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Household Debt

Volume 619: debated on Tuesday 17 January 2017

9. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of high levels of household debt on the economy. (908208)

Households’ financial positions have improved. Household debt has fallen from 160% of household income in quarter 1 2008 to 144% in Q3 2016. UK households have undertaken the second-largest amount of deleveraging in the G7. However, we should be alert to signs of a recent reduction in the level of household savings. The savings ratio is now—in Q3 2016—at 5.6%, which is down from 6.6% in Q3 2015.

Notwithstanding that, household debt is very high, and housing costs are a big proportion of households’ expenditure. Has the Chancellor made an assessment of the impact of an interest rate increase on growth, given that that growth is driven by consumer spending?

Yes. The Bank of England makes regular assessments of the impact of changes in interest rates—that is a central part of the modelling work that it does. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that one of the drivers of the relatively high household debt levels in this country is our housing model, with relatively high percentages of home ownership.

The Governor of the Bank of England has identified that two of the most serious challenges to the economy today are levels of household debt and the falling pound. Both of those are made worse by the widespread belief among the general public that interest rates are not going to go up. What more can the Government and the Governor of the Bank of England do to signal to the public that interest rates will rise, and not fall, in the near future?

That is not a matter for the Government, because, as my hon. Friend knows very well, interest rates are a matter for the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, and it is up to the Governor and individual members of the Monetary Policy Committee to signal as they see fit.

TUC analysis published last week showed that unsecured household debt is at a record high. Even the Bank of England voiced concern yesterday that the UK was relying on consumer spending rather than exports and investment to boost growth, which bodes poorly for the future. Does the Chancellor acknowledge that such high levels of household debt are indicative of the fact that the Government’s economic strategy simply is not working, especially for most families who are now struggling to get by on their incomes alone?

No, I do not accept that at all. What I do accept is that the extraordinary performance of the UK economy over the last six months, which has defied many predictions, has been largely driven by consumer behaviour. As I just set out in my response to the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), the savings ratio has declined, so consumers are feeling confident, and they have been spending money rather than saving it over the last six months.

I invite the Chancellor to meet struggling families in my constituency and, indeed, across the rest of Britain. Even the Office for National Statistics reported on 10 January that non-retired households have less money on average than before the economic crash. Chronic low pay, lack of opportunity and Government cuts to support mean that they are desperately trying to find ways to make ends meet on a monthly basis using debt. Will the Chancellor therefore confirm what protection he will offer these families should inflation rise significantly as a result of the pound’s weakness since Brexit and, indeed, in the light of the Bank of England’s suggestion yesterday that interest rates could go up?

The hon. Lady is right, of course, that the declining value of sterling will have an impact on inflation, and we have to take that into account as it feeds through the economy. The OBR signalled in its autumn statement report how it expects that to occur. At the time of the Budget on 8 March, we will get new reports from the OBR in the light of currency movements since the autumn statement, and I will report to the House again then.