HC Deb 02 May 1995 vol 259 cc181-96
Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 9, at end insert— '(1A) No direction under subsection (1) above shall be given unless a draft of such a direction has been laid before both Houses of Parliament and approved by members of each House.'.

Madam Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 10, in page 3, line 14, at end insert— '(9) The Secretary of State shall not direct the Authority to make more than one scheme unless such a direction in his opinion will promote the national interest.'.

Mr. Jackson

Thank you, Madam Speaker, for selecting my amendment for debate. It reflects the concern that I expressed on Second Reading. I should have liked to take part in the debate in Committee on an Opposition amendment which raised the same issue. Unfortunately, as the record of the proceedings in Standing Committee will show, I was prevented from serving on it by the intervention of a Government Whip. Therefore, I was unable to take part in that debate and to represent my constituents, among whom are numbered almost a third of the Atomic Energy Authority's employees. The amendment reflects their interests, and, I believe, the national interest.

The purpose of my amendment is to ensure that Parliament has an opportunity to consider the structure of AEA Technology as it will be when it is privatised. I should say at the outset that it is obvious that the amendment gives considerable discretion to the Government as to the form and timing of the parliamentary debate which it envisages.

In Committee, the Minister and a number of my hon. Friends chose to interpret a similar amendment as requiring the Government to seek the authorisation of Parliament for specific details of the sale, in circumstances which would be commercially disruptive. I do not believe that that was a proper interpretation of the Opposition amendment, nor do I accept that it would be a proper interpretation of the amendment which I am moving.

For the avoidance of doubt, this amendment is drafted to enable the Government to fulfil their terms by making an early statement of their broad scheme of privatisation at a time of their choosing and not at all at a time which would be commercially disruptive. The Opposition spokesman tried to make that point in Committee, but I am afraid that he was brushed aside. I am sure that he would confirm now that he understands the matter in the same way.

Dr. Moonie

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for tabling the amendment, which gives us another opportunity to consider the whole question of parliamentary accountability. I can confirm—I shall be speaking at more length later—that we shall indeed be supporting the amendment. If anything, the amendment is a much better way of handling the issue than the way in which we chose to debate it in Committee. I hope that the hon. Gentleman's amendment will be given consideration.

Mr. Jackson

Why do I believe that the amendment is necessary? The speech of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy on Second Reading showed that he at least recognised the sensitivity of whether AEA Technology was to be privatised as an entity or to be broken up for disposal. During that debate, he sought to give me some assurances on the matter. Specifically, he said: the Government agree that AEA Technology should continue to be managed as a single, integrated whole". My purpose in moving the amendment is to ensure that this House and another place are given an opportunity to see that this commitment is met or that we are given an explanation, if it cannot be met, of why that should be so.

I fully accepted what my right hon. Friend the Minister said in that debate about the inevitability of a degree of uncertainty. He was justified in saying: Decisions about the method and timing of the sale can similarly be taken only in the light of market circumstances at the time", and that final decisions on the form of privatisation must depend on AEA Technology's performance in the months ahead, on the needs and requirements of customers and on confirmation from the market that a unitary sale will secure best overall value for money for the taxpayer."—[Official Report, 14 March 1995; Vol. 256, c. 707.] If the Government cannot for those good reasons make a clear statement about the form of privatisation, in line with their commitment to AEA Technology as a "single, integrated whole", they should be prepared to make a statement to Parliament when they are able to do so. The purpose of my amendment is to provide such an opportunity for the Government.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Energy argued in Committee—I dare say that he will try to argue again today—that the amendment was not necessary, because the privatisation measure simply conformed to standard-form privatisation provisions that the House has approved on previous occasions. That point was made in the Department of Trade and Industry's press release, published on the same day as the Atomic Energy Authority Bill. I must tell my hon. Friend that I cannot accept that argument.

I have looked at the other cases of privatisation, and it is quite clear that there is a much more fundamental question mark hanging over the structure of AEA Technology and privatisation than there was in respect of the structure of other industries when they were privatised.

For example, in the case of the electricity industry, there was a restructuring before privatisation, enabled by the Electricity Act 1989, which made it clear that the industry was to be sold as 12 supply companies and two generating companies. Similarly, the Water Act 1989 created 10 water and sewerage companies, successor companies to the regional water boards. In short, Parliament was fully apprised of the basic form of the proposed privatisation in those important instances, even before publication of the Bills to privatise those industries.

With regard to AEA Technology, there is, however, a fundamental ambiguity of approach on the part of the Government. It is public knowledge that Barclays de Zoete Wedd consultants recommended the break-up of AEA Technology. We may deduce that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy rejected that advice on behalf of the Government when he said that the company should be managed as a "single, integrated whole", although it has never been explained to the House why the BZW recommendations have been rejected.

On the other hand, my right hon. Friend qualified that commitment by reference to "market circumstances", and what the Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Energy said in Committee represents further confirmation of that ambiguity.

4.15 pm

For example, on 23 March, the Under-Secretary said that a "unitary sale" was possibly "achievable", but then told the Committee: we cannot be certain that that is the best way forward."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 23 March 1995; c. 16–17.] In the light of that comment, what price the Minister of State's remark on Second Reading about the Government's preference for a "single, integrated whole"?

The truth is that the Government have allowed a major question mark to form over the future structure of AEA Technology at the time of privatisation, which means that the House has none of the assurances about structure that it had at the time of earlier privatisations.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

In view of the hon. Gentleman's detailed knowledge of such matters relating to his constituency, does he know anything about the disposal of the facility services division? I understand that that consisted of 950 people, yet it seems to have mysteriously disappeared during the Committee stage.

Mr. Jackson

That was simply an exercise, which would have been perfectly possible under the existing arrangements, whereby the Atomic Energy Authority is contracting out the provision of facility services. It is a matter for the management of AEA Technology. I happen to support what is being done in that instance, and it affects neither the structure of the Bill nor the point that I seek to make about the future structure of AEA Technology at the point of privatisation.

I am saying that the Government have allowed a question mark to form over the issue, so that the House does not have the assurances about the structure of AEAT that it had about the structure of other organisations at the time of earlier privatisations. It is therefore appropriate to vary the standard- form privatisation provisions—which are not carved on tablets of stone—to make possible the parliamentary debate and vote envisaged by my amendment.

I shall not repeat any of the eight arguments that I advanced on Second Reading on 14 March—they are recorded at columns 732–33 of the Official Report of that debate—as to why it is not only in the interests of my constituents who work at AEA Technology but in the national interest that AEAT should be privatised as a single entity. It would seem from the remarks of the Minister of State that he at least has found those arguments persuasive.

The purpose of my amendment is simply to give the Government an opportunity, in presenting a broad scheme of privatisation, either to say that they accept those arguments or to provide an explanation of why, in view of possible future "market circumstances", they have not been found valid. I believe that the Government have a duty to do that. AEA Technology is not the Government's property but public property. The Government have a duty to the House and to another place to explain and justify their policy in such an important matter.

It may be for the convenience of the House if I say now that I shall certainly press the amendment to a Division unless the Government are prepared to accept it. I may well lose the vote, but I hope that the proceedings will be noticed in another place.

The Government sometimes behave as though they regarded the House, its Standing Committees and its elected Members as a dignified rather than a working part of the constitution. The record suggests that their unelected Lordships are not only more dignified but can also be more effective than we in this House are allowed to be. I hope that, on this occasion, it will not once again fall to them to ensure that the Government are held to account for their actions.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

I support the purpose of the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) and I shall adopt his reasoning. I need not retract a word of it, nor need I add much.

I believe that the whole House has recognised that if AEA Technology is to be privatised, it is proper, and in the national interest, that it should be privatised as an integral whole, with the advantages of synergy arising from the different operations carried out by the company at present. The Government themselves, in the person of the Minister of State, have said that that is their preference. Doubt was cast upon that by the words of the Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Energy, who has said that it may be neither possible nor desirable in the commercial circumstances to proceed in the manner that the Minister of State thought appropriate.

That being so, it would be totally wrong for the House to agree to the passage of a provision which would allow the Government to do what they like by way of a scheme or schemes without any proper parliamentary scrutiny of the structure that the Government have in mind. In other contexts, such sweeping powers have been referred to as Henry VIII clauses. The other place has drawn attention to the undesirability of such dispensing powers being given to Ministers to do as they choose on the back of a general provision of law.

The case for integral privatisation is clear, and has been voiced by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It need not he repeated. The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Wantage is strongly supported by his neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), who spoke in Committee on a number of matters affecting the interests of the industry. The arguments have commended themselves to hon. Members on both sides of the House, and it would be extremely foolish of the Minister to ignore the collective wisdom of the House of Commons on the matter. I hope that he will not do so, and that he will tell the House that the Government intend to accept the amendment.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) for reasons of tactics. We are sent here as Back-Bench Members to look after the interests of our constituents, but it is appalling that the Whips are able to organise matters in such a way that proper argument cannot be made in Committee. You will well know, Madam Speaker, as the great guardian of Back Benchers' rights, how matters must be organised in such a way as to try to allow the Government to get their business.

It might be helpful for the House to know that when the Bill was going into Committee, both my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage and I—as the Members representing the majority of people who would be affected by the privatisation—spoke individually to the Whips. We acknowledged that, with a small Government majority, it would perhaps be unreasonable to expect that both of us should sit on the Committee, as we would both be in a position to push our own individual constituency views against the majority view of the House.

I said to the Whips that, while I was keen to serve on the Committee, clearly my hon. Friend—having the larger number of constituents involved and more questions about the Bill—would be more suitable for selection. The Whips smiled, said that that was a good idea and thanked me kindly. Imagine my surprise when I found out that my hon. Friend had not been selected for the Committee. When he got another member of the Committee to stand aside in his favour, he found that the Whips rapidly ensured that he did not get on to that Committee.

When I vote against the Government tonight—for the first time—to support my colleague, it will be to say that the House must be allowed to discuss matters that are of great concern to individual constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage is no maverick and would have discussed the matters sensibly in Committee, which would have been that much stronger for having the benefit of his knowledge.

I shall support my hon. Friend if the Minister does not accept the amendment. The Minister, along with many of his ministerial colleagues, may well scratch his head and wonder why the Whips should use those tactics to try to keep trouble at bay and to deliver the vote without getting the very best deal and making sure that we look at the legislation properly. I regret to have to say that I shall vote against the Government if they do not accept the amendment.

Mr. Miller

I shall add briefly to the comments that have already been made.

In my intervention on the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), I asked about one subsidiary. I understand his logic in saying that it is not within the science base, so it can be hived off without damage to the important science base in the heart of his constituency, although I do not agree.

My worry is that there are consistent and persistent rumours about the sale of other subsidiaries. Harwell Dosimeters has been sold to EMS Medical Group Ltd. of Stonehouse, Gloucestershire for an undisclosed sum and seven business areas have been identified for sale—Conforma in Risley, Cheshire, which is close to my home and my constituency, is among them. I am worried that, with that gradual fragmentation, there will be cracks in the strength of the science base of the operation.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument about that one subsidiary, but it cannot hold true for all the parts about which there are persistent rumours. It is time that the Government came clean about what they are doing.

Dr. Moonie

I shall speak briefly in support of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) and amendment No. 10, tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friends.

When I realised that the hon. Member for Wantage was going to table the amendment, I made it clear that the Opposition parties would be very likely to support it. I am pleased that he is determined to push his amendment to a vote because we shall certainly be in the Lobby with him. One always gets wild notions when a Government rebellion is on the cards, but alas it is a very small rebellion—only two Conservative Members are present, but we can always hope that others may be lurking in the wings, waiting to come into the Lobby with us.

I wondered why the Report stage had been brought forward to this week—a week that is traditionally very light because of the local elections—especially as the Government must have had adequate notice that they would have a rebellion on their hands. I then realised, however, that Conservative Members would not be in their constituencies to help local government candidates. They would all be here, giving them the best service that they could possibly give in the circumstances—by not appearing in their constituencies—with the honourable exception of the hon. Members for Wantage and for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), of course.

Amendment No. 1 states: No direction under subsection (1) above shall be given unless a draft of such a direction has been laid before both Houses of Parliament and approved by members of each House. There is an important distinction between the form of this amendment and the amendments that we discussed in Committee. This amendment is much superior.

In Committee, we were considering securing parliamentary approval for any disposal scheme that the Government produced for AEA Technology. The Minister was able to say that such approval would be difficult, that information might be commercially sensitive and that time pressures would be placed on us, which would preclude any such resolution of the House being sought. Perhaps there is justification for that view, but the Minister has no justification for refusing to give the very reasonable assurances that his hon. Friends have requested this afternoon.

Amendment No. 1 says: No direction … shall be given unless a draft of such a direction has been laid before both Houses of Parliament and so approved. That consideration by both Houses of Parliament therefore takes place much earlier, which gives Members of the House a chance to put the seal of approval on that deal.

An important point of principle is at stake, which has been mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is fundamentally wrong of the Government to take into the hands of the Executive powers that should legitimately be left in hon. Members' hands. They are entitled to make such decisions.

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We are currently in the disgraceful position in which our entire atomic energy generating capacity, with the exception of Magnox reactors, can be sold off without further reference to the House of Commons. Regardless of who is in power, that abuse of the Executive's prerogative is wrong and should be resisted. One hopes that it will be resisted by hon. Members on both sides of the House today.

Amendment No. 10 says: The Secretary of State shall not direct the Authority to make more than one scheme unless such a direction in his opinion will promote the national interest. A great deal of anxiety was expressed in Committee and on Second Reading about the form that a putative sale would take. It is obvious that the management and work force of AEA Technology would much prefer the company to be sold off as a going concern—a single entity. As we discussed the matter in Committee, we must consider it in a slightly different form on Report; hence the wording of our amendment No. 10, which would allow the Secretary of State to draw up more than one scheme of transfer only if he believed that to be in "the national interest".

There appears to have been confusion in Ministers' minds about the way in which the AEA should be sold. On Second Reading, the Minister for Industry and Energy said: the Government agree that AEA Technology should continue to be managed as a single, integrated whole".—[Official Report, 14 March 1995; Vol. 256, c. 707.] That is great; none of us could find fault with that.

However, in Committee, there were signs of rapid back-pedalling by the new Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Energy, who contradicted his senior colleague, saying that it is far too early to make irrevocable decisions about the shape and form of a privatised AEA Technology. One hopes that today the Minister will clear up the obvious problems that have arisen between him and his colleague.

Parliament should decide the form of the sale. Separate sales might well be the only way of disposing of AEA Technology, but if so, those sales should be made only when they are demonstrably in the national interest.

The Minister may intend to tell us that it is impossible to define what is in the national interest. However, the Government have already made a perfectly adequate stab at defining what is in the national interest in the Atomic Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1981. We shall refer to that definition in a future debate, because one of our amendments restores that power, which the Government have deleted in clause 7 so that national interest may not apply.

Section 1(4) of the 1981 Act provides: Where a disposal by the Authority would not in their opinion be consistent with the exercise or performance of their functions, the disposal may only be made—

  1. (a) if in the Secretary of State's opinion it will promote the national interest; and
  2. (b) under and in accordance with directions given by him under the said section 3."
Subsection (5) provides: Where a disposal by the Secretary of State would in his opinion be inconsistent with promoting or controlling the development of atomic energy, the disposal may only be made if in his opinion it will promote the national interest. So that has already been part of an Act. In case there might be any dubiety, or problems with future studies of the Act, a helpful footnote was provided, which said exactly what the national interest was: National interest. It was suggested by Mackinnon J. in Consett Iron Co Ltd v. Clavering Trustees (1934) … that 'national interest' may be considered as something which is to be distinguished from the private interest of individuals; that the expression is akin to the economic doctrine of 'the greatest good of the greatest number'. We appear to be widening things substantially, Madam Speaker. It is not my fault that the Government have chosen to delete those powers in that Act. It is submitted that the expression is synonymous with 'public benefit' and that 'public benefit' must involve a direct benefit. It continues: The question whether a particular thing is in the national interest is a question of the times and is a question of fact… It is to be decided in the light of all the circumstances and conditions as they exist at the present time notwithstanding that they would probably not have been specifically envisaged by the legislature when this Act was passed". There are adequate precedents for considering the national interest in any disposal. The Labour party contends that it would be commercially detrimental to AEA Technology to split up the company and that it would ultimately cause problems for our country by reducing the volume of research that takes place in that very important area. AEA Technology is a successful company. Whether it is in the public or the private sector, it must be encouraged and allowed to remain a successful company. Through our amendment, we give the Government a chance to ensure that their actions are in the national interest by retaining that provision within the Bill.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)

I shall make a few comments in support of amendment Nos. 1 and 10. I echo the comments of the Front-Bench spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), about why the Atomic Energy Authority, if it is to be privatised, should be retained intact. I was a member of the Standing Committee that examined the Electricity Bill in 1989. The intention of that legislation was to privatise the nuclear industry, but one can see why the company would operate much more effectively and efficiently as one entity rather than being split into parts.

I was interested to hear the hon. Members for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) and for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) say that they had been excluded from serving on the Committee by the Whips. I ask the Minister to address that point. I have known both hon. Gentlemen across the Floor of the House over the years. As well as having a constituency interest, the hon. Member for South Dorset has terrific expertise in the area of nuclear energy. The hon. Member for Wantage was a Science Minister. The expertise of both hon. Gentlemen could have been put to good use by the Committee. It is a sad day for democracy and for the quality of debate in Committee and on the Floor of the House when the Whips Office intervenes in such matters. I ask the Minister to address that point in his remarks.

Mr. Page

I fully appreciate the feelings of my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) in this matter. I can also understand his views, as I understand those of my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce). I assure them both—particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage—that, while they were not physically present during the Committee's consideration of the Bill, they were there in spirit. My hon. Friends' views were very much in my mind when I made the appropriate comments in Committee.

I would like to adjust, through a little shading, the remarks that my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage made about the BZW report. BZW did not recommend breaking up the company, but it said that that option should be considered. I believe that any responsible consultancy firm should consider all the options and not close any automatically without giving them some thought.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) tried to make a mystery out of standard commercial practice and activities by implying that somehow the disposals were going ahead according to a peculiar and unknown game plan. AEA management made it perfectly clear all along that, privatised or not, the business would be rationalised and that it should focus on core activities. It does not help if the company operates through a series of fragmented activities—interesting as they may be.

Mr. Miller

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Page

If the hon. Gentleman will contain his enthusiasm, I shall give way in a moment. The House may be interested to know that one employee performs the task of book drying. That is a very important and a necessary skill, but it is hardly the basis upon which to build an international business.

Mr. Miller

I am grateful to the Minister, first, for recognising my enthusiasm and, secondly, for giving way. Will the Minister define the core business of the enterprise? He was unable to do that in Committee and he has just disposed of a small task because he says that it is not a part of the company's core business. Is not the design of hip joints core business? How can the Minister define the core business in a science enterprise?

Mr. Page

The hon. Gentleman is obviously an unreconstructed member of the Labour party. When will the Labour party learn that it cannot run businesses better than people who have dedicated their lives to particular skills and techniques? Although the hon. Gentleman might like to dictate to the management of the new company of AEA Technology what it should or should not do, we believe that its skills and management should be given the opportunity to prove themselves in the international marketplace. We shall certainly not try to tell AEA Technology what it can and cannot do.

Mr. Robert Jackson

I take it from what my hon. Friend says that it is now clear that the Government will no longer give instructions to AEA management as to the disposal policy.

Mr. Page

AEA Technology is still part of Government schemes, but decisions as to what is to be privatised and what is to be disposed of are a matter for the management of AEA Technology. As to the form in which it will enter the private sector, we shall be looking to the management of AEA Technology to lead the way and provide guidance on the way ahead.

Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride)

As a Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry, will the hon. Gentleman extend that argument and tell us what the Department has in mind in respect of the privatisation of the nuclear industry generally? The management of Scottish Nuclear Ltd., which has shown expertise in bringing down unit costs and making the company productive, is opposed to the merger with Nuclear Electric. Will the Government listen to the management in those circumstances?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. Before the Minister answers any questions, let me make it clear that the Bill is specific and that we should remain within the confines of the Bill.

Mr. Page

Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall abide by what you say, but I was not about to be tempted by the hon. Gentleman's inducements. If he is a little patient, all will be revealed in due course, and will no doubt be a tremendous boost and advancement for the nuclear industry in Britain.

I return to the amendments. Their effect would be to prevent the Secretary of State from directing the authority to make a transfer scheme unless that direction had been approved in draft by both Houses of Parliament. They would also prevent him from directing the authority to make more than one scheme unless, in his opinion, that would promote the national interest.

I appreciate the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage for his constituents and for the future of AEA Technology as a business. I also understand the arguments put forward by my hon. Friends and Opposition Members in support of the amendments. However, I must also have concern for the interests of the taxpayer in securing better value for the sale of AEA Technology, not just in the narrow sense of seeking and getting the best available price, but in terms of privatising the business on the basis that best enables it to exploit the opportunities that are open to it and maximise its contribution to the national economy.

Therefore, my hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that I cannot accept the amendments because I do not believe them to be consistent with that wider public interest or in the best interests of AEA Technology and its staff.

Mr. Maclennan

The Minister seems to be making a perfectly extraordinary proposition that the House of Commons, in reaching a decision on the deliberations on the scheme prepared by the Government, is not capable of taking into account exactly the same considerations that Ministers will have to examine. Why should he consider that the House cannot bear in mind what is in the commercial interest of the organisation and what is in the national interest?

4.45 pm
Mr. Page

I was on exactly that point and I shall explain.

First, it is entirely possible and normal that a transfer scheme would not be made until the point of sale. In such circumstances, the direction to the authority to draft a transfer scheme would of necessity be extremely detailed and might well include the name of and information relating to the proposed purchaser or purchasers.

There is a real danger that potential purchasers—whether they are financial institutions backing a sale to management and employees or trade purchasers—would be deterred from bidding if they knew that their bids would be subject to close parliamentary scrutiny even before the formal preparation of any sale had started. Even if bidders were not deterred, it might be possible to explain a preference for one bidder over another only by revealing information that the bidder might not be prepared to disclose for good commercial reasons. Equally, it might not be in the interests of the taxpayer to disclose details of competing bids as that may cause the lead bidder to reduce the value of his offer or back out of the purchase.

Dr. Moonie

The Minister appears to have failed to understand exactly what the amendment means. The whole point is for the Atomic Energy Authority to examine all the possibilities, and when it has decided its line of approach to the sell-off, and only that, to seek the approval of Parliament. It is nonsense to suggest that that would inhibit it in any way.

The Minister of State said on Second Reading that he would prefer the authority to be sold off as one organisation. Every observer has expressed a preference for the organisation to be sold to the management and work force. If that option turns out to be possible, there is no question but that it is the preferable option for sale and it could easily be subjected to scrutiny by the House. It is wrong to suggest otherwise.

Mr. Page

We cantered over those subjects in Committee and nothing much has changed today.

I return to the point that I was making. In addition, the amendment would inevitably delay the sale process and that in itself could cause a sale to fall through or reduce proceeds.

In respect of amendment No. 10, I am hurt by the implication that the Secretary of State would contemplate acting in anything other than the national interest. I am also somewhat puzzled that Opposition Members should imply by the amendment that they would be content for the Secretary of State to act against the national interest so long as he made only one scheme.

I assure the House that, when we consider the future of AEA Technology, all the Government's decisions will be driven by their concern to promote the national interest, to ensure that particular needs and requirements of Government customers are met and to maximise AEA Technology's contribution to the national economy.

Dr. Moonie

If the Government intend to act in the national interest, why are they withdrawing the national interest provisions in the Bill?

Mr. Page

We are looking at the national interest as regards the definition that I gave at the beginning of the debate. We are aiming to achieve not only the best price, but the best future for AEA Technology. The name of the game is to combine those two objectives harmoniously.

Let me refer briefly to the form of privatisation. Much has been made of what my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy told the House on Second Reading. He made a powerful speech and I support what he said, but there is no ambiguity in what is happening. He did not say that there would be only one method of privatisation. In respect of the form and method of privatisation, he told the House that we attach a great deal of importance to the views of AEA Technology's management and staff. They know the business and their commitment is crucial to realising its full potential. They have made it clear that the best way forward for AEA Technology is for it to be privatised as a single whole.

I have taken note of the desire of my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage and others. It is a desire with which I fully sympathise—to see the business kept together.

The Government have already made it clear that for the time being AEA Technology will continue to be managed as a single, integrated whole, focused on the goal of building an increasingly competitive and successful international business. On the assumption that the Bill reaches Third Reading, I will mention some of the successes that AEA Technology has already enjoyed. A sale in that form may be the way of achieving our objectives and ensuring successful privatisation. Realistically, it is probably the only basis on which the business can be offered in the medium term, given the inevitable dislocation and uncertainty that a break-up would involve. However, I cannot say now—I cannot say definitely—that it will be sold as a single whole or that the sale will take any particular form. Those matters must depend on AEA Technology's performance over the next few months, the requirements of customers and market confirmation that a unitary sale would secure best overall value for money for the taxpayer.

In the light of my remarks, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage will withdraw his amendment and that Opposition Members will not press theirs.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 229, Noes 266.

Division No. 142] [4.50 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Barron, Kevin
Ainger, Nick Battle, John
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Bayley, Hugh
Alton, David Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Beith, Rt Hon A J
Armstrong, Hilary Bell, Stuart
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Bermingham, Gerald
Ashton, Joe Berry, Roger
Austin-Walker, John Blair, Rt Hon Tony
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Bradley, Keith
Barnes, Harry Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E) Hinchliffe, David
Bruce, Ian (Dorset) Hoey, Kate
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Hogg, Norman (Cumbemauld)
Burden, Richard Hoon, Geoffrey
Byers, Stephen Howarth, George (Knowsley North)
Caborn, Richard Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Callaghan, Jim Hoyle, Doug
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Campbell-Savours, D N Hutton, John
Canavan, Dennis Illsley, Eric
Cam, Jamie Ingram, Adam
Chisholm, Malcolm Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)
Church, Judith Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)
Clapham, Michael Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Clark, Dr David (South Shields) Jamieson, David
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Janner, Greville
Clelland, David Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Cohen, Harry Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Connarty, Michael Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Corbett, Robin Keen, Alan
Corston, Jean Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S)
Cousins, Jim Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn)
Cox, Tom Khabra, Piara S
Cummings, John Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Cunliffe, Lawrence Litherland, Robert
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE) Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John Loyden, Eddie
Darling, Alistair Lynne, Ms Liz
Davidson, Ian McAllion, John
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral) McAvoy, Thomas
Denham, John McCartney, Ian
Dewar, Donald Macdonald, Calum
Dixon, Don McFall, John
Dobson, Frank McKelvey, William
Donohoe, Brian H Mackinlay, Andrew
Dowd, Jim McLeish, Henry
Dunnachie, Jimmy Maclennan, Robert
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth McMaster, Gordon
Eagle, Ms Angela McNamara, Kevin
Eastham, Ken Madden, Max
Enright, Derek Mahon, Alice
Etherington, Bill Marek, Dr John
Evans, John (St Helens N) Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Fatchett, Derek Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)
Rynn, Paul Martlew, Eric
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Maxton, John
Foster, Don (Bath) Meacher, Michael
Foulkes, George Meale, Alan
Fyfe, Maria Michael, Alun
Galbraith, Sam Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Galloway, George Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Gapes, Mike Milburn, Alan
Garrett, John Miller, Andrew
Gerrard, Neil Mitchell, Austin (Great Grimsby)
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Moonie, Dr Lewis
Godman, Dr Norman A Morley, Elliot
Godsiff, Roger Morris, Rt Hon Alfred (Wy'nshawe)
Golding, Mrs Llin Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Gordon, Mildred Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon)
Graham, Thomas Mudie, George
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham) Mullin, Chris
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Murphy, Paul
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Grocott, Bruce O'Brien, Mike (N W'kshire)
Hain, Peter O'Brien, William (Normanton)
Hall, Mike Olner, Bill
Hanson, David O'Neill, Martin
Hardy, Peter Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Harman, Ms Harriet Patchett, Terry
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Pearson, Ian
Henderson, Doug Pendry, Tom
Heppell, John Pickthall, Colin
Hill, Keith (Streatham) Pike, Peter L
Pope, Greg Steinberg, Gerry
Powell, Ray (Ogmore) Stevenson, George
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Stott, Roger
Purchase, Ken Strang, Dr. Gavin
Quin, Ms Joyce Straw, Jack
Randall, Stuart Sutcliffe, Gerry
Raynsford, Nick Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Redmond, Martin Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Reid, Dr John Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Rendel, David Tipping, Paddy
Robertson, George (Hamilton) Touhig, Don
Roche, Mrs Barbara Turner, Dennis
Rogers, Allan Vaz, Keith
Rooker, Jeff Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Rooney, Terry Wallace, James
Ross, Emie (Dundee W) Watson, Mike
Rowlands, Ted Wicks, Malcolm
Ruddock, Joan Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Sedgemore, Brian Wilson, Brian
Sheerman, Barry Winnick, David
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Wise, Audrey
Shore, Rt Hon Peter Worthington, Tony
Short, Clare Wray, Jimmy
Skinner, Dennis Wright, Dr Tony
Smith, Andrew (Oxford E) Young, David (Bolton SE)
Smith, Uew (Blaenau Gwent)
Snape, Peter Tellers for the Ayes:
Soley, Clive Mr. Peter Mandelson and
Spellar, John Mr. Joe Benton.
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif)
Alexander, Richard Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Coe, Sebastian
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Congdon, David
Amess, David Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)
Ancram, Michael Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Arbuthnot, James Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Couchman, James
Ashby, David Cran, James
Atkins, Robert Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E) Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Davies, Quentin (Stamford)
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset) Davis, David (Boothferry)
Baldry, Tony Deva, Nirj Joseph
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Devlin, Tim
Bates, Michael Dicks, Terry
Batiste, Spencer Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Bellingham, Henry Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Beresford, Sir Paul Dover, Den
Biffen, Rt Hon John Duncan, Alan
Booth, Hartley Dunn, Bob
Boswell, Tim Durant, Sir Anthony
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Dykes, Hugh
Bowden, Sir Andrew Elletson, Harold
Bowis, John Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)
Brandreth, Gyles Evans, Roger (Monmouth)
Brazier, Julian Fabricant, Michael
Bright, Sir Graham Fenner, Dame Peggy
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Fishburn, Dudley
Browning, Mrs Angela Forman, Nigel
Budgen, Nicholas Forsyth, Rt Hon Michael (Stirling)
Burns, Simon Forth, Eric
Burt, Alistair Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Butcher, John Freeman, Rt Hon Roger
Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln) French, Douglas
Carrington, Matthew Fry, Sir Peter
Carttiss, Michael Gale, Roger
Cash, William Gallie, Phil
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Gardiner, Sir George
Chapman, Sydney Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan
Clappison, James Garnier, Edward
Gill, Christopher Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Gillan, Cheryl Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charies Mates, Michael
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian
Gorst, Sir John Mellor, Rt Hon David
Grant, Sir A (SW Cambs) Merchant, Piers
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Mills, Iain
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N) Mitchell, Sir David (NW Hants)
Grylls, Sir Michael Monro, Sir Hector
Hague, William Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald Needham, Rt Hon Richard
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Nelson, Anthony
Hampson, Dr Keith Neubert, Sir Michael
Hanley, Rt Hon Jeremy Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Hannam, Sir John Nicholls, Patrick
Hargreaves, Andrew Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Harris, David Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)
Haselhurst, Alan Norris, Steve
Hawksley, Warren Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley
Hayes, Jerry Oppenheim, Phillip
Heald, Oliver Ottaway, Richard
Heathcoat-Amory, David Page, Richard
Hendry, Charles Paice, James
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Patnick, Sir Irvine
Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence Patten, Rt Hon John
Horam, John Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Hordem, Rt Hon Sir Peter Pawsey, James
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A) Pickles, Eric
Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford) Porter, Barry (Wirral S)
Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk) Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W) Rathbone, Tim
Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W) Renton, Rt Hon Tim
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne) Richards, Rod
Hunter, Andrew Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm
Jack, Michael Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)
Jenkin, Bernard Robinson, Mark (Somerton)
Jessel, Toby Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)
Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr) Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine Ryder, Rt Hon Richard
Kirkhope, Timothy Sackville, Tom
Knapman, Roger Sainsbury, Rt Hon Sir Timothy
Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash) Shaw, David (Dover)
Knight, Greg (Derby N) Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'sf'n) Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian
Knox, Sir David Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Kynoch, George (Kincardine) Shersby, Michael
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Sims, Roger
Lang, Rt Hon Ian Skeet, Sir Trevor
Lawrence, Sir Ivan Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Legg, Barry Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Leigh, Edward Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)
Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Lester, Jim (Broxtowe) Spink, Dr Robert
Lidington, David Spring, Richard
Lightbown, David Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Steen, Anthony
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) Stephen, Michael
Lord, Michael Stern, Michael
Luff, Peter Stewart, Allan
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Streeter, Gary
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Sumberg, David
MacKay, Andrew Sweeney, Walter
Maclean, David Sykes, John
McLoughlin, Patrick Tapsell, Sir Peter
McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Madel, Sir David Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Maitland, Lady Olga Temple-Morris, Peter
Major, Rt Hon John Thomason, Roy
Malone, Gerald Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Mans, Keith Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Marland, Paul Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Marlow, Tony Thurnham, Peter
Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th) Whittingdale, John
Tracey, Richard Widdecombe, Ann
Trend, Michael Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Trotter, Neville Wilkinson, John
Twinn, Dr Ian Willetts, David
Vaughan, Sir Gerard Wilshire, David
Viggers, Peter Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Waldegrave, Rt Hon William Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Walker, Bill (N Tayside) Wolfson, Mark
Waller, Gary Yeo, Tim
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill) Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Waterson, Nigel
Watts, John Tellers for the Noes:
Wells, Bowen Mr. Timothy Wood and
Whitney, Ray Mr. Derek Conway.

Question accordingly negatived.

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