[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair] — Bradford & Bingley plc

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 27th November 2013.

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Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley 9:30 am, 27th November 2013

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support. I am sure her constituent, who is a shareholder who lost everything, is also grateful for her support. Her point on the lack of transparency is absolutely right.

The full picture of how the banking crisis developed probably goes back to 2003-04, when there were small changes in accounting standards, but the main catalyst was the introduction of the international financial reporting standards, including international accounting standard 39, by the then Government in 2005. IAS 39 proved to be a catastrophically defective standard that may even contravene UK law.

The Local Authority Pension Fund Forum, the universities superannuation scheme, Threadneedle Asset Management and other investor groups sought the opinion of leading counsel George Bompas QC. His opinion suggests that company directors must override the international reporting standards to comply with company law and may need to ignore the advice obtained by the Financial Reporting Council. The opinion also states that the defective financial outcomes of the standards, which are still in place, should be overridden by invoking the true and fair view requirement of the law. Those problems remain, as highlighted by the failure of the Co-operative bank and Britannia building society, both of which were audited by KPMG.

The concerns on accounting standards are widely held. In November 2012, the then Governor of the Bank of England, Sir Mervyn King—now Lord King—argued for a £35 billion capital raising by British banks. He is on record as saying:

“Bank accounts are dishonest because Britain’s accounting rules are faulty. Reckless lending, inflated profits, irresponsible bonuses have all been possible, not just because of greedy bankers, but because of the rules themselves—and a failure of regulators and politicians to recognise the problems.”

The banks used IFRS and IAS 39 from 2005 onwards, and it appears that the then Government were content to receive corporation tax from the inflated profits rather than exercise a duty of care towards savers and investors. People have blamed the lack of regulation for the excesses of the banks, which led to their demise. That is too simplistic. It was not the lack of regulation—banks had mountains of regulations to meet—but the lack of regulation on important things that was the problem.

I will now address the sequence of events prior to the nationalisation. The Bradford & Bingley 2007 accounts were published in April 2008. The auditors passed Bradford & Bingley as a going concern and a dividend was paid. In August 2008, a rights issue was completed at a price of 55p less than eight weeks before the nationalisation. The auditors KPMG completed extensive audit work on the rights issue, and the interim results announced on 29 August 2008 supported a solvent, well capitalised bank. With net assets of £1 a share and a tier 1 capital ratio of 9.1%, shareholders were entitled to believe that Bradford & Bingley was a going concern when the reality was that it was “going, going, gone” just one month later.

Within days of the nationalisation, the Government provided more than £60 billion of support to the two Scottish banks. Bradford & Bingley had a far stronger balance sheet than those banks, as shown in the banking crisis post mortem published by the Local Authority Pension Fund Forum. Furthermore, the public statements of the board emphasised the balance sheet strength of Bradford & Bingley on 29 August and 25 September 2008, a day before the nationalisation decision. That strength was again confirmed by Messrs Kent and Pym, the chairman and chief executive respectively, at a Treasury Committee hearing on 18 November 2008. Their statements conflict directly with the justification of the nationalisation decision by both the Government and the tripartite regulatory authorities. So who was telling the truth?

In the week after the nationalisation, the savings book and retail branch network were sold—arguably at a fire-sale price—destroying the company as an ongoing business. What shareholders, bondholders, employees and my local community want to know is why Bradford & Bingley was singled out in that way, in stark contrast to the treatment of other banks.

Every other bank bailed out at the time is still a going concern—even Northern Rock. Shareholders in some of the bigger banks at the time, such as HBOS, still have shares that have value. Why was Bradford & Bingley, uniquely, closed down, especially given that its financial situation was certainly no worse—indeed, all the evidence suggests it was better—than that of the others? Does the Minister not believe that people are entitled to know the answer to that simple question?

Whereas other banks were considered too big to fail, was Bradford & Bingley seen as too small to save? With constant speculation in the media at the time, was it felt that, if Bradford & Bingley was taken out, the speculation about the health of the banking sector would subside? Whatever the reason, and however little we like it, I hope the Minister agrees that we are entitled to know it.

The Treasury appointed Peter Clokey of PricewaterhouseCoopers as independent valuer for the purposes established under the Bradford & Bingley plc Compensation Scheme Order 2008. His nil valuation was published in July 2010, two months after the general election. Like the shareholder action group, I believe that his terms of reference were far too narrow and that the Labour Government concealed the fact that the bank had received funding support before the nationalisation, pretending for many months that the valuation would be fair and independent, when they knew it would not be, because the in-administration approach of the order ensured a nil valuation and prejudiced legal claims and submissions to the independent valuer and the upper tribunal review body.

Many shareholders—the former owners of the company —believe the valuation exercise was a cynical attempt to dampen media, press and public interest, thus kicking the matter into the long grass. I know that David Blundell has a high regard for Peter Clokey and his colleague James Worsnip. He respects their integrity and appreciates the assistance they provided, within the limits of their remit. In his view, their behaviour may be compared favourably with that of certain Ministers, the Treasury, the Financial Conduct Authority and the Cabinet Office. I met Peter Clokey at the time, and I felt he was sympathetic to the plight of shareholders, but the terms of reference the Labour Government gave him left him no alternative but to give a nil valuation.

The Government’s position on the valuation was that Bank of England support through the special liquidity scheme was not ordinary market assistance, despite more than 30 banks having, and some continuing to have, the use of that facility. That interpretation was a key factor in the nil valuation. However, the European Commissioner’s statement giving clearance to state aid following a request from the UK Government in the early part of the financial crisis in banking markets included the following:

The UK authorities accept that the recapitalisation scheme and guarantee scheme contain State aid elements. In their view the extension of the SLS”— the special liquidity scheme—

“is part of the essential role of the Bank of England and therefore not a state aid. In the event that the Commission concludes that the Liquidity Measures do contain aid elements, the UK Government submits that they form part of a wider package to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of the United Kingdom which is compatible with the common market.”

Therefore, the UK Government argued to the EU that the special liquidity scheme was part of the normal workings of the Bank of England, but they specified the exact opposite in respect of the Bradford & Bingley valuation. Is that a further example of the double standards that have applied in this nationalisation process?

Since the 2008 nationalisation, there have been hundreds of freedom of information requests to Ministers, the Cabinet Office, the Treasury, the FCA, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Bank of England, but the shareholders still do not know how and why their company was expropriated. The treatment to which they have been subjected has been at best incompetent and at worst mendacious.

Leaving aside the Cabinet Office’s original untrue statement, the shareholders have been subjected to refusals on the grounds of cost and public interest, which, combined with further untrue statements and failures to reply to requests, have made a mockery of the Freedom of Information Act. The action group has made requests to the Cabinet Office and the Treasury for internal reviews in respect of their failure to provide the information requested, and it has appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office in respect of the FCA’s failure to provide the records we all know it had.

The latter point is of particular interest, as David Blundell has a DVD recording of a telephone conversation in which a Financial Services Authority officer reassures a shareholder of the company’s financial strength just six days before the nationalisation. To date, the FCA has denied knowledge of any such records, which is rather incredible, as the DVD was sent to the shareholder by the FCA.

There is also strong evidence of a substantial level of communication between John Kingman at the Treasury and Robert Peston of the BBC, whose coverage of Bradford & Bingley caused a run on the shares and deposits. The Treasury stated it did not have such information and that Mr Kingman’s records had been cleared. In the interests of balance, I should make it clear that Mr Kingman denies being responsible for leaking any information to Robert Peston, although, as Mandy Rice-Davies said, “He would, wouldn’t he?”

Mr Kingman believes that the sole reason for the allegation is that he worked with Robert Peston at the Financial Times in the 1990s. An FOI request to the BBC was refused on the grounds that Mr Peston’s records were for journalistic purposes. The fact of the matter remains that someone at the Treasury leaked the situation to Robert Peston and to the Telegraph, precipitating a run on the bank from which it did not recover. The suspicion is that that was done deliberately to clear Bradford & Bingley from the decks so that the Treasury could focus on saving the bigger banks.

Recent letters to the then Chancellor, the then Prime Minister and the current Prime Minister have asked whether the decision to nationalise was correct and consistent with the treatment of other financial institutions at the time. The right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West suggested writing to a local MP—a particularly inadequate reply, as he was party to the nationalisation decision. The current Prime Minister passed the request to the Treasury, which responded with the usual stale excuses, similar to those of the past five years. The previous Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for

Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, has not replied at all. It would appear that the spirit of Sir Humphrey is alive and well in Whitehall and Westminster.

Three key questions remain unanswered. First, what is the exact reason for the expropriation of the company? Secondly, should the rights issue have been permitted to proceed, and were shareholders wrongly induced to subscribe to it? Indeed, many employees paid their hard-earned money into the rights issue to prop up their company. Many of them lost not only their jobs, but their savings. The Government of the time were encouraging other financial institutions to support the rights issue, only to ensure that they then lost everything as a result of the way the banks were nationalised and a nil valuation was guaranteed. No wonder people do not like dealing with Governments. Thirdly, were the comments from the directors, the investor relations department and the FSA concerning the strength of the company only days before nationalisation true?

The shareholders of Bradford & Bingley believe the nationalisation of their company was a flawed decision made in haste and inconsistent with the treatment of other banks. When the Government confiscate the property of their citizens without reason, explanation or compensation, particularly when they may be seen as at fault in their duty of care to savers and investors for not adequately regulating the companies involved in the banking crisis, all concepts of democracy and equity are laid aside. I submit that that has damaged the Government’s reputation.

I would like the Minister to tell us what the future holds for UK Asset Resolution and the staff at the headquarters in Crossflatts, in my constituency. The mortgage book is being gradually wound down, but what happens then? Many people still rely on UKAR for their jobs, and there is vast experience and expertise there that should not be lost to the banking sector. The Government state they wish to see more competition among the banks, so will the Minister commit to look at whether a new bank—a modern-day Bradford & Bingley—could be born from UKAR and be seen on high streets, bringing much-needed competition to the banking sector and protecting the remaining jobs in my constituency?

In conclusion, an independent inquiry into the nationalisation of Bradford & Bingley is long overdue. The Bradford & Bingley shareholders, bondholders and employees, and the local community, are entitled to know the truth. The Prime Minister has claimed, many times, that he is committed to open and transparent government, and he has opened an inquiry into the Co-op bank failure. I believe it is not too late for the Government to do the same—open an independent inquiry—with respect to the Bradford & Bingley nationalisation. That was, arguably, the best example of what went wrong in the banking crisis, particularly in relation to the flawed accounting standards that are still in place. Justice and the British sense of fair play demand such action, and I hope that the Minister, who is a good man, will do the right thing and agree to it.

The Government rightly claim to be on the side of hard-working people. Hard-working people were the shareholders, bondholders and employees of Bradford & Bingley who all lost out. By agreeing to an independent inquiry and making all the relevant Government papers available to it, the Government can show that they will, indeed, stand up for hard-working people.