It is no good the right hon. Gentleman coming out with this fraudulent nonsense about listening to people's views. He did not want to listen to any views. He did not want to come to the House, and he did not want to make a statement. He did not want to answer a private notice question, and he did not want a debate. The truth is that, with perhaps one or two exceptions, he did not want to listen to views.
Mr. Heseltine: The right hon. Gentleman could have put all that in his motion, in which case I would have addressed it. My point, to which the right hon. Gentleman has no answer, is that nothing is so lacking in intellect or logic as the suggestion that I should take the views of a minority of shareholders as the determining factor in such a matter.
The nearest equivalent I can think of immediately is the mass meeting of the trade union movement at which a minority of vocal militants were able to dominate the scene, which led to strike action. This is the sort of technique that the right hon. Gentleman thinks should be introduced in British public affairs. I am not prepared to have anything to do with such an argument.
Mr. Heseltine: No, because I want to make a bit of progress. I move on to the next argument paraded, which is the absence of any experience on the bidders' part of running a private domestic monopoly energy utility. This is said by the party that, for 40 years, has nationalised industry after industry after industry so that it can put trade unionists, civil servants and politicians in charge of the commanding heights of the British economy. This is the party that, for 15 years, has sat on the Opposition Benches.
Column 88Labour Members have never run any serious industry in their lives, yet they now claim the right to run the whole of the British economy. I have never heard-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Heseltine: If Labour believes that a company making a takeover bid must have had specific experience in the particular industry, it should say so. The fact is that lack of experience has never stopped Labour Members pursuing any policies of any sort in any circumstances. I cannot believe that they seriously believe that this argument should weigh with me.
I move on to the concerns of the Director General of Electricity Supply about his ability. Here I thought that the right hon. Gentleman asked some important questions, but I was intrigued that he managed to avoid any reference to the Director General--
Mr. Heseltine: I come back to the point. How can the right hon. Member for Copeland pray in aid the views of the Director General of Electricity Supply, important though his views are, without reference to the Director General of Fair Trading? There was a difference between the two regulators, which I freely admit, so I had to weigh the advice that I was given from two different regulators. I chose to follow the advice of the Director General of Fair Trading. I found it absolutely fascinating, having listened to what I thought at the beginning of the right hon. Gentleman's speech were to be paeans of praise for the Director General of Electricity Supply, that he provided a catalogue of criticism on how the industry had been badly regulated, how prices--apparently--had been allowed to go up and how consumers had been ripped off. But all that is the responsibility of the Director General of Electricity Supply, the one person who, according to the motion, I am supposed to listen to, as opposed to the Director General of Fair Trading.
Dr. John Cunningham: Of course, the right hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. The Director General of Electricity Supply can work only within the regulations laid down by the right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends. The Director General of Electricity Supply is as much a victim of this hopeless, hapless system as are the consumers who are paying the price.
Mr. Heseltine: Now we have--I have not got the words down, but we will have them all in the morning, as they will be carefully recorded--an apparently hapless system that is so unsatisfactory. So I gather that the Labour party, if it ever had the chance, would want to change it. [Hon. Members:-- "Yes."] That is very interesting. Would I be right in thinking that that would be the case not only for the electricity industry, but for a
Column 89range of other industries? [Hon. Members:- - "Yes."] Yes, it would change industry after industry after industry. Where would the Labour party stop?
Mr. Heseltine: It would stop at the utilities. So am I to understand that the National Freight Corporation, British Airways and British Steel, and all those other privatised companies, have been given a clean bill of health? Are they now safe from the predatory instincts of the Labour party? We are talking only of the utilities. That is what one might call a halfway house. All the utilities are under threat from the Labour party.
Mr. Heseltine: No, they are not. Let us not talk about a divided party. Let us not have references to splits. Are we for clause IV or are we against clause IV? Are we dealing with clause IV(a) or clause IV(b)? Who is the great arbiter between clause IV(a), (b), (c), (d), (e), (f) or anything else? Is it the spokesmen for the party above the Gangway, below the Gangway, on their feet, on their bottoms? Who speaks for the Labour party?
Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East) rose --
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) rose --
Mr. Mudie: Will the President be serious about a matter that may be funny to him, but is of extreme importance to millions of consumers? The man whom the President has to represent consumers, the regulator, advised the President not to allow Trafalgar House to take over 100 per cent. of Northern Electric, and that 25 per cent. was needed for transparency. The man responsible for protecting consumer interest put that position. Will the President take that advice, which would give the customer some protection, or will he sweep it aside?
Mr. Heseltine: I would seriously like to help the hon. Gentleman. The Director General of Electricity Supply has responsibilities, which he is discharging. I understand that he is in conversation with Trafalgar House. Certain assurances have been given, and those are now being discussed by the regulator. It is right and proper that that should be taking place. What the outcome of those discussions will be, I do not know, because that is something within the purview of the director general. But the right hon. Member for Copeland raised some important questions, on which I want to be as helpful as I can to the House, such as the timing of the announcement. It is perfectly true that, on Monday last week, I left for India. During that afternoon, I reached a judgment about the matter. It followed from that judgment, because I was interested in the assurances that Trafalgar House was offering, that officials in my Department pursued the matter, which they did.
Of course, it was not possible to announce the outcome, because we did not know at that stage whether such assurances would be forthcoming. It is also perfectly true that it fell to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs to make the statement. I would be the first to say that I felt uncomfortable, because I could see how the circumstances were developing. I shall share exactly with the House the dilemma that I faced.
Column 90I knew that I was leaving for India. It was a very important trip, as the House would recognise. There was nothing that I could have done, or that I would have wanted to do, to avoid it, and I am sure that no one in the House would have asked me to do so. But I knew that, if I were to have made the statement, it would have had to wait until I had returned on Thursday. I did not believe that information of such sensitivity would hold between Monday and Thursday. Therefore, I took the initial decisions, and I instigated the consultations that were to lead to the assurances which were forthcoming, and which are now the subject of discussion. I believe that, in that way, I behaved perfectly properly.
Mr. Heseltine: No, they are not legally enforceable. But that is not the end of the matter, because the powers of the director general remain. He has powers first--as he is now doing--to discuss the matters with Trafalgar House; and, secondly, he has powers to refer Trafalgar House to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, if, in future, he should in any way feel the need to do so. So it is important to understand the balances that exist.
Mr. Heseltine: As the right hon. Gentleman knows, once that process is under way, I am in a quasi-judicial position. [Interruption.] Hon. Members must understand that someone in my position, a position which this House has put me in, as a quasi-judicial authority, is extremely constrained, and rightly so, in their actions. I cannot prejudge matters. I have to listen to all representations, I have to take all such matters into account, and I have to be guided by the very clear legislative framework within which I operate. The judgments are often complicated, finely balanced and difficult, but I reject utterly and absolutely any suggestion that such matters are not carried out in the proper and full way.
Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South): Will the President comment on the assurances that have been given? Trafalgar House does not have a reputation for being a company in which there is total transparency. It is felt that cash assets are being transferred from one member of the group to another. Have we assurances that such movements will be transparent, so that Northern Electric's consumers may be sure that they are not paying to prop up some other member of the group?
Mr. Heseltine: The hon. Gentleman raises essential questions, and those exact issues are now being discussed by the director general and Trafalgar House. The director general is bound to do that. It is not for me to say that I support him in doing so. It is his legal duty so to do. I understand, as does the House, that that process is now under way. I also understand the need for that transparency, and the public confidence which would flow from it, to be in place.
Column 91reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Is the President of the Board of Trade saying that he would respect that independent right? If the regulator were to act in such a way, would the President intervene again to refuse the reference?
Mr. Heseltine: I have no power to stop the director general referring the matter to the MMC. I have a right to challenge the view of the MMC in the recommendations that it makes, but afterwards. That would be done in public, after public debate, and I would have to account in public to this House or wherever appropriate for any decision that I took. I would hope that, like any Secretary of State from any party, I would exercise that discretion and make those decisions in the way in which the House would expect me so to do.
Mr. Richard Caborn (Sheffield, Central): Will the President give the House his view on the notice presented by Offer, in terms of changing and varying the licence in relation to section 11(2) of the Electricity Act 1989? If there is an objection in 28 days, there could well be a referral to the MMC.
Will the President give us the Government's view about that variation of the licence which, I think, was printed in The Financial Times on 10 February, particularly in light of Northern Electric's position on pricing when it can effectively give shareholders about £380? That point was referred to a little earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Cunningham). That was effectively price control, which could now vary the licence conditions that were printed in The Financial Times on 10 February. Will the right hon. Gentleman gives us his view about that?
Mr. Heseltine: The hon. Gentleman raises a complicated issue. It is not a straightforward issue, and I will not give him an answer off the cuff. However, I will ensure that he gets a proper answer, because these are highly complex and technical legal matters, and the House is entitled to be properly informed. Either my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Industry will reply to the hon. Gentleman in his response to the debate, or I will ensure that the Chairman of the Select Committee receives a letter setting out the matter in detail.
We have now dealt with the substance of one of the legitimate concerns. I hope that the House feels that I have dealt with it at some length, and I do not apologise for that.
I was surprised at the suggestion that, if the takeover is successful--I do not know whether it will be successful or not--that is somehow centralising the decision-making in London. As I understand it, Trafalgar House has made it clear that it will leave the headquarters of Northern Electric where it is presently based. It will therefore remain a provincially based company.
I could not understand how the Labour party could argue in that way when, during the last half-century, Labour nationalised provincial company after provincial company and centralised the control of those companies in London. I do not understand why Labour should find it extraordinary that this Government have returned all those companies to provincial headquarters.
Column 92The fact that the water and electricity companies and the gas industry now have major provincially dominated headquarters is a very important part of the Government's process of spreading power throughout the country, as opposed to centralising it in London. It is not in the Labour party's gift to suggest that we are trying to centralise powers by the back door--
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse): Order. Did I hear the hon. Member for Rhondda say that the Secretary of State was not telling the truth? If so, I hope that on reflection he will want to withdraw that comment.
Mr. Rogers rose --
The most distressing feature of the debate, of the speech made by the right hon. Member for Copeland, and of many of the comments made by Labour Members is the relish with which they want to portray a major British company like Trafalgar House in the least favourable light.
Trafalgar House is one of our leading overseas companies. It falls to my Department, and it is my privilege, often to spend a lot of time with the export managers, directors and executives of that company, travelling the world trying to obtain business. I wonder what kind of impact Labour Members feel it makes on the people whose lives are devoted entirely to trying to further British interests when they have to listen to the carping criticism that we have heard from Labour Members.
Column 93If by any chance the takeover bid goes through--I have no knowledge as to whether it will go through or not-- Trafalgar House will then be able to point to its experience of running an electricity company in the United Kingdom as it bids for major world opportunities to install, run and manage electricity facilities internationally. In this country, we must understand that fighting in the international marketplace today demands a scale of expertise in an ever- toughening competitive world. If, every time we try to put together a major British company to win in the world, we hear carping criticism from Labour Members who constantly talk about rip-offs, the consumers being robbed, soaring prices and any other slanderous attack they can find, they are simply undermining this country's ability to win in the world marketplace.
Mr. Heseltine: No, the right hon. Gentleman has had a fair go. He knows full well that he and the rest of those on the Opposition Front Bench never miss an opportunity to undermine the excellence of British exporting companies across the world.
We are now winning in the export markets of the world on a scale which would have seemed almost inconceivable two or three years ago. We should be immensely proud of that.
We heard another classic canard from the Labour party. I do not want to blame the right hon. Member for Copeland for originating it. The canard was that prices have been soaring--
Mr. Heseltine: If the right hon. Member for Copeland did not say that, I apologise straight away. I turn my attention to where the blame should lie, and that is with the Leader of the Opposition. Obviously, there is another split in the Labour party. The Leader of the Opposition says prices are going up, but the right hon. Member for Copeland does not believe they are.
That is a welcome conversion-- [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Copeland should be quiet for a moment and decide which side of the argument he is on. I want to nail the Leader of the Opposition. When the Electricity Bill was before the House, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) said:
"outside of the Conservative party and the Department of Energy, it is barely an issue that prices will rise because of
privatisation."--[ Official Report , 12 December 1988; Vol. 143, c. 684.]
What has happened? Prices to customers have fallen. They are down by 9 per cent. in real terms to domestic users in the past two years. Industrial consumers have also seen falls in real terms. That record compares with a real increase of 5 per cent. in industrial prices, and a 22 per cent. increase in domestic prices under the last Labour Government.
The right hon. Member for Copeland cannot deny that he said that the quality of service has not improved. However, there has been an 80 per cent. reduction in the
Column 94number of domestic customers who have been disconnected. Customer complaints to the regulator are falling. The right hon. Member for Copeland then said that investment was not taking off. However, the electricity industry has increased investment by more than 10 per cent. in real terms since privatisation.
Productivity is also rising. It is perfectly true that the regional electricity companies have reduced staff in comparison to pre-privatisation levels. They have introduced more flexible work patterns and pay bargaining. However, is Labour arguing that we must continue to employ people in companies that could achieve the same results with fewer people? Is that what Labour Members are saying? If they are saying that, how would they achieve productivity gains to pay the real increases in wages, upon which real increasing prosperity depends?
Whenever there were job losses in any industry, Opposition Members never said, "Britain is becoming more competitive." They tried to pretend that we could freeze--fossilise--our industrial and manufacturing capability in the chaotic world that we inherited from them 15 years ago. That simply is not an option. It was not an option then--that is why they lost power--and it is not an option now. We are winning so much extra export market because we have turned the tide of British productivity.
In this debate, as in all others, Opposition Members cannot come to terms with the fact that it is only within the private sector that we will make the gains upon which the increasing wealth of this country depends. Opposition Members talk about shareholders doing well. I take credit for that and pride in it, because I know that shareholders are the pensioners, the people with the insurance companies, the people who are the savers, and the workers in industry who bought shares in their companies. One should rejoice in that, not condemn it left, right and centre whenever one has an opportunity. The Labour party cannot come to terms with the fact that, 100 years ago, some lunatic dreamed up the idea called "socialism". It is bust, it is finished, and that is why Labour Members are on the Opposition Benches, and will stay there.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): I do not intend to take up much time because this is a short debate. I come not to praise Northern Electric or to condemn Trafalgar House, but to refer to the concerns of users, employees and some of the shareholders of Northern Electric. At a special general meeting in Newcastle last week, to which reference has been made, the individual shareholders who attended the meeting and voted overwhelmingly against the threatened takeover were heavily outvoted by the proxy votes of big institutions. So much for the so-called benefits of wider share ownership, which privatisation promised. That point is made in the motion, and well the President of the Board of Trade knows it. The fat cats still call the tune and their poodles in the Tory party dance to it. That might be a rather badly mixed metaphor, but it is appropriate.
I have no particular sympathy with Northern Electric. The company is responsible for 700 job losses since privatisation, a further 800 job losses between now and 1997 and, we are told, about 100 job losses per year after
Column 95that, in search of more efficiencies. I look forward to the day when directors will be rewarded according to how many jobs they create rather than how many they destroy, which does not seem to require great genius.
While all those jobs have gone, putting pressure on remaining employees to produce the same and more, the salaries of members of the board of Northern Electric have risen sixfold. The company chairman now makes more money in his lunch hour than the waitress who serves him makes in a whole week. On top of that, senior directors stand to make more than a quarter of a million pounds each from shares obtained by virtue of their position as directors. To try to stave off the Trafalgar House bid, the company has offered what has been described as a package of perks, the cost of which is reflected in the forecast job losses after 1997 and the decimation of the investment programme that we were told would be one of the great benefits of privatisation.
What of electricity users? I refuse to call them customers. They do not go out shopping for electricity. We are told that the price of electricity has come down since privatisation. Of course, that means since 1991. Electricity prices were hiked up before privatisation in order to make the sell-off more attractive and to allow for a fall after privatisation so that board members could tell us how clever they were and justify their huge salary increases. Users, along with employees and the investment programme, too, will bear the cost of that struggle for power. Last week, BBC North produced a programme about the matter, entitled "Better the Devil you know". That is the theme which the majority of northern Labour Members, electricity users--which, of course, includes all of us--and employees have adopted during this sorry saga. There are implications for the rest of the industry and, of course, for the taxpayer, estimated to be about £270 million in lost tax revenue if the takeover goes ahead.
The electricity supply industry cannot be treated as if it were a sweet factory. It is not like any other industry. It could not possibly be allowed to collapse and threaten the continuity of supply. In such circumstances, however unlikely, even a Tory Government would be forced to step in. We must remember that a Tory Government nationalised Rolls-Royce to save it from extinction. The industry should never have been removed from the public sector. I for one certainly look forward to the day when it might be returned to it. [Hon. Members:-- "Ah!"] Yes, indeed. I share that hope with the vast majority of the British public, certainly people in the north-east who now suffer because of privatisation.
Mr. Clelland: The Labour party believes that the major utilities should be in public ownership or control. [Interruption.] That is without question; there is no argument about that. In the meantime-- [Interruption.] If the President of the Board of Trade wants to go into the matter a little more deeply, I am sure that the time will come when we can do so.
Column 96In the meantime, we must suffer the unedifying sight of the money market squabbling over an industry that is vital to the lives and livelihoods of millions of people who are helpless to influence the outcome, because their Government have relinquished control over the industry and prefer to leave its fate to market forces.
The campaign against the takeover that is now being waged in the north-east is about not Trafalgar House but the retention of control over a vital industry--vital to the regional economy and to everyday life--within the region that it serves.
In his recent answer to me, the President of the Board of Trade confirmed that he regarded the continued regional basis of the electricity supply industry to be an important principle, but there seems to be no sign that he or the regulator have any intention of enforcing that principle. On the contrary, his refusal to refer the matter to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission has led to open season on other regional companies and the creation of even bigger monopolies. In his answer last Wednesday to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs confirmed that the safeguards to which the President of the Board of Trade referred are not protected by statute. Indeed, the President of the Board of Trade confirmed that again tonight.
The major utilities are too important to be left to the financial juggling of the market. They are too important to our regional structure to be subjected to the threat of takeover or sell-off. It is the job of Government to secure such services in the interests of the people and of the country. If the Conservative Government will not do that, a Labour Government will.
Mr. John Sykes (Scarborough): I shall make a brief contribution. I am the vice-chairman of the Conservative Back-Bench deregulation committee. I am also the Member of Parliament for Scarborough and Whitby, which are supplied by Northern Electric. I am a business man with a factory which is on the coast and which consumes electricity supplied by Northern Electric. I am also a householder who spends most of his life trying to turn out the lights that his children have left on. I do not, however, speak as a shareholder. I carry no torch for either company involved in the discussions.
In my dealings with Northern Electric, I have found it responsive and helpful. Towards the end of last year, there was a proposal to erect pylons from Lackenby to Whitby, which would have vaulted across some of England's finest coastal scenery and through many villages in my constituency. I should like to record my thanks to Northern Electric for shelving those plans. I hope that they remain firmly on the shelf.
The motion is yet another example of scaremongering and nit-picking. Opposition Members know nothing of the world of business, in which takeovers, both hostile and otherwise, are commonplace. Their experience as employers is limited to the countless research assistants who saturate the Palace of Westminster, yet their motion feigns concern for small shareholders whose company may be subjected to predatory or hostile bids. The only hostile or predatory bid that the shareholders need to fear is that which might come from Opposition Members should they seize the reins of power.
Column 97The motion undermines Trafalgar House in a most dishonourable manner that suggests an "absence of any experience". The absence of experience lies entirely on Opposition Benches. In the world of business, it is not unusual for a company to diversify by acquiring unrelated interests. Sometimes enormous opportunities flow because of the dovetailing of such interests with those of other companies within the group.
In the Financial Times, Trafalgar House is listed among the diversified industrials, as is the Hanson Trust. No one ever asked Lord Hanson what he knew about batteries before he bought Ever Ready, about cigarettes before he bought Imperial Tobacco, or about bricks before he purchased the London Brick Company. No one bothered F.H. Tomkins when it took over Firth Cleveland or Rank Hovis, yet all those companies have thrived.
I would not mind if the Labour party thought that Trafalgar House was a stranger to the north-east, but it is not. The firm owns Redpath, John Brown Engineering, the Davy Corporation and the Cleveland Bridge Company, which is based in Darlington. The last named has just won the Hong Kong harbour bridge contract, which is much to its credit, and many jobs will flow from the company's activities.
Many people in my constituency, and thousands of others in the north-east, rely on Trafalgar House for their employment. It is wrong of the Labour party to suggest that some of those people might lose their jobs as a result of the takeover. It made the same prediction when Rowntree was taken over by Nestle , but the factory in York has thrived.
If there is any danger to employment, it is presented by the Labour party, a party whose members attacked the Japanese for so-called "alien practices" when Nissan came to the north-east, a party that wants to impose a European job-shredder on companies in this country in the form of the social chapter, and a party masquerading as the business-friendly party of the 1990s. Yet beneath the veneer lurks the same old monster, intoxicated with the urge to regulate and tax. I urge my hon. Friends to reject the Labour motion with the contempt that it deserves.