HC Deb 26 May 1972 vol 837 cc1800-3
The Minister for Transport Industries (Mr. John Peyton)

I will, with permission, make a statement about the sale of Thomas Cook and Son Ltd.

The Transport Holding Company has completed its negotiations for the sale of Thomas Cook and Son Ltd. It has recommended that Cook's should be sold to the consortium of Midland Bank Ltd., Trust Houses Forte Ltd. and the Automobile Association Ltd. for £22.5 million.

The group satisfies the Government's main criteria of reputation, financial standing, experience in banking, travel and related fields. It intends to maintain and develop Cook's as a going concern. The group has willingly given the assurances required of it to safeguard the interests of the staff and has undertaken for a nominal consideration to indemnify the Transport Holding Company against any claims by staff for compensation under Section 2(4) of the Transport Holding Company Act, 1972.

I have therefore given my consent to the sale, final details of which were only settled yesterday afternoon.

Mr. Bradley

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we on this side of the House have deplored throughout the Government's determination to press on with this doctrinaire, unnecessary and disruptive exercise at a time of great uncertainty in the travel trade business? Can he say how many concerns wished to purchase Thomas Cook & Sons, and if the consortium headed by B.O.A.C., B.E.A. and Barclays Bank was considered would it not have been desirable to have had a degree of public participation in this famous firm? Was the successful consortium required to give an undertaking that it would not dispose of any of the varied assets of Thomas Cook and that it will be left intact?

Whilst I am glad to note the assurances given regarding the safeguarding of the interests of the staff, may I ask whether anything has been done to impress upon the new owners the need to consult the employees' appropriate trade union, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association? Finally, could the right hon. Gentleman say what are the implications for Thomas Cook & Son's overseas staff?

Mr. Peyton

I cannot say that the hon. Gentleman's various points have surprised me in the least. He has given me loud and frequent warning of them, particularly during the Committee stage. As to the point he makes about the consortium of which B.O.A.C. and B.E.A. were members, it was considered but that consortium was not the highest bidder. For the hon. Gentleman's information, it was the second highest bidder; the successful group made a considerably higher bid.

The whole of this negotiation was conducted by the Transport Holding Company advised by Schroder Wagg, and no one was treated in any way unfairly. I give the hon. Gentleman that absolute assurance.

As to retaining Thomas Cook in public ownership, this could be a very barren argument. I know that the hon. Gentleman finds it difficult to change his opinions in such matters, but I think that Thomas Cook has been condemned to the languor of public ownership for too long.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be considerable relief that this decision has now been made, especially amongst the staff of Thomas Cook and Son? One would hope that the new consortium that is taking over will deal with the staff of this great company in the best way possible, ensuring them of a considerable future.

Secondly, there will be some interest in the fact that the Automobile Association is taking an interest in this company. The members of the Automobile Association will want assurances that it will not concentrate on travel at the expense of what it is really supposed to do, which is to look after its members, who have recently had their subscriptions increased.

Mr. Speaker

Order. These are interesting observations, but the hon. Member is supposed to be asking a question.

Mr. Lewis

I beg your pardon. Mr. Speaker.

Thirdly, in view of the fact that we have news this morning that American Express is taking a considerable interest which may eventually lead to the full takeover of a British travel organisation, would it not be an advantage if the Opposition allowed this new company to settle down and make progress since the competition internationally in this field is considerable and is growing?

Mr. Peyton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the remarks with which he introduced his question. I am satisfied that the group intends to look after the best interests of the staff, and that it will be in close touch with the unions concerned.

With regard to the AA, it is entirely a matter for the AA to satisfy its own members as to the way in which it will perform its duties.

As to American Express, I do not think that that is a matter for me.

Mr. Bidwell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, North-East (Mr. Bradley) comes as no surprise? Although it may seem a small thing in the national economic setting, in the eyes of ordinary people it entirely fits in with their picture of the present Government as a greedy, grasping Government representing rich men. This smallish episode will be set against the two recent Budgets which have also followed that trend.

Mr. Peyton

I hardly know how to comment upon the eloquence of the hon. Gentleman. I can only say that I hope he enjoys his holiday the better for having got rid of it.

Mr. Atkinson

Is the Minister aware of the commitment of a future Labour Government about non-payment of compensation? Has he informed the consortium involved and any interested parties about this commitment and its possible effect upon any price negotiations?

Mr. Peyton

I do not doubt that the group concerned is just as aware as I am of the remote possibility of the kind of catastrophe which the hon. Gentleman has suggested.