HC Deb 16 November 1976 vol 919 cc1131-40

4.17 p.m.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to restore Cable and Wireless Ltd. to private ownership. —[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I know that the House is anxious to hear the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Gow

It is just over 30 years since Cable and Wireless was nationalised. Moving the Second Reading of the Cable and Wireless Bill in this House, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Dr. Dalton, said: Yesterday is was coal; today it is cables. The Socialist advance, therefore, continues."—[Official Report, 21st May 1946; Vol. 423, c. 201.] Perhaps I may reply to the doctor by saying that three weeks ago it was the National Freight Corporation, today it is Cable and Wireless and, as soon as the procedures of the House allow, it will be the turn of the British Steel Corporation to be considered for denationalisation.

Yet Dr. Dalton was right. The Socialist advance of which he spoke 30 years ago has continued. Coal, gas, electricity, the railways, the buses, steel, a large part of the motor industry, and perhaps soon aircraft, shipbuilding and ship repairing, are or will be owned and controlled by the State. This growing concentration of wealth, power and decision-making is now recognised as being far from the panacea which its supporters had claimed. Too often, the public interest has been sacrificed to the political interest of the party in power. Public accountability and public control have become a myth. Control by the State has meant, in effect, control by a tightly knit group of politically motivated men and women in Whitehall.

This Bill asserts that the role of the Government in the economic life of the nation needs to be curtailed; that the frontiers of the State which have advanced steadily over the past 30 years need to be flung back; that Governments do better what only they can do if they stop doing what they do not need to do; that the Government should cease to be involved directly in the management and control of commerce and industry; that the people themselves—"ordinary working people "—to use a phrase which falls so readily from the Chancellor's lips—and ordinary working managers, will do the job very much better than the politicians and that the increasingly political nature of decisions taken by the State-owned sector is hostile to the public interest.

In one respect at least, Cable and Wireless is top of the pops as a candidate for denationalisation. Unlike almost every other State-owned enterprise, Cable and Wireless has made a consistent profit. Last year it made a profit before tax of £28 million and a profit after tax of £11 million.

We in the Opposition seek to make a reality of Iain MacLeod's goal of a nationwide, capital-owning democracy. Let us see how the common ground, of which my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) has spoken, emerges in this situation. In its last two election manifestos, the Labour Party pledged itself to: a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families". Just so. This Bill has the same objective—to transfer Cable and Wireless from the State to the people.

State ownership has proved to be a fraud. No representative of the public is permitted to attend the Annual General Meeting of the State-owned Cable and Wireless. Only the representatives of the Minister are permitted to be there.

When the rest of the nation is having to face up to the harsh realities of a Socialist Britain, there is resentment and incredulity about a different world, of which the people know little—the wonderland of Government patronage which provides jobs for superannuated politicians when they have ceased to be useful to their own party.

I have no wish to be unkind—there is no need to be unkind—to our former colleague, now the part-time chairman of Cable and Wireless. His unsuitability for that post is self-evident. He who disagrees has only to reflect on two facts which are in remarkable juxtaposition. Cable and Wireless is concerned with communications within and without the-United Kingdom. Its new chairman was the author of the White Paper on devolution, published exactly a year ago, paragraph 4 of which opens with these immortal words: In the Government's view "— the former Lord President wrote— the proposals set out in this White Paper are coherent and workable". The House—no, the nation—is waiting, with bated breath, for the next Annual Report of Cable and Wireless, which will be couched in the celebrated literary style of the former Lord President.

This Bill would put the country out of its agony. It would require the Secretary of State to sell all the shares in Cable and Wireless at the best possible price while reserving 20 per cent, on highly preferential terms for the employees.

It is not enough for the Tory Party to assert the desirability of employee-shareholders. It must be ready to back radical words with radical deeds and to do so on a massive scale. A major shift of ownership from the State to the people would match the mounting public disillusionment with the ever-growing publicly-owned sector and the power of the Government. The diffusion of wealth is the guarantee of liberty. If the Bill becomes law, one of the burdens falling on the Secretary of State will be removed. He will be relieved of the temptation to inflict still more of his colleagues on the board of Cable and Wireless.

This Bill has one further advantage. When my right hon. Friend forms her first Administration, she may consider it appropriate to appoint a Minister for denationalisation. If the Bill became law before that Administration is formed, its passage would mean that there would be one less burden on the desk of the new Minister.

It would be an agreeable change if the House were to give me leave to introduce one of my Ten-Minute Bills. I hope that it will do so today.

4.25 p.m.

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Bedwellty)

I rise to oppose the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) and his Bill. I do so on several grounds, but I direct attention first to the fact that we have just been treated to this week's episode in the hon. Gentleman's continual abuse of the procedures of the House for sensationalist reasons and purposes of personal aggrandisement. It is an entirely disgraceful Bill presented with an entirely disgraceful speech. All I am doing is telling the truth about the hon. Gentleman's weekly antics.

In the manner of this House we develop traditions, and I am sure that hon. Members will treat with great tolerance and charity the necessity that the hon. Gentleman finds for bringing irrelevancies before us on weekly occasions. The frequency with which he does so has coined a new phrase for us—"Gowlers". That is a new parliamentary term denoting total irrelevancies repetitively produced at weekly intervals.

I come now to the Bill which the hon. Member seeks to bring in. Even when his own party was going through its giddiest Selsdonite bout between 1970 and 1972, it never chose Cable and Wireless as a target for hiving off. Indeed, we are all familiar with the history of that failed experiment. The hon. Gentleman called for the appointment on a future occasion of a Minister for denationalisation. Throughout his speech, the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) was sitting next to him. He, if anyone, is ideologically and intellectually suited for such a barbarous and butchering task and would have been the man. But, of course, the last Tory Administration sacked him for sticking to the Selsdon policy. I trust that forgiveness is not yet in the Opposition's heart for that sacrifice to consensus politics.

The last time that the Tory Party had an opportunity to do such things, as on every previous occasion in the past 30 years when it had the opportunity, it took no step at all. Indeed, there is no other member of the Tory Party or anyone connected with the whole operations of Cable and Wireless anywhere in the world—in this country or any of the other 37 countries in which Cable and Wireless Limited operates—who supports the idea of the denationalisation of this company. I suspect that, as a consequence of the vote that will take place at the conclusion of these short proceedings, a few hon. Members will support it. They will be roundly defeated by common sense and by the Members who go into the other Lobby. I trust that we shall never hear such an idiotic proposition again.

We have just had, to our considerable benefit, the Fifth Report of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, of which the hon. Member made no mention. He rehearsed the speech of Dr. Dalton 30 years ago, but he was not familiar with a House of Commons paper published in the 1975–76 Session which would have given him all the details, arguments and considerations about this extremely prosperous, profitable, useful, efficient and world-acclaimed nationalised industry, Cable and Wireless Limited.

All that the hon. Member can do with sensational gimmicks of this kind is to spread alarm in economies and societies that are less sophisticated than ours and which have a substantial dependence upon the services provided for world communication and, indeed, world peace by Cable and Wireless Limited throughout the world. Therefore, I trust that the hon. Member will take the first opportunity to admit that he was not really serious in his intentions and to regret any inconvenience caused to foreign governments in unsophisticated territories by the news reports that may follow his particular lunacy on this occasion.

There is one other consideration to point out about the whole question. The hon. Member drew our attention to the profitability of Cable and Wireless. That should commend the whole organisation to him. Indeed, I suspect that if there is a serious intention behind his proposal, it is because Cable and Wireless made a gross profit of £28 million last year and a net profit of £11.4 million, as he pointed out, and paid a dividend of £2.7 million to the Government. The hon. Member regrets that not one member of the public can attend its annual meetings. But Members of Parliament can attend them. Would that such democracy extended throughout the whole sphere—

Mr. Gow

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kinnock

No. Would that such democracy extended throughout the whole sphere of nationalised industries and—dare I say it?—private corporations, so that those involved and those who had given either livelihood or money, in the form of consumption, working or producing, had the same right as Members of Parliament have in examining and scrutinising the year-to-year procedures and operation of Cable and Wireless.

Just to show how open this corporation is to the consideration of the public, I have in my hand not an annual report but a 57-page analysis of every activity, however big and however small, conducted by Cable and Wireless over recent years. I do not think that anyone could require a more thorough scrutiny of the operations of any commercial enterprise than that. Therefore, on those grounds the hon. Member's case does not stand up.

Finally, those Conservatives who have had occasion to give close scrutiny to the recent operation of Cable and Wireless have discovered that all these advantages and virtues have contributed to a nattering, but not inaccurately flattering, Select Committee report. Indeed, it has a special authority because on that occasion the sub-committee investigating Cable and Wireless had three Conservative Members and two Labour Members, so no one could accuse the Labour Party of superimposing its nationalisation prejudices and ideologies on this report, as we happened to be in the minority in this instance.

The hon. Member's hon. Friends—the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Mr. Stanley), the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Sir D. Kaberry)—a well respected Member—and the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Spence)—will refresh his memory, I am sure, and educate his mind in the reality of Cable and Wireless and offset the inordinate prejudice that he has shown in this particular exercise today. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) are now elevated members of the Government and are not able to comment on this, but I am sure that if the hon. Member wanted to join them at the back of the Chair or in some other location, they, too, would contribute to his education.

Therefore, for all those reasons I urge the House to reject the motion by a very substantial majority.

There is one other point. The hon. Member took the opportunity of his speech to make an ideological point. I do not quarrel with that. He talked about the diffusion of wealth being the guarantee of liberty. The problem with that concept is that those who would be the diffusers of wealth and the guarantors of liberty simultaneously use their wealth and the power that goes with it in order to control the wealth and liberty of others. They always have and always will. It is the function of the Labour Party, whether in respect of nationalisation or securing for the workers of Britain, by hand and

by brain, the fruits of their production, to offset the hon. Member's peculiar concept of what diffusion of wealth means.

Therefore, I beg the House for its support against this particularly squalid and irrelevant Bill.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 {Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of Public Business):

The House divided: Ayes 150, Noes 183.

Division No. 406.] AYES [4.35 p.m.
Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne) Harrison, Col Sir Harwood (Eye) Prior, Rt Hon James
Bell, Ronald Harvie Anderson, Rt Hon Miss Pym, Rt Hon Francis
Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torbay) Havers, Sir Michael Raison, Timothy
Bennett, Dr Reginald (Fareham) Hayhoe, Barney Rathbone, Tim
Benyon, W. Hicks, Robert Rees-Davies, W. R.
Berry, Hon Anthony Hordern, Peter Renton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts)
Biggs-Davison, John Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Ridley, Hon Nicholas
Biaker, Peter Hurd, Douglas Rifkind, Malcolm
Body, Richard Hutchison, Michael Clark Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Boscawen, Hon Robert James, David Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)
Bottom ley, Peter Jenkln, RtHonP. (Wanst'd&W'df'd) Rodgers, Sir John (Sevenoaks)
Boyson, Dr Rhodes (Brent) Jones, Arthur (Daventry) Rost, Peter (SE Derbyshire)
Braine, Sir Bernard Jopling Michael St. John-Stevas, Norman
Brittan, Leon Kershaw, Anthony Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Brotherton, Michael King, Evelyn (South Dorset) Shelton, William (Streatham)
Bryan, Sir Paul King, Tom (Bridawater) Shepherd, Colin
Buchanan-Smith, Alick Lamont, Norman Shersby, Michael
Butler, Adam (Bosworth) Lawrence, Ivan Silvester, Fred
Channon, Paul Le Merchant, Spencer Sinclair, Sir George
Churchill, W. S. Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland) Skeet, T. H. H.
Cockcroft, John Lloyd, Ian Speed, Keith
Cooke, Robert (Bristol W) McCrindle, Robert Spicer, Michael (S Worcester)
Cope, John Macfarlane, Nell Sproat, lain
Cormack, Patrick Madel, David Stanbrook, Ivor
Corrie, John Marten, Neil Stanley, John
Costain, A. P. Mather, Carol Steen, Anthony (Wavertree)
Dean, Paul (N Somerset) Maude, Angus Stewart, Ian (Hitchln)
Dodsworth, Geoffrey Mawby, Ray Stradling Thomas, J.
Drayson, Burnaby Mayhew, Patrick Taylor, R. (Croydon NW)
Eden, Rt Hon Sir John Meyer, Sir Anthony Taylor, Teddy (Cathcart)
Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke) Mills, Peter Tebbit, Norman
Elliott, Sir William Mitchell, David (Basfngstoke) Temple-Morris, Peter
Eyre, Reginald Moate, Roger Thatcher, Rt Hon Margaret
Fairbairn, Nicholas Molyneaux, James Thomas, Rt Hon P. (Hendon S)
Fairgrieve, Russell Monro, Hector Townsend, Cyril D.
Farr, John Montgomery, Fergus Tugendhat, Christopher
Fell, Anthony Morris, Michael (Northampton S) van Straubenzee, W. R.
Finsberg, Geoffrey Morrison, Charles (Devizes) Walder, David (Clitheroe)
Fisher, Sir Nigel Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester) Walker, Rt Hon P. (Worcester)
Fletcher-Cooke, Charles Neave, Alrey Walters, Dennis
Forman, Nigel Nelson, Anthony Weatherill, Bernard
Fraser, Rt Hon H. (Stafford & St) Nott, John Wells, John
Fry, Peter Onslow, Cranley Whitelaw, Rt Hon WillHam
Gardner, Edward (S Fylde) Page, John (Harrow West) Winterton, Nicholas
Gilmour, Rt Hon Ian (Chesham) Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby) Wood, Rt Hon Richard
Glyn, Dr Alan Page, Richard (Worklngton) Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
Grimond, Rt Hon J. Pardoe, John Younger, Hon George
Grist, Ian Parkinson, Cecil
Grylls, Michael Pattie, Geoffrey TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Hall, Sir John Peyton, Rt Hon John Mr. Nigel Lawson.
Hall-Davis, A. G. F. Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch Mr. Ian Gow and
Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)
Abse, Leo Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Booth, Rt Hon Albert
Archer, Peter Bates, Alf Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur
Armstrong, Ernest Bean, R. E. Bray, Dr Jeremy
Ashton, Joe Beith, A. J. Buchan, Norman
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N) Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Campbell, Ian
Atkinson, Norman Bidwell, Sydney Cant, R. B.
Bagler, Gordon A. T. Blenkinsop, Arthur Carmichael, Nell
Castle, Rt Hon Barbara Hughes, Roy (Newport) Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Clemitson, Ivor Hunter, Adam Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)
Cocks, Rt Hon Michael Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford) Robinson, Geoffrey
Cohen, Stanley Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln) Roderick, Caerwyn
Coleman, Donald Jay, Rt Hon Douglas Rodgers, George (Chorley)
Concannon, J. D. Jenkins, Hugh (Putney) Rodgers, Rt Hon William (Stockton)
Corbett, Robin Johnson, James (Hull West) Rooker, J. W.
Cowans, Harry Jones, Alec (Rhondda) Roper, John
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Jones, Barry (East Flint) Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock)
Crowther, Stan (Rothertiam) Jones, Dan (Burnlev) Rowlands, Ted
Cunningham, G. (Islington S) Kaufman, Gerald Ryman, John
Cunningham, Or J. (Whiten) Kelley, Richard Sandelson, Neville
Davidson, Arthur Kilroy-Silk, Robert Sedgemore, Brian
Davies, Bryan (Enfield N) Lamond, James Selby, Harry
Davis, Clinton (Hackney C) Latham, Arthur (Paddington) Shaw, Arnold (lltord South)
Deakins, Eric Leadbitter, Ted Short, Mrs Renée (Wolv NE)
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Lee, John Silkin, Rt Hon John (DepUord)
Dempsey, James Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough) Silverman, Julius
Doig, Peter Lipton, Marcus Skinner, Dennis
Dormand, J. D. Litterick, Tom Small, William
Douglas-Mann, Bruce Lomas, Kenneth Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Duffy, A. E. P. Luard, Evan Smith, John (N Lanarkshire)
Edge, Geoff Lyon, Alexander (York) Snape, Peter
Edwards, Robert (Wolv SE) Lyons, Edward (Bradford W) Spearing, Nigel
Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun) Mabon, Dr J. Dickson Spriggs, Leslie
English, Michael McCartney, Hugh Stallard, A. W.
Evans, Fred (Caerphilly) McDonald, Dr Oonagh Steel, David (Roxburgh)
Ewing, Harry (Stirling) McElhone, Frank Sloddart, David
Faulds, Andrew MacKenzie, Gregor Stott, Roger
Fernyhough, Rt Hon E. McMillan. Tom (Glasgow C) Strauss, Rt Hon G. R.
Flannery, Martin Madden, Max Tierney, Sydney
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Magee, Bryan Tinn, James
Forrester, John Marks, Kenneth Torney, Tom
Freeson, Reginald Maynard, Miss Joan Urwin, T. W.
Freud, Clement Mellish, Rt Hon Robert Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Garrett, John (Norwich S) Mendelson, John Walden, Brian (B'ham, L'dyw'd)
Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend) Mikardo, Ian Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
George, Bruce Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Gilbert, Dr John Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride) Watkins, David
Golding, John Miller, Mrs Millie (lltord N) Watkinson, John
Gould, Bryan Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Weitzman, David
Gourlay, Harry Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw) White, Frank R. (Bury)
Graham, Ted Moyle, Roland Whitehead. Phillip
Grant, George (Morpeth) Newens, Stanley Whitlock, William
Grant, John (Islington C) Noble, Mike Williams, Alan (Swansea W)
Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Ogden, Eric Williams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)
Hardy, Peter O'Halloran, Michael Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Harper, Joseph Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Wise, Mrs Audrey
Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Hart, Rt Hon Judith Park, George Parker, John Woodall, Alec Wrigglesworth, Ian
Hatton, Frank Pavitt, Laurie
Heller, Eric S. Perry, Ernest TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Hooley, Frank Price, C. (Lewlsham W) Mr. loan Evans and
Huckfield, Les Radice, Giles Mr. Neil Kinnock.
Hughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey) Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Richardson, Miss Jo

Question accordingly negatived.