Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, as other noble Lords have said, this stage of the debate is quite difficult. However, I refute what the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, said, when he said that others say that nothing should be done. I cite the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, who said that it is a question of timing, severity and pace, and the current Government have got it wrong.
The noble Lord, Lord Stewartby, who is currently not in his place, spoke about people talking about gloom and doom in 1981 which did not happen. When I was on the Lancashire County Council with the noble Lord, Lord Greaves-now a member of a government party-Lancashire was knocked for six by government policies in 1981. Some of the Conservatives down in London never noticed it happen. Lancashire County Council’s response concerned the discretionary element of local government-educational maintenance awards-particularly for young people in areas such as Skelmersdale. It is pretty horrific to see that progress being withdrawn.
The reduction referred to in local authority budgets is approximately 27 per cent over four years. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to the community and officers in Lancashire. All around the House, noble Lords know about the various local initiatives that have come from the flexibility of that part of local authority budgets where they can choose what to do. We are about to see the decimation of that across the country.
I have news for the noble Viscount-he may have missed it yesterday-but the Minister for children in another place suggested that local authorities could save money by recruiting volunteers to complement the work of social workers. I listened very carefully to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester and others in the Chamber. I am a passionate supporter of and I declare a non-pecuniary interest in the Scouts and the youth service in Lancashire and I have local
government experience. If we look to the big society to replace social workers, to replace all the services currently undertaken at local authority level, things will go wrong.
The day the Prime Minister was expanding on the big society, I happened to be in the garden at Dolphin Square speaking to a Republican Presbyterian minister from a small town in Texas. He said to me, “It’s very funny in this country. Ronald Reagan had that idea. He came to visit our community in Texas and we worked it out that, to replace the publicly funded services, a church with the population of 200 regular communicants would have to raise $600,000”. That is the issue.
The issue is not that those of us who argue with the concept of the big society are opposed to voluntarism. Like people across this Chamber, we have all been involved in the voluntary sector, worked with it and supported it. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester was quite right to say that there is a lot going on out of there, but there is a great deal that can be damaged out there. The history of the charitable sector and true localism-by “true localism” I mean not cutting the discretionary budgets of local authorities-is innovation, initiative and meeting demand, which has then been taken over as a general universal right. My heavens, this Government’s budget, with its crippling timing, pace and severity, is about to destroy what centuries of people have put right. My heart goes out to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester on the issue of family and community stability. I represented part of Preston called Ribbleton for years. Terrible actions cause damage to the whole community and a whole generation of workers was wiped out because Courtauld moved in to get a grant and then moved out when the grant stopped and it was
cheaper to go somewhere else. In that community we have some severe problems. The majority of people are stable, local people. They go to local churches. They will work with voluntary organisations. They help each other out. They visit the elderly down the street. However, if you start smashing their right to live in their social housing, all that will happen is that you will take the guts out of what is good in that community. That will be replicated up and down the country.
I did not think I would ever criticise the noble Lord, Lord Newby, for this in this Chamber but today the noble Lords, Lord Plumb and Lord Newby, raised the issue of public sector funding. The noble Lord, Lord Plumb, was probably the most honest; he got very close to saying, “What about more money for agriculture?”. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, said that the previous Government were spending too much money. My heavens, I look around this Chamber, where people have said, “Why can we not have more money for cleaning up the sea? Why can we not spend more on footpaths? Why can we not spend more on roads? Why can we not spend more on trains? Schools want more”. This has come from all around the Chamber. When we were in government the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats never once stood up and said, “When will this Government stop spending money on the things we think are important?”.
should be fairness. But, please, as we go through what will be a very grim experience-not for me or, I suspect, for many people in this Chamber-can we add the qualities of honesty and transparency?
Lord James of Blackheath: My Lords, I do not know what you have done to deserve me this late in the evening but I am afraid that is where it is. It has been a fascinating day. I particularly enjoyed the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, on the subject of “Brigadoon”, which was the first play I ever saw in the West End. I do not think she delivered the punchline. The whole point about “Brigadoon” was that it came out of the mist for only one day in every 100 years. That is a lovely idea for the Opposition.
We have heard today a great many tales of woe and dismay about the future, and some of optimism from this side. I am concerned about where the common ground is in that. One of the lessons of what is now quite a long life is that nothing is ever quite as bad or quite as good as you expect. It is probable that there will be a little more common ground between us than we might foresee at the moment. We might assist that process because growth will be what brings the two sides together. The more growth we can achieve, the more scope there will be to deal with some of the greater calamities that might occur unforeseen-since everything is unforeseen in politics.
I will talk a little about some of the growth opportunities that we might be able to harness and what we can do. As I have mentioned before, one of my great messages is a lesson from Sir Kenneth Cork, who taught me most of what I know about corporate rescue. It is that you cannot rescue a business that does not have a successful past. Anything that does not have a successful past is a failed start-up. Get rid of it and concentrate on the businesses that have a successful past. Where, today, are the businesses with a successful past? They are languishing in the intensive care units of the banks. They cannot get out because most of them have been the victims of expanding their capacity beyond the demands of the marketplace. That is a very expensive situation to get out of once you are in it. It was done with some dexterity and considerable success in the early 1970s through the initiatives that were forthcoming from three Is: investment in industry. One of the great tragedies of our economy at present is that we do not have three Is functioning in that form today. Boy, do we need them.
I am very much a believer in the principle of the collective collapse of generic groups of businesses as entities. Let me give some examples. At the present moment this year, we have probably lost half a million cars in our British export market. They would have been a very big additional factor to the economy, both in production-the wages that would have gone to the people who built them-and in the export value they would have had. Why? It is because the banks played their usual dirty trick a year or two ago: they saw that there were big markets outside-big back-orders-so they let the businesses have the money that they needed to fund the delivery of the order books that they had. The orders came in; they took the cash, reduced the facilities and the automotive component industry did
not have the working capital to gear up for the massive turn to the diesel engines, which were demanded, and the British export market could not maintain the export requirement necessary to maintain its position on the international scene.
That has largely been corrected now but a similar problem may well happen. The next big crisis is going to come in the second week of February next year when the huge crisis that comes cyclically every year afflicts the retail sector worse than ever. It is already bereft on the high street-with shuttered shops and redundant staff, and a very dismal sight it is. What happens in the banking industry is that it knows that in the first two weeks of February every year, all the credit cards that have been used to buy goods going into Christmas pay, and the retail industry has the lowest borrowings of the year. The banks lie in wait and they grab them. Remember Woolworths? Who is coming next?
So we need someone who can take a grip on a general strategy to save the retail industry from another calamity. One of the great regrets I have at the moment is that the person who would best be able to do that is Sir Philip Green, and he is doing something else. I hope that the Government will hold on to him, and once he has actually finished his present task, he will be told to go and cherry pick the entire retail industry languishing in the hands of the banks, and put together the next version of British Home Stores as a government subsidiary which needs funding and which can be imposed on the banking industry by grabbing each bit, despite the fact that there will be minority bank interests that will not want to sell out for the benefit of the major bank interest, which will get the cream of the equity conversion. That is what three Is should exist to do, and what it did so brilliantly before, and that is why we need it back now.
Another element of the world out there at the moment which is potentially waiting for the pratfall of a massive collective bankruptcy is the food processing industry. The more the accent is moved from the small corner shop to the big grocers, the more production has been stepped up by the food producers to satisfy the ever-increasing demands for cheap food coming through the grocery chains. Of course, they have fallen into the trap again of funding themselves to too high a capacity for the market demand with the result that the grocers can rub their hands with glee and say, “We can screw the margins down so tight you won’t be able to breathe” and the suppliers are going to go collectively “pop” at some point in the next few months, because they will not be able to keep up and there is a big social factor coming. We will have the present dependence on cheap food to keep some sort of society structure fed, but we will actually end up being forced up on prices as the industry goes out of business in terms of its ability to keep supply going and prices are forced up in the grocery chains. This is going to be another calamity coming, and we need to have a top-down view as to what to do with it.
I have given your Lordships three examples of why I think we need something, but the creation of the three Is along the lines that I have been talking about would be of the order of a £5 billion cheque required
to do it. However, we do not have £5 billion; we do not have half of £5 billion to put in to the creation of this at the moment, so what do we do about it? At this point, I am going to have to make a very big apology to my noble friend Lord Sassoon, because I am about to raise a subject that I should not raise and which is going to be one which I think is now time to put on a higher awareness, and to explain to the House as a whole, as I do not think your Lordships have any knowledge of it. I am sorry my noble friend Lord Strathclyde is not with us at the moment, because this deeply concerns him also.
For the past 20 weeks I have been engaged in a very strange dialogue with the two noble Lords, in the course of which I have been trying to bring to their attention the willing availability of a strange organisation which wishes to make a great deal of money available to assist the recovery of the economy in this country. For want of a better name, I shall call it foundation X. That is not its real name, but it will do for the moment. Foundation X was introduced to me 20 weeks ago last week by an eminent City firm, which is FSA controlled. Its chairman came to me and said, “We have this extraordinary request to assist in a major financial reconstruction. It is megabucks, but we need your help to assist us in understanding whether this business is legitimate”. I had the biggest put down of my life from my noble friend Lord Strathclyde when I told him this story. He said, “Why you? You’re not important enough to have the answer to a question like that”. He is quite right, I am not important enough, but the answer to the next question was, “You haven’t got the experience for it”. Yes I do. I have had one of the biggest experiences in the laundering of terrorist money and funny money that anyone has had in the City. I have handled billions of pounds of terrorist money.
Lord James of Blackheath: Not into my pocket. My biggest terrorist client was the IRA and I am pleased to say that I managed to write off more than £1 billion of its money. I have also had extensive connections with north African terrorists, but that was of a far nastier nature, and I do not want to talk about that because it is still a security issue. I hasten to add that it is no good getting the police in, because I shall immediately call the Bank of England as my defence witness, given that it put me in to deal with these problems.
The point is that when I was in the course of doing this strange activity, I had an interesting set of phone numbers and references that I could go to for help when I needed it. So people in the City have known that if they want to check out anything that looks at all odd, they can come to me and I can press a few phone numbers to obtain a reference. The City firm came to me and asked whether I could get a reference and a clearance on foundation X. For 20 weeks, I have been endeavouring to do that. I have come to the absolute conclusion that foundation X is completely genuine and sincere and that it directly wishes to make the United Kingdom one of the principal points that it will use to disseminate its extraordinarily great wealth into the world at this present moment, as part of an attempt to seek the recovery of the global economy.
I made the phone call to my noble friend Lord Strathclyde on a Sunday afternoon-I think he was sitting on his lawn, poor man-and he did the quickest ball pass that I have ever witnessed. If England can do anything like it at Twickenham on Saturday, we will have a chance against the All Blacks. The next think I knew, I had my noble friend Lord Sassoon on the phone. From the outset, he took the proper defensive attitude of total scepticism, and said, “This cannot possibly be right”. During the following weeks, my noble friend said, “Go and talk to the Bank of England”. So I phoned the governor and asked whether he could check this out for me. After about three days, he came back and said, “You can get lost. I’m not touching this with a bargepole; it is far too difficult. Take it back to the Treasury”. So I did. Within another day, my noble friend Lord Sassoon had come back and said, “This is rubbish. It can’t possibly be right”. I said, “I am going to work more on it”. Then I brought one of the senior executives from foundation X to meet my noble friend Lord Strathclyde. I have to say that, as first dates go, it was not a great success. Neither of them ended up by inviting the other out for a coffee or drink at the end of the evening, and they did not exchange telephone numbers in order to follow up the meeting.
I found myself between a rock and a hard place that were totally paranoid about each other, because the foundation X people have an amazing obsession with their own security. They expect to be contacted only by someone equal to head of state status or someone with an international security rating equal to the top six people in the world. This is a strange situation. My noble friends Lord Sassoon and Lord Strathclyde both came up with what should have been an absolute killer argument as to why this could not be true and that we should forget it. My noble friend Lord Sassoon’s argument was that these people claimed to have evidence that last year they had lodged £5 billion with British banks. They gave transfer dates and the details of these transfers. As my noble friend Lord Sassoon, said, if that were true it would stick out like a sore thumb. You could not have £5 billion popping out of a bank account without it disrupting the balance sheet completely. But I remember that at about the same time as those transfers were being made the noble Lord, Lord Myners, was indulging in his game of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic of the British banking community. If he had three banks at that time, which had had, say, a deficiency of £1.5 billion each, then you would pretty well have absorbed the entire £5 billion, and you would not have had the sore thumb stick out at that time; you would have taken £1.5 billion into each of three banks and you would have absorbed the lot. That would be a logical explanation-I do not know.
My noble friend Lord Strathclyde came up with a very different argument. He said that this cannot be right because these people said at the meeting with him that they were still effectively on the gold standard from back in the 1920s and that their entire currency holdings throughout the world, which were very large, were backed by bullion. My noble friend Lord Strathclyde came back and said to me that he had an analyst working on it and that this had to be stuff and nonsense. He said that they had come up with a figure
for the amount of bullion that would be needed to cover their currency reserves, as claimed, which would be more than the entire value of bullion that had ever been mined in the history of the world. I am sorry but my noble friend Lord Strathclyde is wrong; his analysts are wrong. He had tapped into the sources that are available and there is only one definitive source for the amount of bullion that has ever been taken from the earth’s crust. That was a National Geographic magazine article 12 years ago. Whatever figure it was that was quoted was then quoted again on six other sites on the internet-on Google. Everyone is quoting one original source; there is no other confirming authority. But if you tap into the Vatican accounts-of the Vatican bank-you come up with a claim of total bullion-
Lord James of Blackheath: The total value of the Vatican bank reserves would claim to be more than the entire value of gold ever mined in the history of the world. My point on all of this is that we have not proven any of this. Foundation X is saying at this moment that it is prepared to put up the entire £5 billion for the funding of the three Is recreation; the British Government can have the entire independent management and control of it-foundation X does not want anything to do with it; there will be no interest charged; and, by the way, if the British Government would like it as well, if it will help, it will be prepared to put up money for funding hospitals, schools, the building of Crossrail immediately with £17 billion transfer by Christmas, if requested, and all these other things. These things can be done, if wished, but a senior member of the Government has to accept the invitation to a phone call to the chairman of foundation X-and then we can get into business. This is too big an issue. I am just an ageing, obsessive old Peer and I am easily dispensable, but getting to the truth is not. We need to know what really is happening here. We must find out the truth of this situation.