HL Deb 28 January 1971 vol 314 cc1089-94

4.27 p.m.


My Lords, I believe it might now be convenient if I were to answer the Private Notice Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Champion. The Government recognise how important this decision is from the point of view of the staff, whose interests and welfare will be kept very much in mind both by the Government and the Transport Holding Company. My right honourable friend the Minister for Transport Industries has already had a preliminary meeting with Mr. Coldrick, the General Secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association, at which he assured him that, in the event of sale, the pension rights of the staff would be safeguarded. The unions will be fully consulted at all stages about the detailed arrangements which will now be worked out in conjunction with the Transport Holding Company.


My Lords, I thank the Minister for replying to this Question here. His Answer is, to some extent, satisfactory, but I am bound to complain about the fact that a major announcement that was made yesterday came in the form of a Written Answer to a Written Question in the other House. This was an extremely important announcement about the hiving oil of a section of a nationalised industry. I am bound to ask whether that procedure was followed to avoid the questioning that would inevitably have ensued upon such an announcement had it been made both in this House and in the other place. Was it done because the Government realised that there was something in the nature of a political storm building up about these proposals, which apparently we are going to have one after another, for the hiving off of profitable sections of the nationalised industries? This is a matter to which we shall have to return, because it is extremely important.

The noble Lord has told us that there has been a preliminary meeting with the General Secretary of the T.S.S.A. I am bound to mention the fact, as a member of the National Union of Railwaymen, that the N.U.R. also have members employed by Cook's, and they ought to have been brought into consultation at the same time as the T.S.S.A. I am not entering into inter-union rivalry in this House about a matter of this sort; I make the comment in passing.

The Minister particularly mentioned the fact that the pension rights of the employees of Cook's had been discussed. The pension rights of this staff are not the only thing that matters in this connection. There are some 5,000 employees of Cook's, and the conditions of service of Cook's, I am proud to say, are much better, generally speaking, than is the case in privately-owned travel agencies. We want to ensure that their conditions of service, built up over the years as a result of trade union action, will be safeguarded if this enterprise is to be sold off. As I understand it, negotiations on a productivity agreement are in progress, and we regret the fact that their outcome might be interfered with by the Minister's announcement yesterday.

Finally, Cook's is an undertaking which deals with a tremendous amount of foreign exchange and with tourist agencies the world over. What I want from the Minister is an unequivocal assurance that, as a result of the Minister's decision, this service will not fall into foreign hands; it must be kept in our hands in this country. I hope sincerely that the Government will take notice of what I have said, and of the feeling of many of my noble friends on this side and of the trade unions which are particularly concerned in this deplorable decision by the Minister.


My Lords, the noble Lord raised four or five separate points. On the first point, that of the form in which the announcement was made yesterday, I should say that it was certainly not done in that way for the reason which he suspects. What my right honourable friend wanted to do became involved in certain other matters to do with arrangements for business in another place, and I am sure that your Lordships will not expect me to comment upon that. Secondly, I made it clear in my original Answer that the meeting with Mr. Coldrick of the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association was only a preliminary one. Of course, many further consultations with other unions are also due to take place and they have been invited to raise with the Transport Holding Company the matters which they regard as of the greatest concern.

The noble Lord is perfectly right, that pension rights are not the only matter to be considered. There are other questions relating to conditions of service, pay and compensation which will also need to be considered, as will the question of which of those items will need to form part of the necessary legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Champion, very properly also asked a question about the banking interests involved in Cook's, and I certainly agree with him that it is of the utmost importance that these, too, should be safeguarded. In answer to his final question, I want to reiterate that it is very much the view of Her Majesty's Government that it is most desirable that Cook's should certainly remain within British control, but if foreign concerns bid for a share in Cook's that will not be unwelcome.


My Lords, may I raise with the noble Lord a matter which may have escaped his notice and also that of Her Majesty's Government? The noble Lord may be aware that within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster facilities are provided by Thos. Cook & Son for Members of Parliament in the other place and for noble Lords to obtain rail and air tickets, and to make touring and travelling arrangements. May we have an assurance that those facilities will remain if Thos. Cook & Son is hived-off to some outside firm? Or are we to understand that the facilities also will be hived-off, thus causing considerable inconvenience to Members of another place and to noble Lords?


My Lords, I cannot give assurances on all the details of how Cook's will operate in the future, though, clearly, an arrangement which is of such mutual convenience is unlikely to be altered without the most careful consideration. Of course, the original Question—and I shall certainly be willing to give any further detail which may be required—related to welfare, pay and conditions of service of the staff, and I do not think it would be proper for me to be drawn too far into discussion of the general details.


My Lords, are we to understand that Her Majesty's Government have decided to hive off this very important transport arrangement, without regard to the convenience of Members in another place and of noble Lords? I cannot speak of those in another place, but I can offer an opinion on behalf of noble Lords. Are we to be inconvenienced and are our needs to be ignored? Are we to understand that Her Majesty's Government have come to a decision to hive off this very important travel arrangement without regard to our interests? Is this not shameful? Is this the fashion in which to treat Members of your Lordships' House? The noble Lord may wish to avail himself of these facilities some day, perhaps for the purpose of making a visit overseas. If he is to be told that he must go down to Fleet Street, to the Strand or to some other place some distance away, instead of obtaining the facilities nearby within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster, will he suffer that inconvenience without expressing a very strong protest against the decision of his Government, and is not now the time to make the protest? May I have an answer to this very important question?


My Lords, the noble Lord has nothing to protest against yet.


My Lords, is it not rather strange to hear—


My Lords, I did not hear the interjection. May I be made familiar with the interjection?


My Lords, I think we are getting out of order. I suggest that my noble friend Lord Sandford be allowed to answer.


My Lords, I should like to repeat my assurance to the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, that of course the convenience of Members of this House and of the other place will always be considered very fully. I have said that, and I repeat that assurance. But I should also like to repeat that the original Question to me was concerned with the welfare of the staff of Messrs. Cook's.


My Lords, it seems that not enough thought has been given to this matter. Can this House be told how this business is going to be hived off? Is it going to be given to the highest bidder? There could be real distress and inconvenience caused to Ministries, as well as to Members of both Houses. Also, can it be shown that thought in depth has been given to this matter, and can we be assured that this is not another little bit of hiving-off from public enterprise everything which makes a little profit, so that once again we "socialise" the losses and "privatise" the profits?


My Lords, I shall certainly deal with that point if the noble Lord will put down a Question.


My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us why this is being done? We have not yet had an answer on that. Furthermore, this business was originally bought because, when they were private enterprises, the railways considered it a fit investment for their money and an improvement in their business. Is it not an improvement in their business now? Also, when a business hives off something for its own good reasons, it is usually able to use for its own purposes the money thereby resulting. Can Her Majesty's Government tell us whether the money from Thomas Cook is going to be handed to the railways, so that they can use it to improve their system?


My Lords, that is quite another question. If the noble Lord will put it down I shall do my best to answer it.


My Lords, will the noble Lord give an assurance that the House of Lords will not be hived off?


My Lords, it is not for me to answer.


My Lords, perhaps we are not very profitable.