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Financial Assistance (Ireland)

Volume 519: debated on Monday 22 November 2010

With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement regarding financial assistance for Ireland.

I hope Members will understand that an announcement had to be made at the weekend, ahead of markets opening this morning. Last night, I spoke to the Chair of the Treasury Committee and the shadow Chancellor to keep them informed of the latest developments.

The United Kingdom, alongside the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, the eurozone and other member states, is participating in the international financial assistance package for Ireland announced last night. We are doing this because it is overwhelmingly in Britain’s national interest that we have a stable Irish economy and banking system.

The current Irish situation has become unsustainable. Its sovereign debt markets had effectively closed and had little prospect of reopening. While Britain’s market interest rates had fallen over the past six months, Ireland’s had risen to record levels, and Ireland’s banks had become completely reliant on central bank funding to maintain their operations. In the judgment of the Irish Government, as well as of the IMF and others, this situation could not go on.

Members will understand that it would not have been appropriate for us in recent weeks to have engaged in public speculation about whether Ireland should request assistance from the international community, but I can now report that we have been engaged in intensive private discussions with the G7, the IMF, the EU and the Irish Government on plans for the eventuality that Ireland would request support. At the G20 meeting in South Korea two weeks ago, I was one of the European Finance Ministers who issued a joint statement that provided a brief respite. At the ECOFIN meeting last Wednesday, my colleagues and I discussed the Irish situation with Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, with whom I have also kept in touch directly. Following meetings in Brussels, the Irish Government committed to engage in a short and focused consultation with the IMF and the EU. On Thursday a joint mission arrived in Dublin, and in the last few days I engaged with my counterparts in the G7, the euro area and the EU about the way forward.

Following intense work over the weekend between the Irish and international authorities, last night Ireland’s Prime Minister, Brian Cowen, made a formal request for assistance. This was followed by statements from the G7, the IMF, the Eurogroup and European Finance Ministers that they would

“provide the necessary financial resources for Ireland to implement its fiscal reform plans and stabilise its banking system.”

The statements made it clear that there were two components to the rescue package. The first puts beyond doubt Ireland’s ability to fund itself. The international assistance package will support an ambitious four-year fiscal strategy which the Irish government will set out later this week. This will see a fiscal consolidation of €15 billion by 2014, of which €6 billion will be implemented next year, as part of a strategy leading to a target budget deficit of 3% of GDP in four years’ time. The second part of the assistance package is a fund for potential future capital needs of the banking sector. This will support measures to promote deleveraging and ensure restructuring of Ireland’s banks, so that its banking system can perform its role in supporting the economy.

Let me turn to how the package will be financed. This is a joint programme, with funding from both the IMF and the EU. The amount of money involved will, in part, depend on the IMF’s analysis of what is needed, and Prime Minister Cowen has said that he expects it to be less than €100 billion. The international community is working on the rough assumption that the IMF will contribute about one third of the total. The total European package will provide the other two thirds. Based on the significant reform of the IMF agreed by G20 Finance Ministers last month, the IMF is well placed to play a leading role in this international effort. The UK, of course, is an important shareholder of the IMF and we will meet these multilateral obligations. I would like to reassure the House that the IMF is currently well resourced and able to meet the cost of the package for Ireland.

The European element of this package will primarily come from two sources of funding agreed in May before this Government came into office: the €60 billion European financial stabilisation mechanism; and the €440 billion European financial stability facility. The balance between the European mechanism and the eurozone facility will be determined in the coming days. The United Kingdom is not a member of the euro, and will not be a member of the euro while we are in government, and so we will not participate in the eurozone stability fund. To be fair to my predecessor, he kept us out of that fund, but he did agree to the UK’s involvement in the European mechanism two days before we took office. I made it clear at the time that I did not believe he should make that commitment. However, it operates according to qualified majority voting and so we cannot stop it being used, and to exercise that vote at this time would, I judge, be very disruptive. So the EU will lend money to Ireland on behalf of all 27 member states, and the UK must accept its share of this contingent liability, which would arise in the unlikely scenario that Ireland should default on its obligations to the EU.

On top of this, I have agreed that the UK should consider offering a bilateral loan to Ireland, as part of the IMF and European package. I judge this to be in Britain’s national interest. Let me explain why. We have strong economic relations with Ireland. Ireland accounts for 5% of Britain’s total exports—indeed, we export more to Ireland than to Brazil, Russia, India and China put together. Ireland is the only country with which we share a land border, and in Northern Ireland our economies are particularly linked, with two fifths of its exports going to the Republic.

Just as our two economies are connected, our two banking sectors are also interconnected. I should stress that the resilience of our own banks, which are now well capitalised, means that they are well placed to manage any impact from the situation in Ireland. But two of the four largest high street banks operating in Northern Ireland are Irish-owned, accounting for almost a quarter of personal accounts. The Irish banks have an important presence in the UK. What is more, two Irish banks are actual issuers of sterling notes in Northern Ireland. It is clearly in Britain’s interest that we have a growing Irish economy and a stable Irish banking system. By considering a bilateral loan, we are recognising these deep connections between our two countries and, crucially, it has helped us to be at the centre of the discussions that have shaped the conditions of an international assistance package that is of huge importance to our economy. Of course, this is a loan and we can expect to be repaid. In fact, Sweden has already deemed it to be in its national interest to consider a bilateral loan to Ireland.

Now that the Irish Government have requested assistance, a lot of the detailed work of putting together the package can take place. I understand that Members are keen to hear the specifics, such as the rate of interest on the loans, the repayment periods and the contribution from each of the various elements of the package. I shall keep the House informed.

Later this week, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will be in Northern Ireland to discuss the situation there. I will ensure there is a specific discussion in the House if there is a bilateral loan, and we will need to take primary powers.

Finally, let me say something about the future of the various European support funds, which are being discussed later this year. Both the Prime Minister and I are very clear that when it comes to putting in place a permanent eurozone bail-out mechanism, the UK will not be part of that.

This is a situation of great difficulty for Ireland and it is a tragedy when it did so much to improve its competitiveness with low taxes and flexible labour markets, but the truth is that it had a hugely leveraged banking sector that was badly regulated—a pattern that we have had to deal with in our own country. In addition, because Ireland is a member of the euro, exchange rate flexibility and independent monetary policy were not tools available to it when the crisis took hold. The arguments against Britain joining the euro are well rehearsed, not least by me, but although “I told you so” might be correct, it does not amount to an economic policy.

When the coalition Government came into office, Britain was in the financial danger zone. We have taken action to put our house in order. We were once seen as part of the problem, but we are now part of the solution. Ireland is a friend in need and it is in our national interests that we should be prepared to help at this difficult time. I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Chancellor for advance notice of his statement and for keeping me informed about developments over the weekend.

The Opposition agree with the Chancellor’s basic argument that Ireland is a friend in need and that Britain should not simply ignore the plight of one of our biggest trading partners because it is in the eurozone and we are not. So we are in principle content to support a role for the UK in assisting Ireland to secure economic stability.

The Chancellor talked about the resilience of our banks, and the question that many people will be asking today is why he thought it was wrong for the previous Government to support British banks but right for his Government to support Ireland’s banks. On the crucial question of ensuring that Britain’s contribution is fair and balanced, will he first explain how our relative share of the burden will be calculated and what his definition of “fair” will be?

Secondly, will the Chancellor give his expectation of the proportion of UK support that will go through each European route—the European financial stability facility, the stabilisation mechanism and the bilateral arrangements—and the rationale for that distribution? He said that he disagreed with the agreement that my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) made in May to enter the European stabilisation mechanism, yet the Chancellor is seeking to provide bilateral support. Why does he need to provide bilateral support when the other routes are available? Will he also tell the House how, when and where each element will appear in Government accounts?

Thirdly, what interest rate is to be charged on our loans, what form will it take and when does the Chancellor expect to receive full repayment? I understand the issues he mentioned about not being able to tell us now, but if he cannot give us any indication, when and how will that information be reported to the House?

Fourthly, what conditions will the Chancellor seek to apply, and is he preparing this proposal unilaterally or in conjunction with our European partners? Will there be any attempt to interfere with Ireland’s right to set its own tax rates? Will the Chancellor tell us to what degree he believes the difficulties are a consequence of Ireland’s adoption of the euro? What does he think this will mean for the future of the single currency? When his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was asked if he thought the euro would survive, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Who knows?” That strikes me as being at the least undiplomatic and at most unworthy of the great office he holds. It could even be said to be making “I told you so” into an economic policy. How would the Chancellor answer the question about whether the euro will survive?

Finally, it is clear that Ireland’s efforts to cut its deficit so deeply and quickly have failed to lead to growth in the economy. The private sector has not taken up the slack caused by the huge cuts to public services, so will the Chancellor agree that growth is crucial to Ireland, Europe and, indeed, to the UK’s full recovery and tell us what steps he is taking to encourage growth as part of this package? In 2006, he said that we should “Look and learn from across the Irish Sea”. In a eulogy of the deregulation of the financial services sector, he asked:

“What has caused this Irish miracle, and how can we in Britain emulate it?”

Now he needs to assure us that he has learned other lessons from across the Irish sea. The last time he made a statement from that Dispatch Box, he said that Britain was on “the brink of bankruptcy”, but that was clearly not the case. Now he is proposing to make a substantial contribution to a country that really is on the brink. One lesson from Ireland should be salutary: exaggerated rhetoric affects confidence and loss of confidence can lead to economic disaster.

I certainly agree with that last statement. First, I welcome the support in principle that the Opposition have given to this decision and I well understand that the shadow Chancellor, like everyone else in the House, will want to see the specific terms and conditions. The IMF-EU team hope to conclude those in the next couple of weeks and then, of course, I will bring those details to the House.

On burden sharing between the different European channels, we will make no contribution through the stability facility—the eurozone facility. In relation to the mechanism—money lent off the back of the EU—if Ireland were, in an extraordinary situation, to default on that then we, as one of the 27 members of the European Union, would have a contingent liability. That is how the mechanism operates. On the terms of the bilateral loan, we have not yet set a figure on that, but it will be in the billions, not the tens of billions. On that, too, I will come to the House when I have a specific figure. As I have said, we will be required to take primary powers to make that bilateral loan and I would hope to have Members’ support in doing that.

The shadow Chancellor mentioned the mechanism. In the period between the general election and the creation of this Government, to be fair, as I said in the statement, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer made it clear that he did not want the UK to be part of the eurozone facility, but he did agree to the use of the mechanism. It is based on article 122, the original intention of which was to provide support to eurozone members in dealing with natural disasters. At that time, I said that I did not think that we should be committing to that, but that debate was had in May. The mechanism exists and, frankly, for the UK to say now that we will vote against its use would, as I have said, be very disruptive.

The question of the accounts is for the Office for National Statistics and the Office for Budget Responsibility. My understanding is that the loan will of course add to borrowing but that we will get an asset in return—an Irish commitment to pay back the loan—and that it will not add to the deficit.

On the conditions attached to the loan, I would expect them to be part of the international package agreed with the IMF and European Union contributions, so I would not expect radically different conditions for the UK.

I think it is well known that corporation tax has been the subject of discussion in some European Union capitals, but not here—we believe that countries should be free to set their own tax rates. The Irish Government have to make some very difficult decisions about their fiscal package over the next four years, and how that package is composed should be a decision for them—provided, of course, that the international community is satisfied that it is credible, and I am absolutely sure that we will be satisfied.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked two questions, one about the future of the euro and so on. As I have said, we made lots of arguments about not joining the euro 10 years ago and I do not—[Interruption.] I cannot remember what the Opposition’s official policy is, but it probably does not bear consideration. I would just make the point that I am dealing with the situation as I find it today. We can debate the merits of the euro at another time; I have to deal with the Irish situation.

On the deficit and Ireland’s decisions, I have to say that in all the discussions I have been involved in during recent weeks, not a single person around the international tables has suggested that Ireland should be doing less to address its fiscal situation. I would have thought that the current economic environment in the world would surely remind everyone of the risks run by countries with very high budget deficits and no credible plan to deal with them. Unfortunately, we inherited a higher budget deficit than Ireland’s, so I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and the Leader of the Opposition, in this big rethink they are having, will re-evaluate their opposition to a fiscal plan that has taken Britain out of the financial danger zone, which means that we are not one of the countries speculated about at the moment. I hear today that the Leader of the Opposition says that their economic policy is a blank sheet of paper. Quite frankly, I do not think that it would be much use taking that into an international negotiation.

Order. There is enormous interest but some pressure on time, so brevity from Back Benchers and Front Benchers alike is vital.

I think that the public were shocked to discover that the UK was going to be bailing out a eurozone member, not just through the IMF or bilateral loans, but through the European stabilisation mechanism—that is, through the EU budget. Will the Chancellor reassure the House that he will seek to block British participation in any replenishment of the €60 billion mechanism?

Let me first say that it is our intention not to be part of the permanent eurozone bail-out mechanism, which of course is the subject of discussion, not least at the December Council. It would be our intention that that mechanism should return to what it was designed for in article 122, which is dealing with natural disasters. There has been a balance of payments support mechanism in the European Union for many years to deal with the accession of the central and eastern European countries. Both that mechanism and that balance of payments support drew from the same €60 billion, and we would certainly not be in favour of somehow replenishing it to make good the amount of money that, potentially, will be committed to Ireland.

Order. I should also mention that Members who were not here at the start of the Chancellor’s statement should not expect to be called. That is what I said in respect of the previous statement and that is our usual practice, to which I think we should adhere.

I agree with the Chancellor that it is in our country’s interests to do everything we can to help Ireland through its present difficulties. Although he and I agree that I was right to keep us out of the eurozone support fund, some money coming from Europe is partly subscribed by us and also the IMF—but does that not demonstrate that it is in our interests? The fact that he is also willing to make bilateral loans available to Ireland demonstrates that it is our interests to sort out the problems in Ireland. Although he does not have the details, can he tell us how much of that money from us and from other sources will be used to restructure and recapitalise the Irish banks, which is absolutely necessary in Ireland and also, I suspect, in a number of other countries in Europe?

I very much welcome what the right hon. Gentleman has said, and of course I agree that it is in our national interests, and indeed the interests of other European Union member states, that we bring some stability to Ireland. He is right, as his question implies, to focus on the banking system. The situation in Ireland is different from the situation that Greece found itself in earlier this year, with which he had to deal when he was Chancellor.

On the question of the breakdown between the amount of money going to the banking system and the amount going to fund the sovereign, I am afraid that I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman the exact figures, because they are still being negotiated, but I would say that most of the money will be used to take the sovereign out of the market for a period, and a substantial minority of the amount will be required for a fund to help the Irish banking system.

Given that the very large loan to Greece on 2 May did not stop the rolling euro crisis despite the promises from many of the participants at the time, will the Chancellor assure the House that Britain does not stand ready to lend more money to other eurozone members in the event that the Irish loan package does not mark the end of the crisis either?

I was very clear that the bilateral loan was given because of the very specific economic relationship between the UK and Ireland, the interconnectedness of our banking systems, the fact that we share a land border, and the importance of the Irish banks in Northern Ireland. Those specific reasons led me to believe that it was right to provide a bilateral loan in these circumstances.

I wonder whether the Chancellor would help me with a conundrum that the people of Sheffield will no doubt be mulling over tonight. Why, in raising the money for the bilateral loan for the Irish Republic, would it not be possible to help another friend in need by adding a simple £100 million to the loan and helping Sheffield Forgemasters, which after all will repay the loan, just as the Irish will?

What I am proposing is a bilateral loan to another sovereign nation as part of an international package. Of course, I am doing it to provide stability for the entire UK economy, including the economy of Sheffield. I believe the steps that we have taken in the past six months to move this country, with the highest budget deficit in the G20, out of the financial danger zone provides the platform for economic growth, as it does for the rest of the UK.

Does the Chancellor realise that our constituents were very angry indeed at having to bail out mismanaged British banks, and will be even angrier at having to bail out even more irresponsibly managed Irish banks? Will he not have to give a clearer picture of some of the consequences for the British economy if such action is not taken?

I make two observations. The first is that this is a loan to a sovereign nation state and, barring a really extraordinary turn of events, we would expect Ireland to pay us back. So we are making a loan to another sovereign nation that we fully expect to be paid back. The long history of international packages shows that the IMF and others get their money back in almost all circumstances. This is a loan that we can afford to make and which we will get back. Secondly, there is a broader observation about banking systems in Ireland, the UK and elsewhere. They became vastly over-leveraged and vastly over-borrowed and they were very badly regulated. The assurance that I can give my constituents and those of the right hon. Gentleman is that we are sorting out the regulation of the UK banks. We hope that the Irish Government are now dealing with the situation of the Irish banks. They were interconnected with the UK and made a lot of loans in the UK, and it is in the interests of us all that we sort out the Irish banks as well.

I recognise the reasons why the Chancellor has had to provide the loan to the Irish Republic, and he has recognised the potential impact of that on the Northern Ireland economy and on business in Northern Ireland. Will he support the Northern Ireland Executive in reducing the level of corporation tax there to the same level as exists at present in the Irish Republic?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the support that he has given to the action that we have decided to take today. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary is pursuing with vigour the subject of Northern Ireland’s economic environment and business environment, the corporation tax rate and so on, and we are coming forward with plans to stimulate the Northern Ireland economy. Specifically, the Northern Ireland Secretary and my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will be in Northern Ireland later this week to talk principally about what is going on this week, but I am sure they can have discussions about broader issues as well.

As much as I am uncomfortable with the fact that we are bailing out a eurozone country, I have to concur that it is overwhelmingly in our national interest to do so. After 13 years on the sidelines, it is nice to see us playing a central part in negotiations that affect eurozone countries and the IMF. Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that the UK will commit resources to Ireland only if we are confident that Ireland is able to grow its way out of trouble and pay our money back?

Will the Chancellor be a little more clear about whether he is ruling out providing financial support in future to Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy or any other country in the eurozone? Yes or no?

It would not be particularly responsible of me to speculate on any other country at this time. Let me put it as clearly as I can: there are very specific connections between the UK and Ireland, which we do not have with other countries, and I think that is why it is completely appropriate that we make a bilateral loan in this case.

Does the Chancellor agree that, when we end up having to lend very large sums of money to other countries, the Government should always be able to do so at their discretion, in a way that is accountable to this House and not at the mercy of being outvoted by other European countries?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. As I say, a bilateral loan will be debated in this House and require the Government to take primary powers, so it is within the control of all Members, and we are accountable to the taxpayers of Britain for that. I have explained the situation, so I will not go over it again, but we are part of the European mechanism, which involves a qualified majority vote, and even if we had exercised a no vote we would have been completely outvoted. That is why I want to see that the UK is not part of the permanent bail-out mechanism, which will be discussed at the December Council.

We are contributing to the IMF deal and to the stability mechanism deal. Is the £7 billion additional to that, or is it broken up between those two with a topping-up sum?

I am not going to give a specific figure today, because it simply has not been agreed as part of the overall package with the Irish. In these situations, it is perfectly normal for the sovereign Government, in this case the Irish, to invite the IMF and the EU in and to ask for their help, and for that to be negotiated over the following week or two. Of course, we will be part of that, but as I say, I expect the UK’s support to be in the billions, not the tens of billions.

If it requires a treaty change to create a new permanent bail-out mechanism, will the UK Government be prepared to use their veto?

We have made it clear that we would accept a treaty change—of the kind that, for example, Germany is talking about—only if it created a eurozone bail-out mechanism that we were not part of, and of course a treaty change requires unanimity.

Will the Chancellor confirm that the UK is Ireland’s largest creditor, being owed about £100 billion or 7% of our GDP? It is understandable that we would want to be in there and protecting our investment. During his speech, he mentioned that we were at the centre of discussions to shape the conditions of the agreement, but does he intend those conditions to include a further retrenchment of the Irish economy, or, like Opposition Members, will he go for growth in order to help the Irish economy get back on its feet?

The plans to deal with Ireland’s budget deficit are a very important part of the Irish Government’s approach, but they are also part of the international package. The further fiscal tightening was specifically referred to in the statement issued by Finance Ministers yesterday. That will mean that Ireland has a budget deficit of less than 3% by 2014. If we had not taken the action that this Government have taken to accelerate the proposals we inherited, we would have been the only European country in that year with a budget deficit of more than 3%.

We might be outside the euro as a currency union, but does the small print of the Lisbon treaty not in effect make us, as we are discovering, members of the euro as a debt union? Notwithstanding protocol 15, article 122 of the Lisbon treaty means that we pay. Will not that mean enormous non-discretionary liabilities as and when other eurozone countries seek similar bail-outs?

As I said in reply to earlier questions, we entered into certain commitments about the mechanism that I did not support at the time; I have made that clear. I was an opponent of the Lisbon treaty, as were many hon. Members. However, I have to deal with the world as I find it today, and that is a world in which Ireland’s economic situation is unsustainable. One of the reasons for choosing to offer a bilateral loan is precisely so that this Parliament, including my hon. Friend, can have a view and a vote on it, and we can account for that to our constituents.

I thank the Chancellor for his statement and the proposed assistance. Will the Treasury carry out an in-depth study of the economic impact of Ireland’s assistance settlement on the regions of the UK, particularly the devolved regions? Will the Treasury be prepared to intervene where any region may be affected negatively, such as Northern Ireland, where there is a connection in the banking sector and where two of the banks are Irish-owned?

We are taking this action precisely because, in part, we recognise the specific economic connections between Northern Ireland and southern Ireland. I would be very happy for the Treasury to work with the Northern Ireland Executive on looking at the potential economic impact of what is happening in Ireland. Obviously, the intention is to bring some stability to the Irish economy, and then some growth, which would be in the interests of not only the people of the Republic but the citizens of the United Kingdom.

I understand that the Chancellor cannot yet set out the amounts that will be delivered under various mechanisms, but can he at least reassure the House that any bilateral financing will rank at least pari passu with money delivered through the IMF and through the EU mechanisms?

We would certainly expect it to be treated with the same seniority as any other European assistance.

What kind of conditions is the Chancellor likely to impose on the bilateral loan to Ireland? Will he take into account the feelings of people in Northern Ireland who, if they live on the border, see corporation tax at 12% just down the street, but at 28% in Northern Ireland, and will be asking why they are paying more to help a country when there is such a disparity in corporation tax?

As I said earlier, the conditions attached to our loan will be similar to those attached to the overall international assistance package; of course, we are part of the discussions when it comes to shaping that package. I would make two specific points. First, we have set very high store by sorting out the banking problem. In other words, using this financial assistance to sort out the banking problem has been the primary thing that I have been calling for in the private discussions we have had leading up to this point.

Secondly, on the rate of corporation tax, I would make this observation to the hon. Lady, and I hope that she has some sympathy with me. Ireland should be in charge of its own tax rates. How the terms of the financial assistance are met has to be a decision ultimately for the Irish Government and the Irish Parliament. It is the thin end of the wedge if we allow other countries and other international organisations to start determining what corporate tax rates should or should not be. It is in everyone’s interests that Ireland grows, and it would not be particularly in our interests if the Irish undertook measures that might, for example, lead to an immediate flight of international business.

I recognise that my right hon. Friend is dealing with some very serious and potentially disastrous economic circumstances, but when I say, “I told you so,” it is not just about staying out of the euro; I am saying, “I told you we shouldn’t have ratified the Maastricht treaty.” [Laughter.] They are guilty over on the Opposition Benches, too. Will my right hon. Friend be a little clearer? Is he saying that unless we are fully extricated from any potential liability for other eurozone members through the European Union, there will be no treaty change?

I am not proposing to take Britain out of the Maastricht treaty, despite my hon. Friend’s request. I know that will come as a bit of a disappointment. I would like the balance of payments mechanism to remain—it has existed for many years—but of course the situation in the eurozone is not a balance of payments issue. That mechanism is for countries, particularly accession countries, to draw upon. I would like the mechanism set up under article 122 to be used for what it was designed to be used for, which was natural disasters and the like, and I would like the permanent bail-out mechanism for the eurozone not to include the United Kingdom.

Although it is imperative that we support Ireland through the crisis, does the Chancellor accept that events in Ireland demonstrate that the global economic recovery is extremely fragile, and that to premise our own recovery on £80 billion of cuts and export-led growth looks increasingly optimistic at best and dangerously naive at worst?

If the hon. Lady looks around the western economies, she will see that countries with large budget deficits—we have the largest—are moving to take further steps to show how they are reducing them. I cannot see around the international scene a single group of people other than the Opposition who actually believe that the UK should be loosening the fiscal position from what we have set out. That really is completely incredible and carries absolutely no conviction in any other part of the world. As part of the Labour party’s re-evaluation of its entire economic policy, I suggest that it start with that.

I would like to ask a question from a Welsh perspective. We all understand the impact of a strong economy in Ireland on Northern Ireland, but does the Chancellor recognise that a strong Irish economy is also particularly important to Wales?

Yes, I do. Ireland’s links are not just with Northern Ireland, they are also with Wales, Scotland and England. The Irish banks were of course engaged in lending into the UK economy, UK banks have engaged in lending into the Irish economy, and many companies export to each other’s countries. We are deeply interconnected, which is why I have proposed this set of measures.

Does the right hon. Gentleman not have the tiniest smidgen of regret about what he used to say about the Irish economic model?

I seem to remember plenty of Labour Ministers standing at the Dispatch Box praising what Ireland was doing to make itself competitive, to reduce its corporate tax rates and to create a flexible labour market. That is the tragedy—it did so much in that direction to make itself competitive, but it did not properly regulate its banking system. We in the UK know the price of that.

On reflection, does the Chancellor believe that our Irish friends might have been better off remaining faithful to sterling rather than eloping with the more flighty euro, and does a warm welcome await our friends if and when they return?

I am a believer in national sovereignty, so I do not propose to tell other countries what they should do with their currencies. I would just make this observation, since this has been a debate I have heard in recent years: Ireland has all its sovereign debt denominated in euros.

Ultimately, the bail-out will work only if Ireland can retain its competitiveness. Traditional International Monetary Fund packages always include reducing public spending, increasing tax rates and devaluing the currency. The third element, which is essential for Ireland’s recovery, is missing. What makes the Chancellor believe the bail-out will work under those conditions?

If it is not possible to devalue the currency, there is a more difficult route, which is to try to enforce competitiveness through, for example, wage cuts, and that, of course, is part of the Irish package. It does make things more difficult, but, as I say, those of us who argued against Britain joining the euro made all these arguments at the time. That makes for a very good discussion, but at a very theoretical level given the very practical immediate challenges we face in Ireland.

The euro could collapse—nobody can doubt that point. During the Chancellor’s wide-ranging private talks with the Irish Government, was there any discussion of a contingency plan under which Ireland would come out of the euro and become part of the sterling area?

Are there not lessons for us in the United Kingdom to learn, given that the Irish cut very deeply not so long ago? Does the Chancellor not think that we should have a credible growth programme along with what the Government have already done? How will the Chancellor solve the problem when he does not know the causes?

An absolute precondition of growth, as we can see in Ireland, is stability, and there is no stability if people put a question mark over a country’s ability to fund itself. One reason why the international assistance package is being put in place is to take the sovereign out of the debt markets for the next couple of years. Quite frankly, the decisions we took in May, in June and last month were absolutely necessary to restore international confidence in Britain’s ability to deal with its deficit and to restore some sanity to its public finances. I find it slightly bizarre, having now had this argument for about a year with Labour Members, that they continue to pursue the belief that we could stick with a set of fiscal plans that no one regarded as credible.

Could the Chancellor say whether he thinks Ireland’s move to tap international financial assistance will reduce or increase the risk of contagion for other euro area sovereigns and their banking systems? What assessment has he made of the risk posed by countries such as Portugal, Italy and Spain to the UK?

I hope my hon. Friend will allow me not to engage in speculation about any other country at the moment. The package today shows the willingness of the international community, the IMF and so on to help countries that get themselves into trouble, whether they are in Europe or anywhere else in the world.

Earlier today, I met politics students from Bede sixth form college in my constituency, who asked how it can be right to bail out the Irish economy, but wrong for our previous Government to have done likewise when our banks posed the same threat to our economy. Has the Chancellor an answer to the students and the House?

I would say to those students, and, indeed, to the hon. Gentleman, who represents them, that their prospects of getting a job later in their lives depend on a stable UK economy that is growing and a stable Irish economy that is not having contagion effects on the UK or anywhere else. That is why we are taking action domestically to put our own house in order. Even his students, I am sure, would recognise that, in the end, we cannot live beyond our means and we cannot sustain an economy on debt alone. I am also sure that if his students asked themselves what connections they had to Ireland, they would find quite a lot of connections in their family, in the businesses that they know about and the like. Our two economies are interconnected.

People at home will be listening to this statement, or they will read it tomorrow, and wonder whether we can borrow a few more billion and spend a few more billion. Does the Chancellor agree that market concerns over sovereign debt remain, and that the priority for the coalition Government must be to keep the UK out of the financial danger zone?

The sovereign debt concerns are very heightened at the moment—that is a statement of the obvious—and a Chancellor of the Exchequer who represents the country with the largest budget deficit in the G20, and the largest budget deficit in the EU until Ireland started to overtake us, must make moving Britain out of the financial danger zone their immediate priority, which is what this Government have done.

Does the Chancellor agree that the real lesson that comes out of Ireland—he rightly identified similarities with our economy—is that the impact of the global banking crisis added to a drastic programme of public sector cuts does not mean growth? That is dangerous to the economy.

Quite frankly, that assessment is not shared by the International Monetary Fund or other EU member states. It is not the assessment of anyone who looks at the Irish situation except for the hon. Gentleman.

Bearing in mind that the Treasury will itself have to borrow the billions of pounds that it proposes to lend to the Irish Government, will the Chancellor reassure the House that the interest rate it charges the Irish Government will be substantially higher than the rate we must pay?

The terms and conditions of the loan are still to be decided, and as I said, they will be brought to the House of Commons. However, to make a general observation, we are seeking not to make a buck, but to help our friend.

The Chancellor is right to say that it is in the British national interest to help Ireland. Irish economists say that one problem on top of the instability of the banks is that the economy is suffering because too much money has been taken out of it. Will the Chancellor act in the British interest and reconsider the speed at which austerity measures are introduced in the UK, because that could hamper our economy?

At the moment, there is heightened concern around the world about European countries with high budget deficits. One such country is the UK, but there is no heightened concern about us because of the measures that we have taken. If we followed what the hon. Gentleman and Labour Front Benchers propose, and if I were to say at the Dispatch Box tomorrow, “You know what. We are abandoning our fiscal plans set out in the Budget and the spending review, and instead engaging in a loosening of those plans,” I can only imagine what the international reaction would be.

Being there for a friend in need overseas and unbankrupting ourselves at home are right and proper. However, how could it ever be right or proper for a Government voted out of office to engage in major financial commitments for the UK while squatting in Downing street?

I think my hon. Friend is referring to the period between the general election and the creation of this Government. I have given the House my account of that. I thanked the former Chancellor for keeping us out of the eurozone facility, but I did not agree with his decision to commit us to the mechanism, and I communicated that to him. However, I also made it clear at the time there can only be one Chancellor of the Exchequer operating for the UK, even in the unusual situation between the general election and the formation of this Government. He will account for his decisions and I will account for mine.

I know that a week is a long time in politics, but can I take the Chancellor back to when he was the shadow Chancellor? He wrote an article for The Times in which he said:

“Ireland stands as a shining example of the art of the possible in long-term economic policymaking…They have much to teach us, if only we are willing to learn.”

Does the Chancellor stand by or repudiate that article?

Is not the fundamental problem that Ireland has the wrong interest rate and the wrong exchange rate, and that Irish politicians made a fundamental mistake by joining the euro? Does the Chancellor agree that we must stand and support Ireland, and that should Ireland seek a return to sterling, it must have a seat on the Monetary Policy Committee?

The first time I met my hon. Friend was when we were both at university together, and he gave a speech about exchange rates and the European exchange rate mechanism. He was absolutely right in his prediction of what would happen shortly thereafter, so it is good to hear him talk about exchange rates here in the House of Commons. I would make this observation: decisions on people’s currencies must, as I am sure he would agree, be decisions for the nation state involved. I have made the observation—just because there has been some interesting speculation about this—that much of Ireland’s sovereign debt is denominated in euros, which would remain whatever its currency was.

What assessment have the Chancellor and his counterparts in the eurozone made of the capacity of the European financial stability fund to withstand further calls on finance from Italy, Spain or Portugal? If the assessment is that the fund is not big enough, would he be prepared to see it increased?

As I say, I do not think that it is sensible for me to speculate about any other country in Europe or anywhere else in the world in the current environment. I would make two observations. One is that the IMF is well resourced and is now on the road to reform, so that it properly reflects the balance of economic power in the world. It is therefore well placed to deal with whatever situation emerges, in whatever part of the world. As for the eurozone stability facility, that has to be a decision for members of the eurozone. They contribute to the facility, and they have set aside a considerable sum of money—€440 billion.

Is not the lesson from what is happening in Ireland clear: that countries need to get their own houses in order? Would it not be utter folly for us to take as the lesson that we should divert from the path of getting our house in order here in the UK?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I make the point again that if we followed the prescription advanced by the Opposition—they suggest that tomorrow I should get up and announce a brand-new Budget, and engage in fiscal loosening at a time when we have the largest budget deficit in the G20 and at a time of heightened concern about sovereign debt—that would be a completely irresponsible path to take.

For the last six months the Government have wasted no opportunity to tell us that Britain’s situation is very similar to Ireland’s. Now they cannot tell us fast enough that we are in a very different situation from Ireland, because we have our own currency and control of our monetary policy. Has the Chancellor not spent the last six months talking down the British economy for naked political advantage?

The reason we are in a different situation is not just because we have a different currency; it is because we have a Government who have put our public finances in order.

We are in a very different situation from Ireland. In the past several months, our long-term interest rates have fallen materially, whereas those of Ireland and other parts of the eurozone have not. Will my right hon. Friend remind those on the Opposition Benches—and particularly on the Opposition Front Bench—why that is so?

That is absolutely the case. Back in May, the largest bond investor in the world said that sterling was sitting on a “bed of nitroglycerine”. That was the kind of sentiment out there in the markets. We have taken—[Interruption.] The speculators? The Labour party literally believes that it can defy the bond market. That is what Labour Members are reduced to—that is where their policy review is leading them. I have to say that it is not a credible economic policy for this country.

The Chancellor seems confident that the bail-out package will work. What will happen if it does not? Will there be more loans, and can we expect public sector cuts to pay for them?

Of course, an absolute precondition of the package being negotiated is that not just the UK but the IMF and others believe that it will work. An enormous amount of effort is going into putting together a package that will deal not just with the sovereign debt situation, but—the former Chancellor alluded to this—with the Irish banking situation. That is a key part of the package.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a main cause of the problems in Ireland is the pursuit of those very policies that Labour Members would have us carry out here—borrow, borrow, borrow and spend, spend, spend?

Ireland had over-leveraged banks, and they were poorly regulated. We are all picking up the pieces of something similar in the UK.

Given the stark consequences of Ireland’s failure to grow, will the Chancellor assure the House that he has not downgraded his commitment to a White Paper on growth in Britain?

I am absolutely committed to setting out our growth policies—[Interruption.] Perhaps I could make the observation that I did not think that today, given the other things that are going on, would be a particularly good day for the House to discuss an economic paper from the Government. I thought it better to take the time to explain what is happening in Ireland and what we are doing to assist it.

The Chancellor has set out the national interest in supporting a close trading partner and avoiding the systemic risks posed by an Irish default. How can we mitigate a third risk—the moral hazard of the taxpayer picking up the tab for yet another banking bail-out?

Of course, the support that we are providing with the bilateral loan is to the Irish Government—to the sovereign—and we have every expectation that that will be repaid.

Will the Chancellor now answer the question that the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) asked? Does he believe, as I do, that when British Ministers signed up to Maastricht and the growth and stability pact, they made a mistake?

To be honest, the real mistake was that countries did not pursue the policies recommended in the growth and stability pact, which was to keep control of their public finances. Year after year during the past decade, the UK was regularly warned that its deficit was growing and that it was not doing enough to deal with it. If we had listened—not necessarily to the European Commission, but to all the other people in the world who were pointing that out—we would have been in a bit better shape than we were when this Government came to office.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the few redeeming features of the Labour party when in government was that it failed to take us into the eurozone? Does he understand, as I do, that the Labour party’s policy remains that we should work towards the eurozone? As the Leader of the Opposition is changing his policies, what advice can he offer?

Let me speak for Government policy. We will not join the euro. I believe that the Opposition’s official policy is to join the euro, but perhaps that will be discussed by their policy groups over the next two years.

The Chancellor is right to support Ireland, one of our important trading partners, at this critical time. Will he tell the House what steps he is taking to widen and deepen our trading relationships with fast-growing major markets such as China, India and Brazil? The Labour party missed a huge opportunity when it was in government.

The fact that we export more to Ireland than to Brazil, Russia, India or China is a statement of the interconnectedness of the Irish and UK economies, but also an indictment of our exports to the fast-emerging BRIC countries, which is precisely why, since taking office, the Prime Minister has led major trade delegations to India and China, and why we want to ensure that companies in Macclesfield and throughout the country can export more to those fast-emerging new markets.

The Chancellor has been asked whether he has a smidgen of regret about his comments on the Irish economy, but does he not find it more incredible that the Opposition still believe that we should join the euro after the devastation that it brought to a thriving Irish economy?

As I have said, it is for the Opposition to speak to their own policy. As I understand it, they are still committed in principle to joining the euro—

Maybe not on the Benches where the hon. Gentleman sits, but it is those on the Opposition Front Bench that I am talking about.

The Chancellor will be aware of the significant property assets owned by Ireland’s National Asset Management Agency and the Irish Allied Bank across the United Kingdom. Uncertainty in Ireland has prevented development on those sites and is stopping development in some of the most deprived areas in our country, which need regeneration. In providing funds to the Irish Government, what pressure can my right hon. Friend bring to bear on the Irish to divest themselves of those assets so that others can provide investment where they cannot?

My hon. Friend makes a very good observation about a particular aspect of the Irish banking situation and its impact on those property investments in the UK. We have discussed this with the Irish, and I will get back to him on whether there have been specific developments in the last few days, but I have not raised the matter as part of the discussion on the international assistance that we are providing. We are trying to put the whole Irish banking system and the Irish state, which stands behind those banks and, indeed, behind NAMA, on to a much more stable footing.

I thank the Chancellor for his welcome statement. Given that we have sovereignty over these matters, in what currency is the bilateral loan likely to be denominated?

We will set out the terms and conditions and the exchange rate of the bilateral loan when we agree them over the next couple of weeks, and I will bring that information to the House of Commons.

I congratulate the Chancellor on doing the right thing in this instance—[Interruption.] He did the right thing. Also, as a result of the fact that we have managed the economy better over the past six months, we are in a position to lend to Ireland. The Conservatives’ insistence on not joining the euro in the first place has saved us from an even bigger bail-out package than we are having to contemplate now.

May I offer the Chancellor my support in the difficult task that he has ahead? Will he spell out for the House what he believes the consequences of leaving the euro would be for Ireland?

As I have said, that has to be a matter for Ireland. It has not been raised by them in any discussion, publicly or privately, and I do not think that I should speculate about it.