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Be prepared for euro, Brown urges

GORDON BROWN, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, yesterday stressed the importance of being ready for the start of the single European currency on 1 January 1999 even though the Government has postponed British entry. "We must be ready to get the most from it for Britain," he told MPs, reaffirming the Government's policy of enthusiasm in principle but caution in practice.

The Chancellor's evidence before the Treasury Committee of the House of Commons generated unusual excitement when Quentin Davies, a Tory Euro- enthusiast, accused the Government of "running away from taking a decision" because of pressure from Rupert Murdoch and his stable of newspapers.

But Mr Brown denied the charge that his five economic tests for British membership were a pretence. "Other countries have been preparing for monetary union for almost six years now. We have not made those preparations," he said, explaining the decision to stay out of the first wave.

The Chancellor refused to answer repeated questions about whether the UK would be prepared to veto the membership of any other country which did not meet the strict letter of the Maastricht criteria for membership.

"Over a period of time there have been considerable advances," he said, asked about whether all those countries which wanted to join would meet the targets for the levels of budget deficits and debt set out in the treaty.

Britain, which holds the EU presidency, would look carefully at the reports from the European Commission and European Monetary Institute next month, Mr Brown said. He refused to be drawn on which countries he thought would qualify.

The Chancellor emphasised the practical preparations that would be needed before the UK could join and the need for sustainable economic convergence. He confirmed it would be possible for companies to have their shares quoted and to pay taxes in euros from next January.

Mr Brown said the UK and other European countries had an agenda of economic reform ahead of them. The single currency would satisfy his test on jobs - one of the five set out by the Treasury - if this programme of structural reform was under way by early in the next parliament.

Separately, Helen Liddell, Economic Secretary to the Treasury, launched a green paper on the future of official statistics. The paper set out four options for an independent national statistical service.

Ms Liddell said there were widespread doubts about the validity of many statistics, and the Government attached the greatest importance to improving their integrity. The option under which some departments would keep control of their statistics, subject to an independent commission or governing board, looks the most likely outcome.