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Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): I rise to ask the House to consider the petition of 29 of my constituents who are involved in home education. I myself have been involved with many of them. On the whole, they offer their children an excellent education. They are already properly regulated by the elective home education guidelines in Dorset, and I see no reason why they should not be able to be so regulated in the future. The petition requests that the House of Commons urges the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families either not to bring forward, or to withdraw, his proposals to implement the Badman report.
Declares that they are concerned about the recommendations of the Badman Report, which suggests closer monitoring of home educators, including a compulsory annual registration scheme and right of access to people's homes for local authority officials; further declares that the Petitioners believe the recommendations are based on a review that was extremely rushed, failed to give due consideration to the evidence, failed to ensure that the data it collected were sufficiently robust, and failed to take proper account of the existing legislative framework.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families either not to bring forward, or to withdraw, proposed legislative measures providing for tighter registration and monitoring of children educated at home in the absence of a thorough independent inquiry into the condition and future of elective home education in England; but instead to take the steps necessary to ensure that the existing Elective Home Education Guidelines for Local Authorities are properly implemented, learning from current best practice, in all local authorities in England.
The Petition of residents of Thurnscoe in Barnsley and others,
Declares that when the Thurnscoe branch of HSBC closes on the fifth of February, it will mean that customers will have to travel to either the Wath branch or the Barnsley branch, both of which are approximately nine miles away.
Further declares that travelling to either of the other branches is difficult because bus services are only once an hour, and because many affected people are OAPs without any other means of transport.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to take steps to ensure that the Thurnscoe branch of HSBC remains open for one or more days a week.
And the Petitioners remain, etc.
The Petition of residents of Bristol and others,
Declares that the Petitioners disapprove of the fact that homosexuals do not have the right to a legal ceremony of marriage.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to bring forward legislation to give homosexuals the right to a legal ceremony of marriage.
And the Petitioners remain, etc.
The Petition of residents of Bristol and others,
Declares that the Government should fulfil its responsibilities as a high contracting party to the Geneva Convention.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to immediately take steps to institute a war crimes investigation in the UK into Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip between 27th December and 18th January 2009, and for the UK prosecuting authorities to search out and prosecute (or extradite for trial elsewhere) all suspected war criminals identified by the investigation; and urges the Government to seek a binding resolution at the UN Security Council to establish an international commission of inquiry into the Gaza attacks and the referral of potential cases to the International Criminal Court.
And the Petitioners remain, etc.
Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): A week today, we will know whether Cadbury shareholders have succumbed to the offer from Kraft, worth 850p a share. There is still time for investors to look to the long-term value of the company, which is currently in good health, with no debts. In contrast, Kraft's debts will have gone from $10 billion in 2006 to $30 billion if it succeeds in taking over Cadbury. However, the signs that Cadbury will remain in British hands are not optimistic, given that more than a quarter of shareholders are now hedge funds, those Johnny-come-latelies who bought into the company only to make a fast buck.
Since coming to power in 1997, new Labour has fully embraced the Anglo-Saxon model of unfettered market capitalism, such that, as Lord Myners has acknowledged, it is easier to take over a company here than anywhere else in the world. So when the Business Secretary made his exhortation before Christmas, saying that Kraft would face huge opposition from the Government if it tried to make a quick buck out of Cadbury, he could not deliver on that commitment. I therefore want to use the opportunity of this debate to explore what lessons can be learned from the Cadbury debacle, to try to ensure that other British companies do not similarly fall prey to hostile takeovers that are in the interests of neither the company nor UK plc.
That is not to say that I want to argue that all takeovers are bad or that I want to return to devil-take-the-hindmost protectionism. Britain has greatly benefited from overseas investment by companies such as Toyota and Honda. I do not want to discourage such long-term investment, which has brought improved technological and management capabilities. My concern is for those British-owned companies that are well run and have good prospects for retaining high-value-added functions in the UK, creating jobs in research and innovation and jobs requiring high skills. The Government cannot pick winners, but they should create a framework in which such companies can prosper but not be so easily subject to predatory activity. We have learned over the credit crunch of the importance of the relationship between the enabling state and successful business. I hope that we have learned that Keynesian economics should not have been so casually abandoned.
People in Birmingham and the west midlands have been hard hit by the recession-the consequence of an over-reliance on financial services and the downgrading of the importance given to manufacturing. Even though Rover, LDV and HP Foods were struggling companies, their demise hit us hard. However, when we woke up last Tuesday morning and heard that the board of Cadbury was going to recommend that shareholders accept the Kraft offer, we were shocked and angry. Was it not only seven days previously that Cadbury had issued a revised document to shareholders urging them to reject a bid representing only 12 times historical earnings? Why was the last-minute higher offer, at just under 13 times historical earnings-still a derisory multiple compared with takeovers of comparable well-branded food businesses-suddenly deemed acceptable? Surely
all the arguments about the importance of keeping Cadbury independent as a successful and profitable British company were as valid then as they were only a week earlier.
The answer to the abandonment of all logic beyond that of the casino must surely lie in the activities of hedge funds and other investors who are interested in buying shares with the sole aim of profiteering from a takeover battle. They do not care about the long-term health of the company, and, in the case of Cadbury, they are quite happy to see the successor company saddled with a further £7 billion of debt, so long as they get their payout. So it is not Kraft that has made a quick buck, but fly-by-night investors. It is deeply disappointing that the Cadbury board capitulated to the pressure from those hedge funds and other shareholders, who were making it known that they would be prepared to accept a higher bid from Kraft-in some cases a bid as low as 830p a share.
That is the reality of the light-touch regulation of market capitalism that we experience today. The good will towards Cadbury from its employees and the wider population, as well as from small investors and some corporate shareholders, is apparently worthless against such an onslaught. The Cadbury board owes a fiduciary duty only to its shareholders. That cannot be right. Narrowly defined share value is not a measure of real worth. Employees' commitment feeds into the bottom line.
"who wants to hire a whingeing workforce when you could hire a really positive upbeat one?"
Bill Wiggin: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I believe that, perhaps inadvertently, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) seeks to misrepresent my true feelings about this particular debate. What I actually said was:
"I have seen the trade unions talking down this company and I worry that by sending out such negative signals it puts people's jobs more at risk because who wants to hire a whingeing workforce when you could hire a really positive upbeat one?"
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst):
Order. I think that personalities are best kept out of this. This is a serious subject about which many thousands of people will be concerned. That is the subject matter of this debate, as represented by the presence of hon. Members this evening. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman some
latitude, because the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) mentioned his name, but this is not a point of order. He is seeking to continue the debate. Maybe, at some point, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) will allow a further intervention, but that is up to her.
Bill Wiggin: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order that those hon. Members, both of whom have spoken in the debate, and both of whom have received money to their constituency Labour parties-
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have also appealed for this debate to be taken seriously. This is a matter of considerable national interest as well as being a matter of interest in the Birmingham and west midlands area, and it should be dealt with on that basis. I hope that there will be no more personality references, because they are not serving the interests of Cadbury employees at all.
It is quite clear from the number of Members attending this debate that there is considerable interest in it. In December, a delegation of Birmingham MPs, including my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and for Birmingham, Hall Green (Steve McCabe), and representatives of Unite, who were fighting on behalf of the company, met Lord Mandelson to urge the Government to support the campaign to keep Cadbury a British company. We were grateful to him for using the power of words, but nothing concrete came out of the meeting except a surprising admission from the Secretary of State that new laws might be needed to ensure good stewardship of companies. The latest twist in the Cadbury affair demonstrates that this is indeed the case, and the Government must now urgently examine what regulations could be introduced to ensure that the interests of all stakeholders are considered.
I am not an expert in this area, but I expect the Government to look to those with such expertise to put on their thinking caps. I understand that there are proposals coming from the EU for the stronger regulation of hedge funds. Other measures that have been suggested include the barring of short-term shareholders from voting in takeover battles, and capping the amount of debt that can be taken on.
In an interview with the Financial Times last November, Lord Mandelson said that if he could turn the clock back, he would like to see more large UK-owned manufacturers because of their role in creating wealth.
Looking forward, what action are the Government prepared to take to ensure that we do not have even fewer UK-owned companies?
Before I move on to the future for Cadbury if the Kraft takeover goes ahead, I must mention the role of majority-state-owned Royal Bank of Scotland in helping to finance the Kraft bid. That is a cause of great consternation among taxpayers, who see the bank as using their money to put British workers on the dole, as well as stabbing Cadbury, one of their corporate customers, in the back. The argument that if it withdrew another institution would step up in its place does not wash with my constituents. It is the argument used to justify other dubious activities, such as selling arms or trading with repressive regimes. Surely such investment would be better going into good British businesses.
Whatever the outcome, as the Member of Parliament representing Bournville my focus must now be on securing the future of the operation there, and joining other colleagues to protect jobs in other plants.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): My hon. Friend makes an excellent case. No doubt she will refer to some of the assurances that Kraft has offered. May I put it to her that we need more from Kraft than bland assurances? We need to know the specifics, and quickly, of its intentions, including for the high-level research and development jobs and for other things at Bournville. Acting on such words will be important for the future of Bournville and other plants.
As a result of the huge additional debt foisted on the business, as well as of the millions paid to bankers and accountants, Kraft is looking to make more than $675 million-worth of savings. I accept that some of that will come from so-called "synergies" within the business, but it will inevitably lead to corporate job losses. The question that my hon. Friend has raised is whether manufacturing jobs and jobs in research and development and innovation will be retained and will grow. Will Kraft retain the commitment to fair trade under Cadbury?
Kraft has told me that it has great respect for Cadbury plc and its employees. It says that it is eager to build on Cadbury's iconic brands and strong British heritage and innovation. In response to criticisms of its closure of Terry's in York, it has emphasised that national brands such as Milka in Germany, Marabou in Sweden and Toblerone in Switzerland are still made in their biggest domestic markets. That may be the case. From comments made by the Prime Minister, it seems that similar assurances have been given to the Government. It is too early to take comfort from those assurances. Kraft says that it would "love to figure out" how to keep open the Keynsham plant that Cadbury would close. However, given that that was an early commitment in meetings with trade unions, I had hoped that it might be more definite about that by now. Nevertheless, there has been heavy investment in Bournville and other plants, and there can be no good reason for Kraft to run down such efficient operations.
May I finish by asking the Minister exactly what the Prime Minister meant when he said that the Government would do everything they can to make sure that jobs and investment are maintained in Britain? How will that commitment be delivered?
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