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Lord Ezra: My Lords, reverting to the current trends in the building industry, is the Minister aware of the most recent report of the National Council of Building Material Producers? It reports a recent deterioration in order volumes and business confidence as continuing in the first months of this year, pointing to a sluggish performance. Is that not disturbing? How will it be put right?
Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, there is no doubt that the recovery is patchy in the construction industry. However, output began to increase last year after three-and-a-half years of decline. New orders are increasing and the growth is expected to continue. There is sustained construction growth at home and British
Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the information he has given is rather thin? It is to be hoped that the House will have more information before too long. In particular, will he say whether there will be trade union representation on the new body which has been set up? Further, will the Government not lose sight of the great importance of the building industry to employment? It affects employment in a number of ways, as the Minister knows. That is the main reason why, as my noble friend said, there is considerable urgency about action on it.
Viscount Ullswater: Yes, my Lords, but it should not be considered by the House, or the industry, that the target set by the Latham review is easy to achieve. There is no quick fix, and there is a need to change the whole culture of the industry. There may be requirements for legislation, but in order to ensure that the industry fully backs the legislation we need to consider it carefully. Of course, I am extremely worried about the level of unemployment in the construction industry. I am glad to say that over the past 12 months it fell remarkably and was less than in the previous three years.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Henley): My Lords, the International Monetary Fund loan can be financed within the IMF's existing funds. IMF finances are sound and its resources are subject to rigorous and prudent management. We do not believe, therefore, that the exposure of United Kingdom taxpayers has been increased significantly.
Turning to the proposed loan from the Bank for International Settlements, neither the Treasury nor the Bank of England has yet seen any formal proposals. The Bank of England, as United Kingdom member of the BIS, would need to seek appropriate security before participating to ensure that the risk to the Bank of England and the Exchequer was minimised.
Lord Henley: My Lords, I would rather not comment on the position of the Mexicans. All I can say at the moment is, as I said in my original Answer, we have not seen any formal proposals and I think that it would, therefore, be wrong to comment in advance of any.
Lord Eatwell: My Lords, will the Minister tell the House whether Her Majesty's Government were consulted prior to President Clinton's announcement of his rescue package for Mexico? That package effectively committed Britain to supporting the rescue, particularly through the Bank for International Settlements. If the Government were consulted, what was the British position conveyed to President Clinton prior to his announcement? If the British Government were not consulted, what representations have the Government made to President Clinton since his announcement?
Lord Henley: My Lords, the important point to stress is that we support the IMF's involvement and its provision of substantial funding for a strong reform programme. We believe that Mexico has the appropriate track record of economic reform in conjunction with the IMF. I can say that we had some technical reservations, following the proposals, about how the IMF proposed to provide support. In particular, we believe that the initial finance should have been tranched so that a larger proportion of the fund's resources would have been disbursed, subject to economic policy remaining on track.
Lord Henley: My Lords, I was trying to stress that the question of consultation is irrelevant. We are committed and we strongly support the IMF's involvement on this occasion. As the noble Lord will be aware, we normally do not reveal how we voted. However, the noble Lord will be aware that we abstained on this occasion, but that was for the technical reservations which I mentioned earlier.
Lord Stewartby: My Lords, the crisis in Mexico seems to have taken not only the US Administration but also the IMF and the BIS somewhat by surprise. Can my noble friend assure the House that the British Government will do their best to ensure that such situations are more closely monitored so that we are not bounced into making decisions at short notice?
Lord Henley: My Lords, it is always easy to say that we have been caught unawares and, with hindsight, easy to say that things should have been done somewhat differently. However, as my noble friend stressed, I believe that there are lessons to be drawn and we shall certainly consider them with other members of the IMF,
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, while I deplore any possible lack of consultation, when the International Monetary Fund considers the restructuring proposals for Mexico, will Her Majesty's Government bear in mind that one of the reasons for the loss of confidence in the peso was the level of social injustice, which led to great political instability in Mexico, notably in the state of Chiapas?
Viscount Montgomery of Alamein: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that Britain is the second largest investor in Mexico and, secondly, that it is a very important trading partner for Great Britain? Does he agree that by supporting this endeavour to ensure that Mexicowhich is a country of enormous economic resources will continue to be operational Her Majesty's Government have taken action that is very worth while?
Lord Henley: My Lords, I can agree with most of what my noble friend said. Mexico has made good progress over the past few years on open market policies. I believe that her difficulties are possibly short-term. Very strong policy action is being taken to tackle them. Therefore, I believe that it is right for the United Kingdom to join concerted international support for them.
Lord Kennet: My Lords, was the collapse of the Mexican currency that gave rise to the need for this loan in any way directly or indirectly due to the action of currency speculators of the Soros type? If so, can the noble Lord tell the House in a few words what measures the international community is now taking to prevent that happening to country after country?
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