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Public Expenditure: Reserve

Volume 727: debated on Monday 9 May 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the public expenditure reserve is adequate to meet any potential requirement.

My Lords, the contingency set aside in the Government’s public expenditure plans over the period 2011-12 to 2014-15 amounts to 0.6 per cent, 0.8 per cent, 0.9 per cent, and 1 per cent of each year’s total managed expenditure. The Government believe that this is a prudent level of contingency to hold against unforeseen costs during the 2010 spending review period, but it is not intended to cover all possible eventualities.

I thank the Minister for his Answer, but would not some flexibility be positively helpful? For example, if growth was not as good as we all hoped and unemployment continued to rise, could not additional funds for the contingency reserve be a sort of plan B? The Chancellor need not call it that but just do it, as it would be positively helpful. Indeed, that would help the deficit reduction by increasing growth and reducing unemployment.

No, my Lords, that would not be the right approach at all. The words of a distinguished former Chief Secretary to the Treasury in another place on 17 March 1977 got it absolutely right:

“It is no good drawing up elaborate spending plans without the determination and means of ensuring that the planned total”,


“is not exceeded. We have that determination … The contingency reserve regime is strict. We do not allow additional expenditure to count against the contingency reserve until we are fully satisfied that offsetting savings are not to be had”.—[Official Report, Commons, 17/3/77; col. 641.]

That is what the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, said in 1977, and he got it absolutely right.

My Lords, do not the comments of Standard & Poor in the US on the possible downgrading of American debt show the folly of building up too great a deficit, however tempting it might be to spend more money on things which we would all like to see?

Yes, indeed. As ever, my noble friend Lord Newby gets it absolutely right. Fiscal discipline is absolutely the watchword of this Government. I should say that the Armed Forces will get all the expenditure that they need in relation to net additional costs of military operations in Libya and elsewhere, but that is the exception to the rule.

My Lords, before answering my question, perhaps the noble Lord could tell the noble Lord, Lord Newby, what impact the threatened downgrading by Standard & Poor has had on the funding of US debt. I am sure that I could help the noble Lord by telling him that its impact was nil. Will the noble Lord tell us what criteria the Treasury uses to judge whether events merit using the reserve and, given those criteria, would an increase in unemployment of 100,000 or 250,000 fall within the rules?

My Lords, first, in relation to this discussion about borrowing costs, I am pleased to say that as of last week the UK’s 10-year borrowing costs, the benchmark for our gilts, hit practically the lowest that they have ever done, while the margin we pay in relation to the German bund has hit its best position since the general election. We absolutely must do these things to make sure that our interest rates remain low. As to how the reserve operates, I am happy to copy to the noble Lord the published rules that the Treasury uses. However, they are for consideration only in exceptional circumstances and would not be linked to the sorts of factors that he sets out.

My Lords, did the European bailout of the Greek Government deplete this reserve and would any extension of that process deplete it?

It is difficult not be cynical about any discussion of this subject. I spent the morning—I probably wasted it—looking at the history of what Governments say about their attitudes to contingencies. In all cases, they say exactly what the Minister has said, except for one thing. When the chips are down and they have what they call a crisis, which they are never short of, they spend all the money that they want to spend.

My Lords, I have been back and looked at the record and it is certainly the case that the previous Government went and topped up the reserve on at least 10 occasions. They increased borrowings when it looked as if expenditure was going to exceed their totals. This Government, when they set a total for managed expenditure, intend that it will not be exceeded.

Has my noble friend seen the number of recent articles about the Office for National Statistics and the conflict between the figures that it has produced for the output of the construction industry and the figures that that industry believes are correct? The difference appears to be 0.3 per cent of national growth. This is a severe and difficult area and therefore should not the Office for National Statistics resolve that issue once and for all before the next lot of statistics come out?

We are straying a bit from the subject of this Question but, as there do not seem to be many other noble Lords wanting to get in, I will say that I know how difficult it is for the ONS to produce these statistics. I am sure that it will continue to look at all ways of improving the way that it deals with the data. There was a one-off change to the way in which construction data were reported and the industry is questioning that. I am sure that the ONS is on the case.

My Lords, I am flattered that the Minister thought it necessary to research what I said 34 years ago when I was that much younger, but could he try to answer my supplementary Question this time?

I am hearing that people seemed to think that I gave quite a sufficient answer the first time around. The noble Lord got it absolutely right when he was Chief Secretary and that is what my right honourable friend the present Chief Secretary will be doing.