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Northern Rock

Part of Topical Questions – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 19th November 2007.

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Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer 3:31 pm, 19th November 2007

The question we now ask of the Chancellor is simple: has he been honest with taxpayers about the risks that they face, and has he told the whole truth? First, let us look at what he has announced today. He announced that what was supposed to be a short-term emergency facility for Northern Rock may now be extended beyond February and could last for years. Thank you, but we already knew that because it was in a memo from the company's advisers that was leaked last week. Indeed, throughout the crisis we have learned more from media leaks than we have from the Government.

The Chancellor will not tell us the size of the facility, when he expects it to be repaid or the terms of the repayment, even though much of that information is an open secret in the City. Indeed, the Governor of the Bank of England wants to publish the letter that he sent to the Chancellor to set out those terms. He told the Select Committee that he wanted to do so, but the Chancellor refuses to publish the letter and simply says that it is in the public interest that he should refuse. Clearly, the Governor of the Bank of England disagrees. Will the Chancellor explain in greater detail why he will not publish that letter?

This is not about the commercial interests that the Prime Minister spoke about last week, but about the public interest and the £900 that has been pledged on behalf of every taxpayer in Britain. The Chancellor talks about the Government's liabilities being secured against £100 billion of Northern Rock assets, but he does not say that many of the assets are already promised to other creditors. Will he confirm that the free assets at Northern Rock could be closer to £40 billion and that total Government liabilities, through both the facility and the deposit guarantee, might now be approaching the total of the available assets, putting the taxpayer further at risk?

The Treasury also said today:

"Authorities expect the costs and risks associated with Northern Rock to be borne to the greatest extent possible by the current and future private sector providers of capital."

So do we, but has the Chancellor given a general guarantee to cover the £13 billion or so lent by medium-term note holders—the large institutions that lent money with their eyes open? Has the Chancellor considered reducing the risk to taxpayers by announcing a cap on the guarantee offered by the Government so that only individual savers are fully protected? Of course, we need to get the depositor protection legislation right, but we now know from the Governor of the Bank of England that he has been pressing the Chancellor to do that for a considerable time.

The Chancellor has failed to address today the two things that he appears so far to have kept secret from Parliament and from the taxpayer. First, will he tell us whether it is true that the Treasury, as well as the Bank of England, has lent money to Northern Rock? He mentioned only the Bank of England in his statement, but today we are told that the Treasury has also lent so-called subordinated term debt, which does not have to be paid for five years, comes at the back of the queue and is in most danger of default if the bank is wound up. If that is true, taxpayers have been exposed to an extraordinary long-term risk, yet we have been told about that Treasury loan by the BBC's business editor rather than the Chancellor of the Exchequer. If it is true, the Chancellor is surely deliberately withholding information from Parliament and the public. Will he confirm the existence of that Treasury loan?

The second thing that has become clearer today is that the Chancellor cannot be sure of keeping the promises that he and the Prime Minister made to the taxpayer. He said to the Select Committee that

"we fully expect to be able to get that money back."

He said to the public that

"any money that the Government makes available" to Northern Rock

"we can recover from its assets".

The Prime Minister said at the Dispatch Box last week that the money from the taxpayer was

"guaranteed against Northern Rock assets."—[ Hansard, 14 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 660.]

Today, the Chancellor merely says that he wants the best outcome for the public purse. Will all the money lent by the taxpayer be repaid with interest—yes or no? Let us hope that the answer is yes and that, in the final reckoning, the taxpayer will not have paid a heavy price for the Government's incompetence. Let us hope that the Chancellor can be honest today about the risks to the taxpayer and about the existence of the secret Treasury loan.

We are considering a tale of incompetence and weak leadership from a Government who now reel from one disaster to another. We have a Chancellor who appears to have made secret loans from the Treasury, who has made guarantees to the taxpayer that he cannot be sure of honouring and whose weakness contributes to the instability of the financial system. That is why the Chancellor's job is now on the line.