My Lords, National Savings & Investments reviews its product range on a regular basis in light of its role to provide cost-effective retail debt finance to government. In doing so, it follows a policy of balancing the interests of its savers, the taxpayer and the wider stability of the financial services market.
I thank the Minister for that—albeit disappointing—reply. National Savings is probably one of the most trusted financial services brands left in the United Kingdom. The Minister knows well that all its recent issues have been massively and very quickly oversubscribed. Are the Government not missing a huge opportunity to extend the reach of National Savings to help savers and pensioners whose incomes have been absolutely hammered in the past five years due to the combination of record low interest rates and the disastrous effects of quantitative easing on annuity levels?
My Lords, the Government are very well aware of the needs of savers. Those who have done the right thing in the good times should not be penalised in these difficult times and the Government understand that. Specifically on National Savings & Investments, as I said, it keeps its product range under regular review so, of course, it looks to see when it is appropriate to bring products back in. However, it has to balance the need to deliver finance to the Government at rates that represent value for money for the taxpayer and the need not to compete unfairly in the savings market by offering products that compete with other providers in the market. The noble Baroness may look askance at that but I assure her that I get constant complaints from the retail savings market if it thinks that NS&I is using its power unfairly in the market.
My Lords, will my noble friend accept my warmest congratulations on the announcement by the Chancellor today that he will consult on allowing AIM shares to be included in ISAs, following the persistent representations of my noble friend Lord Lee of Trafford?
I am very happy to accept what my noble friend has said. I have probably answered more questions on AIM shares and ISAs than on practically any other topic. It is also worth saying that it has been announced in today’s Statement that the ISA limit will go up in line with inflation in April 2013—so, by another £240, to £11,520—enabling 24 million people to continue to benefit.
My Lords, why is NS&I no longer issuing tax-free, index-linked savings certificates? They are an extraordinarily effective instrument for some who wish just to preserve the real value of their savings, free of greed. Thus, it seems to me a particularly meritorious and efficacious instrument. Why is it no longer issuing new issues?
My Lords, NS&I takes index-linked and fixed-interest savings certificates on and off sale. When they were last on offer, during 2011, demand reached completely unprecedented levels. It meant that the sales volumes far exceeded what was anticipated and what represented value for money in terms of the target that the Treasury set for NS&I.
My Lords, I nearly forgot my question. The Minister referred to looking askance at his answer. I must say that I associate myself with my noble friend. Is he not aware that a more positive response would have been to say, “Yes, it is an extremely good idea to improve the range of savings products out of fairness to small savers. It will raise the propensity to save and increase the flow of funds to the Treasury”. In the light of the most ludicrous Autumn Statement in living memory, I would have thought that the Treasury would like to have all the help that it can possibly get.
My Lords, I would like to challenge the Minister’s comments on NS&I. Funding for Lending is a taxpayer-driven programme which has created the collateral damage of allowing banks to cut the interest rate that they offer on savings products, and NS&I has had to follow by cutting its interest rates on savings products. At this time, when savers are under such pressure, could the Minister consider lifting the best-buy restriction so that NS&I could start leading the industry back into paying decent savings returns rather than following the industry on a downward spiral?
My Lords, this raises many complex issues. I would simply say that a critical part of NS&I’s remit is to raise money for the Government on value-for-money terms. Secondly, I can assure the House that the Government are certainly not going to get into, in any way, unfairly competing in the savings market, which needs to be a vibrant, fair and free competitive market.
My Lords, the Minister has now indicated the conflict through two answers. He has just said that the role of NS&I is to raise money for the Government, and we all know its excellent reputation—but he also said earlier that it is there to look after the interests of savers, who are consistently getting a rate of return below the rate of inflation. How can that be fair?
My Lords, what is fair is that the Government have very considerable concern about savers. I have mentioned the ISA annual limit going up by inflation in April; consulting on whether AIM shares should be eligible to be in ISAs; introducing simple financial products; setting up the Money Advice Service; having a generous new single-tier pension; and raising the cap today on pension draw-downs from 100% to 120%. The Government take the interests of savers very seriously.