Rebalancing the UK Economy

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 3rd November 2010.

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Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster 4:30 pm, 3rd November 2010

Amid the feverish analysis of the size, scope and impact of the Government's chosen spending cuts, a fresh debate is emerging about a desirable blueprint for Britain's economic future. Such is the near-universal distaste reserved for financial services, that a determination no longer to rely on their economic contribution seems one of the few certainties in the debate. As a result, rebalancing is the new economic watchword. For sure, the financial crisis has painfully highlighted the UK's dependence on the City and our collective exposure to the risks taken by the global banking fraternity. My worry, however, is that the phrase is being used-even, I fear, by some Conservative coalition Ministers-for playing to the gallery as part of the general banker-bashing sentiment.

It is superficially convincing to promote attempts to stimulate growth more evenly through the regions, and stepping up our game in the innovation and incubation of companies in the high value-added areas of high- tech manufacturing, engineering, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. I acknowledge my own part in that: I have played a role in ensuring the incubation of those small companies in the City of London. The Corporation of London is to be complimented for finding premises in double-quick time for such companies.

I wholly support the initiatives of the Government, in particular funding the £200 million science park in St Pancras. That is both welcome and highly commendable. However, we should be wary of how the aim of rebalancing is pursued. Unwisely, most of the focus so far has been on how we might shrink the City to reduce its relative importance, rather than providing a positive economic climate in which all other sectors can flourish.

Before we pursue what I believe would be such a dangerous policy any further, I wish to make the case why financial services must remain a central plank in Britain's bid for continuing relevance in a fast-changing global economy. A strong financial services sector is overwhelmingly beneficial to our nation. It will provide the critical mass to draw business to this country. It offers diversified sources of capital to small business. It makes huge contributions to the Treasury's coffers, in terms of tax and employment, and it supports a wide range of complementary industries, from law to leisure. It is also one of the very few areas where we might envisage significant growth in the decades to come.

The tens of millions of people who join the ranks of the global middle class annually from India and China have a greater cultural propensity to save, and they will seek expertise in investing their savings for the future. It seems evident to me that the entire drive for the west is directed towards capturing the growth of the developing markets. It is an argument that has been put to me in recent weeks by German industrialists. Here in the UK, we have already secured such an important competitive advantage. It is in the financial services sphere. Why throw that advantage away? Aside from that, there are several reasons for us to believe that the task of rebalancing might well prove trickier than we may wish.

It is time that we changed our attitude towards the City, from one of punishment, which has taken place in the past two or three years in the aftermath of the financial crisis, to hard-headed realism. How we treat our nation's most valuable economic resource in the years ahead will be a litmus test for international business in determining how serious Britain is in its wish to be dynamic and have an open economy that embraces global talent, promotes aspiration and welcomes business.

I hope that the Minister will consider this: the UK should perhaps, for example, look at the way that the Isle of Man has quite successfully rebalanced its economy through promoting new growth areas but, crucially, in a way that has not undermined or diminished the importance of its own very important financial services sector. The Isle of Man has embarked upon a diversification drive that has built a thriving hub for high-tech manufacturing, including aerospace, which of course has strong links to the north-west of England economy. It has created a propitious environment for world-class e-gaming companies; it has established world-class high-quality aircraft and ship registers and created a diverse and thriving space commerce sector, with many of the world's leading operators established on the island. Crucially, it has also continued to support-very vocally-and promote its successful financial sector, which is wholly compatible with, and supports, other sectors of its diversified economy. In essence, the Isle of Man Government have not picked winners at the expense of penalising other sectors, but have shown that they can build a balanced and diversified economy, while maintaining a strong and thriving financial services sector.

While the banking crisis was in full swing in 2008, it seemed that almost overnight the financial sector had become a useful scapegoat for all our economic ills. Many of the criticisms levelled at the banking fraternity have been legitimate, in part at least. The failure in that sector of the economy exposed the domestic taxpayer to such mind-boggling sums that it was, in many ways, scandalous, and seemed to confirm suspicions that the wealth created by the City was simply a mirage. Irresponsible risks were taken. Debt instruments certainly became too complex. Money was lent to those who could ill afford the repayments. Incidentally, I fear that one of the difficulties is when policy makers seek out so-called socially useful banking-the genesis of the sub-prime problem that occurred initially in the US and in the UK subsequently from the mid-1990s. Regulators-if not regulations-proved ill equipped at times for their job.

The City's dominance in the domestic economy in the past two decades had some wide-ranging social consequences. For a large proportion of British people working outside the gilded corridors of the financial services industry, the growth of the City's power increased the cost of living and reduced, at times, to just a wistful dream any prospect they may have had of getting on the housing ladder, except via colossal personal debt. It could also be argued that the City precipitated a brain drain from other professions and industries, with so many of our brightest and best graduates over the past quarter of a century tempted away by unrivalled starting salaries in the banking sphere.

In some senses, the City's success has merely masked-until its failure uncovered-some more fundamental problems that had developed in the western economies. Governments had been spending far too much money. As individuals, we had also racked up far too much debt. We found it cheaper and easier to buy cheap goods from abroad, import migrant workers and pay off our own citizens with welfare, rather than confront the difficulties of either finding sufficient employment for blue-collar workers who were losing ground to eastern competition, or tackling the dearth of skills among the indigenous population. I am glad to say that with some of our welfare policies, the Government are definitely going down the right route to try to counter some of those issues.