HC Deb 01 March 1976 vol 906 cc887-90
1. Mr. Grylls

asked the Secretary of State for Industry if he will make a statement on the relationship between the NEB and its subsidiaries and on the NEB guidelines.

The Secretary of State for Industry (Mr. Eric G. Varley)

The text of the memorandum agreed between the National Enterprise Board and Rolls-Royce (1971) Ltd., and published by them, has already been made available to Parliament. The draft guidelines for the NEB are being published today. Copies have been placed in the Library of each House, the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.

Mr. Grylls

Does the Secretary of State recognise that the Opposition think that his guidelines for the National Enterprise Board are reasonable? Will he refuse to be persuaded by the TUC or anybody else to allow the NEB to follow an aggressive takeover policy? Will he confirm that the NEB must consult him before it acquires more than a 10 per cent. stake in any company?

Mr. Varley

I confirm what the hon. Gentleman put to me in the latter part of his question, but that does not mean that I shall withhold authority. It will depend on the circumstances of the case.

There have been extensive consultations not only with the CBI and the TUC but with the Industrial Development Advisory Board and the NEB itself. The NEB will remain a major instrument of Government policy in its approach to industrial strategy.

Mr. Madden

Has my right hon. Friend seen today's article by the industrial correspondent of The Guardian, in which he criticises the intentions of the guidelines? Does he agree that if the wildly optimistic assumptions on which the Public Expenditure White Paper has been drafted, particularly regarding economic growth, are to be met, the activities of the NEB need to be boosted tremendously and not starved completely?

Mr. Varley

I agree that the activities of the NEB need not be curtailed, and that it has an increasing rôle to play.

I should think that the article in The Guardian, which I have read, was written before the guidelines were published. Some of its comments are inaccurate and misleading.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Who is responsible to the Comptroller and Auditor General for ensuring that public funds voted to the NEB and, through it, to its subsidiaries are spent in the way that Parliament was informed they would be spent? Is it the NEB or the accounting officer in the Department of Industry? Will the right hon. Gentleman define the relative functions of some officer in the NEB and the accounting officer in the Department of Industry in that respect?

Mr. Varley

I cannot go into that matter in great detail, because it would take too long. However, I am seized of the point made by the hon. Gentleman. My short answer is that the accounting officer in my Department, the Permanent Secretary, will be responsible to the Comptroller and Auditor General. I know that there is some controversy about that matter, and I shall be looking into it further.

Mr. Heseltine

The right hon. Gentleman and his colleague the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection have been forecasting for the current year the lowest rate of investment in manufacturing industry for 15 years. What contribution will the NEB make to improve that level of investment?

Mr. Varley

I hope that it will make a great contribution. There has already been one modest attempt, although it is early days yet, to help the machine tool industry. The NEB has further ideas about helping with investment projects of a similar kind. I hope to have regular discussions with the NEB to see what more needs to be done.

17. Mr. Michael Marshall

asked the Secretary of State for Industry how many times he has had meetings with the Chairman of the National Enterprise Board since the Chairman took up his appointment.

Mr. Varley

On a number of occasions.

Mr. Marshall

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his answer is rather more precise than the non-answers I have recently been given by the Prime Minister and also by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on the same point? Does he not admit that there is a conspiracy to deny the House an opportunity to know what monitoring is taking place in regard to the NEB? Will he confirm that a great many meetings are taking place behind his back, as is evidenced by the appointment of the Chairman of British Leyland?

Mr. Varley

The hon. Gentleman should not make too much of that matter, because he will know that every major appointment to a public corporation, or, as in this case, to a company in the ownership of the Government, is made in consultation with the Prime Minister of the day. There is nothing unusual in what has happened over the appointment of Sir Richard Dobson, or in the practice of appointments by the present Government compared with the practice under previous Governments.

Mr. Marshall

That is not true.

Mr. Varley

I should like to have some evidence that that is not true. My guess is that when the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) was Prime Minister, he had something to say about the appointments of some of the chairmen of nationalised industries.

On the question of information, I think that I have already given a great deal of information—the latest instance being the publication, today, of the draft guidelines of the NEB.

Mr. Cryer

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the NEB has as a basic principle the encouragement of industrial democracy? Will he explain how the appointment of a man currently on £58,000 a year, and undertaking part-time work at £22,500 a year and with well-known anti-nationalisation views, will inspire British Leyland workers?

Mr. Varley

It is not for me to comment on the level of salary that Sir Richard Dobson obtained in a previous company. Salary figures like £58,000 are incomprehensible to me. Ministers do not get salaries of that kind. I hope that Sir Richard Dodson gains the confidence of the work force pretty quickly and that he works through and takes a personal hand in ensuring progress towards industrial democracy and participation in that company.

Mr. Hordern

Will Lord Ryder be running the pension fund of the National Enterprise Board? If so, it will cause some concern, considering his experience of running the Reed pension fund. Is it not time that he made a statement about his experiences?

Mr. Varley

I am not prepared to answer questions on the substance of what the hon. Member asks. In fact, I think that I am correct in saying that police inquiries are still being considered. It would be wholly inappropriate of me to comment on what the hon. Member said.

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