The House of Commons held, yesterday, an emergency debate on the Eurozone crisis. During the debate Bill Cash made the following intervention:
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Minister what are Her Majesty’s Treasury’s contingency plans in case of a Greek default.
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr Mark Hoban): Hon. Members will be aware of the recent developments in Greece. There has been considerable media speculation about what this means for the Greek adjustment programme and potential market reactions. I am not going to engage in speculation on what might or might not happen but give the House an account of the facts as they currently stand.
Let me begin with some background on Greece and the financial assistance package. The international financial assistance package for Greece was agreed in May 2010. The package is composed of two elements: a loan of €30 billion from the International Monetary Fund and €80 billion of bilateral loans from euro area member states to the Greek Government. Although they were created at a similar time, neither the European financial stabilisation mechanism, which is backed by the EU budget nor the euro area-only European financial stability facility contributed to the package for Greece.
The adjustment package requires Greece to undertake significant actions. There are some very difficult questions that Greece has to address now, because the package assumed that it would be able to access market funding again in 2012, but this now looks unlikely in current market conditions. The House will also be aware of political developments in Greece; a new cabinet has been appointed and the Government will soon be subject to a vote of confidence in the Greek Parliament. Later this month, the Greek Parliament will also be voting on a medium-term fiscal strategy, which is a key element of the conditions attached to the current adjustment programme.
Against this backdrop, the euro area member states have been discussing the next steps. The Eurogroup, which comprises euro area member states, today released a statement calling on
“all political parties in Greece to support the programme’s main objectives and key policy measures to ensure a rigorous and expeditious implementation”.
The statement also said that Ministers will “define by early July the main parameters of a clear new financing strategy”.
This is a statement from the euro area member states only. Let me be clear: the UK has not been involved in these discussions. We did not participate directly in the May 2010 package of support for Greece, and there has been no formal suggestion of UK bilateral loans or use of the EFSM, which is backed by the EU budget. The UK participated in the May 2010 package for Greece only through its membership of the IMF. So the burden of providing finance to Greece is shared between the IMF and euro area member states, and we fully expect this to continue. Our position on that is well understood across the euro area.
The UK believes that the international community needs a strong IMF as an anchor of global economic stability and prosperity. Over the past few years, we have seen how important that role can be in times of crisis, as the IMF has taken swift and decisive action to support the global economy. There is, of course, no room for complacency. The Treasury, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority are monitoring the financial system, including in the euro area, on an ongoing basis. Many scenarios are considered as part of the normal policy development process. Hon. Members will agree that it would not be appropriate for me to discuss the detail of those scenarios. I also remind hon. Members that UK banks have little direct exposure to Greece.
The continuing uncertainty in the euro area is a reminder of the benefits of taking early action to stabilise and recapitalise the banks, as the UK has done. The UK banking system has developed a strong capital position, which has made it more resilient and will insure it against future risks. UK banks have made good progress in sourcing funding, despite the difficult market conditions.
The difficulties faced by eurozone countries such as Greece and Portugal reinforce why it is right to pursue the course that we set last year to tackle the deficit. The House should reflect that our deficit is larger than that of Portugal, but that our market rates are similar to those of Germany. The action we have taken to strengthen the country’s finances stands us in good stead during this period of instability in the eurozone. No one on either side of this House should lose sight of the importance of these decisions in protecting the UK economy.
Mr Hoban: … The hon. Lady asked whether the authorities are working together. I said in response to her initial question that the Treasury, the Bank of England and the FSA are working closely on this matter and monitoring the situation. We are keen to ensure that the UK banking system is resilient. The additional capital that the banks hold now, compared with at the start of the crisis will help with that. As I said, UK banks have not had difficulty in sourcing funding in the market. There is a concern about liquidity risk, but UK banks are continuing to source funding.
I mentioned in my statement the exposure of UK banks to the Greek Government. It is $4 billion, which is less than our exposure to, for example, the Irish banks. The hon. Lady should bear it in mind that French banks’ exposure is about four times that amount and that German banks’ exposure is about five times that amount. We are taking the matter seriously and considering it carefully, and the Chancellor is currently at the ECOFIN meeting in Luxembourg, where I am sure it will be discussed.
The hon. Lady talked about reversing the VAT increase. The shadow Chancellor proposed last week a cut in VAT that would cost £51 billion, which would put at risk our credibility in international markets. We have taken the difficult decisions to ensure that UK market rates are in line with those of Germany. The proposal that she put forward, and which her right hon. Friend put forward last week, would mean interest rates rising for families and businesses across this country, putting the recovery at risk. I do not think that is a gamble that we can afford to take.
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): Will the Minister concede that it is crystal clear that the Greek situation, like those of Ireland and Portugal, does affect us? Does he also accept that the idea that is being put forward in the European Union Bill of not having a referendum on treaties that relate to the eurozone would mean that, although we are affected by the situation, we would not be allowed to have a referendum on it? Will he ensure that when the Bill returns to the House of Commons, there are amendments to ensure that there is a referendum on this matter, which affects us, so that the British people can vote on it?
Mr Hoban: My hon. Friend makes a couple of points about our exposure to Greece and the Bill that is currently going through the House of Lords. As I said, the UK’s exposure to Greece is relatively small, with bank exposure at $4 billion. He will recognise that we have a big interest in ensuring the continued stability of the eurozone. That is why the treaty changes are being made—to put the European support mechanism for eurozone countries on a permanent footing and replace the EFSM, to which we have to contribute thanks to a decision taken by the previous Government, with a mechanism that is funded entirely by the euro area. We do not believe that there is a transfer of sovereignty from this Parliament to Brussels, so there is no need for a referendum on those treaty changes.
Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): Will the Minister first check his figures? Figures in the Financial Times, citing Moody’s and Reuters, suggest that the exposure of British public and private sector banks to Greek debt is €13 billion, and that of Germany and France €34 billion and €53 billion. Those figures are much bigger than the ones that he gave.
Secondly, will the Minister not recognise that there is now a mood change in Europe? Der Spiegel, the German magazine has had a cover story contemplating the end of the euro as we now know it, and Mr Charles Grant, the well known europhile, has done the same in The Times today.
Instead of sheltering behind complacent language and weasel words that we should not speculate, the Government should recognise that this eurozone cannot last. It is the responsibility of the British Government to be open with the British people now about the alternative prospects. Since the euro in its current form is going to collapse, is it not better that that happens quickly rather than it dying a slow death?
Mr Hoban: May I just deal with the right hon. Gentleman’s factual questions? The figures about UK banks’ exposure to Greek sovereign debt were provided by the Bank of England, based on results at the end of quarter one this year.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s second question, I seem to remember that he was a member of a Government who seemed committed to taking this country into the euro. I do not know whether we have seen a damascene or deathbed conversion from the Labour party. I think it was right for this country to stay out of the euro, and that is the policy of this Government. We have a strong interest, though, in the continued stability of the eurozone, as it is our major trading partner. Continued instability in the eurozone could be a factor in holding back the recovery of the British economy.
Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Given that Greece needs a work-out rather than another bail-out, will the British Government go to the International Monetary Fund and the EU and say the following? First, a second bail-out would mean sending good money after bad and should not be done; secondly, we need an urgent conference of all the interested parties to reschedule and re-profile Greek debt in an orderly way to avoid huge systemic damage, while accepting that the problem has already occurred. Greece went bankrupt more than a year ago, but the Ministers of certain countries cannot believe it and are wasting taxpayers’ money on trying to pretend that it has not happened.
Mr Hoban: My right hon. Friend highlights the need for private sector involvement, and he will know that Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy agreed this weekend that there should be voluntary and private sector involvement in resolving the Greek debt. Some very strong accountability is attached to any future financial support for the Greek economy: a tough programme of privatisation, and structural reforms to improve its competitiveness. I emphasise to my right hon. Friend that although it is right that there should be private sector involvement, it is not in our interests for there to be huge turmoil in our largest trading partner, the European Union.
Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): As several EU members have said that the only long-term solution to the crisis in the eurozone is establishing a fiscal union, has the Chancellor made it clear to them that there is no possibility of Britain joining that? As a member of the IMF, we are already playing a role in trying to bail out the European Union from its folly with its single currency.
Mr Hoban: As ever, my hon. Friend, whom I congratulate on becoming a member of the Privy Council in the birthday honours list, speaks wise words. The Chancellor has been very clear that we do not wish to be part of a fiscal government for the European Union. That is why we have fought for the right package for economic governance, which safeguards the independence and sovereignty of this House when it comes to making to fiscal decisions. My hon. Friend rightly reminds us why it was right never to join the euro.
Mr Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): The eurozone was never an optimal currency zone. It is predicated on a treaty arrangement that calls it irrevocable and irreversible. We should never have accepted the hubris contained in those phrases, which brought about the passage of the Maastricht Bill and the current situation. This Government and this country should not be involved, and it would be helpful if we said what everyone in the press now says: this arrangement cannot survive in its current form. The hubris of those politicians who led the poor Greeks and all those who believed in this arrangement should be exposed as such.
Mr Hoban: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we have seen during this crisis the strains within the eurozone mechanism. The actions that needed to be taken to resolve the consequences of those strains include the bail-outs of the Greek, Irish and Portuguese economies. It is absolutely right that we secured that opt-out to the Maastricht treaty, to ensure that this country did not have to be a member of the euro, a position that the previous Government seemed not to support.
Mr Hoban: That was a flight of fancy by the hon. Gentleman. I would say to him and his hon. Friends that it was this Government who scrapped the euro preparation unit, which the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer set up in the Treasury.
Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): It is only six weeks since £26 billion of European financial stabilisation mechanism funding was nodded through for Portugal. May I congratulate the Minister on the change we have seen in those six weeks, on his statement now that there is no question of any further EFSM funding, and in particular on what we read in the weekend press—that this is a red-line issue for the Treasury and that any further use of the EFSM is unacceptable? Long may it continue.
Mr Hoban: My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made it very clear in his discussions with the Finance Ministers of EU member states that we do not want the EFSM to be used in this bail-out—a statement that Madame Lagarde confirmed on British television only a few weeks ago. I welcome my hon. Friend’s congratulations.
Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): I am very concerned. The next debate is about trying to cut back on pensions and save taxpayers’ money, yet we are still planning to put through the IMF—a third party—taxpayers’ money that we are having to scrimp and save at home. My constituents will not stand for it. I am disappointed to hear the language of the Government at the moment, which seems to imply that Greece is an economy that is too big to fail. That is the same thing we had with the banks. We should put Greece out of its misery—it is flatlining—and no more of our public money should be sent abroad to Greece, even through the IMF. There are riots on its streets. Its people do not like the medicine being offered to it, and we cannot expect it to take any more. Let it depart peacefully from the euro. It cannot be sustained as it is; it is just good money after bad.
Mr Hoban: My hon. Friend will be aware that these are matters for the Greek Government, but I would say this. When money has been lent to the IMF, that does not reduce the amount of money available for public spending. We get interest on the balances that we lend to the IMF, and it has never defaulted on a programme yet. We need to recognise the importance of support provided through the IMF, although I do not really think that my hon. Friend is suggesting that we should withdraw from it. On fiscal consolidation, let me reiterate to my hon. Friends and to the Opposition, who have ignored this crucial fact, that if we had not taken the tough action that we took a year ago in our emergency Budget, it would be the UK, not Greece, in the firing line.
Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): May I urge my hon. Friend to bear it in mind that the nearer we get to the inevitable break-up of the euro, the faster the denials will be made that it is not going to happen? Will he urge the European Union to design a policy that creates a legal framework for an orderly departure of Greece from the euro? Can he name a single reputable economist who believes that the Greek economy can recover without a devaluation?
Mr Hoban: We all recognise the challenges that the Greek economy faces as a consequence of high levels of debt. That is one reason why it has been proposed that the banks take part in a voluntary initiative to roll over their debt, to reduce some of the burden on the Greek economy.
Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove) (Con): Like Greece, we, too, have an enormous national debt, which more than doubled over the last 13 years, to more than £1 trillion, with an interest bill of more than £40 billion this year. Does the Minister agree that had we not had a change in Government 13 months ago, we, too, could have been facing the same sad fate?
Mr Hoban: My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. We can see from the reaction of the Labour party in opposition that it has not learnt at all from its mistakes in government. If we had not taken tough action, we would have seen high market rates of interest, which would have increased costs for families and businesses across the country. We are now seeing the benefits of the tough decisions that we took in last year’s emergency Budget.
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing this urgent question, and I say gently to the Minister that it is a shame that he did not volunteer to make a statement on this matter first. What is Her Majesty’s view on whether the euro can survive in its current format?
Mr Hoban: I cannot speak for Her Majesty on this occasion, but I would say to my hon. Friend that we did not come forward with a statement today because no decisions have been taken. A statement was put out by the Eurogroup last night which recognised that work was in progress, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has continually sought to keep the House informed of the outcome of such discussions. Once ECOFIN has met today, there will be an opportunity for him to lay a statement on the outcome of that meeting.
Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I welcome my hon. Friend’s commitments on the non-IMF involvement of British funds in another bail-out for Greece. Does he accept that a country running a large balance of payments deficit can pay off foreign debts only if it is able to reverse that balance, and that to do that, it has to devalue? The man from Brussels cannot make water run uphill.
Mr Hoban: My hon. Friend has pointed to one way in which a country can regain competitiveness—through devaluation. There are other ways, including reducing labour costs and increasing productivity, and all those actions should be taken to ensure that the Greek economy and those elsewhere in the eurozone reach a much stronger position.
Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): Madame Christine Lagarde is clearly an outstanding candidate to be head of the IMF, but is the Minister slightly concerned that she is French and, given that the French banks have a very large exposure to the Greek problems, that she might therefore be conflicted in her approach to the problem?
Mr Hoban: Madame Lagarde is a strong candidate for the role of director-general of the IMF. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that she is French; that fact has not escaped us in ECOFIN meetings. Madame Lagarde said on “Newsnight” a couple of weeks ago that she recognised that the bail-out of Greece involved a series of agreements between eurozone countries, and that that should remain the case.
Joseph Johnson (Orpington) (Con): The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) questions the UK’s resilience in the event of a wave of eurozone defaults. Does the Minister agree that in the eyes of the markets, the UK has already become something of a safe haven, with UK 10-year borrowing rates and credit default swap rates falling last week while the comparable rates in other countries soared, precisely because the UK Government have a good deficit reduction plan, and a good plan for settling our banks and making them stronger—and they are sticking to it?
Mr Hoban: My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on in his analysis. I believe that the 10-year gilt rates fell to 3.2% at the end of last week, which reflects the markets’ vote of confidence in the UK economy and particularly the fact that we took the difficult decisions that the Labour party shied away from when they were in government. We took those decisions, which is why the market rates are similar to those in Germany, yet our deficit is more in line with that of Portugal.
Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Does the Minister believe that the eurozone will remain intact with all its present members?
Mr Hoban: I am not going to comment on whether the eurozone will remain intact. Clearly, this crisis demonstrates the huge strain that the eurozone is under. That is why it was right for us to stay out of the eurozone.