Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

4.10 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead: My Lords, the gracious Speech is mostly a dish which needs a little embellishment. This year it is only the shrimps around the sole which can be remembered even eight days after the Speech. I cannot think quite what state of forgetfulness will have fallen upon it eight months from now. I suspect that as an autumn manifesto for 1994, Mr. John Maples' draft will prove more resonant than the Speech and may also be a better guide to the Government's action programme.

On top of that, we come to the effusion of Mr. Patrick Nicholls, which seemed to be composed in about equal proportions of the attractive combination of envy of big countries and contempt for small countries. The Prime Minister and other luminaries seem to have an extraordinary touch in choosing figures of mature and statesmanlike views and phrases as vice-chairmen of the Conservative Party.

However, to turn in a happier direction--as I thankfully do--some of the embellishments which we have had to the gracious Speech have been highly acceptable. We have had a notably rich crop of maiden speeches. I recall in particular the speeches of my two new noble friends Lord Tope and Lady Thomas as well as that of the noble Lord, Lord Attenborough, whose aphorisms were well worth waiting a year for. There was also the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Ellesmere, who combined the pastoral reminiscences of a Shropshire boy, if not a Shropshire lad, with the intellectual authority of high level science. The speech of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury also made a considerable impression on me.

Today is the economic day and we are now almost on the eve of the Budget. I remain very sceptical of the wisdom of Mr. Lamont in turning a spring festival into an autumn one. Many noble Lords may have seen the powerful article of Mr. Terence Higgins in The Times yesterday which pointed out how precipitately that decision was taken and how its result has been a further reduction of executive accountability, as well as considerably reducing the opportunities for economic debate in another place. It is also, in my view, markedly inconvenient for your Lordships' House if the Commons is mainly concerned with the Budget and consequential legislation before Christmas, which virtually means no

24 Nov 1994 : Column 379

legislative work for your Lordships' House in the early part of the Session. Except in so far as it is corrected by starting major and controversial measures in this House--on which the Government's experience in the last Session may not have been entirely happy--the consequence is inevitably an uneven spread of work for your Lordships' House over the parliamentary year and a great deal of back-end loading with considerable inconvenience.

Then there is the argument of tradition, but we should not necessarily be too bound by it. The tradition of the spring Budget, like most great British traditions from a festive Christmas to schools based on games and the imposition of a standard ruling class English accent, dates from the third quarter of the 19th century and no earlier. Nevertheless, it has had a fairly long run from the time when eight successive Gladstone Budgets, flanked on the one side by the University Boat Race and on the other by the opening day of the Royal Academy, gave a sense of spring stability in an epoch which was on the whole very stable indeed.

I have long been fairly sceptical of excessive Budget flummery and of making too much fuss about Budget secrecy. No one seems to do that much today, in any event. But there was much to be said for the spring tradition and the Government or a future government would be wise to reconsider the matter.

Chancellors are dominating figures in their day, central to the success or failure of the government. But what they do in the field of economic management is remarkably ephemeral. It is all washed away by the high tide of their successor; it is building sandcastles on a beach, compared even with departmental Ministers whose legislation can easily last longer. Nevertheless, institutional changes as opposed to economic management carried through by Chancellors can have a more permanent effect. On that ground, I should be doubtful about Mr. Lamont's two institutional changes which were: first, to move to an autumn Budget; and, secondly, to abolish that Conservative creation, Neddy, which had served seven of his predecessors pretty well.

However, having said that, I have come to appreciate recently why Mr. Lamont felt quite so infuriated at having to hand over to Mr. Clarke when he did. Mr. Clarke had a luckier inheritance than was superficially apparent at the time. First, he enjoyed the great benefit of not being Mr. Lamont--although perhaps that point was not easily taken by Mr. Lamont himself. Secondly, Mr. Clarke took over springs which were set for rebound because they had been so long suppressed and depressed. In those circumstances, the situation is often spoken of as though the recoil, when it comes, totally justifies the long years of suppression and depression which have gone before it. We had the same argument in relation to the depression of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, followed by the boom of the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, in the 1980s. That is well set out in the most engaging and lucid, if not over-compressed, memoirs which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, has just set before us.

24 Nov 1994 : Column 380

The argument of constantly preparing for the sunrise--that provided you are getting into a good position it does not matter how long you wait--ignores the vast tranche of national wealth which has gone for ever. It ignores the dismay, the misery even, which has been caused to individuals and is not recallable. Nor can the effect on Britain's long-term performance be disguised by choosing very favourable base years for statistics.

The bad years also often leave permanent damage, as with the excessive reductions in the manufacturing base in the early 1980s and the gross neglect of infrastructure in the early 1990s. Both of those points were vividly illustrated in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell.

Nevertheless, with some strong export-led growth--a good deal of it European; I am not sure quite how that is reconcilable with the view that all the rest of Europe is a totally stagnant backwater--even if set off by a very weak investment performance, it means that the Chancellor has a considerable opportunity.

It is, of course, the case that the more he stresses the opportunity, the more he must accept the responsibility for how he develops it. There will be no one to blame, no scapegoats but himself, if things go wrong. Perhaps I may say, for a moment combining habitually hubris with humility, it is not entirely different from the position that I handed over to the noble Lord, Lord Barber, in the spring of 1970; although I would say in all honesty that there was at that time suppressed wage pressure, which, except at the higher levels of the gas company, does not seem to exist quite so strongly at the present time. Nonetheless, there was a real opportunity then, as there is now. I hope very much that the present Chancellor handles that opportunity better than it was then handled.

What is likely to happen? My guess is that this year we shall have a responsible Budget. It may be slightly dull; but there are many worse things than dullness. But next year will be the test. That will be the temptation. Will we then have a splurge, a return to the not notably Gladstonian traditions of those Conservative financiers, Maudling, Barber and Lawson? Will we begin again the rather dreary round of getting quickly into difficulties and casting away the relatively rare opportunities? Maybe we shall, but I hope not. Maybe we shall not. In any event, we shall wait, and we shall see.


4.23 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen): My Lords, I should now like to repeat a Statement being made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport in another place. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the future of Railtrack, which, since April this year, has been a government-owned company responsible for rail infrastructure.

24 Nov 1994 : Column 381

"The Government intend to privatise Railtrack within the lifetime of this Parliament. We will do this using the powers provided by the Railways Act 1993. Although the precise details and timing will be announced later in the light of market conditions, I can confirm that Railtrack will be floated on the stock market and that everyone will have the opportunity to buy shares.

"The Government believe that privatisation offers the best future for Railtrack, for passengers and freight and for train operators. It will allow greater use of private sector skills in managing the network; in improving Railtrack stations; in delivering efficient track maintenance; and in encouraging investment in the upgrading of railway lines. It will provide even greater scope for private capital to be injected into better facilities. Railtrack will be better able to deliver improvements in the service it provides to operators and therefore to passengers.

"Privatisation has been one of the great achievements of this Government since 1979. It has transformed former state-owned industries and brought real improvements for customers and employees alike. It has brought new management techniques and new sources of investment. It has spread ownership throughout society. Indeed, Britain's example has been copied around the world.

"The Department of Transport has been at the forefront of this programme. National Freight, Sealink, National Express, Associated British Ports, the British Airports Authority and British Airways are all thriving in the private sector. This announcement paves the way for the creation of another important private company.

"The privatisation of Railtrack will be the most significant single step in the overall process of transferring the ownership and operation of Britain's railways to the private sector. The Government have set the target of franchising a majority of train services by April 1996. That target remains. The franchising director will shortly start the pre-qualification process for the first franchises. The Government will be selling the rolling stock leasing companies next year. Privatisation of British Rail's infrastructure services units, British Rail Maintenance Ltd. and other businesses is already in progress and the transfer of British Rail's domestic freight services to the private sector should be completed by the end of 1995.

"Privatisation will enable Railtrack to provide a better service, bringing substantial benefits to train operators, passengers and other rail users and to investors. My announcement demonstrates this Government's continuing commitment to privatisation. It demonstrates our continuing commitment to railway privatisation. It demonstrates our continuing commitment to improving rail services. Above all, it demonstrates our continuing commitment to passengers and to our national economy."

24 Nov 1994 : Column 382

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page