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Column 110House of Commons. Hon. Members took a close interest in them and effectively ran them. That is why they were inefficient and why they made a loss of about £50 million a week.
Opposition Members should be honest about these matters. If those companies had not been privatised the money that they now contribute to the Exchequer would not be available to be spent on the health service, education and social security. They contribute a great deal weekly, monthly and annually to the Exchequer. If the Opposition do not want that they should say which hospitals and schools they want closed because that is the choice.
Irrespective of whether it is taken over I want this electricity company to continue to produce electricity as cheaply as possible for its consumers and in an efficient and practical way. That has happened because of the competition that has resulted from privatisation, and more competition is now entering the electricity industry.
One of the matters of substance in the debate is regulation. Hon. Members have said that the regulator has no power, that he is some poor, weak individual sitting in an office and that he cannot do or say anything. That is rubbish. The regulator's key duty is to protect customers and promote competition in the electricity industry. That is what we want and it is what industry and the consumer want. He is responsible for settling disputes, issuing licences and investigating complaints, and for making sure that prices are not excessive. His responsibility for fixing a price formula has resulted in a drop in price to the consumer--my consumers and those of every hon. Member. Those are some of the benefits that have resulted from the work of the regulator. Why does no Opposition Member seem to be prepared to speak about some of the positive happenings? Why are they always so mournful and negative? Not only have consumers benefited because prices have gone down but complaints have gone down as well. There was always a stream of complaints about electricity and long waits for repairs. People never knew when they would lose power or when it would come back. What is more, one could never get through on the telephone but the charges continued. That was the reality of a state monopoly.
The reality for my family in 1988 was that the electricity supply was cut off on Boxing day and it was not reconnected until two days later. That would not happen now because there is an efficient organisation which 99.8 per cent. of the time reconnects the electricity supply within 24 hours. It answers the phone and it compensates people who have lost their power supply. That is the sort of improvement from which customers have benefited. Opposition Members should give the electricity companies credit for that. It is the sort of service that my constituents want.
I mention briefly someone who has been ignored in this debate--the shareholder. He is always portrayed as some awful, scrubby individual in a black mac who somehow makes a profit at somebody else's expense. Who are the shareholders? They are the pension funds--indeed, there are 15 million people in pension funds, which means 15 million of my and other hon. Members' constituents. I want their pension funds to increase so that they can benefit. Who else is a shareholder? Some 6 million private individuals, both men and women, have put their savings into such companies. I want the electricity company we
Column 111are debating to benefit them. The shareholder is an ordinary man or woman who has saved some money, put it to one side, and who has now invested himself or is in a pension fund. He has benefited and will benefit from the electricity companies.
It is shameful that the shareholder is either ignored or painted in the way that he was this afternoon. The great achievements of privatisation have been the efficiencies and improvements that have resulted in companies being taken out of the Government's hands. The Opposition have done some if -ing and but-ing about whether the regulation system should be changed for the utilities or whether it should be changed for everybody else. Some Labour Members spoke about renationalisation, but their Front-Bench spokesmen rapidly shook their heads. They do not know what they are in favour of, other than taking as much control as possible. That will do nothing for the companies, the customers or the shareholders.
There are one or two improvements, however, that I would like to see. I would like more competition within the industry and for there to be lower prices, especially for some of the major energy users. The prices that they pay should be brought closer to those paid by some of their competitors on the continent. I hope that the Government will consider that point.
Although I am conscious that the privatised utilities receive more scrutiny than almost any other company, I would like greater clarity and coherence in the remuneration packages of a few who work within them. There are many thousands of hard-working, first-class directors and managers in the industry and I would not want their efforts to be destroyed because of the perceived excesses of a handful. I want to ensure that the undoubted benefits to the consumer of privatisation are not muddied by over- concentration on the pay of a few. What I want is concentration on the successes; something that is not even mentioned in the Opposition motion.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley): When the President of the Board of Trade gave some guarantees about the electricity industry, my mind went back to his guarantees to the miners about the mining industry and the possible closure of 31 pits. Despite his guarantees, all 31 pits have now closed. His guarantees are not worth the paper that they are written on.
Our debate today is not about shareholders or about whether the industry is being run in the right or the wrong way. The industry has been privatised. I worked in a nationalised industry--the coal industry--all my life before coming to this place. Nationalisation has its faults--I could talk about them all evening-- but this matter involves one big fault. It is all about a company--Trafalgar House--which is not into electricity, about the capitalist system, and about private entrepreneurs taking a stake in what was a nationalised industry.
The industry was privatised and, obviously, it put up the costs. Figures show that fact, and my hon. Friends have mentioned that prices have risen. Anyone who thinks that they have not should look at their own bills. We do not have to defend that view. I would not even try to defend it. People out there know that their bills have gone up since privatisation. That is where all the profits have
Column 112come from--hence Trafalgar House's bid for Northern Electric. It made the bid, not because Northern Electric does not deal with complaints any more, or is run badly, but because it has good cash flow and has made a whopping big profit. Trafalgar House wants the takeover to get itself out of the mire.
Tax was mentioned. I have raised the question of tax on two occasions, once with Prime Minister. I did not hear the President of the Board of Trade mention the tax that will be lost to the Treasury.
Mr. Booth: How does the hon. Gentleman deal with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mrs. Knight) that it is not just a few rich entrepreneurs making a profit? Privatisation is helping 15 million pensioners and others to secure their futures.
Mr. Campbell: As I have said, it is not a question of someone making some money for some dear old pensioners, but of a company taking over another company which has good cash flow and vast profits. The profits would be wiped out. It is not a question of anything else. All the hogwash that I heard the other night was crazy. This is about the money that Northern Electric has accrued and about the cash flow that is coming in.
Ms Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West): Is my hon. Friend aware that, because of the takeover, Trafalgar House is likely to save £270 million in advance corporation tax? The taxpayer will lose because the company will be able to set that money off in buying Northern Electric.
Mr. Campbell: That is exactly what I was saying. I asked the Prime Minister about tax last week, but he refused to answer because he was not aware of what was happening. Perhaps the Prime Minister has washed his hands of the matter and disagrees with the takeover because he is on the Treasury's side. I am sure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be peeved.
We are not talking about only £270 million. That amount is involved not just with one electricity company, but with all 12 electricity companies. One could speculate beyond that--one thinks of the water companies, with their vast profits and cash flow. Ministers cannot tell me that water bills have not been increasing for many years.
Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point): Does the hon. Gentleman realise that, when those companies were nationalised, the taxpayer used to lose £50 million every week? The taxpayer is now gaining £48 million every week. Is that not a significant factor in the equation?
Mr. Campbell: As I said, I am not arguing about nationalisation in the old days. I know who ran the nationalised companies--Colonel Blimps and other people. It was a "give us a job" sort of thing. They ran a company but did not know what the hell they were doing half the time. That was the problem with nationalisation. There is nothing wrong with nationalisation if it done run properly. In the mining industry, we have always said that if we had been given the chance we would have run it properly. That is the problem-- [Hon. Members:-- "Ah."]
Of course I would renationalise, because the industry is a utility and it belongs in the public domain. Any energy company belongs in the public domain. I hope that the mining industry will be brought back into the public domain. I hope that the mining and electricity industries
Column 113will be returned to public ownership. However, when we return to power the companies will be in such a mess that we shall not have a penny to do anything, because the Government have got the country knackered now.
We heard tonight of insider dealing by the Swiss Bank Corporation, which is now buying shares in Yorkshire Electricity. Perhaps the Minister can say why--and perhaps the corporation is buying shares elsewhere. There is some hanky-panky going on, and it will come out in future. I hope that the press are listening because someone who delves deep enough will find that there is a rabbit away and that someone made a lot of money from the deal.
Mr. Mullin: I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend, but the hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) seemed to be under the impression that electricity companies did not make profits before privatisation. They all made profits. Northern Electric made profits of £50 million in 1985-86, £49 million in 1986-87, £47 million in 1987-88, and so on.
Mr. Campbell: The National Coal Board also made profits in a few years when I was there and broke even in other years. If the Minister for Energy and Industry examines the records, he will discover that for himself. That is not to say that they were all right. I could talk all night about the faults of nationalisation, but if I were a Minister in charge of nationalisation I would at least know where the faults lay, which the Minister does not. I know where nationalisation went wrong in the pits. It was not the fault of the miners or of the men at the pit head, but of people elsewhere.
The regulator is most important, but Professor Littlechild will see his job disappear. More takeovers will occur. Yorkshire Electricity will be next, and Trafalgar House may take over the whole lot, with the Swiss Bank Corporation. The companies may be formed into one huge multinational electricity industry, which would take us back to square one. If the regulator loses his powers, he may as well sign on the dole because the big companies will not take a blind bit of notice of him. They are interested only in making vast profits. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) said that the Tory party has made £600,000 from Trafalgar House since 1987. Over the next few years, I will keep a close eye on how much the Tories get from this deal. I bet that they do very well from it--and from any company taking over other utilities, such as water. I begin to wonder if a rabbit is not away here and that all this is being done on purpose. A Labour Government will soon be in power. I know what I would like to do, but I am not a member of the Front Bench. A Labour Government will tighten the powers of the regulator, but such takeovers will make a nonsense of him and put him on the dole. When Labour comes to power, we will not even be able to regulate the industry. It will be a case of dog eat dog, vast profits, and billions in shares for directors. It is absolutely crazy. All this is not about pensions and small shareholders in Newcastle and the north-east. It is about greed by private companies and monopolies in taking over industries that have cash flow and profits.
Column 1149.29 pm
Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South): I want to make a couple of points about the Trafalgar House bid for Northern Electric which have not been mentioned in the debate but which merit examination. Trafalgar House is a very large company which has a number of large companies within it based in my constituency. It is majority owned by British institutions. It owns Cleveland Bridge, Cleveland Structural, Davy Offshore, Davy Engineering and Trafalgar House Offshore. It has maintained its subsidiary headquarters in the north of England. I hold no brief for Trafalgar House or for Northern Electric. However, Northern Electric has, to its credit, brought down the price of electricity, imposed a pay freeze for the past three years and reduced its prices to large consumers in real terms since privatisation.
In this debate, Labour is caught on the horns of a dilemma. It waxes on about high pay and the supposed deficiencies of privatised electricity companies, but it now wants to save some of them from the rigours of the market economy. On the radio last week the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins) told us:
"It's our money and we want it back."
What does that mean? As we have heard from the hon. Members for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) and for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), it means nationalisation. But that is not official Labour policy. Labour's policy is, apparently, to restore state control by the back door by giving the regulator greater powers to intervene. In the weeks and months ahead, as we head for the general election, I look forward to exposing the truth about the Labour party's position. Labour has a hidden agenda to renationalise many companies, but it will not tell anyone in case it does not get elected because of it. 9.30 pm
Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan): I start by responding to the point made by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) and I refer to a briefing that Trafalgar House made available this evening, on ownership of the regional electricity companies. It makes the point that neither the Government nor the Opposition are opposed to a change of ownership of the regional electricity companies in principle. The point is that we are not here this evening to renationalise those companies. We are concerned about the position, among others, of the regional stakeholders who have invested money in companies across the country.
Many of us were in the House when we first dealt with the privatisation of the electricity companies. We heard at that time that it was to be an extension into the regions of popular capitalism and that it was to be an opportunity for ordinary people to get a share in major utilities in their area. The fact is that the utilities are not like international conglomerates; they are different in character and in function. They are subject to different disciplines, depending on the nature of the market.
It was significant that the President of the Board of Trade seemed to think that any company that had been at some stage in public ownership was a public utility for the purposes of this debate. As far as we are concerned, a company that has responsibility for providing gas, water
Column 115or electricity--the fundamentals of a civilised life in our society--has to be the subject of regulation and has to be the subject of special and different forms of control.
The President of the Board of Trade has refused to intervene in a bid for a regional electricity company and we must look at the reasons why. It could be suggested that the right hon. Gentleman is merely bowing to one of the major paymasters of the Tory party. It could be that he is ignoring the deep anxieties about the behaviour of the Swiss Bank Corporation, or it could be simply that he is turning his back on the small shareholders and favouring his friends in the City. Those criticisms are commonplace when dealing with takeovers of any kind.
Some of us in the House remember the same criticisms and the same concerns being voiced at the time of the Guinness bid for Distillers. We were told then that the headquarters of Guinness were to be located in Scotland. We were told then that it would be a major international company operating out of Scotland. Virtually within days of the bid being agreed, all those undertakings were reneged on. The now discredited owners and leaders of Guinness turned on their heels and left Scotland behind them. It is against that background that we judge tonight's speeches on the takeover.
We are dealing with a private energy utility, which has at least three more years of monopoly franchise to run. Indeed, it is quite likely that that franchise will run for longer. The regulator has already stated that he has no idea how long it will be before the metering technology is available to enable competition in the regions in the electricity market. At present, there is not the means whereby domestic consumers' electricity consumption can be metered from more than one source. So it is quite possible that the three years of monopoly under the franchise will be extended for a much longer period.
It is certainly clear that with such a monopoly and the lax price controls that the regulator put in place last year--if anyone doubts the laxity of the controls, he need only remember the reaction of the market to the distribution price review, when the prices of shares rocketed because of the relief that the regulator was going to give the industry an easy time-- Northern Electric can look to increasing its debt ratio to a figure in the region of 225 per cent. by March next year, if the bid is successful. It will take another four years after that before its debt ratio comes down to about 100 per cent. Indeed, the Financial Times is right to say in its editorial today:
"As stable, cash generative businesses, the Recs ought to carry high proportions of debt".
They should be capable of carrying such debt because they have the guarantee of income and the guarantee of a market for some considerable time to come.
It is not surprising that, having become so cash rich, Northern Electric should feel so relaxed about throwing money at its shareholders to defend itself. After the privatisation of the regional electricity companies at an artificially low price, and after they have been allowed to be regulated by the most feeble poacher-cum-gamekeeper, it is not surprising that so much interest is now being taken in them.
Perhaps it is not right to attack the director general personally, but it has to be said that he seems somewhat lax to choose, in the middle of a major industrial crisis of
Column 116the kind that seems to be currently taking place, to go on his holidays. It certainly suggests that he has not quite got his eye on the ball.
One can understand the frustration of Trafalgar House at the regulator's suggestion that it should separate its activities so that he can regulate them more effectively. The regulator maintains that that separation could be achieved either by a re-flotation of some 25 per cent. of Trafalgar House's electricity business, at a cost of between £100 million and £150 million, or simply by changing the original operating licence. If a re-flotation is unacceptable to Trafalgar House, is a change in licence acceptable to Northern Electric? After all, the power to amend electricity licences arises only after a report on the merger has been laid before Parliament and when both parties are subjected to the regime of the Electricity Act 1989. I believe that Trafalgar House is not subject to the Electricity Act regime at present. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that in his winding-up speech.
As we understand it, if Northern Electric is not prepared to have the licence changed, there is no reason why the licence should be changed. If the licence change was not available, Trafalgar House, even if it were successful in its bid, would not be able to sell electricity under the terms of the Electricity Act. Therefore, there is almost a power of veto in the hands of Northern Electric. The licence modifications have already been referred to in the debate. Indeed, one of the few useful parts of the President of the Board of Trade's speech was when he came down to earth and addressed the status of the guarantees. He made it perfectly clear that the guarantees to be given by Trafalgar House to the regulator were meaningless because they had no force in law. The right hon. Gentleman said that if the regulator was not satisfied, he, the President of the Board of Trade, would be powerless if the regulator sought to refer the bid to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. The President said that, at the end of the day, he has to decide whether to accept the MMC report. However, the report may take a considerable time to produce and it may sufficiently frighten off potential predators for other regional electricity companies and make things that much more untidy and difficult for the people concerned. I refer to the behaviour of Trafalgar House and its supporters last week at the meeting to which reference has been made. I am glad that the President has returned to the Chamber. He did not seem to appreciate that, when he was in purdah, or in opposition, writing books or having books written for him, telling us how he was going to intervene in industry, when the privatisation went through, the companies were organised on a regional basis precisely to attract the small shareholders into those companies.
When meetings are held to consult those people, it cannot be unreasonable for those voices to be heard, especially when at least one of the participants in the casting of the block vote, because that is what the institutions were doing--the Swiss Bank Corporation--is still under investigation for insider dealing. I am led to believe that an appeal to the takeover panel's ruling could still be made by Northern Electric and Warburg.
It is not just the shareholders and the bankers who are important. We must also consider the work force and the customers. In recent weeks we have heard a great deal about highly motivated men who have been richly rewarded by grateful shareholders. We all know about the
Column 117massive pay-outs awarded to directors and senior executives who, it can be argued, were simply being recompensed for paying off others. After all, the so-called savings that have been achieved have not been as a result of massive capital investment, because there has been little of that at this stage. They have not been achieved as a result of an imaginative or original pricing policy, because it was dictated by a regulator who seemed to be more concerned with inflating share prices than with cutting electricity bills. Those so-called savings have been achieved because of lower transmission costs and falls in the international price of coal and gas, through subsidised nuclear power and, most of all, as a result of the paying off of massive numbers of staff. One of the major attractions of Northern Electric to Trafalgar House is that its staffing cuts have been only about 15 per cent., which is only half Eastern Electricity's figure--it has cut 30 per cent. of its staff--and three quarters of that of Midlands Electricity, which has cut 20 per cent. Of the 12 RECs, five have cut more staff than Northern Electric.
It is little wonder that the workers of Northern Electric are looking anxiously at the intentions of both parties as their jobs will have to be sacrificed, as will future price cuts and investment, to pay for the takeover battle.
Mr. Caborn: Does my hon. Friend agree that not to allow the stock exchange's investigation to be concluded when the Swiss Bank Corporation took 8.5 per cent., at £135 million, in Yorkshire Electricity alone and Yorkshire Electricity had to have a search in companies legislation because the investment was supposed to be market-making, is totally out of sync with anything that has ever happened before on the stock exchange? Is it acceptable to allow the takeover to take place? Are the genuine shareholders being protected?
Mr. O'Neill: The activities of the Swiss Bank Corporation should be investigated further, if only because it seems to be a very easy and convenient arrangement whereby it is consulted by Trafalgar House and, before anything else happened, it acquired a substantial shareholding in the company in respect of which it is supposed to be acting as an adviser in relation to the takeover. It all seems to be too convenient. If the Minister had considered that, he should have thought again about a reference.
The current board of Northern Electric is prepared to sacrifice any number of staff to save the board's skin. However, the responsibility of the House is to all the people of the north-east. It is not their fault that they will be the captive consumers of a monopoly electricity supplier for years to come.
If Trafalgar wins with a higher bid than that promised by Northern, there will be precious little money left for distribution of the national grid flotation funds, which will have to be used instead to reduce the gearing or, alternatively, to offset tax losses elsewhere in the financial black hole that is called the Trafalgar House accounts. That company may be able to run cheap discount food stores, but, judging by the experience of passengers on the QE2, when the December Atlantic sailing was made to look like Christmas on Elm street, it has a lot to learn about consumer relations. Its one test in relation to individual consumers in Britain was a disaster.
Column 118These matters will not be decided by debates in the House. We shall not receive proper answers from Ministers--we have discovered that tonight. We need the cool assessment of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
When energy was privatised, many Opposition Members feared that a great many risks were being taken. Some of those fears have been proven to be exaggerated--we must admit that. There have been complaints about regional electricity companies. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) made the point--if the President of the Board of Trade had been present, he would have heard it--that many of our past concerns have diminished. In terms of the accounts and the complaints side of things, matters have become better. However, other fears relating to price, certain aspects of customer satisfaction, the protection of small shareholders' rights, future employment guarantees and management profiteering have still to be resolved. Most of them will require a change of government. What is required now is reference to the MMC of this, the first, but not the last, bid for a regional electricity company. Such companies will be monopolies for years to come. The shareholdings represent the major savings of many people of modest means. They have provided well-paid and, until now, safe jobs for many people in areas of high unemployment. RECs have responsibility to keep people warm and safe in their homes at reasonable costs. Utilities controlled by small groups of largely unaccountable people deserve better treatment and protection than a brush-off from an indifferent Government. For all those reasons, we call on hon. Members who believe that there are public issues that can be considered only by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to join us in the Lobby tonight.
The Minister for Energy and Industry (Mr. Tim Eggar): The hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) has a reputation for being a moderate- -a man of the centre road within the Labour party, always waiting to smell the wind, and always waiting to keep just the right side of it. It was interesting to hear what he said. He detests shareholders. He is not prepared, nor is the Labour party, to allow individual shareholders and institutional shareholders to make up their minds and to make their decisions about whether to accept the bid by Trafalgar House. Not a bit of it.
The hon. Gentleman is not interested in protecting the interests of the many hundreds of thousands of pensioners, both present and future, who will have the right to make decisions based on their investment, which has been made on their behalf. He is not willing to trust the judgment of individual shareholders of Northern Electric and elsewhere. Opposition Members do not understand the free market system or how free enterprise works. [Interruption.] Opposition Members revert instinctively to central planning. [Interruption.] I am not surprised that we have some interruptions from the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell). He is deeply uneasy about what his Front-Bench colleagues say. He thinks that the hon. Member for Clackmannan is too moderate. It would be very interesting to take a straw poll. Based on the contributions of Opposition Front-Bench Members, what would north-eastern Members really think about the future of the electricity industry in their area? I
Column 119shall tell the House. It was clear that the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) wanted renationalisation, as did the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) who was honest and came out with it immediately.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell rose --
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must control himself.
Mr. Eggar: It took a good honest Yorkshireman to stand up for Yorkshire. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) yelled out the benefits of Yorkshire Electricity, and pointed to the major contributions it has been making throughout the region. The hon. Gentleman defended privatisation, and the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) agreed. The hon. Gentleman said that there might be one or two things right about privatisation. He admitted that privatisation works.
One of the great pleasures I have had since the general election has been my frequent visits to the north-east, because I looked after the north-east for the Department of Trade and Industry until July. I admire and respect the sense of community and belief which goes deep in the north-east. There is a deep-rooted belief, shared by local Members of Parliament, that whatever is local is good, and that the status quo has to be defended at any cost.
If the status quo happens to be a nationalised regional distribution board for electricity, it must be defended. [Interruption.] Nobody fought privatisation harder than the hon. Member for Blyth Valley, or the other north-east Members. But now we have a privatised regional company, and what do they do? They rush to defence what is local. They defend the status quo.
Those hon. Members do not use as a defence the argument deployed by my hon. Friends, that prices have come down and that standards of service have improved--not a bit of it. Their defence is simple. It is a north-east company, and it must be defended whatever its rights or wrongs. Northern Electric is worth defending because it is there, but those hon. Members forget that Trafalgar House is also a major company in the north-east.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) pointed out the number of companies which the firm owns in the north-east, and I believe that Trafalgar House employs almost as many--if not more--people in the north-east than Northern Electricity.
Mr. Eggar: I am sorry. I did not pick that up.
Ms Armstrong: Will the Minister confirm that the taxpayer--with whom we are supposed to be concerned--is likely to lose about £270 million if the deal goes through?
Mr. Eggar: Of all the points which I thought the scarlet lady might bring up, nothing could surprise me more than that. The new, modern Labour party is worried about the taxpayer. It might have been worried about the customer. That is the first time that the hon. Lady has mentioned the taxpayer.
What the Leader of the Opposition said about privatisation is really interesting, because he was the Opposition spokesman when electricity was privatised.
Column 120The right hon. Gentleman said that there would be a dramatic upward pressure on prices when electricity was privatised. He was wrong and, what is more, the hon. Member for Clackmannan admitted that he was wrong. Opposition Members said much about the share options issue, and I thought that the great new leader of the Labour party was bound to have made a lot about the share options issue when he lead the Opposition on electricity. I read through Hansard , but I could find no evidence at all that the right hon. Gentleman had ever referred to share options.
I thought that my eyes might have misled me so I arranged for the new marvel, the parliamentary on-line information service, to be interrogated. We fed in the word "Blair". We added "electricity" and "share options". We gave all the relevant dates. What came back? A big round zero. In all the time that the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) led on electricity for the Opposition, he never raised the issue of share options. He has the nerve to mention the golden share in his motion. Much mention has been made of share options.
Certain myths persist. When the right hon. Member for Sedgefield opposed privatisation, he said that there would be no competition between the regional electricity companies. He was wrong. Already more than half the competitive market--the over-100 kW market--is provided by companies other than the local regional electricity company. There is already extensive competition. As even the hon. Member for Clackmannan admitted, there will be full competition for domestic consumers in 1998.
The debate has not been about regulation in the electricity sector. It has been about something much more fundamental. It has been about the real priorities of the Labour party. It has been about the dispute between the hon. Members for Blyth Valley, for Tyne Bridge and for Huddersfield. It has all been about clause IV and what the Opposition will do in the future about regional electricity companies.
You might not be a regular reader of the News of the World , Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I can recommend it to you and to all Opposition Members. There is an interesting contribution to it. The hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) said something which I recommend that all Opposition Members should take account of. He said:
"The last thing we want . . . is to start contemplating our navels with this unnecessary debate. I don't think Clause 4 should be changed."
That is not--
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I cannot see what clause IV has to do with the debate. Stick to the debate.
Mr. Eggar: But, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the debate is entitled "Future ownership, control and regulation of regional electricity companies".
If the debate is not about whether the Opposition want to renationalise the regional electricity companies and the policies that they want to introduce, what on earth is it about?
I have a word of advice for the hon. Member for Blyth Valley. When he wants to get off early in the evening one day during the week, he should not look to mosey up close to the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster). He should go along the corridor a little further
Column 121and talk to the hon. Member for Jarrow. I am sure that he will oblige. I do not think that the hon. Member for Huddersfield will be so lucky. The hon. Member for Jarrow will read his speech in the debate this evening. The hon. Member for Huddersfield will be here throughout the night and probably the next day.
We cannot get away from the fact that, despite the new label, the Labour party is a socialist party. Whenever Labour Members are confronted with a difficult issue and have to make a difficult policy choice, what do they do? They rush for central control. They really believe that the man in Whitehall knows best and that the heyday of the socialist party was the day of maximum nationalisation-- Mr. Ronnie Campbell rose --
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) must stop bawling and control himself. I have already told him that. [Interruption.] Order.
Mr. Eggar: There we see it, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Blyth Valley--
Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question: --
The House divided: Ayes 246, Noes 280.
Division No. 78] [10.00 pm
Column 121Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Mrs Irene
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret
Beith, Rt Hon A J
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, Andrew F
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Campbell-Savours, D N