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Britoil (Share Offer)

Volume 32: debated on Wednesday 17 November 1982

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3.30 pm

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the refusal of the Prime Minister to direct that the families and family trusts of Ministers of the Crown should not tender for shares in Britoil when the offer opens on Friday 19 November."
The principle at stake will apply also in other cases where national assets owned by the taxpayer are sold off in circumstances where a profit could be made from their initial purchase and subsequent resale. The recent example of Amersham International shows that easy profits can be made by those with information not available to the general public.

The matter is important for three reasons. First, the House of Commons in this century has concerned itself with the standards of Ministers' conduct in public life. When the matter was first debated in the House in 1913 during the Marconi scandal the Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith, said:
"no Minister is justified under any circumstances in using official information, information that has come to him as a Minister, for his own private profit or for that of his friends."
I emphasise these latter words
"or for that of his friends",
who must be taken to include the families of Ministers.

There is now a new consideration to be taken into account which was not available in 1913. We are now embarked on a new process of selling off national assets owned by the British people whose interests Parliament exists to safeguard. The existing rules do not cover the new position. I submit that the standards of conduct as applied to Ministers should, in the special circumstances of such sales, be applied to the families and family trusts of Ministers.

Secondly, the matter is important because Ministers may possess, or be thought to possess, information not in the prospectus which could influence a decision whether to tender for shares. That matter was also alluded to by Mr. Asquith in 1913 when he said:
"Ministers should scrupulously avoid speculative investments in securities as to which, from their position and their special means of early or confidential information, they have or may have an advantage over other people in anticipating market changes."—[Official Report, 19 June 1913; Vol. LIV, c.557.]
In 1913 Mr. Asquith recognised the possibility that Ministers, their family and friends might benefit from such information. Our Prime Minister does not. In a letter that I have received from her today she states that
"it is a legal requirement that the prospectus for a sale should give all information material to a decision whether or not to apply for shares. Ministers and their families will therefore be in no more advantageous a position than members of the public who read the prospectus."
I do not accept that statement as correct in the circumstances of this sale, for two reasons. First, we know that Ministers have confidential information. The Secretary of State for Energy refused to reveal some of that to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) during questions on his statement on 27 October. It was clear that such information was not to be revealed to the House. Therefore, a fortiori, it is not to be revealed in the prospectus.

Secondly, Ministers' families could be in a more advantageous position than the ordinary public. The principle is well understood by ordinary people who are used to competitions organised by newspapers and manufacturers of breakfast cereals, where the families of those setting the competition are excluded from taking part. The organisers are well aware that to allow them to take part would be seen to be grossly unfair and improper. Surely that principle is understood wherever breakfast cereals are sold, even in grocers' shops.

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not make the speech that he would make if I were to grant his application. I have been tolerant and I have allowed him to go a great deal of the way.

My third point relates to why the matter is important. I must prove that to you, Mr. Speaker, as you have to make a decision. May I refer to the age-old saying of Julius Caesar, attributed to him by Plutarch, that Caesar's wife must be above suspicion? Surely the families and spouses of the little Caesars on the Government Front Bench should also be above suspicion. This is not a case where, in the words of the Good Book,

"The race is not to the swift."
However, in the case of Britoil it certainly is to those who have inside information.

I submit that the matter is urgent because shares in Britoil will be open for application on Friday. I raised the matter at the first possible opportunity when the Secretary of State for Energy made his statement on 27 October. I wrote to the Prime Minister on 28 October and it has taken over two and a half weeks to get a reply. That reply, from which I have quoted, is wholly unsatisfactory. It is essential that the House should have a chance to express its views on the matter before Friday. It will be too late thereafter. The Ministers' families and family trusts will, by then, have been able to tender for the shares and, if appropriate, dispose of them at a profit. If we fail to discuss the matter now and there is any subsequent impropriety, we shall all bear a heavy responsibility.

The hon. Member for Waltham Forest (Mr. Deakins) gave me notice before 12 o'clock midday that he might seek to make an application under Standing Order No. 9 this afternoon.

The hon. Gentleman asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he thinks should have urgent consideration, namely,
"the refusal of the Prime Minister to direct that the families and family trusts of Ministers of the Crown should not tender for shares in Britoil when the offer opens on Friday 19 November."
As the House knows, under Standing Order No. 9 I am directed to take account of the several factors set out in the order but to give no reason for my decision.

I have given careful consideration to the representations that have been made, but I have to rule that the hon. Gentleman's submission does not fall within the provisions of the Standing Order and, therefore, I cannot submit his application to the House.