Orders of the Day — Civil Aviation Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:32 pm on 19th November 1979.

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Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North 4:32 pm, 19th November 1979

The Labour Government's proposals were well known and were canvassed in an election manifesto before they came to power. British Airways employees had no notice from the Conservative Party's election manifesto, let alone consultation after the Government came to power.

This background must make us ponder whether we can believe that the Government will sell only a minority share. The device in the Bill of changing British Airways from a public corporation to a Companies Act company is a legislative blank cheque from Parliament for the Secretary of State. There is nothing in the Bill that holds the Government to selling only a minority shareholding in the subsequent successor company.

Once that company is formed, the Government will have little control over it and, indeed, they appear to want little control. The Secretary of State goes out of his way to say that he will have no control over it. What is to stop the company, or the board of directors, deciding to sell more shares or assets which belong to British Airways? As the Government lurch from one financial crisis to another will they not be tempted to sell more of out profitable national assets?

In the press today several articles advocated that the Government should sell off the profitable parts of nationalised industries. If British Airways become a Companies Act company, and if the Secretary of State distances himself from it and the directors do not exercise minimal rights, who will look after the protection of the profitable assets held by British Airways on behalf of the public?

The House should be on its guard, bearing in mind the history of the proposal and its development. We fear that this may only be the beginning of the story. I hope that the Government will guarantee today that they have no intention of selling off any of the profitable assets owned by British Airways, such as the helicopter services serving the North Sea oil industries.

The hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) requested that British Airways should step back from their activities in terms of hotels and travel agencies. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will give the House a clear undertaking that the Government will not sell off profitable assets, thus leaving the responsibilities for other services to rest upon the public, and that they will intervene if a future board of directors seeks to follow such a policy.