HL Deb 10 February 1972 vol 327 cc1310-29

5.22 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. It establishes the power of the Transport Holding Company to sell Thomas Cook's, and the power of the Secretary of State to dissolve the Transport Holding Company thereafter. The previous Administration recognised that the continuation of the Transport Holding Company after its major assets had been transferred under the 1968 Transport Act to other nationalised undertakings was an anomaly. We agree. They made provision in Section 53 of that Act for its remaining assets (of which Cook's was by far the largest) to be transferred elsewhere in the public sector and for the Holding Company to be dissolved thereafter. There is, however, in our view no general reason of public policy for Her Majesty's Government to be involved in the travel agency business; that is, for Cook's to remain in the public sector. But we are advised that there is some doubt whether Cook's could, as the law stands, be sold to the private sector or the Transport Holding Company to be wound up thereafter.

My Lords, Clause 1(1) therefore puts beyond doubt the Holding Company's power to sell Cook's, subject to the consent of my right honourable friend. Clause 1(2) enables directions to be given if required about the method of sale. The arrangements for the sale which I will outline briefly have been designed by the Transport Holding Company and their merchant bankers, Schroder Wagg & Co., Ltd., in agreement with my right honourable friend (who has hail the benefit of the advice of the Bank of England) in order to obtain the highest price from a bidder acceptable to both the Government and the Transport Holding Company. The prospectus which was issued in mid-December provides a full account of the company, of its assets based on a full valuation by independent valuers, and of its recent record. Copies have been placed in the Library. The prospectus of course makes it clear that the sale is subject to passage of the Bill and my right honourable friend's consent.

Prospective purchasers were required to submit by January 28 a brief memorandum describing their experience in relevant industries and a summary of their intentions with regard to the Group, setting out in particular the minimum period for which they are willing to undertake to hold the shares in the Com- pany; whether they intend to dispose of any major part of the Group's undertaking; and their plans affecting the staff. With the memorandum, prospective purchasers could submit any questions seeking elucidation or explanation of any statement in the prospectus. The Transport Holding Company have received memoranda from 16 individuals or groups and are preparing answers to their questions. Firm bids have been asked for by April 6 from all who submitted memoranda. Thereafter, detailed negotiations will be undertaken with selected bidders, and the Holding Company will seek the Secretary of State's consent to the sale to a successful bidder.

My Lords, my right honourable friend made it clear in another place that there is no question of selling Cook's to anyone who would destroy it or is unable or unwilling to maintain its high reputation. In deciding whether or not to authorise a sale to a particular purchaser, full account will be taken not only of the price but also of the financial standing of the purchasers; their ability and intention to carry on the business and maintain confidence, particularly in the banking side; any possible implications for the balance of payments (and, as I explained to your Lordships just over a year ago, bids by foreign concerns for a share of Cook's are not unwelcome, but the Government consider it desirable that the firm should remain under British control); the willingness of the purchasers to co-operate in safeuarding the interests of the staff, including in particular the overseas staff to whom some of the statutory protection available to United Kingdom staff under Clause 2 cannot be appropriately extended. Clause 2 is devoted to protecting the interests of the staff.

On pensions, the purchaser will be required by the contract of sale either to maintain the existing pension schemes or to institute other schemes which are no less favourable. But the Government will supplement the provisions in the contract of sale by means of orders made under Clause 2 of the Bill. These will both provide additional safeguards for existing pension rights and enable us to deal with the special problems presented by the interavailability of pension arrangements inside the nationalised transport sector under which some of the present staff are employed. On the theme of the interchangeability of pensions, it has been possible for some years past for an employee who transferred from one body in that sector to another to remain in membership of his existing pension scheme. It will therefore be necessary to bring into Cook's schemes certain of their employees who are now in other public sector pension schemes, and to transfer out of Cook's schemes a number of people who are no longer employed in the group but are employed elsewhere in the public sector.

The regulations to be made under Clause 2(4) of the Bill to provide compensation for loss of employment or loss of pay or pensions, or worsening of position, will be based on the established Code, which has been evolved in the public sector since the last war. While the Transport Holding Company and its successors will be responsible for paying compensation to anyone covered by the regulations, it also intends to require the purchaser, as part of the sale arrangements, to undertake to indemnify the Holding Company against any expenditure so incurred. In this way the cost of any rationalisation and redundancy will fall, as I think your Lordships will agree it should, on the employers who take the decisions, but the staff's right to compensation is fully safeguarded.

The Government are in close touch with the union principally concerned: the Transport Salaried Staffs Association. The provisions of the Bill I have outlined are generally acceptable to them but the Department will of course be consulting them further on the detailed provisions of the orders and regulations to be made under the Bill. I believe that this Bill is in the best interest of Cook's, of its staff and of the public. We all want to see the company prosper, and I believe that this is the best way of ensuring it. My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(Lord Sandford.)


My Lords, I am in a little procedural difficulty to which I am not accustomed, being a comparatively "new boy" in your Lordships' House. I was hoping to have the pleasure of listening to the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, and of hearing his comments on the Bill.


My Lords, if I may intervene for a moment, I think the difficulty which the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, finds himself in arises from the fact that his noble friend Lord Popplewell has had to leave to catch a train, and possibly the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, was not aware of that fact. I think that now, having been made aware of that fact, he may care to step in and precede the noble Lord, Lord Diamond.

5.32 p.m.


My Lords, 25 years ago I was personally largely responsible for the process, though not of course for the policy, of bringing Cook's into being as an integral part of the nationalised transport fabric. I therefore feel that I ought to say one or two words about this Bill of which the operative effect, as the noble Lord has pointed out, is to enable Cook's to be sold. I do not doubt that the Secretary of State, with all the expert advice he has, will do his very best to get a proper price. On the other hand, there are people who wonder whether, when once you have proclaimed to all and sundry that you want to be rid of something, you are in fact going to got that proper price.

The other point that arises concerning the actual conditions is whose hands this undertaking is going to get into, and how will the Secretary of State and the Government be able to safeguard for the future that, once let into private hands, this large international business, which also has a national prestige, will be kept together indefinitely. I do not know whether the noble Lord can be a little more specific about how this point is to be dealt with. I noticed that he said the Government do not want to sell it to anyone who is going to destroy it. The present business of Cook's—and, in this respect, I do not think it has altered very much since my time—includes an enormous business in the sale of travellers' cheques, which I should have thought could hardly be conducted successfully except by one of the great banks, or by some consortium of which they are a part. When one has to start afresh and sell to a lot of unknown people, how is that business to be combined successfully with the ordinary travel agency business? The noble Lord may have answers on that point. It must have been thought about, and the way may be seen clearly ahead. But I do not think everybody feels entirely satisfied about that.

The point I should like to make to your Lordships, as briefly as I can, is this. There has been a great deal of criticism about the competence of the higher management of Cook's. That denigration, which has been going on for months, and indeed for two or three years, comes largely from people who have an obvious interest in crying "stinking fish!", in the hope that they may be able to pick up at cheap rates some of what they decried. As I have said, I trust the Minister entirely to frustrate any attempts of that sort. The only point I would make is that though the managment of Cook's (which came within the scope of the Labour Government's nationalising policy largely as an accident of the war) presented to the newly formed Transport Commission an obvious problem, we found no difficulty in solving it.

Fortunately, the Transport Act 1947, which was not wholly misconceived, did not try to tell the Commission exactly what it was to do in such circumstances. More fortunately still, we enjoyed in the then Minister of Transport, Mr. Alfred Barnes, a wise and extremely sensible man who, having given people his confidence, did not try constantly to direct or supervise what they were doing. It seemed to me. and indeed to my colleagues, that this travel agency business could not well be left with the railways into whose hands the circumstances of the war had, as a matter of convenience, brought it. The business of Cook's was to serve the general public and to earn their commissions by dealing with all agencies of transport—not merely the railways, but ships and, notably, the air; and, of course, road interests in many parts of the world. It therefore seemed to us that the simple plan was to treat it as if it were a holding company, leaving it the utmost degree of commercial freedom. I therefore asked Mr. Stanley Adams. who was then the General Manager of the company, to see me. I told him that we should like him to carry on, that he would have our full confidence in the conduct of the business if he agreed to do so, and that he would not be interfered with in detail.

To my own knowledge, those arrangements worked during the first five or six years of the Commission perfectly smoothly, I think very efficiently, and certainly very profitably. I wonder why it is thought that those arrangements. which in fact, as I have said, continued for twenty-five years, should now be altered, except that here is something that can be got rid of—and admittedly it is one of the easiest bits of the transport complex to hive off. But it has been efficiently and profitably conducted, and though in recent years some transactions, like the acquisition of Lunn-Poly, may have turned out contrary to expectations. that had nothing to do with the senior management of Cook's. That was part of the machinery, which we did not find necessary in our day. What I want to say on that is that those criticisms, which I am sure are unjustified, have been bitterly resented by the higher management of Cook's, who were in no way responsible. They must have been bad for morale, and they must have been had for business. I hope that before this change of status finally takes place the Minister, or some representative of the Government, will say something to acknowledge that they realise that the senior management of Cook's are not fair objects of those criticisms.

I would add only this. I noted that the noble Lord repeated what the Minister said in another place, that just getting rid of the concern into private hands and away from public hands must be good for the company, must be good for the taxpayer and must be good for the staff. I cannot feel really convinced about that; and the glow of euphoria which ought to be spreading over me, and probably over many of your Lordships. I just do not feel. What the noble Lord said may be so, but it will not be due to the change of ownership; it will be due to changes of circumstance. which in this very fluctuating business can be rapid and marked. But I feel it is only fair that the people who, as I say, have for 25 years successfully conducted Cook's business should be relieved of the feeling which they now have, that the Government at any rate accept the criticisms which many of their supporters have made. I think they wonder, in particular, why they should be accused of having been back- ward in extending the package tour business.

I would myself agree that in my day the management of Cook's was cautious, but it was not static or half-asleep; and why they should be criticised now for not having rushed into this hectic state of travel abroad and for not starting to sell "places in the sun", in hotels which have got no roofs on and which lack drains, I do not know. I feel that it is a little unfair, and I am sure that if they had had proper support they would have found a wise, and eventually profitable, line to take, even in that rather tricky business. I am convinced that the ordinary citizen and his family who want to have a holiday abroad and who want to go to someone with national prestige and reliability behind them—someone who will not sell them something that they will not in fact get—will have far more cause to regret the sale of Cook's than to believe that it is going to be a great boon and blessing to the nation.

5.45 p.m.


My Lords, I intervene just for a moment only because I have long experience as a customer of Cook's. I was a customer of Cook's when it was a private company, and, of course, I have been one since it became a nationalised company. I knew Mr. Stanley Adams; and I have always been a supporter of this agency. I do not hold very strong views as to whether it should be a nationalised service or an independent service, and therefore I am not speaking against the Bill; but I want to make one or two comments which I am sure the Minister will agree with, and about which he has in fact already given some reassurance. First of all, I hope that this company will remain under British control. I hope it will not be sold to a foreign company. I think it has a reputation all over the world; and when one travels with Cook's travellers' cheques, one knows perfectly well that they will be honoured anywhere; and that is a great consolation when one is in foreign climes.

But what I really want to say is that here in this House of Parliament we have a service from Cook's which I think is absolutely marvellous. I have been using it ever since I became a Member of your Lordships' House; but before that, when my husband was a Member of Parliament for 40 years, he always used it. Those of us who live, as I do, in the North, in Scotland, and travel twice a week either by sleeper or by air travel know perfectly well that we can get the most marvellous service from those people down in the basement of the House of Commons. I should like to pay my tribute to all those young people and the managers there who have served us, not only now but in years past, because I honestly think that for Members of Parliament, and certainly for me as a Member of the House of Lords, to be able to get such service from our own Cook's office makes more difference to the comfort and to the easiness of a rather complicated life, if you happen to live in the North, than anything I can imagine. I should like to put on record how grateful I am personally for the service I receive; and I am quite sure that other Members of your Lordships' House, and certainly Members of the House of Commons, feel the same.

I hope that this service will remain a very personal one. I agree with Lord Hurcomb in what he said about many of the travel agencies which are now starting up. I remember that when I was Chairman of the Consumer Council people were continually writing in and complaining of package tours sold without any real reference to or understanding of the facilities which they were selling. As Lord Hurcomb has just said, "Travel to the sun", or something of that kind, was put on the brochure; people were taken in by this and then complained bitterly afterwards. There is very tough competition in the travel business, and I think it is most important that any travel agency should have at heart the personal interests of the purchaser of the ticket. I can say of Cook's that, anyway so far as I am concerned, and I am sure in the case of anybody who has used their services, they have always dealt very honestly with us. They have not sold us package deals that were in any sense dishonest; and I think I can also say that, of all the complaints we got at the Consumer Council while I was there about fraudulent travel package tours being sold to the public, I cannot remember one concerning Cook's. That is a reputation which I am sure the Government will want to see continue when they agree to whatever company is going to take the company over. This personal service to the public is most valuable, and I hope that it will be regarded in that way.

I am certain that the Government want this facility and this company to be treated in that way. I hope they will not be tempted by offers of high prices, but will look very closely indeed into the background of the people who are offering high prices, to ensure that this concern remains in the hands of reputable companies or people who will look after the interests of the consumer. If that happens, there is no reason why it should not be just as good as it was 25 years ago, before it was taken over by the Government; it was then very good. It was run skilfully by the nationalized transport service and the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, is no doubt as responsible as anybody for the fact that it was so efficiently run and one can pay a great tribute to it. Let us be sure that in the future it is going to be as good as it has been in the past. I want again to say how grateful I am to all the people who serve us in the Cook's office in Parliament because they make life very much easier, certainly for those Members like myself who are continually in the trains.

5.50 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that we should all like to echo what the noble Baroness has said in our tributes to those who look after our travel arrangements—they looked after mine similarly for a great number of years—with such kindly and attentive service, and to echo her hope that in the future the service of Cook's will be as good as it is now. We are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, who I suppose (other noble Lords will forgive me if I am wrong) speaks with greater authority on this topic than any other Member of the House, having regard to the part he played in the organisation of the nationalised company at the time and the part he played later in running that organisation. Therefore what he has had to say has been most informative and extremely authoritative.

It is now my pleasant duty to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, on his speech. I can do that for several reasons. First, he avoided all the awkward parts to which I shall shortly come. That is always a wise thing in this House, especially at this time on a Thursday; it tends to keep the temperature down. I will endeavour to maintain the temperature by informing those of your Lordships who do not know the whole of this story (the number, I expect, is very few) a little more than the Minister thought appropriate to inform us at first telling. It may be that it occurred to him that he would have an easier passage if he kept it to the last telling, by which time none of us, on this side of the House at least, could have a further word to say. I shall give him the opportunity to do so by asking a number of questions.

Secondly, I want to congratulate him on having done the wisest thing that anyone speaking from either Box can do: that of asking a question and immediately answering it, long before anybody else can give a different answer. He asked himself, "Why should the Government be concerned with Cook's?" That, in fact, was his sole reason, his sole justification, for this Bill. He did not see why the Government should be concerned with Cook's. He then went on, as the wise man he is, to give several very powerful reasons. He made it clear that the Government were not going to allow Cook's to be run in such a way that the Government did not concern themselves with the running of Cook's. It was, for example, not going to be run (though he expressed it in a rather confused phrase) by foreign interests. He wanted to be absolutely sure that that was the case. He was going to be absolutely sure that the Minister who had charge of it should personally consent to whoever it was who were going to acquire it. Why? So that the intentions could be seen to be perfectly honourable. No doubt he will explain to us later, as Lord Hurcomb is as interested in this as I am, how the Government intend that these honourable intentions should be fulfilled throughout time and not merely for the next week or two. So the noble Lord in this way —and we all heard his speech—answered his own question and made it perfectly clear that this was an area of activity in which the Government were concerned. The noble Lord. Lord Hurcomb, made clear that which has always been more than clear to me: that where you have nationalised industries operating almost exclusively over the whole of the transport area—British Rail, the airlines, the National Freight Corporation—it was natural and sensible that the travel agency should form part of that general complex by putting it in the same ownership. It came into that ownership and it has remained in that ownership.

My Lords, I want to pursue the question which lay behind both the speeches we have heard this afternoon: why is it now being transferred? The noble Lord said, with respect, half of one sentence and then proceeded to answer it, so he will acquit me of discourtesy if I immediately turn my mind to the real reason why it is being transferred. In the other place the reason put forward was bad management. The noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, speaks with more restraint and greater courtesy than I could ever summon to my aid: he said that he thought it was the duty of the Government to make plain the other side of the story. He said that it was not the Government who were criticising the management; it was the Back-Benchers and so on, in another place. Well, the sorry truth is, and I suspect Lord Hurcomb knew it but did not want to put it in so many words, that the Government, through its senior Ministers (and I say "Ministers" in the plural) have criticised this company in a most disgraceful way—and I have Hansard here. Why do I say "disgraceful"? Because every Minister for every nationalised industry throughout the period since 1945, while I have had the privilege of being a Member of one or the other House, has always regarded it as his responsibility to stand up at one or the other Box and say, "Yes, there are these criticisms. Now I give the other side of the story. "Why? Because the nationalised industry itself cannot do that job. Therefore the Government have to do it for it.

What have we heard with regard to this company, the business of which the Government wishes to denigrate?—nothing but criticism. Not one word from any Minister giving even the other side of the story, giving a balanced picture. I can, if your Lordships wish, read many quotations from both Ministers' speeches in the other place running down Cook's recent management. I do not think that it will be very profitable to do so; it is already on record. I expected the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, to open his speech by again referring to the same thing. He was a good deal wiser than were his colleagues in another place; he knew that the argument could not be sustained.

In case he proposes to return to this argument in his winding-up speech I am bound to deal with it. Not only does the noble Baroness say that the service is good; so, too, do others whom I trust she will not mind my putting together with her. Among them I include the United Nations Association, UNESCO, the World Health Organisation, the International Monetary Fund. It is very difficult to think of a first-class international organisation of top repute which does not use Cook's services. So I think there is not much disagreement but that its record stands very high. I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for saying, out of her great experience on the Consumer Council—which experience, I may say, without embarrassing her, I am sorry has come to an end—that from her own knowledge, though there had been many complaints about those who suffered as (for want of an appropriate term) "package tourists", not one was made about Cook's. And so there is no doubt that in the public mind and esteem, nationally, domestically and internationally, this company's reputation stands very high indeed.

There is no doubt that the company has been nationalised for a very long time. The Bill was in 1947 and I imagine that 1948 was the date of effective national ownership. That is virtually a quarter of a century. I understand that in the last year it has not been so profitable, but over a very long period the company has been very profitable. So why are there now these criticisms of the management? And if there are these criticisms, why do not the Government, who have the power and the responsibility, do the normal thing about it? And how can that be said, if Cook's has been so successful as not to incite any action by the Conservative Government which held power between 1951 and 1964 — 13 years of inactivity so far as Cook's was concerned—13 years when the then Government might have done what the present Government are now proposing to do but refrained from doing because they were satisfied about Cook's?


The other Government was a better Government.


Well, my Lords, we know the reason full well. The noble Viscount, Lord Blakenham, for example, sitting opposite, was an adornment of that Government, and I am sure that he would not have let his colleagues do such a stupid thing—but perhaps I should not bring him into the discussion. The answer is that the company was carrying on perfectly satisfactorily during those 13 years.

What I am putting seriously to your Lordships is that the story about ill-management is not supported in your Lordships' House, is denied by those concerned and there is no evidence to substantiate it, if there were, what on earth is the relationship between management and the ownership? If the company, as was alleged by both Ministers in another place, has been badly managed, why is that an argument for a change of ownership? Are the Government suggesting that whenever a single firm in the private sector fails, the next Labour Government should automatically nationalise it because the only way to deal with a management difficulty is to change the form of ownership from the private to the public sector or the reverse? Of course not. In neither House have the Government put up the slightest justification for changing the ownership from the private to the public sector as being a solution for management difficulties—if there are management difficulties.

I wish to turn in particular to the nationalised airlines about which, if the Minister will forgive me for reminding him, I did have a quick word immediately before the debate. I wish to ask specifically, are the Government satisfied about the management of the two nationalised airlines? I assume they are, because if not, as an effective and competent Government, they would be doing something about it. So I assume that they are satisfied with the management of those two airlines. If they are satisfied, why are the Government putting shackles on the possibility of those airlines owning Cook's, as would be a very reasonable and natural thing—so retaining in its appropriate sphere, the travel sphere, this well-managed, enormous, inter- national business of high repute? It is a business whose credit needs to be good and needs to have all the authority possible behind it, in order to continue its financial business; and the financial business alone of this company runs into something like £100 million a year. So I am saying that if the airlines are well managed why should not they be allowed to take over Cook's and enable the Governent to do what they want to do; namely, dissolve the Transport Holding Company?

The Government could just as easily and, in my view, a lot more beneficially to the economy and the country, transfer the ownership of this firm to a firm in the public sector as to a firm in the private sector. So I ask the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, to be good enough to deal specifically with that point. Perhaps I had better refresh his memory about what his colleague said in another place when dealing with this point. Mr. Eldon Griffiths, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment said: My right honourable friend by no means rules out the participation of other nationalised concerns but this would have to be justified in terms of their existing main-line activities and would also have to depend on their financial position. Well. my Lords, the financial position of the two airlines is pretty sound and it is well within their activities. They are concerned with the business already. The Minister went on to say: I would not expect nationalised concerns would take more than a comparatively small holding, because anything other would be inconsistent with the purposes of the Bill."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 24/11/71; col. 1431.] There is the cat well and truly right outside the bag, making it perfectly clear—as the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, did not attempt to disguise, although he did not clarify it—that the reason for this transfer has nothing whatever to do with management; nothing whatever to do with the record of Cook's; nothing whatever to do with whether it is appropriate or efficient that Cook's should remain in the public sector; nothing whatever to do with the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, and, regrettably, nothing to do with any condition about whether Cook's should continue to serve the noble Baroness and others as well and as helpfully as in the past. It is to do with one thing only, with the Conservative Annual Conference where a promise was given to hive off bits of public industry. This is what is happening, and whether it is to the detriment or the benefit of the economy could not concern the Government less.

My Lords, the noble Lord asked, why should the Government be concerned? I repeat that he answered most of that question himself by what he immediately went on to say; and I have given further reasons for it. May I. therefore, go on to say shortly why I think it would be extremely damaging for the nation and the economy; why this policy of hiving off, which is the sole justification for this maltreatment of Cook's, is highly damaging.

First of all, I think—and I do not think I am exaggerating what the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, said about this; he and I both agree—that such activity must be highly demoralising for staff and management. People are in business to make the business prosperous, to expand their activities and to see ever-widening horizons. Because of this clamping down which is going on as a result of Government activities, not one nationalised board knows where the chopper will fall next; top level management is concerned to spend far too much time protecting themselves against the Government instead of getting on with their business of expanding, knowing that if they do expand, their expansion may be taken back next week and hived off by the Government. That is totally demoralising to the principle of enterprise which we want to see in every public and private enterprise firm. It is demoralising; it is a denial of their business opportunities.

In terms of the Coal Board we have had this problem already, and we are suffering from it to-day. It makes it absolutely impossible for any board to run a balanced business because if it were running a business which contained a main activity which is running down, not a board in the country would not try to balance that by diversifying into activities it thought were likely to grow. So far as the Coal Board are concerned, that is denied. Hiving-off is taking place, or being prepared, for the Coal Board, as a result of which the noble Lord, Lord Robens, as he made perfectly clear on the radio not long ago, refused to continue his appointment there. I myself am quite convinced that the troubles from which we suffer as we sit here are partly due to the feeling of the miners that they are no longer engaged in an industry which has a fair chance; they no longer have a Chairman who understands, as nobody but the noble Lord, Lord Robens, could understand, their needs and desires. I am sure that the present coal strike is in a measure due to that very hiving-off policy, of which we are seeing another example in this Bill.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, said, the inevitability of a policy like this is that you are being careless of the public purse: I think that is the best way of putting it. I should have thought that that was an interest which joined all of us; namely, anxiety to protect the public purse. As everybody knows, when you want to sell a business you do not go along and say: "Please come and buy this business. Please buy it before April 2"—or whatever the date is— "because we have a severe deadline. Please relieve us, the Government, of the responsibility we have, because, as you know, we do not want it any longer." You do not do that unless you are proposing to give the business away for a comparative song. I am saying to the noble Lord that the Government are being careless of their responsibilities to the public purse in the way they are advertising their desire to sell off bits of public industries; in the way they are making clear that it will not be a deal as between a willing seller and a willing buyer, but it will be a deal as between a seller who is compelled to sell and a buyer who can buy in his own time, as is happening here, by a fixed date, as the Minister has just made clear; and that, as a result, the assets will go for a much lesser value than they would otherwise achieve. It is quite impossible that that should not be the result and that the taxpayer and the public purse should not be the worse off in consequence.

There is a further aspect to which I must refer in the Government's policy of hiving-off. The worst aspect is their inclination—which they have acted upon at least once, in the case of the Air Corporation's £6 million worth of airlines—to deprive a nationalised industry of one of its assets without any compensation whatsoever. That is an unfortunate tendency and an even more unfortunate precedent. It encourages people to think of tit-for-tat. I would therefore invite the Government to have second thoughts upon the policy of denying to a nationalised industry the right to carry on with certain of its assets and goodwill which produce income and profits, without giving them any compensation whatever.

So I am saying that this is a Bill which sells Cook's from the public to the private sector, notwithstanding its high reputation, notwithstanding its achievements, certainly since 1947, notwithstanding that your Lordships have spoken highly of its reputation, for the simple reason that the Conservative Party are determined to hive off bits of nationalised industry irrespective of the nation's welfare. For those reasons it stands condemned. I must explain that, despite that, it is not our intention to divide the House, because this is a Second Reading of a Bill which has come from another place, and we have no difficulty in deciding what our duty is in those cases. However, I want to make it absolutely clear that we disagree utterly and profoundly with the irresponsibility of the Government in their proposed action.

6.15 p.m.


My Lords, I think the whole House would agree that in a debate on the Second Reading of a Bill to transfer Cook's from the Transport Holding Company in the public sector into the private sector, which is the intention of the Government, it would be hopeless for me to spend any time attempting to bridge the gap on the whole question of nationalisation which clearly exists between the Party for which I speak and the Party for which the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, speaks. He and his Party take one view; I and my Party take another. Whether we are looking at the matter of the Coal Board, B.O.A.C., B.E.A., Cook's or any other sector, we have this basic difference of approach. All we are considering at the moment is the transfer of Cook's from the Transport Holding Company in the public sector into the private sector.

I will, if I may, stick to the debate in this House rather than the debate in another place. It is our custom to have our own debate and to deal with the points made from each side of this House rather than with points made by others in another place. I said nothing about the management of Cook's, and I do not think it is for me at this stage to express any further view in detail on the strengths or weaknesses, past or future, of Cook's, because all that falls now to be judged from all the details set out in the prospectus: the whole picture is there. But I am only too pleased, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, in particular, to affirm my view that Cook's is indeed a great firm with a long and distinguished history. As I said in my opening speech, and I repeat, we want to see the company prosper; but we see no need to have it in the public sector, and want to see it transferred in order that it should prosper in the private sector.

The noble Lord, Lord Diamond, asked me two specific questions about how we ensure the future of Cook's. Of course there is no way of ensuring in all detail and for all time how Cook's will be run by the purchaser of the firm, although it is possible to safeguard the special interests of the staff, which in this particular case must be specially safeguarded. It is for that reason that the greater part of the Bill is required and all the details are set down, as they are in Clause 2. The noble Lord did not ask me any questions about that.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to interrupt. I did not ask him any questions. He now gives me the opportunity of saying that I merely forgot to say, as one does on these occasions, not having had much opportunity to prepare remarks, that I am grateful to him for what he said, which covers all the points perfectly satisfactorily from the point of view of Second Reading, and if any minor point arises we can deal with it in Committee.


I look forward to that. The further specific question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, after ranging rather widely, if I may say so, into the National Coal Board, B.O.A.C. and B.E.A., was this: Are we putting shackles on B.O.A.C. and B.E.A.? Well, we are not doing that, but I confirm the terms of what my right honourable friend said in another place— the noble Lord has quoted his words, and I will not repeat them. It is not our intention to divulge the details of the negotiations now going on between the Transport Holding Company and the potential bidders, because much of the information involved in that is confidential, but it does so happen that a consortium which includes B.O.A.C. and B.E.A. have published the fact that they are among the bidders, and I can confirm that B.O.A.C. and B.E.A. are associated in these particular transactions in that way at this moment.

My noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood hoped that Cook's will remain under British control, and we hope so too. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood for the compliment she paid to that particular branch of Cook's which serves us all so well here in the Palace of Westminster. I see no reason why these facilities which we have all enjoyed for so long should come to an end as a result of the sale provided for by this Bill. I hope that has answered all the points raised by noble Lords. I see no prospect at all of converting the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, to the views of my Party on nationalisation and I feel it would take considerable time if I were to attempt it. Having said that, my Lords, I hope your Lordships will now agree to give the Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.