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Column 398unconvincing to say that a business run privately for profit will, by definition, neglect fundamental questions of consumer and producer safety and well-being. If that were the case, private industry would long since have been disallowed by public opinion.
Mrs. Dunwoody : Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there are strict legal controls on the airline industry and that all those operating aircraft must register their involvement and stick to specific, tough safety laws? Does that make the difference? Does he agree that that should be clear in aviation?
Mr. Alison : The hon. Lady makes a reasonable point. It could be argued that the same applies under HSE requirements to mining. There are the same rigorous, detailed restrictions, limitations and requirements. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) and I have been talking about something that is a little more marginal and subtle : the momentary decision by an aircraft operator whether to undertake one more flight or to take the aircraft immediately out of commission if, for example, there is a tiny seepage of oil from a component. No amount of words and regulations will ever cover such a decision. The same situation arises in the coal mining industry. The HSE provides a framework of rules, but often it is up to the judgment of the manager on the spot whether something should be taken out of commission on the grounds of safety.
My constituents have expressed anxiety to me about that and I hope that Ministers will bear it in mind when they consider the privatisation Bill.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) : I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) because he has illustrated one of the difficulties. Those of us who believe that safety should be paramount in any major industry know that, whatever he says, the question of profit will come almost inevitably between the operators and their desire to please their shareholders. I am astonished that the Government should even now include within the Queen's Speech references to privatisation, as if somehow the average consumer does not appreciate what privatisation means in practical day-to-day results in his own home. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) made an extremely telling and forceful case when he listed the effects, so far, of privatisation.
I make no apology for emphasising that my constituents know clearly why we do not want rail privatisation in any form. They have seen the effect of Government policies on existing industries. It is vital to point out that the privatisation of industries that already lack investment does not lead to a marvellous influx of a great pot of gold that will somehow provide better services. It inevitably leads to a series of short-term judgments. Management begins by deciding, irrespective of the industry concerned, that there is overmanning. If there must be one entry in the manual of privatisation for conservative management, it is, "Your industry is overmanned". Let me explain what I mean. British Rail Engineering Ltd. was a large and effective supplier of rolling stock to the railway industry. It is true that its customer was largely British Rail, but it was capable of selling anywhere in the
Column 399world and did so. It needed more vigour in its management structures to expand its markets thoughout the world. Yet, because of the Government's narrow-minded and unimaginative commitment to dogma, BREL had to be sold to the private sector.
We were told that privatisation would transform BREL and make it much more efficient, and that everyone would benefit in a country where the railways manifestly needed new rolling stock. What happened was rather different. A management buy-out was proposed to the work force and it was largely engineered by people who were in management. Their intentions may have been quite reasonable ; they may have wanted to preserve the manufacturing unit and they may have believed that they had the expertise to do that. The reality was that, largely, those who wanted to invest in BREL did not understand the manufacture of railway rolling stock and were not particularly interested in the maintenance of the manufacturing unit.
In the intervening period, we have seen a classic example of what privatisation means. We have had a large number of redundancies, including redundancies among those skilled workers who are desperately needed to maintain the high quality of our product. The remaining services have been concentrated in a small geographical area, leaving large tracts of available land, which, no doubt, will soon be sold off at very profitable rates by the existing management.
A number of interesting financial calculations have also been made, which have directly affected the work force--not just those who remain with BREL but those who have lost their jobs at the factory. We were first told that the shares of the workers were so important and useful that they were worth a large amount. Indeed, a finance director came in and managed to do a deal which meant that for £100, 000 he was able to buy the equivalent of £1 million worth of shares. In less than a year, those shares which were worth £10 each to the work force suddenly became worth £1.
At the annual general meeting, the chairman was asked about the value of the shares. He said that it was based on an independent assessment and was not one that the board itself had reached. That was a perfectly reasonable response, but the difficulty was that he went on to add that the board had subsequently discovered that those who made the assessment were accountants who had a contract with the firm that was seeking to buy large numbers of shares. That firm was ASEA Brown Boveri.
Many people would argue that in an industry concerned with the manufacture of rolling stock, it is better if engineers who know about manufacturing move in. We would agree with that. However, we would not agree with the change that meant that many of the work force were told at the annual general meeting, in my constituency, less than two weeks ago, "Oh, yes. It suited us to have you involved in buying shares when the management wanted them for a buy-out. It suited us to use you as part of the propaganda exercise and to say that we wanted individual working men and women to have shares and to be involved in their own industry. Unfortunately, ASEA Brown Boveri, which is coming in, will want to buy all your shares. If, by mischance, you do not want to sell them, we are sorry, but we have the powers within the existing terms to force you to sell the shares back to the new management." Even if one believed all the rubbish
Column 400that the Conservatives talk about the little person having an involvement in privatisation, where is that magnificent arrangement now?
What has happened is simple. First, the employees were told that they should buy shares for a management buy-out. Secondly, many lost their jobs and saw the factory run right down. It no longer produces the rolling stock which is desperately needed by British Rail--and which all passengers know will be needed increasingly in the coming five years. The work force have finally been told, many having lost the privilege of working for British Rail, "We are sorry, but those who have shares will have to sell them back to the new company because that is how it will operate".
That is the reality of privatisation. It does not mean anything for the small, individual shareholders. It means that those who have economic muscle will survive and those who do not will be pushed out.
The position is even worse because we were told exclusively in the well- known socialist newspaper The Times that the chairman of British Rail had gone to the new Secretary of State and asked him for support in building new rolling stock. The chairman said he needed new investment in the south- east and in other regions and services. He said that there was clear evidence that the railway system needed new engines, carriages and services for the all-important customer. We were told that the chairman of British Rail had spelt out exactly what that meant in terms of economic investment and we were also told that it was made clear to him that the large amounts of money would not be forthcoming from a Conservative Government.
The Select Committee on Transport has taken evidence from British Rail, BREL and numerous other sources in the City on the total lack of interest in the railways felt by those who want to invest large amounts of money. Money has not been forthcoming for British Rail to build private links except in small, easily defined areas. Although private investment has been made by some freight carriers, it is not nearly enough to provide the high- quality service that is essential if we are to have any link between the channel tunnel and the north-west. One of our greatest manufacturing areas is to be deprived of a high-speed link and of trade in the movement of freight because the Government are not prepared to invest in new services. Over and above that, we have been told that the railways will be much more efficient if a track authority is responsible for the railways and individual entrepreneurs organise services. Are we suggesting that firms such as Stagecoach, the manager of private coaches and buses, which is hardly able to run a service in one town, could run a service responsibly and efficiently outside its own area? Will firms such as Virgin, which is very good at publicity, be able to run a railway system when it believes that it is just a question of latching the odd coach on to the back of a British Rail Edinburgh express? Such firms will not make any difference to the customer and they are in for a shock. Are we suggesting that those people, who do not want to take on the responsibility for running a railway, will somehow or other produce an enormous new age of transport efficiency? If we are, we are not only kidding ourselves but trying to kid the people of this country.
The transport system of Britain requires large sums of investment. The taxpayer and the passenger know that. It is only the Government, who will sell off anything rather than provide a proper service for those who need it, who
Column 401refuse to acknowledge the reality of today's transport problems. It is a disgrace that the Government are talking in such utterly shallow and irresponsible terms. Every other western European country provides a high-quality railway system, which is subsidised by the taxpayer, because it understands the link between the movement of freight, the movement of people and the development of its economy. Why is it that such a simple lesson is beyond the bird brains in the Conservative Government?
Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) : Having been present at the debate on foreign affairs on Friday without being called, I hope that I shall be permitted to be slightly international in my approach to privatisation.
Having been in this House representing another seat, to say that this is my maiden speech would be stretching the definition of virtue. However, I would not like the moment to pass without recognising the tremendous contribution that my predecessor, Sir William Clark, made to the government of this country. Like me, he formerly represented a Nottingham seat and made a significant contribution to economic thinking for more than two decades. His support for the policies of low taxation and restrained public expenditure, coupled with privatisation, had a strong following in the country and the constituency of Croydon, South, which I am proud to represent.
Privatisation has always been popular in a constituency like Croydon, because it works. Indeed, the only criterion on which privatisation can be successfully defended is whether it works and produces an efficient service. In my experience, it always stimulates the organisation concerned, and that produces a better service. Privatisation in British Rail is bound to be welcomed in principle in a constituency like mine because, after all, it has nine commuter stations. The greatest concern in an area where Network SouthEast has such a strong influence in the transport of our constituents is that it should be an efficient service, and it is always a lively topic. However, if people like Richard Branson are making bids for the "Rolls-Royce" routes to northern England and Scotland, Network SouthEast is unlikely to be flooded with applicants. To try to run Network SouthEast on profitable and economic lines is unlikely to make economic sense.
Of far more concern to us in Croydon, South is the citizens charter. I was fascinated to read that the charter proposes to set standards, including for the first time individual standards for the 15 groups of routes in Network SouthEast. It goes on to set out percentage reliability criteria and I was riveted to see that the south London line hopes to achieve 97 per cent. reliability and that the Sussex coast line, which goes through my constituency, hopes to achieve 99 per cent. reliability. I must confess that it will come as a surprise to many of my constituents if British Rail achieves such targets.
The commercial heartland of Croydon is diversified and energetic. While it is quick to reject regressive economic policies, it gives a warm welcome to the fast-approaching establishment of a single market in trade, goods and services at the end of this year. Sole traders, small business men and directors of public companies can all see the advantages of a genuine market, which is one and a half times the size of the United States and three times the size
Column 402of Japan. While we hold the Presidency, our priority must be to ensure that its full implementation is achieved and to remove the frustration of physical and technical barriers to trade. I welcome the commitment to that in the Gracious Speech.
The burning question now is, where do Britain and its partners in Europe go from here? There can be no doubt that the exchange rate mechanism has distinct advantages for business. I recently visited a successful promoter of television programmes throughout Europe, which makes substantial invisible earnings for this country. It always welcomes proposals from companies in countries in the ERM as it knows that the stability in exchange rates provides a basis on which it can do business and make a profit. Proposals from companies in non-ERM countries are received more coolly. Although we can all see the force of argument of those who say that we should come out of the exchange rate mechanism, I venture to suggest that those are the voices of people with little hands-on pragmatic experience of business and industry.
Mercifully, we do not yet have to make the decision about whether to adopt a single currency. Much as the separate economies of Europe may try to converge, despite the tensions and cross currents that flow throughout Europe today, I doubt whether it can be achieved--certainly not within the proposed timetable for monetary union.
Despite my support for the Government's position, I am not a federalist and could not support a united states of Europe. Nothing antagonises the British people more than proposals from Brussels to ban smoking in public places or dictating who is eligible to play in an English football team. I have more faith in Steve Coppell, the manager of Crystal Palace, than in Jacques Delors on that issue. Today Europe must look far beyond the visions of Brussels bureaucracy. Here, privatisation has a role as we successfully export it overseas.
This year is the 125th anniversary of the first appearance of Karl Marx's "Das Kapital", which laid the foundations of theoretical socialism. It contained the impossible promise of an idealistic world, without capital, and opposed to free market economies. Inevitably, it was a dream that ended in failure.
Now, the biggest challenge to the west politically, ethically and morally is the region of central and eastern Europe, stretching as far as the Chinese border. People in those regions must be given hope and I welcome the proposals in the Gracious Speech to give aid to them. We must not let the situation come about in which they begin to yearn for the old days of communism, feeling that they were better off then than in the harsh reality of the present.
Perhaps the best thing that we can do for them is to show how effective privatisation can be. The political imperative is that they see the opportunities that exist in western Europe and for us to set examples that demonstrate the effectiveness of the market economy. Let us give them the aid to transfer their capacity for producing tanks into peacetime production capability. They cannot do that on their own because their will has been progressively eaten away by communism and the difficulty that they face now is a lack of cash. There is concern on both sides of the House that aid to that part of the world is water on sand. But from my commercial experience in the past five years, I know that there are
Column 403abundant supplies of natural gas and oil that can help finance the provision of an industrial base on which to build.
We in the west have had the good fortune to be born on this side of the old iron curtain and we can thank our lucky stars for it. The military threat that united all peace-loving people no longer threatens us. Instead, we are overwhelmed by the picture of misery and helplessness. The aftermath of the cold war has been as devastating and complete as any war fought by conventional means. I believe that an equally dangerous and divisive threat is the possible alienation of the United States of America, as we focus all our attention on Europe. It would be a grave mistake if we let that happen. If ever we need an example of the success of privatisation, we need look only at the power of the United States' economy, where nationalised industry is virtually an unknown concept. In the exchange between the Front Benches, it was well illustrated how the nuclear industry in the United States can survive without Government intervention or capital.
We started this century as a dominant world power, with the United States as a non-servile, dependent nation. It was Theodore Roosevelt who, at the beginning of this century, acknowledged the British Government as an ally sympathetic to the United States over Cuba. As a result of that close friendship, he supported the allies in the first world war against Germany, but by the end of the second world war the tables had turned after the United States bailed us out a second time. They were now the dominant party.
Since then, the United States' contribution towards world peace and stability in Europe has been immense--the Marshall plan after the war ; the instigation of the Bretton Woods monetary agreements, which gave us the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund ; and the establishment of the United Nations and NATO. Above all else, it was their relentless opposition to the advancement of communism and the misery that it brought that marked out the United States as the superpower of the world. Yet, when they needed advice and support, they always turned to the United Kingdom and our special relationship is alive and well and must not be jeopardised.
In the formal sense, the relationship is the exchange of intelligence, and the establishment and maintenance of a nuclear deterrent. From my time in the Royal Navy I know how inextricably linked the two navies are, with the exchange of information and personnel being commonplace. The Falklands and Gulf wars illustrated what little support we could expect from the rest of Europe when the going got tough. Informally, strong cultural, diplomatic and corporate links, not to mention a common language, bind the two nations together. It is one of the closest political alliances in international politics.
We must not throw that good will away because we are unable to reform the common agricultural policy, which is such a stumbling block to the successful and essential conclusion of the talks on the general agreement on tariffs and trade. Believe you me, there are plenty of people in Washington who would use that as an excuse to pull out of Europe.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation could be wrecked by the Community's resistance to cuts in farm subsidies. I am afraid that some countries in the European Community would not be sad if that happened. It is
Column 404bizarre that we should jeopardise that special relationship in preference to a policy whereby more than 50 per cent. of the European budget is spent on agricultural subsidies.
When the Prime Minister last met President Bush he gave him a cricket bat. I am not sure what President Mitterrand or Chancellor Kohl would have done with a cricket bat, but at least President Bush knew that it was for hitting a ball. The United States can sometimes be an infuriating ally, but I admire its effort, energy and "can do" attitude. We must not throw away that relationship when the sirens of Europe beckon. The United States will remember its friends. 5.33 pm
Mr. Nick Harvey (Devon, North) : I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech in the debate on privatisation. As the Liberal Democrats' transport spokesman, I view with interest the somewhat predictable measures on the privatisation of British Rail proposed in the Gracious Speech. As the Member for Devon, North, I know that my constituents are concerned about the future of the Exeter to Barnstaple line--with which you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as a Devonshire Member, will be familiar--under any future regime that might operate on the railways. I am glad that the Government are forsaking for the moment the wholesale privatisation of British Rail in favour of access to the network. However, the Liberal Democrats share the worries of the Community of European Railways, of which British Rail is a member, on open access and privatisation. It states that competition to drive down costs and make railways viable is the way forward. But if the Government continue to refuse to give all modes of transport the same treatment, British Rail will operate at a disadvantage. I wonder whether some of the private companies that it is envisaged might bid to operate the rail network will look forward to paying in full the infrastructure costs, as British Rail has to. Their competitors in the air and on the roads pay only part of the costs of airport and road facilities.
It is a strange twist of fate that the Government's plans for British Rail's future are being proposed now, at the end of a full and comprehensive, sweeping reorganisation of British railways known as "Organising for Quality". It is popularly known in British Rail's executive circles by the abbreviation "O for Q"--not an abbreviation to be used in a hurry.
The privatisation of British railways is not in the public interest now. We need a Government with the foresight to see the business, environmental and human consequences of their actions. We need sustainable investment in the railways, as in other public transport sectors. If British Rail is to compete with private companies, it needs the tools to do so.
We have heard today from the Secretary of State that the private sector will have capital investment in the railways through franchising, but it is clear that British Rail needs access to borrowing and leasing, as the SNCF has in France. We look forward to the Government introducing a White Paper in the summer, perhaps when they have worked out the answers to questions such as that posed by the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor).
We also look forward to seeing the Government's proposals for the future of the railways, a subject dear to
Column 405the heart of my predecessor. One of his proud achievements was to introduce in 1981 private Member's legislation on the reopening of old railway lines. He, like everyone in north Devon, will be disappointed that that legislation did not lead to the reopening of the Torrington loop or the railway lines to Ilfracombe and Lynton, both of which are beautiful. I pay tribute to the hard work undertaken by my predecessor on behalf of north Devon, and on promoting the cause of alternative energy. He went about his business in an energetic and unique way, and his memorable comments will be missed.
In his maiden speech my predecessor paid generous tribute to his predecessor, a distinguised member of the Liberal party, and I shall do likewise. Many right hon. and hon. Members will remember him as cutting a dashing style and being a formidable performer. I cannot aspire to match his panache, but I hope to fight for the area the same tenacity. In his maiden speech in 1959 he spoke in shocked terms of the 9.3 per cent. unemployment rate in the town of Ilfracombe, and argued for the district to have development area status. Today, the unemployment rate in Ilfracombe is 22 per cent., and at times youth unemployment is as high as 50 per cent. Once again, the community of Ilfracombe is fighting to obtain development area status. Within months of Mr. Thorpe's speech, the Conservative Government granted that status--if only we could look forward to that again. Such status served the area well from 1959 to 1984, since when no significant new employer has moved into the area. My constituents have high hopes of regaining assisted area status for the district, and of seeing the building of a downstream bridge over the Taw river in Barnstaple--a vital piece of local infrastructure if the town is not to grind to a halt and deprive businesses to the north of Barnstaple and the holiday industry of important income.
My constituents had hoped that more might be done about the state of the beaches around the north Devon coast. The south-west has a small population, but it has responsibility for many miles of coastline. When South West Water was being prepared for privatisation, it was given a green dowry to help to plump it up for the process. It now needs green alimony or, perhaps, green child maintenance to ensure that it can continue to bear the heavy burden.
In a few months' time, the Landkey primary school in my constituency will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the acquisition of the site for a new school. Unfortunately, the existing school has a leaking roof, damp exercise books and open drainage for its outside facilities. I am 30, and the site was acquired in the year that I was born. When I was shown around the school by the chairman of governors, he pointed out the very rail where, as an infant, he used to swing. We hope that, in their education proposals, the Government will ensure that local education authorities have the resources to put right that problem, and many others.
The hopes and needs of north Devon are manifold. Like many other new Members, I was struck by the weight of my mailbag, which was phenomenal. This week, I went to the Post Room to ask for my mail. Nothing arrived for some time, while many right hon. and hon. Members received their mail. For a brief moment, I allowed myself
Column 406the hope that perhaps my mail had dried up. A plump thud came from above and I was handed a bigger bundle of mail than anyone. No doubt I shall become used to the strange ways of the House. One of the most surprising things that happened to me was when a party of school children from my constituency visited the House soon after I was elected. One of them had brought as a gift a bottle of champagne. It was not allowed through the security device, but was handed straight to me by the policeman, with the reassuring words, "You had better hold that--it might be a bomb." It had occurred to me that the security arrangements here might be thorough, but I had not thought that suspect devices would be given to Members for safekeeping. I also managed to get lost in my early days here. Having entered the labyrinth of corridors, I noticed that the carpets had changed from green to red. I had promoted myself, somewhat prematurely, to another place. Unkind cynics might say that when one loses one's way around the Corridors of this place, it could be time to move on there. But I hope to have the honour of representing the people of north Devon for many years before any such thing should happen. 5.39 pm
I am privileged to represent the constituency of Bury St. Edmunds and to follow in a line of distinguished parliamentarians. I should like to pay a special tribute to my predecessor, Sir Eldon Griffiths, who entered this House in a by-election in 1964. He was a remarkably successful constituency Member, a Minister and an expert in international affairs. He will be sorely missed by many, both in the constituency and in this House.
The constituency that I represent is probably the only area within a 100- mile radius of London that still feels essentially rural. Bury St. Edmunds itself is a successful, beautiful and largely unspoilt Georgian town. The origins of the town's name lie in the Saxon martyr King Edmund of East Anglia who was killed by invading Danes in 869. A particularly rich and powerful abbey was established there after the Norman conquest, and it was in that very abbey that the barons met to plan the Magna Carta. Bury, therefore, is known as the cradle of the law.
This love of freedom and of liberty remains strong even today in west Suffolk.
Many people will think of Suffolk in terms of our glorious wool churches, but many will rightly think of Newmarket, which I am also proud to represent. It is the horse racing capital of the world, a glittering jewel in our county's crown. The horse literally dominates the town, although, sad to say, the industry today has special difficulties and much needs to be done to help it to survive and prosper. The British bloodstock industry is the finest in the world and a significant employer in my constituency.
Yesterday, in our cathedral of St. Edmundsbury, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Americans during the second world war. Thousands of them were based in Suffolk and many of them married locally. There are still signs of their former presence all over the constituency, but their presence today is still a
Column 407critical part of the lifeblood of west Suffolk. There are two large United States air force bases, at Mildenhall and Lakenheath, which employ thousands of people and contribute about £140 million to the local economy.
The bases are popular with local people ; their role, past and present, in defending freedom and democracy is well understood. In Sir Eldon's maiden speech 28 years ago he said :
"In the Anglo-American alliance we must have enough British power to deter an attack on our island and to ensure that we are not subjected to international blackmail."--[ Official Report, 16 June 1964 ; Vol. 696, c. 1156.]
Fortunately, that threat is now much less likely, given the end of the cold war, but, as we have repeatedly seen, Anglo-American friendship has been very important, latterly in the Falklands, Kuwait, and Libya.
In my constituency there is a great range of diverse activity in addition to the important agriculture sector. Some in metropolitan circles may just take the view that those of us who live in Suffolk spend our days gazing fixedly at endless acres of cereals. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our corner of England has been one of the fastest growing and most dynamic in the country. That has almost entirely coincided with the great success that Conservative Governments have had in transforming our country in the 1980s. We have also benefited from the economic tilt eastwards as our trade with Europe has increased. Freight passes through and is manufactured in my constituency and goes to the port of Felixstowe. What once happened in our ports--it threatened Governments and created havoc with our currency--now seems to have taken place on another planet ; jobs for life seem light ages away. Privatisation has brought new methods, new investment and success.
Survey after survey shows that as we continue to come out of the recession west Suffolk will grow and prosper. Central to that prosperity are good communications. Private participation has been brought in to speed up the substantial road improvements in our county, and there is more to be done. Mildenhall and Brandon need bypasses.
The growth of population has come about in part because people have moved to Suffolk with the intention of commuting to London. Unfortunately, some of them have had to give up the unequal struggle because of the poor performance of British Rail. The Norwich to London line through Suffolk is characterised by erratic timekeeping. I have frequently experienced this myself, and it is not for lack of investment. It is due to the poor management that is so tragically characteristic of nationalised industries.
On Easter Saturday some of my constituents were travelling on a diesel train between Cambridge and Ipswich. At Bury St. Edmunds station the engine started smoking. Undeterred, the train continued its journey, and a few minutes later the engine exploded and a piston from the engine entered the passengers' compartment, causing injuries. What ensued would have been farcical had it not been so serious. I shall not dwell on it except to say that when my constituents set off on an Easter Saturday to visit their relatives in Clacton they should not be made to feel as if they have landed in the midst of a Scud missile attack, albeit in rural Suffolk! Leaves, snow, fires on the track--we are all used to these ; and doors that do not open when the temperature drops we have read about. It is highly regrettable,
Column 408however, that, four weeks after the event I have described, I have yet to obtain any information about the safety and operating procedures to be followed when a train engine malfunctions. British Rail needs private input. It clearly needs to serve both passengers and its workers better.
Before I conclude, I want to say a few words about a constituency that I fought as a parliamentary candidate and for which I have the greatest affection--Ashton-under-Lyne. It is represented here by a right hon. Member of great experience and distinction, but, with full respect to him, I would also express the hope that one day it will return a Conservative Member to this House.
I am the third Member of Parliament for Bury St. Edmunds to rejoice under the curious surname of Spring. The first two appeared to survive the difficult politics of the 17th century with considerable ingenuity, if not with obvious convictions.
Incidentally, I am sorry not to have congratulated earlier the hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Harvey) on his excellent speech. We look forward to hearing many more such excellent speeches from him in future.
On the subject of convictions, my constituents need have no fears. I look forward to representing their interests and their needs in this House for many years to come, and to doing so always as a member of the party in government, with ever-growing numbers of colleagues joining me here.
Mr. William Etherington (Sunderland, North) : I realise that the first thing that I have to do in my maiden speech, Madam Deputy Speaker, is to address you properly and to congratulate you on your new post. I wish you every success and fulfilment in it.
I have been waiting since 14 December to make this speech and it could not have come at a more appropriate time than in a debate on nationalisation-- on the end of a nationalised coal industry and rail industry. I am proud to represent the constituency of Sunderland, North, which has a wonderful record of parliamentary support dating back to the 1640s, when the people of Sunderland ensured that coal was sent to London to support the parliamentary cause, after the citizens of Newcastle and South Shields put a blockade on coal to ensure that the Parliamentarians were not successful. At one time 40 good Wearside ships were tied up by the blockade of the Tynesiders, but in the end we were successful and the seamen joined the parliamentary forces and were able to drive the Royalist forces out of the north-east--and so on to victory. Everyone should be as proud of that as I am.
In 1832, Sunderland was granted two MPs and the records from then until 1945 show some strange combinations. Sunderland returned primarily Liberals until the turn of the century. At odd times a Conservative sneaked in when the Whigs and the more radical element in the Liberal party could not agree and put up too many candidates. Perhaps that is a lesson for modern times. It was not until 1906 that the Labour party, of which I am proud to be a member, took a Sunderland seat. The going from then was not easy. There were failures and we did not have two Labour Members until 1950. That was sad because many other parts of the country did rather better. There were only two Conservative Members representing
Column 409Sunderland from 1900 to 1906, from 1922 to 1929 and from 1931 to 1935. Our record since then has made up for that.
I intend to make the most of my maiden speech because I understand that in future speeches I am likely to be heckled, but that is par for the course with me. After the Representation of the People Act 1948, the two constituencies of Sunderland, South and Sunderland, North were formed. I am delighted to say that since then Labour has always won the North seat. The tremendous response by the people of Sunderland to the Labour party is demonstrated by the fact that Fred Willey, whom some older Members may have known, was successful in no fewer than 11 general elections spanning 38 years. That is a tremendous record. Sadly, I did not meet him because, although I was born and lived in the constituency, I did not live there at that time.
My predecessor, Bob Clay, unexpectedly retired late last year, thus giving me the chance to attain my ambition of getting here, albeit rather late in life. He is now doing his best to revive shipbuilding on the River Wear, an industry which, sadly, has almost gone. I should not need to remind the House that during the war the Sunderland shipyards produced 25 per cent. of the replacement capacity when we were losing ships in that terrible time. The shipbuilding record on the Wear was second to none and it is sad to see it in such a poor state. When trade takes up again, hopefully after 1995, perhaps there will be a revival.
Bob Clay will never be forgotten for his work in the constituency to try to keep the shipyards open or for his tremendous work in trying to help the nuclear test veterans, a worthy cause if ever there was one. I shall try to continue in the same vein in representing my people.
I should like to pay tribute to one or two other former Members, one of whom was George Hudson, "the railway king," an MP for Sunderland for many years. He would have been interested in today's debate. George Hudson had one or two financial problems which shows that there is nothing new on the stock exchange. He found it necessary to leave the country for a short time and was in Spain and France for almost two years trying to sort out his businesses there. He did not do too well in Britain but managed a little better abroad. While he was away, a general election was called unexpectedly. There was much opposition to George Hudson because it was said that he had not been to Parliament or to the constituency for more than two years. However, the Sunderland people are rather forgiving because when he promised to mend his ways they duly re-elected him. Unfortunately, due to his pressing business problems which he never seemed to resolve, he had to give up, although he was voted out in the meantime.
Another person worthy of note is Samuel Storey, a Liberal who started a newspaper empire. He was unusual because he got to Parliament in 1880 at a by-election at which he was unopposed. That sort of thing happening today takes some imagining. I certainly do not remember it in my lifetime. He won three general elections between 1885 and 1895 and was returned again in 1910. He changed his colours to become an Independent Tariff Reform candidate but had to give up after 10 months because of bad health. His grandson, who became Lord Buckton, was Conservative Member for the town from
Column 4101931 to 1945, contining a worthy tradition which exists to this day because the family still lives in the town and is still involved in the newspaper industry.
My favourite is Thomas Summerbell, the first Labour MP from 1906 to 1910. He was a great worker for the town. He helped to set up the town council and continued the radical tradition which has always existed in Sunderland, with one or two short exceptions. He carried out tremendous work for Labour on the town council. Tragically--and there is much tragedy in politics--a few days after his defeat in 1910 he attended a town council meeting and died from an attack of apoplexy. It seems that fate stalks in pairs, because Thomas Summerbell's agent, Thomas Dale, was killed in 1916 in a zeppelin attack, and that set back Labour's prospects.
The Labour MP from 1929 to 1931 was Dr. Marion Philips. There are not many women in Parliament now, but there were even fewer then, so her election was something of a landmark. Dennis Pritt became one of the greatest socialist lawyers in history after his unsuccessful attempt to enter Parliament.
I shall now turn to the more contentious issue of
denationalisation. I like to use the old-fashioned word rather than the new term of privatisation. The Government wax lyrical about free enterprise and competition. I am not so sure about free enterprise because I worked in it for a short time. I found nationalised industry much better organised and we were much better treated, although we had to work just as hard. I see the sense in competition, but where is it? Water, gas, telephone services and electricity have been denationalised. I have only one water supply in my house and I cannot decide whether to turn on Northumbrian water or Thames water. Therefore, there is no competition.
I do not have gas because my village is not that far advanced. I have electricity but only one supply ; and in terms of the telephone, least said, soonest mended. Conservative Members speak about the benefits of private enterprise and competition. Where is the competition? Industries that were great national assets and public monopolies have become private monopolies. The only competition I have seen is the scramble for shares and the scramble among directors and chief executives to see who can get the highest salary. The competition among those who work in those industries is to see who does not get made redundant.
Workers' conditions have worsened and prices have increased. The whole thing has been a complete charade, and I am worried that the coal industry and British Rail will go the same way. Do hon. Members forget that coal and the railways had to be taken over by the Government in two world wars because in private hands they were inefficient? Has anyone forgotten the ramshackle state of the coal industry when it was taken over in 1947? Why has everyone forgotten that between 1923 and 1947 only the Southern region, as it is now, paid ordinary shareholders any dividends? But the Government propose a return to that system. For years, the Tory party led us to believe that privatisation had to be good and nationalisation had to be bad. It was difficult for those who were too young to remember to argue against that, but now we see the alternative, and it is much worse than the service to which we were accustomed.
I worked in the coal industry for 21 years--I doubt that many hon. Members can say that--and for nine years before coming here I represented workers in that industry.
Column 411What worries me about privatisation of the coal industry is the appalling safety record that the privatised industry had before 1947. There was carnage and there were terrible injuries. Between 1947 and 1979, that gradually improved. Sadly, since then, it has deteriorated again. There is no denying that : the figures come from the Health and Safety Executive, not from the National Union of Mineworkers or the Labour party. They come from a Government body and they tell the story.
Wearmouth colliery is the largest employer in my constituency and two months ago, in a tragic accident, two men were killed and two others were made paraplegic. One of the men killed and the two men who were made paraplegic were my constituents. I have been to see the two who are still alive and the widow of the one who died, and what concerns them most is that Government spokesmen could not wait to get on the television, not to express sorrow, but to say that the record of coal industry safety was improving--a claim that can be proved to be untrue.
I make a plea to those on the Government Benches : do not denationalise the coal industry. Like my colleagues, I know what that will do. I am afraid that the Government do not. I am worried because, at the same time as talking about denationalisation, the Government are working with the Health and Safety Executive to dilute legislation on safety in mines. In 1830, my townsmen, led by Dr. Clanny and others, were involved in the first Sunderland committee, which started the long haul towards good safety in the mines. They were responsible for getting the first Acts dealing with safety in the mines passed. Only France had such legislation before Britain. Between then and 1979, there was continual improvement in regulation of the mining industry. At the very time when the Government are talking about denationalisation, they are also talking about dilution of legislation and regulations. That is a recipe for disaster. I ask members of the Government, as decent reasonable human beings, to reconsider.
Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test) : Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I add my congratulations to the many that you must have received over the past few days? We have a worthy Deputy Speaker and I congratulate you now as I would congratulate you in person.
The hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) made an impassioned speech, on which I congratulate him. His intensity and directness, and the challenging tone of his speech, made me feel that, when the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) retires, he will have left a worthy successor.
Mr. Hill : We must nevertheless be grateful that we are getting fresh blood--perhaps not quite as fresh as we would like--on the Labour Benches, although we are hearing some of the old stories. There is no longer any doubt. No plea can be made. The Government have made up their mind on privatisation of parts of British Rail. The hon. Member for Sunderland, North mentioned the Southern region. That is a