Scottish from selling the St. Andrews square bus station a fortnight later for £15 million or thereabouts. On previous form today and in Committee, the Minister will say, "We hope that it does not happen. We do not want it to happen. We shall take into consideration the possibility that it might happen, but it would be dreadful if it did." But the Government will do nothing about it. When it does happen, all that the Minister will be able to say is, "It should not have happened."
In Committee I gave a list of the bus stations in town and city centres in England that had been sold off similarly to, although rather less spectacularly than, the station in Southampton. The record shows that it happened all over the country. Asset strippers and property developers are extremely interested in the property assets of bus companies, and nothing in the Bill would exclude them from bidding for bus companies. A property developer who was interested in bidding for a bus company would not put himself forward as such, but would acquire the acceptable face of a bus company. How will the Scottish Office separate one from the other? The answer is that it cannot and will not. Unless something is written into the Bill to prevent it from happening, what happened in Southampton will happen in the towns and cities of Scotland. Will the Minister write a safeguard into the Bill?
The other amendments in the group deal with the resale of the businesses themselves, which we suggest should not be done without the consent of employees in the undertakings. It is a modest proposition, but I do not expect the Minister to accept it. Time and again in England and Wales, the company that bought the bus undertaking in the first instance proved to be only a halfway house to resales, mergers and splits, and all the time the very last consideration was for the interests of the travelling public. If nothing is inserted in the legislation, that will happen again. I want the Minister to deal with the details of the Southampton case and of the Scottish company involved in that case. Who advised the Government that the assets of Hampshire Bus should be sold for £2 million? Will those same advisers be involved in valuing property assets in Edinburgh, Glasgow and other cities and towns where the Scottish Bus Group has properties? I do not expect the Minister to say that the matter is outwith his ministerial
Column 760remit. No Minister could have introduced this legislation without having investigated extensively the experience in England and Wales.
If the Minister admits that monumental errors were made that allowed those profits to accrue to companies that were almost given the assets of the National Bus Company, he must tell us what will be inserted in the legislation to prevent those errors from being made again. The potential also exists for conspiracy, because the idea of people getting their hands on public property at a low valuation and of selling it for a different purpose at a high price is no novelty. Will the Minister safeguard against that, or will he make this Bill a charter for asset strippers and property developers?
Before I do that, may I deal with the intervention of the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker), who said that there was a difference between asset stripping and freeing capital for use in a company? To some extent, he is right. We all know that some struggling companies that are trying to develop their business and put money into services might wish to develop by introducing modern buses, by erecting good bus shelters or by creating decent waiting facilities in their out-of-town operations. If that had happened after the sale of the National Bus Company, one could accept it as good business. Companies may run into cash-flow problems. To pay the wages, they may have to realise some of their assets. Had that been the case with the National Bus Company, one would not have quarrelled with it.
As the hon. Member for Tayside, North knows, the difficulty is that that is the opposite of what happened in England and Wales. Assets were sold not to be reinvested in mobile assets or to provide better services, but simply to take profits out of the company without regard to how they had been earned. The hon. Gentleman had better address his mind to that difference.
We believe that the amendments are vital because we have never been told officially the price of any of the bus companies.
Mr. Bill Walker : The hon. Gentleman must have studied what has happened in the company referred to, so he will know that it has used the assets to buy new buses. The hon. Gentleman understands how businesses are run. If one can spread a core cost over a larger operation one can offer cheaper fares. That is exactly what has happened with that company because the costs of the base operations have been spread over a much wider network. That is using assets, not stripping them.
Mr. Hughes : Had that happened, it would have been fine, but we know that it did not happen in the vast majority of cases. The problem is compounded by the fact that we have not been told the prices realised by the sale of the NBC's subsidiary companies. What is more, we are told unequivocally that only those who are fortunate enough to live for another 30 years will be able to find out the purchase price of those companies. I presume that the
Column 761papers will become available then. It is a bit perverse that one's potential for getting public information depends on one's age. But that is what the Government rely on.
The Minister is a friendly young chap. I do not know the latest medical prognosis of how long he will live, but perhaps he is hoping not to be around in 30 years' time when the papers become available. If he is, he will know that he has repeated the error that was made in England and Wales.
The Minister has made matters worse. Several times in Committee, when defending differences of approach in the Scottish Office and slight differences in this Bill, he said that one of the great benefits of introducing this Bill some years after the privatisation of buses in England and Wales was experience. Yet on this important issue the Government have not taken that experience into account. The Government say that they cannot tell us the value of the companies because the information is commercially sensitive. I do not understand how it can be against commercial interests to be told the selling price. I repeat the charge that we made in Committee which the Minister, regrettably, did not answer. If a local authority behaved as the Government have over the sale of public assets, its members would be disqualified and taken before the district auditor and might have to spend some time in gaol--and quite right, too. There should be no secrecy. We should be told precisely what the sale price is.
The Minister's only defence--I do not recall him using it in Committee-- against the charge that he is wantonly selling public assets cheaply is that we always have recourse to the Public Accounts Committee. The trouble is that that Committee does not have the information on which to act. I have no information with which to write to the Chairman of the Committee asking it to investigate the sale.
Perhaps I had better measure my words carefully, as I do not wish to embarrass anyone. I made inquiries about one of the sales mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North. When I asked how the Public Accounts Committee could examine what I regarded as gross excesses and a gross dereliction of duty by the Secretary of State for Transport, I was told--quite properly--that the PAC could investigate only specific charges. It was no use my saying, "I read in the papers that this happened", "I believe that this happened" or "There is speculation that this happened". The PAC wants hard and fast information, and it is right that it should. We do not want to pillory people without cause. I consider that one of the great benefits of public investigation is that not only are the guilty found guilty but the innocent are exonerated if false charges are made.
The Minister, however, is encouraging speculation and rumour. He is leading us to believe that the information will never be provided. That will fuel speculation. Indeed, we have good grounds for believing that the information that we have been given is accurate : I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North would not have read out that list without a solid belief that the property speculators were busy.
Why should this matter? It matters in principle. Someone once said that principles were expensive things. The people who suffer if they are broken are not the owners, the shareholders or the board of directors, but
Column 762those who work in the industry--people who have given their lives to that industry, built up the companies' assets and made them into going concerns attractive for privatisation.
I am astonished to see that no Government amendments have been tabled. I certainly do not charge the Minister with dishonesty ; if I were to do so I should be reprimanded. Nevertheless, he has not honoured the spirit of the words that he used in Committee, where we engaged in a long debate about the value of the assets and the effect on the workers. I regret that I cannot quote the Minister exactly, but I am sure that he will tell me if my paraphrase is inaccurate. The Minister said that he understood the points that we were making and would undertake a close examination to find out what information could be made available. He hinted, at least, that he might be prepared to table a Government amendment on Report to cover the possibility of making the sale price known. In answer to a question from me to that effect, he said in his charming way--with the little smile that he wears when replying--"We shall have to look at it." Perhaps I am becoming too gullible in my old age. I believed that he might bring forward such an amendment, but he has not done so. The Prime Minister believes that her words strike a chord with the British public. I shall not allow myself to be tempted to discuss devolution, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because, apart from getting into trouble with you, I should get into trouble with my hon. Friends. Let me, however, refer briefly to the speech in which the Prime Minister said that she was totally against devolution. Why? Because, she said, she wanted to devolve power to the individual, not to corporate bodies. That, incidentally, is the core ethos of Socialism ; we want power for the individual. It seems odd that the Prime Minister should use the same words as us. I thought for a moment that she had been re-reading "Das Kapital" in her spare time, but I suspect that it was all a charade.
We have learned one thing from this Government, if nothing else. When the Prime Minister speaks, Ministers jump. Either they jump out of the Cabinet, or they jump around in it. If the Prime Minister had meant what she said, and if the Secretary of State--whom I am delighted to see taking an interest in the Bill--had conveyed her message properly, the Minister would have put down an amendment, and would by this time have leapt to his feet to accept amendment No. 3. What better example of devolution to the individual could there be than the provision in amendment No. 3 that
"It shall be a condition of purchase for any undertaking proposed for sale that the business shall not be re-sold within a period of five years without the consent of employees in the undertaking." Perhaps the Prime Minister thinks that that is too modest. Perhaps the Minister will say that five years is not long enough, and will propose a Lords amendment providing that the business shall never be resold without the consent of the employees. I would accept that. I would go out of the Chamber with my tail between my legs. I would have to go to my constituency and say that I had been outbid by Tory Ministers, and that after complaining for all these years about their accruing power to themselves I had found that I had been wrong all the time. But I know that I am right. The Government have no intention of giving power to anyone except those who hold the purse strings. The paymasters of the Tory party have said, "You will
Column 763privatise. You will sell off the companies. The power will go with the purse strings, and the people who get the companies will be those who pay the most bucks."
In Committee, the Minister said that he wanted to give a fair wind to employee-management buy-outs. None of us, however, is naive enough to believe that such a buy-out will necessarily succeed in every case. If a private entrepreneur comes along and buys the company, there must be a fall -back provision for employees to have a say on whether their livelihoods are to be bought and sold.
There has been great agitation about the fate of professional footballers-- a cause close to the heart of my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North, and indeed of great interest to all of us who are football fans. The idea that a player was bound to a company for the rest of his life, and could be bought and sold like a chattel with no real say in the matter, went out of the window because it offended against the principles of individuality. I think that, having accepted that, we must also accept that the buying and selling of jobs in this context is also an affront to individuality. I know that the Minister believes that, and I hope that he will accept amendment No. 3.
The Minister said in Committee that he believed that if abuses were proven the Secretary of State would be able to act. I can find no reference in the Bill to his having the power to act : it must be one of the more nebulous powers in the legislation. I hope that if the Minister cannot accept the amendment he will take the matter seriously and will understand that we are dealing with people who, by and large, do not have the interests of the travelling public at heart, but are interested only in making money. They do not care about the people in the industry or those who may serve. The Minister ought to accept this group of amendments in principle--on ethical grounds--and I am sure that he will do so.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) has raised again a question that he put in Committee about publication of the prices obtained for the subsidiaries. I said that once the process of privatisation had been completed we would publish the figure for the total proceeds, and also that I would reconsider the possibility of publishing individual sale proceeds. The suggestion that we should publish the amount paid for each company raises difficult problems of commercial confidentiality. During the process of privatisation it will clearly not be a good idea to publish the amount received for each company, as it could well affect prices in subsequent sales.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I have considered this matter carefully. Publishing the prices once the sales are completed also raises problems of commercial confidentiality because the companies involved may be concerned that the price they paid for a business should not be revealed to their competitors. The financial backers may also be sensitive about the disclosure of the purchase price that they had supported.
Column 7647 pm
With regard to the public interest, the important figure is the sum that is realised for the Scottish Bus Group as a whole. I have already said that we shall publish that figure once all the sales are completed. If individual purchasers want to reveal what they paid for a company, it is a matter for them. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North is no doubt aware that Grampian Transport plc has revealed that it paid about £5 million for Grampian Regional Transport. After carefully reconsidering the issue, may I say that we would not want, as a matter of practice, to publish the proceeds from each company sold.
Mr. Robert Hughes : The Minister should not pray in aid the Grampian experience, which is totally different. He knows that Grampian regional council is bound by statute to say how much it got from the sale ; it cannot simply say that it will not tell anyone.
The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) asked about the Scottish Development Agency investment in Stagecoach. The investment was worth £500,000 and was made in the form of preference shares. Amendment No. 3 would make it impossible for a Scottish Bus Group subsidiary to be resold within five years without the consent of its employees. That would impose a limitation on the freedom of action of that company which would not apply to the companies with which it was competing. That could cause difficulties and if such an inhibition operated which did not apply to other bus companies it could make it difficult for management- employee buy-out teams to raise funds. However we are keen to see employees participating in their companies through share ownership. The more substantial that share ownership, the more voice employees will have in the running of their company and over issues such as change of ownership.
In privatising the Scottish Bus Group in the pattern we have chosen, we aim to set up a number of new, viable independent bus companies which will ensure healthy competition. We obviously want to see those companies continue as viable units. Successful operation is obviously the way to achieve that--not by giving employees a veto as proposed in amendment No. 3. In any case, it is not clear why the period of five years has been chosen. The best course is surely to encourage bids with substantial employee participation which will ensure that employees have a say in the operations of their company in the long term.
Mr. Wilson : As the Minister reiterates his enthusiasm for bids that give workers a substantial say, does he consider that there is any conflict between that and what he has told us about the SDA investing £500,000 to ensure that such bids do not succeed?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Out of a total of £5 million investment provided by a number of financial institutions, the SDA contributed £500,000 in the form of preference shares. That does not alter the reality, and representations have been made to the chief executive of the SDA arising out of what was discussed in Committee. Amendment No. 4 would limit to two companies the number of bus companies which one purchaser could buy.
Column 765The prime aim of the privatisation is to increase competition, efficiency and service to the consumer. No limitations were written into the English and Welsh legislation, and I do not believe that such a limitation is appropriate in this case.
The House should reject the amendment, but should be assured that we have taken on board the point made by the amendment. We entirely accept the need to avoid a single buyer acquiring too many bus companies. In England, when 72 units were sold, no single buyer was allowed to acquire more than four. An application of a similar proportion to the 11 SBG subsidiaries--that is nine operating subsidiaries plus two other operations--would limit any single purchaser to acquiring one subsidiary.
We accept the need to avoid a single buyer acquiring too many bus companies. In part, of course, it depends where those companies are. However, given the nature of Scotland, with its urban concentration in the central belt, we accept the need to limit the numbers bought by one purchaser and will consider what can be said in the disposal programme, by which time the picture will be clearer.
The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North spent a considerable time addressing amendment No. 5, which would prevent any of the privatised bus companies from disposing of fixed assets within five years without the consent of the Secretary of State. It is obviously important to ensure that there is no asset stripping.
It is clearly essential to ensure that property is properly valued, not only on its existing use value for bus operations, but on other bases such as its full development value. We obviously want to avoid asset stripping and the selling on of assets at a large profit. Specialist property advisers have been appointed to value all the properties of the bus group and to advise on the best treatment of those properties in the course of the sale. There are essentially three options for dealing with the properties. The first option is to strip the property from the company and sell it separately. This might apply to a property that is not really essential for the running of a bus undertaking. The second option is to sell the property along with the company but ensure that the price received for the company fully reflects the range of values for the assets. The third option is to sell the property along with the company but with a legal charge on the property which will ensure that if the property is sold, say for development, within a specified period, the Government will receive a specified share of the development proceeds. A fourth option--I did not mention it in Committee--is to sell the property separately but arrange for it to be leased to the bus operating company.
A prohibition on sales of property without the Secretary of State's consent would not achieve the desired objective. The only control open to the Secretary of State would be to prevent the property from being sold for a period. It would not prevent the owning company profiting from the sale. After five years there would be no controls at all.
The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North also asked about the arrangements for the sale of the NBC and its assets in Southampton. That is a matter for the Secretary of State for Transport and I would not want to comment on it. I have made clear the actions that we shall take to
Column 766avoid asset stripping. The key element is to obtain professional advice on the value of the assets at current use and for development.
Mr. Wilson : Even by the Minister's formidable standards, that was a pathetic reply. I may be naive, and possibly the Minister will tell us differently, but perhaps there were no professional advisers in England and Wales. Perhaps the number of such advisers was pulled out of a hat. What possible answer is it to say that there will be professional advice? Of course there will be professional advice, but we are talking about whether that advice will be any good. We have already explained in some detail that the professional advice that the Government got in England and Wales stank. Whether that was due to incompetence or corruption, we shall never know, but we know that public assets were sold off cheaply to be sold on dear. That was done on the basis of professional advice.
The Minister has said that what happened with the NBC is nothing to do with him but is for the Secretary of State for Transport to consider. Scottish Office Ministers are extremely selective about when we are operating in a unitary Parliament with unitary interests and when we are operating as a small segment of the United Kingdom when that segment is not supposed to know what is going on in another. Is the Minister seriously saying that when he drew up the disposal scheme and the scheme for professional advice he had no consultation with the Secretary of State for Transport? If so, it is certain that the quality of the professional advice will not be any better in Scotland than it was in England and Wales. Once again I challenge the Minister to address the Southampton example. Would the Minister find it acceptable if the same sort of windfall profits were made by the beneficiaries of the sell-offs? Would there be anything wrong with that?
Perhaps the Minister could clarify the impression given by the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker), who believes that it is all right to buy from the public purse something for £2 million and then to sell off a fraction of it for £4.1 million a fortnight later as long as the proceeds of the sale go to buses. Perhaps the Minister could write a cheque. Why should the Minister sell off the subsidiaries? Why not give them away while saying, "Look here, have it, so long as you spend the proceeds on buying buses.". The public purse would not get anything ; after all, it all comes to the same thing. If the Government had given away Hampshire Bus and the assets had then been sold for £2.1 million, the profit would have been the same to the buyer, and the loss to the public purse in real terms would have been no less. Does the Minister regard that as acceptable?
Will the Minister tell us the names of the professional advisers? Are they the people who gave such appalling advice about Hampshire Bus and other segments of the National Bus Company? Does the Minister have any information about that? Has any account been taken of the record of those advisers in past sell-offs? Is it the same old boys' network? Is it always the same advisers and no matter what advice they give and whether it is right or wrong they will always be there? The Minister must tell us something. He must not simply say that there will be professional advisers. I understood in Committee that they were already at work.
Mr. Graham : Perhaps they are the professional advisers who advised the Government to sell the royal ordnance factory in my constituency for a pittance to people who later recouped the price in one sale.
Mr. Wilson : That is an interesting question. My guess would be that they are the same advisers or perhaps from the same coterie of advisers. They are either bent or stupid, but they are not competent and certainly are not working in the public interest.
Mr. Wilson : I am well aware that the Minister said in Committee that Kenneth Ryden and Partners were advisers on property values. He did not say whether they had been involved in any of the English advice or whether they were advising on the valuations as going concerns as bus stations or advising on the development values. He did not say whether two sets of values had arisen in the English context. I am sure that the Minister has consulted his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport about that.
Were there two valuations for the coach station in Southampton? We shall be grateful if the Minister can help us on that, but if he cannot perhaps he will help us another time.
I am grateful to the Minister for at least informing us that £500, 000 of public money has been invested in Stagecoach in order, presumably, to help establish the level playing field which we are told is to exist in these sell-offs. I am surprised that at this sensitive time the Scottish Development Agency should have seen fit to invest £500,000 in Stagecoach, but I suppose that is a matter for the SDA--unless it did that under political direction. Perhaps the Minister will tell us about that as well.
Mr. Bill Walker : The hon. Gentleman will be aware that since its inception the SDA has been investing in this way throughout Scotland and in companies. There is nothing odd about that. Why should it make fish of one and fowl of another? The fact that Stagecoach applied and was accepted is surely enough. There is no end of examples of companies obtaining assistance in this equity form and then going on to be assets to Scotland. Unfortunately, others have been disasters and much public money has gone into them. It is part of the risk that the SDA takes in evaluating this type of equity, and it goes on all the time.
Mr. Wilson : Unlike Conservative Members, I am an admirer of the SDA and I am not attacking it in any way. I just find it a little odd that, at this sensitive time, when Stagecoach has announced that it will bid for every Scottish Bus Group subsidiary and is putting together a £5 million war chest for that purpose, the SDA is investing £500,000. That is especially surprising because the successful achievement of Stagecoach's aims appears to be in conflict with the Government's preference as repeatedly stated by the Minister. It is even against the wishes of the hon. Member for Tayside (Mr. Walker), because he has made it clear that he does not want Stagecoach to succeed in his area.
The other issue upon which the Minister was at his disingenuous worst was about why individual sale proceeds could not be revealed to us. The magic words
Column 768"commercial confidentiality" were incanted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) capably said, a local authority does not have any such option because its dealings have to be a matter of public record. It has always been a mystery to me why the Government can hide behind commercial confidentiality while local authorities have to do things up front.
The idea that the interests of the buyers should be protected is also mysterious. It is not like a pools entry when one can mark an X for no publicity. The public is entitled to know what has been paid for public assets ; there can be no ifs or buts about that. That should be an entitlement, as it is in local government but for some reason is not in Government dealings. However, the truth will out and in each of the 72 National Bus Company sell-offs those who keep an eye on the industry were in a strong position to find out what was paid.
I assure the Minister that we shall keep a close eye on these sales. Even though the Government may be afraid to say what has been paid for the companies, we shall do so and will be able to compare the selling price with the asset stripping price when that process is engaged in.
The Minister was asked many specific questions about the lessons that were learned from the sell-offs and the asset strippings in England and Wales, which in some cases involved Scottish companies and certainly involved companies that will be engaged in the bids for parts of the Scottish Bus Group. What safeguards have been taken against the same thing happening in Scotland? The answer in simple terms is, none. The Minister said that there were four options, but did not tell us which one the Government had decided to implement. Perhaps he could help us on that.
Unless there are safeguards in the Bill, there will be asset stripping and property rip-offs on a grand scale. In many parts of Scotland bus stations that are centrally located in the interests of the travelling public will be sold by property speculators and will be replaced by facilities that are much less adequate and less convenient. That is exactly what has happened in Southampton where, in spite of all the professional advice, the Government committed an offence against the public purse for which they should still be held accountable.
Question put, That the amendment be made :--
The House divided : Ayes 109, Noes 184.
Division No. 104] [7.16 pm
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Beith, A. J.
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth
Evans, John (St Helens N)
Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)