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House of Commons

Thursday 23 April 1998

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked--

Economic Activity

1. Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): When he last met representatives of the Confederation of British Industry to discuss matters relating to activity levels in the economy. [38241]

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Gordon Brown): Yesterday, I met representatives of the Confederation of British Industry and explained the five building blocks in our economic approach: monetary stability, sustainable public finances, good trading relationships, including constructive engagement with Europe, encouraging and rewarding work and improving British productivity.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: Is it true that the CBI is forecasting in the current year a 3.25 to 3.5 per cent. increase in exports and a substantially greater figure next year of nearly 5 per cent. in exports? If that is true, does it suggest that the indicators are contradictory on the problem of the exchange rate?

Mr. Brown: It is true that the CBI is predicting a 3 per cent. rise in exports and a 4.8 per cent. rise in the year after. It is also true that it is predicting a 1.3 per cent. rise in manufacturing and a doubling of that in the year after that. The Government will pursue the long-term strategy that is necessary to achieve stability. We will not return to the stop-go, boom-bust years which we saw under the Conservatives.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): Will the Chancellor acknowledge that, a few years ago, manufacturing industry was growing at around 4 per cent. and at least this year many commentators suggest that there will be a fall? When will the right hon. Gentleman set a clear timetable for British membership of the single currency on the ground that it will help to eliminate the very boom and bust that industry is facing and that he is so keen to squeeze out of the economy?

Mr. Brown: The worst thing that any Government can do is to react to short-term conditions by making a

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long-term decision for the future of our country purely to get out of a short-term position. We have set down our policy. We have made a principled commitment to economic and monetary union. We have said that there is no constitutional barrier to joining, and we have already started making preparations to do so. We have said that, subject to a referendum of the people, we will consider making a decision early in the next Parliament. That is the right decision for Britain.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Does the Chancellor accept that the best way to ensure balanced and moderate growth in activity is to encourage savings? Does he also recognise that the worst way to encourage savings was to attack existing savings schemes and impose a £5 billion a year tax on pension funds?

Mr. Brown: I do not accept what the right hon. Gentleman said. The biggest potential attack on savings was the pensions policy pursued by the right hon. Gentleman before the general election. We are creating the climate in which savings and investment for the long term will be made. We are creating economic stability in this country, which is the best climate for savings and investment. We have reduced the deficit from £23 billion to £3 billion this year--a substantial reduction--with sustainable public finances for the long term. We are taking measures such as the introduction of the individual savings account to encourage savings in our country. It is the Conservative party's policies that would destroy investment and savings.

Mr. Lilley: How then does the Chancellor explain that in his Red Book he is forecasting that the savings ratio will decline over the coming year? He has said that he is against boom and bust. Whatever he says, we have the onset of a recession in manufacturing, at least before the end of this year. Is he not the first Chancellor to have given us boom and bust simultaneously with bust in manufacturing and booming services?

Mr. Brown: The right hon. Gentleman is now trying to rewrite the laws of economic arithmetic, and I suspect that I know why: he wants us to forget the position in the late 1980s when the savings ratio was negative and the Conservative party created a situation in which there were 15 per cent. interest rates, 10 per cent. inflation and 11 per cent. wage rises. We are not going to return to that. Judging from the policies that the right hon. Gentleman wants to pursue, it seems that he has learnt nothing and remembered nothing.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): Is the Chancellor aware that we all admire his fixity of purpose, but that there is concern about the welfare-to-work programme in my constituency, which has the highest unemployment in the south-east? The programme is the flagship of the Government, and if divesting monetary policy to the Bank of England, as he has done, were to lead us into recession, would that not make it very difficult for the welfare-to-work programme to deliver?

Mr. Brown: The welfare-to-work programme is already delivering. It is creating conditions in which every young person who has been unemployed for more than

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six months has new opportunities for work and training. Instead of sneering, it would be better if the Conservative party started supporting the welfare-to-work programme.

As for monetary policy, we have made the right decision for the long term. That is one of the reasons that long-term interest rates in this country are now the lowest they have been for 33 years.

Exchange Rates

2. Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): What recent representations he has received on the exchange rate of sterling. [38242]

18. Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): What assessment he has made of the effect of the current value of the pound on his long-term objective of economic stability. [38261]

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Gordon Brown): I understand the concerns of exporters, but an even greater worry would be any risk of a return to the boom and bust that we experienced in the late 1980s.

Mr. Boswell: The Chancellor took the decision to increase taxes on savings more than those on consumption, and also connived at the fudged criteria for the euro, which will weaken that currency. As he has by those two actions compounded the consequences of his hasty decision to hand over responsibility for monetary policy to a group of bankers and economists, does he not feel just a little isolated in suggesting that he has no personal responsibility for the implications of the current exchange rate for manufacturing industry and, increasingly, on the economy more generally?

Mr. Brown: That is a very interesting position being adopted by the Conservative party's trade and industry spokesman. The hon. Gentleman now says that he is against independence for the Bank of England. I therefore assume that the Conservative party would repeal the legislation, and we should now have a statement from the shadow Chancellor to that effect.

Mr. Williams: Does the Chancellor agree that the 1979-81 recession, during which 2 million manufacturing jobs were lost, was caused by an overvalued pound, when the pound was a petro-currency, and that the 1990 to 1992 recession was likewise caused by an overvalued pound which stood at DM2.95 in the exchange rate mechanism? I welcome the 4 per cent. drop in the value of the pound against the deutschmark in recent days, but does he agree there is still a long way to go, and that, unless we have a realistic and sustainable exchange rate, we will not have the stability for which he is working so hard?

Mr. Brown: I understand entirely. As my hon. Friend hints, the question asked by the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) was formulated when the pound stood at DM3.10, whereas it now stands at DM2.98. The Government's aim is a stable and competitive exchange rate over the medium term. We are not going to get into devaluing the pound continually in the long term, because we need to pursue the long-term road to high productivity. That is the way to ensure the industrial and export success that this country wants.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): Does the Chancellor accept that it is not only some manufacturers who are

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suffering because of the high level of the pound but that agriculture in particular is suffering enormously? Agriculture faces competition from low-cost imports, and suffers an inability to export because its products are being priced out of markets. Given the other pressures on agriculture, cannot something be done as a matter of urgency?

Mr. Brown: The main reason that agriculture is in difficulty is the bovine spongiform encephalopathy mess left by the previous Government. The right hon. Gentleman knows that we have already provided an extra £85 million this year to help agriculture. That is in addition to measures that we took previously and, indeed, some that have been taken since. As for the effect of the pound on industry in general, in Wales and elsewhere, exports are still rising in a considerable number of sectors. The right hon. Gentleman may have seen yesterday's figures, which show that employment in the manufacturing sector has been rising over the past three months, too.

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne): Is it not clear that the prime determinant of sterling is the level of interest rates? As the Monetary Policy Committee is split 4:4, should not my right hon. Friend remind the committee that it also has responsibilities for the economic situation in the country, as he pointed out in his instructions to it? As there is no certainty as to what the committee is thinking, should he not remind the committee of this--or perhaps he has done so already?

Mr. Brown: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend who, as a former Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and a Minister in the last Labour Government, is an expert on these matters. When he reads the minutes of the Monetary Policy Committee--this is an open process, in which the voting, the minutes and the inflation report are published--he will see the factors taken into account by the Bank of England.

The elusive policy in this country over the past 30 or 40 years has been long-term stability in place of stop-go. When we came to power, we found that inflation was rising way beyond the target set by the previous Government. That is why we took the necessary long-term action. Although I understand the concerns of exporters, they will agree, on reflection, that the biggest worry--which we are determined to avoid--is that we will return to the stop-go policies which have disfigured this country in the past.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): I am sure that farmers around the country will be interested in the Chancellor's analysis that wheat prices have gone down because of the BSE crisis. On the exchange rate, he has repeated his normal mantra that we want a stable and competitive pound. Which of these two desiderata is more important? As the Chancellor knows from what has happened over the past few months, it is possible to have a reasonably stable and uncompetitive pound. Which is more important--stability or competitiveness?

Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman's question was framed in his mind before the movements in the exchange rates over the past few days. He says that the exchange rate has been stable for a long period, but it was

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DM3.10 only a few days ago and it is now DM2.98. I repeat that our aim is a stable, competitive pound in the medium term. However, in the circumstances we face, everybody should take a long-term view--the Government, by creating stability; industry, by planning for long-term investment; and the financial community, by avoiding a resort to the short-termism of the past.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): The steelworkers at Shotton in my constituency now find it more difficult to export their product because of the standing of the currency, but they can see that it is cheaper to buy in some of their materials. Does my right hon. Friend know that British Steel nationally finds it hard to compete abroad, particularly because some of its competitors in the European Union are cheating by employing illegal subsidies?

Mr. Brown: In an attempt to improve the workings of the single market and end unacceptable subsidies, we have proposed a programme of economic reform in the EU. My hon. Friend makes a good point that import prices have been reduced substantially in recent months. I should add that two thirds of the rise in sterling took place under the previous Conservative Government.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): The Chancellor listened a moment ago to a rather pessimistic picture put forward by the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Mr. Williams), yet he was happy to agree with a very optimistic picture put forward by the Confederation of British Industry. Which one is right?

Mr. Brown: I met the CBI last evening--the fourth time I have done so since the election. The CBI understands very well that the policy of stability to which we are committed is the best policy for the country. Of course I understand the concerns of exporters expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr, but my hon. Friend would agree that it is important to make the right long-term decisions for the country. We have made those decisions, such as the one giving independence to the Bank of England. I wait to hear the view of the Opposition.

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