HC Deb 18 March 1996 vol 274 cc77-124
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Madam Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.13 pm
Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

I beg to move, That this House, notwithstanding the guarantees sought by Madam Speaker in her letter to the Leader of the House dated 28th November 1995, Official Report, 11th December 1995, columns 455, 456 and 457 and the assurances given by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in his reply placed in the Library on 14th December 1995, believes that the privatisation of HMSO so risks the standard of service to the House and to Members of Parliament, and so dilutes ministerial accountability to the House for those services, that it should not proceed until further consideration after the next general election. I must tell the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that it is a shame that the Labour party has had to ask for this debate at all. I remind the House of the statement by the Chancellor in the November 1995 issue of "Public Sector Purchasing" that the new arrangements for HMSO would not proceed without parliamentary approval. What could that possibly mean except that there would be a debate with a vote in both Houses of Parliament?

The House will have seen early-day motion 331, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett), two Chairs of House domestic Committees, the chair of the parliamentary Labour party, and the Whip or leader of every Opposition party in the House, calling for this privatisation not to proceed without a debate and a vote.

In January this year, I wrote to the Chancellor, sending him a copy of the early-day motion and quoting the clear understanding of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) that there would be a vote. In that letter, I quoted the Prime Minister speaking about the privatisation of the Post Office on 7 January this year: I would like to have seen it but there was no parliamentary majority for it. We are democrats, and if we can't get something through Parliament then we can't do it. Despite mounting evidence of the House's desire for a vote on the issue, the Chancellor of the Duchy has treated that wish with contempt.

The Chancellor is the least arrogant of Ministers. Indeed, he could be mistaken for a one-nation Tory— if that will not damage his reputation and ruin any leadership pretensions that he may entertain. Even he, however, must stand accused of an arrogant use of power characteristic of a Government too long in office—

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

The right hon. Gentleman said this last time.

Mr. Foster

The hon. Gentleman obviously was not listening on the first occasion—this is a different speech.

The Chancellor of the Duchy has denied the House its constitutional right to determine this issue, which has such an impact on its requirements. It has therefore been left to the Opposition to safeguard parliamentary democracy by initiating this debate.

This issue, thought by some to be a minor privatisation, goes to the heart of how great institutions of government and Parliament should be dealt with. The House will know that the Government were heavily defeated, by 124 votes to 64, in another place on Friday 8 March on a proposal to privatise another civil service agency, the Recruitment and Advisory Service.

I appeal to Conservative Members who care about the British constitution—I know that some of them supported the Government over Scott with heavy hearts—to read the debate in the Lords, which was so apposite to the privatisation of HMSO. Lord Bancroft, a former distinguished head of the civil service, described this proposal as a flippant destruction of an essential pillar. Lord Callaghan said: the Civil Service is not the private property of temporary, fleeting Ministers to trifle with as they please. It is the property of us all". Now, strangely enough, the Government are supposed to believe that too, for the Chancellor's predecessor, in the civil service debate of 23 March 1995, quoted the Treasury and Civil Service Committee report of November 1994 as follows: The British civil service is a great national asset. Since the 1870s, it has been the permanent and impartial instrument of all administrations. Governments have always seen it as their duty to preserve its efficiency and honesty for their successors."—[Official Report, 23 March 1995; Vol. 257, c. 549.] Lord Callaghan continued: They have been so long in power that they are insensitive to the limits of their responsibilities."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 March 1996; Vol. 570, c. 545–46.]

Mr. John Sykes (Scarborough)

The right hon. Gentleman is quoting extensively from the House of Lords debate two Fridays ago. Why is his party so keen to abolish the House of Lords?

Mr. Foster

I wish we were. The truth is that we have a policy for minor changes to the House of Lords, which would improve it immeasurably. We have no proposals to get rid of the Cross Benchers, who initiated the debate. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will listen as carefully as he obviously did before if I repeat what Lord Callaghan said.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I must make it clear to the right hon. Gentleman that it is not in order to quote from the speeches of Back Benchers in the other place.

Mr. Foster

Thank you for bringing me to order, Madam Deputy Speaker. My point is that changes to the great institutions of government, such as the civil service, have historically been proposed only after careful deliberation by, for example, a royal commission or some other independent body, or at least after some consideration by a Select Committee. Governments are well advised to proceed with caution and to attempt to arrive at some consensus across the political parties, yet the Government have imposed wave upon wave of change on the civil service, until Sir Robin Butler himself described the current situation as one of low morale and a climate of insecurity. The Government are proceeding to change agencies of the civil service with breathtaking recklessness and carelessness, without attempting to produce consensus, with minimal consultation with staff and without seeking parliamentary approval except when it is required by law. The Financial Times was provoked, in a leader column today, to state: And the process by which agencies are designated for privatisation should be made more open to parliamentary scrutiny—even if this opens up the possibility of future defeats in the Lords.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

The right hon. Gentleman is proposing that we should continue to have a single stationery office so that all the work from this place goes to HMSO. I did some checking in the Labour party's box in the Library about how it gets its confidential documents printed. It will not surprise the right hon. Gentleman to learn that the Labour party does not print its own glossy documents, but uses five different printers in London. Clearly, the Labour party is using the proper market. If that is good enough for the Labour party, why is it not good enough for the Government and the House? Is that another case of the Labour party saying one thing and doing another?

Mr. Foster

The hon. Gentleman obviously has not read the motion on the Order Paper; we suggest that further consideration of the measure should be deferred until after the next general election.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman when I have made a little more progress.

This proposal is coming at the fag end of a Parliament. The Chancellor's original deadline was July this year.

Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)

Does my right hon. Friend realise that that last intervention was completely ignorant? First, HMSO is not under the control of the House of Commons and, secondly, the great bulk of HMSO printing is done by outside printers.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)

And always has been.

Mr. Foster

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. It just shows how wise I was to let him intervene and not, just yet, the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown).

The proposal comes at the fag end of a Parliament. The Chancellor's original deadline was July this year. He later agreed to adjust his deadline to meet the requirements of the House. I hear rumours that that schedule has slipped. Can the Chancellor confirm that he now does not expect the privatisation to be complete before November 1996? Clearly, that could be crucial. The House has been involved in considerable extra cost and work purely because of the privatisation. The House will want to know whether all that extra work and cost has been to no avail.

After all, the leader of the Liberal party yesterday put his party on alert for an October election. It is now widely assumed that the Government will find it difficult to stumble on beyond October. Labour, of course, is ready whenever the Prime Minister has the courage to go to the country. If the privatisation of HMSO may not be complete before the general election, it is surely bordering on the constitutionally improper for a Government, whose authority is ebbing away faster than their majority, to forge ahead with a proposal about which both Houses are so uneasy.

Mr. Michael Brown

The right hon. Gentleman thinks that the Government will have difficulties privatising HMSO. If the Government privatise it at what he calls the fag end of this Parliament, just before the general election, will the right hon. Gentleman renationalise it?

Mr. Foster

Hon. Members who were here last time will know that I was asked that question in the previous debate.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes

And did not answer it.

Mr. Foster

No, and I shall not answer it in the way that the hon. Gentleman wants me to answer it now. We are determined to prevent the privatisation if we possibly can. The whole thrust of today's debate is to try to urge the Government to proceed much more cautiously, to develop some consensus across the political divide and to defer consideration until after the next general election.

Mr. Hughes

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster

I shall give way for the last time.

Mr. Hughes

That will make the rest of his speech a bit boring.

Mr. Garrett

This had better be fascinating.

Mr. Hughes

If the right hon. Gentleman is so concerned about the issue, can he explain something that I find rather odd about the terms of the Opposition's motion? It does not mention HMSO staff once. It is clear to me from the motion that the Labour party does not care about the staff of HMSO or about the success of HMSO. All it wants to do is cause a parliamentary row. That is rather grubby.

Mr. Foster

Far be it from me to cause a parliamentary row. I think that I rival the Chancellor in my approach to these matters, as the hon. Gentleman will know. The staff of HMSO do not need any proof that the Labour party cares about them. I have been to Norwich, as has the Chancellor, and we have frequent contact with the staff. I have seen for myself their demoralisation under the present Administration and the climate of insecurity. We need no challenges from the hon. Gentleman about how much the Labour party cares about the staff.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Foster

For the final time, I will give way to my hon. Friend.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Will my right hon. Friend explain to some hon. Members that there is a certain dignity about public office? The production of papers for the House of Commons is not a matter for hilarity and vulgar schoolboy jokes, but is important to the House and our constituents.

Mr. Foster

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing to the House some decorum.

For what is this privatisation? I ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that question in all seriousness. It seems that there is no pot of gold for the public sector borrowing requirement. There are no votes in it. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman has alienated Conservative support in Norwich, a constituency which the Conservative party must win if it is to avoid humiliation at the next general election.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will claim that he wants to end uncertainty for the staff of HMSO and for Norwich, but who caused the uncertainty in the first place? The right hon. Gentleman will claim also that HMSO's markets are declining and that privatisation will free HMSO to borrow and sell in wider markets. I accept that HMSO's central Government market may be declining because of other privatisations, but the public sector market is still enormous. At the same time, HMSO has just begun to scratch the surface of the European public sector market.

What did the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster say when I questioned him about these matters in December? He said that, as a matter of policy, he did not want a public sector body to compete for business outwith the UK public sector. The truth is that the Chancellor, as a matter of policy, has so circumscribed HMSO that it cannot succeed in the private sector. It is not true, however, that HMSO can succeed only if it is privatised.

Is any further proof required that the Government are seeking to impose an entirely unnecessary privatisation for narrow reasons of dogma? It is a sop to the right-wing fanatics who drive today's Conservative party. It is a good wheeze because parliamentary approval is not required by law. For dishonourable reasons, the right hon. Gentleman is prepared to put at risk the standard and quality of the House of Commons papers that are so essential to the proper working of Parliament. It is no wonder that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire is so difficult to convince on this issue.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has given certain assurances to the House as required by Madam Speaker in her letter. Hon. Members on both sides of the House find the right hon. Gentleman's touching faith in market forces rather alarming. He can give no guarantee beyond the initial purpose. Indeed, he cannot guarantee that HMSO will be sold as a single entity. How can he deal with Madam Speaker's fear that HMSO will eventually fall into the hands of a foreign buyer? How can he give long-term guarantees that a privatised HMSO will not attempt to cut corners, force up prices or reduce standards, thereby making it difficult for the House to pursue its public service objectives?

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

In fact, the process outlined by my right hon. Friend has already begun. The "Commonwealth Year Book" used to be published by HMSO. It was assembled by the Commonwealth secretariat. It was available free to hon. Members, although it was priced at £25. As from this year, however, HMSO is no longer publishing it. It is inconvenient, it seems, and it will not make a profit. It is still being published, however, and the cost is now £50. Hon. Members will have to pay £50 in future if they want the book. Is this not an example of standards deteriorating? Why should the book now cost double the price at which it was offered when published by HMSO last year?

Mr. Foster

That is a pertinent question and I hope that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will answer it when he speaks. My hon. Friend's question reflects the fears of Conservative Members.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster

No. I want to press on now. I have given way on several occasions. This is a short debate and many colleagues on both sides of the House want to speak.

The Chancellor claims that everything will be taken care of in a legally binding contract. When pressed about redress if the contract is not fulfilled, he argues that the contract can be suspended. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) claims that the House can sue or withdraw from the contract on the ground of fundamental breach. That is fine, but what happens to House papers in the meantime? The services are so specialised and delivery times so demanding that ad hoc arrangements are inconceivable. So what redress is there? The House requires its papers, not satisfaction in law or even compensation.

Who would be answerable to the House? At present, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster answers questions, makes statements or responds to private notice questions that are granted by Madam Speaker. If there are lapses in standards, the right hon. Gentleman will take some remedial action and report to the House. After privatisation, as I understand it, the Chancellor will have responsibility only for the residual HMSO. Presumably responsibility for taking action and reporting to the House passes to the Commission or to one of the domestic Committees of the House.

Has the Chancellor sought to consult the House on the apparent dilution of ministerial accountability? Will he consult the House? Will whoever is accountable to the House be able to answer written questions, make statements and respond to private notice questions? These are important questions that deserve early answers.

In the December debate, I suggested that certain aspects of the Chancellor's proposal might be in conflict with European law. The right hon. Gentleman dismissed that suggestion. I asked whether he would publish the advice sought and the advice given. He has not done so. I understand that the issue is not nearly as cut and dried as the right hon. Gentleman makes out. Will the Minister with responsibility for open government come clean with the House and make an early statement about the proposals and a possible conflict with European law?

The Chancellor promised the House that he would fully consult the trade unions. According to my information he has not done so. If he so easily breaks promises solemnly given to the House, why should the House believe any of his assurances?

The 1995 accounts should have been published in February. Rumour has it that they may be smuggled out during the summer recess. I gather that, for the first time, when the accounts are published, HMSO will show a loss. I am told that it will be a loss of £41 million, which will include £35 million-worth of exceptional items—for example, £24 million for redundancies, £3 million for property devaluations, £3.5 million for stock write-offs and £4.4 million for late purchase of equipment for the new Manchester site. Is the Chancellor able to confirm those figures?

Two fundamental questions arise. First, is the proposal not a blatant and clumsy attempt to load the costs of privatisation on the public sector? Secondly, if things are so bad, why sell now, except at a knockdown price to unload such an apparent liability?

The management and staff of HMSO deserve better than this. They have been proud of their efficiency and profitability. They have met all central Government targets. They are proud of their public service record. They must not go out under a cloud.

We are faced with an unnecessary privatisation that would seriously risk the services that are essential to the proper working of democracy in both Houses. It would dilute ministerial accountability. Both Houses are uneasy about the proposal. The House authorities are also uneasy. This flippant tinkering with one of the great institutions of government and Parliament at the fag end of a Parliament by a Government without credibility, a vanishing majority and little authority borders on the unconstitutional. Let the Government act wisely at this late stage and defer further consideration of the proposal until after a general election.

7.40 pm
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Roger Freeman)

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: 'welcomes the Government's policy with regard to the privatisation of HMSO and the proposed safeguards to protect standards of service to Parliament and other customers.'. Last December, I informed the House of the Government's plans to privatise Her Majesty's Stationery Office during 1996. I said that the intention was to seek to bring that transaction to a conclusion in the summer. I have said that consistently, and that timetable has not changed.

I should like to remind the House of the key reason for privatisation—to chart a more optimistic course for expansion of the business if the commercial freedom of the private sector became available. I should like to develop that argument. HMSO is, and has been for some 16 years, a fully commercial trading fund, operating from within the public sector and subject to the full rigour of public expenditure control, but, at the same time, having to compete for business from departmental and parliamentary customers, which are all perfectly free to take their custom elsewhere to private sector suppliers. Some of them have done so, obtaining perfectly satisfactory services. HMSO, meanwhile, has become more efficient in response, producing savings for all concerned, for which I pay tribute to the efforts of its management and staff.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

My right hon. Friend has referred to the harsher climate in which HMSO now operates. Does he understand that the concerns of my constituents who work at HMSO are basically about their security and jobs? Will he answer two points? First, will he assure me that there will be no compulsory redundancies as part of privatisation? Secondly, will he reassure me that he will make it a condition of sale that the headquarters of HMSO remains in Norwich, because that is vital to my constituents?

Mr. Freeman

During my remarks, I hope that my hon. Friend will discover that I can satisfy him on both counts. First, I hope very much that as many of the redundancies as possible will be on a voluntary basis, although I cannot give any guarantees. The redundancies have been under way for the past several months and must continue, for reasons having to do with the trading conditions of HMSO, which I shall outline. I shall sketch out the financial problems that HMSO is now facing.

On the second point, I hope that I can give my hon. Friend the assurance he seeks. I hope that he will bear with me; if is dissatisfied with the remarks that I have carefully crafted to give him as much assurance as possible, perhaps he will intervene again—with your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The public sector HMSO is caught in an unenviable position. It is necessarily subject to the constraints that apply to all Government bodies to protect taxpayers' money. It cannot trade significantly outside the public sector. Its borrowing strategy is controlled by the Treasury, and the range of its activities is restricted by its trading fund order. That means that if, in the normal course of business, HMSO wished to borrow money commercially to provide a new service to a new market, it could be prevented from doing so. However, those are precisely the sorts of decisions that its competitors can and do make quite routinely.

The consequences are obvious. HMSO is losing business, and therefore staff, because it cannot match its unfettered private sector competitors. Its turnover fell by some 10 per cent.—

Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Freeman

I shall be happy to give way after I finish this section.

HMSO's turnover fell by some 10 per cent. between 1990 and 1994, and trading conditions are becoming increasingly difficult. In June 1994, the then chief executive forecast that 30 per cent. of jobs would be under threat if HMSO increased its competitiveness.

Mr. Garrett

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Freeman

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) first and then to the hon. Gentleman, if he will allow me to finish this brief section.

Since that forecast, HMSO has lost about half the total jobs that were forecast as under threat. Several hundred more jobs are still under threat. HMSO needs the freedom of the private sector to compete on equal terms for public and private sector work. Such trading opportunities will mitigate those job pressures and, if a privatised Stationery Office is successful in marketing, will mean that more jobs will be available than would otherwise exist.

Mr. Sutcliffe

Did not the 1992 commercialisation study and subsequent events result in the contraction of HMSO to its current size and prevent it from extending and obtaining extra work, as it wanted? The Government have streamlined the commercialisation study to create a system in which there will be privatisation, but in which HMSO will not be allowed to develop its commercial definition. The trading fund orders included the possibility of encouraging new business, but the Government have not allowed that to happen, as the study said it could.

Mr. Freeman

The current circumstances under the trading fund orders permit HMSO to use its marginal capacity to win business in the private sector. That is a relatively new permission, which, so far, has been used for £250,000 of turnover. It must inevitably be limited because it is for marginal capacity.

Mr. Garrett

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Freeman

In a moment; I am answering a question.

The marginal capacity does not relate to the main thrust of HMSO's business. In a moment, I shall explain why it is important to retain that restriction. I do not want to see competition between a state-owned body and private sector suppliers on unequal terms.

The second part of the hon. Gentleman's question is a perfectly legitimate point of political difference—the Government have one view and the hon. Gentleman has another. On his second point, about the more recent lifting of restrictions, I must admit that I misunderstood the situation. Because of the most recent relaxation in trading fund status, HMSO can win public sector business abroad, not private sector business. I apologise for my misunderstanding of that point.

Mr. Garrett

The Minister, even though he knew the facts, was being less than open with the House, because HMSO has obtained contracts with the German post office and the French department of employment. It is not merely a question of getting private sector work, because HMSO can get public sector work in Europe. I know that the Minister has just said that, but he did not say it last time, and he had not said it up to then because he was emphasising the scope for HMSO getting private sector work.

The Minister has also not mentioned the fact that, for the first time, HMSO has developed its own corporate style and Banner trademark. It therefore has an opportunity for its own branded goods, which is a development, and a much better prospect of getting public sector work throughout Europe.

Mr. Freeman

On public sector work outside United Kingdom, the hon. Gentleman will agree that, so far, the record is relatively limited.

Mr. Garrett

So far.

Mr. Freeman

Yes, it is limited so far. My argument is that the vast bulk—well over 95 per cent. of HMSO's turnover—is domestic—

Mr. Garrett

So far.

Mr. Freeman

I think, realistically, the main bulk of HMSO's business will be domestic.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)


Mr. Freeman

The Government have decided that a state-owned business should not be allowed to compete with private sector companies to win existing business for the benefit of a state-owned company. That is a matter of policy, and therefore it is important to lift that restriction. The only way in which that restriction can be lifted, in my judgment and in the judgment of the Government, is to transfer the ownership from the public to the private sector.

Mr. Sykes

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Freeman

I will certainly give way to my hon. Friend after I have given way to the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd).

Mr. Lloyd

Until the regulation change, I was sponsored by the Graphical, Paper and Media Union; I do not want there to be any doubt about that. Can the Minister explain to the public why the Government have an ideological blind spot in that, when privatisation occurs, HMSO can compete even though it will almost certainly be at the expense of pensions and other working conditions of the people there, yet the Government will not allow the rosy future for HMSO advocated by many people inside and outside the House if it is given commercial freedom? Why cannot HMSO be allowed to compete properly in the public sector?

Mr. Freeman

We hold it as an important tenet that a state-owned company such as HMSO has three clear advantages. First, it borrows at the gilt rate and not at the commercial rate. Secondly, it does not pay corporation tax whereas private sector companies do. Thirdly, it has the guarantee of the Treasury—of the state. It cannot go bankrupt; it cannot go bust.

Mr. Garrett

Can't it?

Mr. Freeman

As a state-owned company, it cannot—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. There is an unwelcome tendency for sedentary interventions. They have been made this evening by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. I should like them to stop.

Mr. Freeman

In our belief, it is important that HMSO—the Stationery Office, as it will become in the private sector—has the ability to compete in the private sector for private sector work. It is important that that should occur on fair terms with other private sector companies because they will lose existing work to the Stationery Office if it can compete for and win business. At present, Government Departments are untied from HMSO so they can procure their printing and publishing requirements from the private sector—and they are doing so. That is one of the reasons for the contraction in HMSO's total business.

Mr. Sykes

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for being so patient with me. I do not understand why the Government should take any lectures from the Labour party on competitiveness when the first thing that Labour would do if it ever got into power would be to undermine the competitiveness of HMSO by imposing the social chapter and the minimum wage. That would destroy jobs at HMSO.

Mr. Freeman

I add a postscript to what my hon. Friend has said. He has reminded me of the point that was raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the Royal Mail and Post Office Counters. I shall deal with that issue because the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) said that the Government had already relaxed the rules dealing with what the Royal Mail and Post Office Counters could do in the private sector.

There is no parallel here. If the right hon. Gentleman reads carefully the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister when he was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, he will find that there is no lifting of the bar on the Royal Mail or Post Office Counters competing with private sector companies for existing private sector work. We are therefore maintaining consistency.

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

My right hon. Friend was making a point about the untying of Government Departments from the obligation to use HMSO. Inevitably, because of our interest in Hansard, we in the House are mainly concerned about the printing and publishing side. However, more than 40 per cent. of the work of HMSO is in bulk purchasing. Does my right hon. Friend think that the taxpayer is getting value for money from the increasing trend of diffusing responsibility for purchasing to a range of Government Departments, each acquiring its own purchasing facilities and each pursuing its own policies?

Mr. Freeman

The answer to that question, with one important caveat, is yes. The caveat is that some central advice should always be available to Departments to ensure that best practice is followed and that examples of good procurement practice are available. With information technology and information systems, for example, the Government Centre for Information and Systems—known as CCTA—which is untied from Government Departments, stands ready to provide best practice. It has been successful in ensuring that our procurement of IT and IS is effective.

The central unit on procurement within the Treasury should also provide best practice advice. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) that, if one extends delegation too far, one sometimes gets confusion and that Departments sometimes seek to reinvent the wheel. The Office of Public Service and the Treasury seek to watch carefully for that danger, and I hope that we are successful.

Mr. John Gunne (Morley and Leeds, South)


Mr. Derek Foster


Mr. Freeman

I must make some progress, but I will give way to the hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South and then to the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland.

Mr. Gunnell

The Chancellor of the Duchy is presenting what he is doing as being in the interests of HMSO. However, is it not true that, as a next steps agency, HMSO was ripe for privatisation on the basis of dogma? Is it not true that many next steps agencies are being privatised as a matter of dogma? Alternatively, will the right hon. Gentleman be able to find a different reason for privatising each one of them?

Mr. Freeman

There are different reasons for privatising each agency; the argument must be justified. So far, I have explained that HMSO is losing staff, as forecast by a previous chief executive. We are in the middle of that process; several hundred more jobs will go, not just in Norwich but elsewhere. I am trying to deal with the problems that HMSO faces.

I have explained why the solution offered by the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland—which is simply to sweep away the restrictions and to let state-owned companies compete with the private sector for more business—is not an acceptable philosophy. I am trying to deal with the problems that HMSO faces at present, and I am, I hope, doing so in a responsible fashion.

Mr. Derek Foster

The right hon. Gentleman is pretending that these matters are far more settled than they really are. Let us consider, for example, the private finance initiative. The private sector has made it clear that it seeks further guarantees. The intention was that the private sector would take the risk, but it is so unwilling to do so in hospital developments, for example, that it insists on further guarantees. Indeed, that is why the Secretary of State for Health has introduced the National Health Service (Residual Liabilities) Bill. These matters are by no means as clear cut as the right hon. Gentleman pretends.

Mr. Freeman

The right hon. Gentleman held a different position during the successful development of the proposal to use the private finance initiative for the channel tunnel rail link. I think that he would admit that that development has been, so far, a tremendous success. A £4 billion project, instead of being financed at the expense of the taxpayer, will include a substantial contribution from the private sector.

HMSO's 1995 accounts have not yet been audited. However, 1995 was a difficult year; the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland seems to have accurate but informal advice on the matter. When the accounts are published—I confirm that they will be published shortly—they will show a significant loss, largely because of the costs that HMSO has had to incur in streamlining its business under present trading fund rules. As a trading fund, HMSO has to bear the full cost of any redundancies; it does not share in the 80:20 scheme that applies to other agencies and to Departments.

HMSO has had to make extensive provision in its 1995 accounts against further redundancy costs. It has had to make provisions in other areas, including exceptional stock write-offs and the launch costs of a new brand to prevent further erosion of its office supplies market. HMSO has also experienced some difficulty in its relatively new public sector overseas operations and it may need to make some provisions for that, in particular in relation to trading with public sector organisations in Uzbekistan. HMSO management are confident that matters will improve in future years, but there can be no doubt that underlying problems will remain as long as HMSO remains in the public sector.

Mr. Ian Bruce

My right hon. Friend will know that the whole publishing world is moving towards the introduction of electronic publishing, both to produce the printed word and to produce material on the Internet and the super-highways. Can he confirm to the House that HMSO will be able to go ahead with the investment needed to change the way in which it carries out its business, and that modern and dynamic management is needed to ensure that the change is pushed through?

Mr. Freeman

I am confident that, with a successful transfer to the private sector, such investment will occur.

I am happy to reiterate my earlier undertaking that the Government will seek a single buyer for the whole business and will not in any circumstances separate HMSO's printing and publishing operations at the point of sale. All bidders will be subjected to a rigorous assessment of their ability to meet customers' needs and of their plans for the business and its staff.

I cannot envisage circumstances in which a buyer would wish to move the organisation away from Norwich. For the avoidance of doubt, I now confirm that such a buyer would be expected to maintain its presence in Norwich. The House will be aware—[Interruption.]

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Does this not encapsulate the root of the trouble? The Minister may stand there, doubtless in good faith, believing what he is saying. However, in no way can he guarantee the actions of future Parliaments or future Governments. Do not such pledges have to be enshrined in law?

Mr. Freeman

I was referring specifically to HMSO's presence in Norwich. As the House and any prospective business purchaser would assume, the operations of HMSO are represented in Norwich. In due course, we will publish the shortlist of bidders for the Stationery Office. I know that hon. Members will wish to understand precisely what is proposed not only by those on the shortlist generally but by the preferred bidder.

Mr. Chris Davies (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

Will the Minister give a similar guarantee—if guarantee it can be called, and I suspect that it cannot—to the employees of HMSO in London and Chadderton?

Mr. Freeman

I have visited a number of HMSO's operations, but not Chadderton. There is also the Parliamentary Press and the distribution facility at Nine Elms. I am not aware of precisely what goes on at all operations, but no doubt the hon. Gentleman is. I would not wish to commit myself at this stage. If he would care to table a question, I should be happy to answer it.

The House will be aware that there is no need for legislation to effect the sale of HMSO's assets. However, I recognise that there will be a need to wind up the HMSO trading fund, and to that end the Government undertake to introduce the necessary order under section 6 of the Government Trading Act 1990 simultaneously with the sale.

I now come to the need to make arrangements for the future provision of services to this House and another place. I shall first deal with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) in our last debate on the matter, when he asked about the possibility of separating out Parliamentary Press in south London and retaining its ownership in the public sector.

I do not believe that such a separation would be wise. Not all parliamentary business is dealt with at Parliamentary Press and not all the work of that press is for Parliament. There is no one-to-one relationship. Moreover, although 90 per cent. of the work of Parliamentary Press is for Parliament, its presses are only one third loaded, and more work—for example, private sector work—is needed to achieve fuller efficiency and cheaper prices for Parliament.

As the House will be aware, we will invite customers of HMSO to agree legally enforceable contracts with the Stationery Office, which will be assigned to the new owner at the point of sale. Such contracts can specify all aspects of a customer's requirements, including matters such as price, standards of service and, in the case of publishing services, arrangements to ensure satisfactory distribution. Those arrangements should give full assurance to customers that they will continue to receive the high level of service for which HMSO has become renowned.

It will, of course, be very much in the interests of the new owner of the business to continue to meet its customers' needs. That is especially true of work that the privatised business will perform for Parliament, including statutory business. No owner would wish to jeopardise relations with such a valuable customer accounting for some 10 per cent. of turnover. I intend that the safeguards requested by Madam Speaker in her letter to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House last November, together with other concerns raised by hon. Members, will be incorporated in the draft contract.

In particular, the draft contract provides that the House has the right to terminate it upon any change of ownership of the privatised business. The importance of parliamentary work to the business is such that no prospective owner would buy it unless Parliament's custom were assured, so this part of the contract amounts to an effective veto on changes of ownership.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

My right hon. Friend is dealing with this matter with his customary impeccable courtesy and thoroughness. However, can he not see that it is impossible to guarantee what might happen after the first sale? It is impossible to guarantee that a Maxwell or a Murdoch—to name one crooked potential purchaser, and another who, although not crooked, I would not want to have running Parliamentary Press—could not buy the business at a subsequent stage. Although I do not for a moment impugn the good faith and good intentions of my right hon. Friend, this is a matter of very real concern.

Mr. Freeman

My hon. Friend is right; he has put his finger on a matter of legitimate concern. I have some suggestions to put to the House. I do not wish to portray my position as inflexible or as not anxious to consider constructive suggestions. We wish to protect the position of this House and the other place.

One suggestion is to consider alternative suppliers to a second owner who might be unacceptable or who, indeed, might withdraw from providing parliamentary services. I understand that there are three or four City printers within a similar distance of the House as Parliamentary Press. The House will be aware of the notion that any acceptable supplier of parliamentary services should be within three miles of the House, so I am using that measure of distance.

No printer has exactly the same mix of plant and equipment as HMSO, but between them the printers are capable of taking on the work load. Of course, in the absence of competition for Parliament's work, I accept that the precise capability does not exist outside HMSO. However, there are printers in London who would no doubt be keen to invest on the basis of contracts with the Houses of Parliament.

By the time the first contracts are due for renewal, advances in printing technology are expected to have increased the range of likely competitors. I freely acknowledge the need for a contractual provision for sufficient notice of any change in ownership or unilateral desire to change the quality of service to this House, to allow the House to change its supplier if it so wishes. The draft also suggests a means by which this House could be guaranteed real savings year on year as technological improvements are introduced.

I am pleased to note that the price of the daily Hansard has fallen from £7.50 in 1991—the last time we debated this, my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire explained why it rose to that level—to £5 in 1996, and I hope that the price can fall further in real terms.

Of course, the draft contracts will require careful examination, and no doubt amendment, before they are ready for the House authorities to consider and seek approval. It is for this House and another place to determine their requirements and the Government's role is to offer our resources to assist in bringing them into contractual form and incorporating them in the sale.

I can reassure the House that the Government attach the utmost importance to the services that Parliament receives from HMSO. I repeat the assurance that I have just given to my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire: I look forward to constructive discussions on how we can satisfy not only my hon. Friend but the House in general on the security of suitable services to the House—not only on price but, more important, on quality, something that sometimes cannot be expressed accurately and comprehensively in a contract.

I understand concerns regarding accountability for those arrangements. In the interests of time, and as I am aware that many hon. Members wish to speak, I shall summarise the points that I had intended to make at greater length. It is important to appreciate that the chief executive of HMSO is responsible for the day-to-day operations. I am accountable to the House for policy and for answering questions put to me by hon. Members.

Mr. Dalyell

The Minister will recollect that, the last time we debated this matter, there was a good deal of discussion about consultation with and advice from the Department of the Clerk of the House. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is having to curtail his speech and that he may have originally intended to cover that point. Has there been consultation with the Clerk's Department and, if so, has it given its full-hearted approval?

Mr. Freeman

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising an important point that also concerned Madam Speaker. I will explain the present position. It has always been my intention and that of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to be as helpful as possible. Madam Speaker has made it quite clear—and I fully accept—that it is for the Government, not Officers of the House, to make a decision about the preferred bidder. The Officers of this House report not to the Government but to the House of Commons Commission and to the Speaker.

My understanding is that it was to assist the House of Commons Commission—although I understand that it has not yet considered a draft contract—that the Officers were to have offered their comments on early drafts of the contract. It was to clarify and question. They are not responsible for policy; I am. The hon. Member for Linlithgow serves a good purpose by enabling me to distinguish precisely what the respective responsibilities are.

Mr. Dalyell

Were the Officers' comments taken?

Mr. Freeman

I was not present at those discussions. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I have no idea what the Officials of the House have said, nor would it be right for me to comment on behalf of the House of Commons Commission or Officials. The respective responsibilities and the constitutional position are clear.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

The Commission would be surprised if Officers of the House were invited to give views about the desirability of privatisation. It was not at all in that respect that they were assisting the Commission; they were making sure that the drafts that were being considered were in a form that was likely to meet the House's requirements. Both the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and I have emphasised that it can be only in that role that the Clerks assist the process.

Mr. Freeman

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for stating the position precisely. Comments were invited to clarify the position for the convenience of the House. It is for the House of Commons Commission and for the appropriate corresponding body in the other place to consider any draft contract between a House and a prospective buyer—a privatised owner—and to satisfy itself that a contract meets its requirements. It is not for Government but for the House of Commons Commission to decide how the matter should be approved. It is not a matter for me as the responsible Minister.

Sir Patrick Cormack

To clarify further, would it not be entirely within the jurisdiction of the House of Commons Commission to decide not to put the work to HMSO it if were privatised and the Commission did not approve of the person who was going to take it over?

Mr. Freeman

Of course, my hon. Friend is right.

The value of the business done with Parliament, including the statutory publications, is about 10 per cent. of turnover. That is significant and important. However, it is wholly in the power of the House of Commons authorities and the authorities in the other place to decide what is needed—what the contract is, the price requirements, the standards of service required. As the Minister responsible for the Stationery Office, I wish it not only to do its present business but for its privately owned successor to continue to do that business. It is important and prestigious business. It is profitable, but it will doubtless become less so as the House controls the prices of the publications even better.

I apologise if I have not covered all the points that the House would have expected me to cover. If there are such points, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will deal with them in his winding-up speech.

In summary, HMSO faces an uncertain financial future. It has lost a number of jobs, which I regret. The reasons for that include its being untied from Departments, which can procure their printing and publishing requirements not only from the public but from the private sector. HMSO needs to become more efficient. It will have to lose more jobs. I believe that we can create more jobs than would otherwise have been the case by transferring its ownership to the private sector, allowing it to borrow and to operate freely. I know from the staff I have met that it will do so successfully. I urge the House to support the Government amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Nine hon. Members wish to catch my eye and the debate must end by 10 pm, so I plead for shortish speeches.

8.13 pm
Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn)

I shall try to be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I have listened to the speeches of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) and of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and I heard some Conservative Members, appropriately, supporting their Minister. I ask them to support the valuable services that the House receives from the parliamentary press. As Back Benchers, we must always point out that we get a good service from it. It is not a privatisation in the normal sense of the word. If we make the wrong decision about this facility, we will lose some of our powers as Back Benchers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) is here and intervened earlier. We all appreciate his valuable probing over the years, which has benefited Back Benchers. The way in which he approaches Ministers has been an inspiration to us all. He would not be able to probe and question Ministers in that way but for the facilities extended by Hansard. When Parliament finishes at 3 am, Hansard is ready for us first thing the following day so that we can find out exactly what Ministers and other hon. Members have said.

As a Committee Chairman—other hon. Members who chair Committees will know this, too—I know that, if Hansard is not available, there is usually a point of order to say that it is not available and that hon. Members want it to ensure that they can conduct themselves properly during that sitting of the Committee. There are no two ways about it; it is a very valuable service.

It is also a valuable service to people outside Parliament. The moment that parliamentary publications and important papers become available in, or are made public through, the House, they are available in other major cities in the United Kingdom. We are talking not only about printing but about a successful distribution facility. If we are to have open government, it is important that that service should be available.

I have not had the privilege of visiting the Bermondsey printing facility. I dealt with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when he was a Transport Minister, and I know that, when he gives assurances, he gives them in good faith. However, if a private printer takes over and in good faith signs a contract—however iron-clad—with the House or the Minister, and goes out of business or into liquidation, we may lose not only the printing facility but an important storage facility. If we are to get our papers in good time, it is important that we should have a storage facility. We all know about London's transportation difficulties. If the storage facility was in another part of London, the heavy traffic could cause delays in getting our papers. Once we have lost those facilities, although we may take the contract away from that printer, our storage facility assets could be lost and gone for ever. Back Benchers should always argue that we have an excellent facility and we should not lose it.

This is an important debate and other hon. Members want to speak. I shall ask a series of questions. If they cannot be answered tonight, I hope that replies will be given in due course. First, will the recent reductions in the cover price of Hansard be jeopardised by the Government's proposal? On small print runs, would the cost of Select Committee reports and the Standing Committee Hansard have to rise? Would the present policy of supplying libraries with copies at discounted prices continue?

Would those documents be available to hon. Members at the same time as they are now? Would they be available in all parts of the United Kingdom at the same time as they are available in London? Where would the House store those documents, and how would it distribute them? On confidentiality, HMSO's staff sign the Official Secrets Act 1911. Would private companies ensure the same confidentiality? Who would answer to the House if hon. Members were dissatisfied with the service provided? Has privatisation of the printing of parliamentary publications been successful anywhere in the world?

If the House is not satisfied with the service provided, could it withdraw from its contract? If the House publications made a profit, who would benefit? If they made a loss, would the House be expected to make it good? When the Minister replies, could he also comment on the loyalty and job security of the staff?

8.20 pm
Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

I am grateful to speak briefly in the debate, because we have had more than one opportunity in the past few months to talk about the future of HMSO. This is an opportunity for me to talk mainly about the concerns of my constituents. I have had a chance to meet some of them in Norwich within the past fortnight and I should therefore like to explain to my right hon and hon. Friends on the Front Bench exactly what is worrying some of the employees of HMSO. I hope that the Minister will be able to give me some answers.

Although the issue involves a serious political debate about privatisation versus nationalisation, from which I am not trying to hide, the main concern of my constituents in Norwich, North is about jobs and security in the future. It is no secret that job insecurity is still a political issue. My constituents are concerned about their future—I do not think that there will be any disagreement about that in the debate—and I must therefore make those concerns the top priority in my short speech.

That fear about the future makes the issue involved difficult, and it is why guarantees cannot be given. I gather that during the past 15 years—I will be corrected if I am wrong—the number of jobs at HMSO has halved. As we have already heard from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a forecast was made in 1994 that a further 30 per cent. of jobs would be lost.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

That is not the figure.

Mr. Thompson

I have read that that was the figure, but if I have not got the details right, someone else will put that right in his speech. The fact is that the trend is towards a decline in the number of jobs available. I want to discuss the figures as they are; I do not want to select or distort them in any way.

If, as my right hon. Friend has said, the job opportunities in my constituency and in other parts of the country will increase as a result of privatisation or any other change, I would be foolhardy simply to oppose it because of fears that may have been expressed. It is important to look at the opportunities and to discuss the issues on their merits.

I have heard the concerns of my constituents, and at the end of my speech I shall retail exactly what they are. I am sure that those concerns will be the subject of cross-party agreement and I hope that the Minister will try to answer them to my satisfaction and that of my constituents.

I heard today that many fears have been expressed about the future of Ordnance Survey. I gather that, since changes have been made, however, things have been going well. No doubt my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm whether that is true.

The Opposition motion, moved by the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), recommends that the decision about the privatisation should be delayed until after the general election. The trouble is that the debate about the future of HMSO has already started, and my constituents want to know whether it is moving towards privatisation or not. I cannot support an Opposition motion that simply recommends that the whole thing should be put off.

Mr. Garrett

Why not?

Mr. Thompson

I am about to explain. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) said, the Opposition motion makes no mention of staff or the good work that has already been done by—

Mr. Martlew

We have debated that already.

Mr. Thompson

We are debating the Opposition motion now. What is more important and significant is that the motion does not make any commitment about what the Opposition would do after a general election, should they gain power. Would they renationalise HMSO or not? Such continuing uncertainty is not good for the staff either.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes

When the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) finished his speech in the previous debate on 18 December, his last words were: let us test the opinion of Parliament and put the issue to a proper vote in the new year."—[Official Report, 18 December 1995; Vol.268, c.1316.] Does my hon. Friend agree that the people working for HMSO may well have thought that the hon. Gentleman was talking about their interests, and their work? Apparently, according to the terms of the Opposition motion, that cannot be true. Plainly, the Opposition do not care about the interests of the people who work of HMSO.

Mr. Thompson

I know that my constituents wanted the debate and they urged me to support the motion calling for it. They may have been rather surprised by the terms of the Opposition motion, for the reasons that I outlined earlier.

Mr. Derek Foster

Has the hon. Gentleman consulted his constituents about the terms of the motion? Has he spoken to trade union representatives, because they tell me that they are perfectly happy with its terms? They are happy to support it.

Mr. Thompson

The right hon. Gentleman is correct, because I have discussed the terms of the early-day motion, which is similar to the terms of the Opposition motion, with constituents. I apologise if I inadvertently misled the House, but what I should have said a moment ago is that I think that they will be surprised by the terms in which the motion was addressed by the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland. We had better not pursue that argument now.

The Opposition motion also refers to the standard of service to the House.

Mr. Garrett

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Thompson

Just once more.

Mr. Garrett

The debate on 18 December was about employment in HMSO. I asked the hon. Gentleman then, straight out, whether he will support privatisation and the inevitable redundancies among his constituents and mine. He could not say one way or the other.

Mr. Thompson

The hon. Gentleman was not listening a moment ago, when I made it perfectly clear that I would support the Government in the Division. I hope that he will now listen. I support the Government because the Opposition motion—

Mr. Garrett

The hon. Gentleman did not mention that.

Mr. Thompson

I am answering the question. The Opposition motion is not cast in helpful terms and, as I said right at the beginning of my speech—I hope that the hon. Gentleman was listening—if I opposed the Government, I would have to do so in the knowledge that that decision would improve prospects for jobs in my constituency. Right at the start of my speech I gave a number of the reasons why I felt that that was not the case.

The Opposition motion also refers to the standards of service to the House. I am led to understand that all the safeguards requested by Madam Speaker in her letter to the Lord President in November have been incorporated in the draft contracts. Time does not permit me to dwell on that important issue, although I accept that Hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned about the future standard of Hansard and the commitment to it.

As others have said, I do not believe that we should separate parts of the business. I would not like parliamentary business to be separated from Crown business or the publishing or printing services split up. I do not know whether the Government welcome these remarks, but I would like to see HMSO continue its links with Parliament, through Hansard. I hope that—despite the interventions of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) in earlier debates— the Hansard link with HMSO continues post-privatisation. I hope that all hon. Members fight to ensure that the appropriate safeguards are built into any contracts or into any changes that take place.

I conclude by listing the concerns that have been expressed to me by my constituents. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond to those concerns, and to others that have been expressed during the debate.

First, my constituents have asked for a debate—we are now having that debate, so I do not need to pursue that issue any further. Secondly, my constituents expressed a concern that has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett)—and he may refer to it if he speaks in the debate. They asked whether the provisions of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 will apply and whether there is a time limit on them. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond to a technical point, which I suspect will be raised by other hon. Members. There is concern about this matter in Norwich, and I would like to hear my hon. Friend's answers in this regard.

Hon. Members have already referred to guarantees for staff. There is concern that there could be asset stripping, but my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has made it clear that this will not happen. However, there is still real concern about this. The skill centre in Mile Cross is in my constituency. It was taken over by a firm called Astra, which then collapsed. I would like my hon. Friend the Minister to address these dangers and to assure my constituents—some of whom may be here listening to the debate—that there will be no question of asset-stripping should privatisation go forward.

Finally, I refer to the retention of the Norwich link. I understand the reaction of hon. Members when this was mentioned earlier. However, it is important to remind hon. Members of the link between Norwich and HMSO, and the link between Norwich and Hansard. Luke Hansard was baptised in Norwich, and he served his apprenticeship to a printer there before coming to London in 1774— I would continue in this vein if time permitted.

There is a strong historical link between Norwich and Hansard, and Norwich and the HMSO. I realise that what I am asking for—a strict guarantee—may be going slightly over the top, but I make no apology on behalf of my constituents and the people living in Norwich for saying to my hon. Friend that the Norwich link is important. As a Member of Parliament for Norwich, I will continue to stress the importance of it and try to get the strongest reassurance that I am able to obtain from him and his hon. Friends on the Front Bench.

I have explained that, as far as jobs and security are concerned, at this stage in the debate I am happy to support the Government and to vote against the Opposition motion. However, my constituents have concerns, which I have tried to put to the Minister in a straightforward manner, and I hope that he responds to them in some detail.

8.33 pm
Mr. Chris Davies (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

This debate is about the straightforward principle whether there is a role for commercial enterprise within the public sector. The Minister was right to admit that the debate is about the ideological divide which separates the Government side of the House from the Opposition side. If an organisation such as Her Majesty's Stationery Office cannot stay in the public sector—where it has been for 210 years, serving Parliaments and Governments—what organisation can? The Liberal Democrats believe that there is no reason why HMSO should not stay in the public sector.

This debate is of particular interest to me. There are some 2,800 employees still working for HMSO, despite the reductions that have taken place in recent years. Many of those people work in London and in Norwich, and some 500 work at Chadderton in Oldham—where a great number of my constituents work. My hon. Friend the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has also asked me to point out his concerns for jobs in his constituency.

Some vital documents are produced at the plant in Chadderton: passports, benefit books for the Benefits Agency and a variety of other printing and stationery tasks. My constituents are concerned for their jobs. Despite the so-called guarantees that we have had, they realise that those guarantees are not worth the paper they are written on—if, indeed, they were ever written on paper; it would be astonishing to see any such guarantees written on paper. My constituents are concerned that, if HMSO is sold off, it will be cherry-picked by a large printing or publishing organisation that takes its place; there will then be rationalisation and the plants in Chadderton, London and Norwich may close down regardless of what the Minister may say tonight. He has been given the opportunity to give guarantees on this, but he has specifically declined to do so.

Mr. Nigel Evans

The hon. Gentleman has talked about his hope of securing as many jobs as possible within the newly privatised HMSO. The Coopers and Lybrand feasibility study of HMSO showed that privatisation was not only achievable but the best way of securing those jobs. What does the hon. Gentleman have to say about that report?

Mr. Garrett

It did not say that.

Mr. Davies

The answer to that question has been given by the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) from a sedentary position—that it did not say that. Again, we have come down to the ideological divide over what is the best way of securing jobs. Restrictions are placed on HMSO, as it exists at the moment, which prevent it from securing jobs in the way that many hon. Members believe that it should be able to do. Over the past 15 years, the staff of HMSO has been reduced from 6,300 to 2,800

As a result of the changes introduced by management in that organisation, sales per head have increased substantially. Productivity has increased substantially. For example, sales have increased from £41,000 per person to £121,000 per person. As an organisation, most aspects now have International Standards Organisation 9000 accreditation. HMSO is meeting the Treasury targets and paying money into the Treasury coffers.

As other hon. Members have said, there has been a 10 per cent. cut in turnover in the past five years. The growth has been restricted by Government controls. We are told that, if HMSO remains in the public sector, its costs will continue to rise because it will not be able to win other business or use its equipment to capacity. We are told that a sale to the private sector is the only realistic course.

From my perspective as a Liberal Democrat, I believe that that is the logic of the lunatic asylum. If HMSO cannot survive—despite the evidence that it is now doing well and management is meeting the targets set by the Government—it is because Treasury rules are restricting its development. But who makes those rules? The Government make those rules, and they can change them. They are not rules which apply in other countries of the European Union, where the targets for organisations in the public sector are different. The Government have the ability to change the rules.

The Government cry that they cannot do that because HMSO would be able to compete unfairly because it would not have to pay corporation tax and could borrow more cheaply than organisations in the private sector. I accept those points—and they must be addressed. The playing field should be level. My party has no problem at all with the idea that these changes can be introduced to level the playing field, but the Government should lift the controls so that HMSO can go out and win business, pay tax and maintain the work force at its existing locations.

What should we be looking for by way of return from this publicly owned organisation? It seems to me that the basic element that we should be looking for is that HMSO is able to provide printed requirements for Parliament and Government effectively and at no cost to the taxpayer because it generates enough money to meet that outlay through its work in the private sector.

I understand that at present only about 10 per cent. of HMSO's turnover arises from Government and official publications. If it can generate a 10 per cent. return from the work that it gains in the private sector, it will be doing very well indeed. Any money paid to the Exchequer on top of that would be icing on the cake. That would be a very good deal for the country and its taxpayers.

To return to the ideological divide, there is a belief that the private sector is good and the public sector is bad, and that only by sale to the private sector will the taxpayer get a good deal. I regard that as simplistic rubbish. With large organisations, it is not ownership that matters but the targets that are set for managers and the disciplines imposed on them.

The Post Office has been transformed in recent years by the setting of clear targets for management, who have been expected to get on with the job and manage according to the disciplines of the private sector and the market. In fact, the Post Office is doing so well that the Government are using the price of stamps as a tax to subsidise the public purse.

Strangely, railway managers did remarkably well throughout the 1980s. By the beginning of this decade, we had created the most cost-effective, least subsidised railway system in Europe. The Government did not recognise that, but chose instead to put their ideological complaints about the public sector up front—to castigate managers. As a result, they now have the public relations mess that I am glad to pass on to them.

In the past 15 years, managers in HMSO have demonstrated equally well their ability to turn what may have been an old-fashioned, out-of-date, lackadaisical organisation into one that is able to meet the tight disciplines of the marketplace, making the efficiencies that we would expect.

The public sector has a bad name in this country because of its inefficiency, high costs and need for subsidies. It is remarkable that the Government do not claim a bit more credit for their successes when there are successes to claim credit for. The turnaround of unprofitable, uncompetitive public sector organisations into ones that are able to compete in the private sector is something to be proud of. The Government should welcome that development instead of immediately thinking that such organisations should be sold off.

From my point of view—from the point of view of the Government's opponents—that is all to the good. The Government repeatedly throw out the baby with the bath water, not by accident but by design. As long as my party wishes to score political points at the expense of the Government, long may they continue to do so, but it is not good for the country that they continue to do so. Stripped of featherbedding and subsidy, it is good that some organisations in public ownership are seen to be doing well.

The retention of HMSO in public ownership will help to keep the private sector, which dominates more than 95 per cent. of the market for printing and publishing requirements, on its toes. Moreover, it will be good if it can manage to survive competitively while the managers of the organisation pay themselves reasonable salaries instead of meeting the excesses of the private sector, which have become all too common in recent years, especially in organisations that have been privatised by the Government.

I do not understand how selling a profitable, efficient organisation benefits the public. There will be a one-off payment to the Treasury and the public purse, but thereafter one loses the profits—the annual contribution to the country's coffers—which would be coming in for many years to come. Knowing the way the Government have privatised in the past, I suspect that the public cannot even be sure that they will receive the one-off payment.

The assets of many industries that have been privatised—public assets—have been written off so that those organisations may be privatised, to such an extent that I see from the weekend newspapers that it is said that the public are now subsidising the shareholders of those privatised companies to the tune of £2,000 each because of the billions of pounds of public assets that have been written off.

The public therefore cannot be confident that they will get a good deal from the privatisation of HMSO. I suspect that, in the accounts or the Treasury books, a trade-off will be made—a writing off of publicly owned assets— to make the sell-off of HMSO more attractive. Only later, if the right parliamentary questions are asked at the right time, will we belatedly discover the truth.

I urge the Government to put a stop to this dogmatic nonsense and to build on the existing success. I urge them to remember that the Stationery Office was set up 210 years ago to serve the needs of Government and Parliament and to benefit taxpayers, to prevent their being ripped off by organisations in the private sector which were in league to do down the public purse. I urge the Government to let the Stationery Office do its job.

8.45 pm
Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

I shall be brief, and I intend to focus on access to Crown copyright material.

First, a few remarks about privatisation. I served as Parliamentary Secretary to the Office of Public Service and Science with responsibility for HMSO when it was transferred from the Treasury to the Office of Public Service and Science in 1992. The House may be interested to know that there had been a full dress review of the issue of privatisation of HMSO in the Treasury only a year before that. This was conducted by my good friend John Maples, who is no longer with us but who we hope will return at the next election. That review in the Treasury concluded that HMSO should not be privatised.

In 1992, when HMSO came to the Office of Public Service and Science, the issue was again raised, and I was instructed to go into the matter all over again. I concluded, once again, that HMSO should not be privatised.

The wheels of Government grind on and now, four years later, we find that HMSO will, after all, be privatised. I have no particular quarrel with that decision because it seemed to me in 1992 to be a matter of finely balanced judgment, but I shall make three observations which I hope will be relevant.

First, I wonder whether Ministers can imagine what it must have been like trying to manage HMSO and its thousands of employees during those years, when one review after another and one ministerial decision after another failed to settle such a fundamental question.

Secondly, I put it to Ministers that the essential case for retaining an organisation such as HMSO is the case for collective bulk purchase. That point has hardly been mentioned in the debate, but it is the largest part of HMSO's business. When the Public Accounts Committee inquires into the performance of Government Departments as purchasers of their own office and other supplies, as I hope it will, I hope that it will find that the sum of their several efforts is as cost-effective—and as free from corruption—as the record of HMSO as a collective purchaser on their behalf has been. I doubt, however, that the PAC will find that this trend has been to the taxpayer's advantage.

My final observation about privatisation is that I hope that, after last week's vote in the House of Lords on the privatisation of the Recruitment Advisory Service, the Government will not underestimate the perhaps sometimes sentimental resentment that a policy of apparently ruthless privatisation can promote. We heard something of that in the speech of the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster). It is quite a sight to see him with his hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) at his side—the new Labour paladins of institutional conservatism.

Not long ago, HMSO celebrated its 200th anniversary. Occasionally, a Conservative Government—like Labour Front Benchers—may like to recall that Conservatives used to hold that antiquity is a merit and that a tradition of public service over a long period is worth preserving: I believe that it is called civic Conservatism.

The specific matter that I want to consider today is the terms on which Government copyright material is made available for publication and for dissemination by the private sector, whatever happens in respect of the privatisation of HMSO.

At this point, I declare an interest, albeit expired. In 1994, the commercial publishers asked me to give them some advice; I did so, and duly declared it in the Register of Members' Interests. My relations with the Publishers Permissions Group have long since ended but, as so often with such transactions—a point perhaps not sufficiently recognised in the Nolan debate—through my dealings with the group I was able to learn about an important issue. How should the undoubted public interest in offsetting the costs of the Government's publishing activities be balanced against the public interest—another public interest—in the widest possible access to Government publications?

Three factors make that an increasingly important and difficult issue. The first is the advent of electronic publishing. Listening to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin), who referred to such matters as storage, I wondered whether he understood the possible implications of electronic publication, which could transform the current position. Secondly, there is the increasing publication by Government of a vast range of non-statutory material, known in the jargon as "quasi-legislative material" or QLM. That includes a number of categories—planning policy guidance notes, circulars from the Department for Education and Employment, Home Office guidance on access to children in care—thousands of such documents are published every year. The third important factor is the growing commercialisation of government—both in HMSO in recent years and, in future, in Departments with delegated budgets, delegated authorities and a brief to maximise their earnings.

Those developments are taking place against a background of long-standing arrangements between the Government, through HMSO, and the commercial publishers, in relation to the old-fashioned printed legislative material. We have had a simple royalties system and a non-bureaucratic approach to licensing, which has made possible the growth in the United Kingdom of large-scale, high value-added commercial publishing operations—whose exports, incidentally, have risen substantially—and which has developed extensive services for users in the courts and elsewhere. This has helped to secure the public interest in the widest and deepest dissemination of legislation and governmental material.

However, with the emergence of the three factors that I mentioned earlier, those long-standing arrangements have come under increasing strain. The issue on which I advised the Publishers Permissions Group in 1994 related to its dispute with HMSO about the terms for the publication of quasi-legislative material in printed form, given that the growing commercialisation of HMSO was making it increasingly demanding in respect of royalties and licensing arrangements. That dispute was satisfactorily resolved, and I was able to help; but a dispute continues in regard to the electronic publishing both of legislative materials and of QLM.

What material are we talking about? My more technologically advanced colleagues will understand these matters better than I. They include multiple on-line information services, distributed databases—for example, CD-rom—self-standing electronic editions such as electronic books, multiple transaction support systems, licensed loadings on to user databases, and fax and satellite document delivery systems. All those are beginning to be important factors in the information marketplace.

In relation to all those new forms of publication, the Government must now decide how to balance the narrow perceived public interest that Departments have in exploiting their control over the publication of Government material with the wider public interest in facilitating publication of that material by commercial publishers using the most advanced technologies. Of course, such issues are not unique to the United Kingdom. A statement from the Office of Management and the Budget in the United States sums them up admirably: The information policies contained in the PRA"— the Paperwork Reduction Actare based on the premise that government information is a valuable national resource and that the economic benefits to society are maximised when government information is available in a timely and equitable manner to all. That is surely the central issue at stake. Maximising the benefits of government information to society depends, in turn, on fostering diversity among the entities involved in disseminating it… some nations take advantage of their domestic copyright laws that do permit government copyright and assert a monopoly on certain categories of information to maximise revenues. Such arrangements tend to preclude other entities from developing markets for the information or otherwise disseminating the information in the public interest. I consider that an admirable statement of the position. I was pleased to note that in his statement on 13 December my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said—speaking on behalf of the Crown—said that he would like much greater access to Government documents to be provided. That is reported at column 998 of Hansard.

I want to emphasise what the United States Office of Management and the Budget says about the way in which information markets develop and expand when a non-restrictive approach is followed. Not only is there an important public interest in promoting the use of new electronic media for disseminating information about Government; the commercial interest of Government in exploiting their copyright material will also be promoted if they pursue a less restrictive policy.

With the delegation of many decisions from HMSO and the Office of Public Service to various Departments, I believe that there is a real danger that these wider public interests will be forgotten as fragmentation in Whitehall increases. We need strong and effective central guidance in regard to this issue. I welcomed what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy said, in response to an intervention, about the importance of such guidance, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will take the opportunity to expand on that point about strong central guidance in connection with what I have said about electronic material. Let me add that, when it comes, such guidance should be timely, and it should take account of the fact that, whatever Governments may be up to, their commercial partners have a business to run.

8.56 pm
Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)

As I pointed out in our debate on the privatisation of HMSO on 18 December, I have a strong constituency interest: 900 members of HMSO's staff work in its head office, which is in my constituency. Notwithstanding the Minister's compliments, the morale of those employees is now very low, mainly because of the lack of consultation—consultation that was promised, but not delivered, by the Government.

Since that debate, all developments in HMSO have been shrouded in secrecy. The unions were told by Coopers and Lybrand, which is currently conducting the privatisation, that the sale timetable was confidential; yet it is known that that timetable has slipped. Will the Minister confirm that it is slipping more every day? The unions have not seen the information memorandum that goes to all bidders, or any other details of the tender. They have not seen the 1996 budget, although three months of the financial year have gone by. They have not seen the 1995 annual accounts, although such accounts are normally published in February. Although these accounts have not been published, it is believed that they show a huge and unprecedented loss—obviously as a result of the introduction of many exceptional items.

Such items have been packed into the accounts—for example, £23 million for redundancies in 1995 and 1996, £3 million for property write-downs, £3.5 million for stock write-offs, the cost of commissioning a new passport line, the establishment of the Manchester site, and the launching of the Banner trademark and corporate identity.

The Minister said that the aim of privatisation was to obtain more business from the private sector, but staff and managers, who know much more than he does, are not confident that that will happen. They also have no faith that the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations will preserve their terms and conditions, given that the application of the regulations is weak in areas of technological change—and HMSO is an area of rapid technological change.

The Minister says continually that there will no break-up of HMSO, and that the printing will not be split from the publishing. However, he never mentions the 40 per cent. of the business that comes from office supplies, which enables a spreading of the overhead and makes the printing and publishing activities more viable than they would be otherwise. In other words, HMSO could price itself out of the business if it lost its office supply activities. That fact is never mentioned. Will the Minister confirm that, when he says that there will be no break-up, he is referring to printing, publishing, office supplies and other services?

The staff point out that their customers and suppliers are already holding back business because of HMSO's uncertain future. Some customers are not placing orders, and suppliers are not putting business their way. Why should they, when, under a privatisation arrangement, those suppliers could be in competition with HMSO? HMSO is no longer the publishing first choice for many of its former customers. Customers and suppliers, looking at the uncertainty hanging over it, are beginning to withdraw their business.

Recently, 100 jobs were lost, and 190 jobs will be lost in preparation for privatisation. The Minister must be aware that 90 of those jobs are from the south London Press. What will that do to parliamentary printing services? Of course, the most able people are leaving. Staff members have told me: "I've hardly done any of my proper work recently—I'm running around doing so much privatisation work".

The efficiency and effectiveness of the present organisation is suffering already. Staff fear that any purchaser would want primarily to asset-strip HMSO— it would want not only its property but its customer list. A purchaser would cash in on the years of fine service that HMSO has provided to its customers, and collar the customer list.

Mr. Nigel Evans

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Garrett

No, not for the moment.

Privatisation is purely ideologically driven: there are no strong arguments in its favour. In the public sector, HMSO can use that sector's purchasing power and huge economies of scale to hold down prices, and it can spread its purchasing across an enormous range of suppliers. Under public ownership, security is guaranteed: HMSO handles many secure and confidential Government and parliamentary papers with complete security. It has always been leak-proof, in spite of the very high security and confidentiality of the material that it prints and publishes.

HMSO publishes important, but limited-interest, publications—for museums, for example—that a private publisher would not publish, because they are not sufficiently profitable. Prices will increase in that area, or the supply of publications will disappear altogether. Many jobs are at risk, as we know from previous privatisation experiences. Redundancy is always the first act of someone who takes control of an organisation in that sort of situation.

Norwich is suffering record levels of unemployment, having lost at least 2,500 jobs in the past few years from Nestle, Norwich Union, gas and electricity, Anglia Television and Colman's. HMSO—an important constitutional safeguard—is to be flogged off cheaply at massive cost to my constituents and their families. There is no need for, and no benefit to be derived from, that act of vandalism.

In his statement to the House on 13 December, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said: I pay tribute to the management and staff of HMSO for their commercial success in recent years". Why are the Government selling off such a successful enterprise—particularly when they have spent so much money on developing its services and slimming down its numbers?

The Chancellor continued: The public sector market in which HMSO competes is shrinking". HMSO is the largest print buyer in the country, so why is it not allowed to compete in the market outside Government? Why is it not allowed to compete more effectively in Europe? The public sector market in Europe is not shrinking—certainly not for an organisation with HMSO's success record.

The Chancellor said: Under no circumstances will we offer the printing and publishing businesses separately". I have already said that that is not the worry: it is printing, publishing and office supplies that matter as the latter help to spread the overhead. The publishing side clearly includes bookshops and warehouses. I seek the Minister's assurance that he will return to Parliament if anything should arise that affects the guarantees that he is now giving to the House.

The Chancellor of the Duchy went on: The key point is that the buyer must be fully acceptable to Parliament". However, tonight he said that the buyer must be acceptable to the Government. Therefore, the House must be sure that, when a buyer is found, the matter will be referred back to Parliament for its approval.

The Chancellor stated: Parliament's requirements will be enshrined in a binding and enforceable contract". What would happen if, at some point, the new owner gave notice that the contract's requirements—including the overnight printing of Hansard—could not be met? Resorting to the courts for breach of contract is hardly an adequate remedy, as I pointed out on 18 December. What will we do in the meantime while we are dragging the owner through the courts?

He continued: The type of sale we envisage would mean the buyer taking on HMSO staff with their existing terms and conditions. There is already evidence that the terms and conditions of the staff are worsening. Do the existing terms and conditions include pensions? It is far from clear from my discussions with the management as to whether pensions are protected.

Tonight's debate centres on the parliamentary concern, which is very great. I have already mentioned the future of the south London Press, which is so important for the production of Hansard. It is a costly operation, and could easily be sacrificed by a profit-driven contractor replacing HMSO. We need an absolute guarantee of overnight production facilities in London, and a guarantee of space and facilities for the House of Commons staff who work at the Parliamentary Press. The tender document should not omit that important consideration.

I have also mentioned the information memorandum about HMSO's business that is being prepared for distribution to potential bidders. It will be absolutely essential to ensure that it contains an accurate description of the obligations that a purchaser will assume in regard to the provision of services to Parliament.

Continuity of staff employment is needed in the preparation of parliamentary papers. It is a complex and specialist job. Although I know the printing and publishing industry very well, I cannot think of any organisation with that combination of skills.

Any purchaser of HMSO must accept the new supply and service agreement with the House authorities, particularly in so far as it concerns the right of the House to regulate the production and reproduction of its documents in paper and in electronic form. I remind the Minister that, as I understood it—perhaps it will be made clear later in the debate—he said that Parliament could refuse to accept a bid from an outside private organisation if the House of Commons Commission—of which I confess I am a member—considered that parliamentary services would not be adequately provided.

We have to establish who is in charge, and who makes the final decision. Is it the Government? Is it Parliament or the House of Commons Commission? Certainly I shall insist that the Commission gets to the bottom of the problem.

Any purchaser should be required to freeze the cost in real terms of the published papers and those supplied to the House. The House should be credited with a share of future savings arising from technological change and improvement. There should be safeguards to prevent the break-up of the business or its sale to an overseas buyer, and to take action if a private stationery office fails to provide the service we need. The Minister has always skated over that. Who carries the can for making sure that it happens? Who is ultimately accountable? Will the House have an opportunity to approve the bid when it comes in?

On 18 December, I referred to the words of the Speaker: HMSO staff and management acquire experience and knowledge of those complexities"— she was referring to parliamentary documents and procedures— as they progress from job to job in the organisation; and they are brought up in the tradition that in all circumstances the requirements of Parliament are paramount."—[Official Report, 18 December 1995; Vol. 268, c. 989–990, 1296.] I do not believe that the requirements of Parliament can be guaranteed. I do not believe that jobs in Norwich can be guaranteed. I do not believe that anything can be guaranteed. It is a gamble with an important constitutional organisation. The privatisation is quite unnecessary, and certainly should be postponed.

9.8 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

It will come as no surprise to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy to know that I am not an enthusiast for the Government's proposal. He defended it with a remarkable fastidiousness tonight and with the clarity and courtesy that we always expect of him. The same courtesy was extended to me last week when he kindly arranged for me to visit the Parliamentary Press. On a very busy day, he accompanied me and we spent an interesting and instructive two hours there. I hope that he will not mind my referring to that and to some of my conclusions following that visit.

I must be quite plain with the House. As an old-fashioned Tory—and I make no apology for that— I am not a zealot for change. I believe in the old adage that if it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.

I have heard nothing over the last four months to persuade me that it is necessary to privatise HMSO. I am concerned across the whole range. I declare an entirely honorary interest as a Royal Commissioner of Historical Manuscripts whose publications are published by HMSO, and are among the quality publications produced in small numbers to which reference has been made.

I am concerned about the threat to continuity if there is a changeover, and whether any commercial publisher would really consider that these works of great erudition and scholarship merit publication. I will not talk about that aspect tonight, because my right hon. Friend has been extremely generous and has agreed to see the chairman of the commission, who is also the Master of the Rolls, myself and another leading commissioner, Lord Blake, to discuss our anxieties and concern. We look forward to that meeting, and it would be wrong of me to anticipate what might transpire.

I will concentrate tonight on the Parliamentary Press. I happen to believe in the public service. I happen to believe that it is right and proper for the state to do certain things that are not necessarily appropriate—I will not say improper—to be done elsewhere. I put at the top of that list, in the context of tonight's debate, the prompt delivery of parliamentary and public papers.

When I visited the Parliamentary Press with my right hon. Friend last week, I was impressed by the dedication of the people who work there—and by the experience and long service of many of them—and by the way that we in this House and our colleagues in the other place are served day after day, night after night. It is quite remarkable.

I think back to my early days in the House in the early 1970s, when Hansard was in a different format, was set in hot metal and printed by letterpress, and all the rest of it. Today, the Parliamentary Press has all the wonders of modern technology at its disposal. It is remarkable that it maintained such a high degree of service in the old days, but I digress. The press certainly maintains that level of service today.

During our visit, senior management showed us a video of the opening of the new works at Nine Elms by one of your distinguished predecessors, Mr. Deputy Speaker— Mr. Speaker Weatherill. In his speech at that opening, Mr. Speaker spoke of the high quality of service that the House had come not only to expect but to take for granted. We do take it for granted.

As a Chairman of Committees, I can only echo and endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin). You will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, from the days when you chaired Committees, that the first thing that happens if Hansard is not ready in time is that there is a string of points of order. I have suspended a Committee while its members have waited for papers, but that is a rare occurrence. Day after day, innumerable Committees sit. Day after day, Governments introduce orders and Bills that have to be printed with meticulous accuracy. One rarely finds mistakes, and it is rare for any sort of slip-up on a deadline to occur. I can hardly remember one such occasion.

When hon. Members arrive here in the morning, they can collect their copy of Hansard from a very early hour. If any hon. Member is so minded, he or she can pick up a copy of Hansard before 8 o'clock tomorrow morning, and, if they have nothing better to do, read the speech that I am making this evening. We have almost come to take this remarkable service for granted.

I worry about letting out this service to the commercial sector—not because I have doubts about the technical competence to print of outside firms, but because I believe it should be under public control. My right hon. Friend has questioned the wisdom of hiving off the service and the House accepting responsibility for the Nine Elms works. I would not favour that as the best solution. It is true that 90 per cent. of what is published is parliamentary; virtually all the other 10 per cent. consists of the London Gazette, a highly specialised but necessary publication that comes out every day.

I do not find it horrifying if some public subsidy is involved in the publication of these papers. In an age when this place is not exactly looked up to with admiration, it would be a very good thing if we disseminated our parliamentary papers more widely— specially to the young. It is a scandal that schools cannot afford to take Hansard, even though the price has come down to £5 a day. I wonder how many hon. Members realise what I noticed last week—that the weekly Hansard now costs only about £6, which represents one of the great bargains. It should be more heavily promoted, and I hope that more and more schools and colleges will take it.

If there has to be a continuing public subsidy to ensure the quality production and regular delivery of parliamentary and state papers, will that be an indictment of the system? Of course not. I therefore ask my right hon. Friend to think about this matter very carefully. I know that he takes these points seriously, because he and I have discussed them. He spoke tonight with complete conviction and sincerity.

Still, I return to a point that I raised in an earlier intervention—the future ownership of the Parliamentary Press. Let us imagine for the sake of argument that the sale of the press goes through and that the contract is drawn up scrupulously and on the best legal advice. Let us further imagine that the buying company does so with wholly honourable intentions.

Then let us imagine another recession at some future date. That is not impossible—these things have happened before, and they might happen again, whoever is in charge. Let us then imagine that someone who is less scrupulous decides that he wants to buy and split up the company. Such a person may be cast in the mould of our former colleague, known affectionately when he was here as "the bouncing Czech": the late Robert Maxwell.

I need not continue the analogy to show that no guarantee given at the Dispatch Box, however clearly and honourably spelt out, can guard against contingencies of this sort. Unless we keep control ourselves of a body owned by Parliament or by the Government, such a guarantee is impossible. I believe that we owe it to our constituents and to those we serve to be able to demonstrate that such a guarantee can be met.

This is a small privatisation in the general scheme of things. I am one of those who had no misgivings about many of the privatisations that we have put through the House. I pay tribute to the ingenuity and dedication of those who brought them before us. I voted for them with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but without any feeling of real regret.

I am unhappy about what is now proposed, and I hope that my unhappiness has transmitted itself to my exceptionally courteous right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy. I hope that, even at this late stage, he will think through once more the potential consequences of second and subsequent ownership for parliamentary democracy in general, and for the delivery of our papers in particular.

9.20 pm
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), because he has encapsulated the real worries about this crazy scheme. I shall not detail—as many of my colleagues have done so ably—the practical problems that the House of Commons and the other place will face if this bizarre privatisation goes ahead; I want simply to make one important point.

It is not an accident that three members of the Chairmen's Panel have spoken tonight, from both sides of the House. It is not an accident that some of my colleagues who are waiting to speak have been Members of the House for a long time. People learn what is being done in their name because information about Government business is disseminated. The House of Commons has taken the power to control the Government, to question the Government, to choose as a House occasionally, and to oppose the Government because the people believe that they have the right to know what is happening and what is being done at every level.

It is precisely that freedom of information that I believe is at risk. That may sound overly dramatic, but in a nation that receives less and less information about Parliament from the press, and that finds it more and more difficult to learn about day-to-day decisions that affect people at every level of their lives, what happens to parliamentary papers is so fundamental that it ceases to be a simple matter of whether more money could be made or less money could be spent if the contract were handed over to a private firm, and becomes something so essential that I should have thought even the present Government would have had some sense of how shameful it is to behave in this manner.

The Chancellor is a reasonable man, which is why the Government eternally put him up to undertake their unreasonable projects, but the reality is that the House is deeply concerned. The views of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire on privatisation will be different from mine. I have seen the reality of the sale of state assets, including the immediate redundancies, the removal of pension rights, and the refusal to accept responsibility for the damage that is done to the lives of many who have shown enormous loyalty to the state all their working lives but are thrown aside for some bizarre doctrinal reason; but my objection to this privatisation is as a Member of the House of Commons. Unless people know what is happening to their taxation, to their social security and to all those enormous and important matters that are debated in the House, they will be not only poorer, but at risk.

No one has convinced me that the sale of the printer of parliamentary papers to a private sector employer will protect the interests either of the House of Commons or of my constituents. No one has said anything that will convince me of that. The reason is simple. The Chancellor knows from his previous posts, and from his present one, that he cannot give those guarantees to Parliament. He cannot guarantee that, in future, Parliament will receive the service that it has always enjoyed from reliable and faithful printers. I am talking of a guarantee not for 10 years, but for many, many years.

There has never been a leak of any parliamentary business from HMSO. No one has put his commercial interests ahead of the interests of Parliament. No one has sold information. No one has found a way of making money from his responsibilities in HMSO. Let the Minister assure me that that will be the position in future. He knows that he cannot do that. He still has time to abandon this irresponsible and tatty little scheme. That is what it is. It is a contemptible little scheme, and it should be abandoned now.

9.25 pm
Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

The arguments that we have heard in opposition to the scheme—they have been advanced mainly by Opposition Members—revolve around whether they have confidence in HMSO staff being able to compete with other printers and publishers on an equal basis. It seems that they do not, although they dress up their arguments in various ways. I shall take up, first, a suggestion that we have heard before from Liberal Members.

This evening, the Liberal spokesman, the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Davies), said that, by remaining in the public sector, HMSO could compete with the private sector. He claimed that that would be entirely reasonable. We are told that HMSO lost millions of pounds in the past financial year. It is suggested that it could compete with private sector printers and publishers but would not be able to go bankrupt, that it would be able to borrow at lower rates than those available to the private sector and would not pay corporation tax. Apparently it would be perfectly reasonable for HMSO to be in competition with the private sector.

I note that the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth shakes his head. I listened closely to what he said. I begin to have a great deal of sympathy with friends of mine who were members of the Social Democratic party, who were in partnership with the Liberals. Some of them are now in the Labour party and others are in the Conservative party. They told me horrendous tales of the Walter Mitty economics that they had to deal with when trying to deal with the Liberals. If the Liberals believe that it is reasonable to remain in the public sector and to enjoy all the advantages that go with that while competing with the private sector, they are not living in the real world.

Mr. Chris Davies

Does the hon. Gentleman recall my saying that a level playing field should be established and that it would be perfectly reasonable for HMSO to pay corporation tax? If he did not, perhaps he should wash out his ears.

Mr. Hughes

Being rude does not strengthen the hon. Gentleman's argument. He says that he wants a level playing field, but he is prepared to accept everything that would make it uneven.

Members of HMSO's staff who are listening to the debate should understand that the Liberal party's approach is nonsense and could not possibly be implemented. It is not a serious proposition. It could never come to fruition. The hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth does not serve the interests of his constituents. I have visited the Oldham works, and the staff there should not believe that the Liberals' approach is a runner.

Serious remarks have been made about Parliament's work. We must take seriously the publication of parliamentary papers. It is the fact, however, that all the points made in Madam Speaker's letter have been answered. We are only 78 days into the new supply and service agreement, which is legally binding, and trying to overturn it in that time period is a bit premature, even for the modern Labour party.

The reality is that Parliament will be a major customer for whoever publishes Parliament's papers, takes over HMSO or gets the contract. If Parliament wants to lay down any criteria, such as that there should be a press in London and that that should be a part of the legally binding contract, as I think it should—I agree with others on that point—Parliament can do so.

The answer to the question of the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) is that the decision on who buys HMSO lies with the Government, but it also lies with Parliament—although I hope not with Parliament on the Floor of the House. If there is to be a serious attempt to express Parliament's interests and to ensure that we have a proper contract, it will have to be done not through a reference back to Parliament, but through Committees and, in particular, through the House of Commons Commission. If Parliament wants to lay down any of those criteria, it can do so, and it will have a decisive say in the matter because Parliament is such a large customer.

We have not really heard concern about parliamentary papers—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) should not get too concerned about time—I am sure that he will get his quarter of an hour to speak. My hon. Friend the Minister has kindly allowed me a couple of minutes.

Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool)

Do not worry; I shall take it out of his time.

Mr. Hughes

That is fine. He is happy with that because he can make extremely good points in a very short time, unlike some—unlike me, and unlike the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster).

We have heard the normal knee-jerk response to privatisation. HMSO staff will have to consider what they got out of the Labour party today. There was no mention of them in the motion, and it would not be adequate to say that we debated the privatisation before Christmas. The employees must have believed that the assurances they were given by the Labour party before Christmas and the debate they were promised after Christmas related to them, but they clearly did not. They received no plan or promise to renationalise and no expressions of confidence in their ability to compete. In short, they got nothing— no promises, no hints and no policy—but a jumble of meaningless words. That will not help the staff at HMSO. Allowing them to compete in the private sector will help them, and that is why I back the Government's objectives.

9.32 pm
Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool)

The Minister argued, when opening this debate, that commercial freedom for HMSO will simultaneously offer opportunities for its growth, bringing jobs and security to employees, and ensure that Parliament's continuing public service needs will be paramount in the future operation of HMSO. I believe that the Minister's argument was well meaning but wholly unconvincing.

I do not believe that the Minister can attempt to shoot a privatised HMSO into a commercial free orbit and keep it tied down by legally binding public service guy-ropes, as he has sought to argue tonight. Instead of lifting off, a privatised HMSO will find it impossible to leave its launch pad, which will pose a serious threat to job security in HMSO, and, in the ensuing chaos, Parliament's vital needs will be a very bad casualty.

Since the proposal to privatise HMSO was first made, it has been understood and accepted that the measure and its effects on the supply of papers to Parliament will have to be acceptable to the House, regardless of the need for primary or secondary legislation. In our debate on 18 December, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said: I cannot dictate Parliament's wish or conclusions on the matter, and therefore it cannot proceed unless Parliament is satisfied."— [Official Report, 18 December 1995; Vol. 268, c. 1294.] It is, therefore, a serious indictment of the Government's handling of the matter that a debate in Government time was not arranged. Throughout, the Minister has shown an astonishing lack of understanding of the concern of hon. Members on both sides of the House, and even in this debate, initiated, I remind hon. Members, by the Opposition in our time, the Minister has failed abjectly— I say that in the nicest possible way—to offer any real assurances about the safeguarding of the services on which the House relies.

The conditions of service and the protection sought for the work of HMSO were clearly set out in Madam Speaker's letter to the Leader of the House last autumn. The House of Commons Commission, on behalf of which Madam Speaker wrote, was rightly drawn not on the principle of privatisation but merely on the consideration of the matter in relation to Parliament's requirements. The Commission could not have been more explicit. In contrast, the Minister tonight could not have been more evasive or unconvincing.

Let us remind ourselves of the concerns raised by the Commission. Madam Speaker's letter warned of the danger of a private sector owner experimenting with cheaper methods of providing the service presently provided by HMSO, leading to falling standards. The Minister has not given a guarantee that that will not happen, and he cannot.

The Commission insisted that staff of the House should be guaranteed adequate space and facilities in the Parliamentary Press as long as the House required it. There is no guarantee of that beyond the first transfer of ownership. Madam Speaker's letter on behalf of the Commission sought an assurance of continuity in the staffing and management of HMSO, bearing in mind its experience and expertise, and called for adequate training for any new staff. No such binding undertaking has been given by the Minister tonight, because, as he knows, no private owner would ever agree to be bound by such a limitless commitment.

The Commission wanted the Government to stipulate that there should be consultation before any changes were proposed in management or organisation. No private owner would be constrained in that way, and the Minister knows it. The Commission demanded that an individual in a privatised HMSO be personally responsible and directly accountable—an important word in this context—to the House if any aspect of the service provided went wrong. The Minister cannot deliver that, and has not pretended to do so. He speaks of legally binding contracts, but we know that such contracts can take an eternity to invoke and a fortune to enforce. His only recourse is to threaten cancellation of the contract. Such a right to termination has little meaning when the consequence would be unmitigated chaos in the supply of Parliament's papers.

The Commission went on to insist that the existing standards negotiated in the new supply and service agreement with HMSO should be maintained and that no attempts should be made to water them down without the agreement of the House authorities, but, as everyone knows, it will be nigh impossible to spot the slimming down, short cuts and cutting of corners—the considerations of cost and profit that privatisation will inevitably demand. Even if they are spotted in time, the House will have no real leverage to ensure that the dilution is stopped or reversed.

Last, the Commission expressed a desire to see no increase in real terms in the charges paid by the House or the prices paid by the public. I suggest that that matter touches on the main issue under debate tonight. Once transferred to the private sector, market forces will take over, whatever the Minister says or tries to claim in the debate tonight. Parliament's influence over charges and prices, like everything else, will quickly fall away and be finished for ever. More fundamental and crucial in this debate, supplying the House with the papers it needs at the time of its choosing and in the exact place it requires cannot be determined by market forces or the power of commercial competition. That recognition is at the root of our disagreement with the Government's privatisation proposal.

If ever there was a definition of public service, it is surely providing the essential wherewithal Parliament needs to carry out its business. The Minister is astonishingly cavalier about that; he can offer neither the satisfactory arrangements we need nor the power to enforce them. When the choice arises between meeting the requirements of Parliament, which are often costly and sometimes immediate, and almost always have to be met under pressure, and meeting the demands of equally insistent commercial customers, where will the loyalty and commitment of the privatised HMSO lie?

Mr. Sutcliffe

My hon. Friend referred to loyalty and commitment. Is it not a fact that the whole privatisation episode is a betrayal of the work force, who are committed to providing the services that my hon. Friend is talking about? The work force were thought, in 1992, at the end of a commercialisation study, to need to be more effective and more efficient. The reality is that the seed was sown then for privatisation. People have been made redundant and they have not been shown the loyalty that they have given to the House through their service.

Mr. Mandelson

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to him, because he has been an effective and doughty champion of the work force at HMSO, as his remarks have just revealed.

We know that, when the chips are down and market forces rule, and when the privatised HMSO inevitably has to face the rigour of competition, it will not be able to put its commitment to Parliament and our needs first. The Minister has praised the dedicated, cost-effective and high-quality service provided by HMSO at present, and he has spoken glowingly of the traditions and the culture of HMSO. In the light of those remarks and the light of all the remarks made this evening about HMSO's tremendous contribution to the work of the House, we should not tamper or take risks with an organisation that works perfectly well as it is. There is no gain for us, no gain for Parliament and no gain for the public.

This is not an argument about the broader merits and demerits of privatisation. This is a debate about a specific privatisation proposal and its very real implications for the House. It is possible to be generally well disposed towards the principle of privatisation without supporting its application in this case, as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) demonstrated in a very commanding speech. Where doubt exists—I think that much doubt has arisen as a result of the Minister's hollow words of reassurance and the well-meaning but ultimately unsatisfactory sentiments he expressed tonight—it would be better to pause for further thought.

We need time to consider the matter more thoroughly, especially as Parliament's ability to bind new owners after privatisation would be almost non-existent, as many hon. Members have observed this evening. On that basis, I urge all hon. Members to vote for the motion and to put this needless, pointless privatisation to rest once and for all.

9.43 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service (Mr. David Willetts)

The first proposition that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster put to the House today was simply that HMSO could not carry on as it had for the past few years. HMSO has a problem in terms of its performance, its turnover and its market share. The figures—[Interruption.] I am about to give the figures which show the nature of the problem that HMSO confronts.

In 1990, HMSO had a turnover of £389 million. The figure steadily fell until, in 1994, its turnover was down to £350 million. Similarly, it has been reducing its staff; the trends are downwards rather than upwards.

Mr. Derek Foster

Will the Minister confirm that the turnover for the current year is likely to be £369 million, rather up on the figure that he quoted?

Mr. Willetts

I am not prepared to confirm or deny any of the figures that the right hon. Gentleman has quoted, either now or earlier in his speech. However, I will say that they are broadly in line with the draft accounts that we have seen.

The right hon. Gentleman has thrown around figures for HMSO's performance in 1995—for example, HMSO's losses. He was so excited about his leak that he forgot to consider the significance of those figures. That significance has nothing to do with privatisation. The figures for HMSO's losses were a consequence of the measures that it had to take simply to improve its competitiveness, so that it could continue selling its services to public sector purchasers who had a legitimate freedom to take their business elsewhere. It was nothing to do with privatisation.

As the previous chief executive warned in June 1994, before we embarked on privatisation, HMSO faced the prospect of losing 30 per cent. of its staff simply to meet the competitive challenge of other organisations free to sell their services to the public sector. That is the challenge that HMSO faces.

We are told there is an easy option—to liberalise the regime under which HMSO currently operates so that it is no longer subject to the notorious Treasury rules that have been cited at various times in the debate. I assure the House that the Government have gone as far as is practicable to liberalise the regime under which HMSO operates, which is now far more liberal than it was just a few years ago. We have given it permission to sell its services to the public sector abroad. In the past year, we have allowed it to sell its services to the private sector where there is surplus capacity within the normal scope of its operations. However, that liberalisation goes absolutely to the limits of what is acceptable for a public sector body, and on its own will not bring HMSO out of the long-term decline that it faces.

We have heardvarious pleas to go further. The hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Davies) made a series of suggestions on how HMSO could have greater freedom. For example, he wanted it to have an arm's-length relationship with Ministers and to be exposed to paying corporation tax so that it would be free to compete with the private sector. What I did not hear from him—or, indeed, from any other hon. Member who spoke in the debate—was what he would say to a private printing firm or office supplier in his constituency if that firm suddenly found that it had lost business, for which previously it had a clear commercial contract with another private sector purchaser of its services, to HMSO. What would he say to someone who went to one of his surgeries and said that his firm had been put out of business or had lost business as a result of a public sector body operating as a public sector trading fund?

Mr. Chris Davies

If there were a level playing field, which is what my party wants to establish, the simple answer would be that that is the way that the market operates. The organisation may be publicly owned, but the shareholders happen to be the taxpayers.

Mr. Willetts

The hon. Gentleman wants a level playing field. We can imagine what it would look like— the organisation would pay corporation tax; it would have a genuinely arm's-length relationship with Ministers; it would have no guarantees for its borrowings; it would be at genuine risk of going bankrupt; and there would be no ministerial intervention. Yes, that is a level playing field and it is called privatisation. That is how we achieve a level playing field. It is muddled thinking to believe that we can have all those things without privatisation.

Mr. Michael J. Martin

The Minister says that privatisation is the level playing field. Why does he not introduce a Bill so that there can be scrutiny in Committee and thorough examination of the safeguards that all hon. Members want?

Mr. Willetts

There is no legislative requirement for a Bill, but there are legitimate practical questions about the form of the privatisation. The hon. Gentleman made a significant but short speech with a large number of such questions.

Mr. Garrett

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Willetts

I am sorry, but I must make some progress in dealing with the practical questions.

I shall first try to answer the questions of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson), who spoke on behalf of his constituents. If there is time, I will then try to answer the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett).

Mr. Mandelson

This concerns the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South.

Mr. Willetts

I am answering the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North. First, he asked when TUPE would apply and what its limits would be. I can assure him that TUPE will apply at the point of sale, the point when all terms and conditions of employment are transferred to the new owner. It is not time limited. All employers are free to propose changes to employees' terms and conditions at any time, but they must do so reasonably if they are to avoid liability for breach of contract or constructive dismissal.

Mr. Garrett

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Willetts

Let me finish dealing with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North.

A consultation period of 90 days is genuinely regarded by the courts as reasonable in this context. That has nothing specifically to do with TUPE, which applies at the moment the transfer takes place.

Mr. Garrett

Now will the Minister give way?

Mr. Willetts

Let me carry on with one more point. I am dealing with the questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North. The hon. Member for Norwich, South must be patient.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North asked what guarantees we could give to staff. The best guarantee for staff is a thriving business. The long-term prospects for staff in the private sector are far better than they would be if HMSO had to remain in a declining public sector market. I assure him that bidders will be asked about their plans for developing the business. Their plans for the future will be a crucial criterion in deciding a suitable new owner for HMSO. As for remaining in Norwich, I repeat the assurance that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has already given on the point.

Mr. Garrett

The Minister said that there was no need for legislation, but the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said that the legislature—Parliament—had a role in choosing the successful bidder for the tender. Who will give final approval for the successful bidder? Will it be done by the Government, by the House as a whole, by the Government tabling a motion for the House to approve, or by the Commission tabling a motion for the House to approve? The HMSO customer that we are discussing is the Commission. It is important that we straighten this out.

Mr. Willetts

I am conscious of the need to answer that question because Madam Speaker is here. She has pronounced on that subject and made it clear, and the Government entirely follow her point, that the ultimate decision about to whom the business should be sold is a matter for the Government. But the House of Commons, through the House of Commons Commission, has a crucial role in that the Commission will decide, and be able to put to the House, the contract that the House will have for the supply of its parliamentary papers. That is not a matter for the Government.

Mr. Mandelson

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said that the privatisation of HMSO would need to be to the satisfaction of, and have to be approved by, Parliament. In addition to the vote tonight, will the Minister give an undertaking that the other place will also have an opportunity to vote on this measure?

Mr. Willetts

I shall speak tonight not about what should happen in the other place but about the questions raised by Opposition Members. Those questions essentially concerned the House's obvious crucial requirement to have a service that meets the high standards that it has come to expect. On that, and in answer to the question from the hon. Member for Norwich, South, let me explain in more detail how we see the proposal working.

In an attempt to be helpful to the Commission, we have submitted a draft contract, which has been prepared with the aim of meeting the understandable concerns expressed, for example, in a letter from Madam Speaker on behalf of the House about the service that the House should expect. It is now for the Commission to consider that draft contract, which is merely an attempt to be helpful—it has no authority—and what it wishes to have as a contract so that it can be confident that its legitimate concerns about the service for the House can be met. The House has its responsibility in that area and we will simply try to help, so far as we can, the Commission's deliberations.

Mr. Garrett

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. What the Minister is saying is not true, is it? You are the Chair of the Commission and you know very well that we delegated an Officer of the House to examine the contents of the proposed tender document. There is no question of the Commission deciding whether or not the successful tenderer should get the job.

Madam Speaker

That is not a point for me; it is a matter that must be argued across the Floor of the House tonight.

Mr. Garrett

Of course it is a matter for you, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Order. It is not a matter for me. I have made my views very clear and they have been reported in Hansard for all to see. It is now a matter for debate in the House.

Mr. Willetts

I am afraid that the hon. Member for Norwich, South misunderstood what I just said. I make it clear that the Government would take the decision on the sale of HMSO and the House of Commons Commission would formulate a contract, drawing on a draft that we have prepared. It is ultimately, however, a decision for the Commission to satisfy itself that any contract it has on behalf of the House of Commons for services provided to this place should meet the requirements of the Commission. That is a matter for the Commission, not for the Government.

A series of other questions were raised about the privatisation. What lay behind them was a fundamental uncertainty on the part of the Opposition about privatisation as a policy. The real point is that, after all these years, they still do not understand what privatisation is for and the benefits that it can bring. I am surprised about that, because I have read a book called "The Blair Revolution" by the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson). I am not sure whether his right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) has read it. I have read it—not just that, I have even reviewed it, although, of course, not quite as savagely as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). What that book says is quite clear: Privatisation has brought about improvements in operating efficiency and facilitated new investment. That is precisely the argument for the privatisation of HMSO. It will enable new investment and create new opportunities for a business that cannot thrive in the public sector.

We were all struck by the fact that the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland went on and on about how terrible it would be to privatise HMSO, but the one thing he did not offer was any commitment to renationalise it. Perhaps that is no surprise, because in another relevant quotation the hon. Member for Hartlepool told his right hon. Friend what the policy on renationalisation should be. He said: Privatisation has brought some increased productivity, and there will be no mass renationalisation under New Labour. Even if the Labour party were by any remote chance to form a Government, we know that it would not dare to renationalise, because by then HMSO would be thriving in the private sector. HMSO would still be free to sell its services—either its printing services or its office supply services—to any public sector body that wished to buy them. It would also enjoy the freedom that Opposition Members claim they wish it to enjoy—a freedom to sell its services to private sector providers. It would do so on the only fair and equitable basis—the only basis that would meet the requirement of the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth that it should have a level playing field.

The only genuine level playing field HMSO could have would be as a privatised body that was no longer exempt from corporation tax, was no longer able to borrow from the national loans fund and no longer had the Government standing behind it as a guarantor of its borrowings. That is the right way forward for the HMSO, and it is the best way forward for the staff working for the HMSO. I commend it to the House.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 249, Noes 289.

Division No. 79] [10.00 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Armstrong, Hilary
Ainger, Nick Ashton, Joe
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Austin-Walker, John
Allen, Graham Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Alton, David Barron, Kevin
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Battle, John
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret Godman, Dr Norman A
Beith, Rt Hon A J Godsiff, Roger
Bennett, Andrew F Golding, Mrs Llin
Benton, Joe Gordon, Mildred
Bermingham, Gerald Graham, Thomas
Berry, Roger Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Betts, Clive Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Blunkett, David Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Boateng, Paul Gunnell, John
Bradley, Keith Hain, Peter
Bray, Dr Jeremy Hall, Mike
Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E) Hanson, David
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Harman, Ms Harriet
Burden, Richard Harvey, Nick
Byers, Stephen Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Caborn, Richard Heppell, John
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Hinchliffe, David
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Hodge, Margaret
Campbell-Savours, D N Hoey, Kate
Canavan, Dennis Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld)
Cann, Jamie Home Robertson, John
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomery) Hoon, Geoffrey
Chidgey, David Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)
Chisholm, Malcolm Howarth, George (Knowsley North)
Church, Judith Howells, Dr Kim (Pontypridd)
Clapham, Michael Hoyle, Doug
Clark, Dr David (South Shields) Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W) Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)
Coffey, Ann Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)
Cohen, Harry Jamieson, David
Connarty, Michael Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Corbett, Robin Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Corbyn, Jeremy Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Cousins, Jim Jowell, Tessa
Cunliffe, Lawrence Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try SE) Keen, Alan
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John Kennedy, Jane (L 'pool Br'dg'n)
Dafis, Cynog Khabra, Piara S
Dalyell, Tam Kilfoyle, Peter
Darling, Alistair Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Davidson, Ian Liddell, Mrs Helen
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral) Litherland, Robert
Davies, Chris (L'Boro & S'worth) Livingstone, Ken
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly) Llwyd, Elfyn
Denham, John Loyden, Eddie
Dewar, Donald Lynne, Ms Liz
Dixon, Don McAllion, John
Dobson, Frank McCartney, Ian
Donohoe, Brian H Macdonald, Calum
Dowd, Jim McFall, John
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth McKelvey, William
Eagle, Ms Angela Mackinlay, Andrew
Eastham, Ken McLeish, Henry
Etherington, Bill McMaster, Gordon
Evans, John (St Helens N) McNamara, Kevin
Fatchett, Derek MacShane, Denis
Faulds, Andrew McWilliam, John
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Madden, Max
Fisher, Mark Maddock, Diana
Flynn, Paul Maginnis, Ken
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Mahon, Alice
Foster, Don (Bath) Mandelson, Peter
Foulkes, George Marek, Dr John
Fyfe, Maria Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Galbraith, Sam Martin, Michael J (Springburn)
Galloway, George Martlew, Eric
Gapes, Mike Maxton, John
Garrett, John Meacher, Michael
George, Bruce Meale, Alan
Gerrard, Neil Michael, Alun
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute) Short, Clare
Milburn, Alan Simpson, Alan
Miller, Andrew Skinner, Dennis
Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby) Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Molyneaux, Rt Hon Sir James Smith, Chris (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
Moonie, Dr Lewis Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Morgan, Rhodri Smyth, The Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Morley, Elliot Snape, Peter
Morris, Rt Hon Alfred (Wy'nshawe) Soley, Clive
Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Spearing, Nigel
Mowlam, Marjorie Spellar, John
Mudie, George Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
Mullin, Chris Steinberg, Gerry
Nicholson, Emma (Devon West) Stott, Roger
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon Strang, Dr. Gavin
O'Brien, Mike (N W'kshire) Straw, Jack
O'Brien, William (Normanton) Sutcliffe, Gerry
O'Hara, Edward Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Olner, Bill Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
O'Neill, Martin Timms, Stephen
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Tipping, Paddy
Parry, Robert Touhig, Don
Pearson, Ian Trickett, Jon
Pendry, Tom Turner, Dennis
Pickthall, Colin Tyler, Paul
Vaz, Keith
Pike, Peter L Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Pope, Greg Walley, Joan
Powell, Ray (Ogmore) Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Wareinq, Robert N
Primarolo, Dawn Watson, Mike
Randall, Stuart Welsh, Andrew
Raynsford, Nick Wicks, Malcolm
Rendel, David Wigley, Dafydd
Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW) Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Roche, Mrs Barbara Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Rogers, Allan Wilson, Brian
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Wise, Audrey
Ross, William (E Londonderry) Worthington, Tony
Rowlands, Ted Wray, Jimmy
Ruddock, Joan Wright, Dr Tony
Sedgemore, Brian
Sheerman, Barry Tellers for the Ayes:
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Mr. John Cummings and
Shore, Rt Hon Peter Ms Janet Anderson.
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Brandreth, Gyles
Alexander, Richard Brazier, Julian
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Bright, Sir Graham
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Amess, David Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Browning, Mrs Angela
Arbuthnot, James Bruce, Ian (South Dorset)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Budgen, Nicholas
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv) Burt, Alistair
Ashby, David Butcher, John
Atkins, Rt Hon Robert Butler, Peter
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Butterfill, John
Baker, Rt Hon Kenneth (Mole V) Carlisle, John (Luton North)
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset) Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln)
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Carrington, Matthew
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Cash, William
Batiste, Spencer Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Bellingham, Henry Chapman, Sir Sydney
Bendall, Vivian Churchill, Mr
Beresford, Sir Paul Clappison, James
Biffen, Rt Hon John Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Body, Sir Richard Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Coe, Sebastian
Booth, Hartley Colvin, Michael
Boswell, Tim Congdon, David
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Conway, Derek
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)
Bowis, John Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Couchman, James Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Cran, James Jack, Michael
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire) Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon) Jenkin, Bernard
Davis, David (Boothferry) Jessel, Toby
Day, Stephen Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Deva, Nirj Joseph Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Devlin, Tim Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr)
Dicks, Terry Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Key, Robert
Dover, Den King, Rt Hon Tom
Duncan-Smith, Iain Kirkhope, Timothy
Dunn, Bob Knapman, Roger
Durant, Sir Anthony Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Eggar, Rt Hon Tim Knight, Rt Hon Greg (Derby N)
Elletson, Harold Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield) Lamont, Rt Hon Norman
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) Lang, Rt Hon Ian
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Evans, Roger (Monmouth) Legg, Barry
Evennett, David Leigh, Edward
Faber, David Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark
Fabricant, Michael Lester, Sir James (Broxtowe)
Fenner, Dame Peggy Lidington, David
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Fishburn, Dudley Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Forman, Nigel Lord, Michael
Forth, Eric Luff, Peter
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring) MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Fox, Rt Hon Sir Marcus (Shipley) MacKay, Andrew
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger Maclean, Rt Hon David
French, Douglas McLoughlin, Patrick
Fry, Sir Peter McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick
Gale, Roger Major, Rt Hon John
Gallie, Phil Malone, Gerald
Gardiner, Sir George Mans, Keith
Garnier, Edward Marland, Paul
Gill, Christopher Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Gillan, Cheryl Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair Mates, Michael
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick
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 Moate, Sir Roger
Hague, Rt Hon William Monro, Rt Hon Sir Hector
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Needham, Rt Hon Richard
Hampson, Dr Keith Nelson, Anthony
Hanley, Rt Hon Jeremy Neubert, Sir Michael
Hannam, Sir John Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Hargreaves, Andrew Nicholls, Patrick
Haselhurst, Sir Alan Norris, Steve
Hawkins, Nick Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley
Hawksley, Warren Oppenheim, Phillip
Hayes, Jerry Ottaway, Richard
Heald, Oliver Page, Richard
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Paice, James
Hendry, Charles Patnick, Sir Irvine
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Patten, Rt Hon John
Hill, James (Southampton Test) Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham) Pawsey, James
Horam, John Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter Pickles, Eric
Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford) Porter, Barry (Wirral S)
Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk) Porter, David (Waveney)
Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W) Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W) Powell, William (Corby)
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne) Rathbone, Tim
Hunter, Andrew Redwood, Rt Hon John
Renton, Rt Hon Tim Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Richards, Rod Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)
Riddick, Graham Temple-Morris, Peter
Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm Thomason, Roy
Robathan, Andrew Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S) Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Robinson, Mark (Somerton) Thurnham, Peter
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne) Townend, John (Bridlington)
Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent) Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th)
Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela Tracey, Richard
Sainsbury, Rt Hon Sir Timothy Tredinnick, David
Scott, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Trend, Michael
Shaw, David (Dover) Twinn, Dr Ian
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey) Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian Viggers, Peter
Shepherd, Sir Colin (Hereford) Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge) Walden, George
Shersby, Sir Michael Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Waller, Gary
Sims, Roger Ward, John
Skeet, Sir Trevor Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Soames, Nicholas Waterson, Nigel
Speed, Sir Keith Watts, John
Spencer, Sir Derek Wells, Bowen
Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset) Whitney, Ray
Spicer, Sir Michael (S Worcs) Whittingdale, John
Spink, Dr Robert Widdecombe, Ann
Spring, Richard Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Sproat, Iain Wilkinson, John
Squire, Robin (Hornchurch) Willetts, David
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Wilshire, David
Steen, Anthony Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Stephen, Michael Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Stern, Michael Wolfson, Mark
Stewart, Allan Wood, Timothy
Streeter, Gary Yeo, Tim
Sumberg, David Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Sweeney, Walter
Sykes, John Tellers for the Noes:
Tapsell, Sir Peter Mr. Simon Burns and Mr. Michael Bates.
Taylor, Ian (Esher)

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

MADAM SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House welcomes the Government's policy with regard to the privatisation of HMSO and the proposed safeguards to protect standards of service to Parliament and other customers.