[Relevant document: The uncorrected oral evidence taken before the Treasury Committee on Wednesday 8 December 2010, on Autumn Forecast, HC 664-ii.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Two weeks ago I told the House that it was my intention to ask for authority to make a bilateral loan to Ireland as part of the multinational assistance programme for that country. I said that I judged it to be in our national interest, given our country’s close economic, financial and political connections to the Irish Republic, to be ready to help, and I want to thank all parts of this House for agreeing with that judgment.
Let me directly address the question of why we are taking this legislation through today, and why we are seeking to do it rapidly. The reason is that this week we expect the International Monetary Fund board to meet and agree the assistance package, the eurozone to sign off on its contribution, and the Irish Parliament to accept the international help that is offered. Let me say this to hon. Members in reference to the previous debate. I actually have the authority to make, under common law, a loan to Ireland and to seek at a much later date retrospective authority from Parliament. I decided—[Interruption.] Let me say that I decided that that was a wholly inappropriate thing to do, and that I should come to Parliament to seek its authority before signing the loan agreement. The loan agreement may be signed at any moment.
I am grateful to the Chancellor for giving way, but has he not let the cat out of the bag? He has just said that there is no urgency, because he had the power to do this anyway. If that had been said in the previous debate, the result of the vote might been different.
From what I could tell from what my hon. Friend was saying in the previous debate, he thought it important to have parliamentary scrutiny. It is true that I could have issued the loan under the common-law powers available to me, and come back at a later point to seek parliamentary approval. I thought the House would prefer me to seek parliamentary approval first, before making the loan—but there we go; you can’t please everyone.
The Chancellor suggested that it is at his discretion that he has brought forward this Bill. Is it not the case that the 1932 convention requires him to do so—and does not that, rather than his discretion, explain why this legislation is before the House?
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. Setting aside the technicalities of why we are debating this measure and how long we shall do so, and getting down to the substantive issue of the loan, can the Chancellor share with the House what the fees and the interest to the UK Government will be over the period of the loan if the Irish Government draw down the whole of the loan?
The second intervention draws me back into the rest of my speech, but in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell), I have common-law powers to issue the loan and sign the loan agreement. I then have to seek statutory authority, but that could be done retrospectively. I thought it more appropriate to seek parliamentary approval first, and that was a discretionary choice that I had.
I will answer my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) directly a bit later in my remarks, when I get on to the terms of the loan that we are going to consider.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. If the point that he is making is such a good one—it may well be—why did he not include it in paragraph 14 of the explanatory notes, making a virtue of the fact that he was bringing this matter before the House now rather than seeking retrospective approval?
I said in an earlier statement to the House that I was seeking to do that, and I had hoped that hon. Members were paying attention to what I said at the time.
The legislation that we shall pass today will allow the UK to be ready in the new year to meet its commitments to one of our closest international partners. As has been noted, the legislation before the House is narrow in scope—it is explicitly a Loans to Ireland Bill—but it is still enabling legislation. It sits alongside the actual loan agreement, which sets out in detail what we will offer Ireland. To ensure that Members have as much information as possible available to them for today’s discussion, a summary of the key terms of the loan agreement, which was agreed with the Irish Government only this morning, has been available in the Vote Office for more than an hour now.
If my hon. Friend will allow me, I will make a bit of progress and then of course take some further interventions.
In my remarks today, I intend to address both the substance of the legislation and the loan agreement, but before that let me briefly say something about how we got here. Over the course of this year, it became increasingly clear that the situation in the Irish economy was unsustainable. Their sovereign debt markets had effectively closed and had little prospect of re-opening. Ireland’s market interest rates had risen to record levels, and Irish banks had become almost wholly reliant on central bank funding to maintain their operations, with no obvious prospect that that was going to change. This situation simply could not go on. We had been monitoring the situation for many months and had engaged in confidential discussions with our partners in the G7 and at ECOFIN about possible solutions.
Over the weekend of 20 November, Ireland’s Prime Minister made a formal request for international financial assistance. The UK, alongside the International Monetary Fund, the EU, the eurozone and some other member states—Sweden and Denmark—made an agreement in principle to take part in putting together an assistance package for Ireland. Since then, the various interested parties have been working round the clock with the Irish authorities to put together a package. Officials from the British Treasury have been in Dublin in recent days ensuring that our interests and concerns were represented, and I want to thank them for their hard work. At the end of November, Ireland agreed with the IMF and the EU a three-year financial assistance package worth €85 billion.
The document to which my right hon. Friend just referred is “for information purposes only” and is clearly not intended to be construed as part and parcel of the Bill. So can he explain why in the document the “conditions precedent” to the arrangements interweave the so-called “bilateral loan” with the European financial stability mechanism, and why an attempt is then made to bypass that by referring to the “Governing law” as “English law”?
I am going to discuss some of the conditions attached to the loan. The particular condition that my hon. Friend refers to ensures that the UK is protected if other parties to this international agreement change their arrangement with Ireland in some way that materially affects our ability to be repaid. That condition gives us an ability at that point to step in.
I know that my hon. Friend is assiduous on these points, but I think that on this occasion he is not correct. This is simply a fall-back mechanism for us to say that if Ireland in some way renegotiates its loan from the eurozone, from the EU or from the IMF, it is a condition of our loan to Ireland that we can step in at that point and examine our situation. That protects the British taxpayer and has absolutely nothing to do with European law or anything else; it is simply there to make sure that other parties to this international agreement must have due regard to what they are doing, and how that might have an impact on the ability of the British taxpayer to be repaid.
Two things are happening in Ireland at the moment. The first is that austerity reigns and the economy is going down on a daily basis. The second is that a whiff of elections is in the air. The right hon. Gentleman talks of renegotiation, but is it not a fact that renegotiation of a new Government in Ireland is very much on the cards?
Obviously we are not going to prejudge the outcome of any Irish general election. Of course we—not just us, but the IMF and others—negotiate with the Government of the day. Although the principal Opposition parties in Ireland have concerns about the Irish budget and the like, I understand that they have accepted the principle of international assistance, and the IMF has been in direct contact, and has engaged in discussions with them. The international community, including the UK, is satisfied that we are in a position to make this offer to the Irish Government, which is why I am bringing the Bill to the House today.
As I was saying, Ireland agreed to seek IMF and other support worth €85 billion, and the money will be used as follows: €35 billion will be used to support Ireland’s banking sector, with €10 billion going towards immediate bank recapitalisation; and the remaining €50 billion will be used for sovereign debt support. In terms of contributions to the cost of the package, Ireland itself will provide €17.5 billion towards the total. The remaining €67.5 billion will be split, with one third coming from the IMF, one third from the European financial stability mechanism, and one third from the eurozone facility and bilateral loans from the UK, Sweden and Denmark. I have agreed that our contribution should amount to €3.8 billion, or £3.25 billion at today’s exchange rate.
This significant package will help Ireland to deal decisively with its problems. It will help it to recapitalise its banks and set up a contingency reserve for future problems. It will also help the Irish authorities to cover the shortfall in their budget, which was passed by the Irish Parliament earlier this month. Their budget will see a fiscal consolidation of €15 billion by 2014, of which €6 billion will be implemented next year, as part of their strategy leading to a target budget deficit of 3% of gross domestic product in four years’ time.
Of course people ask why we are extending the loan to Ireland. We are doing so because it is overwhelmingly in our national interest to have a strong Irish economy and a stable banking system. This is not just about the Irish economy and Irish jobs; it is about the British economy and British jobs. A loan does not add to our deficit, and any increase in borrowing is matched, of course, by the commitment of the Irish to repay with interest. The answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon earlier is that if Ireland takes out all the loan that is being made available to it and pays it back with the interest that has been forecast, it would pay us £440 million in fees and interest over this period.
Let us remember that Ireland is the fifth largest market for British exporters and accounts for 5% of our total exports abroad. An interesting way for the House to think about it is that every man, woman and child in Ireland spends an average of £3,600 per year on British goods—that is how connected our economies are. Indeed, as has often been pointed out, we export more to Ireland than to Brazil, Russia, India and China put together, although we are trying to increase our exports to those four very large emerging markets. For some of our industrial sectors, such as food and drink or clothing and footwear, Ireland is our top export market. Ireland is also the only country with which we share a land border, and in Northern Ireland our economies are particularly linked, with two-fifths of exports going to the Republic.
I wish to reassure Members representing Northern Ireland that I am very aware of their constituents’ worries and the difficulty they face as a result of the problems in Ireland. That is why my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary recently visited Belfast to discuss these issues directly. I am open to any discussions that Members from Northern Ireland wish to have with me or the Treasury about the economic situation and indeed the banking situation in Northern Ireland. Just as our two economies are linked, our businesses and banking sectors are also interconnected. More Irish companies are listed on London exchanges than companies from any other foreign country. The two main Irish-owned banks have an important presence in the UK, holding between them about £30 billion of customer deposits. In Northern Ireland, two of the four largest high street banks are Irish-owned, accounting for almost a quarter of personal accounts.
My right hon. Friend has stressed the importance of the export market and our strong links with Ireland. So why did he find it necessary for paragraph 6(h), under the heading “Events of default”, in the summary document to set out that
“the Borrower not being or ceasing to be a member of the European Union”
would constitute a default? I would hope that we would support Ireland if we chose to do so, and not bind it into necessarily having to stay in the European Union, given the length and operation of the loan.
It is merely an observation that the fact that Ireland is a member of the European Union is not why we are making this loan; it has nothing to do with that. It has to do with the fact that Ireland is deeply connected to us. Indeed, we have just made a loan agreement with Iceland, which of course is not a member of the European Union, in order to seek to recover moneys that were spent on savers in Icelandic banks here in the UK.
As this crisis was triggered by the withdrawal of European Central Bank support for Irish banks, will the Chancellor give us an assurance that we will not be involved in any further refinancing of ECB liabilities should it do the same to another country?
I had a very specific choice. I had the opportunity—of course, I would have had to seek the authority of the House—to introduce a general Bill to allow me to make bilateral loans to any number of countries. That legislation would have been very easy to draw up, and it would have been easy to ask the House for its support. I have explicitly restricted this to a Loans to Ireland Bill because of the specific connections between our two economies.
May I confirm what the Chancellor has just said? The UK contribution to the entire package will be about 5% of the non-Irish contribution—about £3.5 billion—and that stands in comparison with some £12 billion of exports to Ireland, and, as he said, the Irish banks holding some quarter of the deposits in Northern Ireland. Is that the broad summary of where we are?
It is a reasonable summary. Of course we stand behind the International Monetary Fund as a shareholder of it, as are most countries in the world. I shall come on to the European financial stability mechanism, which I have already talked to the House about on a number of occasions. Like other contributors to the EU budget, we stand behind it. In a sense, the loan that we are proposing today is the direct British taxpayer contribution—or rather, the money that is borrowed on behalf of the British taxpayer. I shall come to the terms of the loan, but of course we expect to be repaid, and repaid with interest. We are doing this because we think it is absolutely in our national interest, for some of the reasons that have been set out.
On that point, may I welcome the fact that the Bill is before the House today and that approval is being sought before the loan is made? Will my right hon. Friend explain how we came to be part of the European financial stability mechanism, what approval the House gave to it and what level of debates there were about it?
As I explained to the House previously—my predecessor, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) is here, and might at some point want to give his own version of events—my understanding is that in the period between the general election and the formation of the Government, an emergency ECOFIN meeting was held to address the Greek situation and to provide confidence that the European Union and the eurozone stood behind other member states that were potentially in difficulty.
My predecessor ensured that we stayed out of the eurozone facility—I have acknowledged that in the House —but acquiesced in the use of article 122 of the treaty, which allowed the European Union to disburse funds when a natural disaster, such as an extreme weather event, was affecting a member state, to create a mechanism that could stand behind countries that got into difficulties. The decision on the use of that mechanism is taken by qualified majority voting, so although we could vote against its use in this situation, I did not think that that would achieve anything. I am focused, in a way that I shall describe, on trying to extricate the UK from the EU-27 mechanisms that stand behind eurozone countries. If hon. Members will bear with me, I shall talk about that later, and if people want to intervene at that point, that would be more sensible.
Let me move on to the connections between our banking sectors. Our banking sector has a considerable exposure to Ireland, but I should stress that in the opinion of the Financial Services Authority, the UK banks are sufficiently well capitalised to more than manage the impact of the situation in Ireland. For a long time now the devaluation in Irish asset values has been accounted for and priced in.
One thing is clear. It is undoubtedly in Britain’s national interest to have a growing Irish economy and a stable Irish banking system. In the judgment of both the Irish Government and the international community that was not going to come about without the assistance package we debate today. I would now like to explain to Members the principles of the Bill, and then take them through the heads of terms of the loan agreement.
The Bill has two substantive clauses. Clause 1 sets out the parameters under which the Treasury may make payments under UK loans to Ireland. As I explained earlier, the total international assistance package, including our contribution, is denominated in euros. However, we are making a bilateral loan in sterling so that Ireland bears the exchange rate risk over the coming years. Subsection (3) of the clause includes a cap on the total size of our bilateral loan. It is written on the face of the Bill that
“the aggregate amount of payments made by the Treasury by way of Irish loans...must not exceed £3,250 million”.
In other words, the £3.25 billion we originally agreed will be the maximum total size of our bilateral loan to Ireland. A sunset clause is also, in effect, built into the legislation. The period over which the loans may be offered begins on 9 December 2010, when the Bill was published, and ends on 8 December 2015.
My hon. Friend is pre-empting my speech. I shall get on and explain exactly what those two subsections mean.
As I said, there is no expectation that we will have to make further loans to Ireland in the future. Subsection (4) is intended to prevent an increase in the size of the loan, unless an order is made by statutory instrument, but because the loan is denominated in sterling, a mechanism is needed to accommodate potential changes in the exchange rate in the period between the publication of the Bill and the signing of the loan agreement—that answers my hon. Friend’s point—which could happen in a matter of days. This is not about the exchange rate risk over the coming years—that risk is borne by Ireland—but merely a mechanism to deal with the fact that we are publishing the Bill before we sign the loan agreement, for the reasons that I set out earlier.
The Bill allows the Treasury, under subsections (5) to (7), to make an order once the Bill is in force to increase the limit, as long as that is done solely to take account of exchange rate fluctuations between now and 30 days after Royal Assent, without further Parliamentary procedure.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will understand my saying that it would have been so much simpler if what he has just said had been specified in the Bill, instead of a blanket wording referring to substituting a greater amount. We would have then known that that was only intended to allow a margin of error depending on currency fluctuations. Subsection (4) is absolutely clear that there is no restriction.
No, let me explain. There are two separate subsections. Subsection (4) allows the loan to be increased substantively, but only with the authority and vote of this Parliament. If I were ever to seek a larger loan to Ireland, I would have to come here and get the vote of the House of Commons. That is what subsection (4) is about. I am making it clear that I have no intention at the moment of doing that, but subsection (4) provides for it, and would prevent us from having to pass further primary legislation. The protection for Members of Parliament is the same—they can keep a check on the Executive—because I would be required to get that affirmative resolution.
Subsections (5) and (6) refer to something different, which is the gap between the passage of the Bill and the signing of the loan agreement. There might be small movements in the exchange rate. We have signed up to this package of a contribution in euros, but we are making a sterling loan. As I explained earlier, I had the opportunity to sign the loan agreement and come retrospectively to seek parliamentary approval, but I am trying to do it the other way around because it gives Members of Parliament a much greater degree of control. That is why these two subsections are required.
I will be supporting my right hon. Friend in the Lobbies tonight, but I am slightly concerned about clause 1(4), which is rather open-ended about the amount that could be paid. Even though a change would have to be passed by the affirmative resolution, I think the Chancellor would confirm that would be agreed by only a very small number of Members and not the entire House.
My hon. Friend has a deep knowledge and experience of issues in Northern Ireland, and indeed the Republic, and I know that his Select Committee will be interested in what is happening with those economies. Let me reassure him that there would be a vote by all Members of the House if I, or any successor of mine—should there be one before 8 December 2015—ever sought to increase the loan. A vote in Parliament would be required, so the effect is exactly the same as asking Parliament to pass another piece of primary legislation. It would involve a vote of the House, which means the legislature exercising its control over and acting as a check on the Executive.
There is a convention that multilateral loans, such as those involving the mechanism and the IMF, rank senior in any loan agreement. Let me reassure my hon. Friend that I have examined this with great care and interest. The convention is pretty clear and long-established in international law that multilateral loans are senior. That means principally the loan from the IMF, but also the loan from the European mechanism, which we stand behind, so it is also in our interest that it is repaid. However, our loan will rank pari passu with the eurozone and the other bilateral loans. That has partly shaped our judgment about the interest rate we will charge and the point at which we will start to disburse our loan. I shall come back to that.
We expect full repayment to be made over the term of the loan. Clause 1(8) sets out that repayments of both the principal and the interest will go into the Consolidated Fund. We want the whole process to be as transparent as possible, so clause 2 creates a requirement for the Treasury to prepare and lay before Parliament every six months a report on any payments made by the Treasury by way of a loan to Ireland, any sums received by the Treasury by way of interest or repayment of such loans, and the amounts outstanding, in the period to which the report refers.
As I have said, I welcome the agreement across many parts of the House about the need to make this loan, which is in our national interest. I thank the Opposition in particular for their support, and to reciprocate their co-operation I thought we should look favourably on their amendments. I therefore propose to accept in principle the Opposition’s amendment 1, which would modify the Government’s reporting requirements in relation to the bilateral loans. We have today tabled a more appropriately worded version of the amendment which achieves exactly the effect that the Opposition intended. May I explain to my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) that this is why there is a manuscript amendment? I am trying not to tempt him, because I am sure that he could speak for even longer, but I want to explain this point because he has raised his concern about it. The manuscript amendment has been drafted by the Government’s parliamentary draftsmen in relation to an Opposition amendment that we propose to accept and it has exactly the effect that the Opposition sought.
Let me update the House on the terms of the bilateral loan that we have now agreed in principle with the Irish authorities. I apologise that this information was not made available much further in advance, but the terms were agreed only this morning with the Irish Government and I wanted all Members of the House to have this information available to them. The loan will be drawn in eight tranches, each with a 7.5-year term. The length of the loan is in line with the terms of both the European and IMF loans. The first tranche of our loan will be available to be disbursed in September 2011, which is later than for some of the other tranches that are being drawn down from partners such as the IMF and the European Union.
The interest rate charged on each tranche of the loan will be fixed specifically for that tranche. It will be set by adding a fixed margin of 2.29 percentage points to the appropriate market-determined interest rate—the sterling 7.5-year swap rate—at the time of disbursement. For example, at the present time, the estimated—I stress estimated—interest rate on the first tranche of the UK loan would be the sterling 7.5-year swap rate in September 2011, which on Monday stood at 3.65 percentage points, plus 2.29 percentage points. That would mean a hypothetical interest rate of 5.9% for the first tranche of the loan. The rate on our bilateral loan will be slightly higher than the estimated rate of 5.7% for the first tranche of the IMF and European mechanism funds, so we are charging a slightly higher rate of interest, but it is lower than the estimated 6.1% rate that the eurozone facility will charge on its first tranche of lending. That reflects the different costs of funding and is a measure of international confidence in the UK’s public finances.
The interest rate to Iceland is substantially lower because, frankly, needs must: I am seeking to recover money from Iceland. I am dealing with a situation that I have inherited—obviously the Iceland loan relates to events that happened under the previous Government—and I need the support of the Icelandic Parliament. The rate of interest we are charging is slightly higher than the Dutch, who have also entered into an agreement with the Icelandic Government, are seeking. People might remember the circumstances at the relevant time—there was a pretty acrimonious dispute between Iceland and the previous UK Government—and we have sought to repair broken bridges. The terms of the loan that we have come to with Iceland mean that this country will get its money back. My judgment was that other terms might have meant our not getting our money back at all and that would not have been very sensible.
It is enormously welcome that this country is working with Iceland and Ireland to support them in these very difficult times. The Chancellor has mentioned the current 7.5-year swap rate; can he tell us how much higher it is than when he first announced our participation in this bail-out?
I do not think it has materially changed. I have been quite focused on trying to land it at the 5.9% rate, because that sits between the 6.1% and 5.7% rates of the other international parts of the package. That rate reflects some of the circumstances that relate to my hon. Friend’s earlier intervention.
The IMF will charge a floating rate, with a margin above its funding costs, in line with its pre-existing loan terms for an extended fund facility. The European loans, like ours, will charge a fixed rate on each tranche set using a margin above their own cost of funds. We will charge interest every six months and there will be a repayment of the principal at the end of the 7.5-year term of each tranche.
In common with the IMF, we will also charge a commitment fee for making the loan. We will charge half a percentage point on the total amounts that may be drawn on under the loan agreement for the forthcoming 12-month period. If the loan is drawn on, the fee will be waived and effectively replaced with the interest charged on the loan.
There are two conditions, which are set out in terms to which I draw the House’s particular attention. The first is that the IMF, as well as the EU, must be satisfied that Ireland is complying with the agreed restructuring plan. I think that that is a very important safeguard for British taxpayers. The second, crucial, condition is that there must be
“no amendments to the Restructuring Plan that would have a material adverse financial impact on the UK operations of Anglo Irish bank, Allied Irish Banks and Bank of Ireland”.
Given the scale of those banks’ operations in the UK, that second condition is significant, and it shows in a practical way why I believe it was right for us to provide the loan. It allows us to have a say in a restructuring plan that could otherwise have had a major impact on the UK and its banking system, and could potentially have cost the British taxpayer considerable sums of money without our voice even being heard. Making the loan has enabled us to set that condition, and to be part of the discussion about the restructuring plan and its impact on the UK subsidiaries of banks which have significant presences in Northern Ireland. I know that there is concern about the potential impact of the plan on jobs and the availability of credit in Northern Ireland, and, indeed, about its potential impact throughout the UK, given that Bank of Ireland owns the Post Office card account.
Sweden and Denmark are at this moment finalising their loan agreement, and I do not think they have yet made that decision. As I have said, we decided to lend in sterling so that the exchange rate risk would be borne by the Irish rather than the British Government.
The official advice from the Treasury is that the loan agreement represents value for money for the British taxpayer. As I said earlier, it is also in line with the terms offered by both the IMF and the eurozone. I have laid before the House a summary of the key terms of the agreement, and a final written agreement will be forthcoming in the next few days—or, potentially, weeks—once the European and IMF assistance has also been agreed. I will, of course, keep the House informed.
One thing is clear: Ireland is a friend in need, and it is because our economy is currently in a stronger position than Ireland’s that we are able to offer it such reasonable and sensible terms for our bilateral loan.
I understand all the Chancellor’s concerns about the close relationship between us and Ireland. He said it was important for this country to be at the table in terms of any restructuring. Does he understand the concerns of many of our constituents, who would say that a similar argument could be advanced if there were problems for, say, Santander in Spain, or for other European banks with significant interests in London? Will he make it very plain at this juncture that he considers this to be a case in its own right, rather than one to which we might have to return in the next six to nine months if further problems arose in the eurozone?
I have said that I regard this as a case in its own right—a very specific case. As I have explained, quite candidly, my officials offered me two options: a general, enabling piece of legislation allowing us to make bilateral loans to other countries, and the much more narrowly drafted Loans to Ireland Bill. I think that the clue is in the title.
Over the past few days we have seen substantial growth in the economy of the UK mainland, but that growth has not been reflected in Northern Ireland, as some of its financial institutions—notably Ulster bank—have indicated. What assurance can the Chancellor give the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Minister of Finance and Northern Ireland Members in the House that, at every stage, full consideration will be given to how loans to the Republic of Ireland will affect the economy in Northern Ireland? At this stage, we feel apprehensive about what is being proposed.
I completely understand the hon. Gentleman’s apprehension, given the close connections between the economies of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Let me make two points. First, as I said earlier, the loan has enabled us to be part of the international discussion about the restructuring of the Irish banks, some of which—as the hon. Gentleman knows even better than I do—are incredibly important operators in Northern Ireland. I appreciate that he will not have had a chance to study the loan agreement, as I have laid it before the House only within the last couple of hours, but one of the conditions is that there should be
“no amendments to the Restructuring Plan that would have a material adverse financial impact on the UK operations of Anglo Irish Bank, Allied Irish Banks and Bank of Ireland”.
That partly addresses the banking situation in Northern Ireland, and, as I have said, it gives us a seat at the table in discussions that affect the UK.
Secondly, as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said this morning during Northern Ireland questions, we want to engage with the Executive, with representatives of the Assembly and, indeed, with Members of Parliament about how we can enable the Northern Ireland economy to grow. A draft paper has been put to the Executive. I am very engaged in the process, as is my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. I repeat the offer that I made earlier to hold a detailed discussion with Northern Ireland representatives, at any point, about some of the broader economic measures that we might be able to take in Northern Ireland to help its economy.
I am grateful to the Chancellor, whose comments have clearly provoked a big reaction.
Corporation tax is a big issue in Northern Ireland. It worries people there that the Irish Republic wishes to retain its 12.5% corporation tax rate. We in Northern Ireland are arguing for a cut in our rate, but the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland tells us that that will cost us some £310 million of our block grant. In a way, we will be subsidising the Irish Republic to keep its corporation tax low, and penalising Northern Ireland if it wants to reduce its corporation tax. The Chancellor must take that into account in the context of this package of measures.
As I said to the House on a previous occasion, I did not think it right—others may take a different view—for one sovereign nation to try to dictate the tax rates of another sovereign nation. I did not think that that was a precedent that we particularly wanted to set. I entirely understand the competitive pressure that the Irish corporation tax rate puts on Northern Ireland, but ultimately it must be for the Irish Parliament to determine its own tax rates. It is, of course, having to take some very difficult measures to preserve the corporation tax rate in the Republic.
I know that there is a discussion to be had about the corporation tax rate in Northern Ireland, and about other measures that might be taken there. A document has been submitted this week. I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, but let us have that discussion with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Members.
I have listened with interest to what the Chancellor has been saying. I appreciate the measured way in which he has presented his proposals and, indeed, the cross-party support for them, and I have no wish to disturb that support. However, will the Chancellor think again about two aspects of what he has said?
First, there is the question of the terms on which the loan will be repaid. Given that the deal is currently quite advantageous to the Irish in terms of interest rate security and, indeed, the standing of the loan, would it not be possible to negotiate the option for the UK to be repaid in sterling should there be an interesting movement in the sterling-euro exchange rate, which is quite likely?
Secondly, given that the right hon. Gentleman rather alarmingly says that this might not be the end of the matter, and that therefore he has left the way open, through just the affirmative procedure, for more substantial loans—I think I understand the situation correctly from what he says—to be made to Ireland, will he look at making such action subject to new legislation in the House, which would attract more attention and scrutiny from this body?
We are being repaid in sterling, so that answers the hon. Gentleman’s first point. I have already dealt with the second point on a number of occasions, but I shall just point out that the effect would be exactly the same. Whether I brought to the House legislation or used the affirmative procedure, I would have to get the support of Members, so materially the impact would be exactly the same: the House of Commons would be able to stop such action taking place. I should stress that I have absolutely no intention of doing so at the moment, and there is protection.
I do not pretend to be an economist, but does the Chancellor share my concern that, if the European Union forces Ireland to put up its corporation tax, that might hold greater danger for us, as Ireland could be in less of a position to pay us back the money? For that reason alone, we should resist any attempt by outside bodies to impose a tax regime on Ireland.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. A sudden flight of international investment from Ireland is not in anybody’s interest. All countries seek to compete against each other for such inward investment, but, as I say, it would set a poor precedent for the UK if one nation state or a collection of nation states started dictating to another nation state what its tax rate should be.
My hon. Friend will be very focused on what I am about to say, so if he does not mind I shall make a little progress, and then I shall be happy to take an intervention.
Let me turn briefly to the arrangements for a permanent stability mechanism for eurozone economies. The European Council this week is expected to discuss the matter. Both the Prime Minister and I are very clear that when it comes to putting in place a permanent mechanism, the UK is not part of the eurozone and so will not be part of that mechanism. The president of the euro group has accepted that the UK will not be part of the permanent stability mechanism, and that the European financial stability mechanism, which the previous Government agreed in May and of which we are part, will cease to exist when that permanent eurozone mechanism is put in place.
We will seek to bring to an end the use of the mechanism established in May for the resolution of sovereign debt problems. It was established under article 122 of the Lisbon treaty and originally intended to provide support for member states following natural disasters. European Finance Ministers, including my predecessor, chose to apply that article in May to deal with the eurozone crisis at that time, but that temporary solution should not become a permanent way of doing things, and the time has now come for the eurozone to put in place its own mechanism for dealing with the imbalances in the eurozone. That needs to be part of a comprehensive solution whereby countries address their own problems more decisively, including in their banking systems. We in Britain have shown the way.
The Chancellor speaks of a comprehensive solution. Does he recognise that we face not only a crisis of liquidity in Portugal, Greece and Ireland, which we are assisting bilaterally, but a crisis of solvency? The solvency crisis will require us to address not just Irish bank restructuring, but Ireland’s sovereign debt—it is impossible to distinguish the two, given that the Irish state has guaranteed all the Irish banking system’s liabilities—and the solvency of other peripheral eurozone economies. We are helping with financing, but we have not yet addressed the fundamental solvency of those peripheral countries.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. There was a debate—it was pretty widely reported, so I am not betraying anything that was not read by everyone throughout the world—about whether to address the solvency issues, and whether there should be a contribution—or a haircut, to use the jargon—from senior debt holders in the banks or, indeed, sovereign debt holders. The international community’s view, with which we absolutely agree, is that such a contribution risked a very serious contagion that might spread through many different banking systems, not just those of the countries to which my hon. Friend refers. So the decision was taken not to require a private sector bail-in from senior debt holders in the banks or, indeed, sovereign debt holders.
As part of a comprehensive solution, the eurozone needs to come to a rapid conclusion about its mechanism, draw a distinction, as it has sought to, between existing debt and potential future-issued debt, create a credible mechanism and work out how a single currency zone that does not have a single fiscal policy or a political union will deal with its imbalances.
I see the speed with which my hon. Friend leaps to his feet at that point, but I shall take his intervention in a moment.
The eurozone needs to address that situation, and we need to ensure that it gets it right, because that is absolutely in our interests. Individual countries also need to address their problems. Portugal has a long-standing problem with its economic productivity, which the Portuguese Government are determined to address. The Irish banking system has caused enormous problems for the Irish Government, who are now addressing that. In a bipartisan debate, this is a slightly partisan point, but I think that the UK has demonstrated over the past six months that, by its own efforts, a country can earn market credibility, improve its credit rating and improve international confidence in its economy. We need the eurozone to sort out its mechanism, but individual countries in Europe also need to take decisive steps to deal with the particular problems that their economies face. Let me give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), and then I must conclude to allow others to speak.
I have put a number of questions, as yet unanswered, to my right hon. Friend on that very issue, but I am glad that he has given, at any rate, a partial answer to one of them. The mechanism’s transfer from what appears to be an unlawful basis in article 122 of the Lisbon treaty to the new proposals under article 136 will involve only the eurozone and represent an important step in the right direction. Does my right hon. Friend not accept, however, that much could happen over the next two or three years, between now and 2013, while the mechanism in which my right hon. Friend’s predecessor engaged, and which I believe to be unlawful, continues? We could be locked into a Portuguese or a Spanish black hole. We do not know yet, but there is a danger.
First, I am dealing with the situation as I found it, and as I found it we were committed to that mechanism under qualified majority voting, but I am trying to extricate us from that. Secondly, the permanent arrangements might come into play sooner than 2013. That is a subject for discussion at the European Council, and, certainly as far as we are concerned, the sooner we get on with it, the better. I am doing everything I can to ensure that the UK is extricated from the commitment that was entered into, and we are making good progress.
Get on with it, George.
Well, I took a lot of interventions. I’m sorry about that, but there we go—there’s no gratitude in this place!
Let me conclude. The Government have taken action to put our own house in order. We were once seen as part of the problem; we are now part of the solution. It is in our national interest to help Ireland, and I commend this Bill to the House.
We will support the Bill. The more I listen to the Chancellor, the more my admiration and respect grows for his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling). On 8 May, my right hon. Friend negotiated arrangements under which the UK remained outside the €440 billion European financial stability facility and ensured that we did not contribute as much as a rusty old drachma to the bail-out of Greece.
I will take interventions later.
In his statement on 22 November—repeated today—the Chancellor said that he counselled his predecessor against joining the European financial stabilisation mechanism, which was a pre-existing fund involving all 27 member states and was worth only a seventh of the larger facility. As the Chancellor said, my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West is in his place and if he catches your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker, he can give his recollection of that conversation.
However, given that the mechanism—the smaller amount—was decided by qualified majority voting, it seems that agreeing to ensure that we stay out of the €440 billion EFSF was a good deal for our country, particularly as my right hon. Friend ensured that none of the mechanism of which we were part was used to bail out Greece. That was a good deal all round, and a lesson for our inexperienced Chancellor in the art of negotiation. Indeed, the quip going round a couple of years ago, when the collapse of the banking industry in Iceland was closely followed by what happened in Ireland, was: what is the difference between Iceland and Ireland? Answer—one letter and six months. A modern variation could be to ask, what is the difference between Darling and Osborne? Answer—five letters, six months and £6.6 billion.
When the shadow Chancellor says, as the Chancellor said, that the process was triggered by a qualified majority vote, I am sure that he would agree that that is not strictly true, because it resulted from a request by a member state. The final solution or arrangements are made by virtue of a qualified majority vote at the end. That is a qualification, but it does not alter the fact that, on the basis it was explained to us, article 122 was almost certainly unlawful and the use of article 136 would have been a better route. However, we appear to be entrapped into article 122 for the current purposes.
I believe that the hon. Gentleman will seek to address that in his amendment to clause 3, which we will discuss later. On the specific issue, there is no doubt that the mechanism was decided by qualified majority voting. All 27 European member states were part of that. I know from experience of negotiating in Europe over many years that it is a pretty turgid process and one has to be on one’s toes. My right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West can speak for himself, but I think he got a very good deal for this country on Greece.
The Chancellor must take responsibility for the deal that he has negotiated and not try spuriously to blame his predecessor, as he did again in his evidence to the Treasury Select Committee on 8 December. He had a choice about whether the UK should contribute to the Irish rescue plan. In principle, he has made the right choice, but before us today is a hastily drawn-up Bill that does not set out the terms of the loan, the interest rate or the repayment schedule. Colleagues from all parties will want to explore and probe those matters in Committee, and we particularly want to get to our amendments on clause 2, so a goodly proportion of the time available to us this afternoon may be better spent on that. It is therefore not my intention to detain the House for long on Second Reading.
Does the shadow Chancellor share my gratitude that the decision is being taken in this Chamber and not by a group of unelected bankers in Frankfurt? That is because we did not listen to Opposition Members—we have never supported joining the euro, which would have meant that the decision would not have been ours to make in the first place.
I always try to avoid sharing the hon. Gentleman’s pleasure. I shall come to the nature of the deal, because in debating the Bill we are discussing one element that constitutes a little more than half of the money that the UK taxpayer is putting into the deal.
The argument for treating Ireland as a special case is clear. I shall reiterate some of the points that the Chancellor made. Our two countries are intertwined in commerce, in trade, in banking, in culture and in sport. We share a language and a land border. Not only is Ireland one of our five largest export markets but, as the Chancellor said, one part of the United Kingdom—Northern Ireland—sends 40% of its exports across the border to the Republic. The situation in Ireland could cause significant damage to UK financial institutions and create instability in both sovereign and bank debt markets. The UK is Ireland’s largest creditor—we are talking about almost €112 billion—and I understand from a newspaper report last week that the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds have Irish loan books worth 82% and 53% of net assets respectively.
In its report last month, the International Monetary Fund singled out Ireland to demonstrate what it called the “key underlying vulnerability” of UK banks’ exposure to foreign banks. The support programme assures the protection of senior bond holders in Irish banks from any losses, thus affording a greater level of protection to UK banks. For all of those reasons and many more, it is in this country’s interest to support this package.
I want to raise three concerns. The first, which was raised in a couple of interventions—including by the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash)—is the open-ended nature of the commitment. There is a distinct possibility of more money being required for Ireland after 2013, given the tendency of Irish banks to downplay the severity of their situation and the tough conditionality being applied alongside concerns about European growth. In those circumstances, should we not make it clear to our European partners that the EFSF must be used for any further financial support, rather than giving the impression that this is a well into which further buckets can be dipped?
That is particularly relevant to my second concern about the balance between the contributions made by the various mechanisms. The €440 billion EFSF—the facility— for eurozone countries only is being tapped for 4% of the total resources that eurozone countries have agreed to make available for Ireland. The smaller EFSM—the mechanism—of which we are part and to which we contribute, was not used at all for the Greek bail-out. The EFSM is offering 37.5% of its available resources for the Irish bail-out. Why was that formulation chosen and why is the total amount we are contributing double the amount that we would have had to pay if we were a eurozone country?
I am not sure that the shadow Chancellor is correct in that assertion. First, our contribution has been calculated on the basis of what we would have paid if we had been part of the facility. That is how the £3.25 billion figure was broadly arrived at. Secondly, the mechanism currently in use was created after the bilateral agreement was put together for the Greek bail-out. It was never available to be used for the Greek bail-out, which took place as a series of bilateral loans across Europe. As I understand it, over the May weekend the facility was put in place to address the crisis and article 122 was drawn upon to create the mechanism, so it could not have been used for Greece at that point.
I am grateful to the Chancellor for that intervention. However, it does not explain why the £3.25 billion he has just mentioned is the bilateral loan. That is the equivalent of what we would have put into the Irish bail-out had we been members of the eurozone. However, we are also putting in £2.6 billion through the EFSM and £800 million through the IMF. With the bilateral loan added to the other donations of British taxpayers’ contributions that we are making through the mechanisms, we are putting in double the amount of money that other European Union countries are contributing.
This may be news to the hon. Gentleman, but his party is in government now. As I said, my party ensured that we contributed nothing—not a penny, not a euro, not a drachma—to the Greek bailout. The Chancellor is coming before this House with a £6.6 billion contribution to Ireland, which we support, but the various aspects of the mechanism need to be explained and understood.
We have the €60 billion fund, about which the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) intervened, and we have a second fund of €440 billion. I am simply pointing out—the public deserve to know this—that only 4% is coming from the larger amount and 37% from the smaller amount. I am curious about that, and we need to understand the logic of it.
I will try to make a more helpful point. Given that the Opposition are supporting this loan arrangement, does the shadow Chancellor think it desirable that part of it should be bilateral and therefore agree with the structure that the Chancellor has put in place?
I do agree that part of it should be bilateral, for all the reasons that I have mentioned. As various members have commented, however, we need to understand why the formulation has been made—because it could be setting precedents; because there is a larger pot of money out of which a lesser sum of money is being brought; and because the Chancellor can come back to this House, by virtue of a statutory instrument and seek further money for Ireland. We need to be clear what we are letting ourselves in for.
No, I will not give way—perhaps later.
I am also curious about the following piece of distorted logic. In the Treasury Committee, the Chancellor said that it was okay to set austerity aside in order to make a loan to Ireland because of the promise of repayment. He said that this loan “adds to our debt” but
“We’re getting back a very important asset which is a commitment from the Irish government to pay us back with interest.”
What puzzles me is which part of that definition of a sensible loan did not apply to Sheffield Forgemasters. [Hon. Members: “Oh.”] I am sorry that Government. Members groan about British manufacturing industry. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) raised this issue during the Chancellor’s statement on 22 November. Why does the Chancellor agree a huge loan to Ireland on the basis he cited but reject a modest £80 million that would be paid back with interest and boost the opportunity of British manufacturers to have a substantial stake in the civil nuclear energy supply chain, which is currently dominated by overseas companies? At a time when we are looking for jobs and growth, the logic of that escapes me.
My third concern is the prospect of each eurozone country being bailed out as its economy falls into crisis without addressing the root causes of the continent’s problems.
Is the shadow Chancellor aware that serious discussions are going on about increasing the €400 billion facility, and probably doubling it? In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), is not the whole European Union, not to mention the world at large, confronting a very dangerous and difficult situation?
Yes, but that is a matter for the eurozone. If the Chancellor is right in his prediction that perhaps this can ensure that we come out of the €60 billion mechanism, the facility and the other moneys, then fine, but as we are making a big contribution—more than we would have done had we paid the amount that a eurozone country would have paid to rescue Ireland—we must be in a position to influence this debate.
I must correct this point. We are paying pretty much exactly what we would have paid if we had been a member of the euro; that is how the bilateral loan is being calculated. Germany is paying both through the facility and through the mechanism, and so are France and the other members of the euro. Other countries are paying twice. Ours is a bilateral loan like those of Sweden and Denmark, and they too have been calculated in a similar way.
I am grateful for that clarification; we will look at that very carefully. What the Chancellor is saying is that France and Germany, through their IMF contribution—[Interruption.] The Financial Secretary says no. The point I am trying to get at—perhaps the hon. Gentleman can clear this up when he replies to the debate—is that if the UK is putting in a bilateral loan that is equal to the amount that we would have paid as a eurozone member, and we are putting in money through the IMF as well as £2.6 billion through the mechanism, how does that relate to the money that France and Germany are contributing? As far as I am aware, they have no bilateral arrangements, so the money is going through the IMF, or through the stability facility which accounts for only 4% of the resources. That is a point that we need to hear about.
The shadow Chancellor says that he supports the idea of a bilateral loan because Ireland is such an important trading partner for Britain. I am delighted to hear that he is going to support the Bill. However, will this be another situation like the graduate tax whereby he will say one thing and the rest of the shadow Cabinet will say another?
I will not bother to take an intervention from the hon. Lady next time, because that point does not even begin to be germane to this problem.
My third concern is how we are going to draw a line under this matter. We had the Greek bail-out, and now we have had the Irish bail-out. There is no sign of any real stability in the eurozone to stop such events happening again.
I am coming to exactly that point.
Some Conservative Members think that the root cause is the single currency. I do not share that view. The euro had nothing to do with the property boom and bust, and a failed euro would be an economic and political disaster with repercussions well beyond our continent. Ireland needs a healthy eurozone, or it will end up with years of deflation and unemployment, and we will be less likely to have our loan repaid.
As the loan that we are being asked to approve is equal to the amount of money that we would have contributed had we been a member of the eurozone, surely that gives us the right to influence the necessary debate on what action is needed to address the underlying causes of this recurring crisis. This bail-out buys time, but there is no sign that Europe’s leaders know how to put it to good use. In May, we had the Greek bail-out; six months later, we have to deal with Ireland. In neither case is there much sign that these countries have resolved the core dilemma, which is solvency.
Collective austerity across Europe offers countries with high debt burdens no way out. Cutting demand in Germany is the last thing that Ireland needs at the moment. What we are seeing in Europe bears out the IMF’s conclusion that fiscal austerity does not boost short-term growth and that deficit cuts are more painful if they occur simultaneously across many countries. Ireland needs a healthy eurozone with markets such as Germany consuming Irish goods, or it will end up with years of deflation and unemployment. Having engaged in repeated rounds of austerity, with VAT rises, welfare cuts and redundancies, Ireland still finds growth elusive: it has been consistently poor for the past three years. Indeed, the economy has shrunk in 11 of the 14 quarters since the beginning of 2007, and sluggish growth has made getting the deficit down much harder.
When a country becomes over-indebted, it can either enslave itself to the debt or inflate and devalue. Is it not clear that the fundamental problem is that none of the countries in the euro can inflate and devalue to get out of their problems? That is why some Conservative Members are saying that it is only a matter of time before some of these countries fall out of the euro, and that we would be better off planning on that basis than pretending that we can hold back an unstoppable tide.
The hon. Gentleman is right that the single currency gives Ireland no mechanism to devalue its currency, and that that causes it a problem. However, there are two extremes to that argument. The first says that the eurozone is unfinished business; what started as a currency harmonisation needs to move to the next stage. I heard the president of the European Central Bank say on the radio last night that the next stage should be political integration. My party does not agree with that; nor I am sure does the hon. Gentleman’s. Further integration is one extreme that we should not go to.
The second extreme says that if Ireland simply withdrew from the euro or the eurozone, its problems would be solved. I do not believe that to be the case. The eurozone has to recognise the problem that its countries cannot devalue and must find a mechanism that ensures that this problem does not keep happening to country after country. The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) has a view, as do many of his colleagues, on the answer to this ongoing problem. I do not agree with him, but I believe that it is central to stop this happening to other countries, and to stop it being a regular event. The fragility of the recovery, especially in Europe, emphasises the need for decisive action to resolve the underlying difficulties faced by eurozone countries.
The situation in Ireland is a huge embarrassment for the Chancellor, exposing as it does his poor judgment and rich hyperbole. At the time of the comprehensive spending review, he claimed that our country was on the brink of bankruptcy. He now proposes a loan of an amount that is well over half the cumulative debt interest savings that he claimed he would make over the spending review period. There is also the paradox of his support for Ireland’s banks, but his opposition to the previous Government’s successful measures to protect British banks.
Finally, there is the Chancellor’s frequently expressed belief that Britain should look to Ireland for inspiration, which he expressed both before the banking crisis, when he urged us to emulate the “Irish miracle”, and since the crisis, with his desire to copy some of Ireland’s painful austerity measures. His gloriously misjudged 2006 article in The Times is now well known:
“Ireland stands as a shining example of the art of the possible in long-term economic policymaking”.
He is in good company. I shall quote from the Prime Minister in the Belfast Telegraph on 26 October 2006.
No, I will not give way. The Prime Minister said:
“That is why a priority for any Conservative government led by me will be to create a much better environment for business… We know it can be done. Just look at the Republic of Ireland.”
Two years later, at exactly the time when Ireland’s six largest banks were forced to borrow €20 billion from the European Central Bank, the Prime Minister said that Ireland had
“a ‘future fund’ of assets, providing security against future liabilities and unknown shocks coming down the line.”
Perhaps those on the Treasury Bench will update us on how that future fund is doing in Ireland. Finally, in June 2008, at a Cameron Direct event in Harlow, he said:
“When it comes to the engine room of the country, the economy, you know you can look across to southern Ireland where they have created a dynamic economy. Well we’ve got to do that right here.”
Our message to the Chancellor as we prepare to support his Bill is not to replicate Ireland, but to repudiate the measures that put its economy in such a perilous position.
We understand that there is an O’Donnell circulating a plan B in Whitehall against the Chancellor’s wishes. As the Chancellor said in The Times, the Irish have
“much to teach us, if only we are willing to learn.”
Until the shadow Chancellor’s last few words, I was looking forward to saying that I agree with just about everything that has been said from both Front Benches. None the less, there is a good deal of cross-party consensus about what is being discussed.
The Chancellor is faced with a difficult situation: a regional currency crisis that is largely not of his making, a close neighbour with strong historical ties in the eye of the storm and an inherited financial commitment to assistance at the European level.
The Treasury Committee took advantage of the Chancellor’s appearance before us last week to cross-examine him on these matters in some detail. That appearance, his speech today and particularly the terms sheet, which we have just received, have given us a good deal of information, and I am grateful to him. I am relieved, according to that information, that any increase in the loan, which is permitted by the legislation, will be debated on the Floor of the House.
We now know the price of the loan for the first time, broadly speaking. It looks sensible, although I notice that it can be varied under the enabling legislation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) has pointed out, we have discovered from the terms sheet that the loan is junior in the debt hierarchy to support through the EU mechanism. It would be useful if the Minister, in the winding-up speech, told us whether the Irish can repay the loan early without penalty. I do not think that that is what is stated in paragraph 5(c) of “Other Terms” in the loan agreement—I have obviously had very little time to read it—but there is also a reference to “exceptions” in the bracketed part of the sentence.
A number of hon. Members and I would like to know whether the Government have considered purchasing assets held by the National Asset Management Agency, as an alternative to part or all of the loan.
As far as I know, this bilateral loan has no direct precedent. The UK has gone further than was needed to fulfil its legal obligations. The Chancellor made a strong and persuasive case, which was supported by the Opposition. However, I think that that decision needs close scrutiny, as does the decision, which straddled the previous Government’s tenure, that left the UK with extra contingent liabilities as a result of the mechanism. We may have been put in the unsatisfactory position of making EU budget payments to bail out the eurozone, even though we are not a member of it.
It is important to bear in mind that demand for a bail-out originated not with a request from Ireland, but from the fear among eurozone members of contagion spreading from Ireland to Portugal and Spain. Most hon. Members agree that bailing out the eurozone is primarily its business and not ours. It is true that the collapse of the zone would generate shockwaves throughout the region, and possibly the world. However, the eurozone does have the capacity to bail out weaker members and, to the extent that the stability of the whole financial system is at stake, our contribution should usually be made via the International Monetary Fund. It is for those reasons that I was relieved when the Chancellor confirmed before the Select Committee that the legislation will be unique to Ireland and does not contain enabling powers for further bilateral eurozone bail-outs.
I appreciate that. The Chancellor has referred to 2013 on a number of occasions, and my hon. Friend has referred to the possible unlawfulness of the mechanism on a number of occasions, including in private discussions.
This is a crisis of the eurozone, for which UK taxpayers are footing part of the bill. The UK will have to engage with members of the eurozone to limit the damage now and to construct something better for the future. I will touch on a few of those points in the moments that remain. I recognise that the problems to which I refer may be intractable. First, as the Chancellor has said, the senior creditors have been exempted from a haircut. The Chancellor told us that this was because of the risk of contagion. He is probably right, but the resulting moral hazard is large and will have to be addressed.
The second issue that I wish to raise, which naturally none of the authorities wants to talk about, is the fact that even the measures for Ireland and for Greece may not prevent default. The crisis may be one of solvency, not liquidity. That has a bearing on the lender of last resort provisions for the eurozone. It is possible that a sovereign default could trigger a banking crisis and even failure in parts of the eurozone, because banks hold a large amount of sovereign debt on their balance sheets. Such a bank failure could be highly toxic.
It is worth bearing in mind that the great depression of the 1930s was triggered as much by bank failures after 1931 as it was by the stock market collapse of 1929. I do not want to play the role of Cassandra, but I plead that contingency planning at European level be done now for the risk of such a bank failure. On the basis of the eurozone’s responses to the crisis so far, I am not optimistic that that planning is being done. The eurozone is fearful of leaks, and those doing the work would be terrified of that possibility. I have no doubt that that would inhibit their work. In addition, pessimism on such issues in European circles does not exactly make such work a career-enhancing prospect for the eurocrats who would have to do it. Let us just hope that they are doing that work.
The third problem that I wish to refer to—I shall leave it at that given the time available—is the long-term future of the eurozone itself in a world in which the bond markets have discovered that the no bail-out clause is toothless. I should say at this point that I have never opposed the eurozone on ideological grounds or on grounds of principle, but I have been wary on practical grounds, particularly the ground that the no bail-out clause may turn out to have no clothes. That is exactly what has happened.
Does my hon. Friend share the concern that because we are taking part in the Irish bail-out on equal terms with the euro members, we are setting a precedent that will put political pressure on the Government to take part in other bail-outs? Does he believe that the Government will be in a position to resist that pressure?
I have no doubt that the Government are listening to my hon. Friend and others, who will put pressure on them to resist the pressure from other quarters. I agree with his point.
It seems to me that very little work is being done on the possibility of the euro crisis leading to more general examples of the no bail-out clause’s bluff being called. I would be surprised if there had been any such work. I cannot be sure, but it strikes me as highly unlikely. It is the Ark of the Covenant that the eurozone will continue indefinitely.
When the Chancellor came before the Treasury Committee, he assured us that eurozone members were
“having a discussion about the permanent eurozone bail-out mechanism.”
I will not, because I am about to conclude.
Any new bail-out mechanism, however, may itself lack credibility in the absence of a common European fiscal policy. That is why the discovery that the no bail-out clause is a paper tiger will remain an enduring problem for the eurozone’s stability, a problem from whose consequences the UK will certainly not be immune.
I agree with the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie) that we should be concerned about what is being done within Europe not only to deal with the immediate crisis in Ireland but in relation to the other problems that I believe will arise during the course of next year. The piecemeal approach that Europe has adopted, certainly in the past two or three years, has got to stop. I shall return to that point in the short time that I have available.
I support the Bill and agree with much of what the Chancellor has said. He may feel that that is of absolutely no comfort to him given what some hon. Members sitting behind him have to say. He is absolutely right that because of our interests in Ireland—particularly the interests of the British banks in the Republic of Ireland and the Republic’s banks’ interests in this country—we should be involved in any restructuring discussions. That is very important to us.
Before I deal with the wider problems, I wish to deal with the funding of the rescue, which has been the subject of the debate this afternoon. As the Chancellor has said, we are funding that rescue through the IMF, which we ultimately guarantee, and through a direct loan from the United Kingdom. We obviously hope that that money will be repaid in full, but there is a contingent liability. We are not part of the eurozone fund, and on the weekend of 9 May I spent many hours resisting every attempt from just about every quarter to get us to stand behind the euro. I did not think that was right for us.
We are also making a contribution, of course, through the European financial stability mechanism. That was the subject of a lot of discussion at the meeting of 9 May. I went to Brussels that weekend with no enthusiasm whatever. We had lost the election, but this country was in the unusual position that there was not a Government in place by the Friday, which was the normal situation over the past few decades. Frankly, I had no option but to go, because not to have done so would have been to empty-chair the UK, which would have been quite wrong. I spoke to the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable) and the Chancellor, because I felt it appropriate to do so. I thought that in all probability they would both be in office within a couple of days.
I have to remind the House of the circumstances of that weekend. We were meeting at a time of crisis. There was a real sense that the markets were about to have a go at Portugal and Spain, and there is a sense of déjà vu about that, because we are back in that position now. In all probability, the IMF was going to make a loan. There had been a lot of discussions, prompted by the United States, urging Europe to do something about the growing crisis, yet nothing had happened throughout January, February, March and April. It took that emergency meeting in May, when we had to put together a rescue package to persuade the European Central Bank to start buying bonds. That was the critical decision taken that weekend. If it had not bought bonds, there would have been a real problem. That was why we were faced with the situation that we were.
I discussed with the Chancellor what we should do about the financial stability mechanism. He had his reservations and stated very clearly that he was against deploying it, and he asked me whether I should abstain, recognising that the decision was to be taken by qualified majority voting. Both of us recognised, I think, that if we had abstained, the proposal would still have gone through, because everybody else in the room wanted the mechanism to be deployed. I found myself in exactly the same position that he did just a few weeks ago when he was being asked to contribute. He made it clear in a statement to the House on 22 November that he did not believe we should make that commitment, but said:
“However, it operates according to qualified majority voting and so we cannot stop it being used, and to exercise that vote at this time would, I judge, be very disruptive.”—[Official Report, 22 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 39.]
That was exactly the situation in which I found myself in May, which was why I agreed to go along with the proposal.
However, I have to say that that fund was not used at all when it came to the bail-out of Greece. That was entirely from the eurozone fund that was set up. Obviously I had left office by then and was not part of the discussions, but that is the simple fact of the matter. Once again, Europe was meeting in crisis, and we had to get a package of £500 billion together to get the ECB to meet. Otherwise, it would have done absolutely nothing.
The circumstances in which Ireland finds itself are complex, but there is no doubt that one problem is that a common interest rate right across Europe is perhaps inappropriate for an economy that is rapidly investing in an asset bubble. However, I do not have the same phobia about the euro that many Conservative Members still have, 20 years on.
I am extremely grateful. Did the right hon. Gentleman take legal advice on whether, as I said at the time, the use of the financial stability mechanism was an unlawful deal? Article 122 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union deals with natural disasters, energy supplies and so on, and it has absolutely nothing to do with financial mistakes or misjudgments. Really, the whole thing should never have gone through, and he should have repudiated it on those grounds.
No—I will not do so because of the time constraints.
I agree with many hon. Members that Europe urgently needs a robust and workable rescue mechanism. We cannot wait until 2013, which brings me to my second main point.
As I have said, I am concerned about the piecemeal way in which Europe as a whole, and the eurozone in particular, address the problems that they face. Even today, there is speculation that the credit rating agencies might revise Spain’s status, which would be damaging to that country and to the euro. However, the approach that has been taken so far, which fails to recognise that the single currency involves 16 member states and 16 Treasuries, will inherently be under stress in times such as these. We are simply storing up problems for the future.
Germany must recognise that if it wants to keep the single currency, which is important to it economically and politically, there are consequences in respect of transfer payments to help countries that are in difficulty. I also believe that simply telling those peripheral countries that the only remedy lies in austerity programmes that developed countries might baulk at implementing, runs the risk of them—far from being able to repay or service loans—finding themselves deeper and deeper in the mire. The IMF has discussed that problem. When Ministers in different parts of Europe are asked privately where all the growth will come from—for Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal—they say, “We don’t know. We can’t be certain.”
Consider the news today. There is rising unemployment. Most of the job losses are in the public sector, and there is precious little sign that the private sector is taking its place. We should be concerned about the “austerity first” programmes that are being imposed across Europe. The dominant political thought at the moment is that if Government’s cut enough, they will get through to salvation. That was tried in the 1920s and early 1930s, and it did not work.
I believe that countries that are in difficulty should look to mend their own houses and to take difficult and controversial steps, but we need to be watchful that we do not get into a situation in which those countries have no way out. If that happens, their consumer and business confidence will fall. Whom do they export to if other countries are shutting down?
The need for some sort of mechanism to address the problems that are inherent in the euro is absolutely urgent. Those problems were simply glossed over 10 or 15 years ago. Let no one think that this is a matter only for the eurozone. As many hon. Members have said time and again, the problem affects us as well, because we are so integrated with Europe and because it is such a big trading partner. Parliament and Ministers need to address the question of such a mechanism. Frankly, we cannot afford to carry on with the current piecemeal approach, which I believe threatens our recovery as much as that of other European countries.
I hope that the former Chancellor’s message to Germany is well received by the German people, because the fact that a price of eurozone membership was making transfer payments to sustain the currency in countries that are not so competitive was never sufficiently spelled out to them. This is essentially a eurozone problem and an Irish problem, and I do not think that we should put British taxpayers’ money into it other than to meet our obligations under our membership of the IMF. It is perfectly reasonable to contribute through that mechanism. As the Chancellor has said, in so doing, we get more security for our loan than we would from a bilateral agreement.
The proposed loan to Ireland is relatively soft. Interestingly, the Chancellor says that the proposed interest rate will probably be slightly less than that of the eurozone facility, and that that demonstrates the competitiveness of our economy. I see things differently. If we have such a competitive economy, why not make a profit on the interest rate and charge the same rate as the eurozone and get the benefit for the British taxpayer?
All we are doing is passing on to Ireland the quarter per cent. or so of benefit that we gain by being a better creditor than the eurozone. Most hon. Members feel that we should help Ireland, but I agree with my hon. Friend that it is not necessarily helpful to Ireland to have a huge amount of extra debt on top of the great debt it already has. On that basis, I understand his point.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his observations.
None of my constituents, particularly those in the business community, understand how or why we can justify increasing our national debt to help Ireland. The line is that the Irish are friends in need, but I remind the House that there is a strong argument to suggest that the Irish Government exacerbated the original banking crisis. When we had problems with Bradford & Bingley and Northern Rock, and our Government limited the deposit guarantee to £50,000, the Irish increased their guarantee to all deposits. That helped the run on Bradford & Bingley and Northern Rock accounts, thereby developing our banking crisis. We did not get much help from the Irish when we were in need in that situation.
We must also not lose sight of the fact that the Irish people have received enormous sums of British taxpayers’ money through our membership of the EU. We make big net contributions to the EU, and a lot of that money was subsequently pushed into Ireland, enabling the Irish people to sustain for a time a much higher standard of living.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are contributing to Ireland through our EU membership, so the Irish people should be very grateful.
When, on behalf of my constituents, I weigh up whether we can be pleased with how Ireland conducts its affairs, I must express renewed disappointment that Ireland caved in on the Lisbon treaty, with the consequence that this country has been landed with it.
Does my hon. Friend recall Ireland’s position a few months ago, when the UK Government tried to bring the European Parliament budget under control and needed a blocking third to prevent the proposed budget increase? Where was Ireland at our time of need on that occasion?
My hon. Friend asks a rhetorical question. The answer is that I am not sure where Ireland was at that time.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor that we should allow the Irish to have their own domestic policy. That is why it would not be right for us to interfere with their low corporation tax policy—it should be for them to decide. However, the other side of the coin must be that we let the Irish take the consequences and accept the responsibility for what happens as a result. We cannot say, “We’re going to help pay for the consequences while not being able to influence the policy.” I find what is proposed very intellectually trying to deal with.
When we have a border—our hon. Friends from Northern Ireland have made their points about this—that low corporation tax policy makes things much more difficult. Indeed, it is possible to argue that we have lost the corporate headquarters of major international organisations from London to Dublin as a result of Ireland’s low corporation tax policy. Now we are subsidising that policy, the consequences of which are that the Irish have been unable to meet their financial obligations and are desperate for additional loans. I am not convinced that we should be getting involved with British taxpayers’ money. It would be different if we did not have an awful national debt crisis, but we do. One consequence of the Bill, if it goes through today, may be to send out a signal to our constituents that says, “Don’t worry, the debt crisis is not as bad as we’ve been telling you, because we can afford to add to that debt further by giving a soft loan to the Irish.” At the same time, we are having to argue to our constituents that we cannot put pressure on the banks to give more soft loans to businesses, even if those businesses go bust or cannot expand as a result, with all the damaging consequences for employment that that would have in our country, so I am not convinced.
Of course I acknowledge that, because it is a fact. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie) made the important point that, in negotiating a bilateral deal, we might have been able to deal with the debts owed to those banks and, in a sense, directed any money that we wanted to give into those British banks, rather than into the Irish coffers in general. We could have linked those things, if that was what was needed. However, I do not think that the difficulties of those banks are a justification for increasing our national debt further in the way that the Bill proposes.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). He mentioned corporation tax, which I shall come to shortly. However, it is worth saying first that what is proposed is a generous act on the part of the Government and the people of the United Kingdom. Of course there are good, economic reasons why what is proposed should be considered in the national interest. As has been pointed out, there are strong arguments about Northern Ireland’s position, the involvement of banks from the Irish Republic in Northern Ireland’s economy, the exposure of British banks to Irish banks, and so on, which are reasons why we should engage in the loan.
However, it would be remiss of me and the people for whom I speak not to point out that the loan is being made merely months before the 90th anniversary of the secession of the 26 southern counties from the United Kingdom. For probably the vast majority of that time, and certainly in the past 30 or 40 years, politicians and others in the Irish Republic have spent most of their time denying the relationship between southern Ireland and the United Kingdom. However, the loan and all that has been said prove the interdependence of the Irish economy and the Irish Republic with—and, to a large degree, their dependence on—the United Kingdom. There are those who go around saying that the United Kingdom should keep out of their affairs and all that, but I think they now realise that in many ways the dependence is very great, and not just on Europe, but on the United Kingdom in particular.
It is also worth spending a minute or two recapping how we came to this position. For many years, people referred to the great Celtic tiger that was the Irish Republic’s economy, and that includes those now in government, as has been pointed out. Those who raised issues about the way in which that economy was lauded were criticised as being driven by petty political considerations and told that their criticisms were not justified. There were those of us who pointed out that there were domestic issues to do with the great concentration on property. However, a recent editorial in The Guardian summed up the position well:
“Politicians kept consumer demand buoyant with generous public spending, while rewarding developer friends with public works contracts. Ireland’s narrow elite ran the economy like a casino and awarded itself free chips. No one, save a few lonely economists, had much incentive to call time on the party. By 2007, around one in five Irish jobs depended in some way on the property market.”
The international mistake was to join the euro. Of course the problems are not entirely down to that, but the economic tools that could have helped to control some of the economic excesses, and some of the issues that arose as a result of the bursting of the property bubble, were not available to the Irish Republic as a result of its membership of the euro. Those tools include devaluation and the ability to cut interest rates. So when the crisis came, the Republic was virtually powerless to do anything in that context. That is well known.
We in Northern Ireland have had our disputes with the Irish Republic, but relations are now much better than they used to be, and we do not take any satisfaction from the crisis that has enveloped it. Someone asked where the Irish Republic stood in relation to recent debates on Europe. People will remind us in this House of the Irish Republic’s attitude during the long years of terrorist activity in Northern Ireland, when the Republic became a safe haven for terrorists and refused to extradite wanted criminals to Northern Ireland for justice. Some of our constituents are now saying, “Why should we help them now that they are in this situation?” They also remember the Irish Republic’s role in the formation of the IRA, back in 1969. They say, “We see all these inquiries, but what are we doing about that?” That is understandable, because lives were lost and families were bereaved as a result of the activities of Governments of all shades and opinions in the Irish Republic. All of them played a role, whether Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour or the rest of them.
Having said all that, we recognise that the Irish Republic needs to receive this loan at this critical time, for the reasons that have been set out. Two of the banks are owned by the Irish Republic and are active in Northern Ireland, and a quarter of all the personal accounts of people in Northern Ireland are in those banks. We have also heard about the exposure of British banks to Irish Banks, as well as the wider trade issues, given that 40% of trade in Northern Ireland is carried out with the Irish Republic. All of that means that, if the situation were to deteriorate even further, we would be in a very difficult situation in Northern Ireland. On balance, therefore, we will not vote against the Government, and we have made it clear that we support the Bill.
There are wider issues relating to the implications of the bail-out of other countries, which we shall discuss in Committee. On corporation tax, the Irish Republic should of course have the right to set its own tax rates; that is not the argument. The argument is that Northern Ireland is at a competitive disadvantage as a result of the lower rate in the Republic, because of the land border. The Irish Republic is our greatest competitor for foreign direct investment. For us to get the equivalent benefit, we are told that we would have to take a further cut in public expenditure of £310 million. In these circumstances, when a subsidy loan is being provided to the Irish Republic, the case for Northern Ireland should be looked at. Why should we be hit immediately with that cut when the Republic will be given years to pay back its loan, giving it a competitive advantage?
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). He made many powerful points, especially his last one. I note that the Bill is called the Loans to Ireland Bill, not the Loans to the Irish Republic Bill. I wonder whether the Government have had some foresight, and whether some of the loans will actually be provided to Northern Ireland, to help to reduce corporation tax there. Perhaps there is some hope in that regard.
I want to start by saying that we have an excellent Chancellor of the Exchequer and a first-class Treasury team, including my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary, who has the misfortune to be at the Dispatch Box to listen to my remarks. On this particular issue, however, I think that they have got it wrong for a number of reasons. Everyone in the House wants to see the Irish Republic prosper, but the question is: which is the best way to help it? Its problem is that it is part of the euro. Government Members have always argued that the United Kingdom should not be part of the euro, because it cannot possibly work. It is not possible to have one fixed interest rate and one fixed currency covering a number of different countries. What we are witnessing is a crisis in which that problem has come to light.
If Ireland were not part of the eurozone—if it had its own currency—it could change its interest rate, but more importantly, its currency could depreciate, which would make it more expensive for exports to come into Ireland and cheaper for exports to go out. It is a market mechanism for self-righting an economic collapse, and because Ireland is part of the eurozone, it cannot do that.
I take the view that in the next few months the euro will collapse. It will not just be Ireland and Greece; it will be Spain, Portugal and possibly Italy. At that stage, it will be necessary to abandon the euro entirely or have two eurozones. If I am right in that assumption, it is a mistake to give £3.25 billion to the Irish at a time when it will do no good at all and that money will never be repaid. If we were paving the way for the Irish to have their own currency again, which would be part of the sterling area, we would be more of a help to Ireland. My argument is that we are sending the money in the wrong direction.
The second issue we have—to be fair to the shadow Chancellor, I think he was on to it—is that we do not know how the figure has been arrived at. Nobody has explained—at least, I have not heard anyone do so—why we have settled on £3.25 billion, but I think the Chancellor was arguing that that is the sort of amount we would have had to provide through the European financial stability facility if we had been part of the eurozone. Well, we are not part of the eurozone, so why should we be contributing to something that eurozone countries should be providing on their own?
Of course; I thank my hon. Friend for raising that.
I disagreed with the shadow Chancellor when he said that there were two extremes. One was to have a unified eurozone with central controls over taxation and spending. It is one option, and I accept that such a model would work, but I reject it completely. However, no one can pretend that the current system will ever work. We would just end up putting billions and billions more pounds into a system that will eventually collapse, and, in my view, that will happen earlier rather than later.
Let me return to how the €85 billion package is made up. We have €17.7 billion from the facility and €22.5 billion from the mechanism. The mechanism was designed for natural emergencies; it was never designed for this purpose, and yet we are taking more out of the mechanism, which has a total pot of €60 billion, than out of the one that has €440 billion. Why? The simple answer is that the United Kingdom has to contribute to the mechanism, but we do not contribute to the facility because it is all eurozone money. In my view we do not need to make this £3.25 billion loan; it should come entirely from the €440 billion that is available for exactly this reason. That is why the facility was set up.
I also did not follow the Chancellor’s argument when he said that because of qualified majority voting, we would not have voted against the use of the mechanism because we would have been overruled. I have to say to him that on a number of occasions I have voted on measures on which I know I will not win, but it does not mean that one should not vote that way; one should vote as one sees fit. I think on that small point the Chancellor has also made a mistake.
Many hon. Members will refer to the man on the Clapham omnibus, but in my case it is the man on the Wellingborough 46 bus, and such people make the following very simple point. My county council has announced that it will fire all its lollipop ladies and close a number of libraries, and those people say to me, “If we’re having to do that because we’re not allowed to increase the national debt, how on earth can you provide £3.25 billion to a country that is in the eurozone?” It is very difficult for me to give an answer. In fact, the answer I give is, “We shouldn’t be doing it.”
If the House divides on the Government’s proposal, I will, reluctantly, have to vote against it, not because I think the Government’s aim is wrong—because, yes, we want to have a prosperous Ireland—but because of the way this is being done and the way it is being funded. Nobody is suggesting that because we trade a lot with the United States of America, if there were a crisis there, we would suddenly lend it money. Ireland is a grown-up country. It decided to become part of the euro. The problem lies in the eurozone, and it should sort this out, not us.
I congratulate the Chancellor on the proposal, which I fully support. It is my understanding that this step is being taken because there was a potential domino effect, in that any damage in the Irish Republic could have led to further damage to British banks that operate there and to damage to the Northern Ireland economy, and that in turn would have had a very significant effect on the British economy and British interests. I therefore see this as a generous move, but also a move of enlightened self-interest.
The Irish economy is in its current situation because it had a banking crisis, not an economic crisis. The underlying economy is sound; the potential for growth exists, and that growth will come forward. The pharmaceuticals and other major industries in the south of Ireland are thriving. The economy is expected to stabilise this year and to begin to expand at between 2.5 and 3% in the period 2011-14. The package of measures that is in place is required in order to restore the public finances and banking liquidity by 2014. The Irish Government have rapidly moved to curtail expenditure dramatically and to raise revenue themselves. The adjustment is expected to bring the economy back into balance within four or five years.
Ireland is a small open economy in which long-term sustainable growth depends on healthy international trading, and the conditions for export-led growth are in place: good infrastructure, high-quality human capital, a favourable taxation environment and available credit for viable businesses. The national recovery plan has been put in place, and it is tough and will be difficult. Export-led growth will foster recovery in domestic trading sectors. The growth in GDP is expected to bring unemployment down fairly rapidly, and certainly well below 10% within two to three years. The balance of payments will return to surplus in 2011, so Ireland will be earning its way out of the difficulty that it is in within the next 12 months.
Some Members have referred to Ireland’s membership of the eurozone as a major difficulty, but I do not agree. It is a handicap, but it is not as massive a disadvantage as some claim. Ireland’s membership of the eurozone obliges it to adhere to stability and growth rules and to bring the general Government deficit to below 3%. The Irish Budget contained a very tough package. Initially, the 2010 Budget presumed an adjustment of about €7.5 billion over a four-year period. With hindsight, we know that the figure proved to be almost double that—some €15 billion—as we crept towards the year end. Two thirds of that is coming out of budgetary adjustment achieved through reduced expenditure, and a third out of taxation. However, by 2014, Irish expenditure will be back to 2007 levels. Total Government expenditure as a percentage of GDP will be reduced from 49% to 36% in the next three years.
I heard what the hon. Gentleman said earlier in his speech about why we should support southern Ireland, but I am struggling somewhat with his non-condemnation of membership of the eurozone. The euro seems to be a large part of the problems, but he seems to have glossed over that fact.
Some of us see the euro as a problem and some of us do not. Being in the euro has been an advantage to Ireland for many years. It has become a handicap at present because of the restrictions and constraints, but the eurozone works and has worked very well for many years. In the present crisis it has its handicaps and limitations. Some people are predicting that the eurozone will collapse shortly; I do not accept that, and that is not the view of everybody.
The point I am trying to make is that Ireland’s underlying economy is healthy. Its membership of and involvement in the eurozone is healthy, and in the long-term it will come round and sort itself out. Ireland has a financial crisis—a banking crisis—that was brought about largely by a property bubble and a lack of liquidity, rather than a flaw in the underlying economy. I want to assure people that the money will be paid, in my opinion and assessment, and that in due course—
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Lessons will have to be learned, not so much about the euro per se but about the performance of the European Central Bank. There is a serious question to be asked about its insistence on low interest rates for a sustained period. That helped to feed the property bubble in Ireland, despite the valiant efforts of the then Finance Minister to find other ways of getting out of the economy the money that was fuelling the property bubble, such as paying off the national debt, putting big money into the national pensions reserve fund and introducing special savings investment accounts.
I thank my hon. Friend, who puts it better than I could have done.
I want to come on to why international intervention was needed. Ireland did its best at an internal level. It is a small country in a very tough global marketplace, and it did its best to resolve both the banking and the deficit situations internally. However, the interdependence of the modern world, Ireland’s membership of the eurozone and large market movements put some of the solutions beyond internal domestic management. Indeed, as we all know, both the European Union and the eurozone are themselves facing fundamental challenges in devising a fair and equitable response to the financial crisis in other countries.
However, although the domestic measures in Ireland did not prove sufficient, that does not mean they were not necessary. Ireland did its best to solve the situation internally, and only in the end, when nothing more could be done internally, did it resort to international help.
There are major north-south implications within the island of Ireland. All of us in the island of Ireland remain convinced that north-south co-operation is a central element of the push for economic recovery—not just within the Irish Republic but within the north. Indeed, the Prime Minister referred to such matters at Question Time. Despite the difficulties, the Irish Government have maintained some €110 million of investment in the north in various things, including major infrastructure projects of importance to both the north and the south. I am referring to roads and other aspects that are central. All that is important, and works. For the future prosperity of the island economy it is essential to build on the peace that we have achieved and to create the economic opportunities for a new generation.
I wish simply to restate a number of points about the UK’s interest. The UK is strong and robust, as we have discussed in relation to trade and all the rest. Ireland, a small country, accounts for 5% of Britain’s total exports. We are told that the UK exports more to Ireland than to Brazil, Russia, India and China put together. Allowing that to collapse would have an immediate impact on this country. The two economies are particularly linked in Northern Ireland, with two fifths of Northern Ireland’s economy dependent on the Irish Republic. Just as the two economies are linked, the two banking sectors are linked. As other hon. Members have said, the two main southern Irish banks are very active in the north, and to some extent in Britain; they also issue sterling banknotes, so that all has an implication for the whole banking sector. If this banking liquidity crisis had not been sorted out, we could have ended up with 25% or 30% unemployment, not just in southern Ireland, but in the north.
Order. I now have to announce the result of a Division deferred from a previous day. On the question relating to animal welfare, the Ayes were 304 and the Noes were 221, so the Ayes have it.
[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]
We have about 15 minutes available and three more speakers to fit in. I would like to ensure that all three have the chance to speak, so I ask you to divide the time up, because the speeches from the Front Benches will begin at 4 o’clock.
As I watched a few minutes of the film “The Perfect Storm” recently, I could not help but reflect on the economic challenges encircling Ireland. The film buffs in the House today will recall how George Clooney tried his best to get his fishermen back to base through a once-in-a-generation storm, created by the coming together of three much smaller but still deadly storms. Just as in that story, we are seeing a clear convergence, and it is of economic crises engulfing the emerald isle. As we have heard, that confluence has far-reaching economic implications, not only for Ireland but for our trading partners in the eurozone and, as a result and most importantly, for the UK economy. That is why the Government are absolutely right to take this specific action in this specific situation to help steer us to a departure from that film’s finale and underpin a much more sustainable future for the Irish economy.
That is why it is important to reflect on some of the factors that have created this crisis, on why helping Ireland is so important to our national interest at that this point in time, and on why we are left with no option other than to make this bilateral loan to Ireland. We have talked about the three converging elements: the banking crisis, the sovereign debt crisis, and how the complicating factor of Ireland’s membership of the euro is exacerbating those issues. The credit crunch cruelly revealed the extent to which the Irish banks had overextended themselves, and the fact that they were no longer able to access funding on the open market. As a result, the European Central Bank had to step in. The Irish Government had sought to guarantee all the bank liabilities, and the €440 billion promise that they had put in place was twice the size of the Irish gross domestic product. Those losses brought about a complete loss of confidence in the markets, and finally the Government had no choice but to face up to a looming sovereign debt crisis and seek international assistance.
Joining the euro did not, in itself, cause the challenges that Ireland faces, but it exacerbated them; that is where I disagree with the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell). When the banks binge-borrowed on the back of lower interest rates, it created all sorts of problems that could not have arisen had the punt still been in place. Now, sadly, Ireland’s euro membership is acting as a straitjacket. Independent monetary policy and exchange rate flexibility are not an option; they are not available to help Ireland navigate its way out of this terrible crisis.
I am a confirmed Eurosceptic, and my mother happens to be Danish, so I am proud that when this country worked hard to save sterling, others with more Viking blood than me stepped forward to ensure that they kept their kroner—and quite right too. It is also important to note that both Denmark and Sweden will join the UK in offering loans to Ireland in this unique situation—loans of, I think, €1 billion, or £850 million in proper money.
Despite Ireland’s recent history and my views on the euro, I believe that in these unique circumstances the Chancellor is right to extend the bilateral loan to Ireland. The reason is simple: if the Irish storm gathers more momentum it will have major implications not just for the people of Ireland but for all of us in the United Kingdom.
We should help our neighbour in need, and it is in our national interest to do so. The recent Office for Budget Responsibility report underlined the strong contribution that will be required from net trade to help get us out of the crisis that we ourselves face. We have talked about the size of the UK’s exports to Ireland, but the report goes on to say:
“If recent events significantly reduced Irish demand for UK exports there would be a material impact on UK export growth.”
There is no question about that.
Furthermore, we must take the steps to protect UK banks. Again, the OBR estimates that the exposure runs at £82 billion, £4.6 billion of which is exposed in the Irish sovereign debt. In its November report, it states that its estimate of the direct net cost or benefit to the taxpayer of the Government’s interventions in the UK banking sector may be affected by the exposure of UK banks to Irish liabilities. There is a clear and important reason for us to take this step forward and mitigate the risk, as well as mitigating the risk of contagion. Given the lack of time available, I simply want to stress my belief that it is vital to support the Government in taking these steps.
The package is described as a bail-out of Ireland, but it is important that we recognise that Ireland has not asked for the bail-out and that it is not the package that the Irish would have wished. Ireland and the IMF proposed to write down bank senior debt—that is, default on an element of that debt—because they recognised that it would be very difficult, although not impossible, for Ireland to pay back its vast amount of debt. It is not clear to me that adding another €67.5 billion to those debts and subordinating the previous debts to that will help Ireland out of this crisis.
Let us consider why Ireland was pushed into the crisis. The European Central Bank threatened to withdraw finance for the Irish banks. The ECB had extended €130 billion at a 1% interest rate in temporary liquidity support to the Irish banking sector—a courageous and rather risky thing for it to have done. It would prefer that credit to be refinanced on a longer term basis and at a higher interest rate. If the eurozone wishes to do that, that is a matter for it to agree.
What is not clear is what interest we, or indeed Ireland, have in refinancing that eurozone debt into an EU-wide debt. We must consider the funding costs. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has the proud achievement, for which he deserves significant credit, of reducing the long-term costs of borrowing in the UK. Unfortunately, that has gone into reverse over the last three weeks or so. When he came in, we did not give money to the Greek bail-out. We had a rescue package with €440 billion loans and only €60 billion of the dubious EU facility. Unfortunately, that is now being confused.
My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) recognised back in May that this was the beginning of a European debt union, but it was only when I saw how the package was denominated that I began to share that view. Unfortunately, it is rebounding on our credit. The EU puts in €22.5 billion, the eurozone puts in €17 billion and we put in €3.5 billion or so. Rather than this appearing to be a bilateral arrangement that we have properly agreed, because it is in the interests of these islands, and that has been negotiated between the UK and the Republic, we give the markets the impression that we are being sucked into a wider EU package and those markets worry that we will do the same for Portugal or Spain. We have seen the back-up in interest rates in the past few weeks, but I ask the Treasury Front-Bench team to make it as clear as they can that this is a one-off involving Ireland. By doing that, we could at least potentially protect our credit from some of the assumptions that the market has built up in the past few weeks.
On Europe, I commissioned an opinion poll last month of 1,000 representative people in the Republic, and more than a third of that sample said that they would like to leave the euro and return to sterling. The Chancellor says that “I told you so” is not a policy and of course he is right, but he needs to recognise that there is a policy implication that we should not make the same mistake again. I shared with my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary, back in 1998, analysis of what had been happening in Ireland—how bank lending was out of control and how there was going to be a most extraordinary boom and bust that would serve as a vivid lesson to this country. I also shared that analysis with Bertie Ahern, prior to his becoming Taoiseach. Like the Chancellor, he said he understood the analysis and that we might be right, but he wanted to join the euro for political reasons. We saw the impact of that decision in Donegal three weeks ago, where the successor seat of my grandfather, who was the Fianna Fail Member for that area, has now been taken by Sinn Fein.
This is Ireland’s decision, but I hope, in its interests and ours, that we will work together much more closely than we have been. There have been improvements in relations since the Prime Minister’s comments about the Bloody Sunday inquiry and, given what the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) has said and given his very positive and supportive attitude, I believe we should work with Ireland on a bilateral basis to try to put things right and get a long-term sustainable solution for it and us that is better than the Carolingian settlement that is being imposed by the eurozone and the European Union on an Ireland that deserves better.
I shall vote against the Second Reading of the Bill, I shall oppose the money resolution and I shall do my best to amend the Bill should it reach Committee because I think it is bad for the House.
What we are not talking about in this debate is whether we should lend money to Ireland or not. Instead, we are talking about whether we should double our loan to Ireland. Whether or not the Bill is passed today, this country will be lending the Republic of Ireland 3.5 billion quid, and if the Bill is passed, that loan will go up to 7 billion quid. My constituents in Kettering are saying to me, “Philip, we are having all these public sector cuts and despite the Government’s best efforts the national debt is going to double over the term of the coalition Government; what on earth are you doing lending money to the Irish Republic?”, and I share their view. Yes, we should play our part in the loans through the IMF, but we should not be entering into a secondary bilateral arrangement because the truth is not so much that we are lending money to the Irish Republic as that we are lending money to the European Central Bank. We are increasing our exposure to the eurozone at a time when it is in increasing crisis. Given that we decided a long time ago that we wanted nothing to do with the euro, that is a backward step.
Let me say on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition that we welcome the debate, in which plenty of views have been expressed from different parts of the Chamber on what is an incredibly important matter. Many Members in all parts of the House—including my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie), the Chairman of the Treasury Committee—have voiced, perfectly reasonably, their anxieties about the loan to Ireland.
Clearly these are troubled times for the world economy and for the eurozone, and we must sincerely hope that we will not find ourselves here again. The Opposition recognise that there are interdependencies between Britain and the Irish nation in respect of economic trade, direct relationships between our banks and financial investments across Ireland. Moreover, it is our only land-bordered nation state. We therefore have a duty to support the principle and spirit of the legislation, because a failing Irish economy would create harm here in the United Kingdom.
I think we shall have to take the issues as they come before us. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s anxieties, but, on balance, given the choices that we face, we consider it incumbent on us, as a responsible Opposition, to support the Government on Second Reading.
Let me make a couple of points—briefly, because I am conscious of the time and the need for us to debate the amendments, not least those that I have tabled in respect of clause 2.
The events in Ireland remind us starkly of the principal facts that Ministers have, I am afraid, preferred to hide hitherto. First, the credit crunch was a worldwide, international crisis, not simply something in the United Kingdom. Secondly, the failures of banks that gambled excessively not just with our money but with the money of the Irish people and others are at the root of our present predicament.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has done well in spinning the line that it was all the fault of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), the former Prime Minister—that he was somehow personally responsible for single-handedly causing the credit crunch in the UK before jetting off to Washington and starting the banking collapse there, then flying to Ireland via Spain, Portugal, Greece and the rest of the developed world, spreading banking catastrophe from continent to continent. However, the Bill—perhaps uncomfortably for the Chancellor—reminds us of the ridiculousness of the coalition’s revisionism, and reminds us that the rewriting of history can occur only if we believe in the gullibility of the public, as I suspect the Chancellor does. Although the Government think that may be able to fool all of the people all of the time, the truth is now overwhelmingly obvious, and proves beyond doubt that the greed of profiteering bankers has required the poor, beleaguered taxpayer, here as well as across Ireland and Europe, to bail them out of the mess that they created.
I am afraid that we heard no apology in the Chancellor’s hour-long, technical speech, and no expression of regret in respect of his free-market deregulatory exaltations of the “shining example” shown by the Irish economy. Perhaps that was an error, but sadly he did not acknowledge it. We are not convinced, either, that the Chancellor stands chastened or reflective in regard to his ill-judged comments about the Irish economic miracle”. Perhaps even we could have expected him to have some conception of the risks posed by the simple “austerity at all costs” principle underpinning his economic policies, but that was not there either.
Fundamentally, the problem is this: if the Chancellor of the Exchequer does not understand the causes of the deficit, he is certainly not the right person to fix it. My constituents, like those of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), find it difficult to understand how, given that we were supposedly on the brink of bankruptcy, we can find £3.2 billion for the Irish loan, but nothing for Sheffield Forgemasters.
Sadly, however, we must recognise that the measures before us today are a result of the fragility of the worldwide economy. We hope that, eventually, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister will step up and show a little more leadership, especially in Europe, rather than using bail-outs and loans as sticking plaster. We hope that they will pay more attention to the root causes of what is happening to the economy, and will recognise that we cannot just cross our fingers and pretend that collective austerity will do the trick in all cases. My right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West is absolutely spot on when he talks about the inadequacy of that proposition. How will the European Union regain the market’s confidence in a longer-term trajectory back to stronger revenues and economies? Where are the growth strategies to build longer-term prosperity?
We have to accept, however, that the case for the loan to Ireland outweighs the case against it. There are risks that need dealing with, including the risk of contagion throughout the eurozone bond market. The ongoing crisis risks shrinking our export market potential in the long run, and as a consequence that risks creating losses for banks in the UK—banks of course that we own. So on balance and for those reasons, we do not oppose the Bill at this time, but in the time remaining we hope to scrutinise the detail in Committee.
This has been a good debate about the principles underlying the Bill, and I welcome the Opposition’s support for it.
I am sorry that the shadow Chancellor is not in his place. He made a typical speech: a couple of jokes, a few quotations and then a shaky grasp of the facts. I shall not match him on jokes, but let me give the House a couple of quotations. He talked about the views on Ireland, but let me quote a former member of Labour’s shadow Cabinet, who said:
“The whole purpose is to bring the Welsh economy up to the standards of those of other countries in Europe, so that we can follow the lead of the Irish economy and become, in a matter of 10 or 20 years, one of the most successful regional economies in Europe.”—[Official Report, 28 February 2002; Vol. 380, c. 868.]
The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), when he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said:
“The Irish economy has enjoyed a good deal of success over the past few years. The corporation tax regime has contributed to that, but there have been a number of other factors”.––[Official Report, Finance Public Bill Committee, 8 May 2007; c. 19.]
There we go: a record of Opposition Members’ hymns of praise to the Irish economy.
It struck me as remarkable, however, that the shadow Chancellor did not understand the mechanisms being used to support the Irish economy. He seemed to think that the UK would bear a higher share of the bail-out costs than other European Union members, such as France and Germany, and that they do not contribute to the IMF or to the stability mechanism. Let me make it absolutely clear to the House that the UK is contributing through the IMF, the stability mechanism and a bilateral loan. Other European countries are contributing through the IMF, the stability mechanism and, if they are members of the eurozone, the stabilisation facility.
Owing to their share of the contribution to European Union funds, Germany and France are contributing more than the UK: some 27% of the contribution is through the facility. France contributes 20% through the facility, compared with our 14%. And through the mechanism, the UK’s contribution is 14%, Germany’s 20% and France’s 17%. It is a pity that the shadow Chancellor does not understand how the package actually works. The right hon. Gentleman also seemed to deny that the euro made any contribution to the crisis facing Ireland. However, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), who made a very thoughtful speech about the challenges facing the European Union, punctured his view that the euro had nothing to do with it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie) asked whether we considered buying bank assets. We have in place an agreement by the Irish Government to repay our loan in full, but that could not have been guaranteed if we had sought to buy individual assets of Irish banks. He also asked whether Ireland could repay early without a penalty, and the answer is yes, but the Irish Government would have to make break payments.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) talked about the impact on the Northern Ireland economy of what is happening south of the border, and we recognise that. We recognise also that more work needs to be done to strengthen the Northern Irish economy, which is why we are in discussions with the Northern Ireland Office about the issues to do with enabling the Executive to set their own corporation tax rate. There is another part to that deal, however, because, if they have that power, they will need to bear the risk with the revenue and see a reduction in their block grant.
A number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie), asked how we can afford to do this, given the fiscal position that we are in. Let me make it clear that we are not paying for the loan out of revenue or capital expenditure; we are going to borrow the money. The measure will not lead to a reduction in the money we can spend in my constituency or theirs. In fact, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said, we will end up making a small profit on the loan because of interest rate differentials. The loan will not affect how much can be spent in our constituencies, and if that is the only reason hon. Members are opposing the measure, I ask them to think again.
The debt is matched by an asset, which is the amount we expect to get from Ireland, and it does not impact on our deficit. We will actually make a return on the interest that will be paid.
Let me deal with three very brief points. First, there is no expectation that we will have to make further loans to Ireland in the future. Secondly, there is no reason to presume that full repayment will not be met over the term of the loan. Thirdly, ensuring Ireland’s stability is overwhelmingly in our national interest. That is why we are making the loan and this exception for Ireland. It is in our economy’s interests to ensure that the Irish economy is stable and we need to do all that we can to deliver that.
Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).
Further proceedings on the Bill postponed (Order, this day).
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Given that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has made an announcement this afternoon in respect of fuel poverty and the Warm Front scheme, saying that it is fully allocated, may I ask whether there has been any request from a Minister to make an oral statement to the House? Many people will be concerned about the cold weather and the urgency of having work done, and they will be fearful that that work cannot be completed before 31 March.
As the hon. Lady is aware, that is not a point of order for me, but I am sure that the message is getting through to the Secretary of State as we speak. There are other channels that she may wish to use.
Loans to Ireland Bill (Money)
Queen’s Recommendation signified.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a),
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Loans to Ireland Bill, it is expedient to authorise—
(1) the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any sums required by the Treasury for the purpose of the making of loans to Ireland by the United Kingdom; and
(2) the payment of sums into the Consolidated Fund.—(Mr Hoban.)
Question agreed to.