Banking (Asset Protection Scheme)

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Solicitor-General – in the House of Commons at 11:34 am on 26th February 2009.

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Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer 11:34 am, 26th February 2009

I thank the Chancellor for his statement, but to be blunt, we have heard all these claims before. Back in October, just like today, he told us that a huge taxpayer bail-out of the banks would "get lending started again". He stood there waving a piece of paper, just as he has again today, and claimed that he had binding legal agreements with RBS, yet of course business lending has fallen by £5 billion since October and, as the inflation report shows, continues to fall.

Back in October, just like today, the Chancellor said that his first bail-out was a good deal for the taxpayer. Indeed, the Prime Minister claimed that we would soon be making money on the shares that we had bought. But now we all know that the taxpayer has lost £16 billion to date on the deal that was done in October. Back in October, just like today, the Chancellor said that a key condition of the bail-out would be an end to excessive bonuses and rewards for failure, yet today we discover that the chief executive who helped to bring RBS to its knees is getting a £650,000 a year pension for life, negotiated with the Government. While a second bail-out seems inevitable, we will therefore treat the Chancellor's claims about his latest plans with a healthy degree of scepticism.

Let me ask the Chancellor these specific questions. First, on lending, he says that RBS has committed to lend £25 billion a year. Will he confirm that that represents just 3.4 per cent. of total RBS lending to non-bank customers? He said once again, as he often has, that he has a legally binding agreement, but the new chief executive of RBS said on the radio this morning that that agreement is subject to its continuing to price on arm's length terms. Given that that price is currently prohibitive to many businesses large and small, why does he expect this legally binding agreement to be any more binding than the last one? Indeed, he says that the lending agreement is legally enforceable. How exactly is he going to enforce it? Will he give RBS the money to pay the fine when he enforces the agreement?

My second set of questions ask the Chancellor to be absolutely straight with people about how much the taxpayer could lose. Of course, this is a sweet deal for the banks, their management, the remaining shareholders and above all their creditors. The first loss to be borne by the bank is just 6 per cent. That is much lower than the 10 per cent. that the Treasury was initially briefing and the 10 per cent. that the Dutch authorities have imposed on ING. The fee is just 2 per cent.—half the level that the Treasury set out to try to negotiate—and it is being paid only in non-voting shares. Will the Chancellor confirm that that is because otherwise, according to stock exchange rules, RBS would stop being listed altogether? What is more, we are giving the bank billions of pounds to pay the fee to ourselves. That is like saying, "Lend me a tenner and I'll buy you a pint."

Will the Chancellor now say exactly what the potential exposure of the taxpayer is under this deal? He did not answer that question on the radio, so will he answer it today? Will he now impose the full independent, asset by asset audit of the British banks that the Governor of the Bank of England has just called for in the Treasury Committee and that I called for at the Dispatch Box last month?

Finally, on excessive bonuses and rewards for failure, once again the Chancellor has promised there will be none. Yet this morning he said in his radio interview that he learned only a very short time ago that Sir Fred Goodwin was paid off with a £650,000 a year pension funded by the taxpayer. However, the new chief executive, who was on the same radio programme, said that the deal was negotiated with the Government. Who exactly in the Government knew about that deal? Will the Chancellor answer the claims that Fred Goodwin's departure was delayed so that he could secure that pension? Whichever way one looks at it, that obscene pension is unacceptable and the Government are on the hook. Either they did know and failed to act or they did not know and failed to ask the right questions. It is a totally irresponsible use of taxpayers' money. There is, of course, now only one person who can correct that huge error of judgment by the Chancellor, and that is Fred Goodwin himself, who should in all decency renounce his pension.

The Government have no option but to undertake a second enormous taxpayer bail-out of the banks, because the first enormous taxpayer bail-out has failed. Let us hear no more nonsense about what a good deal has been struck. The British taxpayer is insuring the car after it has crashed. The sad truth is that families throughout the country pay the price, while those responsible try to walk away from the wreck—so far, unscathed.

The Prime Minister who presided over the fiasco is off trotting on the world stage while the man he knighted, Fred Goodwin, is walking off with a £650,000 a year pension. That is why the Government have lost the confidence of the British people in their ability to deal with the recession that they helped create and the banking crisis that they failed to prevent. [Interruption.]

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