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Mr. Byers: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. I support her comments. We are aware of the American experience, whereby people try to acquire confidential commercial information by using what appear to be reasonable and legitimate powers. We were intending to deal with that issue in Committee. I am delighted that the hon. Lady will be able to engage constructively with us when we discuss the means to overcome the particular problem that she has identified.

Mrs. Browning: That is most encouraging. We look forward to hearing how the Secretary of State will resolve the problem.

There is a real danger that the regulatory over- prescription of the measure will mitigate against the interests of the consumer.

Mr. Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a matter not merely of over-regulation but of overlap of regulations? Does she agree that there are real concerns in the telecommunications industry--especially on the part of BT--about the overlap between the consumer councils and the regulating authorities? Is she aware that that will impose extra costs on telecommunications companies and that those costs will inevitably be passed on to the consumer?

Mrs. Browning: My hon. Friend makes a timely and accurate point, as I was about to raise that issue. The costs of the Government's proposed changes must be considered. The costs of setting up, or changing, the councils and of related aspects of the measure must be taken into account, however well intentioned such provisions may be as protection for the consumer.

My hon. Friend mentioned the overlap of regulations. I would have thought that the Government would be especially sensitive to that matter, not least because they have just set up yet another Cabinet Office Committee to try to reduce the amount of regulation for which they are responsible.

I draw the Secretary of State's attention to clauses 9, 13 and 90, for example. We need far more detail about those clauses before we consider them in Committee. They contain the potential not only for over-regulation, but for the addition of further costs that will eventually filter through to consumers.

I do not doubt that, despite his rather caustic remarks about the success of privatisation, the Secretary of State's heart is in the right place and that he wants to protect consumers. However, in order to do so, he will have to provide much more information, or the measure will damage consumers in the long term. My hon. Friends and I put him on notice that we hope that he will provide that information. We have heard that many new clauses are likely to be tabled, and we shall have an opportunity to scrutinise them only when the Bill is in Committee. If the new clauses lead to reform and take account of the points that are made in this debate, we shall welcome them.

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However, we are concerned that the Secretary of State will make it an even bigger Bill than the one that we have seen to date.

The House is discussing the changes to the regulators for what were the nationalised industries only because of the Conservative party's great success in the 1980s. We had the vision, the foresight and the market sense to recognise that this country needed to enter the new millennium with industries that provided a good deal for the consumer, that attracted inward investment, that allowed members of the public--including their work forces--to invest in them and that contributed to the Exchequer and were not a drain on it.

All that was opposed, and I notice that the Secretary of State criticised some of the privatisations and the price tag attached to them. He accused the Conservative party of underselling many nationalised industries, but I hope that he will recognise that his words have been carefully noted. In particular, we shall watch very carefully to see at what price National Air Traffic Services is sold. We hope that he will sell it at a realistic price if he can get the proposal through the House, but I see that he looks rather doubtful about that.

We welcome the fact that, at long last, new Labour is a convert to privatisation. It will privatise NATS and all but privatise the Post Office. In fact, if new Labour is in government long enough, which I doubt, it will take the Post Office to full privatisation and we welcome that. If ever a sinner repenteth, he will receive warm words from Conservative Members.

4.52 pm

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil): I notice that the hon. Member for Rutland and wherever else--[Hon. Members: "Melton."] I knew that it had something to do with one confection or another. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) will remember the passage of the Gas Act 1995, which had innumerable new clauses and umpteen late explanatory notes. It is in the nature of this type of Bill that such amendments will emerge. If the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) expects many new clauses to be tabled to this Bill, may I tell her that that is nothing new--and it is certainly nothing new from the Department of Trade and Industry?

Mrs. Browning: I have a huge respect for the hon. Gentleman's experience of such matters, but he will acknowledge that, when the Conservative Government privatised industries, we were pioneers. There is a difference between being a pioneer and being a Government who have learned from the dozens of privatisations that have already been carried out.

Mr. O'Neill: I do not want to sustain this argument, but the Gas Act 1995 was the then Conservative Administration's second attempt to get gas privatisation correct.

I hope that the Government will establish a consensus and secure the broad support of most of the parties involved. The Bill is long awaited. The Select Committee on Trade and Industry reported in 1997 before the general election and we had a Green Paper and the consultation and responses to it. It is regrettable that the Bill was not introduced earlier, but its complexity and substance have made it well worth waiting for.

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It is legitimate to go over the arguments that relate to the privatisation of utilities that began in 1985. In large measure, the Conservatives used privatisation in the attempt to raise revenues, and precious little thought was given to the more important issue of liberalisation. If there was a fault in state monopoly, there was an even greater fault in the creation of private monopolies with regulatory processes that involved, to say the least, a very light hand on the tiller.

At that time there were arguments about price cuts and share prices, and in the 1990s the issue of fat cats arose. Directors' pay crystallised several issues. The fact that the cost structures of the privatised companies needed trimming was probably not in doubt. Most redundancies were voluntary and in large measure were smoothed by generous payments.

The achievement of even minor efficiencies in many of those organisations was not difficult, and when they were realised, in what was then a monopoly market, they often had a disproportionate impact on profits. It is little wonder, therefore, that the understandable initial caution of the regulators in price setting, combined with the savings that they were able to achieve, resulted in a leap in profits and in the share price.

Mr. Gibb: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point that goes to the heart of the privatisation policy, in that most people--the City of London, Members of the House and experts--underestimated the efficiencies that would be delivered by moving those companies into the private sector. Does that not demonstrate how inefficient industries are when they are left in the state sector, and how successful privatisation has been?

Mr. O'Neill: There are a number of arguments about the cost-cutting that took place. In the past week the National Audit Office has suggested that the cost-cutting undertaken by British Energy and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, which was done by outsourcing services, has resulted in a diminution in the quality of service and, on some occasions, in safety issues.

Mrs. Gilroy: Does my hon. Friend recollect, as I do, that in the early 1980s, owing to Conservative policies, domestic gas prices were put up by 10 per cent. more than the rate of inflation for three years running? The savings for which the Conservatives are claiming credit therefore simply reduced prices by the amount by which they were put up, which is, one might say, robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Mr. O'Neill: It is fair to say also that, at that time, price increases helped to reduce much of the companies' debts, and gave them the necessary degree of elbow room.

Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. O'Neill: I want to make progress because I am conscious that many people want to speak.

Those savings and changes did not prevent fortunate managers and directors from securing remuneration packages--a combination of pay, share allocations, share options and bonuses--that were far in excess of what anyone might reasonably support.

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We were told, and have been told again today, that taxpayers were no longer supporting those companies. However, British Telecom and the gas and electricity companies were not subject to great subventions from the Exchequer before privatisation, although they were during the period when their debts were being written off. By and large, however, they were pretty efficient in meeting Government standards.

One could argue that those standards were lax. It took six years for the Conservative Government to think of privatising British Telecom, so they were not that quick to recognise the apparent problem.

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