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

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Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler , Sutton Coldfield 12:00 am, 24th May 1976

The hon. Member's argument on that score was demolished in two debates in the past and again effectively a few moments ago. If Felixstowe had been left to public enterprise, the channel would still be silted up and the equipment would be rusted over. If we are talking about the national interest, let us give credit where it is due—to the private hands which built up Felixstowe.

Lastly, there is the argument advanced by the Minister for Transport. Sadly, he missed our last debate to go to the Finance Bill Committee to explain his plans for taxing cherished car numbers. His triumph there was fully reported in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday. It moved my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) to say that, having heard the Minister on cherished transfers, he preferred to listen to him on capital transfers. To hear the Minister at his real rock bottom worst it is necessary to listen to him on company transfers.

It is common knowledge that the docks board's attempt to take over Felixstowe is being resisted there and that a battle is taking place. But, according to the Minister, all is sweetness and light. To use the Minister's own words, the arrangement is a love match. I sincerely hope that the Minister never becomes a marriage counsellor.

I have one word for the Minister from last week's interview with the so-called Colonel Cheeseman. I predict a great future for the Minister on BBC television. Both he and the BBC work on the same principle—"don't let the facts get in the way of a good story."

The facts all point one way. Hon. Members on the Government Benches seek to make something of the agreement with Gordon Parker. My hon. Friend the Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Stainton) has demolished all that remained of that argument. But even previously Gordon Parker had his problems because of the serious uncertainty caused by the Government's port nationalisation plans.

The threat of nationalisation hung over Felixstowe and it was that threat which forced Gordon Parker into a merger which, in normal circumstances, he would not have contemplated for one moment. To call that a love match is bizarre—and it became even more so when two months later European Ferries made its counter bid. All those most closely involved with Felixstowe want no part in the takeover, and 97 per cent. of shareholders reject the board's proposal. The local branch of the Transport and General Workers' Union has remained officially neutral, but most workers and staff make no secret of their wish to remain independent of the board. Nor is there any doubt about the views of the port users.

Hon. Members have sought to make something of the fact that European Ferries is also a port user. They claim that this has dangers but other port users want to see European Ferries running Felixstowe, not the docks hoard. Representations from customers are not against European Ferries but against the board. Let us not deal in theory when we have the evidence of fact.

We also have the evidence of experience. European Ferries has run the port of Lame since 1973. Competitors of European Ferries—such as the Scottish arm of British Rail's Sealink—use the port with discrimination. Trade has increased and the labour force has increased.

The House is being asked to impose its view—its will—against the views of the shareholders of the port, the users of the port and against the interests of those who work at Felixstowe or depend on it for employment. The House should not use its power in that way.

A better solution is possible. It is that European Ferries should be allowed to continue to run Felixstowe. It has an outstanding record of growth and nothing has been shabbier than the way in which hon. Members on the Government Benches have tried to denigrate it. It is 100 per cent. British owned and 70 per cent. of those shares are owned by individuals. It has made profits over the past two years and financed a shipbuilding programme of £50 million.

The company has created jobs. In 1965 it employed 300 people. Today its labour force is over 3,500. In many ways it matches the success of the Felixstowe company itself. Both companies started small and both today enjoy a success which means employment for hundreds of men during the most prolonged period of unemployment since the war. Hon. Members should reflect that that is an achievement.

On Second Reading the Minister sought to define Government policy in