Discretionary Share Option Schemes in the Privatised Utilities

Part of New clause 1 – in the House of Commons at 5:30 pm on 3rd April 1995.

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Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson , Stoke-on-Trent South 5:30 pm, 3rd April 1995

I think that I am right in saying that the Standing Committee on the Finance Bill had 25 sittings. Obviously, it discussed many issues, but I suspect that this is the one that the public will consider very carefully. It is difficult to identify many of the other issues that we discussed in our number-crunching sittings in Committee as being in the forefront of public consciousness.

The public will carefully watch the Government's reaction to the new clause, which is not a radical attempt to bring down the Government, much as we would like to do so, but merely asks for a report back to the House. Why do we want such a report? We are talking about the principle of discretionary approved share option schemes, which are of massive public concern, as has been accepted by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

We are also considering the way in which such schemes are taxed. Approved schemes are taxed not as earned income but as a capital gain—I would argue about the concept of earned income, but perhaps that is an argument for another day. As far as I and many members of the public can see, the share option schemes have been established by a relatively small cabal and have enabled executives to freeload on privatized monopolies—Conservative Members have accepted that they are such monopolies—and to gain tremendously.

The speech of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith), who made a considerable contribution to the Standing Committee—some of it was useful and no doubt he would say the same for Opposition Members—was striking, but I gained the feeling that, the longer that he went on, the more desperate he became. Having created the conditions in which abuses—the word that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield used—can take place, the Government are turning their faces steadfastly against any reports to the House on those abuses, which is interesting. The public will be rightly outraged if they perceive that executive share options are being used to line the pockets of people who have done nothing to earn such largesse, while the Government refuse the House the opportunity to study in more detail the effect that the schemes are having on revenue. The new clause is the minimum that the public can expect as regards knowing exactly what is going on.

6.15 pm

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, and the other thing that shocked me about his speech was that he tried to argue that such executive share option schemes are necessary to encourage executive directors to work hard. It is interesting that Mr. Cedric Brown has to have nearly £700,000 worth of share options to work harder, but people in gas showrooms have to have a 3 per cent. pay cut to make them do so. It is a nice philosophical question, with which the Government singularly failed to deal throughout our debates in Committee.

The Government have also failed to recognise the chronic sense of injustice and unfairness that is felt throughout the country about the way in which executive share option schemes are operating. For some reason that is beyond me, the Government simply refuse to recognise it and the new clause is extremely important in that regard.

Many of us will be watching with great interest. In reply to an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said that the Government had disposed of their 40 per cent. shareholding in PowerGen and National Power. Another task is coming up, however, and it will be a test of the Government's approach to the issue. What will be their attitude to the give-away of the national grid? It was valued at £1 billion and handed over as the most massive Christmas present in history to the regional electricity companies, which are going to give it away, throw it away, privatise it, or sell it off for £4 billion—and that is the conservative estimate. What have the executive directors of the regional electricity companies done to warrant that massive unearned profit? They have done absolutely nothing. We shall watch extremely carefully how the Government approach the latest instalment of the largesse represented by the executive share option schemes.

Why should there be a report to the House? I mentioned the fact that the public are extremely concerned about the issue. The House should reflect that concern. Even at this late stage, I hope that the Government will recognise that it exists and that this is the place to deal with it.

It appears that the shares of the companies involved have gone up not only because they were undervalued in the first place but because many hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost in the past few years. That is bad enough, but the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) spoke of envy and jealousy. He should speak to my constituents, and to those of every other hon. Member who have lost their jobs as a result of those very same executive directors and ask them what they feel about envy, jealousy and the feel-good factor. He should ask them how they feel about the fact that the privatised utilities seem to be employing a strategy of maintaining or increasing their share value at whatever cost not in the interests of the country or of investment but because they are constantly looking over their shoulders for the next hostile takeover hid. Those issues are not peripheral; they arc fundamental and are rightly reflected in the public's concern.

The least that the House can do is support the new clause, which proposes that the Government should report to Parliament so that extremely important issues can be examined in more detail. If Conservative Members vote in the Lobby to defeat the new clause, as we expect they will, I do not believe for a moment that the great British public will understand their action.