Portavadie (Public Inquiry)

– in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 3rd February 1981.

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Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan , Stirlingshire West 3:32 pm, 3rd February 1981

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the holding of a public inquiry into the sale of the village at the platform construction site in Portavadie. The village to which I refer was built in 1975 with £3·3 million of public money, but due to an omission, an error, a blunder—call it what you may—by either the Scottish Office or the Department of Energy, or both, the ownership of the village passed to a company called Sea Platform Constructors (Scotland) Ltd. because the Department or Departments failed to buy the land from it. Under the provisions of Scottish law, the ownership of the village passed to the private owners of the land on which the village was sited.

Sea Platform Constructors (Scotland) Ltd. is half-owned by Lord Matthews' Trafalgar House Group, which bought the land for £150,000 from a local farmer in 1974. No doubt the yard and the village adjacent to the yard were built with good intentions way back in 1974–75, the purpose of the village being to house workers for the nearby platform construction yard. In the event, the yard failed to get any orders, partly due to the drop in popularity of concrete platforms compared with steel-structured platforms. I am informed that since 1975 no concrete platforms have been ordered for the United Kingdom sector of the North Sea.

A few weeks ago, on Christmas Eve, a company called Bretshire Enterprises, registered in the Dutch Antilles, was reported to have bought the village for £175,000 from Sea Platform Constructors (Scotland) Ltd. A few days later it was sold to a third party, as yet unnamed, for £450,000. That is not a bad killing in a few days. It is a profit of over 150 per cent. The representative of Bretshire Enterprises, a Mr. Oliver Iny, seems to be very secretive about giving any information regarding the sale, and there is an air of mystery surrounding the whole transaction. This is a story of official blunders, allowing private speculators to make a quick killing out of a public asset that was built with a considerable amount of public money. There is also the possibility that tax dodging is taking place.

There is a great deal of public concern in Scotland and elsewhere. The public are entitled to know about this matter, because the project was built with their money. There is a great deal of public suspicion about a cover-up. The best way to allay that suspicion would be to hold a public inquiry. Yet last month, the Secretary of State for Scotland announced that he had no intention of holding a public inquiry. That indicates a considerable degree of complacency on his part, especially in view of the prima facie evidence that was dug out by the media and the Public Accounts Committee.

On July 1979 the Public Accounts Committee was told that the Government did not buy the site because Sea Platform Constructors (Scotland) Ltd. was reluctant to sell the site. However, even after the village was constructed the Government were refused access to maintain the buildings, which had been built with public money. According to the Government balance sheet of 31 March 1978 the village appears as an asset, and yet under Scottish law it did not even belong to them.

On 18 June 1980, a Mr. Gillett, secretary of the Scottish Development Department, told the Public Accounts Committee that the Government were no longer interested in buying the village, but he seemed unaware that the village was up for offer as a holiday or leisure centre at a reserve price of £500,000. I am sure that the House will be grateful to the Public Accounts Committee for the information that it has unearthed, but there are still many questions that have been left unanswered.

Did the Scottish Office advise the Department of Energy about the implications under Scottish law whereby, if it failed to take the land into public ownership, the ownership of the village would pass on to the private owners of the land? If it did not pass on that information, why not, and what happened to the responsible official? Is he still at St. Andrew's House, advising—or misadvising—Ministers? If the Scottish Office gave the appropriate advice, which seems likely on the evidence of Mr. Gillett, who told the Public Accounts Committee that at no stage did the two Departments act independently, why did the Department of Energy decide to spend £3·3 million of public money without taking the land into public ownership? Who in the Department of Energy was responsible for advising the go-ahead? What happened to him? Is he still at Millbank advising—or misadvising—Ministers?

There is also the question why the village appeared as an asset in the Government balance sheet when it did not even belong to the Government. There is also the deeper question of what efforts were made to get an order. I realise the difficulties, due to the decrease in popularity of concrete platforms, but there was at least one North Sea order after 1975, which went to Norway. There is also the question of the local planning authority's having laid down at the outset that the building should be easily convertible to leisure or recreational use. Why did not the Government take any initiative in conjunction with the Scottish Tourist Board or the Highlands and Islands Development Board in order to find such an alternative use for the village? Who is the present owner? This morning I telephoned the solicitor in charge of the latest transaction and the local authority, the Argyll and Bute district council. They were not able to tell me the present owner of the village, and the local authority told me that no planning permission had yet been submitted for change of use.

Is there any connection between Sea Platform Constructors (Scotland) Ltd., Bretshire Enterprises and the present owner? Is it merely the normal relationship between vendor and purchaser, or is there something deeper? There is the possibility of tax evasion or avoidance. Has development land tax been paid on the transaction, and any other taxes that are due?

Why is the Secretary of State for Scotland reluctant to hold a public inquiry? Has he something to hide, or is there someone in the Scottish Office with a lot to hide? Last year we had the Robroyston scandal, when a publicly owned asset, a former hospital site, was sold off and private speculators were able to make hundreds of thousands of pounds of profit. I maintain that the public are entitled to know why £3.3 million of their money apparently went down the drain at Portavadie while a speculator was able to make a profit over a few days of over 150 per cent. If we are to get to the root of the matter, the public are entitled to a public inquiry, and that is why I am asking for leave to introduce the Bill.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Order. I have had notice that one hon. Member seeks to oppose the Bill.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Lewis Mr Kenneth Lewis , Rutland and Stamford

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am not sure whether I should raise my point of order now or when my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. MacKay) has made his contribution.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

It will be better if the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Lewis) waits until the hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacKay) has spoken. On these occasions it is our custom that both contributors are heard without interruption, or reasonably so.

Photo of Mr John Mackay Mr John Mackay , Argyll 3:42 pm, 3rd February 1981

The subject of the Bill of the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) is a village in my constituency. I was under the impression that one of the conventions and courtesies of the House was that if an hon. Member intended to raise a matter pertaining to another hon. Member's constituency he should at least take the trouble to send a note to that hon. Member. I fear that my right hon. and hon. Friends will not be surprised to hear that the hon. Gentleman did not send me such a note.

Photo of Mr John Mackay Mr John Mackay , Argyll

However, at 2.32 pm today the hon. Gentleman asked me whether I would assent to his Bill. That was the first time that he had the courtesy to tell me that he was raising the issue.

The hon. Gentleman wishes to set up an inquiry into the sale of the village of Portavadie. If ever there was an example of shutting the stable door after the horse had long since bolted, this is it. More than enough taxpayers' money has been squandered on this white elephant without the cost of a public inquiry, which would not save the taxpayers a single penny.

I shall rehearse briefly the facts of Portavadie. In 1975 the then Labour Government were being pressured to encourage the building of concrete platforms. The press and Scottish opposition parties, such as the Scottish National Party were claiming that Norway was scooping the market and that we were being left behind. Of course, right reason or none, we had to copy Norway. That has proved to be an expensive mistake.

Prior to 1975 Sea Platform Constructors (Scotland) Ltd. had been looking for a site at which to build a dry dock for the concrete platform system that it had designed. It decided on Portavadie and bought a piece of land on which subsequently the village was built. However, during the planning and planning permission stage SPCS began to have doubts about concrete platforms. It began to think that perhaps they were not the way forward and that they were the dead end that they have proved to be. As a result, SPCS was reluctant to invest its own money in that project.

Along came the then Labour Government, who decided to put public money into the project. The Department of Energy, then headed by the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), who is probably not unknown to the hon. Gentleman, entered into a contract with SPCS to build the dry dock and the village to accommodate the workers. The sums involved were £11.4 million for the dry dock and £3.4 million for the village. Some hon. Members may think that that deserves an inquiry, but that is not what the hon. Gentleman's Bill seeks to do.

Although the dock site belonged to the Government via the Forestry Commission, the village site belonged to SPCS, which had bought it when it identified the site prior to 1975. However, the Government were in such a hurry that they decided that the building should go ahead while they negotiated to buy the land. The head of the Department that was to negotiate to buy the land was the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan), one of the hon. Gentleman's right hon. Friends.

Photo of Mr John Mackay Mr John Mackay , Argyll

The House might think that that was worthy of an inquiry. The negotiations did not go at all well. In fact, they did not go anywhere at all, and while they were failing the market for concrete platforms absolutely disappeared. By 1978 the Labour Government decided to withdraw from the negotiations. At that stage it was clear that there was no obvious use for the complex and that to buy the land from the company and to maintain the village would be a total waste of public money, an example of throwing good money after bad.

That was the situation until the end of 1980. Matters became worse and it was clear that about £500,000 would be needed to put the village back in order. That expenditure would have been necessary if it had been bought by the Government last month. The Government had no possible use for it. If they had bought it, I would have contended that it was an absolute waste of public money. The Government were rightly not interested, as were the previous Labour Government. Thus under Scots laws, as the hon. Gentleman said, the village reverted to the owners of the land. According to press reports, it has been sold and sold again.

The purpose of the proposed Bill is to set up a public inquiry to investigate those recent events, namely, dealings worth £500,000 of someone else's money. If there has been a tax fiddle, I shall be as concerned as the hon. Gentleman, but for the life of me I cannot understand how the fiddle has taken place. I am much more concerned about the waste of £15 million at 1975 prices of taxpayers' money by the Labour Government of whom the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friends were members. An inquiry should be called into that expensive white elephant.

Of course, that is not what the hon. Gentleman is seeking to do. He would not wish to cause embarrassment to his right hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, South-East and Craigton. Perhaps he would not mind embarrassing one and not the other, but he would certainly not like to embarrass both right hon. Gentlemen.

Photo of Mr David Myles Mr David Myles , Banffshire

We do not know which one.

Photo of Mr John Mackay Mr John Mackay , Argyll

The Public Accounts Committee considered the sale of land and was extremely critical of the then Labour Government for not buying the land before they built on it. However, that took place in the past and I turn to the present.

We shall know who has bought the land when they register the deeds in the register of sasines. We shall also know if and when the individual or company applies to the planning authority, which is the Argyll and Bute district council. Planning permission is specifically restricted to oil development and it will require a change of use provision. The other feature that makes it difficult to understand how there can have been a tax fiddle is that planning permission will come to an end in 1985, when the village has to be razed to the ground unless permission has been granted to another user.

It seems that there are adequate safeguards in the original planning agreement. I know that the Argyll and Bute district council planning authority will keep a careful watch on all developments.

What I find strange—this came through towards the end of the hon. Gentleman's speech—is that Labour Members who are hostile to foreign investment in Scotland in another guise want the Scottish Development Agency to tramp the world to find foreign investment that will come to Scotland.

Some Labour Members even want Japanese car factories to come to Scotland, but they start screaming and squealing whenever it happens. They must make up their minds. To use the hon. Gentleman's choice phrase, they must come clean. Either foreign investment is a good thing, which we want to encourage, or it is a bad thing. Labour Members must be careful, when they start diatribing about it, that they do not drive away those who have legitimate foreign investment to make in Scotland for the benefit of working people who the Labour Party always tries to pretend it represents.

I ask the House to reject the motion and to join me in opposing it in the Division. I ask the House to do so for the sake of the hon. Gentleman. If we were to give the Bill a Second Reading, we would be pandering to and encouraging his serious addiction to cheap publicity gimmicks. It will do him a lot of good if my right hon. and hon. Friends join me in the Lobby. I suggest that the right hon. Members for Bristol, South-East and Craigton should consider joining me in opposing the Bill.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Lewis Mr Kenneth Lewis , Rutland and Stamford

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I just wanted to ask whether you thought it was desirable that we should have Ten-Minute Bills for subjects of this kind. I do not blame the hon. Member for raising the matter, but he had opportunities to raise it and to request a public inquiry from the Minister. He could have sought to do that in an Adjournment debate.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Order. I understand the feeling of the hon. Gentleman. I have had that feeling a thousand times since I became Speaker, because this is not the only Ten-Minute Bill in respect of which the opportunity has been taken to ventilate the deep feelings of an hon. Member.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):—

The House divided: Ayes 153, Noes 194.

Division No.59][3.52 pm
Allaun, FrankBradley, Tom
Alton, DavidBrown, Hugh D.(Provan)
Ashley, Rt Hon JackBrown, R. C. (N'castle W)
Ashton, JoeBrown, Ron(E'burgh, Leith)
Atkinson, N.(H'gey,)Buchan, Norman
Bamett, Guy (Greenwich)Callaghan, Jim(Midd't'n&p)
Beith.A. J.Campbell, Ian
Benn, RtHon A. WedgwoodCampbell-Savours, Dale
Bennett, Andrew(St'kp'tN)Canavan, Dennis
Bidwell, SydneyCarmichael, Neil
Booth, RtHon AlbertCarter-Jones, Lewis
Boothroyd, MissBettyCocks, Rt Hon M. (B'stolS)
Bottomley, RtHon A.(M'b'ro)Cohen, Stanley
Cook, Robin F.McElhone, Frank
Craigen, J.M.McGuire, Michael(Ince)
Crowther, J.S.McKay, Allen(Penistone)
Cryer, BobMcKelvey, William
Cunliffe, LawrenceMcNally, Thomas
Davidson, ArthurMcNamara, Kevin
Davis, T.(B'ham, Stechf'd)McWilliam, John
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)Marks, Kenneth
Dixon, DonaldMarshall, DrEdmund(Goole,)
Dobson, FrankMason, RtHon Roy
Dormand, JackMaynard, MissJoan
Douglas-Mann, BruceMeacher, Michael
Dubs, AlfredMikardo, Ian
Duffy, A. E. P.Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)
Dunn, James A.Mitchell, R.C.(Sotonltchen)
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.Morris, RtHon A. (W'shawe)
Eastham, KenMorton, George
Edwards, R.(W'hampt'nSE)Newens, Stanley
Ellis, R. (NED'bysh're)O'Neill, Martin
English, MichaelOrme, Rt Hon Stanley
Ennals, Rt Hon DavidPaisley, Rev Ian
Evans, Ioan (Aberdare)Palmer, Arthur
Evans, John (Newton)Park, George
Ewing, HarryPenhaligon, David
Flannery, MartinPowell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Fletcher, Ted(Darlington)Race, Reg
Foot, RtHon MichaelRichardson, Jo
Foster, DerekRoberts, Albert (Normanton)
Foulkes, GeorgeRoberts, Allan (Bootle)
Fraser, J. (Lamb'th,N'w'd)Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Freud, ClementRoberts, Gwilym(Cannock)
Garrett, John (Norwich S)Robertson, George
Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)Robinson, G. (CoventryNW)
George, BruceRooker, J.W.
Golding, JohnSheerman, Barry
Graham, TedShort, Mrs Renée
Grant, George(Morpeth)Silkin, RtHon J.(Deptford)
Grant, John (IslingtonC)Smith, Cyrill (Rochdale)
Grimond, RtHon J.Spriggs, Leslie
Hamilton, W.W. (C'tral Fife)Steel, RtHon David
Harrison, RtHonWalterStewart, Rt Hon D. (WIsles)
Hattersley, Rt Hon RoyStoddart, David
Haynes, FrankStott, Roger
Heffer, EricS.Strang, Gavin
HomeRobertson, JohnStraw, Jack
Homewood, WilliamSummerskill, HonDrShirley
Hughes, Mark(Durham)Thomas, Dafydd(Merioneth)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)Torney, Tom
Hughes, Roy (Newport)Wainwright, E.(Dearne V)
Jay, Rt Hon DouglasWainwright, R.(Colne V)
John, BrynmorWatkins, David
Johnson, Walter (Derby S)Welsh, Michael
Jones, Rt Hon Alec (Rh'dda)White, Frank R.
Jones, Barry (East Flint)White, J.(G'gow Pollok)
Jones, Dan (Burnley)Whitehead, Phillip
Kaufman, Rt Hon GeraldWhitlock, William
Lambie, DavidWilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Lamond, JamesWinnick, David
Leighton, RonaldWoodall, Alec
Lewis, Arthur (N'ham NW)Woolmer, Kenneth
Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)Young, David (Bolton E)
Litherland, Robert
Lyon, Alexander(York)Tellers for the Ayes:
Lyons, Edward (Bradf'd W)Mr. Russell Kerr and
McCartney, HughMr. John Maxton.
McDonald, DrOonagh
Adley, RobertBlackburn, John
Aitken, JonathanBody, Richard
Alison, MichaelBoscawen, HonRobert
Ancram, MichaelBowden, Andrew
Atkinson, David(B'm'th,E)Boyson, DrRhodes
Beaumont-Dark, AnthonyBrooke, Hon Peter
Bell, SirRonaldBrotherton, Michael
Bennett, Sir Frederic (T'bay)Brown, M. (BriggandScun)
Benyon, Thomas(A'don)Browne John(Winchester)
Berry, HonAnthonyBruce-Gardyne, John
Bevan, DavidGilroyBudgen, Nick
Biggs-Davison, JohnBurden, SirFrederick
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln,)Gray, Hamish
Carlisle, RtHon M.(R'c'n)Greenway, Harry
Chalker, Mrs. LyndaGrieve, Percy
Channon, Rt. Hon. PaulGriffiths, Peter Portsm'th N)
Chapman, SydneyGrist, Ian
Churchill, W.S.Grylls, Michael
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th, S'n)Gummer, JohnSelwyn
Clegg, SirWalterHamilton, Hon A.
Cockeram, EricHamilton, Michael(Salisbury)
Colvin, MichaelHannam, John
Cope, JohnHavers, Rt Hon Sir Michael
Cormack, PatrickHawkins, Paul
Corrie, JohnHayhoe, Barney
Costain, SirAlbertHenderson, Barry
Crouch, DavidHiggins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Dean, Paul (North Somerset)Holland, Philip(Carlton)
Dorrell, StephenHowell, RtHon D. (G'ldf'd)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk)
Dover, DenshoreHunt, David (Wirral)
du Cann, Rt Hon EdwardHurd, HonDouglas
Dunn, Robert (Dartford)Irving, Charles(Cheltenham)
Durant, TonyJenkin, RtHon Patrick
Dykes, HughJessel, Toby
Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke)Johnson Smith, Geoffrey
Eggar, TimJopling, Rt Hon Michael
Elliott, SirWilliamKaberry, SirDonald
Emery, PeterKershaw, SirAnthony
Eyre, ReginaldKnight, MrsJill
Fairbairn, NicholasKnox, David
Fairgrieve, RussellLamont, Norman
Farr, JohnLangford-Holt, SirJohn
Fisher, SirNigelLatham, Michael
Fletcher, A. (Ed'nb'ghN)Lawrence, Ivan
Fletcher-Cooke, SirCharlesLeMarchant, Spencer
Fookes, Miss JanetLennox-Boyd, HonMark
Forman, NigelLester Jim (Beeston)
Fox, MarcusLewis, Kenneth(Rutland)
Fraser, Peter (South Angus)Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Garel-Jones, TristanLyell, Nicholas
Glyn, DrAlanMacfarlane, Neil
Goodhart, PhilipMacGregor, John
Goodlad, AlastairMacKay, John (Argyll)
Gow, IanMcNair-Wilson, M.(N'bury)
Gower, SirRaymondMcNair-Wilson, P. (NewF'st)
Grant, Anthony (HarrowC)Marland, Paul
Marten, Neil(Banbury)Sainsbury, HonTimothy
Mather, CarolShaw, Michael(Scarborough)
Mawby, RayShepherd, Colin(Hereford)
Mawhinney, DrBrianSilvester, Fred
Meyer, SirAnthonySims, Roger
Miller, Hal(B'grove)Skeet, T. H. H.
Mills, Iain(Meriden)Smith, Dudley
Mills, Peter (West Devon)Speed, Keith
Moate, RogerSpeller, Tony
Molyneaux, JamesSproat, Ian
Montgomery, FergusSquire, Robin
Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)Stevens, Martin
Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)Stewart, Ian(Hitchin)
Murphy, ChristopherStewart, A.(ERenfrewshire)
Myles, DavidStokes, John
Needham, RichardStradlingThomas.J.
Nelson, AnthonyTebbit, Norman
Neubert, MichaelThomas, Rt Hon Peter
Newton, TonyThompson, Donald
Onslow, CranleyThornton, Malcolm
Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S.Townend, John(Bridlington)
Osborn, JohnTownsend, Cyril D.(B'heath)
Page, John (Harrow, West)Trotter, Neville
Patten, Christopher(Bath)Vaughan, DrGerard
Pattie, GeoffreyViggers, Peter
Pawsey, JamesWaddington, David
Pollock, AlexanderWakeham, John
Powell, Rt Hon J.E. (S Down) Waldegrave,HonWilliam
Prior, RtHon JamesWaller, Gary
Proctor, K. HarveyWard,John
Pym, Rt Hon FrancisWarren,Kenneth
Rees-Davies, W. R.Wells,John(Maidstone)
RhodesJames, RobertWhitney,Raymond
Rifkind,MalcolmWilliams, D.(Montgomery)
Roberts, M. (Cardiff NW)Wolfson,Mark
Roberts, Wyn (Conway)Tellers for the Noes:
Rossi, HughMr. Ian Lang and
Rost, PeterMr.RobertAtkins.

Question accordingly negatived.