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BRITISH TRANSPORT DOCKS (FELIXSTOWE) BILL (By Order)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th May 1976.

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Photo of Mr Peter Rees Mr Peter Rees , Dover and Deal 12:00 am, 24th May 1976

I shall address myself to that point now as time is not on our side. First, there was no binding agreement for the sale of their shares entered into by the shareholders of the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company and the British Transport Docks Board. There was some kind of agreement conditional on the passing of a Bill in the House. All the propositions about the agreement scheduled to the Bill are entirely beside the point, as I shall endeavour to show.

There was an extraordinary general meeting of the company held against the background of Mr. Gordon Parker's extremely gloomy forecast. I shall not address myself to the curious arguments of the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch) about free enterprise because time does not permit. At that meeting, 48·6 per cent. of the stockholders attended and their holdings in the aggregate amounted to only 63 per cent. In fact, the vote was carried by the holders of only 55 per cent. of the stock of the company.

The House will recall that, in a normal takeover situation, if the purchaser wishes to buy out a dissentient minority he must hold at least 90 per cent. of the shares. That the British Transport Docks Board did not hold. It is true that the board, on behalf of a company but not necessarily on behalf of the shareholders, entered into the agreement, which is in a schedule to the Bill, with the British Transport Docks Board. That agreement, as I pointed out in reply to an intervention by the hon. Member for Leicester, East on Second Reading, did not pass any interest in the shares to the British Transport Docks Board. The interest in the shares passed under a subsequent perfectly respectable and binding agreement between European Ferries and the individual shareholders. It is that agreement that the House is being asked to override now. The interest in those shares passed to European Ferries, and the House is being asked to transfer that interest to the British Transport Docks Board. If there is to be any talk of breach, that is the breach and that is why this is a rather squalid manoeuvre.

It is well understood in commercial life that there can be two competing bids for the same company. If the British Transport Docks Board were to be competing on level terms with European Ferries and were, in fair fight, to have won the acceptance of the individual shareholders, I could not complain. But that is not the case. If there is any doubt about that, I suggest that a Law Officer be asked to come and enlighten the House. If that be the case, what argument is left? The argument is that the performance of the two competitors is unequal. We are told that the docks board has the greater weight of experience. I am not here to denigrate the activities of the docks board. The board has run a greater number of ports than European Ferries. But still European Ferries is not without experience in this field. If we look at general entrepreneurial experience, the palm must go to European Ferries.

The hon. Member for Ipswich was disposed to draw attention to the return of capital of the docks board—7·8 per cent., he said. In fact, it was 7·8 per cent. before any account is taken of interest. If we look at the accounts of European Ferries for the past few years, we find that its return on capital is between 15 per cent. and 20 per cent. after taking account of interest. If we look at the weight of public money involved, I can only remind the House that there is something like £76 million of public money at 3·61 per cent. that the taxpayers have loaned to the docks board, and in all, up to 1972, £123 million. That is the kind of public support that the docks board has enjoyed. I am not prepared to argue the merits of our investments in the docks Board, but, if we are to consider where the weight of public money has been cast, of course it is behind the docks board.

Let us consider the question of labour relations. The hon. Member for Ipswich, on the last occasion but happily not tonight, was disposed to dredge through the whole part of European Ferries, relying on some very doubtful evidence from the trade unions to regale the House with the number of strikes avoided by European Ferries. All I can say is that if the British Transport Docks Board had avoided one major strike, I would have been very happy indeed. I do not want to compare in an unfavourable light the performance of the two companies but if we look at the history of the British Transport Docks Board in Southampton it does not compare with that of European Ferries, certainly not in Dover. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who regrettably is not here, although he has changed his tune a little—in deference, no doubt, to the criticism of his hon. Friends—was disposed in another Select Committee to commend the industrial relations of European Ferries.

Again, is it right to hand over a port to one principal port user? Neither the hon. Member for Ipswich nor the Minister for Transport has addressed himself to that point if it be a valid argument. If it is, we must look carefully at the role of British Railways, particularly in the port so ably represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain.)

Since time is short, however, I shall come now to the one point of substance which emerged from the proceedings of the Committee. It was difficult for us on this side of the House to deploy the argument very satisfactorily last week when we did not have the minutes at our disposal. We are very concerned about the future of the port as regards those who work there, those who use it, Trinity College and the town of Felixstowe itself.

There was an undertaking in the agreement scheduled to the Bill between the Felixstowe Company and the British Transport Docks Board under which the docks board covenanted to do certain things. On the face of it, it was an admirable covenant, but on closer analysis it turned out to be not very valuable, for two reasons. First—this point was explored at considerable length before the Committee—it was open to either of the parties to the contract to vary the agreement at any point in the future; secondly, and more importantly, no one other than the two parties to the agreement could enforce it in the future.

In deference to the first of those criticisms, there has been a fairly substantial amendment to the Bill by which the covenant has been made immutable by agreement. It will not now be open either to the board or the company to alter the terms of the agreement. But the second point still remains—who can enforce that agreement other than the Felixstowe Company? If the Bill becomes law, the company will become a wholly-owned subsidiary, a creature, of the docks board, and as such will hardly be very concerned to enforce the covenant. At the end of the day, the cove nant is subject to the overriding condition that it is subject to any direction which may be given by the Secretary of State.

Last week, in Committee on the Finance Bill, we had occasion to take the true measure of the Minister for Transport in the discharge of his onerous responsibilities. We saw how he regarded the crucial question of how a motor car owner may transfer his number plates. We were told that it was beyond the wit of his civil servants to make in each case more than two transfers a day and that the cost would remain at the Minister's discretion. I shall not explore that point, but hon. Members who read the Hansard of those Committee proceedings upstairs will get a truer appreciation of how the Minister for Transport discharges his political and administrative duties.

At the end of the day, the question is this: who will have a more tender regard for the interests of the port users as a whole, of those who work in the port, of the town of Felixstowe itself and of Trinity College? Mr. Keith Wickenden, engagingly and rather naively, I suggest, told the Committee that his group regarded Felixstowe as the brightest jewel in its crown. Would he be likely to throw that jewel aside? On the other hand, in the hands of the docks board I think that Felixstowe will be no more than a semi-precious stone in one of the many bangles around its rapacious wrist.