Banking (Special Provisions) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:09 pm on 21st February 2008.

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Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Spokesperson in the Lords, Treasury 2:09 pm, 21st February 2008

I support the amendment. I very much agree with all the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral.

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 body—or 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.