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EU Referendum and the Bank of England

Volume 597: debated on Tuesday 16 June 2015

1. If he will make representations to the Bank of England on the publication prior to the EU referendum of its assessment of the effect on the UK economy of the UK leaving the EU. (900320)

Thanks to this Government, the British people will at last have their say on British membership of the European Union. The Bank of England is of course independent, and any questions about publication should be directed to it. The priority of the British Government is clear: the best outcome for the UK economy is that we achieve major economic reform of the European Union for the benefit of Britain and for the whole of Europe. That is why the Prime Minister and the rest of the Government are now fighting hard to achieve that, and we are confident we will succeed.

Airbus industries, Toyota vehicles and Vauxhall Motors—all serving my constituency, and employing thousands of people—have all said they believe that the future of the UK economy is in Europe. Would it not be useful for the Chancellor to put pressure on the Bank of England to produce any internal report, and indeed to publish any Treasury reports, so that we can see once and for all what exit from the European Union would mean for our UK economy?

I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that companies such as Airbus make a huge contribution to the economy not just of north Wales but of the whole United Kingdom, and we want them to succeed. That is why we want the European Union to be a place that attracts jobs and investment from around the world. We are seeking reforms because we do not think at the moment that the European Union is heading in the right direction. I welcome his participation in this debate, and I can assure him that the Treasury will participate in it as well.

The Bank of England may be operationally independent, but does the Chancellor agree that Parliament and the Treasury Committee are likely to see the Bank as having a duty to share its thinking, at least as far as it affects its statutory objectives of monetary and financial stability, on the impact of the UK’s membership of the EU?

I certainly do not presume to tell the yet-to-be-formed Treasury Committee how to go about its business, but I would be very surprised if it did not want to have sessions on this vital issue of Britain’s future membership of the European Union. It is of course within its power to ask the Bank’s Governor and indeed other members of the Bank of England to attend; they do attend regularly. It would be very surprising if the Bank of England was not engaged in these crucial economic and financial issues. That is part of its statutory responsibilities, and I think we would all be disappointed if it was not engaged.

Thirty-one per cent. of businesses surveyed by Ernst and Young have said that they will either freeze or cut investment until the result of the EU referendum is known. Does the Chancellor accept that that uncertainty will cripple our economy until this is sorted out once and for all? Does he accept that that is a reason for bringing forward the date of the referendum as fast as possible?

If the hon. Gentleman is worried about the effect of the EU referendum, why did he vote to have one? We have heard the argument over the past couple of years that the fact of having a referendum would put a dampener on investment. In fact, we have attracted the lion’s share of investment in the European Union since my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out our policy, and he has now won public support for that policy. Of course we now want to resolve the uncertainty, but the way to do that is to achieve a good deal in the European Union and put that deal to the British people at the referendum, and we will have the referendum when we have the deal.

Given that even the most fanatical supporters of our membership of the European Union now accept that we could trade freely with the EU even if we left, will the Chancellor set out for us exactly what we get for our £19 billion a year membership fee?

I certainly commend my hon. Friend for his consistency. I remember that in his maiden speech he made the case for Britain leaving the European Union, and he will of course have his opportunity in the referendum. I would say that this is precisely the judgment that the British people and this Parliament have to make: what are the economic benefits of our European Union membership, such as the single market, and what would be the alternative? That will be part of the lively debate, and as I say, the Treasury will be fully involved in that debate.

There have already been a number of serious interventions in this debate suggesting that the in/out referendum will be disruptive for inward investment. At the very least, businesses seeking to invest need the certainty of knowing what the Chancellor believes success will be in the Prime Minister’s negotiations. Will he tell the House today what he considers success in terms of the outcome of the Prime Minister’s negotiations?

There are, of course, a number of things that we want to achieve. Speaking as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I want to ensure that the European Union works for the citizens of the European Union and of the United Kingdom. That means that it must be a place where businesses want to grow, where jobs are created and that attracts investment from around the world. I do not want Europe to be the place that used to be the dynamic centre of the world, but is not any longer. That is what we are fighting for, and if we achieve it, it will be a success.

We all want to see a dynamic EU, but there were no specifics in that answer. Is it not the case that however bad the negotiations, the Chancellor will declare them a success, and however good the negotiations, the out-at-any-cost brigade will declare them an unmitigated disaster? Instead of pandering to the UKIP agenda, should the Government not pull the whole idea of this daft referendum?

I do not want to say this to the SNP spokesman, but I am not sure that he is speaking for Scotland, because 58% of Scots want a referendum and 63% of SNP supporters want a referendum. He needs to get in touch with his grassroots.

It is extremely important that the Bank of England report and, indeed, other Government reports and other organisations’ reports on this matter are published in the course of the next two years. However, does the Chancellor of the Exchequer not agree that it is vital that such documents, which may well affect the outcome of the referendum, are not published in the so-called purdah period of six to eight weeks before the referendum?

As was made clear by the Foreign Secretary in debate and by the Prime Minister from this Dispatch Box, there are serious issues to address about the current law on referendums, because we believe that it would make the debate on the European Union unworkable and inappropriate. We understand the concerns in all parts of the House about that, and we will come forward with reassurances that enable the proper business of government to continue and allow the Government to make the case for the outcome that is achieved and the vote that we recommend, but that ensure that there is not an unfair referendum and that the Government do not, for example, engage in mass communication with the electorate. Those matters will be discussed later today.

The debate and conduct during the referendum campaign must be, and must be seen to be, legitimate and well informed. He has failed to do so thus far this morning, but will the Chancellor make it clear that he agrees that, in the interests of transparency, the Bank of England should publish full details of its risk assessment, which is codenamed Project Bookend, its terms of reference, its personnel and its timetable? Will he add his voice to our call that any publication of the report must happen well in advance of the vote?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position as shadow Chief Secretary—long may she continue in it. It is not for me or even, dare I say it, her to tell an independent Bank of England what to do. I have no doubt that it will engage in the debate. Indeed, the Governor of the Bank of England has made it perfectly clear that it will do so. I have no doubt that the Treasury Committee, when it is formed, will want to ask the Bank of England questions about the European Union, because it is central to many of the Bank’s responsibilities. However, as I have said, we have an independent central Bank and I propose to keep it that way.

There is still no clear answer from the Chancellor and he has given no commitment to push for the transparency that the debate demands. He has a clear responsibility to ensure that the economic impacts are debated and fully understood. I know that he has his mind on other things these days, like moving next door to No. 10, but if he will do nothing further on Project Bookend, will he at least step up and lead the debate by agreeing to commission and publish reports by the Treasury and the Office for Budget Responsibility on the economic impact of the UK leaving the EU?

As I have said repeatedly, we are certainly going to take part in the debate. I am sure that the Treasury will publish assessments of the merits of membership and the risks of a lack of reform in the European Union, including the damage that that could do to Britain’s interests. For example, in my Mansion House speech, I talked about the risks for Britain as a non-euro member as the eurozone continues to integrate and about how that needs to be addressed as part of the negotiations. We will take part in the debate. The more that we get on to the big issues that are at stake, rather than focusing on the process details, the better informed the public will be.