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Mr. Tyrie: In view of the experience in the 1990s with the huge movements of global capital, does my hon. Friend believe that open market operations are an intelligent way in which to try to alter the value of a currency?

Sir Peter Tapsell: I would not normally take that view, but our long-term economic aim ought to be the building up of our reserves. That is what every country wishes to do, and many of them are pursuing that. Our reserves in relation to our imports are very low, so any step that we can take to build up our reserves will be welcome.

I have mentioned the aspects of public opinion. I am not one of those who thinks that one should follow focus groups and so on, but it is overwhelmingly evident that public opinion in this country is opposed to the whole policy of selling gold by 5:2. The Government will have to be persuasive if they are to change that view.

There have been previous attempts to reduce the role of gold in central banks. The last was the introduction of special drawing rights. At that time, I happened to be an adviser to the monetary authority of Singapore. I went to see Dr. Goh Keng Swee, who was then Singapore's Finance Minister and who, in my experience, had the most subtle and brilliant financial mind of any Finance Minister or central bank governor I have ever known. I said to him, "Dr. Goh, will Singapore take SDRs?" Dr. Goh replied, "I have no intention of putting a paper tiger into Singapore's tank." That is a slogan worth keeping in mind.

The whole point about gold, and the quality that makes it so special and almost mystical in its appeal, is that it is universal, eternal and almost indestructible. The Minister will agree that it is also beautiful. The most enduring brand slogan of all time is, "As good as gold." The scientists can clone sheep, and may soon be able to clone humans, but they are still a long way from being able to clone gold, although they have been trying to do so for 10,000 years. The Chancellor may think that he has discovered a new Labour version of the alchemist's stone, but his dollars, yen and euros will not always glitter in a storm and they will never be mistaken for gold.

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10.26 am

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): I congratulate the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir P. Tapsell) on keeping to a fairly balanced view when he developed the theory of the role of gold in a modern economy. However, I disagree with his conclusions.

In answer to my intervention, the hon. Gentleman talked about the psychological importance of this sale of gold and explained the psychological role of gold in monetary economics. He was right to focus on that, because gold's main contribution in the modern monetary economy is that it is, at the last resort, the store of value and the provider of assistance in underpinning market confidence. However, many other commodities and assets retain value for investors, businesses and Governments and there are many other ways of maintaining market confidence in a modern economy, from regulation to the lessons of history.

At the end of this century, many participants in the financial markets--and in all product and labour markets, for that matter--have much greater confidence in the ability of capitalism and financial capitalism to deliver success. That was not the case centuries ago, when gold made a much more important psychological contribution. The lesson of history is that we do not need gold to underpin confidence and value. The role played by gold has been declining, which means that the hon. Gentleman's point about its psychological contribution is much less strong today.

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that, in the past, gold was absolutely vital--in the early days of financial capitalism, it was crucial--but the role that he wishes to attribute to it is not as strong as he suggests.

Mr. Gill: Does the hon. Gentleman think that these matters should have been discussed in the House before the decision to sell was made, given that money has been put aside in reserves by the taxpayer? The taxpayer clearly has a view, as my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir P. Tapsell) explained in his excellent presentation. There is also the question whether the taxpayer feels that that store of value, which belongs to him, has been preserved by putting the proceeds of the sale of gold into other investments. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the House should have been granted a debate on these important matters before the Government took the decision to sell the gold?

Mr. Davey: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman about that. One of the criticisms that can be made of the Government is that they were too open and transparent about the sale of the gold, and that that has moved the market price. I do not subscribe to the criticism that has been made of the Bank of England's approach, because I think that the way in which it has set out these sales over the next 12 months will help to bring order and stability to the gold market, which, as has been said, is characterised by volatility.

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) tempts me a little. The problem with the House is that we do not analysis Government expenditure in enough detail. The House grants £300 billion to £350 billion of public expenditure without full debate. We should scrutinise the Government on that expenditure: not on technical gold sales. There is a strong argument for not having a full debate on gold sales, because that could move markets.

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The role of gold can be overplayed. That is not to say that gold markets are not important and that we should not have gold reserves: of course we should. I do not pretend to have all the financial knowledge before me properly to take a view about whether the Bank of England is right in its portfolio adjustment, but I concede that the people who are overseeing the portfolio of assets that the Bank of England holds in its vaults must from time to time decide whether to make changes and adjustments. It would be nonsense if the Bank of England were to hold static for ever a particular set of assets in particular proportions.

Mr. St. Aubyn: Does the hon. Gentleman think that it is right that the Government took this decision without giving any thought to the effect on the developing world and on the gold price? Jobs are now being lost in very poor countries as a result of this decision.

Mr. Davey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue, because that is also one of my concerns. Will the Minister explain a little more the thinking behind this decision? Now that we have this debate, it would be sensible for the Government to outline the thinking behind this sale, particularly with respect to employment in developing countries that have gold as one of their key commodity exports and the Government's policy to promote the sale of gold from the International Monetary Fund to help to deal with debt relief in poor countries. I hope that all parties in the House support that policy, because it is crucial that we try to forgive the debts of the poorest countries--the debts that are deemed to be, in Jubilee 2000 language, unpayable. The Government have made a good start, and I hope that they go further. It would be wonderful if the Minister were to announce today further gold sales for that purpose, but I doubt that she will do so.

I hope that the Minister will explain the thinking to reassure us that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing, that there is some co-ordination between the Treasury and the Bank of England on all aspects of policy, and that the policy on assisting debt relief has been linked to the policy of portfolio adjustment at the Bank of England. If those decisions are not co-ordinated, the Government are not doing their job properly.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle on securing this debate. It will help the House to focus on the role of gold in a modern economy. I take a different view from his. In international monetary economics in the late 20th century, money creation and the complexity of global financial markets is such that the role of gold is much diminished. Money creation in modern financial capitalism is almost endogenous and does not rely on a stock of yellow commodity lying in the central bank's reserves. The workings of financial capitalism have almost no relation to gold.

The hon. Gentleman is right that, in extremis, if the whole structure of financial capitalism were to fall to the ground with a nuclear meltdown of the financial markets, the role of gold would come to the fore. It is right for central banks to consider all potential future risks to ensure that our society and our economy can function even in such disaster scenarios. They should hold gold, but they do not need to do so as they have in the past.

I do not know whether selling 125 tonnes of gold over the next 12 months and buying yen, euro and dollar assets is the right portfolio adjustment. Not many hon. Members

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have the information and expertise to make that full analysis. However, I think that it is right that the Bank of England is considering how best to deploy its assets.

The total amount being sold is very small compared with the amounts that have been sold by other countries in recent times and that are expected to be sold in the future. Switzerland has announced future sales of 1,300 tonnes of gold, which is much greater than the amount that the Bank of England proposes to sell. We should put this matter in context, and should not get too hot under the collar about it.


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