HL Deb 24 March 1987 vol 486 cc117-9

3.15 p.m.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government why the 1986 current account deficit which was stated to be £360 million, is now stated to be £1,100 million.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Lord Brabazon of Tara)

My Lords, estimates of the current account are the responsibility of the Central Statistical Office. Its figures are frequently revised.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, I note that Ministers of this Government have now taken the unusual step of not being responsible for what they say. Is it not serious that the current account, which was shown to have a £3 billion surplus only the year before last, should now been seen to have a £1 million deficit?

Noble Lords


Lord Diamond

My Lords, is that not a serious matter? Is it not equally serious that the gap in the trade balance should have increased in the same year from £2 billion to £8 billion? Irrespective of any minor variation in the figures, what do the Government propose to do about that? Do they propose to ask the CSO to have another look at its figures?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, the CSO is responsible for producing the figures. The noble Lord's Question refers to the change in the invisible figures which were the only ones which were altered. They are based on the best information that it can assemble on each occasion. The first estimate for any month is a projection only, based on little firm evidence. That is gradually improved over time as the many different pieces of information come in. Some do not come in for months or even years. The noble Lord referred to future predictions and the trade deficit. I confirm that the Red Book figure is £2.5 billion for this year. However, I point out that between 1974 and 1979 the current account deficit averaged 1.2 per cent. of GDP. The projection is for a £2.5 billion deficit for the coming year, which is about 0.5 per cent. only of GDP.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that when Labour won the general election in 1964, its main plank was a balance of payments deficit of £860 million, which on present prices is nearer £8 billion? The noble Lord, Lord Diamond, went to the Treasury as Chief Secretary and started to take remedial action on those figures only to discover that they were inaccurate and that the actions were unnecessary, because the amount was less than half that which had been so widely publicised. Does not that show that the CSO is at least getting rather better at calculating the true figures than it was 23 years ago?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, my noble friend is right. As I said in my second answer, the CSO figures on invisibles are difficult to collect. Much of the information takes a long time to come in—sometimes months or even years.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, will the Minister say on what authority he said that the noble Lord was right? Is the Minister aware that the first thing that happened on the first day on which I took up my responsibility as Chief Secretary was that I was presented with a piece of paper by the senior adviser to the Treasury showing that there was that deficit, which has been widely publicised since? Is it not monstrous that at this stage anyone, especially a supporter of a government who are in all these difficulties, should challenge that figure?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I do not accept the latter part of the accusation made by the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, that the Government are in difficulties. They certainly are not. That is proved by the CBI forecasts which came out this morning and which are the best forecasts for 10 years. As for what happened in 1964, 1 was still at school and I do not know.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that whatever difficulties were found when the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, went to the Treasury, they were absolutely nothing compared with when he left it?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I think I am becoming somewhat surplus to this debate across the Floor of the House.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, reverting to the Question on the Order Paper, does the noble Lord not agree that towards the end of last year, when the CSO introduced revised estimates for the invisible trade of this country, it confused the situation and would have been much better advised to wait until the real figures were available? Will this practice of replacing estimates with estimates be discontinued in the future?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I shall certainly draw the remarks of the noble Lord to the attention of my right honourable friend. However, as I have said on an earlier occasion, it is difficult to produce these estimates as the figures take a considerable length of time to come in.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, the House has heard some extraordinary comments from people who have no knowledge of the circumstances but who are already engaged in the next general election. As the Minister has said he has no knowledge of these matters, can I ask whether there is some other Minister available who had left school by this stage and who could therefore give us some information? Will he confirm whether my recollection is correct and that I am right in suggesting that at the time I ceased to be Chief Secretary to the Treasury not only was public expenditure under total control but the public sector borrowing requirement was a negative figure? That is to say, we did not borrow a penny, but repaid, in that final year. Is that not the state of affairs? Is it not correct that unemployment at that time was below half a million? And is it not correct that inflation was of the order of 4 per cent?

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, however all that may be—and I cannot say that I was not alive at the time because I was in Parliament—I still do not think that I would wish to enter into the debate except to say this. I am in the hands of the House, but I have to say that we have strayed a very long way from what we have agreed ourselves in the Select Committee on Procedures with regard to Questions. Possibly the best way we can get back to doing what we all agreed we would do is to give up this particular Question Time now.