Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 472: debated on Tuesday 19 February 2008

House of Commons

Tuesday 19 February 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords](By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 28 February.

Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 28 February.

Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 28 February.

London Local Authorities (Shopping Bags) Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 28 February.

Manchester City Council Bill [Lords](By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 28 February.

Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 28 February.

Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 28 February.

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—


There are significant security challenges in Afghanistan, epitomised by the tragic death of a British soldier from the 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment on Sunday. However, there has also been significant political progress since 2001. Afghanistan has a constitution, and the first parliamentary elections for 36 years took place in 2005. The Interior Ministry has registered more than 80 political parties, and our Government have funding programmes to increase the participation of civil society in politics. The UK will continue to assist the Afghan Government to build on progress so far.

I join the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to the British soldier killed at the weekend and offer our condolences to his family. Following the abortive attempt to appoint Lord Ashdown as the special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General, it all seems to have gone rather quiet on that front. Can the right hon. Gentleman give the House an update on progress? It is critical that all the key agencies working in Afghanistan are co-ordinated properly, so that we can build progress not just on the military front, but on the political front, and ultimately be successful.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, he is echoing the Government’s determination to see a strong political figure appointed to that role. The fact that it has gone quiet in the media and on the airwaves is probably a good thing rather than a bad thing, given the difficulties that arose with the previous suggested appointee. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that in my discussions with President Karzai and the Secretary-General of the UN, I have stressed the importance of a timely and early appointment of a new special representative. I look forward to announcements when the Secretary-General and the Afghan Government have come to a conclusion. Like the hon. Gentleman, I think that that should happen sooner rather than later.

The men and women of Her Majesty’s armed forces are doing an extraordinary job in Afghanistan, and some are making the ultimate sacrifice. However, the total number of service personnel provided by Germany, Portugal, Greece, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Sweden, Spain and France is less than the total number of British troops deployed. What is the Foreign Secretary doing to ensure that our European allies bear their fair share of the burden in this fight for democracy?

The hon. Gentleman is right that the UK is the second largest contributor in Afghanistan, with some 7,800 troops. I agree with him that it is critical for all of NATO that there should be the increased burden sharing of which the Prime Minister has spoken. I also assure the hon. Gentleman that the NATO summit in Bucharest in April is an important occasion, and that there are intensive ongoing discussions in advance of it to ensure that there is a proper, increased deployment of troops from European and other countries, not least to help ensure that the Canadians continue their important work.

However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would also agree that it is not only through the extra deployment of overseas troops that progress will be achieved in Afghanistan. Critical, too, is the build-up of the Afghan national army and, of course, the economic, political and social development that must go side by side with military deployment.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that quite a number of hon. Members on the Labour Benches supported the invasion of Afghanistan, owing to our grave concerns about the treatment of women there? Will he therefore give us an update on the position of women in Afghanistan?

I am aware of my hon. Friend’s support in that regard. I think that she would agree that 25 per cent. of the MPs in the Afghan Parliament being women is a start, but that she would also agree that economic and social progress will be critical. One indicator is education, and under the misrule of the Taliban, education for girls was all but banned. The fact that, of the 5 million pupils now in school in Afghanistan, nearly half are girls is obviously a significant start to progress. I can assure my hon. Friend, however, that equal citizenship for all Afghan citizens must bridge the divide in life chances that exists between men and women, and our efforts are certainly dedicated to achieving that.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one important factor in achieving sustainable political progress in Afghanistan will be the development of effective systems of sub-national governance, to enable people in the different regions and localities to have a real stake in building a future for democracy in their country? Will he tell me what action is being taken to promote that?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. He will be pleased to know that the decision last August by President Karzai to establish a dedicated national directorate of local governance—led by Mr. Popal, who has respect across the political spectrum in Afghanistan—has been a significant development. It is leading to neighbourhood level councils being established across the country, and I think that that is critical. After all, our own democracy was built from the bottom up, not from the top down. That should apply in Afghanistan as well as elsewhere in the world.

In judging political progress in Afghanistan, has it occurred to the Foreign Secretary how disbelieving Mr. Attlee would have been if he had been warned that, 60 years after he had withdrawn the British Army from the Indian sub-continent, there would be a Labour Government so stupid as to send yet another undermanned, ill-equipped army to the north-west frontier, when, in the preceding century, the British Raj, with all its expertise in Pathan tribal politics, had never been able to pacify the area?

I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree with me that the late Lord Attlee was critical to the foundation of NATO. I think that he would have reflected on the fact that the end of the division in Europe was a signal event that allowed NATO to think beyond its traditional remit. I think that he would also have believed that the values for which we are standing up in Afghanistan are the values that brought him into politics in the first place. So, although I would not want to put words into his mouth, I think that he would rest happy with the knowledge of the efforts that this Government and others—with cross-party support, it has to be said—are using to try to do good in that important part of the world.

Would not Mr. Attlee also have sent a strong message that he left India in order to provide a democratic basis for Indians to make decisions about their own future, just as this Government are trying to do in Afghanistan? Is not that also the message that we should be giving to our European partners? The earlier point raised by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) was right: we are not seeing enough commitment or recognition among our European partners that what is taking place in Afghanistan is about preventing the Taliban from coming back, about preventing the erosion of the rights of women, and about the ability to ensure that the Afghan people are in control of the destiny of Afghanistan.

The chairman of the parliamentary Labour party will know that Lord Attlee wrote a famous book called “Empire into Commonwealth”, which epitomised precisely such values. The Minister for Europe tells me that he read that book as a child, which explains a lot about his later political development—

I am not sure whether it was at nursery; it was at a formative stage of his budding political career, at the age of eight, that my hon. Friend read it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) makes an important point, and I wholeheartedly agree with him. He will be pleased to know that, at the meeting of European Foreign Ministers yesterday, there was an extensive discussion about how the European policing mission could help to provide an important counterpart in Afghanistan, where a European police training operation is in evidence. It could be improved, however, and its co-ordination with NATO could also be improved. That is something that the European Union should be taking seriously.

The Secretary of State can judge the success of our political aims in Afghanistan only if we know precisely what they are. Perhaps he could take this opportunity to clarify them for us. Is the aim to reverse the awfulness of the Taliban, bearing in mind that the Taliban were our allies against Saddam in 1991? Is it to defeat al-Qaeda and to remove the international terrorists, of whom there are many hundreds in Afghanistan? Is it to eradicate the poppy crop, in which case we could be alienating the very people who ought to be our friends? Or are we trying to establish a Guildford style of democracy, with universal suffrage and gender balance? Will the Secretary of State please be clear about precisely what we are trying to achieve in Afghanistan?

Along with our international partners, we have a simple aim—for Afghanistan to be run by the Afghans and not to be influenced by outside foreign fighters inspired by al-Qaeda. The hon. Gentleman says that the Taliban were there in 1991, but I have to disagree with him about that. We can have a longer discussion about it, but our political aim is for democracy to take root in Afghanistan—though not necessarily Guildford-style democracy, as I would not want to speak on behalf of Guildford. Afghans should be able to run their own country; it is a very poor country, which deserves to be able to run its own affairs.

The Foreign Secretary made a mockery of the non-appointment of Lord Ashdown to co-ordinate international development. Will the right hon. Gentleman update the House on what is happening with that appointment? When this question was put to the Prime Minister, he ducked it and said it was a matter for the UN Secretary-General. Is not that an example of the sort of indecision that is adding to the problems of Afghanistan? If the fundamental lack of co-ordination between the international community and Afghanistan is not solved, we will see the country fall into civil war.

I can only believe that the hon. Gentleman was either not in his place or not listening when I answered the first question put by his hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), because there was no mockery at all in respect of Lord Ashdown. We supported his candidacy, but in the end the new special representative must be acceptable both to the UN and to the Afghan Government. I can assure the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) that we are talking to and working with the Government of Afghanistan and with the UN to ensure that a new special representative is appointed in a timely fashion. That is not a matter of mockery, but a matter of substance and urgency.

The Foreign Secretary quite rightly pointed out that there were a number of positive aspects to what has happened in Afghanistan in the past, but all hon. Members are only too well aware of a series of more recent powerful reports from national and international bodies, including the International Development Committee, which conclude that Afghanistan is possibly beginning to tip towards failure. Will the Foreign Secretary clarify the strategy of the British Government in what is looking more like a crisis. I fear that there is an element of complacency in his attitude. If we wait cautiously and slowly for the appointment of the new special representative, the position may get completely out of hand, when it has already got far too serious for that to happen.

The situation is far too serious for complacency and I defy the hon. Gentleman to find any suggestion in anything that I or the Prime Minister have said that the challenges we face—security, economic and political—are anything other than extremely significant. We have made that clear in every article, speech or answer that we give, as I did in response to the first question today. However, it is not right to talk about the situation in Afghanistan tipping into chaos or failure. The analysis of the Select Committee on International Development and others, including the Senlis Council, is similar to the analysis set out by the Prime Minister in December, so it is a shared analysis of the economic, political and security concerns that apply in Afghanistan.

As to our own strategy, the Prime Minister set out a number of features. First, the Afghan leadership is important, as we are there to support the Afghans, not to create a colony. Secondly, we want to ensure that we build up the local governance, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) referred earlier. Thirdly and critically, alongside the military effort, we are pursuing an economic and political effort to ensure that ordinary Afghans feel the benefits in their everyday lives. That is what we are trying to engineer. Fourthly, critical to that effort are the responsibilities of both the international community and the Afghan Government to each other: the international community must be better co-ordinated and the Afghan Government must clean up corruption and other problems that have stood in the way of making progress towards a solution in that country.

British Overseas Territories

2. What services his Department provides to the residents of British overseas territories and Crown dependencies. (186584)

The overseas territories have a significant degree of internal self-governance. In general, the Government of each territory is responsible for the provision of services to their residents. The UK Government are responsible for the territories’ defence, external relations and internal security. The Ministry of Justice is responsible for the UK’s relationship with the Crown dependencies.

I am grateful for that response, but how can Britain call on other countries to uphold human rights and basic freedoms when the Chagos islanders were unlawfully deported from their homes 40 years ago and denied the right to return—a right restored three times by the courts over the past seven years and appealed against by the Minister’s Department—and when Diego Garcia is being used by the US for extraordinary rendition?

I make no excuses for what happened in the 1960s and 1970s. That was a dreadful situation. As for the present position, we concluded on the basis of a feasibility study commissioned in 2002 that lasting resettlement would be precarious. As the hon. Gentleman knows, however, the issue of settlement is subject to legal proceedings. We have appealed on the ground that the previous judgment would cause problems for the way in which we run our relationships with other overseas territories, not just the British Indian Ocean territories.

Does the Minister accept that that was a deeply disappointing answer? The islanders were forcibly removed from their homeland, disgracefully and wrongfully, one of their islands has been taken over as an American base and possibly used for extraordinary rendition, and many of them have lived in poverty ever since their removal. Is it not time to give justice to the Chagos islanders? Is it not time to pay them appropriate compensation, and allow them to return to the homes from which they were so brutally removed?

I have already said that I do not excuse what happened previously: in that respect I agree with the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). The matter is currently subject to a court process. Compensation has been paid—that has been legally agreed—and British citizenship given to all Chagos islanders. We await the outcome of the court hearing.

Can the Minister tell us when the agreement with the United States on the use of its bases on Chagos expires? Can she also tell us whether the renewal of that agreement requires the approval of Her Majesty’s Government, or whether it can be effectively continued by the United States without such approval?

The agreement with the United States is continuing. At the moment there is no end date to that. It should mean that at the end of the period, if we no longer needed the British Indian Ocean territories, we would consider the rights of Mauritius.

Why does the Foreign Secretary not take account of the mood of the House in respect of the Chagos islanders? Overwhelmingly the House wants this wrong remedied, and remedied with some expedition and dispatch.

I understand the anger that hon. Members feel about what has happened, and I share their concern. The Government looked into whether it was possible to resettle the islanders. The feasibility study commissioned in 2002 said that lasting resettlement would be precarious and, if sponsored by the Government, would entail substantial open-ended contingent liability to the British taxpayer.

The Minister will be well aware that the economy of Tristan da Cunha depends on the export of crayfish. Regrettably, however, despite being a British overseas dependent territory, it is denied access to European Union markets. Can the Minister explain why that is, and tell us what steps she is taking to remedy the position?

It is true that the fish industry is extremely important to that territory, but I have had no recent discussions on the matter. It was not raised at the Overseas Territories Consultative Council. However, I will look into it further for the hon. Gentleman.


3. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Zimbabwe, with particular reference to the forthcoming elections. (186585)

Zimbabwe is suffering from an economic, humanitarian and political crisis for which President Mugabe is directly responsible. Although the election has been declared for 29 March, the conditions for it are far from free and fair. We are pressing for effective international monitoring and for states in the region to require the election to meet international standards, including those adopted by the Southern African Development Community itself.

The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the imminent elections in Zimbabwe are critical to the welfare and well-being not only of the country as a whole, but of its people. My support for Zimbabwe and for an African democratic solution to its problems is well known to the House. What steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to ensure that the elections are, in an African context, as free and fair as is acceptable to the civilised world?

The hon. Gentleman’s long record of standing up for democracy and the interests of the people of Zimbabwe is well known. I would point him in three directions. First, it has been important to emphasise that there is a humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe, which requires humanitarian action by the Department for International Development. Secondly, I would point at the support for the SADC movement, including in its election role. Thirdly, it is critical—not least given that there are 4 million refugees outside the country, which already calls into question the election processes and result—that we none the less support international demands from the European Union, the Commonwealth and elsewhere for proper observation missions that allow an on-the-ground assessment of how the election campaign and the election counting are conducted.

Having served his sentence in Zimbabwe, my constituent, Mr. Simon Mann, has been illegally handed over by Zimbabwe to a dictator in Equatorial Guinea who has promised to sodomise him, skin him alive and drag him through the streets of the capital city. What steps can the Government take against Zimbabwe for the outrageous breach of my constituent’s human rights when he was handed over before his appeal procedures were completed, and what assurance can there be for—

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that our first priority is Mr. Mann’s immediate welfare and the legal case against him. That is why we have put such emphasis on consular access, which has now been granted, and on making representations to the Government of Equatorial Guinea in the UK. I am pleased that we have received assurances from the Equatorial Guinean authorities that Mr. Mann will be treated well in detention. Obviously, we are monitoring that through continued consular access. A number of welfare points were raised during the visit of 12 February. We are taking them up and, within the limits of what we are allowed to disclose by Mr. Mann’s family, I would be happy for the hon. Gentleman to see the explanations that we have received. He is right to raise both the humanitarian and the legal side of the case. Those are our current focus, and we can in due course turn to the role of the Government of Zimbabwe once Mr. Mann’s future has been determined.

Lisbon Treaty

4. What discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on planned referendums on the treaty of Lisbon in other EU countries. (186586)

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have regular contact with our EU counterparts on numerous issues, including the Lisbon treaty.

May I quote from a piece in Saturday’s edition of the Financial Times on the European Parliament and its legislation? The author writes:

“If we intervene as voters, we get spat on…I realised how cross I felt about the inter-governmental plot—there is no other word—to deny everyone a say on the new Lisbon Treaty, the rebranded version of the failed constitution killed off by French and Dutch referendums…The underlying assumption is that we’re far too stupid to understand.”

Does the Minister think the British people are too stupid to have the referendum that he promised them in his manifesto in 2005?

Far from it. The fact is that only one country across the EU is having a referendum: our good friends in Ireland. The hon. Gentleman quotes from Saturday’s Financial Times. I thought he was going to quote his colleague, MEP Caroline Jackson, in yesterday’s Financial Times, who described his party’s policy as “a hopeless quest” and said that the party was developing

“a bad reputation…for crass and offensive behaviour”,

and she went on to describe his party’s European policy as a “patch of poisonous fungus”. The truth is that the Conservative party is more obsessed about, and isolated on, Europe now than at any time in modern history.

How many EU countries that are not having referendums are led by governing parties that promised a referendum before an election and then broke that promise after the election, or is the UK unique in that respect?

The right hon. Gentleman knows all about them from having been deputy Chief Whip during the Maastricht debacle. The fact is that nine countries—nine separate sovereign states—promised a referendum on the old constitution. Only Ireland intends to hold a referendum, on the basis that it is in adherence with its domestic 1937 constitution, which originates from the constitution of the Irish Free State of 1922 and a High Court ruling of 1987. Opposition Members should recognise that we have an entirely different domestic constitutional arrangement from that of our good friends in the Republic of Ireland.

The Minister will know that I had the pleasure of visiting East Renfrewshire last week in support of the “I Want a Referendum” campaign, which is running a referendum in his constituency. I must tell him that a lot of his own constituents do not agree with him on this issue. He and his Government might continue to deny the British people the referendum that they were so clearly promised in Labour’s manifesto, but what will the Minister for Europe do if even his own constituents, who sent him to this place, vote against him on the issue?

At the start of our debates and proceedings on the Lisbon treaty, I joked that I was looking forward to spending more time with the hon. Gentleman than with my own wife. He popped into my house last Friday to visit my wife—[Laughter.] I was not at home. Inexplicably, she had sent me out for the day. The constituent who lives with me, and I, have both decided to bin the ballot, and I believe that most of my constituents and those across the other nine areas where these local referendums are being held will do so too. They will recognise this as an expensive, ineffective publicity stunt by the Conservative party.

Smuggling (Gaza)

Arms smuggling into Gaza remains a great concern. The United Kingdom has not made representations to the Palestinian Authority on this subject. We understand the problems that the authority has with Hamas, which seized control of Gaza nine months ago. However, we support the work of the Quadrilateral Committee, which consists of the Palestinian Authority, Israel, Egypt and the United States, and has been working closely to address the smuggling issue.

The people of Sderot are under daily bombardment from Gaza, a situation made possible by smuggled arms, by explosives disguised as humanitarian aid and by terrorists coming into Gaza from Iran, Syria and Egypt. Given that reply, will the Minister assure me that he will make renewed representations to both the Palestinian Authority and Egypt? Does he accept that the current representations are inadequate to deal with the growing humanitarian problem faced by the people of Gaza?

Yes, I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. I can also tell her that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Egyptian Foreign Minister this morning and that the border was mentioned in that discussion. We know of the conditions that people are suffering from in Sderot—more than 2,000 rockets and mortar rounds have been fired at that town since Hamas took over nine months ago. She is also right to highlight the terrible humanitarian plight of so many people living in Gaza. We are seeking to ameliorate that by urging the Israeli Government to ensure that adequate supplies of fuel oil, for example, are allowed into Gaza and the west bank.

Is it not true that the real losers are the people living in the Gaza strip? Given that any overall peace settlement between the west, the Israeli people and the Palestinian Authority must also include the authorities in Gaza, what is the British Government’s strategy for including them in such dialogue at some stage, whether that be through the Egyptian Government or otherwise? What is our thinking about that?

Our thinking is certainly that we support President Abbas, Prime Minister Fayyad and the negotiating team that is talking to the Israelis post-Annapolis. Hamas must renounce violence, and it must recognise the validity of existing agreements and the right of Israel to exist without being bombed and rocketed. If it does that, we would have no difficulty talking to its representatives. We want everybody to play a part in rebuilding Gaza and the west bank. That will not happen at the moment. We certainly have no intention of undercutting the authority of President Abbas and his Government.

The smuggling of arms is also happening in Lebanon, but little can be done about that while the crisis in that country continues. I understand that the Prime Minister of Lebanon is meeting our Prime Minister today, and that is welcome recognition, but what more will the Government do to bring that crisis to an end, so that we can have stability in that country?

I know that Lebanon is not that far from Gaza, but my hon. Friend is ingenious in raising that issue. He is right: one of the common variables is Syria, and we would like Damascus to stop supporting the rejectionists of the two-state solution. We would also like Damascus to stop supporting the smuggling of arms into Lebanon, which is in a very fragile state.

Given that much of the smuggling into Gaza is done by the Bedouin tribes through deep tunnels, I am curious as to what conversations the Minister has had with his counterpart in Egypt about gaining greater control over the Bedouins and the smuggling that they are carrying out.

The area is not just open desert. There are large urban centres and the hon. Gentleman will know how difficult it was to stop smuggling in Berlin. It is not easy. The material goes down inside one house and emerges up through another house. It is very difficult to stop, and we have talked to the Egyptians about how they might control it. The best suggestion that I have heard so far is for a 20 ft deep trench on each side of the border. That would probably uncover about 50 tunnels.

Is it not a fact that what was being smuggled into the Gaza strip from Egypt, while the opportunity was there, was food and fuel to ameliorate the starvation and the terrible poverty of the people of Gaza; that President Abbas’s influence in Gaza is nil; and that the stranglehold of Hamas over the Gaza strip, with terrible deaths among the Gaza people and the Israelis, will continue until a meaningful peace dialogue is started? It did not start at Annapolis and it will not start until pressure is put on both sides.

I certainly do not agree with my right hon. Friend that there is not a dialogue proceeding: I believe that there is one, and I am glad to see it happening. I agree with him that the images that we all saw on our televisions of Palestinians living in Gaza smuggling food back into the Gaza strip was a revelation that told us a lot about the situation inside Gaza and the desperate circumstances of its people. But as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) pointed out, the difficulty is that while food and other requirements are being smuggled in, so are arms. As the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) said, the people who are suffering as a consequence are the Palestinians living in Gaza, because they suffer from the blockades and the retaliation against those extremists who fire rockets and mortar rounds into Israel.

Dalai Lama

6. What the arrangements are for the forthcoming visit of the Dalai Lama; and if he will make a statement. (186588)

The Government are aware that the Dalai Lama is planning to visit the UK in May this year. The Dalai Lama’s representatives in the UK will make the arrangements for that visit.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, as far as it goes. She will be aware of the significant concern on both sides of the House about China’s human rights record. Although Steven Spielberg’s comments about Darfur have taken the headlines, she will be aware of the gross abuse of human rights in Tibet and the fact that if Chinese migration continues, Tibet will be finished within 10 years as a possible nation state. Given that Angela Merkel, George Bush and the leaders of other countries have met the Dalai Lama, can the Minister say whether the Prime Minister intends to do so?

As I have said, the visit is some way off and arrangements have not yet been made. Diaries will need to be consulted nearer the time. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we urge China to engage in serious negotiations with the Dalai Lama’s representatives to build a peaceful, sustainable and legitimate solution for Tibet.

May I urge the Minister and the Government to meet the Dalai Lama when he visits this country? I welcome the fact that the Government have turned from the Prescott philosophy, which is that we cannot tackle China on human rights, to doing so when it matters on issues such as Darfur. It matters over Tibet, too. The Government’s policy is that there should be autonomy for Tibetans and the Dalai Lama is the representative of most Tibetans. I urge the Minister, in a gentle way, to ensure that the leaders of this Government meet him when he comes to this country.

We take very seriously the issue of human rights and China. The UK-China human rights dialogue took place at the end of January and included a field trip to Tibet and calls on a range of administrative bodies in the Tibet autonomous region. We are keen to ensure that work is ongoing to improve human rights and we will continue that dialogue with China.

When the Minister next meets her Chinese counterpart, will she remind him that the people of Tibet do not want independence but autonomy and cultural protection? In that regard, does she agree with the 14th Dalai Lama that the next Dalai Lama should be chosen by the people of Tibet through a referendum, not imposed by a regime in Beijing that has no regard for religious minorities?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that my noble friend Lord Malloch-Brown, who has responsibility for our relationships with China, raises issues of human rights regularly with his counterpart. We continue to regard Tibet as autonomous while recognising the special position of the Chinese authorities there, and we make those points when we meet them.


7. What assessment he has made of the political situation in Darfur; and if he will make a statement. (186589)

Sustainable peace in Darfur can be achieved only through the political process under United Nations and African Union leadership. But fighting between Sudanese forces and rebels makes the situation increasingly complex and the consequences for civilians increasingly dire. We call on the parties to uphold a ceasefire and we are supporting attempts to reinvigorate the political process. We are also pushing for the accelerated deployment of the UN-AU force.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Given the necessity of helicopter units to the UN-African Union Mission in Darfur and the Government’s preparedness to underwrite the costs to other countries of donating helicopter assets, has the Minister had any dialogue with her counterparts in Ukraine and Russia about that possibility?

As my hon. Friend says, the issue of helicopters is enormously important. The UK convened meetings in New York on 16 and 30 January in support of the UN to discuss approaches to generating helicopter units for UNAMID. The representatives of more than 20 countries attended that meeting. My noble friend Lord Malloch-Brown also visited New York last week to press for rapid effective deployment of UNAMID, and those issues were raised then.

Although the Minister’s answer is welcome, does she realise that Ethiopia has managed to find five helicopters for Darfur whereas the UK Government, the US and all the NATO and EU countries have not managed to provide a single helicopter? Are not the people of Darfur entitled to ask what has happened to the Government’s many promises of help and support? I asked a similar question to the Foreign Secretary six weeks ago, and he told me he shared my sense of urgency. Is it not time that the Government acted urgently, got the helicopters deployed and did not leave all the efforts to American actors and film directors?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not recognise the huge effort from the UK to support the mission, as well as the substantial financial support that is being offered. We have lobbied hard to close remaining gaps in helicopter provision. We have targeted Egypt, South Africa and the central European states, including, as my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) mentioned, Ukraine, as well as Bulgaria and Slovakia. The issue is that the helicopters need to be suitable for the circumstances and the terrain in Darfur. We need those helicopters, and it is important that we keep trying to get them as soon as possible.

Too many people have suffered too much for too long with too little done to help them in Darfur. Given that foot-stamping by the Sudanese Government has thus far acted as an effective veto on the necessary AU-UN troop deployment to the region, will the Under-Secretary of State tell the House, on a scale of one to 10, what she reckons is the likelihood that that necessary deployment will take place before the genocide of Darfurians has been completed?

I know that the hon. Gentleman rightly takes a great interest in this issue, and we share his concern about the slow process of deployment. Some 10,000 people—7,000 of them troops—have already been deployed to Darfur, but we want more to happen, and more quickly. We have concerns about the Sudanese Government blocking part of the deployment, and we continue to press them about that. We also have concerns about the rebel groups’ failure to take part in the political talks that must take place alongside the peacekeeping process.

My hon. Friend’s response to the earlier question was a little bleak and depressing for all of us who care about the continuing misery in Darfur. Is there no way ahead? Is there not even a way to have an intelligent dialogue with the Chinese to try and break the deadlock in Darfur?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Chinese special representative for Sudan and Africa will meet my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East later this week. Let us be clear: the Government are providing a great deal of support for the process. We have made available £1 million to the AU-UN joint mediation support team, and we are the second largest bilateral humanitarian donor to Sudan.

Given that only 9,000 of the promised 26,000 peacekeeping troops have been deployed in Darfur, and that more than 250,000 Darfuris have had to flee their homes in the past 10 months alone, does not the Minister accept that we need rather more than warm words and further meetings, and that our Government must show diplomatic leadership? Will the British Government now press for further sanctions against the Sudanese leadership if they continue to block the deployment of the full peacekeeping force? In addition, will our Government seek to impose an air exclusion zone so that the Sudanese can be prevented from using their aircraft to attack their own people?

I do not accept the views that the hon. Gentleman is putting forward. We are taking a lead on the matter, and pressing very hard for a full deployment. As I am sure that he recognises, it is very important that other countries in the international community play their part and get involved. Further sanctions are, of course, an option, and tougher measures may be necessary if the Government of Sudan and the rebel groups continue to fail to co-operate.

Topical Questions

The House will know that on 17 February the Parliamentary Assembly of Kosovo declared Kosovo to be an independent state. The declaration also committed Kosovo to implement fully UN Special Envoy Ahtisaari’s comprehensive proposal, including extensive safeguards for all Kosovo’s minorities.

The UK has decided to recognise Kosovo’s independence and establish diplomatic relations with that country. I have set out more details in a written statement that I have put before the House today, but I shall take this opportunity to underline three factors that have driven our approach.

First, we share the view that leaving Kosovo’s status unresolved is “unsustainable”, to quote the UN Secretary-General. Secondly, after almost two years of intensive negotiations, it was clear that a mutually agreed settlement between Belgrade and Pristina, although desirable in many ways, was out of reach. In those circumstances, the implementation of the UN special envoy’s proposals was the most viable way forward. Thirdly, the EU and other international players have made clear their readiness to play a leading role in implementing a settlement—a point demonstrated by yesterday’s unanimous Council conclusions.

We shall work closely with our international partners and Kosovo’s Government to support Kosovo as she takes her next steps forward.

My right hon. Friend has received a request from the overseas territories that they be allowed to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph. Discussions have taken place with his Department, and I do not believe that his ego is so great that he will not recognise that the overseas territories have a right to lay a wreath at the service, given that their people have given, and continue to give, their lives on behalf of our armed forces. Will he give in and allow the overseas territories to lay the wreath themselves?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Secretary of State lays a wreath on behalf of the overseas territories at the service at the Cenotaph. There are no plans at present to change that arrangement.

With reference to Kosovo, may I agree with the Foreign Secretary? Nearly two years of negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina failed to reach agreement, so the supervised independence of Kosovo, in line with the Ahtisaari plan, became the only realistic way forward. However, will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear to Kosovo’s leaders that the widespread support here in Britain for that country’s independence depends crucially on one thing above all—the full protection of the rights of all minorities, including property and religious sites? If that protection is supplied, the dark fears of the past in that region will not be ignited again.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his constructive and supportive attitude to this difficult issue. I absolutely assure him that the spirit as well as the letter of the Ahtisaari plans is important to us. The cultural and religious sites that he mentions are important to many of the Kosovar Serbs, who are not simply in the north of the country but also in the south. I assure him that, both in our contacts with the new Kosovan Government and in my statement yesterday, I was clear about the importance of this aspect of the Ahtisaari plan.

On a separate issue, may I return the Foreign Secretary to the Prime Minister’s speech at the lord mayor’s banquet on 12 November on foreign policy, which called for EU sanctions on the Iranian financial sector and on investment in Iranian oil and gas fields? Iran is now thought to be nearing the threshold for the industrial enrichment of uranium. It continues to develop ballistic missile programmes. Does he agree that the issue has lost none of its urgency since the Prime Minister spoke? Can he say whether sanctions in line with those called for by the Prime Minister are ever going to be agreed, or is there now a danger that western policy on Iran has begun to unravel?

Far from unravelling, the “western” policy that the right hon. Gentleman describes now has the formal support of China and Russia as well, as a result of the E3 plus 3 meeting in Berlin and other discussions that I and other colleagues have been having. He is right to continue to point to the importance of this issue and to stress that there is a clear choice for Iran. It can either work with the international community and reap all the economic, scientific and technological benefits of such co-operation, or defy three successive UN Security Council resolutions—another one is in the pipeline—and suffer the consequences. I believe that the sanctions to which the Prime Minister referred remain important. The UN is in the lead this month with a resolution soon to be tabled, and it will be for the EU then to follow. I might point out that EU sanctions currently go beyond what is required by the UN resolution currently in place.

T4. Yesterday’s elections in Pakistan were significant. Will it not be important to maintain good relationships with the current President and develop new ones with the incoming Government? What did the British Government do yesterday to ensure that the elections were free and fair? (186525)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The election results to be announced in Pakistan over the next week or so matter to us all, and the credibility of those results is critical to this country. I can assure my hon. Friend that we worked closely with the Government of Pakistan on the detailed arrangements in 64,000 polling stations for which they had responsibility, and the importance of due process in those polling stations. The EU observer mission will be reporting later today, but I am sure it is gratifying for the whole House that despite, by our standards, large loss of life and injury over this weekend of voting, the allegations of electoral fraud seem to be small in number. There seems to be some confidence that, now that the governing party has indicated that it expects to spend time on the Opposition benches, the election results will carry credibility. I certainly intend to follow that up as the new Government are put into place.

T2. What did the Foreign Secretary make of Vladimir Putin’s belligerent final presidential press conference? What read-across does it have for Kosovo, bearing in mind the welcome news of this weekend? (186523)

I would like to have a longer chance to discuss British relations with Russia, but specifically in respect of the western Balkans, President Putin, soon to be Prime Minister Putin perhaps, made it clear that he did not propose to take action in respect especially of the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. That is important.

In respect of Kosovo, the Russian position has been made clear at the UN Security Council and elsewhere. Diplomatic protests and political views are welcome, but it is important on the basis of my discussions this morning with the new British ambassador in Pristina that the situation in Kosovo is calm. The continuation of electricity and other supplies is giving confidence to people there that the situation will remain calm.

T6. My right hon. Friend will be aware that Colombia is considered the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a trade unionist. Last August, I went with a delegation of British trade unionists and parliamentarians to Colombia to meet victims of human rights abuses. While we were there, we met many trade unionists who had been detained in jail without trial for lengthy periods for their trade union activities. One of them was Carmen Mayusa, who has been detained in custody without trial since 11 May 2006 for being involved in campaigns against the privatisation of the Colombian health service— (186527)

My hon. Friend is quite right; Colombia is a very dangerous place. I met the chairman of the Colombian TUC on my last visit to Bogota, and a large delegation of Colombian trade unionists will come to this country shortly. We will discuss with them how we can help to ensure the security of trade unionists in Colombia. I add that the people who are murdering the most trade unionists in Colombia are not the Colombian Government but FARC.

T3. Yesterday saw the publication of the first version of the dossier that took us to war in Iraq. It is quite clear that it was written by a Foreign Office press officer, yet in May 2003 Downing street said:“Not one word of the dossier was not entirely the work of the intelligence agencies”,and much of the wording from the first version is replicated in the final version. When will the Foreign Secretary correct that totally wrong statement, and when will we have a proper inquiry into why we were led into an illegal war in Iraq contrary to British interests? (186524)

I certainly continue to believe that the September 2002 publication was the work of the intelligence services. The fact that both that document and the so-called Williams draft drew on similar intelligence material explains why the wording, to use the hon. Gentleman’s phrase, is so similar. It seems to me that he and the Government have a difference of opinion about the Iraq war, but the publication of the Williams draft puts to bed many of the phantom scare stories put around about the origins of various aspects of the September 2002 document, not least of which is the so-called 45-minute claim, which he will now see was never in the Williams draft.

T5. Further to that question, given that the Foreign Secretary has been forced to publish the Williams draft of the Iraq dossier, will he now reverse his previous refusal to answer the key questions that his Department has been avoiding during the past three years, including who authorised John Williams to produce the draft, who it was handed to and who commented on it? Otherwise, the Government’s continued evasiveness on the issue can only create the further impression that they have something to hide. (186526)

The hon. Gentleman has pursued the issue for a long time, but now that the document has been published, I do not see how he can refer to evasiveness in respect of its contents. We do not know who wrote the marginalia and comments; that was made clear yesterday, not least by John Williams. Now that the document is in the public domain, it would be as well for the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to recognise that publication has taken place and that we can debate what was in the dossier.

However, it remains important that draft documents and discussion within Government should be free and frank. It cannot be the case that officials believe that everything that they write down will go into the public domain. They must be able to advise Ministers without fear or favour, and it was that important point of principle that the Government were defending. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman can speak to me afterwards, as I did not hear what he said. There has been the publication of—

T10. The world has been rightly preoccupied with the situation in Kenya. Both the previous and the present UN Secretary-General have been involved, and President Bush visited recently. However, in neighbouring Somalia the situation is absolutely desperate. The warlords are still in control, and the peace process and the reconstruction of the Government have not gone anywhere significant. If I were to advise Osama bin Laden where to look for the next failed state, Somalia would be high on the list. Will the British Government give us some assurance that we will play our role at the international level so that concentration through the African Union is devoted to ensuring that Somalia is reassembled and given the opportunity to function as a modern state? (186531)

My hon. Friend is correct. Somalia is generally regarded as being, perhaps, the world’s only current failed state. It has had 16 years of brutal violence and is indeed a human tragedy. My hon. Friend will rightly continue to raise the matter. We are determined to play our part in the international community and also with the transitional federal Government to make sure that there can be effective governance and a degree of reconciliation, and to ensure that those 16 years of violence are brought to an end.

T9. Does not the Simon Mann case underline the folly and short-sightedness of the Government in closing missions and embassies all over Africa? Twenty-three African nations have no British diplomatic representation at all, including Equatorial Guinea. Will the Minister give a commitment that Mr. Mann’s rights will not be undermined as a result of the Government’s short-sightedness? (186530)

The Government consider carefully where we have our diplomatic missions and we make sure that there are appropriate arrangements for consular support wherever British citizens are in the world. As the hon. Gentleman knows, HM consul in Lagos travelled to Malabo on 5 February and subsequently was able to visit Mr. Mann in prison in Malabo on 12 February. He will continue to keep in contact with Mr. Mann, and we will continue to provide excellent consular services to all British citizens wherever they are in the world.

The UN special envoy on Burma is touring ASEAN—Association of South East Asian Nations—countries in an attempt to get them to act together in relation to Burma, and he has confirmed that India and China have the most leverage over Burma. What influence are we exercising over India and China to get them to exercise that leverage?

My right hon. Friend is right. The role of India and China in seeking to influence what takes place in Burma is enormously important. The topic of Burma is raised whenever we have contact through my noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown in relation to China and India. The Prime Minister raised the matter when he was in China, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will also do so on his visit to China.

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:

European Communities (Finance) Act 2008.


Banking (Special Provisions)

Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary David Miliband, Secretary Jack Straw, Mr. Secretary Hutton, Yvette Cooper, Jane Kennedy, Angela Eagle and Kitty Ussher, presented a Bill to make provision to enable the Treasury in certain circumstances to make an order relating to the transfer of securities issued by, or of property, rights or liabilities belonging to, an authorised deposit-taker; to make further provision in relation to building societies; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed. [Bill 73].

Allotments (Planning)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to encourage local authorities to make provision for allotments; to require them to consider imposing duties on developers to provide land for statutory allotments when determining planning applications; and for connected purposes.

I am glad of the opportunity to introduce a Bill on allotments that has support across the House, the proposed sponsors all being members of the all-party horticultural group, a number of whom, such as the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and me, being fortunate enough to be allotment holders.

Allotments have long been enshrined in law. The General Inclosure Act 1845 enabled allotments to provide fresh fruit and vegetables for the “landless poor”. This year we celebrate the centenary of the Act of Parliament that placed a duty on local authorities to make provision for allotments for the use of local people—the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908, which is still in force. It places a duty on local authorities to provide sufficient allotments according to demand and also makes provision for local authorities compulsorily to purchase land to provide allotments. The 1908 Act states that if local authorities

“are of the opinion that there is a demand for the borough, district or parish the council shall provide a sufficient number of allotments to persons...resident in the borough, district or parish and desiring the same”.

In recent years, there has been a surge in the number of people wanting to work their own allotments. Last year, for example, the London Assembly published a survey entitled “A Lot to Lose: London’s disappearing allotments”. It found that in London alone, more than 4,300 people—3,000 more than 10 years ago—were on allotment waiting lists.

A similar picture can be found in every part of England, given that more and more people want the opportunity to work an allotment. The profile of those launching allotments is changing. Women and young families are increasingly active on the issue, and members of ethnic minorities are often keen to grow their own vegetables. As the chair of Friends of Windmill Allotments in Lambeth recently observed, allotments are

“a scarce, popular and oversubscribed local resource which besides food growing and cutting food miles, contributes to biodiversity targets, decreasing CO2 emissions etc.”

Those who have allotments, and those who would like to, have a love of gardening and a desire to grow better produce than can be bought. They may want to grow their own vegetables or flowers. A century after the passing of the 1908 Act, we should all champion allotments on grounds of health, the environment, community relations and ethnic diversity.

There is, however, a difficulty. I seek to introduce the Bill because as demand for allotments increases, the number of available plots is decreasing. The London Assembly survey found that 54 football pitches’ worth of allotments had recently been lost in London. Again, the picture is pretty much the same throughout the country. Sites are being chipped away a bit at a time, and that is leading to spiralling waiting lists. All too often, waiting lists are counted in years or even decades. The London borough of Camden, for example, has a 10-year allotment waiting list, and three years or more is not unusual across the country. Many councils are having to halve the size of traditional allotment plots to ensure that more families can move off waiting lists, but the reality is that councils need to find extra land for allotments so that more people can benefit.

It is true that existing allotments have some statutory and regulatory protection. In February 2002, the Government issued a circular to chief executives of all local authorities in England. It stated:

“As you know, the Government is committed to ensuring adequate protection is afforded to allotments. The Allotments Act 1925 requires that statutory allotment land only be disposed of with the Secretary of State’s consent”.

However, notwithstanding attempts to protect them, all too many allotments are disappearing and even fewer new ones are being created. Geoff Stokes, secretary of the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners, has observed:

“In general, few new sites have been set up and those that have are mainly by parish councils”.

Under section 3 of the Allotments Act 1925, there used to be a requirement for every local authority preparing a town planning scheme in pursuance of the Town Planning Act 1925 to consider what provision ought to be included for the reservation of land for allotments. The section also required every council whose district was in the area of a town planning scheme to take into consideration at least once a year whether any lands—and if so, which—were needed for allotments and should be acquired in accordance with the Allotments Acts. At one stage, once a year, every local authority in England had to consider whether it was making a sufficient allocation and enough space for allotments. Alas, when the 1925 Act was repealed, that provision to consider the need for new allotments was also lost.

The Bill seeks to redress the balance. Even when councils are keen to establish new allotments, it is not always easy for them to find and acquire the land. For example, Bicester town council in my constituency has a three-year waiting list for allotments. Debbie Pickford, the leader of the council, is keen to increase the number of available allotments, but with the extraordinary pressure on any available land in the town the council is unlikely to be able to acquire land for allotments at a price that it can afford. In recent years, there has been consistent pressure on all local authorities to dispose of any surplus land, so few local authorities nowadays have surplus land of their own to convert into allotments.

The Bill proposes that under the Planning and Compensation Act 1991, which amended the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, when local authorities are considering planning applications for large developments and what it might be appropriate for developers to provide under section 106 agreements, they are obliged to consider, akin to the 1925 legislation, whether there is a need for the developers to make provision for allotments either on that site or on land elsewhere. In another place on 27 November 2006, Baroness Andrews, a planning Minister, confirmed, in response to Baroness Scott of Needham Market, that section 106 agreements have enabled developers to make provision for allotments. However, the sponsors of the Bill are concerned that such consideration is not being made on a regular or consistent basis across England. We need to see opportunities for new allotment sites.

I am fortunate to have an allotment near Banbury railway station. If one visits allotments at the weekend one will almost certainly find them full of younger people and families. Allotments are in big demand for growing fruit, flowers and vegetables, or just as a great way to chill out. In this, the centenary year of the Smallholdings and Allotments Act 1908, it would be very good if this House and the Government found the way and the will to enable new allotments to be created to meet spiralling demand and to expand allotment availability as we go into the 21st century. I commend this modest measure to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Tony Baldry, Ben Chapman, Robert Key, Mr. Brian H. Donohoe, Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody, Mr. David Wilshire, Mr. David Marshall and Jeremy Corbyn.

Allotments (Planning)

Tony Baldry accordingly presented a Bill to encourage local authorities to make provision for allotments; to require them to consider imposing duties on developers to provide land for statutory allotments when determining planning applications; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 14 March, and to be printed [Bill 68].

Business of the House (Banking (Special Provisions) Bill)

I beg to move,

That the following provisions shall apply to the Banking (Special Provisions) Bill:


1.—(1) Proceedings on Second Reading, in Committee, on consideration and on Third Reading shall be completed at this day’s sitting in accordance with the following provisions of this paragraph.

(2) Proceedings on Second Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 8 p.m.

(3) Proceedings in Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 10.30 p.m.

(4) Proceedings on consideration and on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at midnight.

Timing of proceedings and Questions to be put

2.—(1) As soon as the proceedings on the Motion for this Order have been concluded, the Order for the Second Reading of the Bill shall be read.

(2) When the Bill has been read a second time—

(a) it shall (notwithstanding Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of bills not subject to a programme order)) stand committed to a Committee of the whole House without any Question being put;

(b) proceedings on the Bill shall stand postponed while the Question is put, in accordance with paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 52 (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills), on any financial resolution relating to the Bill;

c) on the conclusion of proceedings on any financial resolution relating to the Bill, proceedings on the Bill shall be resumed and the Speaker shall leave the Chair whether or not notice of an Instruction has been given.

3.—(1) On the conclusion of proceedings in Committee, the Chairman shall report the Bill to the House without putting any Question.

(2) If the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill as amended without any Question being put.

4. For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph 1, the Chairman or Speaker shall forthwith put the following Questions (but no others)—

(a) any Question already proposed from the Chair;

(b) any Question necessary to bring to a decision a Question so proposed;

(c) the Question on any amendment moved or Motion made by a Minister of the Crown;

(d) any other Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded.

5. On a Motion so made for a new Clause or new Schedule, the Chairman or Speaker shall put only the Question that the Clause or Schedule be added to the Bill.

6. If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph 4(d) in relation to successive provisions of the Bill, the Chairman shall instead put a single Question in relation to those provisions.

Consideration of Lords Amendments

7.—(1) Any Lords Amendments to the Bill shall be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

(2) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.

8.—(1) This paragraph applies for the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph 7.

(2) The Speaker shall first put forthwith any Question already proposed from the Chair and not yet decided.

(3) If that Question is for the amendment of a Lords Amendment the Speaker shall then put forthwith—

(a) a single Question on any further Amendments to the Lords Amendment moved by a Minister of the Crown, and

(b) the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown that this House agrees or disagrees to the Lords Amendment or (as the case may be) to the Lords Amendment as amended.

(4) The Speaker shall then put forthwith—

(a) a single Question on any Amendments moved by a Minister of the Crown to a Lords Amendment, and

(b) the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown that this House agrees or disagrees to the Lords Amendment or (as the case may be) to the Lords Amendment as amended.

(5) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown that this House disagrees to a Lords Amendment.

(6) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question that this House agrees to all the remaining Lords Amendments.

(7) As soon as the House has—

(a) agreed or disagreed to a Lords Amendment, or

(b) disposed of an Amendment relevant to a Lords Amendment which has been disagreed to, the Speaker shall put forthwith a single Question on any Amendments moved by a Minister of the Crown and relevant to the Lords Amendment.

Subsequent stages

9.—(1) Any further Message from the Lords on the Bill shall be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

(2) Proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.

10.—(1) This paragraph applies for the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph 9.

(2) The Speaker shall first put forthwith any Question which has been proposed from the Chair and not yet decided.

(3) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown which is related to the Question already proposed from the Chair.

(4) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown on or relevant to any of the remaining items in the Lords Message.

(5) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question that this House agrees with the Lords in all the remaining Lords Proposals.

Reasons Committee

11.—(1) The Speaker shall put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown for the appointment, nomination and quorum of a Committee to draw up Reasons and the appointment of its Chairman.

(2) A Committee appointed to draw up Reasons shall report before the conclusion of the sitting at which it is appointed.

(3) Proceedings in the Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion 30 minutes after their commencement.

(4) For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with sub-paragraph (3), the Chairman shall—

(a) first put forthwith any Question which has been proposed from the Chair but not yet decided, and

(b) then put forthwith successively Questions on Motions which may be made by a Minister of the Crown for assigning a Reason for disagreeing with the Lords in any of their Amendments.

(5) The proceedings of the Committee shall be reported without any further Question being put.


12. Paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business) shall apply so far as necessary for the purposes of this Order.

13.—(1) The proceedings on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown for varying or supplementing the provisions of this Order shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.

(2) Paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business) shall apply to those proceedings.

14. Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to any proceedings to which this Order applies.

15.—(1) No Motion shall be made, except by a Minister of the Crown, to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken or to recommit the Bill.

(2) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.

16.—(1) No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings to which this Order applies except by a Minister of the Crown.

(2) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.

17. The Speaker may not arrange for a debate to be held in accordance with Standing Order No. 24 (Adjournment on specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration) at this day’s sitting, or at the sitting on Thursday 21st February, before the conclusion of any proceedings to which this Order applies.

18.—(1) Sub-paragraph (2) applies if the House is adjourned, or the sitting is suspended, before the conclusion of any proceedings to which this Order applies.

(2) No notice shall be required of a Motion made at the next sitting by a Minister of the Crown for varying or supplementing the provisions of this Order.

19. Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.

20.—(1) Any private business which has been set down for consideration at 7 p.m. at this day’s sitting or at 3 p.m. at the sitting on Thursday 21st February (as the case may be) shall, instead of being considered as provided by Standing Orders, be considered at the conclusion of the proceedings on the Bill at this day’s sitting or at the sitting on Thursday 21st February (as the case may be).

(2) Paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business) shall apply to the private business for a period of three hours from the conclusion of the proceedings on the Bill or, if those proceedings are concluded before the moment of interruption, for a period equal to the time elapsing between 7 p.m. or 3 p.m. (as the case may be) and the conclusion of those proceedings.

21. The Speaker shall not adjourn the House at the sitting on Thursday 21st February until—

(a) any Message from the Lords on the Bill has been received;

(b) he has reported the Royal Assent to any Act agreed upon by both Houses.

The House will realise that the Banking (Special Provisions) Bill is being introduced in exceptional circumstances. The Chancellor made it clear in his statement yesterday that Northern Rock will be brought into temporary public ownership and explained the reasons for that decision. We will have the opportunity to discuss those exceptional circumstances, and the interests of protecting the financial stability of the banking system while protecting the interests of the taxpayer, as part of the debate on the Bill.

I want briefly to make a couple of points on the programme motion. I think that the House will understand the importance of reaching a conclusion on this Bill as quickly as possible. Shares have been suspended, and it is now in everyone’s interests for the transfer of shares to be effected as swiftly as possible to avoid any greater uncertainty or unnecessary delay for the bank, and for the bank to have clarity about its position and the way forward. Of course, we also need to set out the details for the scrutiny of the Bill and to ensure that the business motion provides for business to be extended to midnight this evening. Members have been able to table amendments since yesterday evening, and the amendments that are selected will be taken during the Bill’s Committee stage this evening. I commend the motion to the House.

Time is limited, or at least it will be if this motion is passed, and I do not want to turn the debate on the motion into a substantive discussion of the issues before the House. However, I must place on record our view that nationalisation is not the way forward and that the Bill is, therefore, not the best use of the legislative time available to us today.

We have always made it clear that if the Government introduced an emergency Northern Rock nationalisation Bill, we would oppose it in principle and seek to amend it where necessary, but would accept a timetabling of the process. We expected, and I believe that the country expected, a specific Northern Rock Bill: a narrowly focused, substantive measure specific to the case that consisted of a few clauses and could be effectively scrutinised in a day. Nothing prepared us for this 24-page Bill of 17 clauses and two schedules, which includes quite complex provisions of wide general applicability.

The Bill is not a measure targeted at dealing with Northern Rock, but one that allows nationalisation of other deposit takers—not only banks, but also mutual building societies. If we are asked to set aside our procedures for a specific emergency, the resulting measures must be targeted at that emergency. They must be concise, relevant and clearly necessary to the resolution of the problem in hand. Of course, we understand that it would be convenient for the Government to have legislation on the shelf to cover any future bank problem, but such standing legislative powers are for another day, with proper consultation and proper scrutiny. We cannot casually hand over to the Government a blanket power to nationalise banking institutions. If such a power is needed in a specific case, the Government must come to this House of Commons and justify it on a case-by-case basis.

Over the past couple of days, we have heard many references to the Rolls-Royce nationalisation by a Conservative Government in 1971. The legislation to nationalise Rolls-Royce consisted of a two-clause Bill, which was read for the first time on 8 February 1971 and given its Third Reading on 11 February 1971. The decision to act in that case was made expeditiously, the legislation was concise and focused on the specific case in hand, and Parliament was able to scrutinise it properly—all very different from the present case.

Indeed, one might ask, “Where’s the fire?” The problems at Northern Rock have been with us since September. The Chancellor has had a fairly laid-back attitude to the passage of time. He originally told us that the fate of the bank would be clear by Christmas, then he came back to us before Christmas and told us that it would be clear by the New Year. Here we are in February, and apparently there is now a pressing need to do everything in one day. Why? The shares are suspended. Depositors are able to operate their accounts normally. There are no queues around the block at Northern Rock branches. There is no threat to the stability of the UK financial system; the damage has already been done. In fact, there is no fire.

The Government have produced a relatively long Bill for an emergency measure, of general application, with a procedure by which the specific provisions, including very important ones, are in a draft order that is unamendable and, if the Bill is passed unaltered, is subject to the negative resolution procedure only. I ask the Chief Secretary for at least an assurance today—now will do, if she would like to intervene—that regardless of whether the Bill is amended, either here or in the other place, the Government will allow a full day’s debate on the orders when they are laid, on the Floor of the House, in Government time. It would be an outrage if the detailed arrangements for the sequestration of private property, for the compensation of those who lost out as a result of that sequestration and for the transfer to the taxpayer of a contingent liability of approximately £110 billion were considered in just 90 minutes on a damp Tuesday morning along the corridor upstairs.

The melodramatic timetable has already created practical difficulties with drafting and tabling amendments, which we have had to do without hearing the Chancellor’s presentation of the detailed rationale for the individual clauses. Outside bodies have had no opportunity to give their input to Opposition parties on the principles or, indeed, the drafting.

We now face a Second Reading debate of probably no more than three hours and a Committee stage of, at most, two and a half hours to consider a Bill that transfers liabilities of £110 billion to the taxpayer. That is about £650 a minute of Committee scrutiny—a rate of pay that would make even Ron Sandler’s eyes water.

The result will be that even the few amendments that the Opposition have tabled will not all be debated, the vast majority of the Bill will not receive line-by-line scrutiny and, once again, it will be their lordships or, more probably—given the time constraints in the other place—the courts that have to deal with the inadequacies, imperfections, drafting errors and omissions that we shall inevitably miss during the travesty of a scrutiny process.

Has my hon. Friend noticed that clause 2 contains a specific provision to exclude the courts when it appears appropriate to the Treasury to make such orders? In other words, the Government are trying to bypass the courts, too.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am sure that he will elaborate on it in the debate.

We do not support the proposed nationalisation, but, if it is to happen, we want to ensure that the legislation is workable and as fair as possible; that Northern Rock will be managed without political interference; and that competition in the market will not be distorted. We want to ensure that the process is open and transparent and that Parliament is properly informed of the progress of the company in public ownership.

If the Government had those interests at heart, they would have done in their draft what we must now try to do through amendments: turn their warm assurances on arm’s-length management, lack of political interference—a commitment that was made yesterday and broken within the hour by the appointment of Tom Scholar to the board of Northern Rock—and unfair competition into binding legislative constraints.

We are willing to work through the night tonight to ensure a proper Committee stage. We are happy to sit on Friday to deal properly with Lords amendments. However, an “emergency” apparently occurs only when it suits the Government to override parliamentary procedure, not when it risks Labour Members having to do a bit of a nightshift.

We signalled our willingness to co-operate on a timetabled passage of a Northern Rock nationalisation Bill. We did not—and, in conscience, could not—acquiesce in the procedure for a Bill of extended duration and broad application. Twenty-four clauses and two schedules cannot properly be scrutinised in this House in the time proposed. Inevitably, the burden will fall on the other place. That means that Lords amendments are likely to be tabled, which, again, cannot be scrutinised by this House in the single hour allotted for that purpose.

Taken together, the length of the Bill, its broad definition and the inadequacy of the time provided make the motion unacceptable. On the basis that the Government have our word that, if the business motion is defeated, we will not delay Third Reading in this House beyond 6 am tomorrow morning, and that we will deal with any Lords amendments returned to this House during the course of Thursday night and Friday morning, I urge my hon. Friends to vote against the motion.

As the House knows, my colleagues and I support the Bill because it was our idea in the first place. We argued some months ago that the House should have discussed such a measure. There is a debate about whether it could have been more narrowly focused; we understand that the argument is as much about parliamentary procedure as anything else. It would be better if the measure dealt only with Northern Rock, but I understand why it is probably procedurally necessary to have such a Public Bill, which does not suffer from the hybridity problems that could delay it here longer.

However, if we are to have this Bill, it must be properly debated, as I made clear yesterday. It is just not reasonable to ask the House to deal with everything today: Second Reading to debate the principle, the Committee stage to consider amendments—people may have thought of them already or decide that they are appropriate when they have heard the main debate—then Report and Third Reading. It would be entirely possible, as well as compatible with what the Chief Secretary rightly said and we agree with—the Bill should be passed into law by the end of this working week, so that there is an end to the uncertainty and paralysis of Northern Rock—for us to give the Bill proper scrutiny. This House is regularly bounced into timetables on legislation that are not justified by the facts. It is quite possible to have an agreed programme for the Bill that would clear its stages in the House tomorrow, allow it to go to the Lords tomorrow and Thursday, and allow us to deal with it later, without the programme motion before us, as I made clear to the Leader of the House yesterday.

I have two final points. First, the Lords will certainly have amendments; it is not conceivable that on a Bill of such breadth there will not be amendments later in the week. That means that there will rightly be further work for the House of Commons to do. Therefore, it is further nonsense that we are giving ourselves just one hour to deal with any arguments that may emerge in the House of Lords, any of the points made and not answered, and any of the commentary made by the informed press, the City, the financial world, the shareholders, and people in the north-east and elsewhere. To think that we can do that work, with any amendments from the Lords dealt with, in one hour on Thursday is treating the House just disgracefully.

I ask the Chief Secretary, the Chancellor and the Leader of the House to respond to the mood not only on the Liberal Democrat Benches, but in all parts of the House. If we are going to take the business under the national umbrella, as we now have to, and ensure that the shareholders, investors, future investors and above all the taxpayer have a properly secured measure, the Bill may be allowed to go through, but not on this timetable. I hope that colleagues in all parts of the House will say no to the timetable and give this place a proper chance to debate the Bill.

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) and some of the comments of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes).

This is truly a dreadful programme motion. It is consonant with all that the Government are about, and the nearest thing I can think of—the risible equivalent—is the Dangerous Dogs Act 1989, which served the then Conservative Government so well in the ’80s. No case has been made that there is such a national emergency that we need the suspension of Standing Orders and the imposition of an intolerable guillotine by the Government on the House, by majority, to consider a matter of considerable national importance. Five months they have had to come to a determination; they now insist, according to their motion, that the House dispose of the business in about five and a half hours.

The other point, which has already been made, is the consideration of their lordships, if they make amendments. We now treat ourselves with contempt, when they have double the time in the House of Lords to consider such an important issue that touches on our national honour and that has brought this country’s management of its financial affairs into some disrepute in the world. The Chancellor well knows this, the Treasury well knows it, and we well know it, too. The House is therefore required to consider, in proper and effective detail, the proposals contained in the Government’s extraordinary Bill, which covers every bank in the country. No, no—this House should repudiate it.

I say this to Labour Members: it is all very well thinking that a majority is sufficient to justify the actions of the Government, but this House is increasingly becoming a place merely of announcements. We are expected to be pulled by strings and say, “Hail! Hail!” That is absurd. This is a debating chamber. This matter touches on very important issues, and the Government’s motion is a corruption of the processes that we have. If they go on like this, they will be denying legitimacy to the very measures that they seek to secure.

Let me make it quite clear that I approve wholly of the Bill. I support the principle and the political implications behind it, because I believe that they are not only necessary, but in some measure overdue. However, it would be wrong for the House of Commons just to accept such a programme for a Bill of such complexity without registering that we should not be bounced, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) put it, into accepting timetables. The House itself has limited its activities by passing rules that give us the sort of procedures that consistently and continually timetable Bills.

The privileges of the House of Commons were not easily won, and nor are they to be discarded after many hundreds of years simply because it is convenient for the Executive of any particular Government party. However, it is therefore the responsibility of every individual Member of Parliament not simply to accept whatever they are presented with. If the debate breaks down along the easy and comfortable lines of party privilege and party view, we not only underplay the role of Members of Parliament but frequently discard the implications and responsibilities associated with being Members of Parliament.

I do not think that this programme motion is defensible. It has not been properly thought out, and I think that it will prove difficult to pursue in the way that the Government want. However, my views have been activated by something much stronger and deeper. If the House of Commons consistently accepts limits on its ability to debate legislation, irrespective of the content of that legislation, on the spurious ground that it is important that we proceed in a particular number of hours and minutes, we shall be responsible for the poor quality of legislation on the statute book. The House of Commons, and not just the Government, will then be responsible for accepting second best, because we are too lazy and, if I may say so, too happily unaware of the implications of our own actions to do anything to reverse them.

The Government are wrong to pursue this timetable for a Bill that has very large implications and is quite complex. I regret the fact that Members of Parliament on both sides of the House now accept that they should be directed as to the times and the ways in which they debate legislation. I believe that the result will make the United Kingdom a poorer nation.

I rise to speak because I see a disturbing trend: the way in which this legislation is being handled is reminiscent of how European legislation is handled—[Interruption.] Labour Members should listen carefully to this, because it is about Parliament, accountability and creating better legislation.

I rise to speak in defence of the Committee stage. All Members with experience in the House will know that the Committee stage provides an opportunity for Members of all parties who are interested, have experience or have been well briefed by outside interests to come to the Committee and make their contribution in order to help the Government to get the legislation right in their own terms.

Obviously, I speak as someone who disagrees with what this legislation is trying to do. However, were there to be a proper Committee stage, I and people like me would be able to join in and to try to get the words and clauses right in order to do what the Government want to do, having vented our anger on Second Reading about what they want to do. In order to have proper Committee proceedings, there has to be a gap between Second Reading and the Committee. I appreciate that in this case, the gap might have to be rather short, for reasons that Ministers have set out, but there could have been a gap so that we could have heard first, on Second Reading, what the Government were trying to achieve, after which those interested could have tried to help the Government pick their way through in Committee.

When I was a Minister putting legislation before the House—I did so relatively infrequently, because I do not think that legislation is a very good idea on many occasions—I was always very grateful for the Committee stage, and for the contributions made by some serious-minded Labour Members. I did not think that I and the draftsmen and women working for me in the Department had a monopoly on all wisdom, so it was helpful to have interested and well-briefed people making suggestions in Committee and trying to get the measure right.

As the House knows, we get only an hour and a half in Committee to debate huge chunks of constitutional treaty, and we are going to get only two and a half hours this evening, if the motion goes through, on an extremely complicated Bill that has implications for the country’s whole banking sector. I urge the Government to think again. The Committee stage is crucial. Members of Parliament need a chance to talk to people outside the House who have real expertise in these areas, and Members with expertise in their own right need the chance to marshal amendments and bring them to the Government’s attention. We need to table probing amendments to see whether the Government have got it right and we need to table amendments to help them get it right. That has not been possible in this case. Will the Government please think again?

I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) said. The question before us is very simple. The Bill does not have the urgency that the Government seem to claim for it by the means of its introduction, but they are railroading a series of parliamentary conventions. In introducing retrospective legislation, the Government are in fact trying to avoid the prospect of introducing a hybrid Bill by transferring the provisions over to a hybrid instrument—if that is what it turns out to be—while dealing with the matter in a way that will bypass the courts if they can possibly get away with it.

All those are matters that require proper consideration in themselves. It is absolutely and abundantly clear that House procedures and conventions on taxation are being overridden by the way that the Government are proceeding. By denying this House and thereby the people affected in the country through the methods that they are employing, all the Government are doing are bringing themselves into total contempt.

Let me respond briefly to the points that have been raised, which I have listened to very carefully. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) made points that should really be raised on Second Reading. He will have the opportunity to raise them then.

I hope that hon. Members will recognise that the Bill is being introduced in very unusual circumstances. It will allow us to deal swiftly, by order, with the position of Northern Rock, and it is right that we are able to do so. Northern Rock shares were suspended yesterday morning, and it is a bank that has faced a series of problems with implications for the financial stability of the banking system. It is also a bank in which the taxpayer has an important and legitimate interest, so it is right that the circumstances surrounding this bank should be resolved as swiftly as possible. Those in the bank, creditors, depositors and so on should have certainty and clarity about who the shareholders are and what the direction of the bank should be. It is important to resolve those issues as swiftly as possible, so I hope that hon. Members will recognise these unusual circumstances and understand that the House needs to respond to them. We need to respond swiftly, now that shares have been withdrawn, in order to be able to put the bank on a proper longer-term footing as rapidly as possible.

Finally, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge effectively asked for a hybrid Bill to deal just with the circumstances of Northern Rock. Any hon. Member who sat on the Committee considering the Crossrail Bill—our most recent hybrid Bill—would not regard it as a Bill that came through the House rapidly to deal with problems that needed to be addressed rapidly.

I hope that hon. Members will take this issue seriously and bear in mind that there is a sunset clause on the main powers in the Bill and that we will have an opportunity to debate at great length in the usual way the proper reforms that will be made to the banking system. We shall do so in the proper way through the revised Bill that will replace these powers. I support the motion.

Question put:—

Orders of the Day

Banking (Special Provisions) Bill

[Relevant document: The Fifth Report from the Treasury Committee of Session 2007-08, The run on the Rock, HC 56.]

Order for Second Reading read.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

As the House knows, the powers in this Bill are necessary to take Northern Rock into a period of temporary public ownership and the Bill is a general one. The reason for its being general is that it contains provisions that could be applicable in other circumstances, but I made it clear yesterday, and I make it clear today, that it is being introduced now only because there is a need to enable the Government to take Northern Rock into that temporary period of public ownership and it is essential that we proceed quickly.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) asked why the Bill was urgent. I listened to the Opposition complaining yesterday that we should have introduced this legislation some time ago, so for them now to say that it is not urgent and that we do not need to make any haste seems complete nonsense, although it is in line with the attitude that they have taken on every other aspect of Northern Rock so far.

It is an obvious point, but now that the Government have made their intentions clear, it is important that legal ownership and certainty of authority is given to the board as quickly as possible, which is why we need Royal Assent to the Bill—[Hon. Members: “Why?”] It is because it is impossible to run a bank, let alone any other company, unless it is clear who is in charge of that bank and who is running it—[Interruption.]

Shouting is all they are good for at the moment: they certainly have not come up with any good ideas.

I will, as I usually do, give way to as many Members as possible, but because this is a timetabled debate I intend to make progress so as not to detain the House too long.

Can the Chancellor give us an indication of how long it will take to value the bank and therefore how long it will take to transfer the shares if the Bill goes through this week?

If the Bill is approved, the necessary order will be laid to make that transfer. As I shall say when we reach the relevant part, the Bill makes provision for compensation to shareholders under the terms and conditions that I made clear. In addition, the timing is clearly laid out.

Will the Chancellor deny that in clause 2 there is an attempt to override challenge in the courts? The provision that “it appears…to be” necessary for the Treasury to take certain actions seems to be an attempt to bypass the courts. Does he agree?

No, I do not.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge also made the point that the Government are consulting on longer-term legislation to make more substantial reforms to the banking system, and I believe that that has general support in the House. We are consulting on that because it is important that we get the detail right. Legislation will be introduced thereafter. Some clauses may be closely followed in that future legislation, and they are necessary not only to allow us to acquire the shares in the bank, but to deal with it after acquisition, with a view to returning it to the private sector.

The Chancellor makes the point about consultation on changes to the banking regulatory framework generally. He has said that that would require primary legislation and take some months. Does he not think that it is odd that we will nationalise Northern Rock if this Bill is passed in the next few days, but the framework that allowed its collapse is still in place? Should he not have taken emergency measures to bring forward more quickly the changes to the banking regulatory framework, perhaps at the same time as this legislation?

If I had included in this Bill legislation to amend the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, it would have been a formidable Bill indeed, because that is a very long piece of legislation. It is important that we continue with the consultation that we launched in January on some of the more far-reaching and radical reforms to the regulatory and supervisory system of banks and other financial institutions, with a view to introducing legislation in the remaining part of this parliamentary Session, so that we can get it onto the statute book as soon as possible. Today’s legislation, which is being introduced now because of the particular circumstances that we face, is necessary, as I hope to be able to demonstrate when I get to the detail of the provisions. I wish to say a word about competition, because that issue has been raised by Members on both sides of the House, and it is a perfectly legitimate concern.

The Chancellor has just referred to the consultation document that he published only last month, which referred to the Government’s proposals to bring forward legislation after consultation to cope with financial stability. What perplexes Opposition Members and those watching from outside the House is that the legislation that we are discussing, particularly clause 2(2), covers the maintenance of stability in the UK financial system. It goes far wider than the narrow issue of Northern Rock. Is that not in direct conflict with the document that he published last month, which will require extensive public consultation?

It might have been tempting to have a Bill that simply had one clause saying, “Let’s nationalise Northern Rock.” It is just not possible to do that. As hon. Members are aware, the procedures of this House require that for a specific Bill on one institution we adopt a procedure that can take some years rather than a matter of days. It is because of the urgency of establishing the certainty that the board needs in order to run the bank—it is a bank and it is important that the board has that authority and certainty—that we need that legislation. I have said on previous occasions that I think that we need to make more substantial reforms to the banking and supervisory system. We also need to learn from what is happening in different parts of the world, as systems in many countries have been found to be in need of reform. To carry on with that consultation is important.

Let me say what I have to say about competition, and we will then see what the hon. Gentleman has to say. I think that he raised the matter yesterday.

I recognise that banks and building societies want to be assured about the impact on competition of taking Northern Rock into public ownership. We intend to hold discussions with the British Bankers Association, the Building Societies Association and the Council of Mortgage Lenders before the final business plan is submitted to the European Commission for state aid approval.

Just as protecting the taxpayer has been one of the key principles of our actions and decisions over the past few months, one of the key features must be to ensure that we have the proper approach to Northern Rock in future. Although we will not be involved in the day-to-day management of Northern Rock, we will need to approve its business plan, as I said yesterday. We want to ensure that it is prudent and sensible and that it protects the interests of the taxpayer. We also want to ensure that it avoids distortions.

If the business plan were built on taking advantage of the temporary Government support, it would not be consistent with our general aim of running the bank so as to reduce and remove that level of support. I hope that that provides the House with some reassurance that we do not want the bank to compete unfairly or distort competition. As I say, we will have discussions with some of the banking and building society associations before we submit the proposals for state aid approval, which we have to do by the middle of the month.

I am grateful to the Chancellor for giving way, and I am particularly grateful that he is addressing the question that I put to him yesterday. There is concern and nervousness in the banking and building society community, and I am sure that what he has just said will be studied carefully. May I link this point to the one that he was making about the need for supervisory reform? Between now and the reform of the Financial Services and Markets Act, the Financial Services Authority will have to monitor the solvency of all the smaller lenders. Will he therefore ask the FSA to monitor the impact on the market of any commercial or competitive advantage that accrues to Northern Rock as a result of nationalisation? Whatever reassurance he gives the House, the public might have a different view.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point. That is a concern that we need to address. I met the chief executives of some of the major banks fairly recently and they expressed that concern. They recognise that the Government have to ensure that Northern Rock can continue to trade and conduct business. The alternative to managing it through the proposed process is to wind it down. As I said yesterday, it would be far better to allow it to carry on trading. That means that it has to be able to compete, but it would obviously be wrong if it did so unfairly, taking advantage of the support that it has. As I have said, our aim is to reduce the amount of support. It will eventually be removed, but that has to be consistent with the business plan that Ron Sandler, as executive chairman, is working up.

The whole House will appreciate that there is much less uncertainty in the city of Newcastle today than there was three days ago, especially among the work force, but a lot of anxiety remains. My right hon. Friend mentioned the business plan, but people who work for Northern Rock, and others, have asked me the following question: what will be the public sector company’s repayment schedule to the Treasury on loans that have been issued? If he cannot answer me today, will my right hon. Friend say when people in Newcastle can expect to know, at least in broad terms, what the Government’s expectations will be?

My hon. Friend is right to ensure that we keep the concerns of people employed by Northern Rock at the front of our minds. It is an uncertain time, and has been since the company got into difficulties last September. Ron Sandler and his team will be drawing up a business plan which, among other things, will look at how the business can be managed so that the sums due to the Government, and in particular the lending supplied by the Bank of England, can be repaid.

I understand people’s frustration, and that they want to make progress as quickly as possible, but that is all the more reason to get the authority that the new team need. However, as I have said, the business plan has to be ready for submission to the European Commission by the middle of March. It will have to be prepared in fairly short order, but we will be able to address the implications with a bit more certainty when that work is completed.

I want to pursue the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson). The Chancellor has made his position very clear, but less than a fortnight ago the Government were saying that the bond issue that they were then considering to support the private sector options would have to be repaid within one to three years. Will that limitation stake out the terms for Mr. Sandler’s work, or will he be able to come up with some different options?

We will have to see what he proposes and why, but one hurdle to be overcome is the fact that whatever we do must comply with European rules on state aid. In general terms, and for understandable reasons, those rules mean that state aid support cannot be carried on indefinitely. The EU is also dealing with the actions that have been taken by other member states—for example, Germany has also been helping its banks—and will want to ensure that the rules are applied consistently. Such matters will be dealt with in the business plan. As I said, we will not have to wait too long for it, as we have to submit it by the middle of March.

I want to add one other thing, in anticipation of what Opposition Members may say about the board. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge made a remark about a civil servant who is a member of the board, but we have appointed Ron Sandler because of his formidable experience, much of it gained when he restructured Lloyd’s of London. He in turn appointed Stephen Hester, who was chief officer of the Abbey National building society. Philip Remnant is chairman of the Shareholder Executive, which advises the Government on their remaining shareholdings, and so his appointment is not surprising. Mr. Scholar will be on the board for an initial transitional period. It is proposed that the Treasury will have the option of appointing two people, but that is not surprising when one considers Northern Rock’s indebtedness to the public purse. It is important that the Treasury has that option, but the full board membership will be announced in the next couple of days or so. I believe that the board will be able to restructure and refocus the bank in the way that is necessary.

As for the Bill, clause 1 defines the class of institutions that could be acquired. In practice, it means that they have to be incorporated here or regulated by the Financial Services Authority. However, the powers can be exercised only in what I regard as exceptional circumstances and a pretty high hurdle has to be passed. Those circumstances, which are set out in clause 2, include a serious threat to the financial system—so serious that the Treasury considers that the exercise of the powers is necessary—or conditions under which significant financial support has had to have been provided beyond the Bank of England’s lender of last resort functions. The Treasury has had to have underwritten that support and notified it to Parliament under the existing conventions. Both of those conditions were met in the case of Northern Rock, but they are exceptional. There must be a serious threat to the stability of the financial system before the powers are exercised. That is a high test to be met, and the action must be proportionate. The Treasury must consider alternatives. The circumstances go way beyond simply a threat to depositors.

In relation to public support, the scale of assistance necessary has to be such that it could not be met by the Bank of England in the normal course of its support operations. It would have had to be underwritten by the Government and then reported to the Public Accounts Committee and the Treasury Committee, which is what we did in relation to Northern Rock. I assure those Opposition Members or any Members of the House who are concerned that the Bill gives us the arbitrary power to act that it does not do so. Only in defined and what I regard as exceptional circumstances would it be possible to use the power in the Bill to acquire the shares or other assets of a financial institution. Clause 2 is important because it erects what I regard as a high hurdle that the Government must cross before they can proceed further.

The Chancellor may recall that when I informed him that the Comptroller and Auditor General was instituting a review of the costs of the rescue, he assured me that fees paid to Goldman Sachs and other advisers would be covered by Northern Rock. As Northern Rock is effectively now to be nationalised, will not those fees now be paid by the taxpayer? According to The Times, the total fees could amount to £100 million.

As I think I also said to the hon. Gentleman, and if I did not I will say it now, when we know the total costs that we have to deal with, we will report them to the House in the normal way. It has been necessary in the exceptional circumstances of Northern Rock for us to take advice. People would expect us to do that, especially in relation to Goldman Sachs, in trying to find a private sector—

I would like to finish answering the first question before I go on to the next one, and I do not think it is unreasonable to do so.

The Chancellor has laid great stress on the fact that the circumstances have to be exceptional to satisfy the tests set out in clause 2. Can he confirm, however, that in clause 11 the Bill gives him the power to grant financial assistance to building societies independently of the exceptional circumstances on which he has just laid such stress?

The right hon. Gentleman is right. I will come on to clause 11, which deals with a different issue. Clause 2, which is the precursor to the exercise of powers under clauses 3 or 6, presents a significant hurdle that must be overcome, as I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept. Clause 11 deals with a slightly different set of circumstances, and I will explain why.

I will give way to the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and then I will make some progress. I may well be able to take the other interventions as well.

Can the Chancellor explain something to me? Why was it not possible to introduce a one-clause Bill because it might be hybrid, when it was possible to introduce a short Bill in 1971 called the Rolls-Royce (Purchase) Bill?

I am not immediately acquainted with the rules and procedures of the House of Commons back in 1971. I do know the rules and procedures in 2008. I am endeavouring to explain by going through the Bill in some detail why we need its clauses. Of course it is open to the House to decide that we do not, but we need to make sure that we have adequate provisions to take over this bank, operate it and transfer it back into the private sector. That is what we want to do.

I am going to make some progress and then I will take some further interventions.

Clauses 3 and 6 will give the power to transfer shares, property or other securities. Clause 3 deals with the transfer of securities. Securities can be transferred to the Bank of England, to a nominee of the Treasury or Treasury solicitor or to another private sector body—in other words, another bank or building society. The power is extremely important, and a similar power may well find its way into future legislation, because it allows us either to take the shares into Treasury control or to transfer them to another private sector body.

Clause 6 will allow the transfer of property rights and liabilities in cases where one wants to remove part of a bank that has got into difficulties and transfer it to another bank. It is the sort of bridge facility that the Governor of the Bank of England has mentioned on many of the occasions when he has appeared before the Treasury Committee. Clauses 3 and 6 contain precisely the sort of power that the Opposition seek to promote, in so far as I understand their position. I therefore hope that they can support those two clauses at least. Clause 8 provides for further transfers following a transfer to the public sector, and is designed to give some flexibility in restructuring the business.

All the powers are necessary. No matter where parties or individual Members of this House stand on the question of public ownership, there is nearly universal agreement that it can be only a stepping-stone to transferring the business back into the private sector. The clauses to which I have referred are necessary to transfer ownership from Northern Rock and clauses 8 and 9 allow transfer back to the private sector. Opposition Members such as the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) have asked, “Why can’t you do it all in one clause?” The answer is that we need to provide powers to acquire the bank, to run it and then to transfer it back into the private sector. That is how the Bill is structured.

Is the Chancellor exposing the Government to a legal challenge by existing shareholders if the compensation offered to those shareholders by the Government is at variance with the price achieved by the Government—and, effectively, by the nation—once the bank is re-privatised?

I will come to compensation shortly, but first I will conclude my point about how the Bill is structured. If it had been possible to have fewer than 17 clauses, there are many reasons why the Government might have tried to ensure that, but it is necessary for the Bill to contain powers not just to acquire Northern Rock but to run it and then transfer it back into the private sector.

On the question of compensation—

If it is a question on my previous point, I am happy to answer it before I go on to compensation.

As we now know that the cost of the advice received by the Government is likely to fall on the taxpayer, will the Chancellor undertake to publish that advice so that we can judge its quality?

The Government have received all sorts of advice on the matter. As I said at the weekend, I will consider when and how it is appropriate to put the right information in the public domain.

I am not giving way; I do not know how to put it more clearly. I want to turn to the question of compensation. If there is time at the end, I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, as he is a regular attendee at such debates.

Compensation is provided for in clause 5. As I said yesterday and in my statement to the House on 21 January, compensation will be decided by an independent valuer. The Bill provides for the appointment of that valuer, but it does so on the basis that the valuer must assume that financial support provided by the Bank of England and the Treasury has been withdrawn and that no further public financial support will be given, apart from the ordinary market support that banks may receive from the Bank of England.

The reason for that is simple. If we had not intervened last September, the bank would have gone under. It would have gone bankrupt. It would be unfair to the general taxpayer, therefore, to calculate compensation on the basis that the bank is continuing as a going concern purely because of public support. We have to strike the right balance between what is right for individual shareholders and what is right for the general taxpayer. I think, though I may be wrong, that there is all-party support for that.

The Chancellor makes the important point about achieving fairness for the taxpayer. Obviously that will be achieved only when the bank is transferred back into the private sector. What are the criteria that he would expect to be fulfilled for that to happen?

Again, much depends on the business plan that is to be prepared. As the business plan progresses, the Government will have to reach a judgment as to when it is right—when it is the best value for the taxpayer in terms of getting the Bank of England money repaid—to do so. That judgment will have to be reached further along the line. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman when exactly that will be. I have made it clear, however, that the business plan will need to set out the direction in which the company is to proceed. I have also made it clear on many occasions that the measure can only be a stepping stone before the company is returned to the private sector.

Does the Chancellor accept that if the board of Northern Rock had known the terms on which the Government are setting out compensation back at the time that it received Treasury and Bank of England assistance, it might well have declined that assistance because it thought that it would lead to confiscation of shareholder value?

I do not know on what basis the hon. Gentleman can make that claim. The board’s position last September was rather more stark. It had reached a situation where it could not continue because it could not raise the billions of pounds that it needed in order to continue trading. That is why the board came to the Bank of England for lender of last resort support. That was in the forefront of its minds. The then board would have taken legal advice as to what it ought to do and what its options were. That is a matter for the board, but as I have said on many occasions, by the end the company did not have much choice because it was so exposed. When the difficulties arose in the financial market, the board had little alternative but to come to the Bank.

Clause 9(7), dealing with provisions for compensation, includes

“power to make different provision for different cases or circumstances”.

Is it the intention of the Chancellor that different classes of shareholders might be compensated differently?

That might be difficult. Shareholders are shareholders, and it is difficult to discriminate between one and another. What we want to do is to try and put in place a compensation scheme that allows as much fairness as possible, consistent with the problem that the bank had run out of money and is trading today only because of Government support. We hope that as it is restructured and refocused, it can recover its position. At this stage, in the absence of the business plan, we must wait and see what the new management proposes.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that many of the small shareholders are former employees of Northern Rock who saved in the company savings plan at their retirement. If the Government had not interceded last September, is it not the case that those shareholders would have got nothing, and that they would likewise have got nothing if we had followed the barmy suggesting of putting the bank into administration?

My hon. Friend is right. Had the Government not agreed to the Bank of England intervention last September, Northern Rock would have gone under. It had simply run out of money; it could not raise the money that it needed. If that had happened, not only would employees and shareholders have been affected, but depositors would have been put at risk. We have always made it clear that the reason why we intervened was, first, to ensure financial stability—the first and foremost duty of any Government—and, secondly, to assure the savers and depositors. We also had to have regard, quite rightly, to the interests of the taxpayers, and we have been doing that.

I have said on many occasions that to have put the bank into administration would have been a huge mistake. It would have crystallised the losses, which would have had to have been met by the taxpayer, and it could have provoked a fire sale. I am not alone in thinking that; the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) said something very similar last November.

I am grateful to the Chancellor for giving way again. What discussions did he have at the time with Paul Thompson on the new management proposal? He and his team had raised £700 million—£500 million from existing shareholders, and another £200 million from the Tyne consortium in the United States. What discussions did the Chancellor have with them at the time?

I do not think that I have had any discussions with Mr. Thompson. In relation to the Northern Rock board and the Virgin consortium, they had discussions with Treasury officials and others about their proposals. As I said in my statement yesterday, both their proposals were considered and both were judged against the option of a temporary period of public ownership. As I said yesterday, the best value for money is the course of action that I am putting forward today.

I shall not give way; I have done so fairly generously.

I hope that I have outlined to the House the way in which the Bill is structured. I readily recognise that no matter what I or anyone else might say, the Conservative party is against this proposal. I am not entirely sure, and I do not think many people outside the House are, about what exactly its proposal is. Its whole approach throughout this whole affair has been muddled, confused, opportunistic and without any solution whatever.

We are proposing a course of action that will maintain financial stability. It will support the savers and give a chance for the company to be refocused and restructured. However, above all it is a proposal that supports the interests of the taxpayer, which must be first and foremost. I commend the Bill to the House.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) should calm down.

Today we debate all stages of a Bill that will give the Government, for the next year, unprecedented powers to take into public ownership any bank or building society. We are also to debate the particular application of the Bill to Northern Rock. Having listened to the Chancellor for the last half hour, one could forget that for five months he and the Prime Minister had done everything possible to avoid the course of action that the Chancellor is recommending this evening. Even after his half-hour speech, we still do not know the simplest things about the Bill. For a start, we do not know how much we are buying the bank for. We do not know what we are buying in terms of its assets and liabilities, nor how long we are buying it for. What do the Government plan to do with it once it has been bought?

I know that the Prime Minister has a long record of doling out public money with no regard as to how it is spent, but even by his standards this is a huge blank cheque. Let us go through the questions in turn. First, what are the Government going to pay for Northern Rock? We are told that that will be decided after we have bought it, which is certainly an unusual approach to buying something. The Chancellor hopes—I stress “hopes”—that the shares will be valued as all but worthless. However, as he knows full well, the hedge funds will fight tooth and nail through the courts for £4 a share, which would leave the taxpayer with a bill just shy of £2 billion. He can give the House absolutely no assurance that he will be successful in persuading either an independent valuer or the courts to agree with his valuation. When the House passed the British Leyland Act 1975, the cost to the taxpayer was limited in the Bill to £265 million. There are precedents in nationalisation Bills for putting a limit on taxpayer exposure in terms of the amount of money that the taxpayer will pay for initial purchase of the company.

Would it be the policy of the Conservative party to support a court action by the hedge funds to get compensation that they do not deserve?

I certainly would not support such a court action. I personally believe, as indeed the Chancellor believes, that the shares are virtually worthless, and without the Government support in September they would not be worth anything.

I hope that the Chancellor succeeds in achieving this objective, but he has no way of assuring us that he can do so. Let us be clear; some of the hedge funds that we are dealing with specialise in taking Governments through the courts for years in order to achieve the maximum return. I was told a story about one of the hedge funds involved, which finally ended up seizing the aircraft of the Argentine state airline in lieu of defaulted Argentine Government bonds that it had bought on cheaply from other banks. We are dealing with a lengthy process; this is the beginning of a long period rather than the end of one.

Will not the courts take the view, sadly, that the shares have an obvious value, which is the value that was proposed by Virgin, so the figure of £2 billion that my hon. Friend mentioned is quite possible?

My hon. Friend is right. A whole range of different sums could be agreed on by the independent valuer, and I am sure that my hon. Friend’s Committee will want to take a close look at this matter given its concern for the use of public money. The key point is that we do not know how much we are buying the bank for and how much we are being asked to shell out at the end of this debate.

The whole House will be pleased that the hon. Gentleman has put a value of precisely zero pounds sterling on the shares of Northern Rock—we have heard that very clearly from the Conservative Front Bench. Is that the value at which, in his nutcase scheme, he would transfer them to the Governor of the Bank of England so that he could conduct a fire sale for him?

I know that the hon. Gentleman is an expert on giving mortgages to people who cannot get them through normal channels. However, let me deal with his first point. I agree with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and, I think, with the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, that we have to accept, I am afraid—it is not a happy story for many small shareholders, particularly those in the north-east of England who received shares when the bank demutualised—that the value of the shareholders’ shares is very low, and they would be worthless without the Government support back in September.

Let me be clear about our proposal for a Bank of England-led reconstruction, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned in derogatory terms. That is exactly the procedure that we are all going to be asked to vote on for future bank rescues. I make a heady prediction that he will be trooping through the Lobby to support Bank of England-led reconstruction, which, by the way, would not double the liabilities of the taxpayer, as nationalisation will, would mean that the taxpayer comes first in the queue rather than last, and would not mean that the rest of the world looks to Britain and says, “This is the country where they have nationalised a high street bank.”

I am listening closely to the hon. Gentleman. Is he saying to those small shareholders in the north-east that he would give them no compensation whatsoever?

I am saying that I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s Chancellor of the Exchequer that the value of those shares is, I am afraid, very small. It will be a decision for the independent valuer, but I am afraid that they would not be worth a great deal without the support that the Government gave in September. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman had better break the news that this is the approach that the Government have taken. By the way, Bank of England-led reconstruction would mean that at the end of the process, once the taxpayers got their money back, there was at least a possibility that something would be left for the shareholders. I suspect that that will not be the case if we go down the route that he will vote for tonight.

Not only do we not know what we are paying for this bank, but we do not know what we are buying into. We know that nationalisation will double the exposure of the taxpayer from £55 billion to £110 billion—£3,500 for every taxpayer—but the Government simply refuse to tell us how risky that exposure is. The Chancellor did not tell us today, either. All he says is that the FSA judges the bank’s loan book to be of good quality. He said that last September, and says the same thing now, even though the prospects for the housing market have deteriorated markedly since then.

We know, however, that the independent rating agencies disagree with the Chancellor’s assessment. Standard and Poor’s says of Northern Rock’s mortgage securitisation that the losses are rising and repossessions are on the way up. We also know that Northern Rock wrote more mortgages than any other bank in Britain at the top of the housing market. We know that it offered 125 per cent. mortgages when most of its competitors thought that such mortgages were too risky. We are told that, as a result, Northern Rock is repossessing more homes than any other major bank in Britain. The least we should have from the Government before we vote on this Bill is an honest and independent audit of what we are being asked to buy.

Will the Chancellor tell us how many bad loans there are? What is the default rate? What is the pension fund deficit? The private sector bidders know those things; they were told. But the public sector and Parliament, which are being asked to buy the bank, know none of those things. Surely that is not an acceptable state of affairs. We are entitled to know what we are buying.

My hon. Friend is making an absolutely vital point. Does he agree that it is strange, to say the least, that the Chancellor did not tell the House the level of Northern Rock’s unsecured debts? Surely he should have told the House that, because we do not have a figure for it.

My hon. Friend is right in the sense that we have not heard anything from the Chancellor about the general state of Northern Rock’s mortgage book beyond his bland assessment, repeated month after month, that it is in a good state. That is not what the credit rating agencies are saying.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, said that we do not know how much we will be paying for the various City fees that have racked up while we have been waiting for the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to make a decision. We know that Mr. Sandler is going to be paid more than £1 million a year, but we do not know what the total bill for the advisers will be. I think that the Chancellor said, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, that he would publish the fees at some point—I hope that he did; I shall have to check Hansard tomorrow. I hope that that is the case, and that he does not just publish the fees for Goldman Sachs; hon. Members may not realise it, but we are paying the banking fees of Olivant, Virgin and Northern Rock. Once they became preferred bidders, Northern Rock agreed to pay their advisory fees, and that is how we get to the £100 million figure on the front page of some of the newspapers.

Let us be clear: the consequence of nationalisation is that the risk of every Northern Rock loan defaulted on, of every Northern Rock mortgage that cannot be repaid, of the pension deficit and of those City fees will now be borne by the taxpayer.

Would my hon. Friend agree that the fees incurred so far would be dwarfed by the litigation fees that may arise if the shareholders are not sorted out quickly?

As my hon. Friend is a very successful solicitor, I am sure that he did not need to declare an interest. He well knows the substantial fees we all have to pay for good legal advice. I now give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), who also has some expertise in this area.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend will reach clause 10, which is entitled “Tax consequences”, but does it worry him that the arrangements that it sets out constitute carte blanche, especially given the width of the orders,

“in connection with…or in consequence of”

the transfer of property and so on, and the fact that the

“provision that may be made by the regulations includes provision for or in connection with…a tax provision not to apply”?

In other words, clause 10 could lead to no tax being paid and total tax relief being given in all the circumstances that the provision outlines.

I think that my hon. Friend’s interpretation of clause 10 is right. When we went through the technical details of the Bill, we asked Treasury officials about the clause and we were told that the reason for it was to avoid any perverse tax consequences of nationalisation and that it was an insurance policy against taxpayers losing out unexpectedly. However, my hon. Friend makes a good point. I suspect that we may not even reach clause 10 in the couple of hours allowed for the Committee proceedings, but if we had longer, the points could be explored in more detail and we could hear Ministers’ reasons for its inclusion.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman accepts that the difficulty is that, as soon as the Government underwrote the Northern Rock depositors, they were in a position whereby, if the music stopped, they were responsible for all the remaining losses. The error was to incur all the due diligence costs of hundreds of millions of pounds rather than nationalising straight away so that the Government were in control and could act to minimise the losses for the taxpayer.

The one point of agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats on the substantive point is that, whatever the Government wanted to do, they should have done it earlier instead of dithering for four or five months. However, I am glad that we have Liberal Democrat support for some of the amendments, which we tabled with Liberal Democrat agreement. I therefore hope that there will be opportunities to vote on, for example, ensuring the public’s right to know and fair competition. If there is no opportunity to vote tonight, there will be plenty of opportunities in the House of Lords, where circumstances mean that we may carry the day through working with the Liberal Democrats, and that we will come back on Thursday evening, perhaps late at night, to discuss those matters.

We do not know what we are buying or how much we are paying for it. We also do not know for how long we are buying it. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor keep telling us that there will be a temporary period of public ownership. They still cannot bear to utter the word “nationalisation”. It has become the policy that dare not speak its name. How long could “temporary” be? The Chancellor and the Prime Minister refused to say. The Chief Secretary, whom it was enjoyable to watch on “Newsnight” last night, also refused to answer the question. However, Ron Sandler is not so coy. He said yesterday, “We’re clearly talking about some years”. Why did we hear that from Ron Sandler but not from the Chancellor of the Exchequer today or yesterday?

We know that, in private, the Chancellor tells journalists that “temporary” could be at least three years. That is reported as being said by authoritative sources in Government. Why does not he say that in Parliament and to the public instead of simply briefing the press?

The sorry history of nationalisation is littered with examples of companies that were taken into what was supposed to be temporary public ownership and stayed there for years. I repeat that we do not know what we are buying, how much we are paying for it and for how long we are going to own it. We do not know what the Government plan to do with that high street bank. The formal business plan will not be presented until 17 March. When it is, I understand from the Chancellor that it will be presented to the European Commission instead of the House of Commons. Are we in Westminster not entitled to know the plans for the bank that we are being asked to buy?

We will try to amend the Bill to require the new management of Northern Rock to explain to Parliament and the taxpayers’ elected representatives the Government’s plans for the taxpayer-owned bank.

Perhaps I will have an opportunity to deal with that point later.

The hon. Gentleman has implicitly criticised Mr. Sandler’s comments about the length of time it could take for the bank to remain in public ownership. Does he believe that a brief period of public ownership—days, weeks or months—would be in the taxpayer’s interests?