Second Reading (and remaining stages) (Continued)

Part of Loans to Ireland Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:57 pm on 21st December 2010.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Labour 5:57 pm, 21st December 2010

My Lords, I begin by asking the Minister a question. I would have intervened on him earlier, but since I was hoping to speak in the debate I did not want to interrupt him unnecessarily. I think I heard him say that this potential transaction by which we lend three point something billion pounds to the state of Ireland will not increase our borrowing, because the Irish have an obligation to repay. I see the Minister shaking his head, so perhaps I misheard him. If I misheard him, I apologise. Clearly it may not increase net borrowing, because we have a corresponding asset-the Irish obligation to repay-but government borrowing figures are always stated on a gross basis, otherwise they would not be positive at all, because we always have substantial net assets. I thought that there was some confusion about that one phrase that the Minister used, but perhaps he will deal with that in his response. I am grateful to him.

I am very much in favour of the Bill. It seems to me to be absolutely the right measure for two reasons. One reason, which the Government seem rather to dismiss, is that Ireland is a neighbour, a great friend for all the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Bew, set out, and a member of the European Union. I believe in the notion and the value of solidarity among nations, as in other branches of human affairs. I believe in soft power as well as hard power, in friendship and in good will. I believe in the value of these things, in the value of creating and maintaining them and that it is a mistake if you throw them away. That is an important consideration and I shall come, in a moment, to what I think of the Government's attitude on that subject.

Secondly, I approve for the reasons that the Government appear to approve of it, which is that we have a very specific, practical and concrete interest in avoiding the kind of systemic crisis which could well be generated by a default by the Irish Government on its bond and other financial obligations, or, indeed, a default by the Irish banks, which are currently being guaranteed by the Irish Government. One default could well trigger another. Clearly, that would create a very difficult situation for us.

My regret about the Bill, how it has been brought before the two Houses of Parliament and the way in which the whole issue has been conducted by the Government is that the Government have given away a lot of the good will that might have been achieved by this gesture by an extremely grudging approach to this transaction. As my noble friend Lord Liddle pointed out, we deliberately decided that we do not want to be part of a collective solution; we want to do these things individually and bilaterally. The Government's is a rather strange gesture to make, a rather strange signal to send. The Chancellor has been at pains to make clear that he was not responsible for Alistair Darling's agreement that we should join the stability mechanism back in May. Indeed, the Chancellor said in another place:

"I am doing everything I can to ensure that the UK is extricated from the commitment that was entered into, and we are making good progress".-[Hansard, Commons, 15/12/10; col. 944.]

He said elsewhere in that debate that we will certainly not be part of the permanent mechanism when that is established.

I regret all those things for two reasons. The first is the practical and concrete reason of hard financial national interest; the other relates to my point about good will. In the first instance, there may well be other crises in future. It would be idiotic to exclude the possibility of our need to take part in such support operations in future to avoid some systemic crisis. It is always foolish in life to give up any flexibility. You want to maintain flexibility to respond in different ways. Excluding the idea of being part of a collective mechanism in the EU makes no sense. The other reason, as I said, is that it sends quite the wrong signal, and to my mind reduces the good will created by our decision to support Ireland in this way.

All that reflects an uneasy compromise in the coalition Government. I suspect that the Lib Dems in the Government very much take the view that I take and would have been in favour of this whole operation instinctively on principle in the first place, would then have wanted to negotiate details with our EU partners jointly, and would have had no inhibitions about doing that because they are European partners or members of the eurozone.

I suspect that the advice that the Government received from officials in the Foreign Office was that it would be disastrous, particularly after the centuries of Anglo-Irish history to which my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Bew, referred-many incidents that are very much to the shame of this country. If we were the only major EU country that declined to take part in the support operation, it would have the most appalling effects on our relationship with Ireland. I imagine that the Foreign Office took that line-at the official level, at least. I imagine that the Treasury and the Bank of England were concerned with the potential systemic crisis and therefore urged the Government to take part.

I suspect that, against that, there were the Tories who, for Eurosceptic and chauvinistic ideological reasons, were reluctant to become party to this transaction and were certainly very keen to ensure that it had nothing to do with our European Union membership or the existence of the eurozone.

That uneasy compromise is reflected in the very grudging way in which the money has been advanced and the very grudging statement that I have just cited from the Chancellor, which I very much regret. I am sorry that I cannot come up with entirely effusive, uncompromising congratulations for the Government on this move, but I am glad that they have taken the right decision, however grudgingly, and I shall be delighted to support them if there is a vote on the subject, which I doubt that there will be.

I have a couple of remarks to make about the general context. So much complete nonsense, and dangerous nonsense, has been talked about the relationship between the euro, the banking crisis and the sovereign debt crisis that we have faced over the past year or two that I feel inspired to comment on it in this debate. It has been said openly and frequently in the Eurosceptic press in this country and by a number of Conservatives in the House of Commons that it shows the weakness of the euro system. It has also been suggested that the solution would be the break-up of the euro and that the countries with substantial debt should leave the eurozone. I regard both those comments as either completely incompetent, if people really do not understand what the logical consequences would be of the actions that they are urging, or frankly irresponsible and unpatriotic, because they do not take into account the interests of this country or are willing to sacrifice the interests of the people of this country for purely ideological, emotional or symbolic reasons.

Of course, the euro had nothing whatever to do with the banking crisis or the sovereign debt crisis. In fact, the sovereign debt crisis would almost certainly have been worse if the euro had not existed. I should be the first to admit that the fiscal rules in the Maastricht treaty-the maximum 3 per cent fiscal deficit unless there was the consent of the Union, and so forth-have not been enforced sufficiently strictly. We all know that now, and we need a tougher and tighter regime with proper monitoring and sanctions in future. Nevertheless, if that regime had not existed at all, people would have had even greater deficits. There is no doubt about that.

There was possibly some accounting fraud in the case of Greece, but if there had been no rules, constraints or restrictions at all, the situation would have been a great deal worse. The euro, far from contributing to the crisis, might-albeit too modestly to have greatly affected the outcome-have had a benign influence. As for the idea that the solution lies in breaking up the euro, my noble friend Lord Liddle has already commented on that. I thoroughly agree with him that that would be an astonishingly self-destructive, and therefore I say advisedly irresponsible and unpatriotic, view.

Undoubtedly, if the countries that are affected by the sovereign debt crisis-Spain, Ireland, Portugal or Greece- were to leave the euro, their currencies, whatever they might be, the successor drachma or punt No. 2, would suffer the most tremendous devaluation. As their liabilities are largely denominated in euros, they would find it completely impossible even to begin to meet the burden of that indebtedness. The result would be defaults or a massive restructuring that was far greater than any restructuring that might take place in an orderly fashion in the context of agreement within the EU or the eurozone. That would mean that our banks would have to write off substantial assets, reduce the size of their balance sheets and reduce their credit creation in this country; that the economy would suffer; that jobs would be lost; and so forth. That would be a deeply regrettable state of affairs and it is thoroughly irresponsible to wish that to happen.

I trust that people will be guided by a rational assessment of the national interest rather than by an emotional desire to see the eurozone collapse irrespective of the consequence for either our partners in the eurozone or us. There is no doubt that the euro is not a part of this crisis. It is not a part of the problem and it is not a contributor to the problem. It has been at least a minor reducer of the scale of the problem. It must be an essential part of the solution.