Britain grinds gears over nationalized industries

A major controversy has blown up in Britain over the country's ailing nationalized industries.

The nationalized industries have long been a bone of contention in Britain because they represent one of the issues that most clearly divides the main political parties.

Successive Labour governments, because of socialist policies, have nationalized key areas of British industry and are opposed to putting them back into private hands. But the ruling Conservatives, who favor more free enterprise , say private profit is a more efficient spur than endless infusions of public money to help keep troubled nationalized industries afloat.

The handling of such nationalized industries as rail, steel, oil, British Airways, and British Leyland cars and trucks, has now led to a new controversy on two fronts that raise basic public-policy issues.

The first front is how the Conservative government should be carrying out its policy of making parts of the economy more efficient by taking them out of government hands and turning them back to private industry.

The second is whether Parliament and auditors have the right to inspect all the books of nationalized industries such as British Leyland.

Taken together, the issues have led to clashes between the government and both the opposition Labour Party and its own conservative backbenchers.

Solutions are urgently needed if Britain is to make full use of its economic potential, many businessmen and economists believe.

Recently the government sold the shares of a highly regarded high-technology company called Amersham International on the London Stock Exchange, setting the price at 142 pence a share.

But an hour of the most hectic trading in recent memory proved that the price was much too low, and it quickly rose to more than 190 pence.

If the government had set the higher price it could have earned about (STR)24 million ($43.4 million) in extra revenue, and the opposition Labour leader, Michael Foot, charged Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the House of Commons with a ''scandalous procedure.''

The government was embarrassed by the Amersham sale, and is now looking at new procedures for selling parts of the public economy. Pending here is a sell-back (being termed ''the sale of the century'') of assets of the British National Oil Corporation (BNOC), which operates in the North Sea.

Meanwhile, Tory backbenchers are determined to force the Treasury to open up the books of nationalized industries.

A total of 287 members of Parliament from all parties led by Edward du Cann (chairman of the Treasury and service select committee) and Joel Barnett (former Labour minister at the Treasury) are demanding a full review of Leyland's books to check for alleged irregularities in selling off assets to raise cash.

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