HC Deb 01 July 1974 vol 876 cc10-7
8. Mr. Stanley

asked the Secretary of State for Industry if he will publish the list of industries in which the National Enterprise Board will not be making investments.

16. Mr. Dixon

asked the Secretary of State for Industry whether he will make a further statement about his plans for nationalisation of industry.

19. Mr. Giles Shaw

asked the Secretary of State for Industry how many companies in the food manufacturing industry are likely to be affected by the Government's proposals for nationalisation.

20. Mr. Tim Renton

asked the Secretary of State for Industry whether he will undertake not to propose nationalising any of the British metal mining companies.

Mr. Benn

I must asked the hon. Members to await the Government's proposals for the extension of public ownership, which will be published as soon as possible.

Mr. Stanley

When considering how far the right hon. Gentleman wishes to expand the activities of the National Enterprise Board, will he give careful consideration to the figures that were given to me by his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer last Thursday, which showed that in the financial year 1972–73—the last year for which complete figures are available—there was a net inflow from private industry to the Exchequer, after taking subsidies into account, of £2,151 million? That is the equivalent of a net inflow of £6 million per day in comparison with a net outflow from the public sector of industry, during the same year, of £1 million per day. Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to acknowledge that there is a net inflow from the private sector of industry of approximately £6 million per day and that the suggestions that he has made repeatedly that private industry is a net drain on the Exchequer are totally inaccurate and grossly misleading to the House and to the country?

Mr. Benn

In summary, the hon. Gentleman has said that private industry pays more money to the Government than is received in the support schemes. That has never been in dispute—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I have never disputed that. The problem that the Conservative Party must face is that despite substantial payments by the taxpayer to private manufacturing industry by all parties since the war we have not succeeded in removing the unfair disparity in regional job opportunities or in attracting enough investment in private manufacturing industry. It has remained difficult even to deal with the non-oil deficit. Those are the problems to which the National Enterprise Board and planning agreements will be directed.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts

Does my right hon. Friend accept that many of his hon. Friends believe that a rapid extension of public ownership is vital for the future of the British economy and that they would be very concerned if there were any curtailment of the activities of the National Enterprise Board? Does my right hon. Friend accept that our concern is not whether there should be an extension of public ownership but merely what form that extension should take and how democratic it will be?

Mr. Benn

I share my hon. Friend's view, and I can assure him that we shall bring forward, in the form of a Government statement, what we said in our manifesto. I am glad that my hon. Friend referred to democracy. The element of democratic control will be the new and important dimension.

Mr. Dixon

When the right hon. Gentleman is contemplating acquiring shares on behalf of the Government, I assume that he will be aware that under the Industry Act he, the Secretary of State, is required to dispose of shares or stock as soon as, in his opinion, it is reasonably practicable to do so? Some of my hon. Friends and I understand that some of the right hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends are under the impression that it will never be—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must make his point in the form of a question.

Mr. Dixon

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he would be acting illegally if, in his opinion, the shares could never be returned to private ownership?

Mr. Benn

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and to his right hon. and hon. Friends for giving me legislation that allows me to do certain things. I am well aware of the limitations that that legislation imposes. The hon. Gentleman will no doubt await with keener interest the improvements to his legislation that we have in mind.

Mr. Thin

As private investors are apparently reluctant to invest their money in private industry to the extent that is currently needed, will my right hon. Friend tell me why the Opposition should be so reluctant for the taxpayer, whose money, apparently, is to be used, to have the same rights of ownership as a private shareholder would expect for his money?

Mr. Benn

I agree with that. The problem that the House must confront is not that this Government have no confidence in capitalism, but that capitalism in Britain appears to have no confidence in itself.

Mr. Shaw

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that his statement today has done nothing to restore confidence and that at present confidence is one of the biggest factors which is weakening British industry? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in the food manufacturing industry the problems of primary producers on the one hand and of restrictions on margins in retailing on the other are combining to produce the lowest level of profitability in the industry for many years?

Mr. Benn

The general problem to which the hon. Gentleman referred in the latter part of his question is a real one. I put it to him that to define confidence solely in terms of what the City of London thinks and not to take into account the confidence of working people as a whole explains exactly why the Conservative Government collapsed in the biggest failure of public confidence that we have had since the war.

Mr. Cryer

Does my right hon. Friend not accept that the National Enterprise Board is of vital importance to British industry because the owners of capital have been loyally and patriotically exporting it at the rate of £1,100 million a year to countries like South Africa, where people can be exploited to much greater advantage?

Mr. Benn

My hon. Friend has identified another important failure, namely, that there has been a system in operation under which it was more profitable to put money into empty office blocks or invest it abroad than to put it into the means by which the British people must ultimately earn their living.

Mr. Renton

The Prime Minister said yesterday that a clear frontier must be defined between private and public in- dustry. Will he tell us where that frontier lies, as there appears to be considerable confusion in the Labour Government and more importantly within the minds of the British public, on this issue? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that nothing he has said today helps clear up the confusion?

Mr. Benn

The hon. Gentleman ought to examine the record of his own party. He will find that legislation was introduced which represented an enormous blurring of the frontiers between the public and private sector through the support given by the taxpayer to private manufacturing industry. Of course I share the view of the Prime Minister that in extending public ownership we shall be drawing new and clearer frontiers.

Mr. Jay

Will my right hon. Friend give us an assurance that when the Government advance public money to private firms some share security or other security will be accepted in return?

Mr. Benn

Yes. That is our manifesto commitment.

Mr. Heseltine

Will the—[Interruption]—I must make it clear to hon. Members opposite that the entire country is suffering from a state of total lack of industrial confidence—

Mr. Speaker

Order. There may be a time and place for doing that. This is Question Time.

Mr. Heseltine

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain to his colleagues that I will not be shouted down on this matter, here or anywhere else? Will he make them understand that, for the first time that I can remember, four Members of the Government have been put up within a week to try to disclaim the policies of the Secretary of State for Industry—the Prime Minister, the Paymaster-General, the Secretary of State for Energy, and the Home Secretary's PPS? Has that ever happened under any Government before? Will the right hon. Gentleman now explain why the great dialogue of consultation that was to go on, leading to a Green Paper on industrial proposals, has now been superseded by a White Paper? Will he tell the House, following the efforts of his colleagues to tell industry that there is nothing to be worried about, whether he is still pursuing his inquiries into the affairs of 4,000 subsidiary companies in this country? Will he under-stand—

Mr. Raphael Tuck

"Twenty Questions."

Mr. Heseltine

—that the crucial difference between our use of the Industry Act, which we passed, and the use he seeks to make of it is that we did not back it up with the bludgeon effect of nationalisation.

Mr. Bean

There will be consultations on the basis of the White Paper. The uncertainty of which the hon. Gentleman complains has been deliberately created by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) and himself, who, being informed that the 20 largest companies were to be asked how much taxpayers' money they had received, converted that into a claim that they had discovered a secret list of companies intended for public ownership. They then went to a published book and discovered the names of the 4,000 subsidiaries owned by those 20 companies and pretended that they had discovered Government policy. Is it not a fact that the two hon. Gentlemen have made absolute fools of themselves?

13. Mr. Tebbit

asked the Secretary of State for Industry if he will list those companies with which he has discussed his policy of nationalisation.

26. Mr. Norman Lamont

asked the Secretary of State for Industry whether he will make a statement about his discussions with interested parties about his intentions both about nationalisation and planning agreements with industry.

28. Mr. Biffen

asked the Secretary of State for Industry if he will list the bodies with whom he has recently discussed the formulation of planning agreements in respect of major companies operating in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Benn

I have had general and informal discussions with the TUC, the CBI and others about our policy thinking. But, as I have already made clear, detailed consultation must await the publication of the Government's proposals.

Mr. Tebbit

Will the right hon. Gentleman do us two favours when he comes to that point? First, will he give those concerned more than the 20 minutes he recently gave the CBI to reply to his proposals? Secondly, when he does go to see these companies, will he share the official car with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Home Secretary, so that they do not have to follow him, at additional expense, to try to undo the damage that he has done?

Mr. Benn

I should always be glad to get a lift from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and therefore I take that point. All I would say about the first point raised by the hon. Gentleman—the case of the Court Line—is that, to the best of my knowledge, the Conservative Government did not consult either the CBI or the TUC, and the TUC certainly found that it was able to say that it hoped, whatever the solution, that the jobs in the development areas could be saved. I am not complaining that the CBI felt unable to give a detailed answer, but it is important that those who have general policy views to push upon the Government should also recognise that Governments themselves face very difficult problems at short notice, and that Ministers often do not have a great deal of time to reach their own conclusions.

Mr. William Hamilton

In view of the serious state of the National Health Service, will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that he will take steps to take over parts of the pharmaceutical industry—which we included in the manifesto—and also, through the proposed National Enterprise Board, establish a public purchasing agency to enable the NHS to make considerable savings by purchasing its equipment through a public board of that kind?

Mr. Benn

I suspect that my hon. Friend is anticipating a Question which he put down to me and which was to have been transferred to another Minister but could not be so transferred because of an industrial dispute on HANSARD. I understand what he has said, however, and the reasons for it.

Mr. Biffen

Inasmuch as these discussions will touch on the private sector of the steel industry, does the right hon. Gentleman intend to discuss them, or has he already discussed them with the European Community? Will he indicate whether he has any plans which will touch upon the investment plans of the private steel sector, and whether the Press reports which have appeared concerning his talks with the European Commission are broadly accurate?

Mr. Benn

I have made no proposal with respect to the private sector, but the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the terms of the Treaty of Paris, which govern the Coal and Steel Community, have, in effect, removed control over the steel industry, both public and private, from national Governments and conferred it upon the Commission. Indeed, when the Conservative Government, in the Counter-Inflation Act, sought to take control of steel prices, albeit temporarily, they fell foul of the Commission. These general problems of the steel industry were discussed by me in the context of what was a purely fact-finding visit to Brussels last week.