G20: Finance Ministers Meeting — Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:50 pm on 16th March 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Spokesperson for the Treasury 6:50 pm, 16th March 2009

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. I have written as my opening comment that it is very easy to be sceptical about G20 meetings and the noble Baroness has made that point in spades. But it seems to me that whatever one's doubts about what flows from these meetings, the best hope of avoiding the kind of depression that we saw in the 1930s is that we have a G20-type process and other intergovernmental-type processes taking place, which means that any Finance Minister or Prime Minister who goes outwith the agreements made one to the next at the very least has to justify what they have been doing to their peers. In the absence of any external force, that seems to be one of the most persuasive ways of getting people to toe the line.

Let us take, for example, almost the first statement in the communiqué, to which the noble Baroness referred. It states:

"We commit to fight all forms of protectionism and maintain open trade and investment".

That would not have been said, and was not said, in the 1930s, which is one of the main reasons why the depression lasted as long as it did. Okay, the Indians have put a tariff on soya beans, which is somewhat different from a tit-for-tat protectionist war. I firmly believe that this process, flawed as it is—anyone who has ever had any negotiations internationally knows the force of them—offers not necessarily the perfect but the best opportunity for avoiding the worst of a prolonged global recession.

However, it has been suggested, unkindly perhaps, that one reason why the Prime Minister puts so much emphasis on international initiatives is that it is a displacement activity from looking at some of the problems that need dealing with urgently at home. Certainly, on looking at the Prime Minister's track record on dealing with tax havens, which is 12 years of almost total inactivity followed by the enthusiasm of the convert, one can see why people might think that he is looking externally for that kind of reason.

However, the Government need to take further action urgently on a number of things at home. First, on the crackdown on the tax avoidance of banks, the noble Baroness referred to the wonderful phrase in the Statement that HMRC is to produce a code of conduct to ensure that banks comply with the spirit as well as the letter of the law. She suggested that one of the reasons why these poor chaps have such difficulty in knowing what the spirit of the law is is that the law is more complicated. Did she read yesterday's Sunday Times about the way in which Barclays has deliberately sought to avoid hundreds of million of pounds of tax? It was not because it did not understand the law, or thought that the law was too complex and the poor souls were confused; it was because it knew that it could make a lot of money and did so assiduously and very successfully. How confident is the Minister that the banks now owned by the Government have stopped this kind of tax avoidance activity? If he is not confident, will he ensure that they are instructed to stop? Will the Minister assure the House that Barclays will not receive any help under the asset protection scheme until it has given a categoric assurance that all the tax avoidance activities exposed at the weekend have ceased?

The Government have accepted the need for reform of banking regulation, particularly in respect of large, complex institutions, and we should bear in mind that three of the five biggest banks in the world are now British. In view of the growing consensus in support of this, will the Minister revisit the idea of introducing at least a modified version of the Glass-Steagall Act into the UK so that we can clearly segregate off the casino-type activities of the investment banks from the straightforward deposit-taking activities of the retail banks? There is no doubt that the majority of people want a straightforward bank that does not do that kind of thing. It is now virtually impossible, unless one goes to a building society, to find a bank which fits that definition.

There are two bland statements in the communiqué, which mean something or nothing. Perhaps the Minister will help us. It says that credit rating agencies are to be regulated and registered. Will that be by means of national regulators alone or will there be some kind of international framework for them? We then have a wonderful statement:

"Accounting standards will need to improve".

I am sure that accounting standards always need to improve. What do the Government have in mind and when might they improve?

On global matters, the IMF and a number of points made by the noble Baroness, the Statement says that significant additional funding will be going into the IMF. I think everyone can see why that might be required at this point. But it is strange that while numbers have been floated in the press, the communiqué was completely silent on them. Does the Minister have any idea of when a decision will be taken on the scale of that increase? Finally, why will it take until January 2011 to complete the review of IMF quotas? One would have thought that it was a mathematical exercise of working out the current size of the various countries' economies within the global marketplace and accepting that the quotas should reflect them. It seems bizarre, perverse and unacceptable that we should have to wait nearly another two years to do that straightforward exercise.