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Industry and Education

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:37 pm on 21st November 1994.

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Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry 4:37 pm, 21st November 1994

I do not know, because I have not had the opportunity of their advice, except from what I have read in the newspapers, but I half suspect that, like many other top managers in privatised industries, they would be thinking of their share options and their salaries, rather like Cedric Brown and Mr. Giordano have been doing at British Gas. But we may return to that matter in a moment.

The people of Britain are fed up with being ripped off or overcharged by people in private monopoly industries giving themselves huge salary increases with apparently no accountability and no care for what Ministers, including the Prime Minister, have to say about it. I remind the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Dover) and the President of the Board of Trade what the Prime Minister had to say in his Mansion house speech. At the Lord Mayor's banquet, he said: There is more that business could do to further improve its image. There is no doubting the resentment that large and often unjustified pay rises can cause, so I welcome what Sir Brian Nicholson, the president of the CBI, had to say about the need for responsibility in setting the pay of company executives. The power is there to control it, and I hope it will be used. Apparently, the only member of the Government today who was willing to defend what has happened in British Gas was the President of the Board of Trade—no Back Bencher, no chairman of any Conservative committee, and certainly not the Prime Minister. The only one to defend it was the right hon. Gentleman. I wonder for whom he thought he was speaking. He certainly was not speaking for consumers; he certainly was not speaking for the British people; he certainly,. apparently, was not speaking even for his own Prime Minister. I wonder who is really in charge.

On the Post Office privatisation and its future, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be a little more forthcoming than he has been so far. It is clear from the letter of his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy that the President of the Board of Trade does not think that the Post Office can succeed in the public sector. He seems to think that it will wither and fade away, and that other private sector operators will take over.

The real question is this: are the right hon. Gentleman, the Government and the Conservative party willing to see that happen, are they willing to see more freedom, more latitude and more opportunity for the Post Office in the public sector, or will they simply let it fade away and die? The right hon. Gentleman's argument, apparently, is that everything that could be done has been done. That is simply not true. That view is not even shared by senior management of the Post Office, let alone by the Opposition.

We could have changes to the calculation of the external financial limit. We could have the removal of capital expenditure limits. We could have the relaxation of Government scrutiny of specific projects. The President of the Board of Trade had much to say about political interference. Why does he not remove that bit of political interference from the Post Office?

We could have freedom from Department of Trade and Industry interference in proposed training projects, ability for the Royal Mail to enter joint ventures, new freedoms for Post Office Counters Ltd, and the Royal Mail given more latitude in its private finance initiatives. All those things are possible, but the right hon. Gentleman's thesis is that he would rather seek to defend his dogma on privatisation, with the Post Office forced into commercial difficulties.

We do not share that view. What is more, it should be possible, in a sensible country, for us to sit down and agree a way forward for the Post Office with the management, with the UCW, with the Government and with all those who are interested in helping the Post Office to build on its successes. I make that offer to the right hon. Gentleman now. Is he willing to accept it? Why does he not answer—yes or no? The answer is clear. The right hon. Gentleman has been put in his place by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, because the answer to the question is that it is his right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer who will not agree to anything of that kind.

I remind the right hon. Gentleman of what he said. He said that he does not believe that the Post Office can succeed in the public sector. However, if we look at the 1994 Blue Book which was published a few weeks ago, we see that British Nuclear Fuels plc has been reclassified to the public sector. The right hon. Gentleman has effectively nationalised British Nuclear Fuels. He never said a word about that, of course; there was no statement and no great speech. Apparently he thinks that British Nuclear Fuels can operate successfully in the public sector, but that the Post Office cannot.

That is quite a political flip-flop—quite a head-stand—from the right hon. Gentleman. One successful, profitable company with a huge positive cash flow and lots of business can operate successfully in the public sector, because the right hon. Gentleman has just agreed to its being put there, but the Post Office cannot. The right hon. Gentleman's argument is a complete and utter fraud.