HC Deb 06 May 1993 vol 224 cc272-3
4. Mr. Spring

To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer how many countries in the EC have lower base rates than the United Kingdom.

Mr. Lamont

None. The United Kingdom has the lowest short-term market interest rates in the European Community.

Mr. Spring

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that as a result of the substantial interest rate reductions in Britain since 1990, annual corporate cash flow has increased by £11 billion? Does that not provide British industry with an immense opportunity to attack markets, both at home and abroad, with renewed confidence and from a stronger financial base?

Mr. Lamont

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He would of course, highlight the fact that half the interest rate cuts, which amount to some £11 billion, occurred before September. That is having a major impact on recovery now. I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend says. In addition to the relaxation in monetary policy, there have been a number of other specific measures: what we did in the Budget last year, in halving the car tax, and then in the autumn statement last year, by removing the car tax altogether. That undoubtedly, in the opinion of the those involved in the motor industry, has been a major stimulus and encouragement to this industry, which is at the heart of British manufacturing. In addition, the measures that we have taken to encourage the housing market—in the last Budget, by raising the threshold on stamp duty, and in the autumn statement, by putting in a very large sum of public money to take empties off the housing market—have contributed to the recovery that we now see.

Mr. Sheldon

Yes, but when the right hon. Gentleman talks about the improvement in retail sales, is he not aware that that in itself will not lead to any recovery? We have a £17.5 billion balance of payments deficit to come. The only recovery will come from exports and investment and it is to those that he should turn.

Mr. Lamont

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that our eyes ought to be on the long term and that the House ought to be dealing with making Britain more competitive and ensuring that our public finances are in sound order. I would stress what the right hon. Gentleman did not—the need to bring down the public sector borrowing requirement, which is a high priority for us. Manufacturing investment, to which I think that the right hon. Gentleman referred, increased in the last three quarters of last year. There has been a large increase in our exports to non-European Community countries, which are up 12 per cent. on one year ago. There is every indication that British industry is highly competitive and that, given the right framework, sustained recovery and the right policies, it can compete and will beat the competition.

Mr. John Townend

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in view of our large budget deficit, there will inevitably be upward pressure on interest rates unless that deficit is reduced, as the Government will have to sell more and more Government stock to finance it? Does he therefore agree that it is vital that public expenditure is reduced in the November Budget so that interest rates can be kept low and the recovery continued?

Mr. Lamont

I very much agree with my hon. Friend that there is a connection between the total borrowing requirement and interest rates, both at the short and the long end. It is important for us to have public expenditure under control and for the PSBR to be on a declining path. I notice that the Labour party seems to agree with that sentiment and seems to wish to get on the attack over it, but we have not heard one suggestion from the shadow Chancellor to rectify that aspect of policy.

Mr. Wigley

Does the Chancellor accept that now interest rates are down to a tolerable level, perhaps the most important thing for manufacturing industry and the jobs dependent on it is to maintain the stability of interest rates, so that there can be a foreseeable interest rate level for the investment cycle? When considering future interest rates, will the right hon. Gentleman also bear in mind pensioners who have a relatively small amount of money saved and are dependent on interest for the money on which to live?

Mr. Lamont

The hon. Gentleman refers to interest rates being at a tolerable or acceptable level; they are at the lowest level for 15 years and are the lowest in the European Community and mortgage rates are at their lowest for 20 years. He also referred to savers and I entirely agree. During the last Question Time in which I answered questions about interest rates, I said that I thought that the postbag on interest rates was running 50:50 in favour of higher rates. In all honesty, it is now running at 8:1 in favour of higher rates.

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