|Previous Section||Home Page|
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): Following on from my right hon. Friend's comments about the unwillingness of the Opposition to debate economic policy, is he aware that out of 12 Opposition day debates so far this year, not one has related to the management of the economy? Will my right hon. Friend give the Opposition Front-Bench team an opportunity to overcome that shyness and explain how they would control public expenditure, deal with taxation and achieve high levels of growth, falling unemployment and low inflation? May I warn him,
Column 1195however, that in view of the feeble performance by the Opposition Front-Bench team in Treasury questions today, such a debate would not take very long?
Mr. Newton: I will of course look for such an opportunity in response to my hon. Friend's blandishments. I must make the observation, however, that providing an opportunity and ensuring that it is taken are two very different things.
Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): Will an early opportunity be provided to discuss a promise made five years ago by the then Home Secretary that the imprisonment of unconvicted 15 and 16-year-olds would be discontinued? It is essential to have that debate now, as three years ago 57 youngsters were in custody and today 220 are in custody. What has happened to that promise?
Mr. Newton: While I cannot promise a debate, I can certainly bring the matter to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. The hon. Gentleman may care to bear in mind the fact that my right hon. and learned Friend is due to answer questions on Thursday 20 April.
Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East): Is the Leader of the House aware that yesterday, while announcing plans for a private prison in Nottinghamshire, the Home Secretary bragged and boasted that there were no longer any cases of three prisoners to a cell? Is he also aware that, on the same day, instructions were sent out from area managers to prison governors which effectively told them not only to return to putting three people in a cell, but that there was a need to put prisoners in television and recreation rooms and in workshops? Will the Leader of the House find time next week for a debate about the developing crisis in Her Majesty's prisons?
Mr. Newton: It is certainly Government policy to ensure that the prison service has the resources to provide accommodation for those whom the courts send to prison. That is why there has been a substantial increase in the number of places provided. However, I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend.
Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South): Will it fall to the Leader of the House, in his own right, to make a statement on conflict of interests? As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, at present the issue is the role of defence procurement Ministers. Would it be helpful if we had a clear statement of principles so that when the facts of a matter were not in dispute, the necessary action would follow?
Mr. Newton: I am not entirely clear precisely what the hon. Gentleman is referring to--unless this is a further attempt to raise questions about my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. However, the rules concerning people holding ministerial office at the time are all clearly set out in "Questions of Procedure for Ministers", which under the present Government is published and available for the first time.
Mr. Mike O'Brien (Warwickshire, North): May we have an urgent debate on Customs and Excise, which is part of the Treasury, so that we can be reassured that
Column 1196Ministers will encourage that service to investigate every suspect, without fear or favour, even if the suspect has been a Treasury Minister?
Mr. Newton: Clearly that is another attempt to reopen the same subject. If the hon. Gentleman has any evidence to suggest that those matters have not been properly investigated he should make it available and not make allegations by innuendo across the Floor of the House.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): Will the Leader of the House make time available for a serious debate on the invasion of northern Iraq by Turkey, and the danger of an explosion in that whole area, with attacks on the Kurdish people not only by Iraq but by Turkey, and attacks by Iran on the Kurdish people within its frontiers? Such a serious debate would cover Britain's military involvement in the area through supplying intelligence information to the Turkish armed forces, and British arms sales to Turkey, Iran and Iraq in the past?
Mr. Newton: The right course is for me to bring those questions to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): Has the Leader of the House seen the report in The Guardian today, headlined:
"Mandarins censor damning report on County Hall sale"? It would appear that the National Audit Office report is being censored by the Department of the Environment under its Permanent Secretary, Andrew Turnbull, who wants to take out the parts that show clearly that civil servants did not give Ministers the full evidence about the competing bids by the Shirayama hotel group and the London School of Economics. When the report is published next week, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a statement to be made in the House so that we can find out whether civil servants stitched up Ministers or whether Ministers stitched us up?
Mr. Newton: I understand that the report will be published next week, which means that it would be wrong for me to join in speculation about what it may say--even if, indeed, I were yet aware of its contents. However, talk of censorship is absolute nonsense. It is established procedure for NAO reports to be discussed and agreed with departmental officials. It is important to ensure that there is an accurate account of the facts for the Public Accounts Committee, and that is really what we are talking about.
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Now that European Commissioner Neil Kinnock has announced that there is no European obstacle to banning the use of bull bars on vehicles, a safety measure desired by Members on both sides of the House, and now that it has been made clear by traffic laboratories all over Europe that bull bars cause 35 extra fatalities every year, and 350 additional serious accidents in this country, should we not debate that matter now to make sure that the accidents that are otherwise certain to take place will not happen? The Transport Research Laboratory has told us that if a child is hit by a vehicle with bull bars, even if it is travelling at only 12 mph, that child will almost certainly die.
Mr. Newton: Perhaps the most appropriate course for me in the circumstances is to make to the hon. Gentleman
Column 1197the point that I have made earlier to others, which is that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is due to answer questions on Monday.
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East): Instead of disappearing for another fortnight, should the House not use part of that time to deal with the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill? It could do so in a Committee of the whole House so that the Bill would no longer be blocked in the Committee queue. The remaining stages could then be dealt with. There is still a considerable distance between the Disability Discrimination Bill, which has been through the House, and the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, which is so widely supported in the House and outside, by organisations including the British Medical Association.
Mr. Newton: As I have told the hon. Gentleman on at least three or four occasions in recent weeks and I have to repeat today, I have no plans to change the normal arrangements for dealing with private Member's Bills. As for the rest, I simply note with pleasure that the Disability Discrimination Bill completed its Report stage and received its Third Reading in the House two nights ago. That is good news for disabled people. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People.
Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West): I am sure that the Leader of the House will have seen the reports that Tenovus, one of the best-known cancer research charities, which has its headquarters in Cardiff, has had to close its scratch card operations, which brought in half its £3 million annual income, which all went to fund its three cancer research centres? It has done so because of the competition from the national lottery scratch card game with top prizes ten times greater than the charity is able to offer. Does he agree that the national lottery's all-embracing expansion is getting to the stage at which it is almost like a Spanish trawler taking the whoppers and the tiddlers alike. Does he agree that we should consider the side-effects of the expansion of the national lottery in a debate on its effects on medical research and cancer research in particular?
Mr. Newton: I should make several points, albeit briefly. Obviously, I understand why the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter. Equally, everyone will share his regret at the decision of Tenovus to end its lottery. I understand that Camelot, the operators of the national lottery clearly say that there is no question that retailers were asked to stop selling tickets for other lotteries. The national lottery is raising large sums of money for many important purposes.
Mr. Jeff Rooker, supported by Mr. Austin Mitchell, Dr. Tony Wright, Ms Glenda Jackson, Mrs. Anne Campbell, Mr. John Garrett, Mr. Frank Field, Mr. Keith Hill, Mr. Mike Watson, Mr. Giles Radice, Mr. Hugh Bayley and Mr. Graham Allen presented a Bill to amend the law relating to elections and political parties: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 28 April, and to be printed. [Bill 93.]
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will recall that yesterday the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) made a statement and that when you subsequently examined Hansard you made a ruling that he should withdraw that statement. In the "Yesterday in Parliament" programme this morning, the BBC broadcast his statement. Although it said that he subsequently apologised, it did not broadcast your ruling or the retraction. Will you consider contacting the BBC to say that if it is to broadcast the proceedings of the House it should make an accurate and unbiased broadcast and that it should have broadcast also your ruling and the subsequent retraction?
Madam Speaker: I normally hear the radio in the morning, but this morning I was busy on other things. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has brought it to my attention. May I see what I can do about that matter? If I have given a ruling on such an issue, it ought to be properly reported by whatever media are interested in making such a report. Thank you.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs (Mr. Jonathan Evans): I beg to move,
That the draft Contracting Out (Functions in relation to the Registration of Companies) Order 1995, which was laid before this House on 6th March, be approved.
The order is made under section 77(2) of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. It is the first use of this important power, which enables certain statutory functions to be discharged by contractors where at present they may be discharged only by public servants. That power was introduced as part of the Government's drive to ensure improvements in the quality and efficient delivery of public services. The Government's "competing for quality" programme has produced a sea change in the way in which such services are delivered, and has ensured two important matters-- better value for money for the taxpayer, and higher standards for customers. Companies House has been a part of that success story. Since it became a "next steps" agency in 1988, and achieved trading fund status in 1991, it has shown continuing improvements. However, it is worth making the point that the decision to move to agency status in 1988 was not without its critics. Not the least of those was Ron Webster, the chairman of the civil service unions at Companies House, who claimed that the real purpose of agency status was to fragment the service and to expose it to privatisation.
Interestingly, the move to trading fund status has also been recognised latterly as a success, although it is of some interest that, when the matter came to be debated in Committee, the Labour members of that Committee--the hon. Members for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) and for Redcar (Ms Mowlam)--opposed that proposal. It is worth underlining the fact that, since agency status and trading fund status were granted, improvements have taken place. In 1992, Companies House received its charter mark for excellence in the provision of public services. In 1988, it took 30 days for a document to be processed and made available to the public. It now takes less than five days.
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): Does the Minister accept that, in the case of Companies House, one must be careful on any question of privatisation, because much of the information held there is extremely commercially sensitive, and the way that that is handled must be seen and felt by all concerned to be beyond reproach?
Mr. Evans: The issues turn not upon privatisation but upon contracting out certain services. The hon. Gentleman is wrong in terms of the function of Companies House, which exists not to keep information confidential but to disseminate information about directors of companies and about annual reports. The line that the hon. Gentleman has taken is some way wide of the mark.
I was speaking about the improvements that have been brought about as a result of changes which the Government have introduced, in the face of some opposition. The proportion of companies which meet their
Column 1200annual filing obligation has risen from 80 per cent. in 1988 to more than 90 per cent. this year. I consider that a significant achievement.
Companies House is now deservedly held in high regard by its users, but that was not always so. I happily pay tribute to the management and staff of the agency for the improvements they have achieved. However, like every organisation, Companies House must strive for continual improvement. The timely incorporation and dissolution of companies, the proper keeping of company records, and the pursuit, compliance and speedy and accurate dissemination of information are all essentials of our commercial system.
Hon. Members will be aware that it is our standard practice in Government to review the status of each agency periodically. The review of Companies House was undertaken to see how best we could build upon that record. The Government's decision following the review was announced by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade on 20 December. We concluded that the best way of achieving further improvements is through closer involvement of the private sector in the running of Companies House.
Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East): Have the Minister and his colleagues considered the bad effect of these changes on staff morale? I should have thought that that would be highly detrimental to the whole operation.
Mr. Evans: Since my appointment, I have had the opportunity of meeting the unions at Companies House--certainly before 20 December, when the President of the Board of Trade made the announcement. At that time, there was substantial concern about the prospect of "full contractorisation", as it was described, but the announcement, which is reflected in this order, does not go down that route at this time. In those circumstances, it is important to draw a distinction between the fears that have been whipped up and the proposals that are before the House today.
The business information industry is in the early stages of a major technological change, as microfiche is replaced by digital technology. We plan, therefore, to proceed on a progressive basis. Companies House will remain an executive agency and will work in partnership with the private sector to develop new technologies. At the same time, it will work through a programme of contracting out a number of areas, putting each out to tender to private providers. I envisage that about 270 jobs out of a total of 950 will have been transferred to the private sector by 1996. Just over 100 of those will be in Cardiff, and the rest will be mainly in London and Edinburgh.
The programme involves a number of statutory functions, which is why this order is necessary. They are presently carried out at Companies House in London, the satellite offices in Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester, Companies House in Edinburgh and, in the case of postal search, at Companies House in Cardiff.
In London and the satellite offices, the statutory functions are to provide facilities for inspecting company records and to receive documents for filing. The offices also undertake same-day incorporation and changes in company names. The Edinburgh office carries out the full range of Companies House functions in Scotland, including the recording and retention of company information. The fact that strategic decisions, including
Column 1201technical change, will continue to be managed from Cardiff makes it feasible to include the Edinburgh office in the programme at this time.
The order sets out the statutory functions that the contractor may be employed to carry out, but it is by no means the whole story. In the first place, under section 72 of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, in all cases where statutory functions are contracted out, the registrar or the Secretary of State, as the case may be, remains legally responsible for anything that is done, or not done, in connection with that function.
I emphasise that contractorisation is a process of testing. Potential bidders will be required to demonstrate that they can offer and deliver better value for money than would be achieved if the activity were not contracted out. By value for money, I do not mean merely a lower price--it is essential that the contractor maintains, and where possible improves upon, present levels of service. Unless that can be demonstrated, contracting out will not go ahead. Our intention is to make rapid progress with the programme and to have it completed by 1996. We expect to issue an information memorandum and to invite expressions of interest in respect of the contract for London and the satellite offices soon after the making of the order, with an invitation to tender following before the summer. Details of the contract for postal search and Edinburgh will follow later.
The information memorandum for the other non-statutory activities in Cardiff will be published during the spring and summer, and those activities include building management and cheque processing. We believe that the contracting-out programme offers the best way of building on the excellent record of Companies House. The agency plays a crucial role in this country's commercial system. Our aim is to ensure that it operates as efficiently as possible and that, as taxpayers and users, we get the best value for money. I commend the order to the House.
Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough): I am grateful to the Minister for taking us through the order so quickly and promptly, and for making a number of points with which we would concur to some extent, and others that we want to consider.
The Minister mentioned the agency, trading status and the reduction from 30 days to five in the time necessary for processing a document. We would all accept that things have changed at Companies House during the past 10 years. Essentially, the industry was labour-intensive, and it has been harnessed to the information technology age. In 10 years, things have changed considerably, which has brought us to the present situation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) mentioned the specific matter of the morale of those who work in Companies House, and I shall deal with that in my structured and prepared speech. I remember a phrase by Pierre Mende s-France many years ago: that we cannot treat people as tools; they must be treated as individuals. In our debates in the House, we sometimes get carried away and forget that, ultimately, we are dealing with people. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East made that clear.
Column 1202I was struck by the Minister's definition of the order. We have heard much during the past 15 years about privatisation. We have debated the question of partial or public privatisation, and we now have privatisation defined as "a closer involvement of the private sector in the running of Companies House". We are not entirely clear what that means. It turns out not to be full contractorisation at this time, although we might get there eventually by 1996. We might not get there, because, if the testing process does not work, we shall not have better value for money, and therefore privatisation will not go ahead.
Does that smack of firm government, decisiveness and belief in the projects of partial privatisation and contractorisation? Again, the Government are dithering. Their uncertainty will, however, satisfy Conservative Back Benchers. I often have to come to the House late on a Thursday night and make a great speech with the serried ranks behind me. Tonight, they are not as serried as they should be--indeed, they are fewer than normal.
But so little is Conservative Members' interest in privatisation and so exhausted have they become as a result of their 16 years in office that not a single member of the Government, who will soon be the Opposition, has bothered to come to discuss a matter that concerns Cardiff, Edinburgh--I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke) will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker--and London.
Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West): Perhaps they have already been privatised.
Mr. Bell: Some of us may say that they have been vaporised rather than privatised.
The Minister told us that 270 jobs will be transferred from the public sector to the private sector, 100 of which will be in Cardiff. At the outset of what I called my "structured speech", I thank the Minister for being courteous enough to meet my hon. Friends and me to discuss this privatisation. He took us through the arguments, and said that he would consider the points that we made.
However, we know, as he knows, that he is not responsible for tonight's order, as it is the result of a long review. The review of the future of Companies House shows how the Government have unravelled themselves over the months and years, because their approach was never firm, set or determined. The review has been on-going since October 1992, the second phase was launched in May 1993, and the current phase started in July 1994.
A remarkable feature of the review is that our dynamic President of the Board of Trade dithered over the future of Companies House. Did he believe in privatisation or partial privatisation? Was he an optimist or a pessimist? Lord Healey told a story from this House which applies to the President of the Board of Trade. This dynamic man of action who goes on a pleasure cruise is trying to put up his deck chair. Is he facing the bow or the back of the boat? Is he an optimist or a pessimist? What does he believe in: full or partial privatisation? In the end, he cannot get the deck chair up. So it is with the President of the Board of Trade--that mighty man, that great figure in the Conservative party. In his book "Where There's a Will", he vaunted how he had defended privatisation throughout the years of Labour
Column 1203Government from 1974 to 1979, and how he fought tooth and nail to prevent nationalisation. He tells us how wonderful privatisation is, but what, ultimately, does he do? He comes to the House, through his Under-Secretary of State, and speaks of a contractorisation process that may or may not end in a successful contractorisation of Companies House by the year 1996.
We do know--and the Minister has confirmed it--that specific parts of the organisation have been selected for contractorisation, such as the whole of the Scottish companies registry, involving about 50 jobs. One may ask, with thousands of jobs lost here, 3,000 jobs lost there, jobs lost throughout the country with the aim of becoming competitive, why should we concern ourselves with 50 jobs in Scotland? In the London search room, about 50 jobs are involved. Why should we concern ourselves with the 150 jobs that will go from Companies House in Cardiff?
"Where are the snows of yesteryear?"
Franc ois Villon asked that question in the 15th century. Where are the major privatisations of the present Government? What has happened to the Government in 17 years, that their privatisation programme ends with the semi-contractorisation of Companies House?
The President of the Board of Trade wrote a chapter about privatisation in his fantasy novel, "Where There's a Will". It did not read as well as that of the Conservative Member who wrote a novel recently. I forget the name of her constituency, but she is well known to the House. [Hon. Members:-- "Derbyshire, South".] "Where there's a Will" certainly does not compare with the novel of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie).
Nevertheless, in that novel, the President of the Board of Trade vaunted privatisation; he promulgated it; he sang its praises; and at the end of the day, he privatises the London search room of Companies House. Opposition Members believe that this is a fag-end order of a fag-end Government.
The President wrote in his book:
"The Tory philosophy must build upon the individual". We are entitled to ask, which individual supported the contractorisation of services in Companies House? Where does the desire come from? [Interruption.] We know that it does not come from Companies House staff, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) says from a sedentary position, partially sotto voce and partly not. It does not come from the business community. The Institute of Credit Management, on behalf of its 8,000 members, made a strong representation to the management consultants who made their privatisation study. It wrote repeatedly to the President of the Board of Trade and to the predecessor of the Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs.
The management consultants also canvassed the opinions of other organisations. They concluded that there was no significant user demand for privatisation of any type. So why have the Government proceeded? Why bother with a consultation exercise if the results are to be ignored and the Government are to ride roughshod over the wishes of the business community?
Opposition Members hear a great deal about how business is big; business is beautiful; it is all about capitalism; it is all about consumerism; it is all about
Column 1204setting businesses free; but when the business community shows no interest whatever in privatisation, full, partial or
contractorisation, of Companies House, nevertheless that is what we get.
I hoped to hear from the Minister, but did not hear, that that is part of a deregulation drive. If he had had a motive for his order tonight and it was deregulation, we might at least have tried to understand that and ask for an explanation.
We know from the Government that theirs is only a paper drive to deregulation. The Government have made so little impact in their so-called deregulation that few people in the business community believe it. If they are strangled by red tape, they know who put the red tape around their necks. If they are bogged down in paperwork, they know who gave them the paperwork. I was going to say in my prepared speech that it was no use hon. Members shaking their heads in dissent, but none of them is there to shake his head in dissent. I attended a dinner at which the President of the Board of Trade made a speech. He said that the Government had cut 3,500 regulations, only to find that they were duplicate regulations. Nothing had changed. One can cut 3,500 regulations from the statute book and make no progress in deregulation.
When the previous Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs, the hon. Member for Honiton, whom I had hoped would be here tonight because he took a strong interest in the subject, was in the post presently occupied by the Minister, he brought to a Committee of the House two bookloads of consolidated regulations, most of them-- [Interruption.] Would the hon. Gentleman like to intervene?
Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester): It was Tatton, not Honiton.
Mr. Bell: I had misunderstood the hon. Gentleman. I thought that he said "tacky" rather than "Tatton". That is why I wanted him to give way, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton), had two books of consolidated regulations, which he brought to Committee and which he freely admitted had been placed on the statute book by a Conservative Government from 1979. In many respects, the Government pay lip service to regulation. They work the numbers game. They hope that no one will notice that, although they cut a series of regulations, many were duplicates. None of that penetrates the psyche of our ordinary business man and woman.
So it is with the order, as I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East. Is it privatisation? Can anyone tell us whether the order before the House is a privatising order? Is it a deregulation order? Is it designed to cut paperwork? Is it designed to help companies who send their reports regularly to Companies House? Is it to do with competition? Are the Government saying that there will now be competition in paperwork; that firms can compete to supply the services? They are not saying that either.
What is the order? Is it simply a weak, limp gesture of a Government who are falling in upon themselves with their incompetence, their uncertainties, their lack of will and their lack of belief in themselves?
To return to the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East, the Government have done in that organisation what they have in so many others; they
Column 1205have spread uncertainty in Companies House. They have spread insecurity, doubt and unease. That is hardly the way in which to instil a feel-good factor into an essentially skilled work force.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Surely one of the things that worries all of us is that, with a civil servant, who is held responsible by straightforward rules of conduct, the state has some protection for important aspects of information which are held at Companies House, and which affect every person in the country. If, for any reason, that procedure becomes not only privatised but open to all types of problems with confidentiality, frankly, many people will not have as much confidence in the system.
Mr. Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the two arguments she makes. First, the protection of the civil servant is lost, because the Government are trying to move civil servants from that profession into the private sector.
Secondly, my hon. Friend argues that there is confidentiality in the system. We suppose that, when the Minister puts contracts out to tender, replies will come from large firms such as Dun and Bradstreet, which will have to defend that confidentiality. We are not sure whether there will be a conflict of interest, let alone whether the confidentiality to which my hon. Friend referred will be protected.
Mr. Jonathan Evans: Simply for the sake of the record, will the hon. Gentleman tell us what confidential functions he has in mind?
Mr. Bell: Most people know that a great deal of information that is passed to Companies House is of a confidential nature. The Minister has read the briefings on the subject that others have read. Although we agree that we want a great deal of transparency in the system, nevertheless certain information is treated on a confidential basis. I should be glad, in the terms of a Minister of the Crown, to refer that to my civil service, and give a proper answer in writing when the time comes.
The Government long ago abandoned the unskilled workers in our free market economy. What they are now doing, up and down the country, is abandoning the skilled workers as well, such as those at Companies House. Those workers carry, if not the mark of Cain upon their brow, certainly in their pockets the mark of the short-term contract. When the Government talk about a feel-good factor, they should realise that they will never achieve it while skilled workers up and down the country are on short-term contracts, with the insecurity that that breeds in them. I imagine that that sense of
insecurity--which has now been instilled in Companies House, as it has throughout the rest of the country--will come back to haunt the Government the closer we come to an early general election. I mentioned the search room at the London end of Companies House. Its future and fate have, rightly, long exercised my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith). He wrote a letter to the President of the Board of Trade on 21 December 1994,
Column 1206after the announcement on the future of Companies House had been made in response to a written parliamentary question. He said: "It is not only the potential loss of job that matters, important though that issue is in an area of very high unemployment.
It is the loss of the first rate service which is provided at the moment by Companies House.
There is no guarantee that the level of service provided, especially to companies based in the City, will be maintained. Indeed there is every likelihood that under contracting out, the drive will constantly be to provide a basic service and nothing else."
It would be useful if the Under-Secretary of State would tell the House that the services will not decline through contractorisation. It would be useful if he could tell the House now that he intends to keep the organisation as it is and where it is. It would be useful if he could tell the House now that it is not his intention to reduce the London office to a deposit-only facility. Those are genuine questions asked by a Member of Parliament on behalf of his constituents, and demanded by the Opposition to reassure those who will be contractorised.
Whatever the ideological and doctrinaire basis for privatisation, it can hardly be extended to Companies House. My hon. Friends and I, and those who are following the debate, know that it is an enforcing body. It has the power to fine defaulters and to operate discretionary powers on behalf of the Secretary of State. I believe that the Minister touched on that in his opening statement. When the contractorisation is completed, Companies House will always be more of an arm of Government than a private enterprise. As Companies House has a monopoly over the collection and supply of certain sorts of company information, it is appropriate that it should remain in the public sector.
The Government are trying to create another private monopoly--not on the same scale as British Gas or electricity or water. The Government are trying to create, between now and 1996, a private monopoly or series of private monopolies out of a public monopoly. I have some sympathy with the Minister, who has had to come to the House today with the order. He has climbed the giddy heights of ministerial office in a short time.
As Longfellow wrote:
"The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight".
But the Minister has moved fast. However, having reached ministerial office, he must face the precipice of a defeat at the next general election.
When the Minister retires--I am not talking about his seat, but his post at the Dispatch Box--in the none too distant future, he may open his Red Box for the last time, put his hand on his heart and ask himself what he has done in his years in Parliament, and how he will be remembered as a Minister of the Crown. He may ask himself what he will say to the grandchild on his knee who wants to know what his grandfather did, not in the great war, but in the House of Commons, in Parliament and in a Tory Government. He will be able to say, truthfully and candidly "I contracted out the services of Companies House." What an epitaph that is.
It is by the small things in life that we know others. As the Bible states:
"By their fruits ye shall know them".