The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Yvette Cooper): I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
Mr. Speaker: With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 3, and Government motions to disagree thereto, and Lords amendments Nos. 4 to 8.
Yvette Cooper: I thank the Lords for their consideration of the Bill, which has been brought forward in exceptional circumstances. As a result of the consideration by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, the Government put forward in the Lords a series of amendments to change several orders so that they will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. We think that that is the right approach and we therefore accept those Lords amendments.
The Lords passed three amendments with which we wish to disagree and I shall take each in turn. Lords amendment No. 3 is on competition and the role of Office of Fair Trading andâ€”as a result of the consideration both in the Lords and this placeâ€”we have had further discussions with the OFT. It may be helpful to inform the House about those discussions.
As we made clear in earlier debates, the Government recognise that we need to ensure that Northern Rock does not enjoy inappropriate or unfair advantages in competition with other banks and building societies. We need to ensure that we are operating in the interests of the taxpayer, but also that we have appropriate competition in the markets.
At EU level, we have been clear that we will need to ensure that the business plan satisfies the EU state aid rules and support for Northern Rock needs to be fully consistent with those guidelines. As we told the House on Second Reading, we will also hold discussions with the British Bankers Association, the Building Societies Association and the Council of Mortgage Lenders before final plans are submitted to the European Commission for state aid approval.
We agreed yesterday that the OFT will publish an annual report assessing any competitive implications of the public support for Northern Rock and, of course, the OFT also has the powers to step in at any time. The OFT is an effective watchdog, overseeing competitiveness in the UK markets. It has wide powers, including powers to investigate whether any market in the UK is distorted by unfair competition. It does not need specific new powers to report on the competitiveness of the banking market.
Therefore, there is no need for Lords amendment No. 3, which would be an unnecessary duplication of the OFTâ€™s powers under the Competition Act 1998 and the Enterprise Act 2002, and the European Commissionâ€™s powers under the EU treaties. The amendment is inappropriate and I hope that the House will disagree with it.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Does that mean that the Chief Secretary envisages limiting the attractiveness of the rates that can be offered and charged by Northern Rock by reference to the average of its competitors?
Yvette Cooper: As we have repeatedly made clear, it would not be appropriate for Ministers to take decisions about individual products offered by Northern Rock. It is right that Ron Sandler should put forward his business plan, and that will obviously need to be approved by the Government as the shareholder in Northern Rock. Equally, as part of that process, we need to ensure, as we approve that business plan and have discussions with the EU, that we do not have unfair competition. It may well be that the European Commission will set out particular conditions on Northern Rockâ€™s operation, and, of course, we will have to ensure that Northern Rock complies with them.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): If the British Bankers Association eventually concludes that the arrangements lead to unfair competition, what redress will it have?
Yvette Cooper: Clearly, the issue will be what the OFT concludes and what the EU concludes. Obviously, we will have discussions with the British Bankers Association, but Northern Rock will need to operate in compliance with UK competition law. It will obviously also have to comply with the EU state aid rules.
We have to remember the underpinning purpose of this intervention, which was to secure the financial stability of the banking system. As we have said previously, it would obviously not be in the interests of other banks or consumers for there to be unfair competition. Equally, it would not have been in the interests of other banks or consumers if Northern Rock had gone under in the autumn and there had been a spread of instability across the banking system. Sometimes I think that hon. Members who raise concerns about this are in fact raising concerns about the fact that Government guarantees have been introduced at all.
We think that it was right to introduce those Government guarantees, because we need to safeguard the stability of the wider banking system as part of the need to promote stability across the board. Therefore, I hope that the House will agree to disagree with Lords amendment No. 3.
I turn next to Lords amendment No. 1, which concerns the independent audit. Clearly, there should be an independent audit of Northern Rock. Indeed, an independent audit is currently under way. Northern Rockâ€™s audited annual accounts will be published, after independent audit, by the end of March. That should give the House and the public information on Northern Rockâ€™s assets and liabilities as part of its balance sheet. Northern Rock will continue to be subject to the requirements of the Companies Act 1985 and the Companies Act 2006. That means that the annual reports and accounts must be independently audited and filed with the registrar of companies for public access. We think that that is the appropriate way to conduct the audit.
Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Is the Chief Secretary therefore telling us that the audited accounts, which will be published at the end of March, will include the consolidation of the assets and liabilities held within the series of Granite subsidiaries of Northern Rock? If that is the case, will she clarify what she was signally unable to clarify last Tuesday? Will the Government have a call on the assets in the Granite subsidiaries in the event of defaults on its liabilities?
Yvette Cooper: We have set that out repeatedly. Clearly, the accounts will need to be set out in the normal way. The accounts of Northern Rock will need to meet all the ordinary accounting practices. It is right that that should be so. We have also repeatedly made it clear that the Government guarantees apply to Northern Rock and not to Granite. Again, it is right that that should be the case and that is the arrangement that has been set in place.
It is right to think that the appropriate way to conduct the audit is the method I mentioned. To ask the Bank of England to conduct a separate audit would not be appropriate. That is not the Bankâ€™s area of expertise; it is not a professional independent auditor but a central bank. Interestingly, the amendment would not require an independent audit of Northern Rock within three months because it applies to clause 6, whereas the draft order that we have published would be made under clause 3. The amendment would therefore not achieve the intentions of the drafters.
Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Does the right hon. Lady recognise that it is the very opacity of conventional accounting that worries people when they are confronted by the existence of operations such as Granite, which did not come to the notice of even quite experienced observers of Northern Rock until a relatively late stage in its life and remains the subject of considerable uncertainty? That is one of the reasons why other forms of audit are being sought.
Yvette Cooper: Many people have raised and discussed issues about Granite on many occasions. If the right hon. Gentleman is pointing to the fact that several people had clearly misunderstood the nature of Granite and changed their understanding yesterday, that is obviously a matter for them. There has been a lot of discussion about the arrangements for Granite; it is a special purpose vehicleâ€”the kind of arrangement that many banks set upâ€”and it is important that its accounting treatment is properly dealt with and is properly transparent in the normal way. The matter has been discussed repeatedly.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab) roseâ€”
Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab) roseâ€”
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con) roseâ€”
Yvette Cooper: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin).
Mr. Mullin: I have not yet changed my understanding about Granite, and I put it to my right hon. Friend that at some stage a clear explanation will be needed of the company and its accounting arrangements, and the allegation that it will apparently be allowed to go on sucking assets from Northern Rock even after it is nationalised. That will have to be explained at some pointâ€”[Hon. Members: â€œNow.â€] I hope that my right hon. Friend will do so at some point this evening.
Yvette Cooper: Can we be clear? That is not an accurate description of the relationship between Granite and Northern Rock; it is simply not true to say that Granite has a call on the assets of Northern Rock in that way and is, as my hon. Friend put it, sucking out mortgages from the bank. That is not the structural or the contractual relationship between Granite and Northern Rock. I draw the attention of Members to the letter that has been circulated, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has put in the Library, and which provides greater clarity on that detail.
I am conscious of the fact that many issues need to be raised. There is an important question about freedom of information that I need to cover as part of this debate.
Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Does the Chief Secretary accept that in this case, given the amount of public money we are talking about, the ordinary requirements for reporting under company law are not sufficient, especially because, as she is aware, there are serious doubts about the robustness of the interim report produced by the company in June? Within a few weeks, the company was running to the Bank of England for a massive loan. That is why we need the extra level of independent auditing.
Yvette Cooper: Let us be clear about the events, including the credit crunch in the summer, which triggered Northern Rockâ€™s particular difficulties. I agree that there is a wider question about the sustainability of the approach that Northern Rock took and its aggressive strategy. As part of our consultation paper about wider reforms to the banking system, we have also discussed the need to look more widely at issues around liquidity, not simply solvency, as part of the regulatory structure. There is obviously a wide series of issues.
The Government have already stepped in to intervene with regard to Northern Rock. The Bank of England has already stepped in to intervene by providing additional loans to Northern Rock at an appropriate point and the Government have provided guarantees. It was right that the Government should do so; it was about protecting the financial stability of the banking system as a whole, as well as dealing with depositorsâ€™ interests in Northern Rock. Of course, assessments and analysis have been carried out as part of the lending and guarantees, but the exposure remains the same, as a result of taking Northern Rock into temporary public ownership. The intention at all stages is to be able to try to return the company to the private sector as rapidly as possible. We are talking simply about a temporary arrangement, and that bears on the third amendment.
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): Before the right hon. Lady moves off that point, I point out that it has emerged that Northern Rock has a subsidiary based in the Channel Islands that takes offshore deposits. Are we to own a nationalised bank that operates in the Channel Islands and takes offshore deposits?
Yvette Cooper: As we have repeatedly made clear to the hon. Gentleman, we are not taking ownership of Granite. Throughout the processâ€”
Mr. Osborne roseâ€”
Yvette Cooper: Let me finish this point. The hon. Gentleman has repeatedly made completely inaccurate, nonsense points, not simply about Granite but about the overall relationship to Northern Rock, so much so that todayâ€™s Financial Times said:
â€œThe argument…put forward by the Conservativesâ€ on Graniteâ€œwas roundly dismissed on Wednesday by City experts…Analysts said this showed a basic misunderstanding of how securitisations worked.â€
The hon. Gentleman has today made a series of completely incorrect claims about the legal status of Northern Rock, which suggests a misunderstanding not simply of securitisations but of UK law.
Mr. Osborne: I would be happy to read out a yearâ€™s worth of Financial Times articles about the performance of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I want to press the right hon. Lady on the point about the subsidiary of Northern Rock that operates and takes offshore deposits in the Channel Islands; it is not Granite but a subsidiary of the bank. If we nationalise the bank this evening, will the Northern Rock subsidiary in the Channel Islands operate as a Government-owned nationalised bank? After all, I remember that when the Prime Minister was the shadow Chancellor, he made a great point of noting the offshore tax evasion that took place in some parts of the world.
Yvette Cooper: We are clear that we are taking over the legal entity that is Northern Rockâ€”the totality of Northern Rockâ€”and it will pass into the hands of the new board. Ron Sandler will now draw up the business plan and arrangements for the new bank. It is right that he should do so and that it should operate on a commercial basis. Let us be clear about why we have done what we have done: it is in order to saveâ€”
Mr. Speaker: Order. The right hon. Lady must be allowed to speak.
Yvette Cooper: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The implication of all the points that Opposition Members have raised is that fundamentally they do not like the fact that Government guarantees were provided for an organisation that continues to operate. They simply want to make opportunist points, providing no serious alternative for the future of Northern Rock or the future of the banking system.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Will the Minister give way?
Yvette Cooper: I need to get on to the next amendment.
Mr. Cash: The Minister has an obligation to answer the questions.
Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister does not have an obligation to answer the hon. Gentleman. She has an obligation to speak to the House, and that is what she is doing.
Yvette Cooper: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I need to get on to Lords amendment No. 2, which is about the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Again, we do not believe that the amendment would be appropriate. It is important that the public and the House have information about Northern Rock, and as I have made clear, the full, audited annual accounts will be published by the end of March.
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): Will the right hon. Lady give way?
Yvette Cooper: I shall make some progress and set out the points first, if I may, and then I will give way.
Mr. Shepherd roseâ€”
Yvette Cooper: If the hon. Gentleman will take his seat, I will make a little progress with the arguments about freedom of information, and if I have time, I will give way to him later.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.
Mr. Speaker: I am sure that it is not a point of order, but I will hear it.
Mr. Harper: I have heard the Minister make lots of references to how little time we have. Surely that is governed by the Ministerâ€™s business motion, so it is rather pointless for her to complain.
Mr. Speaker: I knew that the hon. Gentlemanâ€™s comment would not be a point of order. I call Yvette Cooper.
Yvette Cooper: I appreciate that Opposition Members do not want to hear the points that we are making; they simply want to play games with what we should all recognise is an extremely serious issue concerning the future stability of the banking system and the future of Northern Rock.
In addition to the full, audited annual accounts and the annual report, other information about Northern Rock will be provided. In addition, we have said that we will shortly publish the framework document, which will set out the appropriate operating arrangements between Northern Rock and the Government. We will alsoâ€”
Mr. Shepherd: Will the Minister give way?
Yvette Cooper: No, I will not until I have made some progress. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman will let me make some progress on the points about freedom of informationâ€” [Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) is usually a very calm individual. I plead with him to calm himself.
Yvette Cooper: I worry about the hon. Gentlemanâ€™s blood pressure. He is getting himself into such an agitated state.
In due course, Ron Sandler will publish his strategic business plan, which will include the overarching strategic aims for Northern Rock. The House will recognise that it would not be appropriate to publish detailed commercially sensitive information and it is rightâ€”
Mr. Cash: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Minister has just said that it would not be appropriate for information to be made available that was commercially sensitive. I was in the other House earlier this afternoon where I heard the Minister saying that that was not a matter that he would follow throughâ€”
Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must know that I have enough to do dealing with what is said in this House, without worrying about what is said down the Corridor.
Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Yvette Cooper: I will give way to my hon. Friend in a moment, but as I have said repeatedly to hon. Members on both sides of the House, I am keen to make a couple of points about freedom of information before taking interventions on it. I hope hon. Members will let me make a little progress.
We believe that it would not be appropriate, however, to apply the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to the institution. The bank will not be performing a public function that would make it appropriate to apply the Freedom of Information Act to it.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Will the right hon. Lady give way?
Yvette Cooper: In a moment.
We have been clear that we are taking the bank into public ownership not because we believe there is a public function that we need it to fulfil, but in order to safeguard the stability of the financial system and the interests of the taxpayer. I should inform the House that the Bank of England also has an exemption from the Act on the information that it holds in relation to the provision of private banking services and relations services. That is included in schedule 1 in part VI of the Freedom of Information Act, so it is written into the Act. That is important.
Mr. Shepherd: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure you will make a judgment on this. It is absurd that a Minister declaims an interpretation of an Act of Parliament that the Government introduced and denies the very content of it.
Mr. Speaker: Order. We must be careful not to abuse the system of points of order. The right hon. Lady is perfectly in order. If she were out of order, I would say so. Believe me, I would be the first to say so. She is in order.
Yvette Cooper: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
I shall make one more point about the importance of the freedom of information issue, then I shall be happy to take interventions from hon. Members. Let us be clear. We do not want Northern Rock to have to reveal commercially sensitive information that might undermine its position with regard to its competitors. [Interruption.] We do not want it to be in a situation where there is uncertainty about whether particular pieces of information will be protected by commercial confidentiality, or will alternatively be judged to be in the public interestâ€”
Several hon. Members rose â€”
Yvette Cooper: The lack of certainty could undermine the bankâ€™s position when it is operating against competitorsâ€”
Mr. Cash: Will the Minister give way?
Yvette Cooper: â€”and would not put the taxpayer in a sensible position when it comes to dealing with the need to sell the institution on to the private sector at an appropriate moment.
Several hon. Members rose â€”
Yvette Cooper: If hon. Members will just calm down and stopâ€”
Mr. Speaker: Order. Two hon. Gentlemen are getting to the stage of beginning to defy the Chair. Once they do that, there will be problems. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) has had a good innings this week; he has spoken more than the Minister. He should calm down and listen to the Minister. That will give the official Opposition spokesman the opportunity to speak.
Yvette Cooper: I am happy to give way to hon. Members capable of asking a calm question.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I have not been a regular follower of this issue. Can the Minister explain to me how she can possibly justify saying that the bank is not performing a public function when the whole point of the state intervention that we are sanctioning tonight isâ€”allegedly, and on her own accountâ€”to safeguard the stability of the banking system?
Yvette Cooper: We are taking the bank into public ownership for a reason that is in the public interestâ€”that is rather different from the ongoing function that the bank performs. That is a different, private banking function, and we want to get the bank into the private sector as rapidly as possible.
Mr. Grogan: May I tempt my right hon. Friend to see some possible advantages of applying freedom of information to Northern Rock in respect of increasing public confidence in the process? Is it not a fact that section 43 of the Freedom of Information Act specifically exempts commercially sensitive information from the need for disclosure? Does that not deal with the point that worries her?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend makes an important point, but he will recognise that there is a public interest test at the heart of the Freedom of Information Actâ€”and it is right that there should be. It is important that an organisation that needs to function in the commercial markets has some certainty about what the status of different pieces of information will be.
We see the bank as something that is staying in the public sector only on a temporary basis. This is not about a long-term public institution; if it were about such an institution with a long-term history in the public sector and if our intention were to keep it indefinitely in the public sector, that would be a completely different matter and my hon. Friendâ€™s point would be exactly right. However, this is about an institution that we want to get out of the public sector and into the private sector as rapidly as possible. We want to be able to sell it on; we do not want the taxpayerâ€™s interest to be undermined by the fact that the bank might have had to reveal commercially sensitive information or information that could weaken its position when it comes to getting the sale deal agreed.
This is a temporary arrangement, therefore there is a temporary position with regard to the Freedom of Information Act. When the original discussions about the 2000 Act took place, and given all the deep principles rightly embedded in the Act by this Government, we provided for an exemption for the Bank of England precisely around the provision of private banking and related services. The legislation is in the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act; it is not about changing the approach to it. There are the additional interests of taxpayers, so it is right that we do this now to get the operation working effectively and to get the bank back into the private sector.
Mr. Gerald Howarth: I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. I quite understand what she is saying, but it is extremely important that the public should understand one aspect of this issue. In the technical note that the Chancellor of the Exchequer sent to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), it is mentioned that Northern Rock sold about half of its mortgage assets to Granite between 1999 and 2007. The note explains that Northern Rock will have an obligation to top up in the event that some of those assets are redeemed. Are the public not entitled to know whether some of the best assets of Northern Rock can be siphoned out of the company into Granite, thereby diminishing the value of the taxpayerâ€™s investment?
Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman cites the technical note, but has not read the subsequent sentence, which clearly states:
â€œThere remain high quality assets on Northern Rockâ€™s balance sheet, as well as Graniteâ€™s.â€
It also states:
â€œIt is a commercial decision for Northern Rock whether to provide new mortgage assets to the Granite financing vehicle or whether to allow the vehicle to run-off in an orderly way.â€
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Lords amendment No. 2 is basically the same as new clause 2, which was put forward but not reached when the Commons last debated this legislation. Amendment No. 14 was also put forward by the Opposition at that time, and that was discussed. That amendment mentioned provisions to ensure the independent day-to-day management of the business.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it appears that, first, some right hon. and hon. Members do not realise that the Freedom of Information Act does not cover the private sector and that, secondly, to put forward an amendment asking for independent day-to-day business and then say that freedom of information should cover the bank is a contradictory and silly position?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is also, as I understand it, a curious consequence of the way in which the amendment has been drafted. Under the amendment, even after Northern Rock was sent back into the private sector and sold, it would still be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. That is clearly bonkers and shows that it is simply a wrecking amendment designed to prevent it being viable to operate Northern Rock effectively in the public sector in order to be able then to sell it on to the private sector to get the best possible return for the taxpayer.
In the end, this is all about us getting the best return for the taxpayer and getting a proper arrangement that supports the stability of the financial services and banking system. We think that those are important objectives. Opposition Members are simply playing opportunistic games. They are making nonsense claims about Northern Rock, about how the securitisation system works, and about how the legal system works. It is right that we should have a proper debate about this, but it is also right that we should come up with a proper solution to the problems of Northern Rock, which Opposition Members have continually and singularly failed to do.
Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): We have listened to 30 minutes of rubbish and waffle from the Minister, and we now have precisely 29 minutes left to scrutinise the House of Lords amendments and to consider the very significant points that were raised in the other place. There is clearly no prospect of this measure receiving proper scrutiny in this House. Indeed, the one part of the Bill that has been properly scrutinised is the bit that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee looked at in the House of Lords. The Government have tabled five amendments of their own in recognition of the weakness of the original draftingâ€”testimony to the value of proper scrutiny.
There was no reason at all to impose the farcical timetable that we have had for this Bill. We could have sat through the night tonight; we could have sat tomorrow. The only possible reason was to prevent proper debate and to obscure the extraordinary powers that the Government are taking, not only for Northern Rock but on a wider basis. We are witnessing a shocking abuse of this Houseâ€™s willingness to expedite legislation in an emergency, with many of the powers in the Bill simply not necessary to resolve the situation of Northern Rock.
The amendments that have come back to us from the Lords fall into three groups: those dealing with transparency, the one dealing with fairness, and those dealing with procedure. Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 deal, respectively, with audit and freedom of information. There is a clear need for an audit of the situation in Northern Rock, including an analysis of the quality of the loan book, which would not necessarily be undertaken in depth in the course of the ordinary statutory audit that the Minister talked about. The public are being asked to buy a pig in a poke. No one is sure what we are getting, how much we are paying, or what we are buying it for.
An additional complication has come to lightâ€”that of Graniteâ€”and I want to take a minute to touch on that. We are all agreed that some of the best of Northern Rockâ€™s assets are included in Granite, but Granite also includes a Northern Rock sellerâ€™s share worth about Â£5 billion to Northern Rock, which would be an early casualty of a default on the covenants in the Granite documentation, quickly undermining the solvency of Northern Rock. One of the requirements of an auditor would be to look at any impairment to the value of that sellerâ€™s share as a result of the change in Northern Rockâ€™s situation. Specifically, Northern Rock must feed Granite with new mortgages; if it fails to do so, the Granite entities will collapse and go into wind-up with all the cash flows diverted to the bondholders, putting the sellerâ€™s share, which belongs to Northern Rock, at risk. To try to avoid that, Northern Rock may be forced, if it is not originating new business, to take the good-quality assets that it has within its own portfolio and feed them into Granite. That is the way in which Granite can become a sponge sucking the high-quality assets out of Northern Rock. That is why an audit is so important, and that is why we have consistently argued for an alternative method of dealing with Northern Rock that puts the taxpayer at the top of the pecking order, not at the bottom, which the Chief Secretaryâ€™s solution would do.
Lords amendment No. 2 would be unremarkable anywhere but in the wonderland that this Government inhabit. It says that what is a publicly owned company shall be deemed to be a publicly owned company for the purposes of freedom of information. But we know from the draft order that the Government intend to ordain by statute that this particular publicly owned company is not a publicly owned company. We have heard a new definition from the Chief Secretary this evening; she says that it is not a â€œpublic purpose companyâ€. The order talks about a â€œpublicly owned companyâ€. At this rate, next week we can anticipate a piece of legislation allowing the Government to designate by order that black is white.
If Graniteâ€™s loan book is as good as the Chancellor and the Prime Minister claim, and if, as the Prime Minister said at his press conference on Monday, they have â€œmade at all times the right decisionsâ€, what do they have to fear from an audit? What do they have to fear from a freedom of information request?
Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab): Would the hon. Gentleman accept that the freedom of information request would not be made of Ministers, but of people who, in a competitive market, are trying to run Northern Rock to the advantage of the taxpayer? It might well be to the disadvantage of the taxpayer for information to be disclosed. I suggest that the Tories could come up with a compromise in this case. If this House and the House of Lords insist on freedom of information applying to Northern Rock for the sake of protecting taxpayers, will they agree to apply freedom of information to all the institutions with which Northern Rock would have to compete?
Mr. Hammond: I say to the right hon. Gentleman that there are other companies in the public sector that are subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The concern that he has will not arise because there is an exclusion from freedom of information provisions for commercially sensitive information. Let us be clear: what the Government are seeking to protect is not the commercial secrets of Northern Rock, but the cock-up that they have made of this whole fiasco since last September, which would be in danger of coming out if we got access to Northern Rockâ€™s information through the Freedom of Information Act.
Mr. Cash: Will my hon. Friend give way?
Mr. Hammond: I am going to make some progress because I do not want to do what the Chief Secretary did and take up all the remaining time.
Lords amendment No. 3 would include in the Bill a statutory role for the Office of Fair Trading, which would address a key concern in the City of London and the financial services industry about fairness and competition. The state aid rules are a constraint, but the Government have acknowledged that they are not in themselves a significant constraint. We have had a significant concession from the Government on that issue in the House of Lords, and I am grateful to the Chief Secretary for that. The Government made it clear during the debate in the House of Lords that Northern Rock will not be allowed to abuse its privileged position to act anti-competitively in the marketplace. That is a great victory for us, and for common sense. We would have preferred to see that clarification in the Bill, because when the chips are down and Granite needs topping up, there will be a great temptation to interpret this self-made and self-policed regime flexibly, but it is, none the less, something that we are pleased to acknowledge, and I thank the Chief Secretary for that.
Finally, the Government amendments to clause 13 represent a partial response to the concerns expressed by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in the House of Lords, but they do not go nearly far enough. The negative resolution procedure is simply not satisfactory for the approval of orders made under this Bill. Where the purpose of the order is to transfer assets, it is no good us coming back to the order and negating it 30 or 40 days after it has come into effect and the damage has been done. The effect of using the negative procedure would be, in practice, to remove all effective parliamentary scrutiny from the process. It would allow the Government to make a transfer of assets by order that Parliament can do nothing about.
There is absolutely no need for the measure. The Government argued in the House of Lords that they may, in an emergency, need to transfer an asset urgently, but they do not need to act immediately in the case of Northern Rock. The shares are suspended and depositors still have access to their accounts. Life goes on. Mortgage holders are paying off their monthly payments and there is no risk to the system. We on the Conservative Benches maintain that this emergency legislation must relate precisely to the emergency situationâ€”if we can call it thatâ€”of Northern Rock, not a wider, general purpose that the Government are seeking.
To fail fully to accept the DPRRC recommendations is, I understand, unprecedented without cross-party support. The DPRRC is not some partisan sniping party; it is a highly respected procedural Committee of the House of Lords. The Governmentâ€™s behaviour on the matter shows up as cynical, hollow rhetoric the Prime Ministerâ€™s words back in June about respect for Parliament and the returning of powers to it.
The Governmentâ€™s rejection of proper scrutiny not only of the Bill, through their timetabling motion, but of Northern Rock, the company that we are buying, through their refusal to accept the amendments, and their steamrollering of order-making powers in the face of the recommendations of a respected independent Committee of the House of Lords speak volumes about this rotten, incompetent and arrogant Government. I urge my hon. Friends to vote against the Government motions in respect of Lords amendments Nos. 1 and 2, and to support the Lords in their decision.
Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) (Lab): We have had one blessing in disguise, which is that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) did not pray in aid the copy of the Financial Times that is on the Dispatch Box before him. I was waiting for him to tell us that he would quote from the Financial Times; indeed, one Opposition Memberâ€”I think it may even have been one on the Front Benchâ€”quoted many Financial Times articles. It is a great pity that the Opposition spend so much time reading the Financial Times, but learning so little from it. I am reminded of a saying that Winston Churchill used during the second world war. He quoted Dean Inge, who said, â€œIâ€™ve had a great many worries; most of them never happened.â€ The hon. Gentlemanâ€™s doomsday scenario bears no relationship to reality.
I followed the Third Reading debate on the Bill, when the House was seriously misled by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), whose comments on Granite come from another world. The Chief Secretary to the Treasuryâ€”
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The House is very particular about the words that we should not use and â€œmisleadingâ€ is one of them, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman would care to withdraw that remark.
Sir Stuart Bell: I am not entirely sure what I am supposed to withdraw. I am not entirely sure what I saidâ€” [ Laughter. ]
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It is helpful to the House if hon. Members can remember what they have just said. There was some suggestion of misleading the House and I am sure that that is not what the hon. Gentleman meant.
Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If I may quote Winston Churchill again, he said, â€œThe best speeches come from the heart.â€ But if I have unintentionally misled the House, I am happy toâ€”
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It is obviously taking me some time to explain this. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to withdraw the word â€œmisleadingâ€.
Sir Stuart Bell: I am very sorry if I used the word â€œmisleadingâ€ in relation to the speech by the hon. Member for Twickenham and of course I withdraw the remark.
I have followed the Opposition most of the evening. They have consistently refused to look any of the arguments in the face when responding to the Chief Secretary. What they are showing is a total misunderstanding of any kind of use of special purpose vehicles in the City of London and any concept of global securitisation. They read the Financial Times, and I can tell them that the City of London will be very disconcerted by their lack of knowledge about what actually happens in the City.
Mr. Dunne: It is revealing to learn that the hon. Gentleman is an expert not only on matters of faith but on global securitisation. As he has criticised the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) for raising the subject of Granite, perhaps he will expand on the final sentence of the technical note from the Treasury which states:
â€œNorthern Rock is not liable for the Granite bonds and bondholders have no access to Northern Rockâ€™s assets.â€
If that is the case, why is it that Northern Rock not only controls all the cash flowing into Granite, but has an obligation to top up assets and the sellerâ€™s share that it holds in Granite?
Hon. Members: Answer!
Sir Stuart Bell: I am very happy to answer, because the hon. Gentleman has shown his total ignorance of economics as they apply to securitisation. [Interruption.] Yes, he has. That is the nature of a securitisation, and that is the nature of a bond. The hon. Gentlemanâ€™s failure to understand that demonstrates the Oppositionâ€™s failure to understand anything about the taking of Northern Rock into public ownership, the reasons why it is happening, and the reasons why it is temporary. The hon. Gentleman must understandâ€”although he seems not to wish to understandâ€”that Granite is an independent legal entity. That is a fact from Northern Rock. Granite is owned by its shareholders; Northern Rock owns no shares in Granite. This is a normal procedure.
Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I too was present for the Third Reading debate. Can the hon. Gentleman explain this? The technical note states, under the heading â€œControl of Graniteâ€:
â€œThe contractual structure of Granite is such that it is effectively controlled by Northern Rock as it continues to service the mortgages in Granite and to provide cash management and other administrative services.â€
Hon. Members: Answer!
Sir Stuart Bell: That is the principle of securitisation. Securitisation has been here for 20 years. If the House wants a lesson on the concept, let me explain that it began with General Motors. Opposition Members have no understanding of what securitisation means, but everything that the hon. Lady has said is right: that is what securitisation is about. The Oppositionâ€™s inability to understand securitisation reveals that they do not understand the City of London, do not understand the financial markets, and do not understand why we are in this position.
Mr. Philip Hammond: Can the hon. Gentleman explain why the Granite entities are consolidated in Northern Rockâ€™s accounts?
Sir Stuart Bell: I understand that at least 40 per cent. of Northern Rockâ€™s mortgages are going across to Granite. Again, we are talking about a concept: the concept of balance sheets and accountability. I must tell Opposition Members that each time they open their mouths they show that they do not understand the City of London, they do not understand accountancyâ€” [Interruption.]
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. This is an important matter. The House must listen. [Interruption.] Order. The House must listen to the hon. Member who is addressing it.
Mr. Redwood roseâ€”
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab) roseâ€”
Sir Stuart Bell: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris).
Rob Marris: I am sure that my hon. Friend will move away from the Granite topic shortly because of the time constraint. I wonder whether he will let us know his opinion of the freedom of information aspect of all this. [Laughter.]
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.
Sir Stuart Bell: I am not an expert on witchesâ€™ brew. If I were an expert on witchesâ€™ brew, I would be an expert on the Freedom of Information Act.
The point isâ€”and the Financial Secretary has already made itâ€”that Northern Rock will not be a public body. Freedom of information legislation requires that sensitive information be defended. The Bank of England has an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act in regard to the provision of private banking and related services. There is no reason why Northern Rock should fall within the purview of the Freedom of Information Act.
Mr. Redwood: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that some securitisation schemes get the obligation off the balance sheet of the company engineering it and into other hands. His problem is that, in this case, that is not what Northern Rock happens to have done. Will he answer the question about the contractual relationship between Northern Rock and Granite which requires the supply of good-quality mortgages where others are paid off, or else become bad-quality mortgages?
Sir Stuart Bell: Again, the right hon. Gentleman does not understand what the Chief Secretary said. Of course there is a top-up principle in the securitisation, because the securitisation is backed by a bond, the bond is bought by the investor, and the bond has an interestâ€”a coupon; of course, it has to be topped up. What the Chief Secretary clearly said is that there are other prime assets within Northern Rock that are not required to be used as that top-up.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West for his comments, because I shall now move on from the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to the question of competition. The Conservatives are not helped by the fact that they have an anti-European attitude and yet they have to fall back on the EU to defend the competition policies that will be enacted in respect of Northern Rock. The point has been made many timesâ€”
Mr. Cash: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Does this debate not provide a good illustration of the fact that the entire Bill has been constructed in order to avoid hybrid instruments and the Hybrid Instruments Committee procedure, under which all these matters could be discussed in the proper manner? Is this not the true problem, and it will come out in the hybrid instrumentsâ€”
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That is not a matter for the Chair.
Sir Stuart Bell: A robust statutory framework is in place at European level to prevent the unfair distortion of competition through Government subsidies, and the Government support of Northern Rock will need to be fully consistent with those guidelines. That should be sufficient assurance for anyone in the City of London to understand that Northern Rock will not have a competitive advantage over other organisations in the banking sector.
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has been a Member of this House for a long time and he has argued endlessly that there should be freedom of information and that we should be open. Does he not feel even the slightest bit ashamed of his Government, as they have driven through this Bill when it is clearly not an emergency? With all his Back-Bench experience and given all the Governments he has seen, does he not feel even a little bit ashamed? Can I tempt him to give his personal opinion of the procedures that his Government have embarked on? Are they not disgraceful?
Sir Stuart Bell: The right hon. Gentleman puts temptation in the way of an hon. Member. It is not for me to yield to the forbidden fruit of Parliament and to be contrary to my Whips Office and my business managers. I would like to say a few additional words, however.
Mr. Beith: Does not what the hon. Gentleman is doing run the risk of ensuring that a party that supports this Bill and that moved the amendment will not contribute to the debate?
Sir Stuart Bell: I have noticed over the years that interventions can take up an enormous amount of time and that many Members make their comments through interventions. As I have been interrupted and I shall continue to be so, I hope that I may make the points that I wish to make before the debate comes to an end.
Miss McIntosh: Perhaps I should draw the Houseâ€™s attention to my diminishing interest in Northern Rock as a former shareholder. Will the hon. Gentleman answer one question? He is much better versed in the procedures of this House than many Members. Why on this occasion does he choose to rule out the use of a hybrid instrument, which I think would be particularly appropriate to apply?
Sir Stuart Bell: It is not for me to rule that in or out; that is a question for our Front Bench. I have, however, been quietly asked to allow the Liberal spokesman to make an intervention, and I will be happy to do so. Let me simply say that if the Lords spend so much timeâ€”two daysâ€”on producing amendments such as those we are discussing in this House now, then us having more time would have made very little difference.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman has just informed the House that he has been asked to allow the Liberal Democrats to intervene in this debate, which is very good of the Government. Bearing in mind that it was the Deputy Leader of the House who did that, can you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, enable us to have extra time so these matters can be discussed properly?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Unfortunately, the answer is no. I am bound by the rules of the House, and interventions such as this simply take up more time.
Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): What a build up to what will be a great six-minute speech!
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury accused the Liberal Democrats of playing opportunistic games with this Bill. That was a mistake, because if anything we have given the Government guidance throughout on the course of action that they should take. If only they had listened to us a bit earlier, the public purse would be in a lot better condition. As for the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell), he will have to learn to stand on his own two feet without the guidance of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable).
Mr. Redwood: What is the Liberal Democratsâ€™ forecast of the first year total cost to the taxpayer of the nationalisation that the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) envisages?
Mr. Browne: Let me see whether I can get to that once I have concluded the two substantive points that I wish to discuss, the first of which is on the independent audit and the second of which is on freedom of information.
The Liberal Democrat position is that an independent audit is appropriate, and it is strengthened by the arguments that we have heard about Granite in this House and in the other place. There has been an extremely worrying development, because there still is no feasible alternative to nationalisation, but that does not mean that the Government can sweep the Granite issue under the carpet. Some Â£8 billion of unsecured loans are on Northern Rockâ€™s balance sheet, but none is on Graniteâ€™s, so there is an imbalance that is potentially highly damaging to the taxpayer. We need a new valuation that gives taxpayers confidence that when we undertake to buy this company, we are buying a proposition that offers us a reasonable deal.
Commercial confidentiality is specifically excluded from the freedom of information provisions. The suspicion must be that the Government think that there is something to hide and that they would rather not be exposed by freedom of information. Northern Rock would have benefited from more rather than less scrutiny over the past few years. Some companies in the public sector that have commercial rivals are subject to freedom of information provisions. The Royal Mail is a case in pointâ€”it competes with independent, private courier companiesâ€”and National Savings and Investments is another example of the phenomenon.
Northern Rock is looking to engage very expensive consultants and it might well pay bonuses to staff, so it seems only reasonable that we are in a position to know the scale of the undertaking being made by its management. The Minister says that the problem is that as this is only a transitory condition and the company will be sold back to the private sectorâ€”she was not specific on the precise time scaleâ€”it would not be appropriate to subject these measures to freedom of information. Of course there is nothing to prevent the Government from reintroducing provisions to exclude Northern Rock from freedom of information measures when it is sold back into the private sector. We have no assurance of when that will be, and it is surely much better to act on the precautionary principle and for the Government to support the relevant amendment.
In conclusion, the Government are taking an extremely high-handed approach on this matter. The Liberal Democrats have sought to be a wise counsel and good friend to the Government throughout their difficulties over the past five months. That is entirely the spirit in which, in the other place, we supported the amendments before us this evening. We are not seeking to play opportunistic games. We seek to make the legislation, which is being introduced in short order, better than it would otherwise be. Rather than setting their face against good advice from my party and the Conservative party, the Government would do well to be less stubborn and to heed the warnings that we have given them in the past and are putting before the House this evening.
Mr. Duncan Smith: Very little time is left, so I just want to make one particular point. We ought to put the amendments in context. They probe the reality of what the Government are doing. This is not aimed simply at safeguarding commercial interests or the interests of the taxpayer. The main priority of all this secrecy and all this rush is to safeguard the political interests of this Government. They know very well that if freedom of information was allowed, we would find out exactly what had gone on over the past few months. We would know how incompetent and disgraceful their behaviour has been. We would learn something else over the next few months. The Government have set this so that it will goâ€”
It being one hour after the commencement of proceedings on the Lords amendments, Mr. Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question, pursuant to Order [19 February].