Skip to main content

Former Cabinet Ministers (Interests)

Volume 175: debated on Tuesday 3 July 1990

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

4.8 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit former Cabinet Ministers, within a period of five years after leaving office, from accepting any employment with or payment from a company which was privatised while they were members of the Cabinet, or which had a commercial or contractual relationship with a Department of State for which or in which they had Ministerial responsibility.
There is considerable unease that Cabinet Ministers can, shortly after leaving office, join companies that were privatised when they were in the Cabinet and, in some cases, when they were the Ministers who carried through the privatisation measures.

My Bill would exclude former Cabinet Ministers from being involved in such companies for five years and would ensure that former Ministers would not be able, for the same period, to join any company that had a commercial or contractual relationship with the Departments for which they had had ministerial responsibility. That would be a fair way of dealing with the issue and I can see no reason why anyone should think otherwise.

The right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbitt) joined the board of British Telecom in November 1987. As Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, he had been responsible for privatising that company three years previously. The right hon. Gentleman then became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and chairman of the Conservative party. He left the Government in June 1987.

The right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) became a director of British Gas on 2 June this year, having left the Government just a few weeks earlier on 30 April. British Gas was privatised in 1986 when the right hon. Gentleman was Secretary of State for Energy, after which he became Secretary of State of Wales.

I have written to all these right hon. Gentlemen to say that I would be mentioning their names. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) joined the board of National Freight. He had been Secretary of State for Transport until a year before the privatisation of that company, he had been in the Cabinet when the company was privatised and he left office only this year.

Lord Young was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry until 24 July last year. As we know, he has become the new chairman of Cable and Wireless. While he was Secretary of State, Lord Young granted Cable and Wireless a personal communication licence, which caused a great deal of controversy at the time. British Telecom, for example, said at the time that the Minister had unduly favoured Cable and Wireless. I cannot, of course, say whether the accusation was right. I want to remind the House of the date of his leaving the Government. Lord Young resigned as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on 24 July last year. The previous day, The Sunday Times carried an article stating that Lord Young might well choose to go to Cable and Wireless to succeed Lord Sharp as chairman. I cannot say whether Lord Young will now join the board of British Aerospace.

There are guidelines for ex-civil servants. Although I believe that those guidelines could be tougher and could be implemented more vigorously, at least they exist. The guidelines state that on promotion to grade three, a senior civil servant must sign a notice saying that he has read the rules, which state that it will be necessary,
"to obtain the assent of the Government before accepting within two years of resignation or retirement offers of employment in business and other bodies and in semi-public organisations brought into being by the Government or Parliament."
I believe that the period should be increased to five years and that the rules should be applied more vigorously.

If it is necessary for former senior civil servants to sign such a declaration and for such guidelines to exist the same I believe should apply to former Cabinet Ministers. Why should there be a difference? Bearing in mind what has happened recently, there is all the more justification for changing the rules or the law in this matter. The Bill would of course apply to all former Cabinet Ministers.

Several names of former Labour Ministers have been bandied around by Conservative Members and we may hear some of them today if the Bill is opposed. Lord Robens has been mentioned. Labour Members may not be the best people to defend some of those named who have changed their political allegiance. Lord Robens, however, was appointed by a Conservative Government to be chairman of the National Coal Board in 1961. The industry had been nationalised in 1946 and Lord Robens had been out of office for 10 years.

Lord Marsh became chairman of British Rail in 1971. The railways had been taken into public ownership in 1948. Lord Marsh was appointed by a Conservative Government and, as was the case with all the appointments of former Labour Ministers that I have mentioned, his appointment could have been debated in this House. Those appointments were subject to public accountability.

Lord Glenamara, formerly Ted Short, has also been mentioned. It is true that he became chairman of Cable and Wireless in 1976 and that he had been Postmaster General, but he had left that office in 1968—eight years before he became chairman of a public concern.

I hope that we shall not be told that very few letters have been received on this subject and that there is, therefore, no need to take any action. How many letters had hon. Members received before it was decided to set up the Register of Members' Interests? It was recognised that there was an abuse; something was wrong, and we had to put our house in order. That is why the register was set up; it was not a question of waiting for letters to be received. How many letters were received before the guidelines for ex-senior civil servants were established? Very few, I imagine. Government and Opposition alike recognised that it was wrong that former senior civil servants should immediately on retirement join companies with which, in many cases, they had negotiated while in public office.

We have recently been witnessing what I would describe as the politics of the pork barrel. Such practices are indefensible. The very idea that a Minister can privatise a company and then, shortly after leaving office, become the director or chairman of that company, is unacceptable to the people of Britain.

The right hon. Member for Chingford wrote a piece in the Evening Standard defending himself. I doubt whether many of his colleagues would be too keen to rush into print to defend him. It is interesting to note that, three days later, there appeared in the same newspaper a cartoon, which showed the board of a company waiting to start a meeting. One of the directors was on his feet, saying, "I am very sorry. We have just had a telephone message from the chairman. He has not yet quite resigned from the Government." That illustrates rightly the cynical attitude that many people take to what has been happening.

Perhaps we shall be accused of mischief making and told that this is just an Opposition ploy. My response to that is simple: end the indefensible practices and the politics of the pork barrel and we shall not have any mischief to make over this.

I have no illusions. I know that even if my Bill is carried today, it is not likely that, in a Tory-dominated House of Commons, the Cabinet will give me the time necessary to make progress on the Bill, although I should add that if I were given parliamentary time, I should be willing to listen carefully in Committee to arguments in support of any amendments tabled by Conservative Members. But, as I said, I have no illusions. I have merely put down a marker by highlighting the practices of the Tory Government and some of their former Ministers. I have illustrated a need for a change in the rules, and, although I know that it will probably be a Labour Government who introduce the reforms that I have advocated, there is no doubt in my mind that what I propose is required by the public.

Even Conservative newspapers that have carried editorials on the subject—papers which rarely, if ever, support the Labour party—have concluded that what has been happening is unacceptable. In my view, it is also indefensible and I therefore ask the House to give me permission to bring in my Bill.

4.17 pm

First, let me make it clear that I have no personal interest in this matter. I had entertained hopes of high office, but when, in that connection, I saw my name on the front page of The Sunday Times my hopes were instantly dashed. I therefore have no interest in the matter.

My initial reaction—like that of many hon. Members—was to dismiss a Bill brought in by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), whom Lord Wilson of Rievaulx once described as the silliest man in the House of Commons. Most of us would not necessarily wish to detain the House on such a Bill. To be absolutely honest, I believe that Lord Wilson was being characteristically kind. The hon. Gentleman may be silly: I do not know. A lot of hon. Members on both sides of the House might just qualify for that title. But I think that the Bill is complete humbug. It is appallingly sanctimonious and it is typical of what we have come to expect from the hon. Gentleman.

My right hon. Friends can all look after themselves. I do not think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) and my noble Friends in the other place need any help from me.

As we are in the business of relating a few histories, I thought that I might relate one or two myself. Forgive me. I do not want to go over the ground that the hon. Gentleman covered when he talked about people such as Lord Glenamara, but he was selective in what he said. It is indeed true that the former Ted Short, who, incidentally, is a former deputy leader of the Labour party, appears, if I am correct, to have gained his extensive industrial experience as the headmaster of Princess Louise secondary school in Blyth. That was pre-LMS—local management of schools—so goodness knows how he would fare now.

Having relinquished that role, Lord Glenamara became chairman of a company called Cable and Wireless. On the basis of his experience, it may be true that, as was alleged at the time, he did not know his cable from his wireless. Whether or not that is true, it is true that Lord Dick Marsh joined the board of British Railways. However, what we should reflect on is that the noble Lord, after ministerial experience at the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Technology, the Ministry of Power and the Department of Transport, became chairman of the British Railways Board. As the hon. Gentleman singularly failed to mention, he went on to hold, by my calculation, 15 other chairmanships and major directorships and is, incidentally, still, as I understand it, an adviser to Nissan, which broadened my understanding.

We were told of Lord Alf Robens—

Yes, indeed. That is absolutely right. Lord Alf Robens, having been Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Fuel and Power, became chairman of the National Coal Board. However, Lord Robens was a director of Vickers and of Johnson Matthey. Does not every picture tell a story? He was also a director of a company called AMI, whose business is private hospitals. My goodness me, as far as I am aware, that is the same Lord Alf Robens.

Then, of course, there is Lord Eric Varley, the man who landed the taxpayer with £1.6 billion worth of guarantees under the Varley-Marshall plan. Having had a spell at the Ministry of Technology and then as Secretary of State for Energy and Secretary of State for Industry, he went on to become chairman and chief executive of Coalite. That is a rather useful juxtaposition—energy, industry, and then the board of Coalite.

Also, sadly, there was the late Lord Frank Beswick. Having been Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Civil Aviation in the Labour Government, he went on to become chairman of British Aerospace—useful—and special adviser to the chairman of the British Aircraft Corporation. Then there is Edmund Dell. I delved and I found Dell. Having been a Minister in the unlamented Department of Economic Affairs, he became Minister of Technology.

I do not take points of order in the middle of ten-minute Bills. I shall take it at the end.

Practically every one of those gentlemen is distinguished by having been in the Ministry of Technology. It is extraordinary that, even now, none of us can remember what the Ministry of Technology was supposed to do or indeed did, but they have all been Ministers there. Edmund Dell went on not to run a private hospital, but to be chairman of a merchant bank, which is all jolly good stuff.

I do not want to confine my remarks to past Members of the House, because we have enough evidence of current useful industrial interchange on Opposition Benches at the moment. We have directors of insurance companies, airlines, radio and television companies, computer companies and publishing companies. I do not have time to mention them all, but I have the names if my hon.

Friends would like them. It seems to be a classic exercise in, "Don't do as I do, do as I say." I suspect that that saying motivates many of the Labour party's policies.

The entry in the Register of Members' Interests for the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), who is a director of a publishing company called Localaction Ltd., says:
"It is a company formed to cover the publication of my book and any other major writing."
What an interesting thought. I see a seamless stream of writers, Nietzsche, Marx, Lenin, Socrates, Livingstone—that has a certain ring about it.

Eighteen Opposition Members are paid advisers to trade unions and to commerce. I note that the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) is in his usual place and I am sure that he would defend his role as adviser to the Association of University Teachers, as the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) would defend his role as an adviser to NATFHE—the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education—and the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) would defend her role as adviser to the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association. All would say that they were entirely objective in the advice they gave and that if they were Ministers in a future Labour Government and in charge of the Department of Education and Science their previous jobs would not, of course, have the slightest influence on their judgment. Why on earth does the hon. Member for Walsall, North argue that the same is not the case for those right hon. and noble Gentlemen on both sides of the House who have gone on to give industry the benefit of their experience?

The real truth is simple—it is the old politics of envy again. The hon. Member for Walsall, North is distinguished, so far as I can determine, by two things—one, that he has never done a real job in his life and, secondly, that every year he loses the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff—APEX—elections to Roy Grantham.

The Bill reveals a simple truth about the Labour party. No one who is seriously involved in business would pay for any Member of the Labour party to do any job other than chopping sticks. No Opposition Member, including the shadow trade and industry team and the shadow Treasury team, has the slightest idea of the requirements of management. The Labour party cannot see enterprise and success without wanting to attack them—it does not seek to foster them. When industry and commerce look around for talent, energy and entrepreneurial skill it is no accident that they find those qualities in overwhelming abundance on the Conservative Benches.

Every other country in Europe recognises the interchange between the Government and industry. They appreciate that it is vital, healthy and necessary to sustain industrial and commercial growth. That also leads to a greater understanding in national Parliaments of industrial and commercial issues.

I believe that we should treat the Bill with the contempt it deserves. It is a typical exercise in humbug and the politics of envy. It has no place in logic and I invite my hon. Friends to treat it with the contempt it so richly deserves.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

We have just witnessed a shocking abuse of our procedures. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris) is a twit, because he has not answered my argument.

Order. It is in order for hon. Members to speak against a ten-minute Bill, provided that they register their objection. It is not always necessary to have a vote. That practice is enshrined in our Standing Orders, but it might be as well for the Select Committee on Procedure to consider it for the future.

It is mild I agree, but I am a moderate chap.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Winnick, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mr. George J. Buckley, Mr. Terry Davis, Mr. Don Dixon, Mr. Frank Cook, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Doug Hoyle, Ms. Joyce Quin, Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse, Mr. Martin Redmond and Mr. Alan Williams.