Transparency: financial assistance

Part of Employment Opportunities – in the House of Commons at 5:15 pm on 10th February 2009.

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Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham 5:15 pm, 10th February 2009

It is typical of the whole debate about banks that we are in this miasma of nonsense. I do not know whether Ministers and those who drafted the legislation have ever operated under company law, or know any company law, but the simple truth is that if the Government are to inject equity capital into a bank, they not only need to make a prompt announcement to the stock market, but they need to table the details and get the approval of its shareholders before the transaction can be completed. If a large amount of longer-term loan capital or other priority capital is to be injected into a bank, that bank would be duty bound under company law to make an announcement as soon as it had an agreed deal with the Government.

If we are trying to shield nationalised banks, the purpose of the amendments is wholly damaging. Where we have nationalised banks, we know that the Government stand behind them. Presumably, the point of nationalising them was to transfer all the credit risk and difficult risks in the bank to the Government's account so that the bank's credit is as good as the Government's. Once we are in that position—short of the Government themselves getting into an uncreditworthy position, which we pray they will not—it is the duty of the Government to come to the House immediately when they wish to inject subsidy, loan capital, share capital or whatever it may be into a bank in public ownership. There can be no harm in telling us that immediately because the bank is nationalised and the public can take reassurance from the fact that the bank effectively has a claim on the Consolidated Fund of the United Kingdom, or on good will and votes in Parliament on the initiative of Ministers.

I find both the original amendment, well-intentioned though it was, and the Government's amendment in lieu, far too weak and feeble with respect to nationalised banks, where we have a right to know soon or immediately what they are putting in and why. When it comes to private sector banks, where we are dealing with longer-term share capital and loan capital, we find out details promptly, and so we should, because there are good rules to ensure that there are not dishonest or false markets. Those are relevant considerations for the trading position of the banks.

Why has this situation arisen? Because the authorities got into difficulty when it was rumoured that they were trying to find a shotgun marriage for Northern Rock after it first hit difficulties. We were then told that they were not able to do that under time pressure because a combination of British rules and European legislation meant that they would have to disclose details before they had done a deal, which was very embarrassing for them. If that is the case, they ought to fix those rules and that legislation, because the bank or the other authorities need the power, in extremis, to act as an honest broker to a deal if one of the commercial banks or other financial institutions is in such trouble and there are buyers out there. That always used to happen without any problem. The problem seems to be based on a British lawyer's interpretation of a European law—an interpretation that does not seem to be shared by other Community lawyers or other Community Governments, where they have been able to do such deals without the same difficulties. I hope that we can address the underlying issue because these proposals do not address it.

The other possibility is that the proposals are designed to deal with short-term assistance, given in the normal way, with a central bank acting when there are extraordinary stresses and strains on the market as a whole or on individual banks. The Economic Secretary is nodding his head, showing that that is what the proposals relate to. If he reads the clause in question, he will find that it relates to all the things that I have already spoken about, which is why I think it is clumsily drafted.

Let us examine how much secrecy there needs to be for short-term assistance for an individual bank, and how that relates to the rules of company law. These are all difficult cases, but there could be a situation—there certainly was in August and September 2007, which the authorities did not respond to in a timely way—where an institution such as Northern Rock is in immediate need of cash to replace borrowings that it can no longer access from the private market. In such a case, we would hope for the central bank to be responsive, and that it would make loans against good security. If they are made as short-term loans against security within the normal borrowing powers of the bank and within what it has already reported to its shareholders, that could be done in secret, and it is best done in secret. It always used to be done in secret, and if there was any danger of the market finding out that a bank needed such assistance, the Bank of England used to say to several banks, "We want you all to take a bit of money from us this week, so that we can let the market know that quite a few banks need us, because the market is a bit stressed." The finger of doubt would therefore not be pointed at one particular institution. Other techniques could also be used. My concern about the amendments is that they imply that we are talking about longer-term finance that should be properly reported and completely transparent.

One would hope that under the six-month provision suggested in the Government's amendment, any temporary assistance would be lent and repaid in that period. The idea of temporary assistance is that it should meet a short-term shortage in the market, or that a bank could replace it in other ways, in the normal course of business and reasonably promptly. The reporting requirements would not then need to apply. My concern is that the Government's amendment sets out an effective override so that we would never know which individual bank or arrangement was involved. We have a right to know about many arrangements, particularly in relation to nationalised banks.

Mr. Breed made the extremely good point that if we look back on the sorry story of the past few months, we see that the various attempts to prop up or support banks have been conducted through the media. One of the most unpleasant things about the injection of shotgun money into the banks—£37 billion of share capital over that fateful weekend—was that we had a running commentary on it. We should not have been told about it. The banks should have gone into the Treasury by the back door or done things by a video conference link. We should not have been told that there were crisis talks, that the banks were in trouble and that there had to be a deal by the opening of business on Monday. All that added to the crisis atmosphere.

We have never known who was responsible for that. I do not blame the journalist who got wonderful stories out of it and provided us all with a running commentary, as any journalist who got such information would obviously see it as public information and want to use it. However, that was not the way to mount a rescue if the banks in question really needed it. Personally, I do not believe that they were in desperate need of such a rescue at that point, and there would have many easier and cheaper ways of helping them. Of course, I would not have wanted any of them to go under, but the high drama was not required, and there certainly did not need to be such public exposure over that weekend.

If it was necessary for public capital to be injected into those banks—I remain to be persuaded—it should have been done after proper reflection, evaluation and valuation. Of course it had to be made public, but only when the participants knew the details and had something reassuring and confidence-building to present to the market. The commentary during the run-up to the deal undermined confidence by suggesting that the banks were in crisis, and indeed by naming one bank that turned out not to need any public money, which was not terribly helpful to that bank.

I therefore do not believe that the Lords amendment goes far enough, and I do not believe that the Government's proposed revision goes nearly far enough. It is a cover-up amendment rather than a transparency amendment. Fortunately, we will get more transparency in the private sector through other rules, regulations and laws, but I am concerned about the complete absence of transparency that will yet again exist in the public sector. I hope that the Economic Secretary will think again, and that he agrees that every penny going into a state-owned bank should be reported to Parliament promptly, with its full terms, so that we know what is going on.

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