Interest Rates May Rise Sooner Than Expected 
Interest rates may rise by a quarter of a point as early as November, according to predictions from the Ernst & Young ITEM club.

Going against popular opinion amongst analysts, Peter Spencer, ITEM's chief economic adviser, has said that, as long as European and US policymakers can allay sovereign debt concerns and calm the bond markets, "things should turn out OK".

The ITEM Club is the only non-governmental economic forecasting group to use the HM Treasury model of the UK economy and Mr Spencer used to be a Treasury adviser, so his prediction is a significant departure from recent thinking.

Until recently Mr Spencer has consistently argued that the Bank of England should "hold its nerve" and leave rates unchanged until there is compelling evidence that the country is coping with austerity.

His reasoning now is that inflation will start to fall in January and that there are signs of a stronger economic recovery. "The Bank has a window of opportunity to start to normalise rates in the New Year," he said.

"In January, VAT and last year's commodity price rises drop out. As inflation comes down, so does pressure on household budgets. So the Bank can raise rates without squeezing people too badly”, he added.

Inflation is currently running at 4.2 per cent but is expected to drop automatically to around 3 per cent at the start of 2012.

General opinion holds that the Bank needs to start "normalising" rates, which is generally interpreted as beginning the process of increasing them from the current historic low of 0.5 per cent back to around 5 per cent.

However, despite his surprise prediction, the ITEM club has concluded that the economy will grow by just 1.4 per cent this year, a lower revised estimate than the 1.8 per cent it predicted in April, as business confidence has been dented by Europe’s debt crisis.

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Entrepreneurs Honoured 
156 of Britain’s most enterprising and talented individuals gathered at Buckingham Palace last night to meet the Queen and other members of the Royal Family.

The attendees were announced as this year’s winners of the Queen’s Award For Enterprise 2011 and are people who have played an outstanding and significant role in promoting the growth of business enterprise and entrepreneurial skills and attitudes in others.

Before the reception, Business Secretary Vince Cable presented those present with the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion, as the Government is keen to promote a culture of enterprise and entrepreneurship, to make sure Britain’s businesses are able to drive forward the economic recovery.

The Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion is one of four awards under the umbrella title of The Queen’s Awards for Enterprise. There are three awards for outstanding achievement by businesses in the categories of Innovation, International Trade and Sustainable Development.

Dr Cable said: “It’s wonderful to see that, even with a difficult economic climate, individuals continue to find enterprising ways of working and helping others to establish their businesses.”

Recipients received an engraved chalice and a Grant of Appointment, as well as the honour of the award and of attending the Royal event. Representatives from each winning business also attended the reception.

The Business Secretary went on to say: “It’s important we create the right conditions for Britain’s new and up-and-coming entrepreneurs to succeed and I strongly encourage businesses to start thinking about nominations for next year.”

The awards are made annually by The Queen and are only given for the highest levels of excellence demonstrated in each category. They are judged to a demanding level and winners receive a number of benefits and worldwide recognition.

Previous winners of the Innovation, International Trade and Sustainable Development awards have come from a diverse selection of business sectors, including large and small businesses.

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Future Pensions Liability 
The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) published figures yesterday showing that the UK's total liability for funding public sector pensions has reached £1.13 trillion.

Ministers are expected to use the data to reinforce their argument that pensions must be reformed, as a massive £22bn tax rise would be needed on top of the current austerity push to shrink it to its pre-crisis level.

“On current policy we would eventually expect to see public sector net debt on a continuously rising trajectory as a share of GDP," the OBR said in its report. "This would clearly be unsustainable." The "main lesson" of its analysis is that future governments are likely to have to undertake some additional fiscal tightening beyond the current parliament, it said.

Most public servants, with the exception of local government staff and university lecturers, are members of unfunded pension schemes in which the pensions are paid for out of general taxation.

The OBR's figure for pension liabilities is an estimate of the stock of assets the government would need now, if an investment fund had to be established to generate the cash to make all the future public sector pension payments.

The report makes the point that its calculation of the taxpayers’ total liability to pay public sector pensions "had nothing to do with changes in the size of prospective pension payments".

It also points out that if future pension payments are compared to the size of the UK's total economic output (gross domestic product) the cash value of public sector pensions will probably fall from 2 per cent of GDP in 2015-16 to 1.4 per cent in 2060-61.

"Our report should not be taken to imply that the consolidation already in the pipeline for the next four years should be made even bigger," the OBR added.

"That said, policymakers and would-be policymakers should certainly think carefully about the long-term consequences of any policies they introduce in the short term ... once the challenge of the current consolidation has passed."

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Cheques To Stay 
The banking industry has announced that it has decided not to scrap the use of cheques as a means of payment after all, following an outcry from the public and businesses.

The Payments Council, a banking industry body, had been planning to replace cheques by 2018. But after widespread criticism from MPs and charities, it has now decided they will be kept "as long as customers need them".

MPs on the House of Commons’ Treasury select committee, which had been highly critical of the plans, said the about-turn was “a victory for Middle England”. Pressure will now be on retailers, which had stopped accepting cheques as 2018 approached, to start honouring them again.

The decision was described by the Nationwide building society as a victory for the consumer and a common sense approach.

"Scrapping cheques would have had serious ramifications, not only for the elderly and most vulnerable in society, but also for small businesses and charities that rely on this payment method," the society said.

The industry plan received severe criticism from Mark Hoban, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, in June. He said there was no "credible and coherent case" for the abolition of cheques before an alternative had been fully tested.

Last year, 620 million payments were made by cheque, compared with 6.29 billion by debit card, and 1.88 billion by credit card. Despite its popularity with some, cheque use is fast declining, with 1.1 billion cheques written in 2010, down from 4 billion 20 years ago.

John Walker, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said: “It is great news that the Payments Council has reversed its decision to abolish the cheque.

“Scrapping the humble cheque would have put many small firms at a disadvantage, especially in rural areas which rely on the cheque for payments.”

The cheque guarantee card, which has already been axed, will not be re-introduced.

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Smallest Firms Still Losing Out On Loans 
According to an independent survey released yesterday by the British Bankers Association (BBA) Taskforce, small companies are being rejected for loans and overdrafts much more than they would have been before the financial crisis.

The survey of 5,000 small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) also found that confidence in the banks is weakening, with just 40 per cent of the SMEs planning to secure new or to renew existing finance in the next 12 months saying they were confident of succeeding compared with 70 per cent of those who had applied in the last year.

Banks are also turning away more businesses seeking overdrafts. Some 72 per cent were approved on the initial approach last year, compared with 90 per cent in 2007. Worryingly, rejection rates were higher for the smallest businesses than for more established companies.

John Walker, National Chairman, Federation of Small Businesses, said: "These figures tell us what we already knew: the very smallest businesses are the ones bearing the brunt of a contraction in bank lending. Small firms have been telling us for the past few years that they are fearful of approaching the banks for new finance, or to extend an overdraft, because they know they are likely to be turned down, or be offered a deal on terms that just aren't favourable for them.”

However, the statistics were viewed differently by the BBA, which responded with:

“Today’s results show that most business are able to get the credit they need and that customers with a good track record and sound credit history find the process straight forward. It clearly pays to have a strong, ongoing relationship with your bank, as existing customers were rarely turned down.”

They did add, however: “... some businesses are concerned about the process and we will address this issue.”

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