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Nationalised Industries (Guidance)

Volume 977: debated on Monday 28 January 1980

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asked the Secretary of State for Industry what guidance he gives to the nationalised industries, for which he is responsible, about the needs to work in the interests of the taxpayer.

Department of Industry nationalised industries are set financial objectives and, where apt, external financing limits, intended to encourage efficiency in the interests of taxpayers, customers, employees and the economy.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that the act of delivering taxpayers' money to the nationalised industries is itself a form of intervention? Does he agree also that his role of guardian of the taxpayers' interests may well require some form of intervention? Will he make it clear that he sees it as part of his role, as Secretary of State for Industry in a Conservative Government, positively to intervene, if by intervention we mean hiving off to the private sector facilities which the State corporations cannot or will not keep going?

I should like to agree with my hon. Friend as much as possible, but I still do not think it right to tell management in the nationalised industries how to manage. I did not invent the concept of nationalisation, and I do not support it. Nationalised industries are immunised from the process of spontaneous change which competition and the fear of bankruptcy impose upon the private sector. It is difficult enough for any Government to cope with nationalised industries. At least we are reducing the scale of nationalisation.

Will the Secretary of State concede that when a nationalised industry makes a profit the Tories claim that it is because it is holding the taxpayers to ransom, and that when it makes a loss they say that it is inefficiently run? Would the right hon. Gentleman like some further comments on his Government's policy of direct intervention in the nationalised industries? They have forced the gas industry to in crease prices over and above the level which the management of that industry requested.

No, I did not want any more comments on our nationalisation policies. However, I note the hon. Member's opinions.

If my right hon. Friend believes, quite rightly, in leaving management to manage, will he at least try to ensure that there is proper management in the nationalised industries? Will he look at Sir Charles Villiers very quickly?

One must acknowledge the inherent difficulty of managing these giant corporations, immunised as they are from the threat of bankruptcy, which is the ultimate protection of the consumer. Many of the chairmen of the nationalised industries were appointed by my predecessors, and of course we keep an eye on the need to change them as the necessity arises, or as the end of their individual terms of appointment occurs.

Will the Secretary of State be more specific? He indicated that he wants the management of nationalised industries to manage. Will he tell us why the Government have not allowed that to happen in the gas industry? Why did they order that management to do something that it did not want to do, namely, to increase gas charges?

Much as I enjoy debating these questions, I must point out that that is a matter for the Secretary of State for Energy.