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British Railways Board (Subsidiary Businesses)

Volume 983: debated on Wednesday 23 April 1980

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4.

asked the Minister of Transport when he expects to receive the results of the joint examination by his Department and the British Railways Board about the setting up of a holding company for its subsidiary businesses.

19.

asked the Minister when he expects to announce his proposals for certain British Railways subsidiaries.

I expect to receive the results within the next month and shall make an announcement as soon after that as possible.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the holding company proposal is fiercely resisted both by British Railways and the railway trade unions since that proposal will deprive them of the finance that is urgently needed for British Railways' passenger services? Is this not another example of a Tory Government bowing to private enterprise?

It may come as a surprise to the hon. Gentleman to hear that this Conservative Government are in favour of private enterprise. May I say to him that there is no difference in objectives between what I am doing and what the chairman of British Railways wishes to do. The chairman of British Railways wants private investment in the subsidiary companies. We are now disscusing the method. My mind is not closed on the method, but on the objective I remain absolutely firm.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the figures which indicate that the 29 hotels of British Railways produced a profit of £328,000, which will not do very much to help their investment programme? Does he agree that if there is true concern about the expansion of the subsidiary companies and employment in them, there will be a wish to see them separated from the public sector to allow new investment to come in and to allow the expansion to take place that has been constrained under successive Governments in the past?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Last year the hotels made a surplus of £328,000 on a turnover of £38 million. That is the sort of performance that we are seeking to improve. I believe that the opportunity to grow free from the restraint of the public sector is good for those organisations and will be good for the creation of jobs within them.

Does the Minister agree that if finance from the subsidiaries is not available for the capital funding of British Railways the taxpayer, about whom he is always mouthing concern, will have to find the capital? To demonstrate that, will the right hon. Gentleman quote the equivalent figures for the British Rail Property Board?

The majority of the money that goes to British Railways from its property interests comes not from non-operational property but operational property. We are seeking to get private investment into the non-operational property side of British Railways. We are not saying that British Rail should not have a stake in the company—clearly it should. The hon. Gentleman's fears are regrettably misplaced.

Will my right hon. Friend make a genuine attempt to point out to the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Lewis) and others the reality that Sir Peter Parker's plans would in all probability mean more and not less investment in the subsidiaries, and that that would mean more jobs and more secure jobs? Will he go on from that to discuss with the Chairman the financial relationship between British Railways and Her Majesty's Government in the light of the board's current views? When he has done that, will he make a statement to the House?

I shall try to achieve all that my hon. Friend asks of me. I emphasise that we genuinely believe that by giving the subsidiary companies greater freedom, which not only the Government but British Railways want to see for them, we shall be acting in the interests of those who work for the subsidiary companies and for employment generally.

The House will recognise that the profits both from hotels and shipping has increased from £2 million in 1974 to about £14 million now, despite difficult circumstances. Will the Minister make it clear to the House whether private equity capital will have the same voting value in the determination of commercial decisions as those shares held by the British Railways Board?

Yes, that would be the aim. I shall be making a further announcement. It is clear that the details of the scheme are now under consideration. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to wait until that consideration has been completed. After the initial consideration we shall be talking to all the interests, including the trade unions.