HC Deb 23 February 1987 vol 111 cc4-5
3. Mr. David Marshall

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what information he has about the total value of British Airways shares sold in foreign markets.

Mr. Moore

About £148 million worth of shares were sold in foreign markets, out of a total capitalisation of £900 million.

Mr. Marshall

As the Secretary of State obviously does not have a clue about the answer to the question that was asked, and in view of massive share trading as a result of the issue being considerably underpriced, how can the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that control of British Airways will not pass to foreigners or even to a predatory competitor foreign airline?

Mr. Moore

The hon. Gentleman's first statement was total and complete nonsense. The articles require all foreign interests in BA shares to be disclosed to the company. Obviously, a system is already in place. On the hon. Gentleman's second point, I wonder whether he remembers what The Sunday Times said on the day before we priced the issue. The writer said that at 125p, I would be luke-warm", and in fact, BA would be worth buying only under 125p.

Mr. Watts

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many potential foreign investors were disappointed because of the tremendous interest of small investors in this country in British Airways, and that that is a tremendous vote of confidence in Lord King, his directors and all the people who work for British Airways, including many of my constituents, who have made it the most attractive airline investment opportunity anywhere in the world?

Mr. Moore

I am delighted at my hon. Friend's welcome. He is right. He may not recall the only Labour privatisation, if it can be called that, when in 1977 the Labour Government sold British Petroleum shares to the nation, but they did not offer them to the wider public—20 per cent. of them were placed in the United States and the rest went to United Kingdom institutions. My hon. Friends will all be looking forward to a debate on Labour's transport policy document, "Fresh Directions", to see whether the Labour party will confirm— [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am delighted. Clearly, one of Labour's Supply days will be used to debate that lovely document. We shall look forward to that occasion.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Is not the truth that the Secretary of State swithered and dithered over the British Airways flotation, that he could not make up his mind whether he wanted to encourage or discourage the small shareholder and that in the end he panicked and set the price too low, so that he gave away £300 million of public money? If he is relying on The Sunday Times for advice on how to run his Department, no wonder he gets it so abysmally wrong.

Mr. Moore

I do not think for one moment that the enormous success of the Government's privatisation programme would at any stage be regarded by the public—no matter how it is regarded by the Labour party—as the result of panic. I believe that the reverse is the case. British Airways was one of the more successful privatisations. The 1.1 million shareholders will be very interested to know the Labour party's "Fresh Directions" attitude towards their share ownership. We look forward to hearing the Opposition's debate on that subject.

Mr. Hayward

Would it not be more to the point to concentrate on those shares that were not sold abroad because the demand in this country, especially from British Airways employees and the small shareholder, was at such a high level that shares were brought back from foreign markets into the British market?

Mr. Moore

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct to draw attention to the working of the clawback and the fact that 47 per cent. of shares were placed with the employees in the United Kingdom and in the wider individual share-owning market place. I know that my hon. Friend would be happy to remind British Airways employees of Labour's commitment in its new transport document to take back the shares at the issue price. When and how the Opposition do that will be of interest to the employees.