“(2) If property or rights are transferred from HS2 Limited or a wholly-owned subsidiary of HS2 Ltd to any body that is not a public body as defined by section 25(1) of the 1993 Railways Act, a fee must be received which reflects a fair market evaluation of that property or right.”
Clause 45 allows the Secretary of State to transfer HS2 Ltd’s property and rights to any other body. This amendment would prevent the Secretary of State from transferring assets to a private body without receiving a fair price.
Clause 45 is critically important and will undoubtedly be a matter of some contention between the Front Benchers. I want to explore it in some detail. Although we will have an interesting discussion about how railways ought to be owned and operated when we discuss new clause 21, the amendment is unashamedly hewn from the same wood. There is a huge amount of consensus on the need for the construction of HS2, but the issue of whether the railway service—its infrastructure and its operation—should be owned by the British public and run as a publicly owned operation represents clear blue, or red, water between the Government and Her Majesty’s Opposition. We will return to that fundamental issue in due course.
The amendment speaks to the concerns that property or rights that are transferred from HS2 Ltd, or a wholly owned subsidiary of HS2 Ltd, to any body that is not a public body might not be in return for a fee that is a fair market evaluation. The Railways Act 1993 sets out which those bodies are in clear detail: a Minister of the Crown, a Department or any “other emanation” of the state, a local authority, the Greater London Authority, Transport for London, any metropolitan county passenger transport authority, any body whose members are appointed by a Minister of the Crown, and so on.
I will make myself abundantly clear: we in the Opposition do not want any of the considerable publicly funded investment finding its way into private hands. We are vehemently opposed to any break-up and/or privatisation of our railway infrastructure and we fear that the power in the clause may be used, in part, in pursuit of that objective. The public will have paid a handsome price for HS2 and they should not have it or any part of it taken from under them at a knock-down price.
I can see that the right hon. Gentleman is content.
The amendment is about working in the best interests of taxpayers and to ensure that they are not sold short. The taxpayer is our concern, not the private entity that might have transferred to it property and/or property rights which of themselves had been the product of the taxpayer’s significant investment—the sum of £55 billion, or thereabouts. Calls upon the nation’s tax receipts are onerous and to be used wisely, so it is essential that we ensure that those moneys that have created such valuable assets—money that could have served other urgent and serious demands in our communities—are not simply siphoned off into the private sector.
Our concerns are not idle ones, but are extremely well founded. We are dealing with a potential asset sale as I speak, namely the announcement by Network Rail of its intention to sell some 18 railway stations on the existing network. It is of immense concern that, should any such sales go ahead, the receipts will be those of a fair market valuation and not simply from a fire sale to reduce Network Rail’s debts. In advance of the Nicola Shaw review, we hear that Network Rail is to sell off 18 major stations, including Waterloo, Reading and Leeds, in an effort to cut its £50 billion debt. If memory serves me right, Reading has benefited from public investment of some £897 million. I am sure that the public will be watching carefully what happens to the ownerships of those and other named stations.
The same concerns apply to HS2. I am afraid that the Government have form and that we have less than good experience, to say the least, of sell-offs of publicly owned assets that failed to secure fair or market value for the taxpayer. We need cast our minds back no further than the disastrous sell-off of the Royal Mail, which is still fresh in the minds of millions of voters. The Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills found that taxpayers may have lost out on about £l billion from the undervaluing of Royal Mail. Apparently, the Government feared failure and acted on bad advice over the Royal Mail stock market flotation. As we know, the shares fluctuated widely with an initial price of 330p which jumped as high as 618p and now stands somewhat lower than that. The then Business Secretary, Vince Cable, said:
“They”— presumably meaning the BIS Committee—
“now have the benefit of hindsight, which we didn’t have at the time. We sold at a price that was regarded as the best that could be achieved in the context in which we sold it.”
But the Chair of the BIS Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Bailey, said:
“It’s very important that when the government does sell off a government asset, it does so through a process that quite clearly demonstrates that nobody selling it, nobody advising it, has a conflict of interest”.
We do not want a repeat of the conduct of the likes of Lazards who were working on the inside on the sale of Royal Mail as Government advisers and then, because of the erection of an invisible virtual Chinese wall, were able to fill their boots on the acquisition of Royal Mail shares from the profits they achieved in a few short hours after launch. A number of individuals, some with high-profile political associations, also personally cashed in. We simply do not want HS2 to be turned into a profiteering exercise at the public’s expense.
You will recall the evidence unearthed by the Public Accounts Committee under the expert chairing of my right hon. Friend Dame Margaret Hodge. It revealed that Lazards advised the Government not to increase the price of Royal Mail shares, despite widespread fears they were hugely undervalued, and made a profit of more than £8 million by immediately selling the company’s stock. My right hon. Friend the Member for Barking said that Lazards
“made a killing at the expense of the ordinary taxpayer that lost £750 million in one day”.
A subsequent report by the National Audit Office found that the Government decided against increasing the flotation price of Royal Mail beyond 330p a share because of warnings from Lazard & Co. Government advisers were asked point blank at the Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking how they could get it so wrong that it cost the taxpayer £750 million on that one day.
Vince Cable, the then Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, said that the postal service should,
“start its new life with a core of high-quality investors who would be there in good times and bad”.
So much for that hope, Mr Hanson. As you and I both know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Will my hon. Friend also recall the fact that it is not only the Royal Mail? The coal industry was privatised in 1994. One of the arguments for privatisation was that it would transfer the risks from the public sector to the private sector. We had the situation where a company was importing coal from places like Colombia, which uses child and slave labour to dig coal out of the ground. The Government presided over the closure of the last deep mine colliery in Kellingley at the end of 2015, but the people who bought the coal industry have used assets in land and estates which have multiplied massively from what was paid for them in 1994.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. It is absolutely imperative that we learn lessons from previous experiences, and that is what the amendment is intended to address. We do not want to keep repeating these errors and finding the taxpayer short-changed. Certainly, when there is something so prestigious and ambitious and it has widespread support, we do not want its reputation tarnished in any way. We want it to be sustained.
Perhaps I have not made myself clear. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure a fair market price. We are trying to ensure that if the circumstances outlined arise, the process is carried out entirely properly and we are not complaining after the event that we have been badly short-changed. The intention is simply that.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman on obtaining a fair and reasonable market price, and I agree about the problems he highlighted about previous sales. I agree with the amendment, but first, is there not a wider issue on transparency; and secondly, even with the amendment, the Government could be completely subjective in how they advise and how they interact with the advisers on what advice to take. That will be crucial as well.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very valid and powerful point, but I will come on to deal with the objectivity that he wants to see if such matters ever come to fruition.
We in Parliament clearly have many opportunities to monitor and scrutinise the sales of publicly owned property, but one could be forgiven for questioning whether all our parliamentary devices really produce any proper advance policing of such activity. We appear to be ever-wise only after the event, and the amendment is a modest attempt to address that failing.
It is worth paying some attention to what is meant by a “fair market evaluation”. I note that the international valuation standards define market value as
“the estimated amount for which a property should exchange on the date of valuation between a willing buyer and a willing seller in an arm’s-length transaction after proper marketing, wherein the parties had each acted knowledgeably, prudently, and without compulsion.”
That is immensely helpful, and the international valuation standards give further guidance that market value is a concept distinct from market price, which is the price at which one can transact. Market value is the true underlying value, according to those theoretical standards.
Given the terms of our amendment, we could have a lengthy and interesting debate about what constitutes a fair market evaluation, but the public know only too well, especially given that the Public Accounts Committee pores over deals after the event when it is of course far too late. The bottom line is that the British public know when they have been scammed, and we do not want to be crying foul after a damning PAC report on the sale of HS2 assets in the years ahead.
I am sure that all members of the Committee unequivocally endorse the need to ensure that the taxpayer receives a fair deal should any assets be sold. Given that, I trust that our amendment will have the full endorsement and unanimous support of the Committee. We consider the amendment to be hugely important, so I intend to press it to a vote, although I look forward to hearing that the Minister accepts the reasonable point we are making and our reasonable amendment to secure fair market prices for any assets sold.
I get the impression that we are now into territory that is not as consensual as it was, although we would all agree that it is important to get the best possible value when assets owned by the state are transferred to a buyer or via a share issue to the general public. It is absolutely right that if someone is selling off what some people might call the family silver they get a fair value, although that perhaps would not apply to the family gold under the Brown Government—in hindsight, that was not such a good deal.
I will not speculate too much on some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, such as Royal Mail, but the process of privatisation has been successful. British Airways is now an international group. Engineering companies such as Rolls-Royce, and others such as BT and British Gas were all state owned, and all have gone on to become international companies unfettered by the restrictions that the state can often impose.
Clause 45 allows the Secretary of State to make schemes to transfer property rights and/or liabilities from HS2 to another person, which includes the Secretary of State. This power also allows the transfer to take place mid-delivery should it be required. Subsection (3) introduces schedule 30, which makes further provision about transfer schemes made under the clause.
I am listening to the Minister very carefully and I agree that there are many good examples of British industries that have performed very well in the private sector from the ‘70s and ‘80s. But he would surely separate that out conceptually from ensuring that a fair price for the taxpayer is raised at the initial point of issue of those shares in the private sector? If he reflects, he will admit that in various high-profile cases, particularly under this Government and the coalition Government, there was a feeling out there that state assets were undersold to increase the gain as quickly as possible for the people buying them. Those two issues are surely separate.
Well, yes, often hindsight is a marvellous thing and markets move in different directions. It has always been the Government’s intention to ensure that we get best value, but also to ensure that share issues are taken up. There is a difficult balance between pitching a price at such a level that the shares are taken up and pitching a price that achieves best value. However, the track record of this Government shows that we have been stalwart custodians of the public purse. We have not wasted money. We have borne down on the deficit. We have got sound money back again in our economy and there is confidence around the world that we are sound managers of public finances. Indeed, in the Budget later this month, we will see more examples of that being delivered to the House.
Does the Minister not have just a glimmer of concern about my example of how the sale of Royal Mail was conducted? Will he not put some distance between him and his Government and that arrangement whereby a Government adviser, Lazard, was right at the heart of the sale of publicly owned assets and yet at the same time was next door deriving significant profits of immense proportions from that sale? Does he not agree that there is something wrong with such an arrangement? We had scrutiny after that event and we should have such scrutiny before the event with HS2.
If I may, I will turn to an example more closely allied to the matter before us today, which is the case of HS1. We sold a 30-year concession on HS1 to operate and maintain the infrastructure for £2.1 billion. The Ontario Teachers’ pension fund took that concession for a 30-year licence. After the 30 years, the HS1 line returns to the Government, and we will have the opportunity to sell another concession; to keep it, possibly within Network Rail; or to give it to another operator such as, as I have said, Network Rail. The sale of the HS1 concession involved a rigorous bidding process to ensure best value. No decisions have been taken on the commercial model for HS2. It should also be noted that if any transfer of assets, rights or liabilities occur, the Secretary of State can impose conditions such as restrictions on the sale of assets, which will protect assets if that is thought appropriate.
We would always seek to get best value in the sale of the concession, and the value of the concession will take into account the value of the assets being transferred as well as the liabilities and revenue, and this would therefore be priced in. I hope that that clarifies the position so that the hon. Gentleman understands the purpose of the amendment, but, given the political differences between us on this issue, I suspect that I will not be able to satisfy him and he will press his amendment to a Division.
The Minister talked about the issue of privatisation and how successful the businesses have been, but consumers might have a slightly different view about the prices charged by companies such as British Gas and British Airways and whether they are doing a great job. They might also have a different view on the fantastic performance of the Government. Figures released today say that the national debt is now £1,580 billion, having increased by 50% on his and his Government’s watch.
We can have the political debate later on about ownership, and I am sure we will, but what I am trying to get my head around is what the problem is with the amendment. What the Minister is saying is what we are asking for: automatic best value and so on. Is that not exactly what the words on the amendment paper say? I cannot get my head around why on earth we cannot just say that if and when it happens, the Government will get best value for the customer, the taxpayer.
If we leave the clause as it is, it more or less says that the Secretary of State has the power to give away parts of the system, or all of the system, to anybody, without any price whatever. I know—I hope—that that is not the intention, but the clause at the minute says exactly that, and the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough would prevent that from happening.
I will respond briefly to that point. This Government always seek to get best value for the taxpayer. There is an important debate to be had, although maybe not at this stage, about how the railway will be delivered—whether we operate a traditional franchising process, run the line directly for a while to demonstrate its ability to raise revenue for a future operator or let a concession, as we have done with HS1, to allow an investor to come in and benefit from the income from the operator. There are a number of issues that we should consider to ensure that we get best value, but those decisions need to be made at the start of the next decade, so I think we would be rushing our fences to do it now.
Once again, I underline that this Government will always seek to get best value for the taxpayer. The previous coalition Government’s record of doing so was a major contributor to the results we achieved last year in May, when the British people had confidence that a Conservative Government could be a sound custodian of the public finances and come to grips with the economic mess that we inherited in 2010. That is a debate for another day, but I assure the Committee that we will always seek to get best value, and the clause—without the amendment, which is superfluous—will do precisely that.
The Minister is right to identify this as an area of stark political differences between us, but we have been able to discuss it civilly, recognising that we have distinct positions. I will try not to go into the whole business of what happened at the last election, but we lost 900 votes across 12 seats; I do not think the Conservatives should be crowing too much about that. Be that as it may—
We are debating the potential privatisation of an asset in the public hands, and that is what the amendment tries to address. It would be remiss of me to fail to comment that the Minister may be misreading the mood about how the public perceive the ownership of such assets, both going forward and in relation to some privatisations that occurred in the past. I do not think it is quite the rosy picture that he paints.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon makes a key point. We have heard at length from the Minister that his Government, and his party in coalition, were assiduous—that is effectively his claim—about achieving a fair market valuation of assets sold. He says not only that that happened, but that it will happen in future for sales such as may be contemplated under the clause. If that is the position, why on earth would he not send that message out to the nation, which has a long memory about Royal Mail? The Government would be acknowledging, “We can do better, and we will reflect that in the Bill, so that we give an unerring, unequivocal commitment that that is what has happened. It is simply not good enough to say, “That is what we do anyway.” Say so, make it clear, so that nobody is any doubt that there is no other purpose intended.
The Minister and I have identified where we disagree but, between us, we have come to an agreement that this should happen. For that reason, I cannot understand his reluctance to accept the amendment. It is basically saying that this is the best practice that this Government adopt and will continue to adopt. It is an amendment that he should embrace and support so that we can continue with our wonderful consensus in sending this fantastic project on its way. Unless he is indicating that he is now converted—
The Minister is shaking his head, which disappoints me gravely. I suggest, Mr Hanson, that we put the matter to a vote so that the Committee can make a decision. I am sure that hon. Members on the Government Benches have listened carefully and will express themselves in an independent fashion.