HC Deb 12 July 1976 vol 915 cc261-83

'In section 24 (Accounts of the corporation and audit) at the end there shall be inserted:— (8) The Secretary of State shall lay a copy of the annual report before each House of Parliament not later than three months after the end of the financial year."'.—[Mr. Giles Shaw.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this clause we may also take New Clause 6—Quarterly accounts—and New Clause 7—Half yearly accounts.

Mr. Shaw

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that in subsection (8) in New Clause 4 reference is made to a copy of the annual report when it should read a copy of the annual report and accounts". The matter was put to the Public Bill Office last Thursday. We requested that an amendment be made, but unfortunately that has not been done. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will recognise that we are referring to the report and accounts.

We are returning to possibly a much more important and valid topic for discussion by hon. Members on both sides of the House—namely, the role of Parliament in relation to the accountability of the corporation, and the way in which we should discharge our obligation to constituents and taxpayers. I hope that we shall have a full debate on what should be the role of Parliament.

In each of the new clauses there is reference to the precise way in which Parliament should become involved. There are three principles involved in the clauses and it is for the benefit of the House that we should take the clauses together.

The first principle at stake is how Parliament should discharge its obligation to taxpayers to ensure that the moneys we are subventing to the corporation are properly accounted for—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Mr. Shaw.

Mr. Shaw

The second principle at stake is how should Parliament, in its duty to the board of the corporation, avoid interfering in the orderly management of its affairs. Anything we do in the way of scrutiny of accounts and examination of progress must bear in mind the overriding importance of ensuring that the corporation can continue with the full management of its own affairs.

The third point of principle involved in these clauses is, how should Parliament be kept informed of the board's operating performance so that Parliament can have the right context in which to arrive at an appropriate decision on tranches of public expenditure in respect of which the Minister can lay an Order under the affirmative procedure?

In relation to New Clauses 6 and 7 where we refer to quarterly or half-yearly accounts, I do not see any great difference in principle between those two forms of measurement. I do not think there is any major reason why we should prefer quarterly to half-yearly accounts, although we would all wish to see as regular accounting as possible. What is at stake is a decision on what should be the correct formula for the monitoring of the corporation's activities and the correct way in which this monitoring should be laid before the House. Therefore, I do not distinguish between the three and six months in those new clauses.

We start with some slight advantage in knowing the Minister of State's commitment to public information. In fact, according to the Official Report of the Committee stage, the Minister of State said: I am a great believer in providing the maximum possible amount of information for Parliament and the public on activities of publicly-owned corporations."—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 15th June 1976, cc. 133–4.]

Mr. Tom King

When is he going to start?

Mr. Shaw

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) asks "When is he going to start?".

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Let us get a proper understanding on these three proposed new clauses. The heading of New Clause 4 is: Date of submission of annual report to Parliament. It is only a question of the date of submission which should be discussed on each of the clauses.

Mr. Shaw

I think you will also agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that there are 365 permutations.

Mr. Fairbairn

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When did the superscription of a clause ever control what the clause said? The fact that the superscription says Date of submission of annual report to Parliament", which is not mentioned in any relevant way in the clause, is nothing to do with the matter.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We are dealing only with the dates of submission.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You quoted the words "Date of submission …". The last five words are: … of annual report to Parliament.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. That is what I am saying. It is a question of the date of submission of the annual report to Parliament that we should be discussing.

Mr. Shaw

I am very happy with your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a matter of the date of submission of which I am speaking.

Subsection (8) of New Clause 4 states that a copy of the annual report and accounts shall be laid before each House of Parliament not later than three months after the end of the financial year. It will also be recognised that in the subsequent new clauses we are dealing with quarterly or half-yearly accounts. We are at one in dealing with the question when these accounts are to be laid before the House and in what form, should the House agree to monitor the affairs of the British Steel Corporation. We acknowledge the fact that the Minister of State is clearly in favour of disclosure of all the activities, where possible, of publicly-owned corporations. The Minister of State said: Speaking again in general terms, I am a great believer in annual reports and accounts providing information in inverse ratio to the presentation."—[Official Report, Standing Committee G; 15th June 1976; c. 134.] The Under-Secretary will recall that we had a little joust about the way in which they should be presented.

But since the Minister of State is clearly in favour of the disclosure in the report and accounts of as much information as possible about the corporation, there is little difference in principle between the two sides of the House on the matter. What concerns us is the time at which these reports shall be laid, and possibly the extent to which they should cover the activities of the corporation.

2.30 a.m.

In the debate on the previous new clause, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall) referred to the difficulties which the Standing Committee had in obtaining reports and accounts for any period later than March 1975. That was all we had when the Committee sat, and we wish to record our gratitude to the Minister of State for his efforts to obtain unaudited and draft accounts for the consideration of the Committee. But the fact that about one year after presentation of the previous year's accounts we did not have available for scrutiny in Committee the subsequent year's trading accounts and report of the corporation of itself suggests that there is need for statutory provision for the preparation of accounts and need also for a time scale within which that provision shall be met.

Mr. Tony Durant (Reading, North)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the current accounts are still not available? I have just tried to get them from the Vote Office.

Mr. Shaw

I am interested to hear that. If we are to discuss this important Bill tonight, towards the middle of July 1976, and we do not yet have the report and accounts for the trading year 1975–76, that shows the need for amendment to the Bill in the way we propose. [Interruption.] I hope that the point which my hon. Friend made will have some influence on hon. Members below the Gangway.

Mr Tom Swain (Derbyshire, North-East)

Tell "Cornfield" to shut up.

Mr. Shaw

I always enjoy a minor intervention, but I fancy that interruption from below the Gangway is becoming major.

Mr. Ridley

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The remark which came from the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Swain) was "Tell 'Cornfield' to shut up". Is that some code to which we are not privy?

Mr. Speaker

Order. Terms of affection in this place are not a matter for me.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

I am most grateful, Mr. Speaker, for the compliment which you have just paid me, and I am grateful also to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Swain) for passing it in the first place.

Mr. Shaw

As one who went to university, sowed his wild oats, got ploughed and left to cultivate his own land, I am delighted to hear it, but I wish to bring the House back to the new clauses, and I trust that my efforts will be rewarded with some measure of concentration.

We recognise that it is a major proposal that we should ask the corporation to lay a copy of the annual report and accounts before each House of Parliament not later than three months after the end of its financial year, but we have a duty to the public and to the House to ensure that financial housekeeping within the corporation, as in all nationalised undertakings, is treated as one of the most important criteria of performance by which we may judge its effectiveness.

That requirement must apply however large the undertaking may be. The corporation has about 48 subsidiary companies, and it must be able to demonstrate to the House its efficiency and good housekeeping. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Luton, West (Mr. Sedgemore) does not wish to hear my speech. perhaps he will go out.

In the context of financial control, we recognise that the relationship between the British Steel Corporation and the Department of Industry will undergo substantial examination in the investigation carried on by the National Economic Development Office. The Under-Secretary of State will recall that in Committee we set great store—as, I think, he does, too—by the expectation that this inquiry will probably result in major changes in the way in which the interface between the Government and the corporation will be charted in future years. Obviously, financial management will be at the top of the list of priorities when one comes to consider methods whereby the corporation can give an account of itself not only to the sponsoring Department but to Parliament itself.

In this clause we are dealing with the role of Parliament in relation to the report and accounts of the corporation, but if a Government are to reduce public expenditure, and if Parliament is to monitor the public sector, the early publication of the report and accounts of a major undertaking such as the BSC is essential.

It would be relevant to the economy to have up-to-date accounts of an element in the economy as vital as the corporation. Indeed, I can think of nothing more important than that this House should have before it, within three months of the end of the financial year, the report and accounts of BSC to give the Government a clear view of that important sector of our economy. Annual reports and accounts are frequently dealt with as simple historic documents looking back to years long since forgotten. Certainly they are much less important than current documents in the calendar year in which decisions are taken.

Furthermore, such information will clearly be relevant to Parliament's work. We know that the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries has found it difficult to obtain up-to-date information about the institutions which have been set up to monitor these matters, but all the work we carry out in Parliament on industrial debates—in employment, investment, regional policy and so on—concerns aspects of the economic management of a major undertaking such as the British Steel Corporation. It would undoubtedly be helpful to have this information within three calendar months. It is vital that reports and accounts are seen as soon as possible.

We must remember that this is a reasonable commercial discipline. I accept that the Minister may offer some slight amendment in respect of the timing. If four months were thought to be a more viable concept than a period of three months, we would be willing to discuss amendment to our proposal, but what we cannot willingly concede is the important principle of obtaining up-to-date information in the form of reports and accounts which are useful in discussing the future development of the BSC.

I am well aware that Governments are always criticised for being slow in providing information. I recall that there was a sixteenth century Flemish proverb at the time Spain ruled the Low Countries: "If death came from Spain, we should all be immortal." It surely must be within the wit of the Department of Industry and BSC to provide reports and accounts within as short a period as three months.

Mr. Fairbairn

My hon. Friend can rest assured that there is no risk of the present Government being immortal.

Mr. Shaw

It is fairly clear that, after all these late nights, the Government and their supporters are dying on their feet. On page 20 of the Iron and Steel Act 1975, it is said in Part II, in Clause 24(3) The accounts of the Corporation shall be audited by an auditor appointed by the Secretary of State, and a person shall not be qualified to be so appointed unless he is a member of one or more of the following bodies …". Almost every body of chartered accountants is listed in that Act to offer assistance to the corporation in the preparation of its accounts. Indeed, the provision concludes—and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) will doubtless find this of great importance— but a Scottish firm may be so appointed if each of the partners is qualified to be so appointed. Let us assume that there is within the corporation and within its financial advisers the capacity to produce the accounts within the limit that we have set in this new clause.

There is a further element to the frequency with which these accounts should be set before the House, and it is directly related to the Bill. This is the vast scale of the borrowing requirement being laid before the House and therefore the real necessity to have a clear statement of how the corporation is proceeding and whether its financial investments are producing adequate returns, as we hope they would be.

It is vitally important that we should remind ourselves that the object of the Bill is to allow a major increase in the borrowing requirement, to allow that increase to be lifted by an Order laid before the House at possibly an even later hour than that appertaining tonight. Unless we have adequate financial information, we shall be unable to take a proper and full-hearted decision on it.

I remind the House that the statutory limit was set four years ago at £300 million. That was in 1972. It was raised to £1,250 million about two years later and then raised in the 1975 Act to £2,000 million. It is now before the House in this Bill as £3,000 million, with the right to increase it by a further £1,000 million, subject only to an affirmative Order.

The House must recognise that, given that scale of borrowing, the clause that we have tabled suggesting that the corporation's accounts are presented within three months is reasonable if the House is to be asked to give approval to this scale of investment by the corporation. When one looks at the other new clauses dealing with quarterly or six-monthly reports, one realises that it is equally relevant, if the House is to be asked to increase the tranches and the Minister comes before us with a simple statutory Order procedure, that we should have much more regular information about how far the corporation is proceeding. We cannot be asked to agree to another subvention being made to the corporation without a full and well-documented case about the latest financial returns that the corporation might make. We therefore need the report and accounts to be available to us with such frequency as is compatible with the requirements of the House of Commons taking a decision on matters affecting the borrowing requirement of the corporation.

This clause is not the place in which to discuss such things as return on capital—that is a subject on its own—but it is right that we should draw attention to the fact that if the Government require the Price Commission, for example, to produce a quarterly report on all the pricing acitivities of British industry so that it can be laid before the House as a document of importance in discussing how the economy is behaving, it is not outside the wit of the Department of Industry or the corporation to lay a comparable report before the House on a quarterly basis.

Mr. Hal Miller

Has my hon. Friend considered the situation under the National Enterprise Board where, before British Leyland gets a fresh tranche, we are to have the comments of the NEB on the company? Does my hon. Friend consider that with the BSC we should have not only the accounts but the Government's comments on them so that the House is able to take a reasoned view before authorising the release of the next tranche of money?

Mr. Shaw

My hon. Friend has made a fair point. It so happens that, in relation to the NEB, we set up a new procedure under the Industry Act 1975 whereby we were able to go into considerable to detail about how that board should operate and what rôle Parliament should have towards it. In relation to the British Steel Corporation there is not the same degree of procedure laid down, and my hon. Friend is quite right to say that we could well do with the same disciplines being applied to the nationalised industries as are necessary for the National Enterprise Board. We have put this new clause before the House because it is our firm intention that Parliament should have a more important rôle in overseeing the activities of the British Steel Corporation than it has had in the past. This is necessary in principle because we are being asked to subvent vast sums of money to the corporation. Therfore we should have the most up-dated information available in the context of the BSC.

2.45 p.m.

Mr. Tom King

My hon. Friend says this is reasonable in principle. But he did express some concern in practice. What is a reasonable time in which the BSC might report? The amendment suggests three months. Has he had any discussions with the corporation on this point? How long does it feel it needs to report?

Mr. Shaw

I think that ICI, as a matter of principle reports within seven weeks of the end of the financial year. The Minister may like to take that point on board. I welcomed his comments when we discussed this in Committee. The Minister produced very rapidly the unaudited—I admit—accounts in a short time. This led us to believe that the corporation does provide updated accounts very regularly, as a demonstration of its financial progress.

My right hon. Friend was right to point out that in large sectors of private industry the regular updating of accounts on a quarterly basis is not uncommon. Therefore, it is certainly both practical and desirable for the Corporation to do this as far as the House of Commons is concerned.

Finally, I stress the fact that we cannot have, on behalf of the taxpayers, or on behalf of our own constituents, a thorough-going examination of the corporation unless the kind of information we have before the House is updated and relevant.

I seek to get away from the tendency to regard the report and accounts as an historical document. If we had it more regularly it would become an aid to forecasting the direction in which the economy turns. If this debate gets us to look forward and to use the financial data of the British Steel Corporation to guide us in our deliberations of industrial policy, it has been worthwhile.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Flint, West)

want to support my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) in his eloquent plea for strengthening parliamentary control over the BSC and over the supervision which the Secretary of State exercises over the corporation's activities.

I must confess that I am rather less warm in my affection for the BSC than are many hon. Members on both sides of the House. To judge from the proceedings in Standing Committee, there was some vying on both sides in the protestations of good will towards the corporation. I feel rather churlish in adopting a less friendly attitude, but there are two very good reasons for this. Briefly, first of all—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member must be even briefer than that. His affection for the British Steel Corporation has nothing to do with the clause, which is to do with annual reports.

Sir A. Meyer

I am seeking to show that by submitting regular annual reports and accounts very briefly after the financial year has ended, the corporation would enable one to form a clearer judgment of what it is up to. If that judgment were favourable, it would alter my feelings of affection towards the board. But in deference to your ruling, Mr. Speaker, I will not dwell on the first point that I was going to make about the excessive share of the national resources being devoted to the steel strategy under the 10-year plan. That share is altogether disproportionate.

I come to the point directly related to the new clauses, the importance of strengthening parliamentary control over the expenditure of the corporation as a means of keeping a close check on what the corporation is up to. One of the reasons why I am defective in affection for the corporation arises from what has happened over the steel works bordering on my constituency and in which many of my constituents work.

Because of the inadequacy of the checks that this House is able to apply to the course of conduct proposed by the corporation, it is not possible to acquire the information needed in order to judge whether the proposals of the corporation for the closure of steelmaking at Shotton and for other closures are well-founded. Without up to date information, it is not possible to judge.

Mr. Durant

Perhaps I can assist my hon. Friend. In the annual report for 1975, the type of activity he is referring to comes under the heading "Extraordinary Items", and it is merely stated that from time to time the corporation will need to close various plants.

Sir A. Meyer

That is precisely the point I am coming to—the extraordinarily vague and ill-defined nature of the statistical information which the corporation provides when it is driven into a corner. It is not made easier for us to judge the rightness of its proposals on such scanty figures when there is frequent interference—I use the most neutral term possible—by Ministers in proposals by the corporation. These tear me apart because sometimes I approve what the Ministers are doing and disapprove what the corporation is doing.

As a result of this situation, we have a see-saw effort. It is instructive to observe that the Sunday Times of 18th August 1974 referred to a last-ditch effort to save the Shotton works. On the basis of the information available to us then, we had every reason to think that a decision was imminent. The Liverpool Daily Post of 19th July 1975—

Mr. Max Madden (Sowerby)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. While many of us would find the history of Shotton steel works of great interest, is it in order on this new clause?

Mr. Speaker

It is not in order to discuss the whole question of closures and so on. I do not think that the hon. Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer) was going to do that. I think that he was just illustrating his argument for a moment, but he must keep to the new clause.

Mr. Michael Heseltine (Henley)

Is not New Clause 5 being debated with this group?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman should pay more attention. That is a separate point.

Sir A. Meyer

I would not dream of discussing the whole programme of closures. I am trying to point out the difficulty in arriving at an intelligent appreciation of the BSC's proposals or of Government policy on the inadequate and tardy statistics which are supplied to us and which would be remedied if the new clause were accepted.

On 30th July we read a newspaper report headed: Death sentence fixed for next week". The latest was this year when we read: Silence over Shotton decision". Now the Minister promises a statement as soon as possible.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must discuss the question whether there is an annual report or the proposals in New Clauses 6 and 7.

Sir A. Meyer

We need more regular, detailed information and the only way of getting that is through an annual half-yearly or quarterly report. If we had periodic, three-monthly figures to enable us to form an intelligent judgment, we could arrive at a rational assessment of the calculations that the BSC slips into a general rag bag when trying to sell its controversial proposals to successive Governments for phasing out steelmaking at Shotton in favour of the big-plant strategy of concentrating all steelmaking at Port Talbot and shipping hot-rolled coil to Shotton for finishing.

All the decisions that we must make whether a strategy is justified depend upon having up-to-date figures to enable us to balance the costs involved. The costs are marginal because they depend upon the unstated element of transport and shipping hot-rolled coil across North Wales to the South by means of an inadequate road and rail system.

Without comprehensive figures it is not possible for us to form a considered judgment whether the Government's acceptance or rejection of the BSC's proposals is justified. The Minister must have encountered the difficulty of having statistics which are not sufficiently up to date for him to reach a decision.

I strongly support the new clause. Perhaps on a later debate I can return in more detail to the costs involved in the Port Talbot and Shotton strategy. I hope that I have said enough to indicate the importance of providing figures, without which we cannot intelligently argue about proposals.

3.0 a.m.

Sir J. Eden

It is a matter for regret that this debate is having to be taken at this hour. [Interruption.] I could not hear what the Minister of State said. Does he wish to intervene?

Mr. Kaufman

I said that if certain Conservative Members had not filibustered so shamefully on the Race Relations Bill this would not have happened. This Bill would have been taken much earlier.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I did not hear the little exchange before, because my attention was distracted, but perhaps now we can come back to the annual report.

Mr. Tom King

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Was not the reference by the Minister of State to the Race Relations Bill—I do not know whether he was here for any of the proceedings on that Bill—a reflection on the Chair? I understand that he accused my hon. Friends of what can only be repetition, which would have been out of order.

Mr. Speaker

I heard only half the exchange. Perhaps we can now return to the clause.

Sir J. Eden

The point arose simply because I began by regretting that this important debate was having to take place at this hour. The Minister of State then intervened, at my invitation.

Mr. Speaker

If the Minister made a remark about activities on some other occasion, it can have had nothing to do with the clause.

Sir J. Eden

I think, Mr. Speaker, that you missed the context in which I was having the exchange with the hon. Gentleman. It is a matter for regret that we are having to have this important debate at this hour.

Mr. Speaker

No one regrets that more than I do, but we must come to the clause, not the reason why we are discussing it at this time.

Sir J. Eden

So far I have not been able to get beyond my first sentence and I have been called to order three times.

This is one of the most important debates for Parliament. In normal circumstances it would command wide attention, not only in the House but throughout the country. It is of fundamental importance to us in this House. As a Minister in the previous Government, I had to grapple with the problem. Labour Members are now having to grapple with it. I know how difficult it is to deal with the accountability to Parliament of the vast nationalised industries. It is one of the hardest matters that we must all face up to and try to resolve. It will not be dealt with by debates held at this hour of the morning, for whatever reason. I hope that a means will be found to debate the matter more fully, perhaps on a report of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. All too often such debates, which are important to the House and the way in which it discharges its obligations to the electorate, are taken at odd hours of the morning or are sandwiched between other debates and curtailed.

I have an interest which I declare to the House—in the products of the British Steel Corporation in a number of ways, and I should like to get that on the record at once. My interest in the new clause, so ably moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw), lies in the need to get good information about the affairs of the corporation as soon as possible. It is required not for interventionist purposes—I emphasise that—but in order that we may adequately and effectively discharge our obligations to the taxpayers and the electorate, who have a direct interest in the progress of these industries. The more nationalised industries there are and the more significant a factor in the economy they become, the more necessary it is for us in the House so to organise our affairs and our procedures that we have a proper working relationship with them.

At the very base of this whole issue lie two other factors. First, there is the method by which and the degree to which the corporation itself exercises its own financial control. Unless there is effective financial control and management within the corporation, there cannot be the quality of information available in the report and accounts that the House ought to have.

That takes me straight to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey and taken up in his intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King). This concerns the time that we should expect the corporation to take to prepare its annual report and accounts. Three or four months is a very short period.

I have to admit quite openly that I have been a director of a company that does not succeed in doing that, and it is a very much smaller affair than the corporation. That is a condemnation of me and my colleagues on the board rather than an apologia for the corporation.

However, it is an ideal towards which the corporation should be aiming. I accept what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater—a company with the enormous ramifications of ICI is able to produce its report and accounts very close to the end of its financial year. No doubt other giant corporations are able to achieve that. The examples of many United States companies, some of the biggest companies in the world, are valid in that they are able to publish their reports and accounts very close to the ends of their financial years, thus making available to their shareholders relevant and topical information.

Whatever period is specified, it is a goal towards which the corporation should be aiming and which we should be actively promoting and encouraging. It will be achieved more easily if there is regular financial reporting of all the constituent activities of the board of the corporation. This will come about if the board itself requires monthly reporting of all the financial statistics and progress for which the corporation is responsible.

There would be on that basis no reason at all why the corporation should not provide half-yearly or even quarterly reports. Therefore, at the very least we should be aiming for a half-yearly report. If it is not possible to give the full progress in half a year, at least some formal interim half-yearly statement should be made which would be laid before the House and which would be capable of debate.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman from the Whips' Office is not trying to curtail the debate. He may have missed the opening observations I chose to make as to the importance of the debate. So far we have had very few contributions, and I am trying to be as brief as possible.

The other factor lying behind this—having mentioned the question of the quality of the financial control within the corporation itself—is the relationship between the corporation and the Government, the relationship between Government Ministers and the Government Department and the chairman and board of the corporation. This is the second key factor which lies behind the group of new clauses that we are considering.

There are a number of ways by which Ministers might seek to discharge their obligation generally to oversee the activities of the nationalised industry. They might go for the details, the candle ends, and seek to intervene at many different points of time throughout the course of the year. They might seek to interpose themselves in between the decisions taken by the board and their execution by management further down the line. They might even seek to interfere with the taking of those decisions by the board in the first place.

All these have been attempted by Ministers of all Governments over many years. and no doubt I was as guilty as any of my predecessors and successors in this respect. But we have to look at this afresh. This grouping of new clauses, calling for annual reports and accounts and for more regular reporting to this House through the Secretary of State and through the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, provides us with the opportunity to look more carefully and more critically at the methods by which Ministers and Government Departments seek to discharge their statutory obligations over these nationalised industries.

The basis on which I hope that Ministers are seeking to carry out their own part of the commitment on behalf of the taxpayer is through properly constructed and fully examined corporate plans. If the Minister, in his reply, can give the assurance that there is a corporate plan in existence for the British Steel Corporation, that this has been the subject of full scrutiny and examination by him and his advisers, that should it have been necessary he was prepared to call in the assistance of outside qualified expertise, and that at the end of the day he had formally agreed the corporate plan with the corporation itself, then he must follow that up by saying that he has in existence a proper monitoring procedure.

That monitoring procedure, if it is to mean anything at all, must rely on the financial information made available to him by the corporation, and that financial information must be made available, if not on a monthly basis—which is what I should like to see—then at the very least on a quarterly basis. Those quarterly reports to him should form the basis of quarterly reports to this House. I think that this is the approach that we should adopt, because what we are calling for in this group of amendments is not niggling intervention, not unnecessary additional labour to be imposed upon the management of an industry which already has burdens enough to carry, but the dissemination to Parliament and, through Parliament, to the taxpayer generally of that quality of financial information which should be available automatically to management and without which management could not properly discharge its own functions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey has done this House a great service in proposing this group of clauses, but, as I have said at the beginning of my remarks, this is an unfortunate moment to have this debate. However, it is a most important debate. I hope that the Minister will recognise it as such and not trivialise it in the way that he did the last clause that we discussed, which was just as important. We look forward to hearing a proper and considered reply from the hon. Gentleman.

3.15 a.m.

Mr. Les Huckfield

I thought that the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) made a rather helpful speech—helpful, that is, until he came to his perforation—althtough I cannot agree with him in his desire to shackle the British Steel Corporation with obligations which are not at present imposed on the private sector. This has been the aim of the Oposition in these three new cluases.

I refer first to New Clause 4, and I recognise the intention of the Opposition in moving it. However, the corporation has a good record in producing its annual report and accounts within four months of the end of the financial year, and this follows the best traditions of normal commercial practice. I am sure that the Opposition will recognise that to do this even more quickly would be an unduly onerous obligation to place on the corporation and would probably be impracticable as well. It is because of that that the House should reject the new clause.

I come, then, to New Clauses 6 and 7 which follow in a similar vein in wishing to impose shackles on the corporation. The corporation already has the practice of publishing a half-year statement which is fully consistent with the requirements of the Stock Exchange for quoted corn-panics in the private sector. Such accounts are normally based on unaudited management information, and it would not be worthwhile to require either all the detail called for in the amendment or for the figures to be subject to the full scrutiny of the auditors. The requirement for an audit at this stage would give rise to expense and delay as well as a large amount of additional work.

The Government believe that we should proceed by co-operation in these matters, and therefore we urge the rejection this triad of new clauses.

Perhaps I might refer to the rather peculiar speech of the hon. Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer), who was bemoaning the lengthy delay in coming to a decision about Shotton. I remind him of his own voting record on that project at the time of the 1973 White Paper—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the Minister that that is not to do with the clause, either. It is not for me to advise the Minister, but he must deal with the new clause and not the voting records of other hon. Members.

Mr. Huckfield

I was relating what the hon. Member for Flint, West said on that earlier occasion to the new clauses at present under discussion.

However, because all three clauses seek to impose what we consider to be undue obligations and burdens on the corporation which are not currently placed on companies in the private sector, we urge their rejection.

Mr. Nelson

I feel that we have had a most interesting and worthwhile debate on these new clauses. I would like to take this opportunity of perhaps emphasising a couple of the points which my hon. Friends have made, and which I hope some of my other hon. Friends will have the opportunity of expounding hereafter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) opened the debate by discussing the important duty which the British Steel Corporation has towards the employees, the shareholders and to Parliament. He pointed out that the lack of information of a financial nature made available to the Committee of the House, preceding the important discussions which have taken place on the Bill, has inhibited a proper discussion of the important increase in the borrowing limits provided and has stultified some positive conversations which might otherwise have taken place in introducing proper cost controls within the corporation.

Division No. 238.] AYES [3.21 a.m.
Archer, Peter Atkinson, Norman Bean, R. E.
Armstrong, Ernest Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Benn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N) Bates, Alf Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N)
Mr. Durant

I merely wish to add of customers to my hon. Friend's list of people who are concerned.

Mr. Nelson

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. Although that was an omission on my part, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey did mention customers.

The scale of the borrowing power has made it tremendously important that we have available to us up-to-date information of the kind which would be provided should the new clauses be introduced. My hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer) pointed out in a practical way, close to his own constituency interest, the importance of the provision of such information before major decisions are made either on particular plants or with regard to major policy decisions on major coastal plants or, perhaps, the mini-mill policy. Finally, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) spoke lucidly about the importance of parliamentary control and, indeed, of cost control within the British Steel Corporation which the objectives of these new clauses would certainly assist.

For my part I feel that the changing circumstances of the British Steel Corporation, especially when it now involves new generations of plant and vastly increased amounts of money, call for much more regular accounting and up-dating of the information made available in order to assure the public, and Members of this House, that there is in no way any sense of window dressing in the performance of the corporation or, indeed, that there is inadequate control within the corporation of its own financial affairs. I feel that the out-of-date and inadequate information at present provided is a serious and debilitating factor in the proper discussion of the important matters such as those now before the House.

Mr. Walter Harrison

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question put, That the Question be now put:—

The House divided: Ayes 163, 20.

Bishop, E. S. Harper, Joseph Owen, Dr David
Blenkinsop, Arthur Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Palmer, Arthur
Bradley, Tom Hart, Rt Hon Judith Park, George
Bray, Dr Jeremy Hatton, Frank Parry, Robert
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Hooley, Frank Pendry, Tom
Brown, Ronald (Hackney S) Hoyle, Doug (Nelson) Penhaligon, David
Buchan, Norman Huckfield, Les Perry, Ernest
Buchanan, Richard Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Price, C. (Lewisham W)
Callaghan, Jim (Middlelon & P) Hughes, Roy (Newport) Price, William (Rugby)
Campbell, Ian Hunter, Adam Radice, Giles
Canavan, Dennis Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford) Richardson, Miss Jo
Carmichael, Neil Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln) Robertson, John (Paisley)
Cartwright, John Janner, Greville Roderick, Caerwyn
Clemitson, Ivor John, Brynmor Rodgers, George (Chorley)
Cocks, Michael (Bristol S) Johnson, James (Hull West) Rooker, J. W.
Coleman, Donald Johnston, Russell (Inverness) Roper, John
Colquhoun, Ms Maureen Jones, Barry (East Flint) Rowlands, Ted
Cook, Robin F. (Edin C) Judd, Frank Sandelson, Neville
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Kaufman, Gerald Sedgemore, Brian
Craigen, J. M. (Maryhill) Kinnock, Neil Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South)
Crawshaw, Richard Lambie, David Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)
Crowther, Stan (Rotherham) Lamborn, Harry Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)
Cryer, Bob Lamond, James Silverman, Julius
Davies, Bryan (Enfield N) Latham, Arthur (Paddington) Skinner, Dennis
Davies, Denzil (Llanelli) Litterick, Tom Small, William
Davis, Clinton (Hackney C) Loyden, Eddie Smith, John (N Lanarkshire)
Deakins, Eric Lyons, Edward (Bradford W) Spearing, Nigel
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) McCartney, Hugh Stallard, A. W.
Dempsey, James McElhone, Frank Stott, Roger
Dormand, J. D. McGuire, Michael (Ince) Strang, Gavin
Douglas-Mann, Bruce MacKenzie, Gregor Swain, Thomas
Duffy, A. E. P. Maclennan, Robert Thomas, Jeffrey (Abertillery)
Dunnett, Jack McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C) Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Eadie, Alex McNamara, Kevin Tinn, James
Edge, Geoff Madden, Max Urwin, T. W.
Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun) Mallalieu, J. P. W. Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.
English, Michael Marks, Kenneth Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Evans, Fred (Caerphilly) Marquand, David Walden, Brian (B'ham, L'dyw'd
Evans, John (Newton) Maynard, Miss Joan Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Ewing, Harry (Stirling) Meacher, Michael Ward, Michael
Fernyhough, Rt Hon E. Mellish, Rt Hon Robert Weetch, Ken
Flannery, Martin Mendelson, John White, Frank R. (Bury)
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Mikardo, Ian White, James (Pollok)
Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin) Millan, Bruce Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Fraser, John (Lambeth, N'w'd) Miller, Mrs Millie (Ilford N) Wilson, Sir Harold (Huyton)
Freud, Clement Moonman, Eric Wilson, William (Coventry SE)
George, Bruce Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw) Wise, Mrs Audrey
Gilbert, Dr John Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King Woodall, Alec
Golding, John Newens, Stanley
Graham, Ted Noble, Mike TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Grant, George (Morpeth) Ogden, Eric Mr. Peter Snape and
Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Mr. David Stoddart
Hardy, Peter Ovenden, John
Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torbay) Grist, Ian Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Bottomley, Peter Heseltine, Michael Sims, Roger
Brotherton, Michael King, Tom (Bridgwater) Stradling Thomas J.
Durant, Tony Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Townsend, Cyril D.
Eden, Rt Hon Sir John Meyer, Sir Anthony
Fairbairn, Nicholas Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove) TELLERS FOR THE NOES
Fairgrieve, Russell Nelson, Anthony Mr. Michael Roberts and
Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry) Osborn, John Mr. Jim Lester..

Question accordingly agreed to.

Question put accordingly, That the clause be read a Second time:—

Division No. 239.] AYES [3.32 a.m.
Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torbay) Heseltine, Michael Sims, Roger
Bottomley, Peter King, Tom (Bridgwater) Stradling Thomas, J.
Brotherton, Michael Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Townsend, Cyril D.
Durant, Tony Meyer, Sir Anthony
Fairbairn, Nicholas Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove) TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Fairgrieve, Russell Nelson, Anthony Mr. Michael Roberts and
Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry) Osborn, John Mr. Jim Lester.
Grist, Ian Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Archer, Peter Asbton, Joe Atkinson, Norman
Armstrong, Ernest Atkins, Ronald (Preston N) Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)

The House divided: Ayes 19, Noes 165.

Bates, Alf Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Ovenden, John
Bean, R. E. Hardy, Peter Owen, Dr David
Benn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood Harper, Joseph Palmer, Arthur
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Park, George
Bishop, E. S. Hart, Rt Hon Judith Parry, Robert
Blenkinsop, Arthur Hatton, Frank Penhaligon, David
Bradley, Tom Hooley, Frank Perry, Ernest
Bray, Dr Jeremy Hoyle, Doug (Nelson) Price, C. (Lewisham W)
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Huckfield, Les Price, William (Rugby)
Brown, Ronald (Hackney S) Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Radice, Giles
Buchan, Norman Hughes, Roy (Newport) Richardson, Miss Jo
Buchanan, Richard Hunter, Adam Robertson, John (Paisley)
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford) Roderick, Caerwyn
Campbell, Ian Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln) Rodgers, George (Chorley)
Canavan, Dennis Janner, Greville Rooker, J. W.
Carmichael, Neil John, Brynmor Roper, John
Cartwright, John Johnson, James (Hull West) Rowlands, Ted
Clemitson, Ivor Johnston, Russell (Inverness) Sandelson, Neville
Cocks, Michael (Bristol S) Jones, Barry (East Flint) Sedgemore, Brian
Coleman, Donald Judd, Frank Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South)
Colquhoun, Ms Maureen Kaufman, Gerald Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)
Cook, Robin F. (Edin C) Kinnock, Neil Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Lambie, David Silverman, Julius
Craigen, J. M. (Maryhill) Lamborn, Harry Skinner, Dennis
Crawshaw, Richard Lamond, James Small, William
Crowther, Stan (Rotherham) Latham, Arthur (Paddington) Smith, John (N Lanarkshire)
Cryer, Bob Litterick, Tom Snape, Peter
Cunningham, Dr J. (Whiteh) Loyden, Eddie Spearing, Nigel
Davies, Bryan (Enfield N) Lyons, Edward (Bradford W) Stallard, A. W.
Davies, Denzil (Llanelli) McCartney, Hugh Stoddart, David
Davis, Clinton (Hackney C) McElhone, Frank Stott, Roger
Deakins, Eric McGuire, Michael (Ince) Strang, Gavin
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) MacKenzie, Gregor Swain, Thomas
Dempsey, James Maclennan, Robert Thomas, Jeffrey (Abertillery)
Dormand, J. D. McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C) Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Douglas-Mann, Bruce McNamara, Kevin Tinn, James
Duffy, A. E. P. Madden, Max Urwin, T. W.
Dunnett, Jack Mallalieu, J. P. W. Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Eadie, Alex Marks, Kenneth Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Edge, Geoff Marquand, David Walden, Brian (B'ham, L'dyw'd')
English, Michael Maynard, Miss Joan Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Evans, Fred (Caerphilly) Meacher, Michael Ward, Michael
Evans, John (Newton) Mellish, Rt Hon Robert Weetch, Ken
Ewing, Harry (Stirling) Mendelson, John White, Frank R. (Bury)
Fernyhough, Rt Hon E. Mikardo, Ian White, James (Pollok)
Flannery, Martin Millan, Bruce Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Miller, Mrs Millie (Ilford N) Wilson, Sir Harold (Huyton)
Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin) Moonman, Eric Wilson, William (Coventry SE)
Fraser, John (Lambeth,N'w'd) Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw) Wise, Mrs Audrey
Freud, Clement Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King Woodall, Alec
George, Bruce Newens, Stanley
Gilbert, Dr John Noble, Mike TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Golding, John Ogden, Eric Mr. John Ellis and
Graham, Ted Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Mr. Tom Pendry.
Grant, George (Morpeth)

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Swain

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the small number of Opposition Members present, will you consider using your discretion and invoking Standing Order No. 36, so that we might get our voting over in about three minutes instead of having to go through the tedious business of voting in the Lobby?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman should draw my attention to that situation the next time a Division is called, because it turns on the question whether a Division is unnecessarily called. I am not satisfied that a Division was unnecessarily called.

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