Economy: Government Policies — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:04 pm on 24th March 2011.

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Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative 3:04 pm, 24th March 2011

My Lords, I have to confess that I have spent the bulk of my life in the financing of trade and in your Lordships' House. It is in the latter that I have probably had the greatest benefit, because I was told that I should listen to everything that noble Lords said over years and that I would be suitably drip-fed by geriatrics. Much therefore of what I have learnt I shall try to regurgitate today.

I ask and beg, as someone who has been involved in trade, that the Government should please return to using the word "trade" and restore the Board of Trade. I hate the word "business", as it reminds me when in the morning my mother would say to me, as a small boy, "Take the dogs out for a walk and make sure they do their business". When we came back she would say, "Was it little business or big business?"

We can learn much from history. Like the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, I like to return to things and go back into the history of trade. I go back only 500 years to when the Council of Trade was formed. Its mandate was to,

"take into ... consideration the true causes of the decay of trade and scarcity of coyne and to consult the means for the removing of these inconveniences".

Moving on another 70 years, the mandate for the Council of Trade was extended:

"Ye shall take into your consideration ye inconveniences the English Trade hath suffered in any parts beyond the seas. And are to enquire into such articles of former treaties as have been made with any princes or states in relation to trade"- maybe even the EU. Your Lordships and those who produce such papers today should look at the latest one in the early 18th century, which was:

"To examine into and take an account of the state and condition of the general trade of England and of the several particular trades into foreign parts... to consider what means profitable manufactures already settled may be further improved and how new and profitable manufactures may be introduced".

Why do we need all these statements when it is already there?

When I joined the House, I used to get put on committees by my noble friend Lord Jellicoe and the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, because I was young enough at the time. One point they made to me was that, when things are really bad, that is the time for really good opportunities. I served on one of the first Select Committees on trade. I was told that it would not be appropriate for me to intervene or to speak but that, if I listened, I might learn something. That Committee was looking at trade and we had a visit one day from a very important Minister: my then right honourable friend who is now my noble friend Lord Lawson. He came and stood before us and gave us what we described later as a very interesting lecture on the different Ms-relating to the money supply-which I am afraid I did not understand. I did not dare to ask any questions but Viscount Amory, who had been a Chancellor, asked him a few. The noble Lord, Lord Lawson, responded with vigour-in those days, he had slightly more latitude than he has today-and Viscount Amory then said, "Thank you so much, Chancellor, for your clear and lucid explanation". I admit I am still confused but happy to be confused at a much higher level. I am really grateful to my noble friend for what he has done today because some interesting matters have come out of this debate.

If I may return to the subject of trade, we have had a growing trade deficit since 1947, when my great-uncle Sir Stafford Cripps was effectively President of the Board of Trade and was followed in that by Harold Wilson. That deficit has grown and grown. I raise this in many debates as the noble Lord, Lord Myners, knows. We have a deficit in manufactures of around £100 billion, which has grown and grown. We have a surplus in invisibles-some of which are really becoming invisible now, such as the North Sea revenues and others-of about £50 billion and therefore an overall deficit of £50 billion. On the current account, can the Minister tell me what the UK budget deficit is at present? We seem to be a country of deficits. When we look at where we trade it is with 71 countries of the world, yet we have a surplus with only 12 of them. The biggest surplus we have was with Ireland, followed by the United States, but the Irish surplus has fallen away. It may not be important that we should have trade surpluses, but I have a feeling that, unless something is done about it, the situation could get worse.

On the subject of investment, over the years since the war we have always had a pretty even balance between inward and outward investment. However, what that investment is put into is of considerable importance; hence I welcome the concept of the enterprise zones. I spent a lot of time in inner-city projects, particularly in Docklands. I found it remarkable how quickly something could take off once it reached a certain height. The declaration of enterprise zones here is a good idea, as is the idea that foreigners who live in England might be able to get tax allowances from reducing their taxation levels if they genuinely invest in new projects. We should give the same thought to the United Kingdom's activities overseas. We need to import food and therefore to invest in agriculture in Africa and in all the ancient areas where we went, because we only expanded our economies internationally or created an empire because we needed the materials and products that came from those countries.

If we do not have a lot of money, somehow the application of clawing money back by granting tax allowances on international and national investment appeals to me. I have said enough and I hope that your Lordships will realise that I did not intend to drip-feed you in any way at all. Please remember that we can learn an enormous amount from your Lordships. I have learnt very much indeed today.