Previous Section Index Home Page

By the way, the Budget briefing for Labour MPs keeps stating, in addition to whatever is in the Budget, that there is free central heating for pensioners. There is no
17 Mar 2008 : Column 668
free central heating for pensioners. There is the Warm Front scheme, which is to be praised; however, that was cut back and people have to go through a lot of hoops to get it. Let us alter that briefing—or, better still, let us have free central heating for pensioners, if that is what we want. I do.

Age Concern goes on:

It also states:

that there should be automatic receipt of council tax benefit. That should be implemented as well.

The briefing points out that there should be

I agree, and it should come sooner rather than later.

Kelvin Hopkins rose—

Harry Cohen: I shall give way in a moment.

As the briefing points out, if the Tories had not abolished the link in the 1980s and it was still in place, the basic pension would be £50 a week higher than it is today.

Age Concern’s final point is as follows:

I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins).

Kelvin Hopkins: My hon. Friend has made my point for me.

Harry Cohen: Okay.

I come to the last relevant issue, which is child poverty. This should have been the Budget to have made inroads into our target to eliminate child poverty. I welcome the £20 for the first child from April 2009, the rise in the child tax credit to £50, and the discounting of child benefit income in calculating eligibility for housing benefit and council tax benefit. The Chancellor said that that would take 250,000 children out of poverty. However, as the Work and Pensions Committee, on which I sit, has reported, 1 million children must be taken out of poverty to meet the 2010 target. That is pre-housing costs; after housing costs, there would be 1.5 million such children.

I welcome the discounting of child benefit for council tax benefit and housing benefit, but why was that not set for October 2009, not April 2009 like the other changes? That will have an administrative cost for local authorities, and it will engender some confusion. I ask the Government to rethink that and put it back to April 2009 with the other changes. I welcome the increase in tax credits. More needs to be done, but that is also the case as regards in-work benefits, equal pay, a London living wage, and targeted benefit increases for families with someone who is disabled.

17 Mar 2008 : Column 669

This is a flawed Budget, although it has lots of good parts. It is a holding Budget for the economic situation in which we find ourselves, and a steady one in the circumstances. It is the best option on offer among the political parties. Interestingly, the Conservatives did not put forward a single proposal, and there is already talk of their leader flip-flopping on some of the commitments, or near-commitments, that he has made. Nevertheless, for Labour Members it still falls far short of what is required, while the money for war and handouts to private capital go unrestricted, with catastrophic and expensive consequences.

6.32 pm

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): It has been interesting to be present at this debate, which is a bit like “Groundhog Day”. We had a themed debate rather like it as part of the European scrutiny process, and we will doubtless have a similar debate on Second Reading of the forthcoming Climate Change Bill.

We have seen the three Front-Bench spokesmen all tiptoeing towards the proposition that people should have to pay more for their energy but understanding, as politicians, that that is an extremely difficult thing to sell to them. We have three variants. The Government’s view is that this is probably the least bad excuse to use for raising more money, because they are desperately short of money; Conservative Front Benchers are saying that green taxes should be entirely balanced by other tax cuts so that people would be able to afford them, assuming that the distribution was fair; and the Liberal Democrats are in their usual muddle saying that there is a bit of this and a bit of that, but undoubtedly wanting to tax people more—rather more, I suspect, than the Government.

The tragedy of all this is that those who want to redistribute income cannot guarantee to do it effectively by this particular route. People on low incomes need access to energy and transport just as people on high incomes do, so the Government are driven back on proposals in the Budget to have a one-year increase in the amount of fuel payment assistance for pensioners. That goes a little way towards helping, and other methods will need to be developed if the political classes decide to carry on with accelerating the progress of the market and having ever-dearer energy. We have already seen in recent months a huge energy price signal sent by the big increase in oil prices and the attendant changes in gas prices, coal prices and so forth. If the political classes want to accelerate that process even further by separate carbon levies, carbon trading with artificial prices and other regulatory and tax costs, more work will have to be done on how to do something about the fairness of distribution of those tax rises and cost rises, and there will have to be ways of offsetting those so that people on low incomes do not feel that they are taking a disproportionate share of the burden and are the ones who are deprived of transport and home heating.

Kelvin Hopkins: The right hon. Gentleman seems to be putting forward a rather socialist message, which I welcome, in suggesting that tax should be progressive rather than regressive. What about taxing the rich a lot more and insulating poor people’s houses?

17 Mar 2008 : Column 670

Mr. Redwood: I think that the hon. Gentleman knows me well enough to be aware that that is not my view of the world. More people can be got out of poverty and into work by moving generally towards lower taxes than towards higher taxes. However, I was making a specific point on the content so far of today’s Budget debate and reminding all those involved in policy formation that one cannot simply carry on with the idea that extra taxes, extra levies and extra regulatory costs can be heaped on to energy without having consequences not only on the rich but on the poor and without needing to have some kind of alternative package. If we are not careful, we just end up with massive administrative churn costs because of the imposition of a lot of administrative costs in raising the levy, the charge and the tax, and then a lot more administrative costs in giving money back to people so that they can afford the levy, the charge and the tax, and we do not achieve what we are trying to achieve. I rather like green promotion in the form of lower taxes for better behaviour. It is good that we have already heard that that worked, as it did very quickly, when we did it for unleaded petrol, which showed that people prefer an incentive to tax increases.

It is important that people listening to our debates, as I hope that some still do, understand that we know that a very big financial crisis is under way in the world and that that crisis has moved on at breakneck speed during the course of the Budget debates. We heard a few brief remarks from the Prime Minister in his statement earlier, but we have not yet had the benefit of Treasury Ministers explaining in this House how they responded to the Bear Stearns catastrophe and the rescue that has been mounted so quickly and successfully in the United States of America; nor have we had from them proper comment on the actions being taken to co-ordinate putting liquidity into markets and seeing the market through the crisis.

In the Budget speech, the Chancellor rightly had a paragraph or so of reference to the world financial background, explaining that it was bleak, but he claimed, with a hint of complacency, that the UK is uniquely best placed to deal with this crisis. We should try to ensure that the Chancellor and his colleagues have thought through the gravity of the world situation in which we find ourselves and the way in which, in some circumstances, the UK is not uniquely well placed but has its own home-grown problems, which we need to take very seriously. After all, it would be foolish to be complacent given that it was the United Kingdom that had the first run on a retail bank—and, I am pleased to say, the only run; let us hope that it turns out to remain so—whereby retail depositors were so worried that they were rapidly pulling out their deposits, which is what finally triggered the intervention and action over Northern Rock. Bear Stearns is a different kind of run by a different type of investor and depositor—equally lethal but not as telegenic and not affecting people on low incomes as the Northern Rock run visibly and clearly did.

We should ask why, over that long and difficult, and rather cold and wet summer, the British authorities were unable to take pre-emptive action of a kind that might have prevented the Northern Rock crisis from developing as rapidly as it did. I am not jogging backwards—I was writing and saying this at the time.
17 Mar 2008 : Column 671
It was clear to the markets in London in August, if not July, that there was not enough money in circulation, and clear to those watching the markets that there was the potential for a financial disaster or a banking problem. I did not write down the names of the banks that were being mentioned at the time, but Northern Rock was the one that people most feared for, and it was widely rumoured in the markets. It would have been crass to mention it because the last thing that one wants to do is to play any small part in helping to undermine an important institution, crucial as Northern Rock has been to the success of the north-eastern economy and crucial as it is to all the small shareholders and depositors particularly concentrated in the Newcastle and wider north-eastern region.

The Bank of England was placed in an extremely difficult position in August and September. The reforms of 1997 had left it ill-placed to understand the nature of such a banking crisis and to be able to respond positively to it. My first recommendation is that the Chancellor urgently look again at the regulatory and banking control framework that he inherited from the 1997 reforms and that he come to this House rapidly to introduce proposals for their improvement and updating.

A central bank is more than a regulator. A good central bank is more, even, than a hands-on referee in a free-flowing game. It is a player in the money markets that it has to supervise, and has to keep liquid, honest and successful. The problem for the Bank of England in August and September, when the money market participants could see that there were difficulties, was that, since 1997, it has lacked two important flows of information that most central banks regard as normal. First, a central bank needs to know everything that the Government are doing.

The Government are usually one of the biggest operators in the money market—particularly a heavily borrowing Government like the present one—and the timing and nature of debt that the Government issue is crucial to the functioning of the market. In 1997, the then Chancellor nationalised the function of running the Government’s debt by taking it out of the Bank of England and putting it into the Treasury. The modern Bank does not have the same minute-by-minute detailed sight of or responsibility for Government business in the market that it had prior to 1997.

The second big problem that the Bank of England has is that prior to 1997; it was the day-by-day banking supervisor of all commercial banks, particularly the main credit-creating clearing banks that run our system. The Bank could see all of that business, and knew about it day by day, hour by hour and minute by minute. It had a close relationship with those banks—the famous Governor’s eyebrows would rise wisely or angrily if anything went wrong. The Bank knew whether they were liquid enough, whether they had squared their positions early enough in the day and whether they were taking a sensible position in the markets, so the banking system worked well.

That responsibility was lifted from the Bank and given to the Financial Services Authority, and is now handled through a tripartite arrangement with the Chancellor and the Bank of England. When the crisis
17 Mar 2008 : Column 672
struck, it was always likely that it would be more difficult to control and resolve because the principal central bank player did not have all the regular information or history and knowledge of marketplace activity that a central bank should have. That is why I warned, in an economic policy report that I wrote for the Opposition, that we had a weak structure in Britain, and that when there was a financial difficulty—I did not forecast Northern Rock, but I had something like that in mind—things would go horribly wrong because the Bank no longer had those important powers.

The next curious matter is that just prior to the run on Northern Rock, the tripartite system clearly misread the situation very badly. Both the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Governor of the Bank of England made fierce speeches in which they said that the banking system in Britain had made lots of mistakes by lending too much money to the wrong people, and that it had to meet the consequences of those mistakes—there would be no bail-outs. That would be a heroic thing to say at the best of times; in practice, no Government can allow a major bank to go bust in our global system because many poor and rich people would suffer badly, and there could be a systemic crash throughout the world. It was particularly odd, however, to make such statements when they must have known that they were on the verge of a difficult crisis over Northern Rock, with a possible run on the bank. They had to eat their words a matter of hours later when the run got out of control and the Chancellor said not only that he would guarantee all the deposits in Northern Rock—big though that task was—but the deposits of any bank found in a similar position, leading some to speculate who else in the markets he might have in mind. There was a worry that the run on Northern Rock would lead to a run on other institutions, which there is no need to name here. It is good that we are through that part of the crisis, that there is such a guarantee and that the tripartite system understands that it has to stand behind the banking system.

The guarantees, offers made and the nationalisation of Northern Rock now going ahead have not solved the problem, however. We are now in what some call the second leg of it. I do not think that the problem has legs; it is a continuing problem that will take some time to resolve, and we have just had another nasty chapter in the story—or drama, if you like—with the collapse of Bear Stearns on the other side of the Atlantic.

Mr. Bellingham: My right hon. Friend speaks with a great deal of expertise, but would he agree that one of the interesting features of the scenario is that the business models of Northern Rock and Bear Stearns had one item in common? The level of deposits in both were low compared with the amount of money lent out to customers and the wider market. However, in the American case, the Federal Reserve intervened incredibly quickly and expeditiously, without any fuss at all, which stands in stark contrast to what happened here. In this country, the taxpayer, as my right hon. Friend rightly points out, is still heavily exposed.

Mr. Redwood: The speed of reaction shows an important contrast. I am pleased that the Bear Stearns rescue took place as quickly as it did because the scope
17 Mar 2008 : Column 673
for further collapses and bear raids on other American banks was considerable, and it is good that the American authorities responded strongly and positively because there would have been knock-on effects across the Atlantic on British institutions.

The American authorities are behaving rather differently from those in the UK. The American authorities believe the crisis to be so serious that they need to do two things: first, they need to keep driving interest rates down, and secondly, they need to continue making large sums of money available to keep the banking system liquid. In the UK, the authorities seem reluctant to move interest rates down because of the persistent but historic inflation we have to live through because of past monetary excess and difficulty, and they are making little money available—although they do occasionally make a co-ordinated effort to help to keep the banking system a little more liquid, as we saw in recent days. We need to ask why the matter is being dealt with in different ways, and which is right.

Critics of the Americans say that it is crass to lower interest rates because there is still an inflationary problem, and they go on to say that lowering interest rates will not make any difference because it is not that kind of crisis. Of course lowering interest rates makes a difference; the crisis is due to the fact that some people cannot afford to pay the interest on their debt and repay their loans. If the cost of the loans is lowered through a lowering of the general interest rate—a lot of the loans are linked to that rate—the process would be a bit easier. Some people will not go bust and some will still be able to afford their homes.

It is a bit odd that people are down on sub-prime lending. I would have thought that some in this House would have been overjoyed that people had come up with a way of letting the poor buy a home. Is that not rather a good thing to have done? It is a great pity that the process was overdone and that those involved did not back off sooner and realise that they needed controls that were a bit tighter, but we do not want to bring the whole edifice down and say that poor people can never borrow money to buy a home. Surely it is good news if the lower interest policy in the United States can see some people through this difficult period.

Martin Horwood: Is not one of the problems with the sub-prime business model that it factors in the cost of debt recovery? In other words, it is based on an assumption that many of the people they are targeting will not be able to afford the repayments that they are being offered. Does that not border on the immoral at times?

Next Section Index Home Page