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The noble Lord said: I also seek to declare my interest as having been the Cabinet Minister for Public Service who introduced the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information which now forms part of the Freedom of Information Act, which is what this amendment is all about. The Government should have nothing to fear from the truth, but they have chosen to shroud this whole issue in secrecy. The public does indeed have a right to know, but the Governments response is to run precisely in the opposite direction. I hope that the purpose of this
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I am slightly pessimistic as the Minister touched on this subject in the course of his winding-up speech late yesterday evening, when I heard him give two reasons, as indeed did the Prime Minister at Prime Ministers Questions in the other place. The first and most extraordinary argument, which I heard from both of them, is that the exemption is needed to protect commercially sensitive information about Northern Rocks business plan. Of course it would be inappropriate to release just that sort of information. Surely, however, the Minister knows as well as I do that Section 43 of the Freedom of Information Act contains three subsections. Subsection (1) exempts,
Subsection (3) provides that the obligation under Section 1(1)(a)to confirm or deny that the requested information is helddoes not arise. The Government therefore have nothing to fear so far as that is concerned. The Treasury always seeks to protect itself from private companies that attempt to use the Freedom of Information Act to gain competitive advantage. Why would Northern Rock be any different?
The Minister also made the case that since no other bank is subject to the Act, Northern Rock should not be either. Well, to that argument I think the whole Chamber would immediately point out that no other bank is owned by the taxpayer and run by the Government. Northern Rock will be unusual among British banks in many ways. It is the very uniqueness of a nationalised Northern Rock that makes it imperative that there is sufficient transparency and accountability over its operations. Northern Rock will indeed be a special case; its directors salaries and bonuses will be paid out of taxpayers funds. That raises crucial questions of accountability. Is the Minister really saying that he does not believe that the public have, for example, a right to know how much they are paying a director to run their bank for them or how much he is being given in bonuses? It is bad enough that a serious regulatory failure has brought us to the pretty pass in which we now find ourselves.
He was challenging this noble House to amend the Bill in, I believe, the way in which I am now suggesting. Had there been greater openness and more effective scrutiny in the first place, we would not be here today debating this extraordinary and anachronistic measure. Ministers and their proxies have sadly fallen asleep on the job once; they can hardly blame us for wanting robust systems in place to ensure that they do not do so again. I beg to move.
The principle of the freedom of information regime is that when one has a public body, it operates under a different rule with regard to the openness with which taxpayers can approach it and find out what it is up to. Although Northern Rock is a bank rather than a government department, it is a publicly owned bodyor will be from tomorrow. That is the basic principle. The starting point in our mind is that it should fall into line with all the other bodies that are covered by the freedom of information legislation, not least those that operate in the commercial sector, including, for example, the Royal Mail.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, dealt with two of the arguments that the Government have used to try to rebut proposals in this regard. He dealt comprehensively with the argument about material that is in commercial confidence. Ministers use two phrases to try to get out of holes that are of their own making: one is sub judice and the other is in commercial confidence. It is common practice in my experience for these phrases to be bandied about by Ministers who are in difficulty as a way of trying to shut down debate and to prevent information being put into the public domain or discussed. In this case, the argument about commercial confidence has been completely dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, when he talked about the trade secret exemption in the legislation.
The other argument that Ministers have used about Northern Rock and why it is different from, for example, those other public bodies that operate commercially, is that it will go back into the private sector. Yes, it will do that, and when it does there will be legislation to enable it to do so. At that point, the application of the freedom of information legislation will no doubt be extinguished. The fact that it will go back into the private sector at some point is not, frankly, an argument for not applying the freedom of information regime to the bank when it is in the public sector. For those reasons, we support the amendment.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: Perhaps I should make it clear, as I did last night, that I have every sympathy with the Minister. In making the following remarks, I mean nothing against him personally. The Government are in a pretty shoddy position. We have asked for informationI have asked him repeatedly to confirm the position in respect of Lloyds TSB, and he has refused point blank to answer; and I have asked him to provide information about the reports and advice that were given to Ministers by Goldman
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What is it about Northern Rock, other than that it will pay higher interest rates than National Savings to depositors, that makes it uniquely placed to be not covered by the freedom of information legislation?
What is remarkable about this is that it is coming from a Government who boast about their commitment to open government and transparency. It is an extraordinary thing. Perhaps I am just getting old and cynical but I think that there must be something that the Government do not want us to know. Given the scale of the operationtaking on to the Governments balance sheet £100 billion of liabilities and £25 billion of cash extendedit is extraordinary that the Government should expect taxpayers to stump up and not get the information. I therefore support my noble friend in this amendment. I am deeply shocked that this Government of all Governments should be resisting this. Perhaps the Minister will have changed his mind; I hope so. I remember what the Prime Minister said on taking office. He talked about increasing the accountability and transparency of government. If this is an example of him delivering on that promise, it is no wonder that the electorate have begun to hold our institutions and our political process in contempt.
Lord Davies of Oldham: I have no difficulty replying to this amendment; nor do I enlist sympathy from the Housecertainly not after the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. After all, he accused me last night of saying exactly what the Prime Minister had said before. That is an accusation that I can bear with a certain degree of equanimity and I am prepared to repeat the position again today. What the Prime Minister was expressing at that time and what I hope to repeat as accurately today is the Governments carefully considered position on this matter. Of course we take freedom of information seriously.
By the by, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, continually berates me about the Lloyds TSB submission last September as some kind of constraint on my part to be secretive, but I have given him all the information that I can give him. Lloyds TSB came along with a suggestion of how £30 billion of public money could be made available for a particular project with which it would be involved. We did not think that that had a chance of coping with any issue with regard to state aid. As the proposition was put in those general terms, we were not able to respond positively. I am not sheltering under freedom of information because that is all the information that I have and I have given it to
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What he can keep asking me aboutas he rightly didis the desirability of the Freedom of Information Act applying to this company. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for his record on freedom of information and his contribution in the past, but he will recognise that the Labour Administration is duly proud of the 2000 Act, which has produced enormous benefits to the public.
Lord Davies of Oldham: The noble Lord will be the first to recognise that areas of the Freedom of Information Act do not obtain across parts of the public sectorI do not need to innumerate them because the House is well versed in the areas where the Freedom of Information Act does not apply and we are merely presenting the case that Northern Rock fits into such a category. He suggested that banks are exempt under Section 43 of the Act, but that is not an absolute exemption. In applying for an exemption, Northern Rock would need to balance the public interest in maintaining the exemption under Section 43 with the public interest in disclosure. Is a bank meant to be involved in this calculation of where it fits with regard to the Freedom of Information Act? Other banks do not have to, because it is automatic, but Northern Rock would have to make an assessment of what its obligations were in those terms. That would be difficult given the fact that we are seeking to ensure that this bank operates as far as possible like all other commercial banks.
It has been suggested that, with its degree of public responsibility, this bank is in the same position as National Savings, but that is an executive agency of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is an entirely different body corporate. I want to emphasise that this bank is also meant to be in public ownership for a short period of timea temporary concept. National Savings, whatever else it is, is not meant to be in existence on the basis of the short-term relationship with government.
The arguments underpinning the amendment do not hold up against that background. They would do if the Government were, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, continues to suggest, bent on excessive secrecy with regard to all these relationships. We are not. We are committed to the Freedom of Information Act. We are committed to the application of the Act where it benefits the public. But some areas are excluded and our case is that Northern Rock needs to be one of them.
We want Northern Rock to run like other commercial banks: at arm's length from the Government. We want, as far as possible, business at Northern Rock to be on that basis. The bank will not perform a public function that would make it appropriate to apply the Act. This is not a matter to which the Government are determined to keep information confidential, because
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Maintaining commercial disciplines in Northern Rock and ensuring continuity of business are absolutely critical. If we are to maintain the prospect that this bank will be returned to the private sector as soon as possible, it is vital that we do not apply inappropriate public sector requirements which do not obtain to other commercial banks. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, was dismissive about commercial confidence, but there are good reasons why commercial banks have an exemption under the Freedom of Information Act. That was accepted by both Houses when it was debated. Commercial confidence is not a get-out phrase: it is a real issue with regard to the operation of the bank.
I am not against the principle behind the amendment, but the amendment is unnecessary. The Treasury is a public authority subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The Treasury's relations with Northern Rock as shareholder and lender will be in the public domain. There will be opportunities on later amendments for me to dwell on this, but I have already mentioned the process by which the Treasury intends to make these relationships explicit and how it reports to both Houses of Parliament. As I indicated, that is what we intend to do with certain crucial formative aspects with regard to Northern Rock.
The objectives of the Freedom of Information Act can be met by request to the Treasury about its relationship with Northern Rock. The Treasury would need to consider applications under the Freedom of Information Act in the normal way, including the application of exemptions. But the Treasury continually faces that position. The Treasury is part of a Government committed to open information, supported and promoted by the Freedom of Information Act. I am not saying that the noble Lords intention is not benign or helpful, but that the amendments are unnecessary because the Government intend to fulfil the requirements of openness in the proposals that we make.
Lord Hunt of Wirral: I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, for making some very telling points in support of the amendment. One of the sad things about Hansard is that it never reflects body language, or however one expresses it. I found the Ministers response exceedingly interesting because, looking at him really closely, I could see that the longer he went on, the less he really believed in the case he has been told by the Chancellor and the Prime Minister to put forward. I thought my noble friend Lord Forsyth, who I am delighted to work in tandem with again as we did at the Department of Employment, shot a hole in the Ministers argument by saying that
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