Discretionary Share Option Schemes in the Privatised Utilities

Part of New clause 1 – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 3rd April 1995.

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Photo of George Young George Young The Financial Secretary to the Treasury 6:30 pm, 3rd April 1995

During the debate on new clause 1, Opposition Members have focused on what they perceive to be excesses resulting from the privatisation of the utilities. That part of the debate has been rather narrow. They have argued that consumers and taxpayers have been disadvantaged. If one stands back and looks at the policy as a whole, that is demonstrably not the case.

To begin with, let us take, for example, the interests of taxpayers. When we came into office, taxpayers were losing about £50 million a week through funds invested through the nationalised industries. From the industries that we have privatised, we are now getting £50 million a week coming in, so there has been a massive turnaround in the fortunes of the nationalised industries.

The figures which concern the taxpayer totally dwarf some of the figures mentioned in this debate. Before 1979, by and large, prices for consumers were going up and, by and large, they are now going down. The case on which new clause 1 is founded—that there has been some disadvantage to taxpayers and consumers through privatising the utilities—simply does not stand up to any examination at all.

What I found more worrying about the speeches of Opposition Members, with the exception of that from the hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell), was that nobody touched on the principle of whether it was worth trying to link the fortunes of a company and its shareholders with the interests of senior executives. I believe that there is a case for bridging the gap between employers and shareholders by promoting executive option schemes and the hon. Member for Monklands, East recognised it. The whole tone of the debate was critical of the principle of share option schemes for senior executives. To put the matter in some perspective, the average value of shares covered by executive share option schemes is £22,000, not the exorbitant figures mentioned by some hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) began by demanding action. If one looks at new clause 1, one sees that it would not produce any action at all, it would produce a report. I shall say in a moment why I do not believe that that report is necessary. I was pleased to hear that, instead of using the figures that the shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) has sometimes used, the hon. Member for Oxford, East used the figure of £60 million as the cost of executive share option schemes and abandoned the more extravagant claims which we have sometimes heard. The hon. Gentleman accused the Government of subcontracting their policy on this matter to the Greenbury committee—we are certainly not doing that—and he then subcontracted most of his speech to Paul Foot.

Our case is that the system has worked well for consumers. Consider what has happened to the caps. The regulators, by and large, have tightened the caps post-privatisation. BT started off at a retail prices index of minus 3 per cent. and it is now minus 7.5 per cent.

I was grateful for the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter). His views contrasted with what was said by the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), who believes that the regulator should intervene and said that he wanted him to interfere, regardless of whether that makes any difference to consumers' bills. The reality is that many Opposition Members are interested only in the politics of envy, regardless of any benefit to the consumer.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) made two points on which I want to touch. One of them was replicated by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). The hon. Member for Walsall, North alleged that those who now run the privatised utilities are doing the same work as before. That simply is not the case. I speak as someone who once worked for a nationalised industry. When industries are nationalised, Ministers and civil servants take a large number of the decisions, such as those about the size of the investment programme.

The nationalised industries were overmanned and not particularly well run. They certainly did very little exporting. So it is not the case that those who now run the privatised utilities are doing exactly the same work as those who ran them before. I was delighted, however, to see the hon. Member for Walsall, North back after a spell away. He was looking much better at the end of his speech than at the beginning, so I assume that that is some part of his therapy in which it was a pleasure to take part.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) rightly posed the question of why we should pick out the privatised utilities. Why single them out? They are in the private sector. There is no case in principle why they should have a different regime to other industries in the private sector.