George Osborne, Shadow Chancellor: "Nationalisation means that the taxpayer’s risk has doubled to £110 billion, or £3,500 for every family in Britain. Every family in Britain will now own the high street bank that wrote more mortgages at the top of the housing market than any other. Every time a home owner fails to meet a mortgage payment, every family in the country will bear the cost. That is what this nationalisation means.
Can the Chancellor tell us about the state of the £100 billion mortgage book that he wants the taxpayer to own? How many bad loans are there? The credit rating agencies now say that the losses are rising at Northern Rock. Is that true? Before we debate the Bill tomorrow, we are entitled to a full statement of the financial position of the company that we are being asked to buy. We are entitled to see the advice from Goldman Sachs that we have all paid for.
Secondly, will the Chancellor agree that it is totally unacceptable for Northern Rock to continue with business as usual? This is now a Government bank; it can borrow and lend more cheaply than any of its high street competitors. Indeed, today it is still offering some of the best savings deals out there—it is still offering the 125 per cent. mortgages that it wrote last year. That is politically and economically unacceptable. Nationalisation can never mean business as usual. The Chancellor said in his statement that the management would be at “arm’s length”. Why is there nothing in the Bill to prevent political interference?
Thirdly, will the Chancellor confirm that he is actually introducing unprecedented, sweeping, draconian powers that will let him nationalise any other bank or deposit-taking institution in Britain by ministerial fiat? [Interruption.] The Lord Chancellor should pay attention; he keeps talking about strengthening the powers of Parliament, but he is about to give the Chancellor of the Exchequer the power to nationalise any bank in Britain without coming to Parliament. That is something that not even Michael Foot dreamed of. It will create further uncertainty in financial markets and do further damage to Britain’s reputation. If the Chancellor is giving himself those sweeping powers only to get round parliamentary procedures for hybrid Bills, he should give himself them for a week or a month, not for a whole year.
The Chancellor had opportunities to avoid the disaster of nationalisation last autumn, and he missed them. He has the opportunity now to avoid the disaster of nationalisation by opting instead for a reconstruction led by the Bank of England, and he will not take it. It would mean £55 billion less exposure for the taxpayer, and none of this farce of business as usual; it would be like the approach that the Chancellor himself recommends for future bank rescues. But instead, the Prime Minister and his Chancellor have dithered their way to disaster. Now what they call the “temporary nationalisation” could, in the words of Ron Sandler, “last years”.
In uncertain economic times, the British people have a right to expect decisive and strong leadership from their Government. Instead, this Chancellor has given us weakness and indecision, with humiliating reversals over capital gains tax, then non-domiciles and now Northern Rock. He has taken Britain back to the 1970s and the failed policies of Labour’s past. We can safely say that he will never recover his reputation for competence. He is now politically a dead man walking and if the Prime Minister could make a decision, he would move him. What matters to the rest of us is that the British economy and its reputation abroad recovers from the Chancellor’s disastrous time at the Treasury. Nationalising a high street bank is not the way to begin, and we will oppose it tomorrow."