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10 Nov 2008 : Column 492

Opposition Day

[20th Allotted Day]

Economic Crisis

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that, in both debates, I have selected the amendments in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.36 pm

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): I beg to move,

Having checked that I have switched off my mobile phone, it is a pleasure to introduce an Opposition day motion that stands in my name and in those of my colleagues. Our purpose in bringing it to the House is to give Members an opportunity to review the rapidly deteriorating economic situation and to air some ideas and options about how it might be dealt with in the run-up to the pre-Budget report.

We have noticed a pattern developing in the past few weeks whereby we come up with ideas and, whether they are on housing repossessions, interest rates or tax cuts, within a few days or even weeks, they are rapidly followed by the Conservatives, the Government, or both. We might almost say that the road to Damascus is becoming severely congested as they queue up to adopt our policies in different respects. Unfortunately, some Government Front Benchers do not convert quickly enough, and as a result, they leave themselves feeling somewhat embarrassed.

I am glad that the Exchequer Secretary has been brave enough to come back to the House after the previous such Opposition day debate, because she may already realise that her comments on that occasion have become the stuff of radio and television comedy shows. I shall quote one of her more memorable observations during that debate:

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It is only fair that we do not isolate the Exchequer Secretary too much, however, because Labour Back Benchers faithfully echoed everything that she said. I do not want to criticise a gentleman in his absence, but I am sure that he will not mind my quoting what he said. He is one of the more distinguished— [ Interruption. ] Indeed, he is here now. The hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie), who is a very distinguished and respected member of the Select Committee on the Treasury, said on that occasion:

Well, things do change in a six-month period.

It is not just Government Members, however; the habit has spread. The Conservative shadow Chancellor is not present, but I remember that when I last spoke about economic matters, he intervened to rebuke me for irresponsible behaviour in respect of interest rates. On 14 October, he said:

Well, I followed the hon. Gentleman last week around the television studios, where he claimed credit for having anticipated the cut in interest rates. Indeed, there was some mysterious process of intellectual osmosis by which the idea had communicated itself to the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, and for which he wanted to claim full credit.

Without indulging too much in anecdote, however, I think that it would be useful to record some of the facts of the current economic situation. Those of us who talk to local business groups know that the position is really dire and will feed through to statistics in the coming months, but let us stick initially to the facts. The Government’s own figures recorded a decline in output in the third quarter, and that represents a fall over the year. The International Monetary Fund predicts a stagnation of growth this year and a decline of 1.3 per cent. next year, which it believes is the deepest cut in any major western country.

We talked at length about the housing market in our last Opposition day debate. The main market indicator suggests that there has been a 15 per cent. fall from the peak at the end of October last year and that house prices at auctions have now fallen by 30 per cent. since last year. It is worth contrasting that with what the former Financial Secretary to the Treasury told us when we debated this subject a few months ago:

The Government told us that repossessions were not a problem, but they have doubled since the first quarter of 2007; at the end of October this year, they were 71 per cent. up on the year before. The latest figures suggest that there were more than 4,000 insolvencies in the third quarter of 2008—a 26 per cent. increase on the corresponding quarter the previous year. The unemployment rate is, mercifully, much lower than during the last recession, but at 5.7 per cent. on the international measure it is up worryingly, although we hope that it will not reach those alarming levels of the early 1990s.

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Those are the facts, although we will no doubt argue endlessly about the causes. A reasonably fair-minded view is that the problems and the depth of the recession that we now face are partly due to domestic policy failures and partly due to international factors beyond our control. As far as domestic policy failures are concerned, it is reasonable to point out the growing consensus that there was an excessive build-up of personal household credit linked to the boom in the housing market. We warned about that for the first time back in October 2003. Others, including the IMF and the Governor of the Bank of England, also issued warnings; even Conservative Front Benchers eventually spotted that there was a problem—the shadow Chancellor referred to it for the first time in January 2007. Clearly, there is now an acceptance that that major UK problem was domestically generated.

There has also been an international banking crisis, for which obviously the Government are not responsible, at least directly. We should not be too complacent about that, however, because much of the shadow banking industry that originally grew up on the back of sub-prime lending activity originated or developed in the City. Until very recently, there was extraordinary hubris and complacency about the workings of financial markets in the City. A few months ago, the Minister’s predecessors were talking to us in loving terms about how the City operated, a bit like little boys who had just discovered an unexploded bomb and thought that it was a shiny new toy. The Minister’s predecessors now realise that many of the activities that were taking place were dangerous.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): It is a great pleasure to intervene on a Member who will single-handedly save so many seats for the Liberal Democrats. Is not the issue about seeing the solutions rather than trying to place blame for what happened in the past? The hon. Gentleman has detailed the damage done to the banks. Does he agree that, following the rescue of the banks, one of the solutions is to repair them, take the bad debts off their balance sheets and create a bad bank solution, as has been done successfully in Sweden, and is now also being attempted in Switzerland?

Dr. Cable: That is a helpful prompt; I was about to move on to the positive suggestions, and the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should spend our time and energy on them. He has anticipated one of the points that I was going to make: the British bank rescue plan—the recapitalisation—was right, necessary and appropriate, but it is only one half of the solution, and there is the other half to deal with.

In talking about where we move from here, we should start with the bank rescue proposal, as the hon. Gentleman suggested. We supported that; it was right and timely. However, we now know a little more about what is going on and can ask more critical questions about how the process is developing.

One of the key questions concerns the nature of the commitments that were entered into between the Treasury and the banks when the recapitalisation programme and insurance of inter-bank lending were entered into. On one of the key commitments, we have debated several times the precise meaning of the statement that


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It becomes more important that we establish exactly what that commitment meant and what was understood about what would happen.

Let me put a series of specific questions to the Government. Are they or anybody else actually monitoring the amount of business lending, in particular, that is taking place? Are they monitoring on a weekly or monthly basis how much credit is going from each individual bank into the business sector? I hear anecdotes—I cannot prove this—that several of the banks have instructed their managers to cut credit and are incentivising them to do so. One way of proving or disproving that point would be to have evidence, and I hope that the Government are monitoring it very carefully. Do they have any mechanism for telling us what is happening as regards the flow of funds?

What instructions have been given to the Government directors? Do we know who they are? What were their letters of appointment? What have they been told to do? They appear to have a very simple mandate, which is not to interfere, but that is clearly creating a problem in itself.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Government are saying two contradictory things to the banks? Through their regulator they are saying that the banks have to improve their ratios, which means cutting their loans as well as increasing their capital, and through their guidance they are saying that the banks need to increase their loans, which would worsen their ratios?

Dr. Cable: The instructions are indeed contradictory, and we need more clarity. In fact, they are not the only instructions that the banks are being given. As of the other day, we understand that the Government have now told the banks to pass on interest rate cuts—a third objective. Again, we need to understand the implications. The banks tell us that they are making a loss by doing that; I do not know whether that is true, but we need to understand precisely what the banks are being instructed to do and in what circumstances.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I have checked on the internet with several banks today, and rate cuts are certainly being passed on to savers. For example, a product that was available with 6.9 per cent. interest two weeks ago is now down to 5.7 per cent., which seems to be the best deal available. Does he agree that that does not seem to be matched by the offers being made to mortgage holders?

Dr. Cable: Indeed. The banks are simply widening their spread. That is their objective, as the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) suggested. The Government appear not to have thought through the implications of the agreement that they reached.

What precisely was the understanding on bonus arrangements, which have been criticised in all parts of the House? Quite lavish bonus arrangements have been proposed by Lloyds TSB, which is one of the beneficiaries of the process. Mr. Hornby, who on any conceivable measure could be described as a business failure, is now being very lavishly rewarded by his new employer, Lloyds TSB. How is it possible that the Government reached a very specific agreement with the banks on bonuses only to have them completely disregard it?

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Let me make various suggestions on the banking programme before we move on. First, it is clear, as we have heard in the previous two interventions, that merely telling the banks that the Government are going to operate on an arm’s length basis is causing confusion. The rational response of the banks is to build up their reserves to get the Government off their backs as quickly as possible so that they can pay dividends and bonuses. The Government’s ambition appears largely to be limited to getting the taxpayers’ money back as quickly as possible. While those objectives seem rational in themselves, pursued in isolation they potentially have devastatingly negative consequences. If the economy goes into a downward spiral and business credit is cut off, that further increases bad loans, which increase the amount of the recapitalisation that will have to take place. Can the Government be absolutely clear about whether they are going to intervene to give the banks more specific instructions?

Secondly, can the Government tell us why they are now proceeding, in terms of their approvals, with the Lloyds TSB-HBOS merger? There may well be good commercial and public policy reasons for that, but I think that they are assuming that because it made sense six weeks ago in order to rescue HBOS from collapse, it still makes sense today. There are growing numbers of authoritative people in the banking system who say that it does not make sense. They want to have the options re-examined and they want alternative bids to be looked at properly. Along with Tavish Scott MSP, I have written seeking an appointment with Mr. Hornby and Lord Stevenson to explain why they are not willing to reopen matters on the part of HBOS. There is also a question for the Government, however. Will Ministers explain why they are allowing matters to proceed? The deal may well be beneficial to Lloyds TSB, but why is it in the national interest?

Finally on the banking system, what the Government did in broad terms made sense in the context in which they introduced it, but a whole set of other problems are now coming over the horizon that have not yet been discussed. When will the Government discuss them? One of them was raised from the Back Benches a few moments ago: we have had half the policy. The Swedish model had a combination of elements, one of which was recapitalisation, and another concerned the “bad bank”—the Paulson-type plan, and the Americans have had the other half of the programme, but are the Government going to bring both halves together, and how will they do so? Are they thinking ahead to how the new banking system will operate?

We are discussing at the moment a Banking Bill that is valid in many respects, but is limited in what it covers. It does not explain how the banking system, once it has emerged from its massive heart attack, will lead a different kind of lifestyle. One thing that cannot continue is the ambiguous relationship in which banks have what Cruickshank called eight years ago “regulatory privileges”—they depend on being bailed out, in other words—while they continue to operate on the maximisation of shareholder value. That contradiction cannot continue, and the Government need at an early stage to give ideas as to how they will deal with that problem.

My second point about forward-looking policy concerns housing, which is the sector that has been most damaged. We encouraged the Government to pursue an idea that
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they had some months ago of buying up empty property and land, which is now available at heavily discounted prices, so that registered social landlords can increase the availability of social housing, thereby providing an injection into the building industry. Although the Government are talking the right language, the feedback that I have received suggests that absolutely nothing is happening. It appears that approval was given for £8 billion of investment in social housing, but that the money is not reaching the social landlords. There are problems with the Treasury funding arrangements and the rental arrangements that operate under Treasury rules, which are preventing progress from being made with the programme. Will the Government tell us how much of the social housing package has reached the social landlords, and how many houses they propose to proceed with in the context of the emergency to which we are told that they are reacting?

On repossessions, 10 days ago, at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister told us that the Government have proceeded with fresh instructions to the courts on how to handle repossession cases. We had been urging that, and we welcomed it at the time. The feedback I have received suggests that no instructions have yet been given, or if they have been, they are very discreet. No one is aware of any change in practice being communicated to the courts that process such matters. Moreover, there is an extremely alarming story in the Financial Times today, which says that banks and building societies whose clients are in arrears for a few weeks can proceed to repossession without going to the courts; they simply issue an instruction to the bailiffs to repossess after a few months’ arrears. The Government need to tell us how, through legislative or other action, they will prevent a cascade of repossessions from proceeding through the winter, as growing numbers of people find that they are on short-time working hours, losing overtime or losing their jobs, and simply cannot afford their payments.

Thirdly, we had a debate on small business a week or so ago, which my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) introduced. I do not want to go into further detail on the measures involved, but how will the Government develop the helpful ideas they have already set out for accelerating payments to small businesses that are involved in Government contracts? Will that extend to the vast numbers of quangos that operate under Government scrutiny? Will it be used for companies that are subject to Government procurement? The 10-day payment—the accelerated payment—is a good principle, but how far will the Government spread it? How far has the programme already gone?

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): Will the hon. Gentleman extend his advice to the Government by asking them to ask Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to take a more sympathetic and reasonable attitude to those who owe the Government money in back taxes, and to agree more achievable repayment systems and schemes?

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