Bank of England (Economic Affairs Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 1:52 pm ar 2 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 1:52, 2 Mai 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bridges of Headley, for introducing this debate and thank the Economic Affairs Committee for its report, some of which I agree with and some of which I strongly disagree with.

There are two themes in my remarks, addressing two key elements of the committee’s report: the lack of intellectual diversity in the Bank and its climate remit. I must begin by noting the lack of diversity in the discussions in your Lordships’ House today. I would love to see more noble Lords who focus on poverty, workers’ rights, the environment and the place of small and medium-sized enterprises and regional economies in debates such as this. There has been a high degree of groupthink in our debate today—that is true across our politics, of course, and there is a lack of democracy across all our structures. I acknowledge that I am addressing these remarks to noble Lords who are not in this Chamber rather than those who are here and speaking today.

I want to address the committee directly, because I took a careful look at the list of those who gave testimony to it. One name stuck out—Positive Money—on whose works my remarks today draw, but other than that, I find it curious that no name that leapt out at me was a climate expert or a climate finance expert. I found no reference to the committee consulting with our own Environment and Climate Change Committee. I respectfully put to the committee that in future, if it is going to comment on climate issues and make them a central part of its report, it might want to focus on more diverse testimony.

That is in the intellectual context in which debate on the Bank of England is highly siloed. If we look at much of the commentary around the actions of the Bank in 2021 and 2022, the criticism that we have heard very often today is that, as inflation reached its peak, the Bank was too slow to act. However, interest rate rises cannot address the main driver of the inflation that we have seen—that is, the dependence of our economy on fossil fuels that are priced in a highly volatile way. Much of the criticism and some of what we have heard today has been based on the flawed theory that inflation has been due to a wage-price spiral.

It is too often ignored that rate hikes have highly unequal impacts. They attempt to bring down inflation by reducing spending. The poorest and most indebted are the most affected, while the incomes of those with savings and the profits of the banking sector are increased. Crucially, in the climate context, the rate rises have added to the downside of the investments that we desperately need, because many green projects require a large amount of upfront investment, despite the fact that we will all profit from the cheaper prices of the energy generation of the reductions in bills from insulation, et cetera. Also, we live in a society of crumbling infrastructure—housing, roads and many other issues.

The commentary of the Lords committee, with which I respectfully disagree, suggests that giving the Monetary Policy Committee and the relevant policy committee a remit on climate change risks drawing the Bank into the Government’s wider policy agenda and jeopardises the Bank’s ability to prioritise price and financial stability. It is worth going into the history of this. It is a demonstration that campaigning works that, in 2021, the Government’s target of reaching net zero was included in the Government’s letters to all key policy-making committees for the first time. It was a step signalling the Government’s support for ambitious action to steer the financial flows away from harmful sources such as fossil fuels and towards green and sustainable industries.

Critics will say, and I would entirely agree, that central bank policies alone are no silver bullet for environmental crises, but central banks have a central role. Think of those core priorities—those objectives of price and financial stability. There is no stability on a dying planet. The economy is a complete subset of the environment, 100% dependent on it, rather than on complex equations unattached to the real world or assumptions that all resources are either infinite or replaceable. No, they are not. The practical reality is that the UK financial sector continues to pour money into new fossil fuels despite the reality of the carbon bubble and the huge financial risk that represents, while relying on climate risk models that fundamentally do not accurately translate into the complexity of the financial risk. That is looking only at climate. I would also point to the fact that the Bank needs to look more widely at all the other planetary boundaries that we have exceeded. We are seeing a great deal of focus at the moment on novel entities—pesticides, pharmaceuticals and plastics—and there are huge financial risks in that area as well.

To put this in a broader frame, the UK financial and economic system remains highly vulnerable to “fossilflation” while at the same time the impacts of climate change, such as on our food supply, are already causing “climateflation”. I coin another word, “shockflation”. We are in an age of shocks—the geopolitics are very obviously extremely unstable—and all these things must be considered in the round rather than simply looking at the economy as a set of equations sitting outside this.

We also have too much finance, too much money going into the financial sector rather than the real economy, just as most of the money from quantitative easing went into raising inequality, making the few richer and the rest of us poorer—much as it was needed, at least at the start, to tackle the chaos created by the greed and fraud of the bankers. The Bank, the Treasury and the Government are far too dependent on failed, outdated models and mathematical equations which bear no resemblance to the real world.

I move to the present day and the open letter, dated 16 March, referring to the remarks made by the Governor of the Bank of England to the Lords Economic Affairs Committee, that the Bank has reduced its resourcing for climate emergency work, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, referred. The timing of these remarks—this action—could not be worse in a world that is on fire, awash and melting. I have a direct question for the Minister and, indeed, the Labour Front Bench. Will they support the calls by so many eminent economists in a letter—I declare that the Green Party’s spokesperson, Molly Scott Cato, was among the signatories—to reprioritise work in the Bank to align the financial sector with the Government’s climate goals, reversing the resource cuts and to reassert the Bank of England as a climate leader, as a matter of urgency?

I shall briefly address the issue of the Bank’s intellectual diversity. It is not independent of failed ideology and a discipline that has simply run out of road. During the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, I suggested to my now-House colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, that the remain campaign should stop saying “economists say”, because no believes them, and that is even more the case now. Neo-classical economics is the absolute opposite of systemic thinking; we need systematic, scientific, sociologically and politically literate thinking in the Bank and Treasury and across government. We are in the age of post-growth; not only can we not have infinite growth on a finite planet but we will not have growth in at least the coming decade. To quote the IMF chief, the “tepid twenties” are with us.

On diversity, they will not thank me for this, but I will suggest some names that the Bank of England should start drawing on: Jason Hickel; Kate Raworth; Julia Steinberger; Ann Pettifor; Tim Jackson and Judith Kirton-Darling. All of them spoke at the post-growth conference in the European Parliament last year that was backed by all but the far right group there. I shall hazard a prediction that there were several future economics laureates speaking there, with original thinking that is lacking in what is regarded as the economic mainstream.

I will quickly raise one final issue with the Minister. The New Economics Foundation states:

“The government could save £55bn over the next five years if it limits the amount of money the Bank of England pays interest on to commercial banks … The Treasury will pay out over £150bn to the Bank of England to fund its payments to the banking sector by 2028, this on top of the £30bn already paid out in 2023”.

Surely, this is something that other countries are not doing and that we did not do in the past, which we can reverse?