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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.]
The point isand the Financial Secretary has already made itthat 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 interesta 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 times
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 instruments
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.
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 Houses 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 those on 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 timetwo dayson producing amendments such as those we are discussing in this House now, then our 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?
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. 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 £8 billion of unsecured loans are on Northern Rocks balance sheet, but none is on Granites, 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. Royal Mail is a case in pointit competes with independent, private courier companiesand 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 sectorshe was not specific on the precise time scaleit 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 go
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