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Eurozone Financial Assistance

Volume 528: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2011

I beg to move,

That this House notes with concern that UK taxpayers are potentially being made liable for bail-outs of Eurozone countries when the UK opted to remain outside the Euro and, despite agreement in May 2010 that the EU-wide European Financial Stability Mechanism (EFSM) of €60 billion would represent only 12 per cent. of the non-IMF contribution with the remaining €440 billion being borne by the Eurozone through the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), that the EFSM for which the UK may be held liable is in fact being drawn upon to the same or a greater extent than the EFSF; further notes that the European Scrutiny Committee has stated its view that the EFSM is legally unsound; and requires the Government to place the EFSM on the agenda of the next meeting of the Council of Ministers or the European Council and to vote against continued use of the EFSM unless a Eurozone-only arrangement which relieves the UK of liability under the EFSM has by then been agreed.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating this debate.

Ever since the civil war, and perhaps back to the Plantagenet era, the primary duty of this House has been to control supply, to hold the purse strings and to decide what the Executive may or may not spend on behalf of our constituents. It is not for Her Majesty’s Treasury to decide what unknowable liabilities to sign our constituents up for. It is for us, as their elected representatives, to make that decision. I ask every Member to consider that point when they cast their vote later. It is our decision, and only we stand between our constituents and the ability of others to spend their money on their behalf.

My simple point is that it is unaffordable for this country to bail out countries that joined a currency that we chose not to join, when we ourselves are borrowing as much money as, if not more than, those very countries. We are seeing £12.5 billion of our constituents’ money—twice as much as was saved in the whole first year of the coalition Government, and £500 a household—being spent on bail-outs; and I mean “spent”, because although the Government tell us that they expect the money to be paid back, if that is so, why will the private sector not lend? Why are there rates of 10% to 17%?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this issue and support what he is saying. Does he agree that although bailing out Greece, Ireland or Portugal is expensive in itself, today the contagion is spreading to Spain and Italy, bail-outs for which would be absolutely prohibitive for the whole European Union? Would that not be nonsense?

The hon. Gentleman is quite correct, and it goes on and on. Yet it is not our problem, and it is not our currency. If we can do anything, we can save ourselves and perhaps Ireland, but we cannot save the euro. The eurozone countries made their decision. We advised them against it, yet they chose to create a currency without a fiscal union to back it up. It is their problem, not ours.

Given that the “no bail-out” clause has turned out to be completely worthless, the eurozone will need to design some type of resolution procedure for countries, in much the same way as we are trying to devise one for banks at the moment. Is it not therefore all the more important that, since we are not members of the eurozone, the UK taxpayer should have absolutely no part in the construction of that resolution procedure? We do not want to find that there are any more burdens on the UK taxpayer.

My hon. Friend is quite correct. There is talk of establishing a permanent bail-out arrangement, and we, the United Kingdom, have a veto over that. We should use that veto to relieve ourselves of all liability under a mechanism that should never have been agreed. That is what my motion proposes, and the amendment fails to do so.

When the European financial stability mechanism was set up, we were told that there would be €60 billion in it, whereas €440 billion would be paid by the eurozone members. Yet in the case of every bail-out we find that the mechanism is used to the same level as, or even more than, the eurozone facility. We in the House and this country are being forced to pay for the mistakes of others, and only this House has the power to stand up, vote and say no.

The whole mechanism is illegal. Let us remember Maastricht and the “no bail-out” clause that the Germans insisted on. What has happened to that? Let us remember article 122 of Lisbon, which states that the mechanism is for natural disasters or other exceptional circumstances beyond member states’ control. Did not Ireland, Portugal and Greece decide to sign up to the euro? Portugal has barely grown at all as a country since it joined the euro, and it has done next to nothing to control its spending. I am afraid there is nothing exceptional about that, and nothing beyond its control. It is just using the mechanism, to which we should have said no, to make our constituents pay for its own mistakes.

Does my hon. Friend recall that Madame Lagarde herself, the prospective head of the International Monetary Fund, said on 17 December last year on that very point:

“We violated all the rules because we wanted to close ranks and really rescue the eurozone”?

She was being very clear and telling the truth.

Order. Before the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) responds, may I warn him that he only has three minutes to go?

My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) is quite right.I hear that that lady is a good friend of the Chancellor, but I do not believe that we should put the debtors in charge of the bank. The IMF money, too, or 5% or so of it, is our constituents’ and taxpayers’ money. We should have an emerging market candidate to run the fund, and we should not allow the eurozone to continue to perpetuate a French-led IMF that nods through bail-outs with no restructuring and no devaluation. The markets know, and all of us know in our hearts, that bail-outs will not work.

The eurozone says that there will be a “soft restructuring”. In other words, when Greece, Portugal, Ireland or—who knows?—Spain cannot pay back what it has promised, the eurozone will say, “Oh, don’t worry about it, we’ll just roll it over.” In the City, they call that an extend-and-pretend policy. Such a policy was pursued in Japan for the whole of the 1990s, which then lost two decades of growth instead of dealing with the banks and recognising its insolvency. The European Central Bank should avoid that. Unless and until the ECB deals with that problem and understands that the assets that it has taken supposedly to back the loans are worth far short of what it currently assumes, the banks will not lend, because they do not know to whom it is safe to lend. The ECB should write those assets down and have that reckoning. The extend-and-pretend policy—the patching up and bailing out, and the throwing of good money after bad—is destined to fail.

Why are we supporting a currency that we very wisely did not join, after warning exactly what would happen? I ask Members of this House to stand up for their constituents. We should require—yes, require—the Treasury to vote against the use of the bail-out mechanism. If the EU does not agree to that, we should require the Treasury to use our veto over the permanent bail-out mechanism until we are extracted and removed from all liability. We should never have been liable for that mechanism. We know that it is unlawful and that it is not for our currency.

It is right that we stand up for our taxpayers and our constituents, who look to us as Members of this House to do so. They do not look to us to seek permission from those on the Treasury Bench, or to urge them to do something rather than require them to do something. Surely as Members of the House we are more than that. Surely our country is more than a star on somebody else’s flag. I urge all hon. Members to vote no to the Government-sponsored amendment.

It is a great pleasure to speak in this important debate and to support the motion of the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless). I hope very much to have the opportunity to vote for the motion as it stands rather than in amended form.

Today of all days is important because the crisis and contagion in the eurozone is spreading. As reported in the Financial Times and other journals, there are serious problems in Spain, where there is youth unemployment of 41%, and where the economy is in serious crisis, and even in Italy. Those are major economies, not small countries. If we are dragged into a mechanism to save the eurozone even in one of the smaller countries, we will be throwing good money after bad, as the hon. Gentleman said. Bail-outs have been required for Greece and Ireland, and there might be one for Portugal, but those are relatively small countries in EU terms. Spain and Italy are much larger, and bail-outs for them would be prohibitive.

As I have said in the Chamber several times before, it is time to urge the EU to accept the recreation of national currencies for countries that cannot sustain membership of the eurozone. As I and many others have argued, strong currencies derive from strong economies, not the other way around. The Deutschmark was a strong currency because the German economy was strong. Weak economies cannot cope over time when a strong currency is thrust upon them. The best example of that was Argentina, which chose mistakenly to link its currency formally to the US dollar. For 10 years, it struggled, and its economy was almost destroyed before it bailed out and recreated its own currency—not before billions of its dollars had gone abroad. The Argentine economy, which had been one of the strongest on South America, became very weak, simply because it adopted a strong currency, and someone else’s currency at that. Adopting a strong currency that an economy cannot sustain is a foolish decision.

The right to flex a currency as of need is a vital component of economic management. Indeed, at Bretton Woods in the 1940s, it was argued that depreciations and appreciations could be appropriate for different countries, even though a stable exchange rate system was agreed after the second world war.

Is it not strange that the Government are backing so strongly the candidacy of Madame Lagarde for the position of head of the International Monetary Fund, given that that lady is part of a ruling European elite, and that she is on record as wanting to go on bailing out the euro? Should we not be more independent in supporting a really good, tough candidate for that important post?

I have not always agreed with our former Prime Minister, but I agreed very strongly with his position on the euro. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) might take a more sensible approach to those things, should he be appointed. I think he is something of an outsider at the moment, but Madame Lagarde has not been appointed yet. Let us hope that he still has a chance of the job.

As the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood said, Britain was wise to stay out of the euro. Because of that, we can flex our currency when needs must. Of course, during and after the crisis, we wisely depreciated our currency. Perhaps a bit more depreciation will help manufacturing and our economy. Countries that have their own currency, such as ours, can also choose their interest rates. Two vital components of any economic management system—the ability to flex the currency and control of interest rates—are given away when countries join a single currency. Even beyond that, there are fiscal policy controls. Countries would do well to retain all the components of economic management if they want to succeed.

When countries do well individually, they can do well collectively. Destroying the economies of EU member states or other countries does not help us in any way. Getting them back into some sort of order by permitting, encouraging or helping them to recreate their currencies, and finding an appropriate parity and interest rate for that currency, so that they can manage their economies for their needs, would raise demand for our goods. The shock absorber effect of different currencies would, over time—a fairly short time, I believe—make the economies of Europe work better singly and collectively. Therefore, the recreation of those currencies is in our interest.

Does my hon. Friend have any idea why this Government are so keen on bailing out the euro when that was certainly not in the Conservative manifesto? Is this a case of the Liberal tail wagging the Conservative dog?

That is one mystery that will no doubt be revealed when the 30-year rule is applied. We found out some interesting things about what happened in the 1970s under the Jim Callaghan Government recently, so perhaps we will know what is happening now in 30 years’ time. I know no more than my hon. Friend about why the Government do not take a more sensible line, as is proposed in the motion.

I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s speech. Does he share my frustration that a Labour Chancellor signed us up to a mechanism over which we now have no veto?

Throughout the period of the Labour Government, I put the views that I have put in this debate. I hope that I had some influence, but in the end the Government decide what they must. They will not necessarily do what Back Benchers such as me suggest. Nevertheless, I am on record as writing and speaking on such things many times in the past.

We must bring this crisis to a head. The way to do that is to say, “No more bail-outs. Let’s start recreating national currencies.” I have said that directly to some of our friends in Ireland, when members of the European Scrutiny have met Irish politicians.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that subject to a request from Ireland and to the protection of UK depositors as against the ECB, we should consider extending our currency to allow Ireland to work with us? Under sterling, we could treat Ireland on an entirely equal basis.

Ireland is a very special case—it is our next-door neighbour and we are Ireland’s major trading partner. Effectively, the Irish would do very well to join the sterling zone rather than the eurozone. That would mean their recreating the punt and choosing the value of it. I would like us to do a lot more to help our Irish colleagues, not simply because I have a large number of Irish people in my constituency, but because that would be a comradely and brotherly thing to do for a nation with which we have had great links for many centuries.

I once again express my support for the motion.

It is critical that we put into perspective UK taxpayers’ exposure to the bail-out mechanism. No Government Member relishes having to put the faith or the credit of Her Majesty’s Treasury behind the bail-outs of profligate peripheral eurozone countries, especially at a time of austerity at home, but the coalition Government inherited this situation. The temporary bail-out mechanism, which runs until 2013, was agreed on 10 May 2010 by European Finance Ministers at ECOFIN—after the general election, but before the coalition Government were formed. As the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) admitted in Parliament, the Chancellor opposed the mechanism at the time, as was clearly recorded in Hansard on 15 December 2010. [Interruption.] Any Labour Members in doubt about that can verify it for themselves.

Will my hon. Friend consider the answer I received from Ministers this morning, and reflect that although the Chancellor opposed the mechanism, the Government had every reason then to challenge it in the European Court? Why did they not do so?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I have been led to understand that the Government took the position that there was no strong legal case to support any such challenge.

None the less, it sticks in the craw of many Government Members to be in this position and, like them, I have my doubts about whether the mechanism is being applied in exceptional circumstances beyond member states’ control, which is the test for triggering the deployment of financial assistance powers under article 122(2) of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union. Government bond yields in the eurozone periphery are trading at the level they are in some countries because of the reckless management of public finances and the political gridlock in those countries, and because of backsliding on long overdue structural reform. In Greece’s case, Government bond yields are trading at about 20% because of Athens’s lack of progress towards meeting the pledges it made last year as part of the EU-International Monetary Fund bail-out. That is a case in point.

Painful though it was for the Government to be saddled by the outgoing Labour Administration with an indirect contingent liability through their involuntary participation in the mechanism, the truth is that our overall exposure is a rounding error when compared with that facing Germany and other northern European countries in the core euro area. The debts of the eurozone periphery are being progressively socialised by European Central Bank financing operations that could, in time, be seen as the forerunner of an effective eurozone bond. In the meantime, the €60 billion mechanism is just part of a far larger package of measures to preserve financial stability in the EU to which we have no exposure, except indirectly through our share in the IMF. We are on the hook for a share of €60 billion out of an overall package of €750 billion. Our share, which is about 12.5% of that €60 billion, is just €7.5 billion, or 1% of the €750 billion package.

We do not wish to throw away that 1% lightly, of course, but happily, for that exposure to crystallise, all the countries that have thus far subscribed to the mechanism would have to default in totality. IMF data on the history of sovereign defaults around the world suggest that that is highly unlikely. Even in the unlikely event of a domino series of defaults across the countries that have subscribed to the mechanism, it would be extraordinary for there to be a 100% default rate. The pattern of defaults around the world suggests that losses from default are normally between 25% and 35% of the total losses to which countries or investors have exposure.

I would say gently to my hon. Friend that only a few years ago the banking crisis was not foreseen, and the same people who did not foresee that are still giving us advice. We are probably in far worse trouble than is generally accepted.

My hon. Friend is perhaps right to caution me. It never pays to be too optimistic.

More importantly, the coalition Government, who came into power in May 2010, deserve to be congratulated not only on limiting our exposure to the temporary funds—we are on the hook for just one, not both of them—but on successfully capping our exposure. We have been kept out of the €440 billion European financial stabilisation facility, as well as what will be the permanent successor vehicle, the European stability mechanism, which, as mentioned, is due to come into existence in 2013.

That said, we would be wrong to kid ourselves that Britain can shield itself completely from the affairs of the eurozone, and I would suggest that Schadenfreude, in the Chamber or elsewhere, at the turmoil in the euro fringe might be short-sighted. First, our banks remain fragile. People who read the Financial Times will know that 14 British banks and building societies were this morning downgraded by Moody’s, and there were particularly negative outlooks for Barclays and HSBC. The UK banking sector’s exposure to the so-called PIIG economies—Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Greece—alone amounts to about £211 billion, which is the equivalent of about 4.7% of UK bank assets, according to Capital Economics. UK banks can ill afford fresh write-downs that would force them to raise expensive new funds at a difficult time in the capital markets, and a further leg-down in the eurozone financial crisis would certainly not help the Government in their laudable efforts, under Project Merlin, to push the banks to lend more and at reasonable terms to capital-starved businesses in the UK.

The second transmission channel of pain in the eurozone will come in the form of reduced lending to UK consumers and businesses by eurozone periphery banks located in the UK. Irish banks account for about 3% of household loans in the UK, and about 7% of corporate loans. Spanish banks play an even more important role. Through Santander, which owns Abbey, Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley, Spain accounts for 14% of household loans in the UK. If troubles at home force these eurozone banks to rein back their lending, especially overseas, credit conditions in the UK could clearly start to worsen again. We should think hard about that before expressing any Schadenfreude at what is happening on the continent.

Furthermore, distress will be felt at home through the trade channel. At a time when domestic sources of growth are under pressure and few and far between, the UK’s trade links with continental Europe are of pivotal importance. Although Spain and Portugal might be less significant as trading partners than Ireland, the PIIG economies together account for 14% of UK exports, compared with Germany’s 9% and the 16% of UK exports that go to Asia. A wave of defaults, or at the very least a considerable weakening of the euro, would not only hit demand in these countries, but damage UK export competitiveness—a linchpin of the Government’s economic strategy.

The Government are right to limit our financial exposure to future bail-out mechanisms, and need to be congratulated on having done so successfully, but it should go without saying that we still have much at stake in the success of these future bail-out mechanisms. We cannot wash our hands of them. The health of the UK banking system, the extent to which the UK economy is dependent on credit extended to UK companies by eurozone banks and the UK’s own need to earn a living from exports make it abundantly in the UK’s interests to wish our European partners every success in tackling the crisis through future eurozone-only arrangements. Anyone taking pleasure in the discomfort of our European partners might be in for a nasty surprise.

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified Her Royal Assent to the following Measures:

Care of Cathedrals Measure 2011

Ecclesiastical Fees (Amendment) Measure 2011

Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011.