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My right hon. Friend will know that I have always had reservations about transferring responsibility for regulation to the Bank of England, as I am not sure that it is the best body to deal with it.
Certainly, for much of the past 10 years, it has had a good and distinguished record on monetary policy, but I am not so sure whether it should have widespread responsibility for regulation.
My right hon. Friend is also right to draw attention to the Bingham report. The Chancellor will no doubt recall, or I am sure his officials will remind him, that Lord Bingham produced two reports-one was published and one was not. I strongly advise him to read the second, unpublished report, because it sheds considerable light on some of the problems that arose. Perhaps after such a length of time, it might be possible to reconsider whether that report should be published, because I think many of the people concerned would not be so badly affected.
Keith Vaz: On the Bingham report, if the shadow Chancellor has read the confidential parts, why did he resist the publication of that second report? That is something that some of us who have been concerned about the liquidation of BCCI for 20 years have urged him to do.
Mr Darling: I think it was providing a response to a parliamentary question from my right hon. Friend that obliged me to read the report. I remember spending two days reading it and giving my decision. However, I do not have the benefit of the advice I received, which I now need to remind me why I refused his request at that time. All I can say is that I refused his request for entirely the right reasons but, 10 years later and in the spirit of freedom of information, I am not saying that it definitely should be looked at, but the present Chancellor or whoever is dealing with the issue should look at the matter and perhaps 10 years further on someone else looking at that report might reach a different conclusion. I reiterate, whatever decision I reached was right for the reasons I gave at the time.
May I also tell the Chancellor that it would be helpful if he took the opportunity to spell out the Government's policy on the banks in which the Government have shareholdings-Northern Rock, Lloyds, the Royal Bank of Scotland-because that is a matter of interest, especially now that RBS is talking about disposing of its Williams & Glyn's branches and others? I believe it is the view of both main political parties that there ought to be more competition in the system, so a clear statement on Government policy on how we do that would be helpful. We do not want to end up selling a tranche of banks to another big UK operator, because that would mean that we would not get the competition we want.
I was interested to re-read last Friday the Business, Innovations and Skills Secretary's criticism of the banks' failure to lend, but it is not entirely clear to me what the new Government are doing to increase bank lending. It would be useful to hear from the Chancellor, or at least one of his colleagues, in the fairly near future on that.
However, the main focus of today's debate is, inevitably, the economy, as it was in Treasury questions for the past hour or so. Yesterday, predictably, the Prime Minister, as the Chancellor did today, sought to lay the blame for
everything the new Government plan to do on the previous Government. There is nothing new in that: new Governments frequently blame their predecessors and it is the easiest thing in the world to do. It is equally unsurprising that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor should go around the country and other parts of the world and say, "The situation is much, much worse than we thought. It's all terrible and we will have to do terrible things." By a stroke of good fortune, they have the Liberal Democrats to front up some of the difficult decisions they must take.
Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): Did not the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), rather than the new Government, reveal the desperate state in which the shadow Chancellor left the country's finances?
Mr Darling: Forgive me if I have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, but throughout the three years when I was Chancellor, I do not think that I ever, on any occasion, concealed from anyone the difficulties that we and other economies would face as a result of the deepest global downturn in the past century. There can be no doubt about that.
However, I should tell the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues that by 2008, it was clear that this country, and every other major developed country in the world, faced the catastrophic consequences of the failure of the banking system. Had we not taken action to stabilise the banking system-many of those decisions were opposed by the Conservatives-and to ensure that we supported our economy when private sector investment dried up and died away, we would have had a situation in which recession tipped into depression. That is why we took the action that we did. We were right to do so, and the Conservatives were wrong to oppose us. Our economy is now growing, and as I said earlier, unemployment is half that in the downturn of the 1990s, and borrowing is coming down, because of the action we took in 2008 and 2009. We took that action along with most developed countries.
Dr Coffey: Will the shadow Chancellor explain why, if he was so open about the state of the economy, he would not hold a comprehensive spending review, and why he would not publicise the impending debt payments of £70 billion that the people of this country must pay for his profligacy?
First, I said on many occasions that the right thing to do was to hold a spending review this year, before the end of the current review period ran out. There is still a lot of uncertainty, as I shall explain later, and the hon. Lady would do well to remember that at present, while we are coming out of recovery, our growth is modest. I hope we will see recovery secured, but what is happening in continental Europe and other parts of the world shows that we are not out of the woods yet and there is still a lot of uncertainty
around. On the hon. Lady's main point, however-which I dare say her colleagues will make too-our borrowing and debt levels rose for exactly the same reason as they are rising in America, Japan, Italy, France, Germany and just about every other country in the world: because we went through the deepest global recession in modern times. The hon. Lady might also want to remember that until well into 2008 the Conservatives, far from condemning our spending, were supporting our spending plans. They are therefore in no position to say now that they were opposing all this in times past. That is simply not right.
Mr Sheerman: Will the shadow Chancellor join me in recommending Sam Brittan's article in the Financial Times last week entitled "Now is the time to ask: 'What crisis?'"? He is a Conservative and he supports the coalition Government, but he says that it does nobody any good to exaggerate the state of the British economy, which he believes is much stronger than that of most of our competitors.
Mr Darling: I think it is necessary for anyone charged with responsibility for the British economy to take a measured approach. If things are difficult, they have a duty to speak out, even when that causes them some problems, as I found out myself a couple of years ago. I think it is better that we do that, than not. Equally, however, it does no good to go running around saying the situation is absolutely terrible and dire, because sooner or later we may find that the markets call our bluff; we may find that one day they say, "Whatever you do, it isn't enough." I believe that that approach is as irresponsible as saying nothing about a difficult situation.
We must discuss these matters in a reasoned and rational manner, because while it is important that we identify the things that need to be put right, equally we must not give an impression counter to the fact that, fundamentally we have an economy that is coming through this period, that we can get through it and ensure that we have growth, which is absolutely critical in the future. Running around scaremongering and raising all sorts of fears could have the perverse effects of turning market sentiment against us, which we do not need, and of dampening consumer and investor confidence, which is simply not necessary.
Charlie Elphicke: The shadow Chancellor says that Government Members are scaremongering by pointing out that the Budget deficit is 13%. We are not scaremongering; we are scared, as the position is extremely serious. The recession was so deep in the first place because the right hon. Gentleman's colleague, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown)-who has not been seen of late-ran things so badly that the money ran out, which meant that we were more exposed before the recession. The shadow Chancellor should therefore be apologising to the House for the mess that his right hon. Friend and the previous Government have left behind.
Mr Darling: No, I do not agree with that. I think the hon. Gentleman will find that an awful lot of things that went wrong in 2007 were a result of what went wrong in the banking system, not just here but in other parts of the world as well.
"I don't think you can compare the UK with Greece. There are big differences"?
Mr Darling: The Governor was making a very fair point, as he does on many occasions. It is interesting that even in the past couple of days Government members-the Prime Minister yesterday, and one or two of his ministerial colleagues-are rowing back from direct comparisons with Greece because that may have been very convenient to them in opposition, but it might not be such a good idea now that they hold office.
Our economy is experiencing growth at present, and that is because of the action we took over the past couple of years. I do not intend, as the Chancellor said, to fight the last general election again or to go through everything that happened over the last two or three years-that is, perhaps, for another occasion-but I do say this about the action we took. The fiscal stimulus we put in place-the VAT reduction; the decision to bring forward capital spending; the measures we took to protect people's jobs and ensure that if people were out of work for a short period we could get them back into work as quickly as possible; the time to pay scheme, which is still helping hundreds of thousands of businesses throughout the country; the car scrappage scheme; and the action we took internationally-have all come together to make sure we came through this recession. Interestingly, although the predominant position of the financial services industry in this country meant that it took us longer to come through into recovery than it took some other countries, Britain has had two quarters of growth whereas other countries, particularly those in continental Europe, have seen their growth slip back and, in some cases, they have slipped into recession. What that tells me is that had the previous Government not taken the action that they did over the past couple of years we would not now be in a position to say, "Yes, our economy is growing." Equally, our action has meant that although our borrowing is still very high and needs to come down, it is coming down faster than many people believed, even a few months ago.
Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): I wish to assure the shadow Chancellor that Conservative Members appreciate that the previous Government had to borrow money during the recession. What baffles us is why they borrowed money during the boom.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for accepting what is obvious: the fact that during a recession Governments do have to borrow in order to support their economies. However, I should remind him that during the earlier part of the previous decade the Conservative party supported our spending programmes,
saying that they would stick to our spending levels. The Prime Minister, when he was Leader of the Opposition, said that as recently as 2008. The hon. Gentleman was not here during the previous Parliament, but I can assure him that I do not recall any Conservative standing up to say, "Don't build a new school in my constituency. Don't build more housing. Don't open a new hospital." Conservative Members were not saying that at all; they wanted more spending in just about every area. So the idea that the Conservative party was behaving in a way that would have meant that there was no borrowing and that the Conservatives would have behaved any differently is absolute nonsense. The hon. Gentleman just has to accept that.
Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that some of the measures that have now contributed to the deficit were being demanded by manufacturing industry in order to sustain the corporate manufacturing base needed for us to grow out of recession, the car scrappage scheme being one case in point?
Mr Darling: I agree with my hon. Friend. The new Government will find that for every industrialist or manufacturer who says that public spending needs to be cut, in areas that benefit from such spending people take a rather different view. The car scrappage scheme is an example of that, and it made a huge difference to the car industry and the motor vehicle industry in general. As the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) said, the action that we took did involve more borrowing and it does result in increasing debt. However, the point is that the cost of failing to act would have been far greater.
The Chancellor was talking about the international consensus. I know something about that, and I can tell hon. Members that over the past three years it was very much in favour of our continuing to support our economies; of course, as we come through to recovery we have to get the borrowing down. Nobody disputes that, and at least two of the parties that fought the previous election were absolutely clear about it-it was never clear what the third party was in favour of, and its position remains something of a mystery even today.
Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP): The shadow Chancellor rightly says that there was an international consensus, and I supported many of the actions that he took. However, in this financial year, when recovery is not secure, why did he leave the economy without a fiscal stimulus? Ours is one of only two countries in the G20 without a fiscal stimulus, and I still believe it was absolutely necessary for us in order to secure recovery and prevent our slipping back into recession.
What economists call the "automatic stabilisers" are still operating and are still supporting the economy. I have always been clear about this, and I believe that the deficit has to be reduced. One of the reasons why I wanted to halve it within a four-year period was that I wanted to get it down in a way that did not damage the economic or, indeed, the social fabric of the country while that was being done. Obviously I do not know what the new Government are going to come
up with, but I suspect that they will not go too far before they start seeing that when they want to reduce expenditure quickly that sometimes has severely damaging consequences. We shall wait to see what happens, but I believe that that is a substantial risk.
Mr Darling: Before I leave this point I should say something further because a number of hon. Members mentioned our spending in the earlier part of our Government. It is not just about what we did during the recession; it is about the fact that over the relevant 10-year period, there was an unprecedented decade of growth such as this country had not seen before, as well as low interest rates, low inflation and falling unemployment. Gross domestic product per capita grew faster in this country than in any other G7 country even after one takes into account the effects of the financial crisis. The economic environment was one that this country had not had for many years. Of course, we had to deal with the effects of the banking crisis and the downturn that followed, which had a very severe effect on our public finances as well as other public finances.
Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): My right hon. Friend did a phenomenal job as Chancellor of the Exchequer. The measures that he has just outlined and the success were considerable, but is it not also true that back in 2002 his Government, and my Government, finally paid off the second world war and post-war debt that was run up with the Americans in 1947? The final bonds were paid off not by the Conservatives in the 1950s, 1960s or 1980s, but by the Labour Government in 2002. [ Interruption. ] That is absolutely true.
Mr Darling: My right hon. Friend is right. No doubt there will be another occasion to revisit the lend-lease arrangements that the then Government entered into in the 1940s, although I commend to the House Lord Robert Skidelsky's excellent third volume on Keynes, which deals with this matter quite extensively. Some people thought that we got a pretty bad deal in 1943, but there you are.
Matthew Hancock: The shadow Chancellor has mentioned the banking crisis several times. With hindsight, does he regret the system of banking regulation that was introduced in 1997, and recognise that it failed?
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