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Volume 723: debated on Tuesday 7 December 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their definition of “bankruptcy”, as the term was used by Lord Sassoon on 1 November (HL Deb, col. 1552).

My Lords, public sector net borrowing in 2009-10 was £156 billion or 11.1 per cent of GDP—the highest level in UK post-war history. The Government were borrowing £1 for every £4 they spent. That was the brink of bankruptcy.

My Lords, I should declare a professional interest; perhaps I should also declare that I have had free tuition in economics from my noble friend Professor Lord Peston.

Despite the Minister’s Answer, does he not agree that on any definition this country never has been, and is not, anywhere near bankrupt? The plain fact is—and the ONS confirms this—that the net asset position of this country at the end of last year, just before the noble Lord took office, was £6.7 trillion. On top of that, there is no problem in paying debts, because the average length of debt repayment is 14.2 years. We recently lost the services of a distinguished noble Lord in this House. I would not like to see another one go so soon from the Prime Minister’s service. Will the Minister withdraw the word “bankrupt” and apologise to the House for using it?

My Lords, I know that the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, is a man who likes precision, so I thought that I would do a little research and see how he has used the term “bankrupt” in this and another place. The first time that the noble Lord used that word in another place was very interesting. It was on 8 April 1965 in the Budget debate. The then Member for Heywood and Royton was defending the then Labour Government’s cuts to our Armed Forces east of Suez. He asked:

“Have we discussed this with our Commonwealth friends in the area and told them … that … it would not help them or us if we bankrupted ourselves by having a force in the area of a size which we could not afford?”.—[Official Report, Commons 8/4/1965; col. 737.]

That was in 1965 when public sector net borrowing was 1.6 per cent of GDP. On that basis, does the noble Lord think that I was a little moderate in my language when I talked about the brink of bankruptcy?

My Lords, as the Minister does not, under any circumstances, believe in answering questions put to him, can I ask him whether he has looked at the latest report of the Office for Budget Responsibility, whose forecasts for the next five years—which is how long this Government are insisting that they are going to stay—state that the balance of payments will be in deficit for every one of those five years? That means that our net assets will decline overseas by the amount we have to borrow to finance that deficit. What a nerve the Minister has to talk about bankruptcy in connection with the previous Government, when the balance of payments forecasts show that if anyone is making us head for bankruptcy—although I do not actually believe that we are—it is the present Government?

My Lords, when the Government came into office, we had been put on negative credit watch by one of the main rating agencies, unprecedented for the UK, and were paying interest of £120 million a day. The first or second largest holder of bonds in the world had talked of the UK as a “must to avoid” and described the UK’s gilts as,

“resting on a bed of nitroglycerine”.

The Government have restored confidence in our public finances by setting out a clear plan to restore the budget to balance and that is what enables us to borrow what we need to borrow on the international markets on reasonable terms.

Has my noble friend had a chance to read the statement from the shadow Chancellor in which he said that the problem for the Labour Party was that it had built up a reputation for 13 years of overspending and debt? Is that not near-bankruptcy?

I completely agree with my noble friend. That is indeed it. I was looking at the Oxford English Dictionary this morning and I saw that one definition of “bankrupt” is,

“one who has brought himself into debt by reckless expenditure or riotous living”.

I would not presume to accuse the previous Government of riotous living.

Well, his latest definition would indicate that every mortgage holder in Britain was bankrupt because they have substantial debts. The issue is whether these debts can be managed. He must draw a distinction between the situation of Ireland at the present time, or of Greece in recent times, and that of the United Kingdom, where, as has been indicated, our debt repayment is over a 14-year period.

My Lords, leaving aside the fact that the mortgage payers of this country would be somewhat upset to be thought of as having brought it upon themselves by reckless expenditure, the point is, as the IMF succinctly put it in its report of 27 September 2010:

“The consolidation plan and implementation of early measures to tackle the deficit—one of the highest in the world in 2010—greatly reduces the risk of a costly loss of confidence in fiscal sustainability and will help rebalance the economy”.

That was what the IMF had to say.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, if we had not taken action so quickly, we would have been a further £100 billion in debt by 2015?

Indeed. I am grateful to my noble friend and I think that points out how close to bankruptcy we were.