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Mr. Smith: I assure my hon. Friend that he is not; he is listening attentively, and is vigorously agreeing.

Mr. Porter: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Smith: I will not give way, because the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to make his views clear in the debate.

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Our suggestion is reasonable and feasible, and the Government can have no argument for not accepting the new clause, which is in the public interest. The regulators of the privatised utilities might also find such a report helpful.

Professor Littlechild of Oftel agreed prices with the regional electricity companies, and was subsequently surprised when Northern Electric found an additional £560 million to defend itself against the bid from Trafalgar House. That shows that the resources were not quite what he expected. Mr. Byatt showed equal surprise when North West Water found an additional £35 million to split between customers and shareholders.

Against that backdrop, it is sensible and in the public interest, and that of taxpayers and the public purse, to have precisely such a report and information as an essential guide to enlightened policy.

Mr. Barry Legg (Milton Keynes, South-West): I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman wants to have the regulator involved, or thinks that the regulator will be interested. Share options involve the issue of shares to employees and directors, and have nothing to do with the pricing of gas or any other commodity. The issue is approved in general meeting, when shareholders decide that they are happy to see a dilution of their holding in the best interests of the employees and directors of the company and its good management.

Mr. Smith: The hon. Gentleman came into the Chamber so recently that he seemed to be out of breath during his intervention. The schemes have not been approved by shareholders: that is precisely the point of one of the main reforms for which we are calling. We say that shareholders should have the opportunity properly to regulate these schemes.

Mr. Legg: Share option schemes have to be approved by the shareholders in general meeting, and that happens in every company.

Mr. Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman claim that the amounts that have been paid to these top bosses were agreed by the shareholders, and were subjected to proper scrutiny? They were not, and that is precisely why we want the powers and composition of remuneration committees to be strengthened.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the regulator. It is relevant to pull the regulator into the picture precisely because the top bosses of these firms should not be able to benefit to such an outrageous extent. That benefit is unrelated to their personal performance, or, in many cases, to the performance of the companies of which they are directors.

As everybody knows, the benefit derives primarily from what happens more generally in the market, and that is precisely what the public find so objectionable about these handouts. They also object to their scale, and to the fact that they are unrelated to performance. They also find it objectionable that a few individuals get a benefit which is not available to the overwhelming majority of our

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people. No matter how hard they work, or how much they contribute to their companies, most people would never receive such benefits in a million years.

Mr. Legg rose --

Mr. Smith: I have given way twice to the hon. Gentleman. I shall allow him to catch his breath, and perhaps give way to him again before I finish.

It is in the interests of the public and of customers and taxpayers that the report for which the new clause calls should be produced. A Government refusal to accept it would be consistent with the way in which they have mismanaged fiscal policy generally in this area and elsewhere. For example, the cost of profit-related pay went up from £25 million in 1990-91 to £500 million in 1994-95. It has become one of the largest reliefs.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) inquired of the Chancellor of the Exchequer about evidence of the effects of such schemes on companies which operate them and on the economy, he was told:

"Studies on profit-sharing schemes generally suggest that they are associated with increased employee involvement and increases in productivity."--[ Official Report , 22 March 1995; Vol. 257, c. 241. ]

The Government should be less vacuous and more specific than that. What studies are they talking about, and what are the changes in productivity? In opening up what has become a bonanza for the privatised utilities and the bosses, the Government must justify themselves and their record to the electorate a good deal better than that.

The Government could make a start by accepting our new clause. If they refuse to accept it, and our arguments on behalf of the overwhelming majority of the public, it will be further confirmation of their hypocrisy. They would never allow any fully public service to be so profligate in the management of finances as they are in respect of these executive share option schemes and their tax subsidies. They will stand guilty yet again of incompetence, because any enterprise, whether publicly or privately owned, could not prosper if it operated in the way in which the Government operate these schemes. Moreover, they will stand guilty of failing to look after the interests of taxpayers as a whole, because it is they who subsidise the few who benefit from the schemes.

It is high time that the country had a Government who properly looked after the interests of the many, instead of allowing the few to feather their nests. That is what the privatised utility bosses are doing under the schemes which the Government seem so ready to tolerate, and which they have done so much to encourage. Our new clause makes prudent sense for the public and the taxpayer.

Mr. Barry Porter: I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith). I am sorry that he spoiled his case by using emotive words such as "bosses", and by deploying the envy argument. That is a green argument, not in the environmental sense but in the sense of envy and jealousy. If he had reduced his rhetoric, I might have agreed with him a bit more.

I shall not vote for the new clause, or abstain. It is not merely the forces of envy and jealousy that have reservations about what has happened in quasi-monopolistic privatised industries, because many people believe in rewards for endeavour. I am not arguing that the managers and chief executives of the privatised

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utilities are being overpaid; I do not know how we can judge that. It must be a matter for the shareholders, which is what the Government have been arguing.

However, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary will outline the framework of what the Government intend to do about the problem. I agree with the hon. Member for Oxford, East that, while the Greenbury committee is of serious importance, the matter cannot be left until we get its report.

I am sure that Ministers are exercising their little grey cells in that direction. I hope that we will get some specific indication, rather than a broad generalisation, of what the Government intend to do, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister having accepted in principle that something needs to be done. I await with interest the Financial Secretary's reply.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): It will be interesting to see the Financial Secretary's reaction to the debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) said, it is very much a test of how concerned the Government really are about the share option scandal, and the outrage felt about it.

Through no fault of my own, I hope, I have spent more time outside the House than inside it during the past two months. Therefore, I can tell the Financial Secretary that we are not exaggerating the sense of outrage felt by so many people throughout the country--by no means only Labour voters-- that so much can accrue to so few people who, at the end of the day, are simply doing precisely the work they did previously, when the utilities were in public ownership.

Not only have the salaries of those who run the privatised industries increased substantially, but they have been given various perks--altogether almost as though they had won the top prizes in the national lottery a number of times over. In addition, if they were to realise the share options, a great deal more money would accrue to them, which would cause further concern throughout the country. I have been studying some of the figures. Based on share prices at 30 March, the value of shares held under option by the directors of the water, electricity and gas companies totals no less than £80 million. The profit that could be made were those shares to be sold would be about £27 million, to be shared by only a few individuals. The hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) made a fair -minded speech, except that he took my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East to task for using what he called emotive language about bosses. But they are bosses; they run the industries. Almost without exception, those same people were running the industries when they were in public ownership and they were receiving a reasonable salary; but since privatisation, they have received salary increases far, far in excess in percentage terms of anything our constituents could ever get. They have also had various perks, and now they have share options.

The Government's only response is to say that, although they do not really like it, there is nothing they can do about it. As the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Mr. Legg) said, they think that it is a matter for the shareholders. I can tell the Government that what

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has been happening with these directors smells as much among the electorate as what happened with Westminster council--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It is nice to see the hon. Gentleman in his place once again, but I must tell him that we are not debating Westminster council this afternoon.

Mr. Winnick: I was merely using that council as an illustration, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I cannot help but compare the Government's attitude to bosses' salaries with their attitude towards the shabby way in which nurses and others in the national health service have been treated. However, I will not go any further down that road, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I know that you would rule me out of order.

5.45 pm

Tonight, the Government have a test on their hands. If they are truly concerned about what has been happening and about the sense of outrage felt throughout the country, they will accept Labour's very reasonable new clause. After all, it is not in such terms that the Government could say that it ran wholly against their philosophy; it would not return the industries to public ownership. It is a reasonably phrased new clause, which is concerned with public revenues.

Time and again, the Government say how concerned they are about public revenues, but when it comes to the fat cats, the bosses--I make no apology for using what Conservative Members may consider emotive language--and the need to deal with the scandal of the past few years, the test will be whether the Financial Secretary is prepared to respond positively to the new clause.

If the Government want to know why they are suffering from such unpopularity throughout the country--more so, perhaps, than any other Government since the war--I can tell them that it is because people believe that they deal differently with the fat cats than they do with the rest of the population. Ordinary employees know that they are likely to get a raw deal from the Government, but they do not believe that the Government will act in the same way towards the fat cats.

Although Conservative Members may not like what I am saying, and may feel that I am not presenting the picture fairly, the truth is that a great deal of the Government's unpopularity and the way in which, increasingly, they are held in contempt, is a result of the very strong belief that the Government do not give a damn about the ordinary people, be they the nurses or any other group who earn an ordinary living. The Government could not care less about what sort of wage increases--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman has been absent through illness, and I realise that now that he has returned, he wishes to cover a whole spectrum of issues, but he must not do so under this new clause. His remarks must relate to share option schemes.

Mr. Winnick: I appreciate your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was concluding my remarks, and trying to show why people throughout the country feel very strongly that the Government treat ordinary people--even when they lose their jobs--very differently from the way that they treat the fat cats.

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If the Government want to show a genuine concern about the scandal surrounding the chief executives of the privatised industries, they will accept the new clause. However, Labour Members know full well that they have no intention of doing anything of the sort. That proves the point that we have made repeatedly--that the fat cats can do what they like because it is they whom the Government think should be rewarded in every possible way.

Mr. Tim Smith: It is good to see the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) back in his place. There is no doubt that there is considerable public disquiet about the matters that he raised. I have some sympathy with the proposal of the hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) that the Treasury should produce a report. Reports are useful, and they provide information on which decisions can be made. He was kind enough to support my proposal that the Inland Revenue should produce a report, which the Committee considering the Bill agreed to.

Mr. Andrew Smith: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman again on his initiative in relation to the tax simplification clause. Does he agree that it would only be right for that clause to be known as the Smith clause?

Mr. Smith: Certainly. As the hon. Gentleman was good enough to support it, it should undoubtedly be known as the Smith clause. In an intervention, the hon. Gentleman told me that he did not think that the tax system should distinguish between private utilities and companies in general. I am doubtful, therefore, about the value of producing the report. The question is how we should respond to the public disquiet that we all accept exists. Should we do so through the tax system, through the regulator, or by trying to persuade shareholders to do something about the matter?

I think that Paul Foot drew an interesting parallel with trade unions in an article in The Guardian . Clearly, accountability works much better in trade unions. It is obvious that, if trade union officials tried to abuse their position in the way that it has been suggested chairmen and chief executives of some companies have, union members would not stand for it. They would take action to deal with that. A direct relationship exists there between union members, the union council, and the general secretary.

When it comes to companies, however, clearly something is wrong with the system. We talk about large shareholders and institutional shareholders, but behind those shareholders stand the ordinary people who are so concerned about what is going on.

Mr. Stephen Timms (Newham, North-East): Does the difficulty not lie in the fact that customers of those companies are the victims of what is happening? Shareholders may, in a narrow sense, think that they benefit from that activity, but surely it is the customers who are suffering. They are the ones who need to be given a voice.

Mr. Smith: I do not accept that customers are suffering. The amounts involving customers are trivial. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade recently gave some figures about British Gas. They

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showed that, if the director of British Gas were paid nothing, the annual benefit to each customer would be trivial. I do not think that it is a matter for customers.

The other important point is that, since privatisation, both the customers and shareholders of those companies have benefited. If one takes British Gas, in the past nine years, the price of gas has fallen by 20 per cent. in real terms. At the same time, the business's profitability has increased substantially, because new pressure has been placed on management to become more efficient and to drive costs down. As profitability has risen, so has the share price.

Mr. Timms: May I give the hon. Gentleman the example of Thames Water? Last week, it was revealed that it had agreed with the regulator that it would invest £2.1 billion, and that it would set its prices according to that agreement. Now it has emerged that, in the next five years, it will invest only £1.75 billion; therefore, it is investing significantly less than had been agreed. Undoubtedly that is boosting the share price and share options, but it is leading to inadequate investment in Thames Water's infrastructure in its region. That is of particular concern to my constituents. Thames Water is undertaking major sewer renovation work in my constituency in an extremely penny-pinching way, which is causing enormous difficulties for my constituents. The arrangement whereby Thames Water's objective boosts its share price, and therefore share options, is causing the problems.

Mr. Smith: I am not familiar with the details of Thames Water. Some of my constituents are customers, so I would be concerned about that matter. The normal effect, however, of reducing investment is to reduce profitability. Last week, North West Water announced that extra dividends would be paid to shareholders, and that there would be extra investment for customers, and a reduction in customers' bills.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster): Hear, hear.

Mr. Smith: I am sure that my hon. Friend is pleased about that, because the customers will benefit along with the shareholders. That has been the double benefit of privatisation.

I still think that the best way to tackle share option schemes is to try to persuade shareholders to do something about them. The Greenbury committee has been criticised because it consists, or so it is alleged, of the very people who are abusing the system, but they are the people best placed to deal with the matter.

Behind institutional shareholders stand the millions of people who put money into pension schemes. Every hon. Member has an interest, because our pension scheme has no doubt been invested in British Gas, and in water, electricity and other companies. If we consider the pension scheme's accounts, we shall find that it is no different from any other pension scheme.

Pension scheme members and people who invest in life policies stand behind institutional shareholders. If those people were able to have more of a say in the matter, something would be done about it.

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking): It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman thinks that shareholders should exert greater pressure. The Government are a substantial

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shareholder in both PowerGen and National Power. Does he therefore agree that the Government have failed in their duty to protect the public's interest by not exerting their shareholder powers in those companies?

Mr. Smith: The hon. Lady is a few weeks out of date, as the Government sold their remaining shareholding in those companies a few weeks ago. The Government are, of course, a unique shareholder. I am not in favour of the Government using their shareholding to achieve those objectives. The Government used to interfere in nationalised industries for all sorts of nefarious reasons that had nothing to do with providing a decent service. It is down to shareholders. After all, directors will benefit from discretionary share option schemes only if the share price rises; otherwise, they will not.

Since privatisation, electricity businesses have been far more successful in driving down costs than anyone--including the Treasury and the City--had anticipated. Nobody had understood just how inefficient the electricity companies were when they were owned by the Government. Generally, nationalised industries are inefficient. Costs have been driven down substantially. As a result, profits have risen rapidly. As a consequence, the share price has risen rapidly. Perhaps the regulator should have taken a tougher stance; that is another issue. Management has been successful in producing more efficient companies. The share price has risen. Why should not the directors of companies benefit in those circumstances? That is what a share option scheme is about.

As I said in Committee, it is not widely appreciated that retained profits, and not money borrowed from banks or raised on the stock exchange, are the main source of investment for companies. Those profits are important. The profitability of industry is extremely important. In any company, the principal people who can determine the profitability level are, of course, the senior management--the directors. That is why it is right that a special discretionary share options scheme should be widely available. It encourages efficiency, more investment and more profitability.

Particular cases of abuse in privatised utilities have been mentioned. We must move as quickly as we can away from their monopolistic position by injecting more competition into the system. That is what the Government are doing.

Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South): Is not the whole point that we are talking about privatised monopolies? That is the base from which directors work. They do not do anything over and above what other shareholders do. Those shareholders take risks, but no risk was involved for those directors. They work in privatised monopolies. Surely the Government should have done something at an early stage.

Mr. Smith: It is true that those companies have not been subject to the same competition as, for example, major retailers, which face intense competition, but they have been subjected at least to the pressures that come from having shareholders. As a consequence, they have become much more efficient. They have driven their costs down. It is right that management should be rewarded for that.

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I agree, however, that we need to go further and to remove, as far as we can, those companies' monopolistic status. That is what we are doing with the Gas Bill, which introduces competition at all levels of the gas supply industry. We shall have the same provision for the electricity industry. Such competition will not be introduced in the water industry, which is a natural monopoly, where it is much more difficult to inject competition. I accept that, but it is important to introduce competition into the system so that management are subject to the same pressures as people in other businesses.

Mr. Timms: How is it possible to introduce competition into the water industry? In reality, cannot costs be cut in that industry only by reducing the level of service to the customers?

Mr. Smith: I know that it is difficult to introduce competition into the water industry, because I made an inquiry after we passed the Competition and Service (Utilities) Act 1992, which introduces an element of competition into the water industry. I am a customer of the Three Valleys water company, and Thames Water is half a mile down the road, so I wrote to Thames Water to see whether I could change suppliers. It told me that, if I paid £10,000 to have the main extended to my house, I would be welcome to buy its water. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that competition in the supply of water is more difficult to organise, but it can be done on the same basis as it is being done for gas. The pipes could be kept in public ownership, and different suppliers could supply the water. It is possible, but it is much more difficult.

As far as possible, we need more competition to put the utilities on the same basis as other businesses. These are the right pressures to place on those companies, rather than trying to tackle the problem through the tax system. It is tempting to try to use the tax system to achieve different, social objectives but I do not believe that we should do so in this instance.

6 pm

Mrs. Helen Liddell (Monklands, East): I am sorry that the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) is no longer in his place because he mentioned greed and envy. I find it interesting that every time we discuss this matter, Conservative Members use those words. That says rather a lot about them and their view of remuneration and not quite so much about Opposition Members.

The hon. Member for Wirral, South failed to recall that one person who has prosecuted the case for a more equitable means of controlling share options is Mr. Alistair Ross Goobey, chief executive of POSTEL, who is not known for his radical views or support of Labour Members as he was previously a special adviser to a Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Indeed, I am interested in several points made by Conservative Members about share options because they merely highlight the point that the Member for Wirral, South made: we are debating a divided society, a them-and-us society, and most people in the advanced world who are concerned about the operation of industry in the public and private sectors are very much aware of the need to reduce the them-and-us divide.

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It is extremely difficult to convince people, in this week of all weeks, when they are about to have the 20th increase in taxation since the Government were elected, that those who control the privatised utilities should be treated more favourably by the tax system than those who actually work in those industries and the rest of us, who will face increased taxation from 6 April.

It beggars belief that Conservative Members can be so naive as not to see the inequities in the system. New clause 1, which I support, gives us a minor opportunity to consider in some detail the difficulties that have arisen as a result of discretionary share options in privatised utilities.

A debate is being held in this country about the effectiveness of share options. The same debate is taking place in the United States, where there is concern in the private sector about the use of stock options to allow remuneration of senior managers in a way that is not directly affected by the performance of the industries in which they are employed.

The debate is meaningful because there is considerable evidence to show that granting share options does not so much affect the performance of an industry as the performance of its share price. The share price and the performance of an industry are in many cases not directly related. Indeed, when the time comes for the publication of annual accounts, it is possible through creative accounting to make the operation of a business look much better than it has in fact been.

I would be much more convinced of the rectitude of those who argue for share option schemes if they were also prepared to build disincentives into the remuneration structure. When a company's share price increases, senior executives benefit. If there is a reduction in the share price or performance of that company, why should not those who run the company be disadvantaged? We should be in a position where true targets are set for businesses in place of the rather bizarre structure of share options that we have at the moment.

It is only in this country, the United States and France that such tax- attractive schemes tend to be introduced for senior executives. Most other countries recognise the true value of building a structure where employers and employees share together in the destiny of a company and are motivated by the destiny of that company, whether it be in the public or private sector.

Mr. Legg: Is the hon. Lady aware that 36,000 employees of British Gas benefit from share-related incentive schemes of some sort?

Mrs. Liddell: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that there are different kinds of share option schemes. The 36,000 ordinary employees of British Gas usually benefit from

savings-related share schemes and tend to be less able to have an impact on the share price than the senior executives who can directly affect it.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) mentioned the impact that institutional shareholders can have on controlling the excesses of senior management. That was a preposterous suggestion. Part of the argument of Mr. Ross Goobey has been that institutional shareholders are limited in their ability to control the senior management of companies. There is an informal network that operates among institutional shareholders. They are the same people, usually male and usually from

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the same schools, and they are recycled time and again. They turn up at the same annual meetings, eat the same prawn cocktails and have the same impact on the share remuneration schemes because they benefit from share remuneration schemes.

I hope that the Financial Secretary will make it clear how it is equitable that the taxation system that applies to the sale of share options should be different from that which applies to other aspects of earned income. That is extremely difficult to explain to members of the public who, like my constituents, see their service from British Gas reduced by the closure of gas showrooms. There are fears about what will happen to assistance for disabled people from the gas industry.

It is difficult to explain to people why senior executives in the gas industry can choose when to activate their options and can phase in the activation of their options over time to take advantage of allowances that are available through capital gains tax. They can even pass on those share options to their spouse to allow their wife or husband to benefit from those share options and from the capital allowances that are available to them.

That is manifestly unfair and people are not that gullible. They see that the rich are getting richer on the backs of the rest of us. The privatised utilities have been seen as basic to the structure of our country. They mainly operate as monopolies or quasi-monopolies. Those who are or have been in a position to benefit from the first tranches of share options--and they were granted options at a rate that was greatly deflated and had been massively underestimated--can now become millionaires, in some cases millionaires many times over. The new clause seeks only a rational report and analysis of what is happening and of the impact on the Exchequer of the proposals so that people can make genuine judgments. It was not so very long ago that we were told by the Prime Minister of his commitment to ending inequality. The most fundamental inequality is this system of share options, which is unfair and inefficient. No one can put hand on heart and prove that the existence of share options dramatically improves, or in any way affects, the performance of a company or of an executive. Research published at the weekend suggested that the schemes have a limited impact on improving company performance. The Financial Secretary has the opportunity to instigate an examination into the operation of such schemes and their impact on the economy and to consider the structure of the tax system in such a way as to get rid of the inequalities and convince the people that the Government are not prepared just to govern in the interests of the few at the expense of the many.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): I think that I am right in saying that the Standing Committee on the Finance Bill had 25 sittings. Obviously, it discussed many issues, but I suspect that this is the one that the public will consider very carefully. It is difficult to identify many of the other issues that we discussed in our number-crunching sittings in Committee as being in the forefront of public consciousness.

The public will carefully watch the Government's reaction to the new clause, which is not a radical attempt to bring down the Government, much as we would like to do so, but merely asks for a report back to the House. Why do we want such a report? We are talking about the

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principle of discretionary approved share option schemes, which are of massive public concern, as has been accepted by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

We are also considering the way in which such schemes are taxed. Approved schemes are taxed not as earned income but as a capital gain--I would argue about the concept of earned income, but perhaps that is an argument for another day. As far as I and many members of the public can see, the share option schemes have been established by a relatively small cabal and have enabled executives to freeload on privatised monopolies--Conservative Members have accepted that they are such monopolies--and to gain tremendously.

The speech of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith), who made a considerable contribution to the Standing Committee--some of it was useful and no doubt he would say the same for Opposition Members--was striking, but I gained the feeling that, the longer that he went on, the more desperate he became. Having created the conditions in which abuses--the word that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield used--can take place, the Government are turning their faces steadfastly against any reports to the House on those abuses, which is interesting. The public will be rightly outraged if they perceive that executive share options are being used to line the pockets of people who have done nothing to earn such largesse, while the Government refuse the House the opportunity to study in more detail the effect that the schemes are having on revenue. The new clause is the minimum that the public can expect as regards knowing exactly what is going on.

6.15 pm

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, and the other thing that shocked me about his speech was that he tried to argue that such executive share option schemes are necessary to encourage executive directors to work hard. It is interesting that Mr. Cedric Brown has to have nearly £700,000 worth of share options to work harder, but people in gas showrooms have to have a 3 per cent. pay cut to make them do so. It is a nice philosophical question, with which the Government singularly failed to deal throughout our debates in Committee.

The Government have also failed to recognise the chronic sense of injustice and unfairness that is felt throughout the country about the way in which executive share option schemes are operating. For some reason that is beyond me, the Government simply refuse to recognise it and the new clause is extremely important in that regard.

Many of us will be watching with great interest. In reply to an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said that the Government had disposed of their 40 per cent. shareholding in PowerGen and National Power. Another task is coming up, however, and it will be a test of the Government's approach to the issue. What will be their attitude to the give-away of the national grid? It was valued at £1 billion and handed over as the most massive Christmas present in history to the regional electricity companies, which are going to give it away, throw it away, privatise it, or sell it off for £4 billion--and that is the conservative estimate. What have the executive directors of the regional electricity companies done to warrant that massive unearned profit? They have done

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absolutely nothing. We shall watch extremely carefully how the Government approach the latest instalment of the largesse represented by the executive share option schemes.

Why should there be a report to the House? I mentioned the fact that the public are extremely concerned about the issue. The House should reflect that concern. Even at this late stage, I hope that the Government will recognise that it exists and that this is the place to deal with it.

It appears that the shares of the companies involved have gone up not only because they were undervalued in the first place but because many hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost in the past few years. That is bad enough, but the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) spoke of envy and jealousy. He should speak to my constituents, and to those of every other hon. Member who have lost their jobs as a result of those very same executive directors and ask them what they feel about envy, jealousy and the feel-good factor. He should ask them how they feel about the fact that the privatised utilities seem to be employing a strategy of maintaining or increasing their share value at whatever cost not in the interests of the country or of investment but because they are constantly looking over their shoulders for the next hostile takeover bid. Those issues are not peripheral; they are fundamental and are rightly reflected in the public's concern.

The least that the House can do is support the new clause, which proposes that the Government should report to Parliament so that extremely important issues can be examined in more detail. If Conservative Members vote in the Lobby to defeat the new clause, as we expect they will, I do not believe for a moment that the great British public will understand their action.

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