Schedule 5 - Power to modify or transfer functions: bodies and offices
Public Bodies Bill [Lords]
Charlie Elphicke (Dover, Conservative)
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. It is an important and interesting question. In the early 1990s, there was a proposal to privatise Dover under the Ports Act process. My predecessor, David Shaw, fought against the proposal, and against a Minister who was very determined to privatise the port of Dover. There was then a reshuffle, and as is the way of these things, the new Minister took a slightly different, more nuanced approach, so the issue was put to one side.
There was a change of Government in 1997, as most of us will recall. At that point, the proposal was put on ice. Why did it pop up again under the previous Government—a Labour Government who were not in favour of privatisation? Under a so-called “modernising trust ports” programme, they asked all trust ports in the UK to review their status. Each trust port did so and came forward with proposals. The idea was to improve their governance. Dover, however—a harbour port that is unique in many ways—decided to put forward a proposal not to improve its governance, but to privatise itself. It concluded that, under the “modernising trust ports” review, it wanted to sell itself off under section 9, and that was what it put to the Government.
The previous Government could have killed the situation off at that point. Unfortunately, the timing was bad, at least for the people of Dover, because this happened immediately after the financial crisis, and suddenly the previous Government were in a very difficult financial position. I will not go into the issue of blame or how the situation came about, as that would not be helpful, and is not relevant to this discussion. Given the financial crisis, the previous Government put together a report called the “car boot sale”—officially known as the operational efficiency report—and put Dover into it, to sell off a number of assets to plug a hole and give confidence to the markets, so that we would be able to borrow. There was a coalescence of timing: on the one hand, there was a port that suddenly wanted to sell itself off, and on the other, the Government were in need of rapid cash, and that led to a situation in which a voluntary privatisation process was suddenly under way.
All that took place immediately before the general election. A key plank of my personal manifesto to the people of Dover was that I did not want to see a privatisation like this go ahead, as it was manifestly not in the interests of the community. The idea had been tested by my party at the previous general election, and the voters gave a clear response, showing what they thought about selling off the port of Dover. I therefore took the position that there would be a better way.
Having won the election, I put forward an alternative proposal, and I moved the amendment to ensure that there is greater consideration, so that rather than having a vanilla privatisation process, there can be reform under the Public Bodies Bill. The process can then take place under the reform mechanism, so that instead of the old-fashioned, 1980s approach of “just sell it off if it’s not bolted down—and possibly even if it is”—an approach that the previous Government continued—we can adopt a more nuanced approach, including the ideas of social enterprise and mutuality that Prime Minster has been advancing.