HC Deb 28 January 1971 vol 810 cc809-15
Mr. Tom Bradley (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment in view of his statement that he intends to dispose of the publicly-owned company, Thos. Cook & Son Ltd., what consultations he has had with the Trade Unions concerned and if he will make a statement as to the procedure to be followed and the terms he will require to safeguard the interests of its employees.

The Minister for Transport Industries (Mr. John Peyton)

I recognise how important this decision is from the point of view of the staff whose interests and welfare will be kept very much in mind both by the Government and the Transport Holding Company. I have already had a preliminary meeting with the General Secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association at which I assured him that, in the event of sale, the pension rights of the staff would be safeguarded. The unions will be fully consulted at all stages about the detailed arrangements which will now be worked out in conjunction with the Transport Holding Company.

Mr. Bradley

Since the right hon. Gentleman has recognised that this is a matter of considerable importance, may I ask why did he not come to the House yesterday to make a statement instead of sheltering behind a Written Answer? Is he aware that his decision is widely regarded as another act of political spite against the public sector? Is it his ultimate intention to leave the entire public transport complex with only its loss-making activities?

Will he accept a bid for Thomas Cook from another public undertaking such as British Rail or British European Airways? Is he aware that much of Thomas Cook's business is in foreign exchange transactions, and how does he propose to deal with that problem? Finally, is he aware that the staff of Thomas Cook enjoy rather better rates of pay and conditions of service than do staff in the private sector of travel agencies? Will he ensure that when the sale takes place the conditions of service and superannuation arrangements of the staff of Thomas Cook will be fully protected?

Mr. Peyton

I have already dealt with the last part of that question and the answer is "Yes". May I first deal with the point made by the hon. Gentleman about any discourtesy to the House? The answer was given yesterday to a Written Question. I had hoped that it would be to an Oral Question [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] But in fact it turned out to be the third Question asked by the hon. Member concerned and so the answer was allowed to go as a Written Answer. I must explain to the House that the Government were in some dilemma since they had to choose between answering the Question yesterday, or alternatively eating into the time allocated to the Industrial Relations Bill. [HON. MEMBERS: "Excuses."] Perhaps I might be allowed to observe that until this moment I had understood hon. Members opposite to be anxious to win some time for the Industrial Relations Bill. Certainly no discourtesy was intended to the House, and if there is any suggestion of that I unreservedly apologise.

In reply to the hon. Gentleman's point about a public corporation being free to make an offer for this concern, if it has the cash available to do so I imagine it will be free to make an offer, along with any other interested body.

In regard to the point made by the hon. Gentleman about spite against a nationalised concern and the very great venom with which, uncharacteristically, he asked that part of his question, I would only say that until now I had not regarded Thomas Cook and Son as being one of the commanding heights of the economy.

Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid

In disposing of this very important business, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that it has developed very much less of its true potential because of the financing terms imposed upon it by the British Transport Holding Authority, and in particular in respect of the sale of travellers' cheques which in private hands would be a source of very large revenue, had Thomas Cook not been so disallowed?

Mr. Peyton

Yes, Sir. I am obliged to my hon. Friend and will certainly bear in mind what he has said. I have little doubt that under private management this concern should be able considerably to improve its earning record.

Mr. John Morris

Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that he is compounding this scandalous decision by the sheer hypocrisy of the way in which yesterday he tried to shield behind a Written Answer—hypocrisy which is uncharacteristic of the right hon. Gentleman? In regard to whether this great undertaking can be acquired by another publicly-owned industry if such an industry wants to make a bid, does it not come before the right hon. Gentleman to approve as a piece of capital investment? Will he not refuse that in turn?

Mr. Peyton

I am interested to hear the right hon. Gentleman, who usually speaks with such moderation, straying into hyperbole which betrays the weakness of his case. I have absolutely nothing to add to the answer I gave to his hon. Friend just now, namely, that if a public corporation has the resources available to make a bid, I am sure it is free to do so.

Mr. Jopling

Could it be made clear to any purchaser of Thomas Cook that it should not expect to have the monopoly of travel facilities within the Palace of Westminster? Will he give an undertaking that in future this franchise will be put out to tender to the whole travel business?

Mr. Peyton

That is a very important matter which I have no doubt will receive——

Mr. Rose

Why not sell off the Chamber?

Mr. Peyton

It depends on the contents.

As I was saying in reply to my hon. Friend, the question of the franchise of serving this House will no doubt receive the energetic consideration of the Services Committee.

Mr. Paget

Since the right hon. Gentleman does not regard Thomas Cook as a commanding height of the economy, may we take it that he regards it as a nice morsel of loot?

Mr. Peyton

My answer to that is quite clear—no. Whoever acquires Thomas Cook will have to pay a very steep price.

Mr. Blaker

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his decision will be widely welcomed? Is it not clear to anybody who takes the trouble to look at the balance sheets of Thomas Cook that the return on assets employed is very poor and is falling? Is it not therefore very much in the interests of the taxpayer that it should be sold at a fair price and the proceeds used in a more useful manner?

Mr. Peyton

I entirely endorse everything that my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he has always been held in such respect in this House for his polished performances that we are disappointed that he should try to emulate his Leader in the level of his remarks?

Is the right hon. Gentleman trying to tell the House that he does not know that if one hon. Member has three Questions on the Order Paper the third is not reached? Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware of the abundant precedent for asking leave to answer an Oral Question and even, appropriately, a Written Question?

Will the right hon. Gentleman now answer another question put by my hon. Friend in his opening supplementary—namely, whether another public company can bid for Thomas Cook? The right hon. Gentleman said "If they have the cash". Will he therefore allow any other publicly-owned organisation to borrow in the City, exactly as the private buyer will be able to do, to buy the assets of Thomas Cook? Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking — [Interruption.]—that Thomas Cook, which is widely respected and is responsible for the safety of so many hon. Members flying abroad, and their welfare—[Interruption.]—yes, literally—will not be sold to one of the crook organisations in the tourist travel industry which are not too squeamish about the safety of their customers——

Hon. Members


Sir G. Nabarro

On a point of order. I distinctly heard the Leader of the Opposition refer to "crook organisations". As all travel agencies are properly conducted— [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."]—in accordance with legal and statutory requirements, may I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to rule now that the term "crook organisations", directed against people outside this House, is an unparliamentary expression unworthy of the right hon. Gentleman which ought, in common decency, to be unreservedly withdrawn?

Mr. Fernyhough

Further to that point of order. Is it not true, Mr. Speaker— [HON. MEMBERS: "NO."]—I shall wait; do not worry. Is it not true that Sir Thomas Cook—[HON. MEMBERS: "Sir Thomas!"]—and Son has in no way contributed to the many thousands of holidaymakers who have been filched by the crooks to whom my right hon. Friend referred?

Mr. English

Further to that point of order raised by the hon. Member for Worcester——

Sir G. Nabarro

Not Worcester. Worcestershire, South.

Mr. English

—would it not be quite simple, as a matter of public record, to list those companies against which actions have been successfully brought?

Mr. Ashton

Further to that point of order. Are you aware, Mr. Speaker, that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has, within the last month, agreed to take action against a travel agency about 50 yards from this House—the Westminster Touring Association—and that the remarks of my right hon. Friend are fully justified?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am grateful for all this assistance, but I was prepared to rule straight away. I think that there is a convention in this House that remarks made in the general are permissible.

Mr. Harold Wilson

I also thank hon. Members for their help. Perhaps I might finish the sentence. I referred to crook organisations, of which I have, through members of my family, personal knowledge, and the fleecing of a lot of—[Interruption.] If hon. Gentlemen want to justify an organisation, not a hundred yards from where I am speaking, which fleeced vicar after vicar and parishioners throughout the country going to Oberammergau this year and demanded more money on the eve of going—this includes my sister, who was fleeced, too, if hon. Gentlemen are interested—will they get up and justify it? I am asking whether the right hon. Gentleman, whose standards I know to be higher than those who have just interrupted, will give an assurance not to sell Thomas Cook to firms of that kind?

Mr. Peyton

Yes, Sir. Of course, I give that assurance. I am surprised that it should even be necessary to ask for it.

Perhaps I might comment on the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough)——

Mr. Kaufmanrose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I really do not think that it is for the right hon. Gentleman to answer a point of order.

Mr. Peyton

It was never my intention to do so, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Gentleman got his knighthoods a bit mixed. He was talking about Sir Thomas Cook rather than Sir Henry Lunn. I do not think that Mr. Thomas Cook was ever knighted.

The right hon. Gentleman returned to the point on why I had not made a statement yesterday. Let me say—and I have the permission of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to say this—that I expressed to my right hon. Friend yesterday my very great disappointment at not being able to make this statement, because I anticipated, with some pleasure, exactly the reaction which we have now experienced.

The right hon. Gentleman has again——

Mr. Latham

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your guidance, in view of what has been said, and ask whether it would be in order and possible to reverse the process of transferring Questions and get an answer to what has been asked from the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister, who his right hon. Friend has said is responsible for his not making a statement yesterday?

Mr. Speaker

That is ingenious, but not a point of order.

Mr. Peyton

The hon. Gentleman misunderstood, or misheard, or both, what I said. I referred to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I have no doubt that if the hon. Gentleman seizes the opportunity later my right hon. Friend will enjoy answering him just as much as I am enjoying myself now—[Interruption.]— My own recollection of the way to get an answer from the right hon. Gentleman was to ask a very short question, and even then one was not always successful. The right hon. Gentleman has asked me a long question, and I am endeavouring to answer it.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to Thomas Cook's responsibility for the safety of right hon. and hon. Members. I have no doubt that whoever has the task in future of looking after right hon. and hon. Members will be just as careful for their safety as have Cook's in the past.

I have already told the right hon. Gentleman that it was quite unnecessary for him to drag out of the gutter some dubious organisation and suggest that there was any possibility of the sale of this well-known and well-established firm to such an organisation as that.

The right hon. Gentleman suggested that I was in some way emulating, or seeking to emulate, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. My only comment on that is that I should be much more anxious to do that than some of the right hon. Gentleman's right hon. and hon. Friends would be to emulate him.