HC Deb 20 May 1981 vol 5 cc381-94 10.27 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Norman Lamont)

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 3, line 25, after 'means', insert 'Amersham International Limited, formerly known as'. The Radiochemical Centre Ltd. has recently changed its name to Amersham International Ltd. The amendment makes the necessary change to the Bill.

Amendment agreed to.

10.28 pm
Mr. Norman Lamont

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The main purpose of the Bill is to allow shares to be sold in Amersham International Limited, known until recent change of name as The Radiochemical Centre Limited. As hon. Members who participated in the debates on Second Reading and in Committee know, the company is a leading supplier of radio isotopes. It has a worldwide reputation. Its products are used in medicine, agriculture, industry and scientific research.

The reasons for wanting to privatise the company are, first, that it has been highly successful, as demonstrated by its performance, growth and successive awards for exports and record of innovation. The company is well able to stand on its own feet. It started as a centre and was then incorporated. The introduction of private capital seems a natural next step in the centre's evolution.

It is also right that money tied up in the company should be released for other purposes. There is no good reason why the money should remain tied up in a company which is capable of managing itself. There is every reason to release funds which could be used for other energy projects, for industrial projects or for the purpose of reducing the PSBR.

Although there has not in the past been great interference by the Government in the affairs of Amersham International Ltd., there will be even less in the future and the company will have the benefits and challenges of complete commercial freedom.

Those who participated in the Committee stage will know why it is necessary to take the particular legislative powers in the Bill, but it may be for the convenience of the House if I repeat the reasons.

First, the Atomic Energy Authority Act 1971 provided for the retention by the Government of a majority of voting shares. The Government now wish to have the option of selling more than 50 per cent. Secondly, it was previously thought that the Secretary of State and the Atomic Energy Authority had the freedom to dispose of shares in companies which they held. The Government have recently been advised, however, that the general duty imposed on the Secretary of State to promote and control the development of atomic power might be interpreted by the courts, or there might be a challenge on those grounds, as preventing the Secretary of State from selling shares in such companies.

I have given the background. There is a certain amount of common ground between the two sides of the House. The labour Administration took the first steps in preparing legislation for the introduction of private capital into The Radiochemical Centre Ltd. The difference between the two sides has really been about whether the Government should have the power to dispose of more than 50 per cent. of the shares.

In response to that, while I understand the concern felt in some quarters, I should point out that it is not necessarily the case that in order to maintain effective control over the company it is necessary to retain the precise mathematical proportion of 51 per cent.

I understand the anxieties that have been expressed by the staff side and by members of the Standing Committee. Since the Committee stage, I have met the staff side again. It has expressed an interest in acquiring shares and its anxieties about the way in which a disposal might be made. Naturally, I should like to go as far as I can in giving some reassurance to the staff side, as I tried to do at our meeting and, indeed, in the Standing Committee.

The Bill allows 100 per cent. of the shares to be sold. As I said in Committee, however—and the position has not changed since then—the Government have not made a decision on the precise proportion of shares to be sold or whether the method of disposal should be by a flotation or by disposal to a corporate buyer. I emphasise that we are talking of a disposal which will not occur until 1982 at the earliest. It is thus difficult to talk about the precise way in which this might be done.

We have discussed with financial advisers various ways of safeguarding the independence of the company and schemes to give shareholdings to the employees. I make it clear that it is not a question of simply selling shares to the highest bidder. In deciding precisely how the disposal will be made and the manner and number in which shares will be sold, the Government have every desire to see the company prosper. We would not agree to plans which would endanger the future of the company or the livelihood of those who work in it. We should not wish to rule out a corporate buyer if there were to be a good, reputable, single purchaser who might enhance Amersham's future. But there would have to be industrial logic in any proposed takeover.

Naturally, we are pleased at the enthusiasm that has been expressed by employees for having shares in their company. Obviously, one cannot guarantee that that can be reconciled with every option for disposing of shares, but we attach a high priority to it, and if it is practicable we shall want to achieve it.

The Government have discussed this question with the financial advisers, and the ideas that the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil (Mr. Rowlands) put forward in Committee have been discussed and will be discussed further.

There is no reason for employees in the company to be fearful of change. We believe that the Bill's proposals can benefit both the country and the company. All the indications are that the company is able to stand up for itself against tough international competition. The Bill is intended to give the company both the means and the encouragement to do so. As such, I commend it to the House.

10.31 pm
Mr. Edward Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil)

As we have said over and over again, if the Bill had merely included the clarifying power to dispose of minority shareholdings in the companies concerned it would have had a quick and easy passage through the House. But, as the Under-Secretary has confessed today and previously, it is not just about that. It is about the power that has been taken to sell the majority shareholding in The Radiochemical Centre. It is to that that we should address ourselves in the course of Third Reading—the last hope and chance that we have of expressing our views.

We have argued throughout the discussions on the Bill that it is petty and irrelevant to the welfare, development and prosperity of The Radiochemical Centre which is now to be called Amersham International. There is one area of agreement. It is that the company at Amersham, and now in its marvellous new unit in Cardiff, has been a remarkable success story—a scientific, technological and commercial success story. It is our contention that its success derives from the peculiar nature of the company and the fusion of scientific talent and research associated with the Atomic Energy Authority, a public service agency, combined with a very keen commercial instinct which it has followed since its inception. Its success reflects the dedication of those who have been brought up in the public scientific service.

Anyone who has visited the company and talked to the staff will have become immediately aware of the tremendous commitment to the success of the company, which flows from the origins and background of the company. I do not think that the Minister has been to the Cardiff unit, but I have been to both. Above all, its success flows from the fact that the company is small and independent, with a fantastic and keen sense of identification of the staff and the workpeople in its operations. It is not a small branch of a large conglomerate. It does not belong to ICI, GEC, Beecham or an American company. It is an independent company. Its success has been because of its independence and the peculiar commitment that has been achieved by the staff, the professional and workpeople, of the company.

If the company had been failing or losing money, if it had been short of cash for development purposes or in financial difficulty or was finding difficulty, because of its smallness, in keeping up with the big boys in innovation or research, there might be a case for the point made by the Under-Secretary—that it should look for a new home inside a large conglomerate which would introduce new cash and additional impetus to the development of the company. But that is not true. It is utter nonsense to suggest that the company has been short of cash or incapable of developing new products. It is not true that it has had any difficulty in funding its research. On the contrary, the company has been beating the big boys. That is one of the problems. It has been doing that not only in the domestic market but in the American market.

Mr. Tim Eggar (Enfield, North)


Mr. Rowlands

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman shortly.

There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that the company has not been able, as a result of its size or structure, to maximise its potential or to keep ahead of the game. On the contrary, it has beaten bigger corporations in both the American and European markets.

As we know, 80 per cent. of the company's products are exported. It has a tremendous reputation for exports. It has fought in fiercely competitive export markets, despite the problems that sterling has experienced in the past 18 months or two years. Any argument to the effect that the company would benefit greatly from being sold into another large, single corporation is nonsense. It has succeeded because there has been a sense of identity and of commitment among the staff. To destroy that and the company's integrity and independence, or to cast any doubt on it, is disgraceful as regards those who have made the company a success.

Let us consider the other arguments that might be adduced in favour of the Government's proposed move. I accept that dogma may be involved. Has the company made demands on the Government? Has the public sector borrowing requirement been inflated as a result of the company's activities? The answer is "No". On the contrary, it has been steadily paying the Government money. It has been paying good dividends to the Government. The Cardiff unit is remarkable and exciting, both architecturally and technologically. With that unit coming on stream, the company's dividends to the Government will grow bigger and bigger during the 1980s. The Government will collect money from the company. The company will not make large demands for cash. It has financed its new major development in Cardiff. The money and dividends that will flow from that expansion could benefit the taxpayer and the Exchequer.

We have heard it said that as the company belongs to the Government, civil servants crawl all over it. It is said that because it is 100 per cent. Government-owned the company's development has somehow been stifled. Certain Back Benchers—and, occasionally, the Under-Secretary—have flirted with the argument that the company takes up the Department's time and so on. What a lot of nonsense! Do the staff members feel stifled by 100 per cent. members Government ownership? On the contrary, they are unamimous in their view that they prefer the status quo. They say that they have succeeded and that there is no reason to change the situation. They do not see why their future and that of the company should be jeopardised by a Government who have not contributed to its success.

Has an enormous amount of civil servants' time been taken up? Several Conservative Back Benchers implied at earlier stages that an army of civil servants were crawling all over the company. The Under-Secretary has admitted that the amount of time involved is negligible and meaningless. If civil servants were to spend a lot of time on the company, that would imply, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) said, a comment on the Department's management and not on the company's performance.

There is no suggestion that the Government's ownership of the company has affected, impeded or stilled its development. Little wonder, then, that the staff is worried and resentful about the Bill. It has properly and legitimately sought key assurances about the future of the company to which the Under-Secretary gave passing mention. I hope that he will say more before the debate is over.

In Committee, as my hon. Friends will testify, we attempted to write a number of safeguards into the Bill on behalf of the employees of the company. Our amendments reflected the requests of the staff concerned. Those requests still stand. They were put to all members of the Committee in a sensible and persuasive letter and, as the Under-Secretary mentioned, they were put to him at a meeting on Friday 10 April. I have a transcript of the proceedings of that meeting to which I shall refer later.

The staff side repeated its requests to the Under-Secretary. The first was that the Atomic Energy Authority should retain a substantial shareholding in the company of about 25 per cent. That was not only a request from the staff, but, as I understand it, a recommendation of the board of the company. There is a good reason for it. If the Atomic Energy Authority held 25 per cent., with some other suggestions that we have made, there would be no possibility of the company's being taken over by a large conglomerate multi-national or single corporation. I believe that hon. Members on both sides of the House have sympathy with that proposition. Secondly, the employees should be permitted to acquire significant shareholdings—as the Under-Secretary has said—of about 10 per cent. Thirdly, the company could not be sold either to a foreign corporation or to a single large corporation, whether it be British or foreign.

Those are the three modest, reasonable requests by the staff and work people who have made a success of the company. No one else has made a success of it. The Government have not made a success of it. The Government's contribution to the success of this small independent company is nil. Therefore, the demands and requests of the staff should be paramount in any reconsideration of the sale of shares in the company.

What was the Under-Secretary's response to those three requests? The staff side asked him to make a statement during the Third Reading of the Bill tonight. It was said on behalf of the staff side: failing that we hoped for some positive assurances on these points at today's meeting.…Mr. Lamont said that he was sorry that we were more uncertain about the future of the TRC after the Committee stage than after the first meeting"— that is not surprising in view of some of the points that the Under-Secretary made in Committee— and that he had every sympathy with our three objectives. The Government had not yet made any decision on how the shares were to be sold. Discussions were still continuing…The Government did not want to jeopardise the future of TRC"— how nice and how generous of them that they do not want to jeopardise the success of a very successful company!— but he could not rule out the possibility of the sale of the Company to a single corporate buyer. A good suitable buyer could be to the benefit of the employees. Let us examine those statements.

Mr. Eggar

Hear, hear.

Mr. Rowlands

The hon. Member says "Hear, hear". Sympathy from the Government is worthless. What we and the staff want are cast iron assurances. Secondly, the Under-Secretary said that he could not rule out the possibility of a sale to a single corporate buyer. What right has he to say what is best for the employees? Why do not the employees know? The Government have made no contribution to the success of the company. Why does the Under-Secretary not heed the wishes of the employees of the company? It is anathema to the work force of the company that it should be acquired by a large single corporation. That is the one aspect on which the staff sought a positive, clear and categorical commitment from the Government, but the Under-Secretary is unwilling to give it.

On the contrary, the hon. Gentleman's private secretary admitted in a letter to the employers and employees yesterday that the Government retained the option to sell the company to a single corporation and added that in those circumstances a scheme of employee shareholding might not necessarily be feasible. Not only is the Under-Secretary unwilling to offer an assurance that TRC will not be taken over by a large single corporation, whether British or foreign, but he points out that if that were to happen a scheme of employee shareholding might not be feasible.

The Government are unwilling to offer a guarantee to those who have been responsible for the success of the company that it will not be flogged off to a large outfit—apparently for their benefit, though they have no reason to believe that there will be any such benefit—and even the possibility of employees' shareholdings in the company could be jeopardised by such an act.

We have every reason to be suspicious of what the Government are up to. They have failed to offer firm assurances about how they will handle the shares of the company. That is sufficient justification for opposing the Bill, but there is another reason for voting against it. The Bill does not allow any further parliamentary process to decide what should happen to the company.

In the absence of legislative safeguards, the Government will decide the future of the company. They are taking power to dispose of it how and when they like, irrespective of the wishes of the staff, and without any further recourse to Parliament. There is no provision to bring back to the House the Government's decision on the disposal of the company. Like other Bills on privatisation, this measure is a disgrace in terms of parliamentary accountability.

The Government are taking unfettered powers to dispose of the company to which they have made little or no contribution and will do so, I believe, against the wishes of those who have made a marvellous success of TRC in Amersham and Cardiff. On their behalf, we should vote against the Bill.

10.53 pm
Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, North-East)

I was struck during the Under-Secretary's speech by the Government's almost apologetic attitude towards the Bill. They seem almost ashamed of it, but feel that they must push it through. It is as though there were some sort of inflexible purpose behind them from which they cannot escape.

The Under-Secretary explained how little would change, and that raised again the question that has been in our minds throughout the passage of the Bill: why have it at all? It is most extraordinary that it should have been brought forward at all, but it brings into focus the Government's attitude, not only towards nationally owned industry, but towards the mixed economy in general. The chairmen of the nationalised industries, the larger public corporations, are up in arms against the present Government—a hostility that did not exist towards previous Conservative Governments. Sir Derek Ezra of the National Coal Board and the chairmen of other nationalised industries have written articles or made statements to that effect.

I do not expect the Conservative Party to be the exponent of nationalisation, as we are, but surely there should be some common ground between us if there is to be any industrial continuity. Let me try to define that common ground. Both parties have said at various times that where there is private enterprise it should be genuinely enterprising and competitive, and that where national ownership is appropriate independent commercial management should be encouraged.

The Radiochemical Company has been a marvellous example of public ownership combined with independent commercial management. The Under-Secretary said on Second Reading: TRC is a world leader in its field…This has been achieved by a dynamic management and dedicated work force in the face of tough, international competition. He might have added, although he did not, that the centre is achieving a higher return on its capital than most of British industry.

In taking the company away from the public sector and handing it over to the private sector, he is not handing it over to the most dynamic and enterprising part of the economy; he is handing it over to that part of the economy which is very much in the doldrums. After two years of this Government, the private sector seems to be no more enterprising or productive than it was before.

The House should therefore ask why the Bill is before us at all. The only Government argument that seemed to emerge in Committee—it was a somewhat obscure argument—was that if a company in the public sector is really enterprising it is not appropriate there and should be taken out and put into the private sector, irrespective of the condition of the private sector. How does the hon. Gentleman expect those who work in the public sector to be encouraged by tactics of that kind? A sensible Government would say that where public enterprise is working well and where it is successful—it has its cash failures, as we are well aware—that fact should go to the credit of public ownership, to encourage that part of the economy and its workers.

This Bill is a model, in a small way, of what should not be done by Governments to the British economy. As said, I detected a note of shame on the part of the Under-Secretary when he spoke. He knows very well that he is doing wrong. We tried to find out time after time how far dogma entered into the matter. In comment I shall quote again the remarkable words of the hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. Watson): I ask Opposition Members to accept that it is not dogma that makes us wish to sell this company. Instead, it is a pure, simple and fundamental part of our philosophy as a party".—[Official Report, 10 February, 1981; Vol. 998, c. 746–73.] How a Conservative Prime Minister of quality, Mr. Harold Macmillan. who wrote "The Middle Way" many years ago, as a pragmatic politician anxious to hold the nation together and not divide it would have laughed at those words.

The Bill is to go through, I fear. We cannot stop that. But I am glad that we shall divide against it, for the sake of parliamentary sanity, if nothing else.

11 pm

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

We must recognise that we are dealing with an extremely corrupt Government. One of the main themes of their behaviour ever since they took office has been to sell off to their industrial and financial friends any public assets that are regarded as profitable or valuable or assets out of which private interests could make substantial gains by taking over what has been developed in the public sector.

We saw that in February, with the ill-fated Bill about the British National Oil Corporation. Even this Government were so ashamed of it that they hastily withdrew it, although they have not promised not co bring it back again. Even the Treasury saw the disaster that would occur if such a valuable public corporation were allowed to end up in private hands, perhaps even in foreign hands. I understand that it overruled the Department of Energy on that matter. The Bill has gone, and we very much hope that it will not return.

Another example was a company rescued by the National Enterprise Board. The NEB got it back into profitability, and then the Government hastily sold it off again, making sure that the pickings were back in the private sector.

Here we have a far more disgraceful example. We are dealing with a company which is in no way beholden to the private sector and which has been built up entirely with public capital, public enterprise and public servants, in the sense that the staff have never been the employees of a private corporation.

The Government are doing what they are doing because the company is successful, because it is profitable. They cannot criticise its record; they cannot say that it is a drain on the Exchequer. On the contrary, it is yielding a profit to the Exchequer. So why is this being done? What are the dangers of doing it?

If the company is sold off to private enterprise, what happens to the patents and processes that have been developed by The Radiochemical Centre? Can they then be sold off to other interests? If control passes completely out of the public sector into private hands, what assurances do we have about the very important scientific processes, specialised knowledge and so on which have been built up by the taxpayer, by public enterprise? They may go into foreign hands-probably into the hands of some of our international competitors. What safeguard is there if we simply disband public control?

What safeguards are there against a foreign buyer—not, perhaps, at the first remove but at second remove? What happens if 98 per cent., or whatever, of the shares of the holding go to a corporation which may be British at present and it makes a mess of it, as private industry in this country has made a mess of industry after industry in the past 50 or 60 years? If it decides that it cannot make a go of the company, or if it gets into quarrels with the staff of the centre, and decides to sell it off to a Japanese or American company, what happens to British control and to what has been built up with British money?

How does one fairly assess the value of such a company, where the whole thrust is on high scientific and technological expertise? I have no doubt that there is some formal book value of the buildings and equipment. That is normal commercial practice. However, the real value of such an organisation lies in the high degree of scientific and technical skill that has been developed and the possibility of building on that skill through new processes and products. How does one assess that kind of value when selling off an organisation of this kind? How does one assess the value of the order book and the customer relations that have been established in this country and overseas in a highly specialised and advanced technology?

I cannot see any logic in selling off this highly successful public company. The only reason—I suppose that is contains some logic—is the squalid desire that this Government have shown repeatedly to get rid of public assets without regard to the interests of the taxpayer and, in some cases, as a plain swindle on the public purse.

11.6 pm

Mr. Lawrence Cunliffe (Leigh)

I wish to reinforce some of the views put by the Opposition in Committee. I accused my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil (Mr. Rowlands) at that time of being too charitable towards the Government. It was clear that Ministers were intent on the advancement of privatisation as rapidly as possible of a small, rich and successful company which since 1940 had had an impeccable industrial relations record. I believe that only one half-day of internal strife was recorded within the company.

It is clear that the Government considered this successful company a good bet for hiving off without any scruples. My hon. Friends have mentioned the unpredictability that exists in floating shares internationally. There is no doubt that deep interest will be shown in the possibilities for speculating in a firm of this kind with its marvellous production record and its expertise and techniques. It is also a growth industry. The Government are for ever claiming that growth is the answer to the nation's economic and financial problems.

From my discussions with workers and staff, it is clear that the company is a classic example of what should become, under a future Labour Administration, a workers' co-operative. The Government's approach could be counter-productive. Workers may decide that the best policy is to plod along, merely keeping their heads above water, rather than to endeavour to create a successful company making profits, thereby risking what is happening under the Bill. That would be a sensible attitude to adopt.

We are talking about a sense of patriotism that is rarely seen in some sectors. For example, those who are members of the Stock Exchange have no scruples. There is a bring-and-buy sale there every day. We are dealing with a work force that has conscientiously built up an impeccable industrial relations record. It is extremely proud of its efficiency and effectiveness as an industrial unit. Indeed, on several occasions it should have gained industrial awards.

There is a feeling of insecurity among the work force. There are some who say that that is psychological. Some companies do not recognise current industrial relations legislation, especially as it bears on wages. There are examples of that in my constituency, especially in the clothing factories. There could be a rapid deterioration in the productive spirit and in industrial relations if the Bill is enacted. The Secretary of State will have unfettered rights. No one can predict what will happen. The Government may find that they are cutting off their nose to spite their face. I hope that that will not happen.

The Opposition said repeatedly throughout the Second Reading and in Committee that they did not wish to disturb the magnificent record that had been maintained over the past 32 years. That is the consideration to which we give top priority, as we have said repeatedly throughout all stages of the Bill's consideration.

11.13 pm
Mr. Michael Welsh (Don Valley)

I speak against the Bill for a special reason. Despite the requests of Opposition Members in Committee, the Government have failed to adopt a reasonable approach. The reports of the proceedings in Committee confirm that my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil (Mr. Rowlands) handled the Bill excellently.

We should not sell the nation's assets. They are the assets of the British people. No Secretary of State should have the right to sell shares that belong to the nation, national assets that contribute to the good of the nation. It is wrong that the Bill provides that right.

Why should the Government wish to sell off Amersham International Ltd.? The answer lies in their narrow-minded philosophy of selling off public assets to private undertakings irrespective of the consequences for the country generally and the working class particularly. They remain determined to sell off all public assets.

Amersham International Ltd. has grown up quickly to become a good firm. it exports 80 per cent. of its products. It makes handsome profits. There is a good working relationship with all the workers. It has achieved all that has been asked of it. That record speaks well of any firm, whether it is privately controlled or State controlled. It deserves to be complimented.

Mr. Cunliffe

Not kicked in the teeth.

Mr. Welsh

What have other people to say about this firm? Various people outside this country have noted its achievements. The former chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission said about the products of this firm: They are used to treat the sick, to learn more about disease, to improve manufacturing processes, to increase the productivity of crops and livestock and to help man to understand the basic processes of his body, the living things around him and the physical world in which he exists. That is a man in a very high position in America making glowing comments about an industry in this country.

These and others are all good points about the company under discussion. Now let us see what the Government say. They say to the workers "You have all done well and we compliment you. You are very good indeed. You have done everything we asked and now we are going to sell you to the highest bidder without any security whatsoever for workers or management." The Minister is shaking his head, but I remind him that he said in Committee that the company might have to go to the highest bidder. The workers may ask why, since it is the only company of its kind in the United Kingdom which the Government cannot sell to the workers in the company. We have had certain promises and statements from the Minister, but nothing has been said to the effect that the workers will be given this right. The answer the Government gave in Committee was that because of the Treaty of Rome they had to allow other countries to bid. That is a perfect reason for voting against the Bill. The Government say that they cannot restrict the sale of Amersham International Ltd. formerly known as The Radiochemical Company, to companies or individuals in this country because that would be contrary to the Treaty of Rome.

The workers might ask why it should be sold at all since it is not a burden on the Chancellor of the Exchequer and has never been a burden on the Chancellor of any Government. Many other industries, both State and private, have been great burdens on the Chancellor, but this undertaking has never been. The Secretary of State might say that the reason was that the £100 million or more they receive for it will be used to cut down the public sector borrowing requirement. The purpose, is not, as the Minister said, to invest in other industries and other energies, but to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement.

Next year something else will have to be sold to reduce the public sector borrowing, and it may be necessary to sell industries at a great loss because of the Government's wrong approach to public sector borrowing requirements.

So there we have it. The reason for the Bill is political dogma. That is what it is all about apparently, no matter who suffer as long as it is not the rich. That has been the policy of the Government in the last two years. If there is any doubt about that, perhaps the Minister will tell us of any Bill that the Government have introduced that has hurt the rich. He will find it very difficult to do that. It is always the workers who come off worst. If the Government think that that is the way to run the country, I can only say that they would not be allowed to run the kiddies' outing at my working men's club at Carcroft.

Because of the Treaty of Rome, when this company is sold it may go to a foreign country. If, under the treaty, it must go to the highest bidder it may go to any foreign company based in Europe or in Britain. After all, the other company producing similar goods—New England Nuclear in the United States of America—was recently taken over by Dupont. If Dupont should take over Amersham International, it would by and large be a monopoly. If Dupont should buy this company out, it would have a monopoly of these undertakings. It would be strange for a Government who believe in private enterprise to allow a monopoly. Yet that will be possible if the sale of this company goes through.

The sale could produce something worse, because New England Nuclear produces goods similar to those produced by AI. It is not uncommon for capitalists to undertake asset stripping in order to capture the market completely for one undertaking. Alternatively, Dupont could keep the company and, in a monopoly position, force up the price of the product to suit itself. In any event, it would be bad for the United Kingdom.

Amersham International belongs to the nation—the people. The Government were not elected to sell off the nation's assets. They should not be allowed to sell off important undertakings which help to improve the standard of life of the people. The Government were elected to improve the quality of life for all people, not just for a few rich people. Whatever assets they take away from the nation will be taken back when we take power again.

The Bill is bad for Amersham International and for this country, for this company makes products not made by other companies in the United Kingdom. I am afraid not of the way that the Government are running the country, but of the way that they are ruining it. I beg all rational thinking Members to oppose the Bill. It is their duty to do so, if only for the sake of the country.

11.21 pm
Mr. Norman Lamont

The debate has inevitably raised a number of the points that were made in Committee.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) mentioned the patents owned by Amersham International. That point was dealt with in Committee. The company will retain the patents vested in it, and it will no doubt be influenced by commercial considerations in deciding whether to make its technology or patents available to others, just as it has done in the past. The Government have not in the past been influential in the company's past practice regarding patents. Therefore, its practice will be unaffected by the changes that we have in mind.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the possibility of patents passing to a foreign company. In Committee, I said that if the company were to be sold to a corporate buyer, other things being equal, we would prefer it to be British. That is a matter to which we shall attach priority.

Mr. Hooley

The Minister must recognise that there is a difference. If any patents were disposed of under the present regime, no individuals would benefit. The nation as a whole might benefit, because more revenue might flow into the Exchequer, but no individual private interest would benefit. Once the company is transferred to a private interest, private gain is involved in the disposal of patents and the matter becomes quite different.

Mr. Lamont

The company may decide now, according to commercial considerations, what it wants to do with its patents. It could pass them to someone for private gain even now.

The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil quoted from my letter to Mr. Jackson, the staff side secretary of Amersham International Ltd. I hope that he will not read too much into the letter. He quoted what was said about the difficulties of having a share scheme if there was a corporate buyer. I went out of my way to make the point not because I was retreating from the importance that we attach to trying to work out a scheme to give shares to employees but because the minutes of the meeting to which the hon. Gentleman referred stated that I had said that the combination of a corporate buyer and share ownership could certainly be achieved. Although we should like to try to achieve it, it is not certain that it can be achieved. We have asked financial advisers to look at the point, but I did not wish the staff side to be misled into believing that it was a guarantee. The letter was written only so that there should be no misunderstanding. It in no way detracts from the fact that we attach considerable importance to having an employee shareholding scheme.

Mr. Rowlands

The simplest way to solve the problem is for the Minister to state now at the Dispatch Box that the Government will not sell the company to a corporation, which would be anathema to the staff. There is no justification for doing so. The announcement would immediately remove some of the staff's concerns.

Mr. Lamont

We have been over the point again and again in Committee. The hon. Gentleman knows that we are not prepared to give that assurance. We cannot rule out a corporate buyer in all circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman was not on strong ground when he spoke of the absence of parliamentary control and of the Government riding roughshod over Parliament and not keeping it informed. We have clearly outlined our objectives. We emphasised many times that the anxieties of the staff side are understood and taken seriously. We want to meet the staff's objectives, which are similar to ours. The hon. Gentleman does no service by exaggerating the anxieties or by whipping up fears for which there is not good reason.

As I have said, there are good reasons why the company should be in the private sector. The hon. Gentleman admitted in Committee that there was at least something in the argument that, although capital was tied up in a company, there was no reason why it should remain there in perpetuity. At a time of restraint on public expenditure, it makes sense to release funds for other purposes. The fact that the Government own something now does not mean that they should own it for ever. The Government are not an investment trust.

The hon. Gentleman argues to extend nationalisation and for the Government to retain ownership in perpetuity. Listening to Opposition Members, one would never dream that prior to 1970 the Labour Government were considering ways to introduce private capital into the company.

Mr. Rowlands

In a minority holding.

Mr. Lamont

But all the talk is about private profit and gain. What about the dividends that would have gone to private shareholders had a minority of shares been sold off under a Labour Government?

The hon. Gentleman's arguments are emotional and do not stand up to scrutiny. He does no service to the employees by exaggerating the situation. We have given assurances and made commitments. I shall make absolutely sure that the employees are consulted and kept fully in touch with our decisions.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time:—

The House divided: Ayes 112, Noes 60.

Division No. 193] [11.30 pm
Alexander, Richard Garel-Jones, Tristan
Ancram, Michael Goodhart, Philip
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Goodlad, Alastair
Berry, Hon Anthony Gow, Ian
Best, Keith Gower, Sir Raymond
Bevan, David Gilroy Griffiths, E.(B'y St. Edm'ds)
Blackburn, John Griffiths, Peter Portsm'th N)
Boscawen, Hon Robert Gummer, John Selwyn
Bright, Graham Hamilton, Hon A.
Brinton, Tim Hannam, John
Brooke, Hon Peter Hawksley, Warren
Bruce-Gardyne, John Heddle, John
Buck, Antony Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Butcher, John Hordern, Peter
Cadbury, Jocelyn Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Carlisle, John (Luton West) Hurd, Hon Douglas
Carlisle, Rt Hon M.(R'c'n) Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Chapman, Sydney Kershaw, Anthony
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) King, Rt Hon Tom
Colvin, Michael Lamont, Norman
Cope, John Latham, Michael
Cranborne, Viscount Le Marchant, Spencer
Dorrell, Stephen Lester, Jim (Beeston)
Dover, Denshore Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Dykes, Hugh Lyell, Nicholas
Elliott, Sir William Macfarlane, Neil
Fenner, Mrs Peggy MacGregor, John
Fletcher-Cooke, Sir Charles McNair-Wilson, M.(N'bury)
Major, John Rossi, Hugh
Marland, Paul Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Marlow, Tony Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Mates, Michael Sims, Roger
Maude, Rt Hon Sir Angus Skeet, T. H. H.
Mawhinney, Dr Brian Speed, Keith
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Speller, Tony
Mellor, David Spicer, Jim (West Dorset)
Meyer, Sir Anthony Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Mills, Iain (Meriden) Stainton, Keith
Montgomery, Fergus Stanbrook, Ivor
Morgan, Geraint Steen, Anthony
Murphy, Christopher Stevens, Martin
Myles, David Stradling Thomas, J.
Neale, Gerrard Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Needham, Richard Tebbit, Norman
Neubert, Michael Thompson, Donald
Normanton, Tom Trippier, David
Onslow, Cranley Waddington, David
Osborn, John Wakeham, John
Page, Rt Hon Sir G.(Crosby) Waller, Gary
Page, Richard (SW Herts) Ward, John
Pattie, Geoffrey Watson, John
Percival, Sir Ian Wells, Bowen
Pollock, Alexander Wheeler, John
Proctor, K. Harvey Wolfson, Mark
Raison, Timothy
Renton, Tim. Tellers for the Ayes:
Ridley, Hon Nicholas Mr. Carol Mather and Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.
Roberts, M.(Cardiff NW)
Alton, David Jones, Rt Hon Alec (Rh'dda)
Ashton, Joe Lamond, James
Atkinson, N.(H'gey,) Lyons, Edward (Bradf'd W)
Beith, A. J. McDonald, Dr Oonagh
Bennett, Andrew (St'kp't N) McGuire, Michael (Ince)
Booth, Rt Hon Albert Maclennan, Robert
Callaghan, Jim (Midd't'n & P) Millan, Rt Hon Bruce
Campbell-Savours, Dale Miller, Dr M. S.(E Kilbride)
Cocks, Rt Hon M.(B'stol S) Morris, Rt Hon C. (O'shaw)
Conlan, Bernard Palmer, Arthur
Cowans, Harry Parry, Robert
Cryer, Bob Penhaligon, David
Cunliffe, Lawrence Prescott, John
Davis, T.(B'ham, Stechf'd) Rees, Rt Hon M (Leeds S)
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Robertson, George
Dixon, Donald Rooker, J. W.
Dormand, Jack Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Duffy, A. E. P. Rowlands, Ted
Eadie, Alex Silkin, Rt Hon J.(Deptford)
Eastham, Ken Skinner, Dennis
Ellis, R.(NE D'bysh're) Soley, Clive
Ellis, Tom (Wrexham) Spearing, Nigel
Evans, John (Newton) Steel, Rt Hon David
Field, Frank Stewart, Rt Hon D.(W Isles)
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Tinn, James
George, Bruce Wainwright, E. (Dearne V)
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Welsh, Michael
Haynes, Frank Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Home Robertson, John
Homewood, William Tellers for the Noes:
Hooley, Frank Mr. George Morton and Mr. Allen McKay.
Howells, Geraint

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read the Third time and passed.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Goodlad.]

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