HC Deb 27 June 1972 vol 839 cc1403-12

2.0 a.m.

Mr. Ron Lewis (Carlisle)

After the interesting debate on Scottish affairs it is only right that we should move to an important city this side of the Scottish border to discuss briefly the rape by the Government of the successful Carlisle and District State Management Scheme.

Since last we discussed the scheme there have been Government changes, and I welcome and congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) on his appointment. My only regret is that he has been thrown in at the deep end to reply to the debate. I am fortified by the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Michael Cocks) who shared our experiences in Committee on the Licensing (Abolition of State Management) Bill.

In January, 1971, the Home Secretary sent to Members of Parliament affected by the scheme a letter to the effect that the Government intended to bring forward legislation which would be introduced very soon. He said that the process of sale would begin shortly after the Bill was enacted, and he expected the scheme to continue for the greater part of the year. In May of last year we had the Third Reading of the Bill and not long afterwards Royal Assent was given.

Since then there has been a great deal of speculation about what is happening and nobody in Carlisle or, as far as I know, anywhere else can get any information about how the sale is proceeding, except that a few houses outside Carlisle have been offered to existing tenants.

In January, 1972, a year after the Home Secretary sent out his circular, and giving the Home Office ample time to set the machinery in motion, I sent a letter to Storey, Sons and Parker of Middles rough who are dealing with the sale, asking for information on how the sale was going because I could not get any information inside this Chamber although we were promised in Committee that statements would be made from time to time. I received what I thought was a cheeky reply from Storey, Sons and Parker, who I have since learnt are sympathetic to the Tory Party, containing this passage: Our instructions are that we have no authority to give you anything in the nature of a progress report on the state of negotiations. Who gave Storey, Sons and Parker the instruction that the Member of Parliament for the city should not be told how the firm was raping the scheme in Carlisle?

I have not been able to get any information from any Government Department other than evasive replies to Questions I have raised in Parliament. There is great speculation in Carlisle about what is happening. It appears to be clouded with secrecy and full of mystery. It is now time that the Government came clean with the House, with the people of Carlisle and with the country and gave us an up-to-date statement of the position instead of the generalisations we get by way of answers to Questions.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Peart), my hon. Friend the Member for White haven (Dr. John A. Cunningham) and I, not satisfied because we could not get any information, asked for an interview with the Home Secretary. That interview took place. The Home Secretary told us he expected to make a detailed statement sometime before Easter on the process of the sale. It is now midsummer. We still cannot obtain any information. My impression is that the Home Secretary of still dawdling.

The time has now arrived when we should have some information. Everybody is wondering what is happening. People wonder what is to happen to them. Civil servants, who have served the scheme, are now in fear of redundancy. Others fear another move because of the expense involved.

During the course of the Committee stage of the Bill we tried to get an assurance from the Government about the safeguarding of jobs. They would not give it. Even now the brewery workers and all the others still have not received any notification. Many of them have had an opportunity of another job. They dare not leave because, if they did, they would lose their redundancy pay. When will the managers of the public houses be allowed to know anything concerning their future?

One is deeply conscious that even the brewery companies have a number of men under training. What guarantee is there that the managers will be assured of their future? There is now a great deal of discontent among the managers and staff because no progress appears to have been made in reply to the case submitted in February for an increase in their pay in order to put them in the picture with the private trade. Meanwhile, everyone engaged in the scheme is kept in the limbo of uncertainty. The longer it continues, the worse the position becomes.

Can the Minister give some kind of assurance about the number of people now employed in the scheme who will eventually become redundant? We hear a great deal of talk from the Government benches about the consumer. Can the Minister give the people of Carlisle an assurance that when the sale is complete the consumers will have their beer prices safeguarded? Will they still be able to buy their beer at the cheap rates they now enjoy?

The tragedy is that the only information we can get comes from one of the mouthpieces of the local Tory Party in his capacity as chairman of the advisory scheme. According to the Cumberland News of 16th June he said: There have been inevitable delays in preparation for sale of the main properties, but tender documents now being prepared should be ready for issue in six to eight weeks and the basis on which tenders are being invited will be announced before the Summer recess at the end of August. This will give prospective buyers two or three months to consider the lots on offer. I expect the properties to change hands in six to eight months' time. Surely a statement of that nature should have been made in this House by the Home Secretary. The Government are bypassing Parliament.

Many people have wanted to buy their properties. In each case the answer has been that it is not possible since the property is part of a lot which has to be sold. It is crying shame that people who want to buy properties which have been in their families in some cases for 50 years have been brushed aside in this way and told that their properties have to go with the scheme. They have to go with the scheme because property values have risen astronomically since the present Government came to power and especially since the Licensing (Abolition of State Management) Act became law about 12 months ago.

Will the Minister now order and set in motion the reassessment of the property of the Carlisle and District State Management Scheme, bearing in mind that prices have increased since the Act became law? Or is the property to go to the brewer friends of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on the Government side at give-away prices as a reward to those who gave handsomely to Tory Party funds and, as far as I know, are still contributing?

I say that not only my people in Carlisle but the whole nation have a right to answers to this and some of the other questions that I have posed.

2.15 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Lane)

I thank the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Ron Lewis) for the kind personal remarks with which he began the debate. Far from being conscious of being thrown in at the deep end, and although I do not know Carlisle very well yet, I regard it is a great privilege to have some responsibility for carrying on the next stage of this story.

A great deal of what the hon. Member said seems, from my knowledge of the matter, to be nearer to fantasy than to fact. I shall do what I can in the next quarter of an hour to give the hon. Member and the House a straightforward account about the stage we have reached. I am glad to have the opportunity to do so.

I regret the exaggerated tone of some of what the hon. Member said. I take some of those points straight away. I am sorry the hon. Member felt that he received a brush-off when he wrote to Storey, Sons and Parker. If he has any further questions on the progress being made or the stage reached, I hope he will get in touch with me. I will then try to give him any information I can.

The hon. Member did rather less than justice to the replies which my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State gave him at various stages during the last few months, and which I have been reading. I think they were as informative as they could be. There is no question of the Government trying to bypass Parliament. There is no mystery about this. There is no justification for the hon. Member's implied charges of inaction by the Government.

Before I deal with the whole range of questions raised by the hon. Member about the progress with the sale, I refer to one other thing not directly related to that: that is, the question of the pay claim which the hon. Member mentioned. I appreciate that this was made some time ago. All I can tell the hon. Member is that the claim is under urgent consideration and we shall be in touch with the union again as soon as we can. I regret that there is any further delay in this, but we shall be in touch with the union very shortly.

I hope I shall cover most of the hon. Member's points as I summarise the position we have now reached over the sale of these State management properties. This is not the occasion to go over the ground of past debates on what I think the hon. Member vividly called "the rape of the trade in Carlisle". This was very fully discussed during the debates on the Bill, in which I am sorry that I was unable to take part.

Mr. Michael Cocks (Bristol, South)

It is too painful.

Mr. Lane

There is nothing painful about it. I should be happy to have those debates again. We are much more concerned with the present situation and the legitimate anxieties and interests of the people of Carlisle who are concerned.

As the House knows, the Act requires the Secretary of State to dispose of State management property on such terms as appear to him expedient in the public interest, and it does not lay down any time scale. As the hon. Member will recall, when the Bill was in Committee the Government said that we thought completion might take a year from the passing of the Bill, which was on 27th July, 1971. Within that year we shall have substantially completed the sale of about 130 properties. These comprise 34 small public houses and 73 shops and private houses, all to the tenant or occupier, and a further 20 or so properties to local authorities. This is fair progress and compares quite well with what has been done in Scotland, where of course the number of properties is very much smaller.

The hon. Member raised in passing the question of the entitlement of tenants to buy their public houses. But it has been said on several previous occasions—and I must repeat it—that we feel we cannot equitably sell to all tenants without selling also to all managers, which would mean selling all the properties separately. In the view of our agents, this would mean that we would realise substantially less than if we grouped properties together for sale. We did not feel justified in doing this at the taxpayers' expense.

I understand that the principles we intend to follow in the sale were fully explained to the Standing Committee. We need to get the maximum value in realisations of the properties and at the same time to avoid any risk of local monopoly. I stress yet again, as was stressed in Committee, that we are following the advice of our professional advisers who are specialists in dealing with licensed premises. We were pressed in Committee to make sure that this selling operation would be done, as it were, at arm's length, from the Home Office or the Treasury. We therefore appointed independent agents. We are sticking to those proposals and we must naturally give weight to their advice.

What has taken longer than we expected, and I make no attempt to disguise this, is the sale of the remaining 125 properties—the larger public houses, the hotels and brewery—which are to be sold, in accordance with the advice from our professional agents, by public tender. When so many properties are involved this is a very complex undertaking. The tender documents have to be prepared with great care and they must include the detailed particulars and conditions relating to each property that a potential purchaser has the right to know.

That is because under this procedure of public tender there is no stage at which there is a sale subject to contract. The acceptance of a tender constitutes a contract with the buyer. We have therefore had to scrutinise very carefully the deeds and records, carry out considerable research in Carlisle and draw up detailed plans, and this has taken a long time to carry through. But it is largely for these technical and entirely creditable reasons and because we wish to make a thorough job of the offers of sale that the details of the sale have not yet been announced.

I understand that this is a matter of great local interest but we have thought it right to follow normal commercial practice in not announcing the detailed basis on which tenders are to be invited until the tender documents are ready for issue. As I said on 15th June in answer to a Question from the hon. Member—and I thought from what he said this evening that he had overlooked that this was announced in the House two weeks ago—these documents are with the printer and should be ready for issue in the first half of August.

An announcement giving details of the sale will be made before the Summer Recess and we hope to be able to announce decisions on the tenders in the autumn. The remaining properties will be changing hands in six to eight months' time from now and the House will be kept informed at every stage.

Mr. Ron Lewis

We have been told about that by the chairman of the advisory committee. Will the Under-Secretary tell us something about the value? We want to know something new.

Mr. Lane

I have repeated what I announced to the hon. Gentleman in a written answer less than a fortnight ago, whatever may have been said elsewhere. Because we are doing this in a thorough and methodical way I cannot give more details tonight, but I have tried to indicate how we will proceed over the next few weeks and months and we shall keep the House informed at the time that we think it right to say more.

Mr. Lewis

What about a new revaluation?

Mr. Lane

I cannot say more about that this evening. That must await another occasion. The suggestion has been made that the House should be informed of the outcome of sale before any commitment is entered into. As my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State explained on 25th April, however, this would not be appropriate under the public tender procedure. As we promised the Standing Committee, we shall inform the House of the outcome of sale—that is to say, the names of the buyers and the price for each property or group of properties, together with the independent valuations which we received before the sale. That we shall do in due course.

The other main point that I want to touch upon—it was rightly mentioned by the hon. Gentleman—is the future of the State management staff. The hon. Gentleman knows, and I hope acknowledges, that this is something to which we attach great importance, as we must. There have been regular visits to Carlisle by members of the Establishment Department of the Home Office and discussions have been held with the associations and unions concerned and with individual members of the staff. We are in close touch with Government Departments which can offer posts in the Carlisle area and we have already made satisfactory arrangements for a number of staff. In particular, special arrangements are being made, which I believe will be helpful, with Her Majesty's Customs and Excise in connection with the opening of its new local offices in Carlisle, and particularly with the development of offices for dealing with value added tax.

Those staff for whom no alternative employment can be found will receive appropriate compensation in accordance with the recent agreement made with the Staff Side of the National Whitley Council covering redundancy situations. Under the agreement we have had to issue formal notices of termination of employment to some staff, but we have made it clear that we shall be prepared to continue this employment as long as the jobs exist.

I know that the delay in announcing details of the sale of the larger properties has caused speculation in Carlisle and uncertainty among the staff about how long they will remain in Government service. I regret this and I hope that tonight's debate has been useful in clearing the air and in affording me an opportunity to make this brief progress report on the whole situation.

Mr. Michael Cocks

Will the people who eventually buy their properties have to pay more because of the Government's procrastination? If the matter had been cleared up some time ago, would they not have paid substantially less than they will have to pay when the matter is settled?

Mr. Lane

I cannot go further than the general terms in which I have spoken tonight beyond saying that the procedure of public tender will ensure that we get the true market price for these properties. That seems to me to be the way in which any Government should proceed, and I must refute the charge that there has been undue delay in carrying this operation through. It has been necessary to do this thoroughly in the way I have tried to explain.

I assure both hon. Gentlemen who have stayed up late for this debate that we shall press on with the remaining stages of the sale with the greatest possible urgency until the matter is settled.

Mr. Ron Lewis

What about my constituents, the consumers, in whom hon. Gentlemen on the Government side are supposed to be so interested?

Mr. Lane

I hope they will continue to enjoy the beer which they drink in Carlisle.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Two o'clock