HC Deb 13 December 1995 vol 268 cc989-1001 3.31 pm
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Roger Freeman)

With permission, I wish to make a statement about the Government's plans for the future of Her Majesty's Stationery Office and how the plans might affect Parliament.

For most of the past 200 years, HMSO provided free supplies to Departments and to Parliament, charging its costs to funds allocated in the Vote. In 1980, HMSO began recovering its costs. Within two years, Departments were freed from their obligations to purchase from HMSO, which then had to compete with private sector suppliers. HMSO and its staff met the new challenge, and the business became increasingly commercial, competitive and productive. In 1988, HMSO became an executive agency. I pay tribute to the management and staff of HMSO for their commercial success in recent years.

The public sector market in which HMSO competes is shrinking. Between 1990 and 1994, HMSO's turnover fell by more than 10 per cent. Job losses are likely unless HMSO is able to seek new sales opportunities.

Against that background, the Government plan to privatise HMSO by means of a competitive tender offer. The business will benefit from access to wider markets. Its staff will benefit from the increased security of a thriving business. Customers such as Parliament will benefit from an accountable, commercially enforceable relationship with a supplier well positioned to reduce costs.

We intend to retain in the public sector only a small residual body, which will continue to bear the name Her Majesty's Stationery Office. Its responsibilities will include Crown copyright. The residual body could also administer parliamentary copyright if Parliament so wished. Retaining responsibility for copyright in the public sector will allow us to sustain and improve the accessible and affordable publication of Government information.

The remainder of the business, which is the bulk, will be offered for sale under the name "The Stationery Office". We shall seek a buyer who will maintain the independence and integrity of the present HMSO. Under no circumstances will we offer the printing and publishing businesses separately. I placed earlier today in the Library of the House the information pack that we are using to elicit market interest.

Our objectives will be to maximise value for money for the taxpayer; to ensure that staff are treated fairly and that their rights are respected; to ensure that the needs of Parliament and other customers, such as Government Departments, are satisfied; and to complete the privatisation as soon as is practicable.

Madam Speaker, you have rightly stressed the importance that you attach to the maintenance of a first-class service to Parliament. Your letter of 28 November to the Leader of the House was published in the Official Report of 11 December. I have sought to reassure you, Madam Speaker and, with your agreement, I shall place a copy of my letter of 12 December in the Library of the House. The key point is that the buyer must be fully acceptable to Parliament. With that in mind, I intend to publish the shortlist of bidders in due course, and I shall involve parliamentary officials in the selection of the successful candidate.

Parliament's requirements will be enshrined In a binding and enforceable contract, based on the new supply and service agreements between HMSO and Parliament that take effect from 1 January 1996. The contract could include the provision that any future changes in the structure or operation of the Stationery Office should take account of Parliament's requirements. Potential purchasers will have to honour recently negotiated improvements such as reductions in the price of publications, and, I hope, negotiate further reductions.

Parliament benefits from the dedication of trained and experienced staff in HMSO. The type of sale that we envisage would mean the buyer taking on HMSO's staff with their existing terms and conditions.

The Government are sure that the interests of HMSO, its customers, its staff, the taxpayer and Parliament will be best served by privatisation along the lines that I have set out, but uncertainty—particularly among staff—necessarily accompanies a change of this sort. The Government aim to complete the sale by summer next year—subject always to meeting the requirements of Parliament as a prerequisite.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will seek an early opportunity for a debate on those issues.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

I thank the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for his statement. I also thank the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) for ensuring, Madam Speaker, that your letter to the Leader of the House, dated 28 November, was recorded in the 11 December edition of Hansard.

Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that he will meet each of the House's requirements as laid down in your letter—which, as I said, is recorded in the 11 December edition of Hansard? In particular, will he delay the sell-off to enable the House authorities to complete all the preparatory work? He said in November, in a public interview, that the arrangements would be put in place only after Parliament had given its approval; will he therefore ensure that a full debate takes place, involving votes in both Houses of Parliament, before he goes any further?

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that HMSO has operated profitably in the public sector for some time, and has met all the targets set by Government? Will he also confirm that it has served Parliament for more than 200 years, while maintaining the highest standards of confidentiality and meeting the most exacting requirements?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that 95 per cent. of staff have rejected the idea of privatisation? They are proud of HMSO's achievements in the public sector, and want it to remain in that sector. Why has the right hon. Gentleman not investigated ways in which HMSO can operate in the public sector with greater commercial freedom? Is he not aware that such an option was included in the Government's Green Paper on the future of the Post Office, and was recommended by the Select Committee on Trade and Industry in its report of January 1995? Will he now refer his proposals to the new Public Service Select Committee, so that it too can examine that option? That would give new hope to the staff of HMSO, and reassure the House authorities.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the plummeting staff morale, and the pall of insecurity that has descended on Norwich and HMSO since his announcement in September? He claims that there will be "no automatic redundancies". What does that mean, and what guarantees will he give?

Is it not a fact that this privatisation is driven not by the interests of HMSO, but by Tory dogma and the right hon. Gentleman's wish to privatise as many public services as possible before his Government are driven out by the electorate? He claims that the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 will apply, but is not TUPE an extremely difficult and uncertain area that cannot be defined in advance? Is he certain that transferring public contracts as part of a privatisation is legal under European law?

I believed the Chancellor to be a decent man fallen among thieves, but he is doing the Deputy Prime Minister's dirty work in his last-ditch attempt to become the Leader of the Opposition. The Deputy Prime Minister says, "Lurch to the right," and the Chancellor says, "How far?"

Will the Chancellor now bury these proposals and return to the House with a new proposal for HMSO to operate more commercially in the public sector?

Mr. Freeman

The right hon. Gentleman asked me six questions, and I shall try to answer them briefly but properly.

First, I intend to meet all the requirements set out in Madam Speaker's letter. The vast majority of points will be dealt with by the contract that I envisage both Houses of Parliament will take out with the Stationery Office under its new ownership. There will be proper protection, but it is not a matter for me. It is for both Houses of Parliament to satisfy themselves that the requirements set out in Madam Speaker's letter are met. I remain confident that they will do so.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman asked whether I would delay the sell-off until all the conditions set out in Madam Speaker's letter, particularly the completion of a draft contract, are met. The answer is yes. I made it plain in my statement that it is a prerequisite that the interests and requirements of Parliament are met. We cannot and should not proceed until those requirements are legitimately met. Parliament is by far HMSO's largest customer, although HMSO also prints and publishes for the Crown and many Government Departments.

Thirdly, the right hon. Gentleman requested a full debate, with or without votes. I shall appear before the Public Service Select Committee. I am in the hands of the business managers, but am delighted to appear before any Committee and at any debate. This important matter should be taken seriously. I shall therefore answer fully and, I hope, satisfactorily in whatever forum is chosen.

Fourthly, I do not believe there to be a problem in respect of European law. That is the advice that I have received. We can go into that matter in greater detail when an opportunity presents itself.

The right hon. Gentleman's fifth and sixth points go to the heart of the matter: why are we proposing the privatisation of HMSO, given the inevitable adverse effect on the morale of those who work for the organisation? We are a conservative country and whenever change is proposed, people fear the worst. I firmly believe that, if I do nothing with HMSO, its market will contract further. [Interruption.] Whatever the Administration—Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative—its market will contract. It has been contracting for a decade now. The hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) will know of the significant job losses that have occurred in the past five to 10 years. HMSO has handled them well, but as the market contracts, jobs are lost.

The prime purpose of the privatisation, therefore, is to enable HMSO, when no longer owned by the taxpayer, to compete for private sector work. The right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) asks why a state-owned company cannot compete for private sector work. It is not this Administration's philosophy to allow a taxpayer-owned state corporation to compete unfairly. [Interruption.] The principle has been proven to be right, because when those companies enter the private sector—many successful privatisations have occurred—their business tends to grow as they have access to new markets.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

Then change the rules.

Mr. Freeman

It has nothing to do with the rules. It has to do with the realities of business life.

I want Her Majesty's Stationery Office to have bigger markets and to employ more people than would otherwise be the case.

The final question that the right hon. Gentleman asked me was about jobs. I firmly believe that, if I do nothing, there will be redundancies—some compulsory—at Norwich and elsewhere throughout the country. Under the proposals, if the market grows, as I believe it will, more jobs will be available—more than would otherwise have been the case.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

May I thank my right hon. Friend for the tributes that he paid to the staff at HMSO, so many of whom, as he said, work in Norwich and in the surrounding area? I am also grateful for the assurances that he gave about jobs and prospects for the future.

Will my right hon. Friend continue to consult members of staff, and everyone involved in HMSO, at every stage in future? Will he also consult especially Members of the House, many of whom, representing constituencies away from Norwich, are worried about that matter? Will he consult officials of the House, because, after all, Parliament is a key customer of HMSO?

Mr. Freeman

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I can give the assurance that I shall consult representatives of the staff. It is not possible for me to consult every member of staff, but I have been to Norwich twice, and I envisage going again, to meet the union representatives of the employees.

In my statement, I gave an additional assurance, based on the advice of our consultants, that the core of the business—the printing and publishing business—will not he broken up. I also said that we intend to offer HMSO as a whole—not only the printing and publishing business, but the other ancillary businesses. That suggestion was made to me by representatives of the work force, and I accepted it.

Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)

Does the Minister realise that the proposed privatisation of that successful and profitable public enterprise is pure dogma? It is merely an item of ideology. What guarantees—and I mean guarantees—will he seek that HMSO will not be broken up? If it is broken up, large parts of it will become unviable. It undertakes not only printing and publishing; there is a very large reprographic and office supplies business, which the Minister did not even mention.

What security obligations will be placed on a private buyer? The organisation is a major security printing and publishing business, with a strong influence on national and parliamentary security. Will the Minister seek any employment guarantees from the proposed bidder? Those are essential. Nine hundred people work in HMSO in my constituency. It is probably one of the largest single employers left.

Is the Minister absolutely sure that TUPE—and I brought pressure to bear on him about that the other day—will apply in that sector of rapid technological change? Undoubtedly, there are ways around TUPE under those conditions.

Does the Minister agree that it is a totally unnecessary privatisation, which is destroying a business that was set up 200 years ago to avoid corruption in the supply of services to the Government?

Mr. Freeman

I respect the hon. Gentleman's position. After all, he represents, I dare say, the majority of the work force in Norwich. However, he needs to reflect on the central argument that I made about jobs and the marketplace in which HMSO operates. It is a serious business point, and it is the reason why we are proceeding. Perhaps, when we have a fuller debate, the hon. Gentleman might care to come to grips with that point, because it is in the best interests of his constituents.

The hon. Gentleman asked me three questions. I cannot give any guarantees, with HMSO in the public sector or in the private sector, about the shape of business in 10, 20 or 30 years' time. However, I have made it crystal clear that we shall offer the business as a whole and, in any case, not break up the printing and publishing business. The best guarantees that that will not happen lie in the drafting of the contracts, not only from the House but from the other place and from Government Departments—and I dare say, through the Office of Public Service.

We, as the customers—that is to say, the Crown and Parliament—can require the business to have a certain nature and structure. If that is not maintained, the contract may well be vitiated. It depends on the terms of the contract. Parliament is entitled to formulate its own views about the location of the press and the staff and the way in which the business is structured and organised. Therefore, Parliament will be able to control the nature of the business that supplies the products.

As to TUPE, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing my attention to what he considers to be a residual problem. I shall ensure that I am properly briefed in good time for the debate, when we shall examine the matter in detail. [Laughter.] I am trying to give a serious response to the hon. Gentleman's point. [Interruption.] With respect, I have repeated very clearly the advice that the Department has received. I am treating the hon. Gentleman's point seriously. He has cast doubt upon the advice available to the Government, and I shall certainly reflect further upon the matter.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that he has used the words "public service" several times this afternoon? Does he accept that there is no more important public service than delivering accurately and properly the proceedings of this place and all the activities connected with it?

Therefore, does my right hon. Friend accept that there are Conservative Members who are not necessarily excited by his proposal and who do not necessarily believe that it is in the best public interest? Will he consider the option of Parliament taking control of the affair and being responsible entirely for its own publications? It could be voted a suitable sum of money so to do. If he will not take that suggestion on board—I hope that he does—will he at least give a complete and firm undertaking this afternoon to set up a proper Select Committee to supervise whoever produces the works?

Mr. Freeman

I was attracted initially to the idea of separating the business. I visited the south London printing works and came to the clear conclusion that one could not separate the parliamentary from the Crown business. I am afraid that the two are inseparable in a commercial sense: the business is run as an integrated whole. Therefore, I do not believe that it is possible to have a dedicated parliamentary press, with Parliament receiving the appropriate funds directly and then negotiating for the direct control and management of the business. That would be a neat solution, but it is not a practicable one. I am happy to examine the matter again, but I do not believe that that is possible.

As to the establishment of a proper Select Committee, I have appeared before the Finance and Services Select Committee, which I understand has some responsibility for the matter. I am happy to appear before any Select Committee that the House of Commons, in its wisdom, decides is a better forum.

Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon)

I welcome the suggestion of an early debate on the subject in the House, but do the Government intend to make available in time for that debate a draft of the contract for which the private sector will be invited to tender? Does not the Minister believe that the timetable that he has outlined is rather ambitious if the complex issues in the supply and service agreements are to be turned into a contract or series of contracts? If that cannot be achieved in the time scale that he suggests, will he give an absolute assurance that there is no need for it to be completed by any arbitrarily set date?

Mr. Freeman

I am not setting deadlines, and you will confirm, Madam Speaker, that I gave you an assurance in that regard. Deadlines cannot apply in this case, as there is a prerequisite that Parliament be satisfied.

As to the hon. Gentleman's two specific points, I have placed in the Library the information pack comprising documents and information about HMSO, which are publicly available and which potential purchasers will wish to study. That is separate from the service agreement, which I understand was signed yesterday with HMSO by the House authorities and authorities of the other place. It governs services that should run from 1 January. That will form the basis of a contract with a new owner of the business in due course. I have offered my Department's assistance to the House authorities in drafting that contract, but at the end of the day it is for the House to agree the details of the contract that will protect its position.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a structure that was vital 200 years ago is not appropriate in today's modern world of enormously competitive multi-media and complex publishing? He is absolutely right in his statement that the new model that he has presented to the House today could be the saviour of people with high skills and great integrity, and could protect their reputation. Finally, I thank him for fulfilling my commitment to the trade unions that they would be consulted at all appropriate stages.

Mr. Freeman

As I recall, my hon. Friend was a distinguished public service Minister responsible for HMSO. I am grateful for his support, not only in repeating the assurances that he gave, but in emphasising the ones that I have given.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

After the close of business on Monday evening, I visited the parliamentary press to see the production of Hansard and the Vote at first hand. After more than 20 years in the House, it was remiss of me not to have done so before. I left with the impression that, for all practical purposes, the function on the other side of the river is effectively a department of the House. It is dedicated to the vagaries, the pressures, the timetables and the ebb and flow of business in the House, in which no other commercial printer can ever be experienced.

Can the Minister name another commercial operation that is experienced in dealing with the ebb and flow of work produced by the House and the other place? Woe betide any Minister who gets rid of that service and then has to explain to the House why the Votes and Proceedings, Committee Hansard and the Order Paper are not available. It is not possible to fit in jobbing contracts on a commercial basis between bits of parliamentary work.

As the Leader of the House has left the Chamber—[HON. MEMBERS: "He is here."] He is here, so I suggest that, because of its unique parliamentary aspect, it should be a House of Commons matter whether the privatisation goes ahead. We want a clear, unambiguous statement that there will be a free vote on whether the parliamentary press should be privatised. Members on both sides of the House should see for themselves how the work is produced and consider the benefits and disbenefits.

It is a House of Commons matter, not an ordinary privatisation where we follow the political divide. Although there is ideological division, today's statement concerns how the House functions on behalf and to the benefit of our constituents and not for us privately. We cannot do our job—representing our constituents—if there is the slightest shadow of doubt about the supply of our necessary papers.

Mr. Freeman

I find myself in agreement with the hon. Gentleman. However, he visited the parliamentary press in the evening. Had he done so during the day, he would have found a different business. In the late afternoon, the evening and all night the parliamentary press is geared to producing Hansard, Bills and documents for Committees. Had he gone there during the day, he would have found it producing documents for the Crown—for Government Departments. The business, sadly, cannot be separated. The presses need to be loaded with the London Gazette, which is a Crown publication, not a parliamentary publication, at different times of the day to get maximum use from expensive machinery.

I caution the hon. Gentleman against jumping to the conclusion that the press can be dedicated entirely to parliamentary business. It cannot, and that would not he in the interests of the management and the staff, because jobs would have to be lost. I agree with the hon. Gentleman's sentiments, but the way to protect the quality of service required from that plant—the quality of work supplied, the timeliness and the cost—is through a contract.

I am sure that the House will require that press to be retained. It is a valuable asset, with substantial recent investment in plant and machinery, and the House will require standards of service that the printing and publishing business in the private sector will aspire to meet. Can anyone imagine any owner of that business, whether it is myself as a Minister of the Crown, or a private sector printer or publisher, seeking to embarrass itself by providing rotten service to the House?

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)


Mr. Freeman

The hon. Gentleman is not living in the real world.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

I welcome the news about the privatisation of HMSO. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is undoubtedly the hest way to protect jobs, because HMSO will be able to seek greater commercial freedom? Will he suggest that the staff of HMSO contact the Crown Agents staff, who last summer gained their freedom from the Government and have now moved into a much more secure future?

Mr. Freeman

That is an interesting idea. Other work that I would like HMSO to undertake, in addition to private sector work, is some of the European Commission's and European Parliament's work. We have an extremely efficient parliamentary press—it is called a parliamentary press, but it does other work—and I would like to see its machines properly loaded and more people employed in south London, not fewer.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Could it not he said that the Minister has condemned his case from his own mouth? What reason is there to privatise something that works efficiently and well in the interests of the House? Why cannot a public sector contractor enter the private sector market to secure further work if it wants? It can do so on favourable and equal terms.

Mr. Garrett

It does.

Mr. Bermingham

As my hon. Friend says, it does. There is no necessity for privatisation. Is it not just dogma overcoming intelligence?

Mr. Freeman

The philosophy pursued by the Government consistently over the past 16 years has been, where there is a state corporation or enterprise and we want its business to grow by taking on private sector business, for the business to be moved into private sector ownership, 51 per cent. or 100 per cent. I am never going to be able to convince Opposition Members about that approach.

We do not believe that the taxpayer, as the shareholder of the business, should subsidise or underwrite a business that unfairly competes with the rest of the private sector. There are many other advantages for example, removing Treasury control on investment and on running costs. I do not believe that that is appropriate for this business. I also firmly believe that, in the private sector, the management will be able to augment the skills, particularly of marketing and finance, which one does not normally associate with public sector bodies.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are plenty of printers in the private sector that provide absolute accuracy and security to their clients in important matters such as printing reports and accounts and keeping the inside information secret until it is due to be published? Would they not resent, rightly, HMSO moving into their markets if it was underwritten by the taxpayer rather than operating on a commercial basis? Could he reassure employees that they might have the opportunity to have shares in the business, or in the business that purchases HMSO? Although the Labour party regrets every privatisation, the employees never do.

Mr. Freeman

I particularly agree with my hon. Friend's last comment. It is appropriate for the management and staff of any business—public sector moving into the private sector or already there—to have an equity stake in that business or at least a share in the profitability of the business. I hope very much that it will prove possible for that to apply to HMSO. We shall see how the market responds.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

Does not the right hon. Gentleman appreciate the Opposition's concern? He referred to TUPE, but when he was asked a detailed question, he could not answer. The whole point about TUPE is that it lasts, at most, for three months and can be abandoned thereafter. The experience of takeovers in the printing industry in particular has been that pension funds have been filched as soon as many of those companies have been taken over. We want a guarantee that the pension fund will be ring-fenced, above and beyond TUPE, so that there is no possibility, in the event of an unwanted privatisation, of the workers' money in the pension fund being filched by the new owners in the interests of shareholders elsewhere.

Mr. Freeman

That is an important point. TUPE, of course, does not cover pensions and is a separate but emotive issue, as anyone who has had responsibility for public sector departments will know. I give an undertaking to the House that, specifically as regards pensions, but also as regards TUPE, whose provisions will apply—that is the advice that I have been given—I will address separately and specifically protection of the pension rights of those who work in the business. I have already given that assurance to the trade union representatives in Norwich.

Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that Parliament will continue to have exactly the same rights over its copyright and over the contracts into which it enters, especially in relation to electronic publication, which, obviously, will become important, bearing it in mind that the House may wish to publish documents over the Internet? Will he think carefully about nomenclature, bearing it in mind that considerable confusion may arise if there is a "Stationery Office" in the private sector while, at the same time, Her Majesty's Stationery Office is retained with residual responsibilities in the public sector?

Mr. Freeman

I was merely alluding to the transaction's structure. I do not envisage that the residual body in my Department and the Cabinet Office would he referred to as HMSO. I imagine that the individual and his staff would be referred to as the Queen's Printer and would retain the Crown copyright.

It is not for me to comment on what the House may decide to do in terms of Internet access and publishing more documentation. Speaking on behalf of the Crown, I should like much greater access—this sits well with our views on open government—to Government documents. Of course, Ministers will control Crown copyright; that will not be a matter for the private sector printing and publishing business owner at least, or for the existing HMSO business. I hope that that satisfies my hon. Friend.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

In the past 35 minutes, the Minister has repeatedly used the phrase "acceptable to Parliament". If that means anything, it means acceptable to more than a majority of five in Parliament. Therefore, why does he not rely on a free vote? Will he deal with the question that was put by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) on security, which he, inadvertently no doubt, did not answer? What happens now if Budget statements are leaked? As I understand it, the printing side has never been guilty of any leaks because, of course, there are sanctions. In the new set-up, what sanctions will there be on security? Will he answer my hon. Friend, whose constituency this relates to, who asked a proper question on security?

Mr. Freeman

Yes. On security, the hon. Gentleman is right. I cannot recall, certainly in the past 16 years, any specific problems with security in terms of printing Budget documents. The printing presses are sealed overnight and suitable security arrangements apply; I understand that, having printed the documents, staff remain on the premises. Those arrangements will continue. In the past, if there was a problem, I would be called to account and I would sack the management. In future, on the Budget, which is a Crown matter, the Treasury and myself acting on its behalf would take action under the terms of the contract with the printing and publishing business responsible for publishing Budget documents. We would either suspend the contract or seek redress, so in practical terms there is no difference.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement, which will lead to increased job opportunities in HMSO, and should lead to increased investment where it is no longer subject to the dead hand of the Treasury. May I remind him that the people who talk about dogma are the very people who opposed the privatisation of BT, British Airways, British Steel, British Gas and all the other great public utilities? Will he not be seduced by those who call for a free vote, because, when there was a free vote on the Nolan committee report, the Labour party's Chief Whip made it clear that he did not recognise what a free vote meant?

Mr. Freeman

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his general support for the notion of privatisation.

Just to correct my answer to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), I am advised that the vast majority of Budget documents are already printed by private sector contractors, and not by HMSO.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does the Minister realise that he cuts a sorry figure today, trying to defend the indefensible? When he was asked a question about why he was doing this, he said that he was doing it because it was the Tory party's philosophy. The Government have had £80 billion selling off the nation's silver and now they have got down to this paltry little set-up—HMSO. Will it be the Mace next and the Dispatch Boxes? Will he give a guarantee that, if this thing goes through, the publishing firm that gets hold of HMSO will not include Haymarket Publishing Group, his gaffer's—the Deputy Prime Minister's—firm, and Murdoch? Are they excluded?

Mr. Freeman

The normal rules governing the propriety of Ministers and decision making will, I can assure the hon. Gentleman, apply.

Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn)

As Chairman of the Select Committee on Administration, I am deeply concerned. Our Hansard facilities are second to none, and the Minister must know that in Canada the printing facilities were privatised and it was an absolute disaster. I hope that hon. Members will keep our excellent services and that they will vote against this proposal.

Mr. Freeman

My understanding is different from that of the hon. Gentleman. He raised that matter with me before. In Canada there has been no such privatisation, although there are proposals. I shall certainly watch progress on those proposals with great interest, as I am sure will the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Robert Litherland (Manchester, Central)

What consolation does the Minister's statement contain for the work force at HMSO, when privatisation of gas and electricity undoubtedly led to redundancies? Is not that why he cannot give a guarantee?

Mr. Freeman

No Minister should be believed if he or she were to give a guarantee about jobs in either the public or the private sector. I repeat what I said earlier: that, if the market is allowed to grow and if HMSO is allowed to operate on a bigger canvas, more jobs will be created than would otherwise be the case.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is it not interesting that even Lady Thatcher refused to take this step, and she did not need any lectures about privatisation? Does the Minister not realise that one of the reasons—there are others, I know—why the Government are so deeply unpopular and discredited in the country, as shown by every by-election and council election, is that people recognise that the Government base their policies not on common sense but on dogma, indifferent to public opinion? Does not this decision in the dying days of this Administration show how right people are in coming to that conclusion about this Tory Government?

Mr. Freeman

No one on the Opposition Benches—perhaps this is not the occasion—has yet dealt with the point of substance, which is that, to safeguard jobs and expand job opportunities, HMSO should be allowed to operate in both public and private sector markets. It can do that only under private sector ownership, and so far I have not heard a coherent argument against that.

Mr. Miller

Is there not a fundamental contradiction between the Minister's response about protection of the rights of the House and his answers to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett)? For example, if the printing works were sold on, let us say to an overseas company, the House would clearly have reservations about continuing that service. How will we deal with those issues? More fundamentally, how will we deal with the issues that the Minister dodged, when two days ago I raised the vexed question of developments of intellectual property rights in a rapidly changing world? Is it not important for those matters to be addressed by the House before this daft privatisation goes through?

Mr. Freeman

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is referring to intellectual property rights that are possessed by HMSO as a printing and publishing house. [Interruption.] If he is referring to that, I can tell him that HMSO, like any other printer and publisher, is entitled to protect its position. In the context of copyright, if that is the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's question, I have explained that the House controls its own copyright and that the Government control the copyright of Departments. We can certainly go into the matter in greater detail if the hon. Gentleman has the time on a more suitable occasion to develop his points, so that I can more fully understand them.

I have two points to make about control over the ownership of the business. First, I have indicated that the House, through its officials, will be involved in the selection of the purchaser of the entire business. Secondly, it is open to the House to put into the contract that any change in the identity of that owner or the structure of ownership could be a precondition for cancellation of the contract.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)

Why does not the Minister recognise that, by common consent, Her Majesty's Stationery Office has served the nation and Parliament well over very many years? Would it not he better to accept the old principle "if it works, don't fix it", and to let HMSO develop as a publicly owned concern? Instead, the Government seem to have adopted the rather bizarre approach, "If it moves, privatise it".

Mr. Freeman

The hon. Gentleman says, "If it works, don't fix it". It does not work—jobs are being lost and the market is contracting. I should not be discharging my job properly unless I addressed those fundamental issues. That is why there has been a protracted review of the future of HMSO for the past two to three years. That is also why I am taking action now to end the uncertainty and to chart a sensible way forward.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

For the third time of asking—so far unanswered—is this not a matter for a free vote?

Mr. Freeman

That is not a matter for me.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

Will the Minister tell the House whether the consultants that he used to prepare the proposal were allowed to consider the option of HMSO remaining within the public sector, but with a wider commercial remit? If so, what was the consultants' response to that option? Did they have the freedom to say that privatisation of HMSO was not the most desirable option to bring before the House?

Mr. Freeman

It is not the policy of the Government to permit the unfettered entry of a state body into the private sector market. That never has been and never will be the policy of the Government. There are certain limited derogations by the Treasury permitting the marginal capacity of HMSO to be used to bid for private sector work, but one should not—in my judgment, ever—allow the taxpayer to subsidise public sector companies competing with the private sector.

Mr. Dalyell

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Points of order come after statements, and I have another statement. However, I will allow the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) to speak again, as he has requested.

Mr. Derek Foster

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

I would not wish the Chancellor of the Duchy to mislead the House. He accused the Opposition of not addressing the central issue. Many Opposition Members have said that we want HMSO to be able to sell in wider markets, and we want it to be able to borrow for investment in the private sector. Why cannot that be done within the public sector? Will the Minister put that point to the new Public Service Select Committee, so that it can investigate whether it is a feasible option? That would please everyone at HMSO and avoid the embarrassment of the House authorities.

Mr. Freeman

We can return to those issues. I would humbly suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that he might check with the shadow Chancellor. We had exchanges on that point during the process of railway privatisation. We cannot permit a publicly owned body with more than 51 per cent. of its equity controlled by the state to borrow and that borrowing not be included in the public sector borrowing requirement. The shadow Chancellor, who has been challenged on that issue in the past, has made it clear that he does not propose any change to those rules. If the shadow Chancellor is also suggesting that state bodies should be allowed to compete freely with the private sector in the provision of services, that would represent a change in policy. Perhaps we should return to that point at greater length at the appropriate time.