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Eurozone (Contingency Plans)

Volume 530: debated on Monday 20 June 2011

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister what are Her Majesty’s Treasury’s contingency plans in case of a Greek default.

Hon. Members will be aware of the recent developments in Greece. There has been considerable media speculation about what this means for the Greek adjustment programme and potential market reactions. I am not going to engage in speculation on what might or might not happen but give the House an account of the facts as they currently stand.

Let me begin with some background on Greece and the financial assistance package. The international financial assistance package for Greece was agreed in May 2010. The package is composed of two elements: a loan of €30 billion from the International Monetary Fund and €80 billion of bilateral loans from euro area member states to the Greek Government. Although they were created at a similar time, neither the European financial stabilisation mechanism, which is backed by the EU budget, nor the euro area-only European financial stability facility contributed to the package for Greece.

The adjustment package requires Greece to undertake significant actions. There are some very difficult questions that Greece has to address now, because the package assumed that it would be able to access market funding again in 2012, but this now looks unlikely in current market conditions. The House will also be aware of political developments in Greece; a new cabinet has been appointed and the Government will soon be subject to a vote of confidence in the Greek Parliament. Later this month, the Greek Parliament will also be voting on a medium-term fiscal strategy, which is a key element of the conditions attached to the current adjustment programme.

Against this backdrop, the euro area member states have been discussing the next steps. The Eurogroup, which comprises euro area member states, today released a statement calling on

“all political parties in Greece to support the programme’s main objectives and key policy measures to ensure a rigorous and expeditious implementation”.

The statement also said that Ministers will

“define by early July the main parameters of a clear new financing strategy”.

This is a statement from the euro area member states only. Let me be clear: the UK has not been involved in these discussions. We did not participate directly in the May 2010 package of support for Greece, and there has been no formal suggestion of UK bilateral loans or use of the EFSM, which is backed by the EU budget. The UK participated in the May 2010 package for Greece only through its membership of the IMF. So the burden of providing finance to Greece is shared between the IMF and euro area member states, and we fully expect this to continue. Our position on that is well understood across the euro area.

The UK believes that the international community needs a strong IMF as an anchor of global economic stability and prosperity. Over the past few years, we have seen how important that role can be in times of crisis, as the IMF has taken swift and decisive action to support the global economy.

There is, of course, no room for complacency. The Treasury, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority are monitoring the financial system, including in the euro area, on an ongoing basis. Many scenarios are considered as part of the normal policy development process. Hon. Members will agree that it would not be appropriate for me to discuss the detail of those scenarios. I also remind hon. Members that UK banks have little direct exposure to Greece.

The continuing uncertainty in the euro area is a reminder of the benefits of taking early action to stabilise and recapitalise the banks, as the UK has done. The UK banking system has developed a strong capital position, which has made it more resilient and will insure it against future risks. UK banks have made good progress in sourcing funding, despite the difficult market conditions.

The difficulties faced by eurozone countries such as Greece and Portugal reinforce why it is right to pursue the course that we set last year to tackle the deficit. The House should reflect that our deficit is larger than that of Portugal, but that our market rates are similar to those of Germany. The action we have taken to strengthen the country’s finances stands us in good stead during this period of instability in the eurozone. No one on either side of this House should lose sight of the importance of these decisions in protecting the UK economy.

It is absolutely true that there is no room for complacency, but there is also no room for selective blindness and deafness, which there clearly is on the Front Benches. We have yet another question on a bail-out to which Ministers say, “Of course, we cannot be specific and we will not indulge in speculation on events that may or may not happen.”

The United Kingdom will not be isolated if Greece defaults. Economists across the world are increasingly saying that it is a question not of if, but of when and are arguing that, for all intents and purposes, it has already happened. Another bail-out package will not solve Greece’s problems because it is not regaining competitiveness and cannot do so while it is in the eurozone. Therefore, is it not time that Her Majesty’s Government woke up and prepared for the possibility and almost inevitability of Greece defaulting? The situation will lead either to a Greek default or to the break-up of the eurozone. Whichever way it goes, we will not be isolated.

I will therefore ask the Minister some questions that go to the heart of the resilience that needs to be built up. The first is about institutional resilience. If he is really telling the House that people at the Treasury and the Bank of England have not started to get together to make practical provisions about who will meet, hold discussions and take action in the case of a default that would be comparable to Lehman Brothers, he is guilty of not stepping up to the responsibilities of his office.

Secondly, the Minister’s economic plans are completely predicated on the rest of Europe and the world being economically successful. If Greece defaults, other economies will not grow and ours will be affected. Therefore, should he not reconsider his VAT increase, because that would give us greater resilience?

The Minister shakes his head; I ask him to take me seriously.

Thirdly, I ask the Minister to consider article 66 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, which states:

“Where, in exceptional circumstances, movements of capital to or from third countries cause, or threaten to cause, serious difficulties for the operation of economic and monetary union, the Council”,

after consultation, can impose

“for a period not exceeding six months”

measures to restrict capital flows between the EU and the rest of the world. The UK would be affected by such restrictions of capital flows. Has he discussed that with the Commission? Has he made provision for how the UK economy would deal with that if it was imposed?

The hon. Lady poses a series of very good questions, to which I will respond.

The hon. Lady asked whether the authorities are working together. I said in response to her initial question that the Treasury, the Bank of England and the FSA are working closely on this matter and monitoring the situation. We are keen to ensure that the UK banking system is resilient. The additional capital that the banks hold now, compared with at the start of the crisis, will help with that. As I said, UK banks have not had difficulty in sourcing funding in the market. There is a concern about liquidity risk, but UK banks are continuing to source funding.

I mentioned in my statement the exposure of UK banks to the Greek Government. It is $4 billion, which is less than our exposure to, for example, the Irish banks. The hon. Lady should bear it in mind that French banks’ exposure is about four times that amount and that German banks’ exposure is about five times that amount. We are taking the matter seriously and considering it carefully, and the Chancellor is currently at the ECOFIN meeting in Luxembourg, where I am sure it will be discussed.

The hon. Lady talked about reversing the VAT increase. The shadow Chancellor proposed last week a cut in VAT that would cost £51 billion, which would put at risk our credibility in international markets. We have taken the difficult decisions to ensure that UK market rates are in line with those of Germany. The proposal that she put forward, and which her right hon. Friend put forward last week, would mean interest rates rising for families and businesses across this country, putting the recovery at risk. I do not think that is a gamble that we can afford to take.

Will the Minister concede that it is crystal clear that the Greek situation, like those of Ireland and Portugal, does affect us? Does he also accept that the idea that is being put forward in the European Union Bill of not having a referendum on treaties that relate to the eurozone would mean that, although we are affected by the situation, we would not be allowed to have a referendum on it? Will he ensure that when the Bill returns to the House of Commons, there are amendments to ensure that there is a referendum on this matter, which affects us, so that the British people can vote on it?

My hon. Friend makes a couple of points about our exposure to Greece and the Bill that is currently going through the House of Lords. As I said, the UK’s exposure to Greece is relatively small, with bank exposure at $4 billion. He will recognise that we have a big interest in ensuring the continued stability of the eurozone. That is why the treaty changes are being made—to put the European support mechanism for eurozone countries on a permanent footing and replace the EFSM, to which we have to contribute thanks to a decision taken by the previous Government, with a mechanism that is funded entirely by the euro area. We do not believe that there is a transfer of sovereignty from this Parliament to Brussels, so there is no need for a referendum on those treaty changes.

Will the Minister first check his figures? Figures in the Financial Times, citing Moody’s and Reuters, suggest that the exposure of British public and private sector banks to Greek debt is €13 billion, and that of Germany and France €34 billion and €53 billion. Those figures are much bigger than the ones that he gave.

Secondly, will the Minister not recognise that there is now a mood change in Europe? Der Spiegel, the German magazine, has had a cover story contemplating the end of the euro as we now know it, and Mr Charles Grant, the well known europhile, has done the same in The Times today. Instead of sheltering behind complacent language and weasel words that we should not speculate, the Government should recognise that this eurozone cannot last. It is the responsibility of the British Government to be open with the British people now about the alternative prospects. Since the euro in its current form is going to collapse, is it not better that that happens quickly rather than it dying a slow death?

May I just deal with the right hon. Gentleman’s factual questions? The figures about UK banks’ exposure to Greek sovereign debt were provided by the Bank of England, based on results at the end of quarter one this year.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s second question, I seem to remember that he was a member of a Government who seemed committed to taking this country into the euro. I do not know whether we have seen a damascene or deathbed conversion from the Labour party. I think it was right for this country to stay out of the euro, and that is the policy of this Government. We have a strong interest, though, in the continued stability of the eurozone, as it is our major trading partner. Continued instability in the eurozone could be a factor in holding back the recovery of the British economy.

Given that Greece needs a work-out rather than another bail-out, will the British Government go to the International Monetary Fund and the EU and say the following? First, a second bail-out would mean sending good money after bad and should not be done; secondly, we need an urgent conference of all the interested parties to reschedule and re-profile Greek debt in an orderly way to avoid huge systemic damage, while accepting that the problem has already occurred. Greece went bankrupt more than a year ago, but the Ministers of certain countries cannot believe it and are wasting taxpayers’ money on trying to pretend that it has not happened.

My right hon. Friend highlights the need for private sector involvement, and he will know that Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy agreed this weekend that there should be voluntary and private sector involvement in resolving the Greek debt. Some very strong accountability is attached to any future financial support for the Greek economy: a tough programme of privatisation, and structural reforms to improve its competitiveness. I emphasise to my right hon. Friend that although it is right that there should be private sector involvement, it is not in our interests for there to be huge turmoil in our largest trading partner, the European Union.

Clearly, it is vital and in all our interests that sustainable resolutions are agreed for Greek debt financing, but surely the Government must recognise that there needs to be a smarter approach than simply piling more and more austerity on Greece. What is the Financial Secretary’s response to those, including Boris Johnson, who said yesterday that

“austerity measures are making the economy worse”

in Greece?

Why does the Financial Secretary allow the EU to procrastinate continually and to kick a solution on the bail-out mechanism into the distance repeatedly? He says that the EFSM has not yet been used. The European Council meets at the end of this week. Will the Government ensure that they grasp the nettle this time, and make sure that a permanent eurozone-only bail-out mechanism comes into force as soon as possible rather than pushing it back again? Will he give assurances that the UK will attend any future meetings, which could involve the use of EFSM, even if they are eurozone Finance Minister meetings, because the UK’s empty-chair policy clearly is not working?

Given that the Financial Secretary tabled a little-noticed Commons motion last week to double the UK’s subscription to the IMF from £10.5 billion to £19.7 billion, was not the Foreign Secretary being disingenuous when he said on “Sky News” earlier that

“any such support for Greece is for the eurozone and for the IMF, not for the UK”?

Britain will end up paying more for the Greek bail-out via the IMF, so will the Financial Secretary come clean and say what he estimates our share of IMF bail-out costs will be for our taxpayers? Surely Ministers should pull their fingers out and ensure that the EU makes some final decisions on all that. Is not it about time that the Government showed some leadership?

The hon. Gentleman continues to amaze me with his remarks. He seems to forget the role that his Government played in setting up the EFSM. The Conservative party has delivered a commitment to ensure that it is replaced with a permanent mechanism—one matter that will be discussed at the European Council later this week.

It is clear that we do not want to be part of a bail-out of the Greek economy and that we do not want the EFSM to be used. The fact that we are outside the Eurogroup sends a clear signal that it does not expect us to participate in that bail-out. Of course, Madame Lagarde, the French Finance Minister, made it clear last month when she appeared on “Newsnight” that she thought that the resolution for Greece was a matter for the eurozone only.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the increase in the IMF commitment. Of course, the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), committed to doubling the resources available for the IMF at the April 2009 G20 summit in this country. I am surprised that hon. Members have such short memories of those matters.

As several EU members have said that the only long-term solution to the crisis in the eurozone is establishing a fiscal union, has the Chancellor made it clear to them that there is no possibility of Britain joining that? As a member of the IMF, we are already playing a role in trying to bail out the European Union from its folly with its single currency.

As ever, my hon. Friend, whom I congratulate on becoming a member of the Privy Council in the birthday honours list, speaks wise words. The Chancellor has been very clear that we do not wish to be part of a fiscal government for the European Union. That is why we have fought for the right package for economic governance, which safeguards the independence and sovereignty of this House when it comes to making fiscal decisions. My hon. Friend rightly reminds us why it was right never to join the euro.

Whatever happens in Greece this afternoon, and even if there is a fire sale of public assets to buy time, the fact is that the euro is moving inexorably towards its death throes. The realistic choice is between a controlled deconstruction of the euro and the restoration of national currencies, or a crash that would be catastrophic for everyone.

The hon. Gentleman once again reminds us how important stability in the eurozone is—the situation could have a significant impact on the UK economy, which is why it is important that the Greeks resolve their problems in conjunction with eurozone member states. However, let me make this quite clear again: we do not want to be part of that bail-out.

How does the Government’s disposition on these matters differ between the case of Greece and that of other strained but larger or more closely integrated economies, such as, say, Spain?

My hon. Friend will of course recollect that one reason why we made a bilateral loan to Ireland was the particularly close relationship between the UK and Irish economies. That relationship did not exist with Portugal, and it does not exist with Greece, so there is a different approach. It is important to remember that Greece was bailed out by eurozone countries, and that the bail-out of Greece should continue to be done by them.

Is not the danger of the Government’s deliberate attempts to steer as far away from any involvement whatever that the indirect, knock-on effect for British businesses and banks, and in the end for British taxpayers, will be far more significant than he is letting on? That is why many Opposition Members feel that he is being deeply complacent.

I do not think anyone is in a position to accuse this Government of being complacent. We are the Government who have taken action to tackle the fiscal deficit that we inherited from the Labour party. That has enabled the spreads between UK gilts and German bunds to narrow, reflecting market confidence in the measures that we are taking to sort out the problems in the British economy. The Labour party is failing to take its responsibilities seriously or to acknowledge the mistakes that it made when it was in government. It also fails to recognise the strength of support for the actions that this Government have taken to resolve the economic crisis in this country. Had we not taken that action, we might well have been in the firing line with Greece.

The eurozone was never an optimal currency zone. It is predicated on a treaty arrangement that calls it irrevocable and irreversible. We should never have accepted the hubris contained in those phrases, which brought about the passage of the Maastricht Bill and the current situation. This Government and this country should not be involved, and it would be helpful if we said what everyone in the press now says: this arrangement cannot survive in its current form. The hubris of those politicians who led the poor Greeks and all those who believed in this arrangement should be exposed as such.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we have seen during this crisis the strains within the eurozone mechanism. The actions that needed to be taken to resolve the consequences of those strains include the bail-outs of the Greek, Irish and Portuguese economies. It is absolutely right that we secured that opt-out to the Maastricht treaty, to ensure that this country did not have to be a member of the euro, a position that the previous Government seemed not to support.

The Minister, the Government and the House want stability, but quite frankly, Greece is bankrupt, and cannot restore its economy while it remains in the euro. Is not the answer to introducing stability an orderly return to the drachma? Should not that be the burden of the Government’s policy?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need stability in the eurozone, but I do not think that speculation here will help to deliver that stability to the Greek economy or the wider eurozone.

Most previous IMF rescue packages that I can think off have generally involved first a currency devaluation and secondly a debt default—or, should one prefer the term, a restructuring. Does the Minister agree that the IMF should be consistent with that approach in regard to Greece, and should not the IMF oversee a decoupling from the euro and a default on the debts, which would be consistent with its approach in other instances and rescue packages?

The IMF is the body best placed to decide the conditions to be attached to any rescue package that it puts forward. Strict conditionality is attached to the rescue package for Greece, including significant privatisations, tax collection reform and wider structural reforms. However, I think that this is a judgment for the IMF to make.

Does the Minister recall that when the Tories and Liberals were in opposition and sat over here on the Opposition Benches, the Tories wanted to see the collapse of the eurozone, but the Liberal Democrats thought the opposite and wanted to prop it up? Here we are today with a great opportunity to see the back-end of the euro, and I can only reach the conclusion, based upon his complacent answers, that the Lib Dems are running the coalition.

That was a flight of fancy by the hon. Gentleman. I would say to him and his hon. Friends that it was this Government who scrapped the euro preparation unit, which the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer set up in the Treasury.

It is only six weeks since £26 billion of European financial stabilisation mechanism funding was nodded through for Portugal. May I congratulate the Minister on the change we have seen in those six weeks, on his statement now that there is no question of any further EFSM funding, and in particular on what we read in the weekend press—that this is a red-line issue for the Treasury and that any further use of the EFSM is unacceptable? Long may it continue.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made it very clear in his discussions with the Finance Ministers of EU member states that we do not want the EFSM to be used in this bail-out—a statement that Madame Lagarde confirmed on British television only a few weeks ago. I welcome my hon. Friend’s congratulations.

The Minister is prudent not to join in the glee of the euro’s gravediggers, because if Greece defaults, it will not stop on the Acropolis—Portugal and Ireland will be next—and the nine out of 10 banks in the City that are European and foreign-owned will pay a terrible price. Rather than waiting for the eurozone to disintegrate into a set of competing currencies hiding behind capital-controlled walls—the notion that an open-trade Europe can exist in those conditions is nonsense—we should be very careful about where we are going. Boris Johnson said today that Greece was bankrupt. That is a signal to every Greek to get on his bike and seek work elsewhere. Is that really what we want—a new flood of economic migrants into Britain?

The right hon. Gentleman raises a series of points in his speech, but he makes a strong argument for why it is important that the eurozone is strong and stable. That has broad economic and social benefits. Clearly, if that is to happen, it is important for the Greek bail-out to work and be effective.

I am very concerned. The next debate is about trying to cut back on pensions and save taxpayers’ money, yet we are still planning to put through the IMF—a third party—taxpayers’ money that we are having to scrimp and save at home. My constituents will not stand for it. I am disappointed to hear the language of the Government at the moment, which seems to imply that Greece is an economy that is too big to fail. That is the same thing we had with the banks. We should put Greece out of its misery—it is flatlining—and no more of our public money should be sent abroad to Greece, even through the IMF. There are riots on its streets. Its people do not like the medicine being offered to it, and we cannot expect it to take any more. Let it depart peacefully from the euro. It cannot be sustained as it is; it is just good money after bad.

My hon. Friend will be aware that these are matters for the Greek Government, but I would say this. When money has been lent to the IMF, that does not reduce the amount of money available for public spending. We get interest on the balances that we lend to the IMF, and it has never defaulted on a programme yet. We need to recognise the importance of support provided through the IMF, although I do not really think that my hon. Friend is suggesting that we should withdraw from it. On fiscal consolidation, let me reiterate to my hon. Friends and to the Opposition, who have ignored this crucial fact, that if we had not taken the tough action that we took a year ago in our emergency Budget, it would be the UK, not Greece, in the firing line.

Nobody wants to see Greece default, but that is most certainly possible. Were it to happen, there would be an immediate shock to the eurozone and, more widely, to the EU, our largest trading partner. That would have an impact on the UK. I am glad that the Minister said that the situation was being monitored, but the House and the public deserve more detailed information. If he has not already done so, will he ensure that the Treasury asks the Office for Budget Responsibility to assess the impact on UK growth of a potential Greek default, and publish that assessment quickly, so that we can understand precisely what the consequences might be?

The OBR will take into account the state of the eurozone economy in its normal forecasting. However, let me be clear to the House that the Treasury, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority work closely to monitor the strength of the financial system, and the exposure of UK banks to the Greek Government and the wider eurozone economy. The actions taken to date have ensured that our banks are well capitalised, have strong balance sheets and are less exposed to the Greek economy than, say, French or German banks. British banks can still access funding in international markets, which is a sign of the UK banking system’s strength.

May I urge my hon. Friend to bear it in mind that the nearer we get to the inevitable break-up of the euro, the faster the denials will be made that it is not going to happen? Will he urge the European Union to design a policy that creates a legal framework for an orderly departure of Greece from the euro? Can he name a single reputable economist who believes that the Greek economy can recover without a devaluation?

We all recognise the challenges that the Greek economy faces as a consequence of high levels of debt. That is one reason why it has been proposed that the banks take part in a voluntary initiative to roll over their debt, to reduce some of the burden on the Greek economy.

In answer to one of his Back Benchers, the Minister said that if we put money into the IMF or the EU, that does not affect the rest of public spending. However, the rest of the world would recognise that if we spend money on one thing, that gives us less to spend on other things. Is that right or is it wrong?

If that is the hon. Gentleman’s view, he should talk to those on his Front Bench, who seem happy to propose £51 billion of unfunded tax cuts. Money that we lend to the IMF is money that is sitting on the Government’s balance sheet; it does not affect the spending decisions that we make. We are paid interest on the amounts lent to the IMF, which do not affect the amount of money that we can spend on pensions, schools or health, and I made the same point about how the EU funds the European financial stabilisation mechanism.

Like Greece, we, too, have an enormous national debt, which more than doubled over the last 13 years, to more than £1 trillion, with an interest bill of more than £40 billion this year. Does the Minister agree that had we not had a change in Government 13 months ago, we, too, could have been facing the same sad fate?

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. We can see from the reaction of the Labour party in opposition that it has not learnt at all from its mistakes in government. If we had not taken tough action, we would have seen high market rates of interest, which would have increased costs for families and businesses across the country. We are now seeing the benefits of the tough decisions that we took in last year’s emergency Budget.

Given that the tough, sado-monetarist programme imposed on the Greeks a year ago has not worked, how many more sado-monetarist programmes will work?

When the Greek Government agreed last year’s debt bail-out package, it was assumed that they would be able to re-enter the markets in the spring of next year. That is clearly not the case, given current market pressures, which is why the Greek Government had to seek a second round of refinancing. However, they still need to take action to improve Greece’s competitiveness, reduce the size of the state sector through further privatisation and improve taxation, to get the economy back on track.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing this urgent question, and I say gently to the Minister that it is a shame that he did not volunteer to make a statement on this matter first. What is Her Majesty’s view on whether the euro can survive in its current format?

I cannot speak for Her Majesty on this occasion, but I would say to my hon. Friend that we did not come forward with a statement today because no decisions have been taken. A statement was put out by the Eurogroup last night which recognised that work was in progress, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has continually sought to keep the House informed of the outcome of such discussions. Once ECOFIN has met today, there will be an opportunity for him to lay a statement on the outcome of that meeting.

Despite the European lenders having cut their exposure to risk in Greece by 30% in the past year, the risk of contagion in the eurozone has become the paramount concern. Will the Minister acknowledge that, with about $2 trillion exposure to Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain by lenders in the eurozone, any Greek default would have the potential to devastate the European banking system and jeopardise the economic recovery in the eurozone?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. In the event of a default, there would be consequences for the strength of bank balance sheets across Europe. That is why we are going through a stress-testing process across Europe at the moment to determine the consequences of various scenarios on the strength of bank balance sheets. UK banks have strengthened their balance sheets significantly and they hold high levels of capital. That will give them some insulation against the impact of a default.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s commitments on the non-IMF involvement of British funds in another bail-out for Greece. Does he accept that a country running a large balance of payments deficit can pay off foreign debts only if it is able to reverse that balance, and that to do that, it has to devalue? The man from Brussels cannot make water run uphill.

My hon. Friend has pointed to one way in which a country can regain competitiveness—through devaluation. There are other ways, including reducing labour costs and increasing productivity, and all those actions should be taken to ensure that the Greek economy and those elsewhere in the eurozone reach a much stronger position.

The impact on the British economy of events in the eurozone, and in Greece in particular, is potentially very significant. May I press the Minister further on what contingency plans the Treasury is putting in place to protect the UK’s financial and economic interests in the event of a Greek default or, worse still, a domino effect across the eurozone?

I will say this again, so that no one leaves the Chamber unaware of what is happening: as ever, discussions are taking place between the Bank of England, the Treasury and the FSA, and we are considering a number of scenarios and potential market events. I can say to the hon. Gentleman that British banks are better capitalised than they were at the start of the crisis, and because of the strength of their balance sheets, they are able to access funding in what can be quite difficult market conditions. That is a good sign of market confidence in the strength of the UK banking sector.

Madame Christine Lagarde is clearly an outstanding candidate to be head of the IMF, but is the Minister slightly concerned that she is French and, given that the French banks have a very large exposure to the Greek problems, that she might therefore be conflicted in her approach to the problem?

Madame Lagarde is a strong candidate for the role of director-general of the IMF. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that she is French; that fact has not escaped us in ECOFIN meetings. Madame Lagarde said on “Newsnight” a couple of weeks ago that she recognised that the bail-out of Greece involved a series of agreements between eurozone countries, and that that should remain the case.

The Minister has an extraordinary level of confidence—well, I think it is confidence—in the Greeks’ ability to repay the loans they are currently receiving. I just want to check with him: how much of the £19.7 billion UK contribution to the IMF forms part of the Greek bail-out and how long he is prepared to see us continue to make our contributions through the IMF?

I do not think the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should withdraw our membership of the IMF—[Interruption.] It is not clear from the question he is asking. Part of the condition of any bail-out of an economy by the IMF—whether it is a eurozone economy or another economy—is a debt sustainability plan, which is a rigorous part of the assessment process. As was clear in the Eurogroup statement last night, the IMF and the Eurogroup have signed off on Greece’s debt sustainability plan, so they expect that money to be paid back.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) questions the UK’s resilience in the event of a wave of eurozone defaults. Does the Minister agree that in the eyes of the markets, the UK has already become something of a safe haven, with UK 10-year borrowing rates and credit default swap rates falling last week while the comparable rates in other countries soared, precisely because the UK Government have a good deficit reduction plan, and a good plan for settling our banks and making them stronger—and they are sticking to it?

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on in his analysis. I believe that the 10-year gilt rates fell to 3.2% at the end of last week, which reflects the markets’ vote of confidence in the UK economy and particularly the fact that we took the difficult decisions that the Labour party shied away from when they were in government. We took those decisions, which is why the market rates are similar to those in Germany, yet our deficit is more in line with that of Portugal.

Can the Minister give an assessment of what effect a Greek default will have on the German and French economies, which are more exposed to such a default, and in turn on UK manufacturing?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that German and French banks have a greater exposure to the Greek sovereign debt than the UK banks do. The French exposure is, I think, four times that of the UK, while the German banking sector’s exposure is about five times ours. That is why it is important that, as we go through the process of stress testing European banks, we look very carefully at the level of capital that our banks hold to ensure that they are in a position to withstand shocks and thus to support and sustain the economy.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) attacks this Government’s VAT policy and, by implication, the deficit reduction policy. Does not what is happening in the eurozone absolutely serve as a timely reminder that we have to attack the deficit because that is how this country will maintain low interest rates?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was clear in the reaction to last week’s statement by the shadow Chancellor that everyone thought his plan lacked sense and would have undermined the recovery in this country by putting interest rates at risk and forcing up the interest costs of businesses and families. We have taken the tough decisions to get the economy right; the markets have demonstrated through the rates at which firms and businesses can borrow that they have confidence in our plans.

Order. May I remind remaining contributors that this is not a general debate on the British Government’s domestic economic policy?

I am not going to comment on whether the eurozone will remain intact. Clearly, this crisis demonstrates the huge strain that the eurozone is under. That is why it was right for us to stay out of the eurozone.

Does the Minister agree that one of Greece’s biggest problems is that its people, backed up by the unions, have not accepted the austerity measures going through? Is that not a timely warning to unions in this country, which are complaining about how we are trying to get the deficit under control, of the consequences unless proper and sensible action is taken?

My hon. Friend has made an important point. It is clear that difficult decisions must be made if our economy is to be put back on the right track, and the Government are demonstrating their commitment to making them. Interest rates are lower than they would have been if we had not made those tough decisions, which is good for families and good for businesses.