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Banking Bill (Programme) (No. 4)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A),

Question agreed to.

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Banking Bill

Consideration of Lords amendments

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that privilege is involved in Lords amendments 20, 51 to 53, 59 and 75 to 84. If the House agrees to any of these amendments, I shall ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.

After Clause 226

Transparency: financial assistance

4.46 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Ian Pearson): I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 83.

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to take the following: Government amendment in lieu of Lords amendment 83.

Lords amendments 75 to 82.

Ian Pearson: Before addressing in detail the amendments made in the other place and the amendment the Government are now proposing, it might help if I summarise the purpose and history of clauses 228 and 229 in the latest print of the Bill. Their purpose is to put the use of public money in the proposed bank resolution arrangements, or in the provision of financial assistance to banks and their customers more generally, on to a proper statutory footing. Clause 228 does that by providing the statutory cover for expenditure in Supply estimates. That is required under a long-established convention, commonly called the PAC concordat of 1932, that there should always be specific enabling legislation to enable the finance for a new service to be provided from public funds. We amended the clause in Committee in this House to give statutory cover for financial assistance where the institution concerned was not a UK deposit taker or a financial institution that was not a deposit taker—for example, a bank holding company—but further issues came to light that had to be dealt with by Government amendments in the other place. I briefly commented on them in the money resolution debate, and I shall turn to them shortly.

Clause 229 provides statutory cover for drawing money from the national loans fund to make loans urgently where that is necessary to protect financial stability. We also amended the clause in Committee to extend the types of person to whom loans could be given to cover financial institutions other than UK deposit takers. I shall also talk about the Government amendments made in the other place after discussing clause 230. This clause, the result of the passing of amendment 83 in the other place, provides for more rapid detailed reporting of financial assistance given to banks, financial institutions and their customers. It provides for quarterly reporting of expenditure, and of guarantees and similar commitments that might result in expenditure, met with money voted by Parliament under the authority of clause 228(1). Clause 230 also provides for the same reporting arrangements for loans made under clause 229. It requires the Treasury to lay sufficiently detailed reports before both Houses of Parliament, but allows for the disclosure of the information to be delayed as long as there is a public interest in not disclosing it.

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The Government have always appreciated the concerns that many people have about transparency and reporting. Those are important issues for the whole Bill, and not just in relation to public expenditure, and we discussed them at great length in Committee and they were discussed at great length in the other place. The Government’s view is that it is necessary to balance the desirable objective of transparency against the need for confidentiality in a number of contexts. There will be cases where action to tackle financial crisis, taken under the Bill or otherwise, can be effective only if it can be kept confidential.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): If we approve the Bill as it stands, is there a danger that because there will no longer be a weekly report from the Bank of England, some of this assistance could be provided on the Bank of England’s balance sheet to avoid all scrutiny and accountability?

Ian Pearson: I shall discuss those points, but basically the answer is that we have the balance right in what we are proposing today.

The right hon. Gentleman will remember that there were concerns about this precise issue when the news about Northern Rock first broke. There were concerns that the provision of financial assistance by the Bank of England had to be disclosed by the recipient firm—as is the case for listed companies—under Financial Services Authority rules. There were also concerns about the way in which the publication of the weekly Bank of England return could be used to work out that such support was being given. Indeed, clause 244, which removes the obligation on the Bank to produce a weekly return—the right hon. Gentleman referred to that—was included in the Bill precisely because of those concerns.

So there must be a balance between the need for transparency and the need to protect confidentiality where it is clearly in the public interest to do so. The Government feel that the original clause 230, although a noble effort, does not quite get the balance right. We simply feel that there is too big a risk that it could be possible to identify the beneficiaries of financial assistance under some schemes or the amounts that they could receive. I am sure the House will appreciate the risk, therefore, of damaging speculation about the identity of the institution concerned. That could be bad for confidence and it could even lead to the kind of situation that we are all trying to avoid.

These issues were debated in Committee in another place, and the version of the clause accepted on Report in the other place has gone some way to recognising these difficulties. For example, clause 230 does allow the Treasury some leeway to delay the disclosure when it is in the public interest to do so—for as long as that remains the case. That is sensible, but because of the risks and concerns that I have just described, the Government might well end up relying on this public interest exemption rather too often.

That is bad for two reasons. The first is that it increases the chance that the Government may not be able to make a disclosure—that is clearly bad for transparency and we ideally want to avoid it. The second is that the frequent delay or omission of information could, itself, lead to destabilising and damaging speculation of the kind that we all want to avoid. So we have been considering ways in which regular reports of the kind provided for by clause 230 could be made while minimising the problems that I have described.

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Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Does the Minister accept that normally the money resolution authorises, in general terms, the expenditure and that subsequently, as he said, there is an estimate, but it is not, in itself, a reason for accepting the money resolution? Does he also understand that much of the reason for the Bill’s being discussed and voted upon by an unelected Chamber—the other place—is the fact that the Government imposed restrictions on the amount of debate to take place in this House and abrogated to the upper House matters that should properly be dealt with only in this House, because we are elected on behalf of the people?

Ian Pearson: Unfortunately, I do not agree with hon. Gentleman. Exceptional events have been taking place in money markets worldwide, and the Government have had to act quickly to ensure financial stability. We did that through recapitalisation, and the authorisation for that was in the money resolution that we passed in October. We have had to take further action since, and we need legislative cover for the action that we have taken, which is why we were discussing the money resolution. But we also want to ensure transparency and accountability to Parliament. I share with the hon. Gentleman the strong view that accountability for these matters should be to this House, and we are trying to achieve a reasonable balance between the need for transparency and the need for confidentiality. That is why we have tabled an amendment containing a new clause to take the place of clause 230.

The new clause would provide that reports should be submitted half-yearly rather than quarterly. In itself, that would significantly reduce the risk of identification as expenditure incurred or guarantees given over a longer period would be covered in any one report. The new clause would require the Treasury to ensure that individual recipients and the amounts that they have been paid or guaranteed cannot be identified. That will usually mean aggregation, and we expect that in practice each scheme would be reported on separately, but that, if necessary, data on schemes could be aggregated up to the level of the sponsoring department. The Government believe that that is the intention behind subsection (2) when taken with the recognition of the public interest in subsection (3), and our amendments are, therefore, in line with the clause as it stands, but make improvements in clarity and technical effect.

There are also some smaller points on which the Government propose changes to clause 230. First, the amendment provides that the reports should not include the loans made under clause 229. A Government amendment in the other place, which we will come to shortly, made the loans from the national loans fund under clause 229, which can also only be made when needed urgently to protect financial stability, subject to an ad hoc reporting procedure similar to that provided in clause 228 when money is taken directly from the Consolidated Fund in urgent cases. But there is no mechanism analogous to estimates for approving loans from the national loans fund, so there is no need to include them in reports under clause 230. Of course, those payments and loans will be included in the annual accounts of the national loans fund.

Finally, the amendment provides for reports to be laid only before the House of Commons. That is entirely normal, and follows the usual processes for reporting on public expenditure, in line with long established
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constitutional precedents in relation to public finances. As set out each year in the Queen’s Speech, Supply estimates for the public services are laid before this House only. The reports that this amendment will introduce relate to money voted in those estimates, and it is proper, therefore, that they should be formally laid in this House. But the reports will of course be published so copies will be available to members of both Houses—and indeed the general public—in the normal way.

I hope that the House will agree that these proposals strike the right balance between the objective of transparency and the need for the appropriate level of confidentiality. I hope that the additional arguments that I have been able to make will enable those who expressed concerns in the debate on the money resolution to be reassured about the accountability mechanisms that will be built into the process.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is great outrage about bonuses being paid by banks, and it is felt that we should do more about that, given the amount of money being put into the banking system. The key is transparency. While I understand the thrust of the amendments, there is a conflict between transparency and the confidentiality that is needed for the reasons that my hon. Friend has outlined. Does he agree that we must make it clear to our constituents that transparency is a key part of the proposals?

Ian Pearson: I agree strongly: it is right that we should be as transparent as we reasonably can, while recognising that certain public policy objectives require some degree of confidentiality. The last thing that we would want to do is create a run on a financial institution by being too transparent and disclosing problems when by taking action as we propose, we could solve such problems.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I remember the debates in Committee over this point. One of the dangers of not having transparency is that someone might invest in an organisation, only to lose a lot of money later because it went down, and they would not have known that the Government had been bailing it out in between those times. However, I want to ask the Minister whether we will have an extraordinary Supply day to cover the estimates that we have just approved in the money resolution. If so, will he guarantee that the time allowed for that will not be three hours but will be enough to ensure that the subject is properly debated?

5 pm

Ian Pearson: I cannot speak for the business managers of the House, obviously. However, as part of the normal reporting procedures there will be an opportunity to debate these matters. The hon. Gentleman has raised his point and he will have ample opportunities to raise the Government’s programmes in debates on the Floor of the House and in Westminster Hall.

Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab): May I put three examples to my hon. Friend? Let us say that the Bank of England were to start buying Government debt; that the Treasury were to start issuing debt directly to businesses, institutions or arms of local government; or that the Government were to decide that they had to
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support credit insurers and created a new credit insurance facility in order to keep business moving. Those matters would all be covered by this new clause. How would Parliament be kept informed about these matters?

Ian Pearson: As a Government, we always want to be open and transparent. As an experienced Member of this House, my hon. Friend will know that when we make major decisions as a Government it is normal practice that we report them to Parliament either through an oral statement or a written ministerial statement. The normal financial accountability mechanisms will be considered and will be debated in due course. I assure him that the Government want to be absolutely clear about what we are doing and to explain why we are taking action. We think that it is vital that we should continue to do all we can to ensure the stability of the financial system in the UK. That is why the announcements that the Chancellor made in an oral statement to the House a few Mondays ago showed the normal practice that we would follow. That does not negate the need for other reporting mechanisms to be put in place. As I outlined earlier, the estimates and votes process is long established in this House and provides a means of financial accountability.

Let me turn to Lords amendments 75 to 80, which provide statutory cover for expenditure incurred in connection with schemes run by Departments other than the Treasury. They do that by providing statutory cover for schemes where the financial assistance being provided will both facilitate the activities of the bank or financial institution and provide a benefit to a third party, such as customers of banks or other financial institutions, or to the wider economy. Expenditure incurred in connection with schemes such as the home owners mortgage support scheme announced by the Prime Minister on 3 December and the working capital scheme that I announced to the House on 14 January in my capacity as Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform are covered by the provisions.

Lords amendment 81 addresses a different issue regarding the provision of financial assistance. As the House will know, the Treasury has made a number of arrangements to support the UK banking sector. They include the credit guarantee scheme for new inter-bank lending introduced in October 2008, as well as the asset protection scheme and guarantee scheme for asset-backed security that were announced on Monday 19 January. Those schemes involve the provision of guarantees or similar financial commitments by the Treasury. Although we hope that there will be no need to make any payments, the Treasury must be in a position to settle promptly any liabilities that arise. Normally, that would be effected by securing parliamentary approval for an estimate, but clearly a need for expenditure might arise at any time, including during a recess when estimates could not be obtained. The amendment addresses that by providing for direct access to the consolidated fund without an estimate in cases where the funds are required urgently. It also provides for parliamentary reporting with suitable safeguards in respect of commercial confidentiality and the maintenance of market confidence.

Mr. Bone: Does that not undo what the Minister said earlier in the debate? He said that there would always be an estimate so that the House could decide whether or not to approve the expenditure of money, but it appears
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that money can be spent without any approval during a recess. I assume that we will not be able to come back afterwards and unspend it, so did not what we voted on earlier in fact commit us to spending it?

Ian Pearson: No, the money resolution that we voted on earlier will not do what the hon. Gentleman suggests. Where funds are needed urgently and it is not possible to have estimates, that money can be provided. However, it will still be subject to the same accountability systems when Parliament returns after a recess.

Mr. Redwood: Will the guarantee scheme apply only to British banks lending to British people and companies, or will it apply also to foreign loans and banks?

Ian Pearson: The working capital scheme that is being progressed at the moment relates only to UK banks. We are discussing the scheme with the major UK banks, but we are not in conversation with foreign banks about it.

Jim Cousins: May I follow that up? My hon. Friend has made it clear that the facility will be available only to UK banks, but an important point that should not be overlooked is that much of the exposure that will be supported could be outside the UK. In fact, I can think of one or two big financial institutions that will carry most of their exposure outside the UK. Is that also covered by the loan facility?

Ian Pearson: We are trying, through the working capital scheme, to progress our discussions with UK banks about their credit lines to UK companies. The policy intention is not that the Government should underwrite the loans of non-UK companies or investments made by UK companies in assets outside the UK. We need to be clear that the purpose of the working capital scheme is to help UK companies that need access to credit. Some have had their credit lines withdrawn, and the Government want to give a reassurance that credit will be there in the future. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the policy is UK focused and that the intention is not to fund projects internationally in the way that he describes.

Finally, I turn to amendment 82 to clause 229. Clause 229 provides for loans to be made urgently from the national loans fund where that is necessary to protect financial stability. Of course, loans can be made with money voted by Parliament but, again, an estimate will have to be obtained first. However, loans can be provided from the national loans fund without an estimate, provided that the relevant requirements are met. That means that they can be used in urgent cases for which no estimate is available.

After further reflection, the Government felt that the same kind of reporting arrangements that apply to the urgent payments under clause 228(5) should also apply to individual urgent loans under clause 229. As I have just explained, Lords amendment 82 does that with the same kind of anonymity and public interest conditions as those used in subsections (6) and (7) of clause 228.

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