Will the Minister explain why the Government chose not to use their golden share to prevent the directors of the regional electricity companies paying themselves huge salaries and topping them up with gross share options, to the disgust of consumers and the general public alike?
Under the terms of the golden share, it could not be used for that purpose. That was very clear when the companies were floated. The hon. Gentleman ought to do more research. He appears not to be aware that the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), who led for the Opposition on the Electricity Bill, never once, throughout the entire passage of that Bill, raised on the Floor of the House or in Committee the issue of share options. The hon. Gentleman ought to be asking his right hon. Friend the question.
If the Greenbury committee does not ultimately yield proposals which act in the best interests of consumers and the public, and stop the excesses, what will the Government do to protect the interests of the public and consumers?
In terms of the monopoly utilities, which will, of course, shortly be exposed to the competitive market, consumers do not suffer from excessive payments to directors because, under the way in which the regulation works, any increase in pay comes off the return to shareholders. It is not added to the costs to consumers. The hon. Gentleman should understand that.
Is not the Minister being terribly complacent when he says that that huge issue of public concern is not a matter for the Government? Has not the Prime Minister himself said that he finds the increases distasteful? Is not the real problem the fact that the Government do not want to do anything about them, yet the public out there are disgusted by the huge, excessive increases that executives are paying themselves and want action? When will the Government take action?
Nobody condones excessive pay increases or remuneration packages, but the hon. Lady fails to recognise the considerable contribution that the privatised utilities have made to reducing bills. For example, if the announcement that Professor Littlechild made last week is implemented, it will result in a £9 reduction in the average electricity bill for the average consumer. Moreover, there has been a 40 per cent. real decrease in industrial gas prices as a result of the introduction of competition. That is good for consumers, both domestic and industrial.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the concerns expressed by the Opposition about executive pay must be set against the real benefits that privatisation has brought to consumers? Is he aware that the customers of Seeboard have already benefited from a 20 per cent. reduction in the standing charge, and will benefit from a further 25 per cent. reduction later this year? Does that not show that privatisation has worked to the benefit of consumers, who would not have benefited if we had listened to the siren voices of the Opposition?
My hon. Friend is right. If the industries had still been nationalised, we should be seeing rising rather than falling prices, massive overmanning and inefficiency. My hon. Friend might be aware that, as a result of the recent announcements on electricity prices, the average electricity consumer may spend about £75 less on his electricity bill in the coming year than he did last year. That represents a considerable benefit to the individual consumer.
Does the Minister have a personal view about the actions of Richard Giordano at the British Gas annual general meeting, where he exercised the block vote to defend the pay and perks of his fellow executive directors? Does not that sort of behaviour make nonsense of Government claims that it is up to shareholders to restrain excesses? What changes, if any, in company law does the Minister think could be introduced to make a reality of shareholder democracy?
The hon. Gentleman and the rest of the Opposition do not seem to recognise that such issues are the responsibility of the private sector directors and the chairmen and boards of the companies. What Mr. Giordano has said is a matter for him. Of course the Government will take account of any recommendations by the Greenbury committee when we receive them, and if appropriate we shall not hesitate to legislate.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, at private sector annual general meetings, it is not only the final vote but the atmosphere in which the meeting is conducted that matters? If a meeting believes that members of the board have been given more than they are entitled to, perhaps people should reflect on the fact that for every pound that those individuals receive, 40p goes to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Of course the taxpayer benefits from the contribution made by individuals who receive high wages. At the end of the day what matters to consumers is the fact that their bills come down in real terms. That has been achieved for both gas and electricity as a direct result of Government policies that the Opposition have consistently opposed.
I congratulate the Minister on his effrontery, if on nothing else. I am sure that he is aware of the Library's independently researched finding that the price of electricity has increased since privatisation. If he wants to argue about that let him argue with the Library, but will he cease to restate the misleading information that he has repeated over and over again today?
Is he aware that, in the few days since an American company acquired a stake in South Western Electricity, the share options held by the four directors of the company have increased in value by £322,000? Is that what passes for enterprise in Tory Britain today? Are not share options in the privatised utilities a disreputable and discredited scam, organised by the beneficiaries in their own interests under licence from the Government? It seems as if the new President of the Board of Trade intends to do as much as the previous one to end the abuses—absolutely nothing.
Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. There has been a real decrease in electricity prices of 8 per cent. in the past two years, and we can look forward to further considerable decreases in electricity prices in real and perhaps nominal terms in the coming months.
With regard to the hon. Gentleman's other point, why do the Opposition constantly peddle the politics of envy? Why do they never take into account the positive benefits that flow directly to the consumers that have resulted from the policies followed by the Conservative party?