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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 2:27 pm ar 2 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Kramer Baroness Kramer Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Treasury and Economy) 2:27, 2 Mai 2024

My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan of Chelsea, on his maiden speech. He speaks with great expertise. I suspect that occasionally we will agree, but frequently we will disagree, but that is the purpose of the House.

I was privileged to be on the Economic Affairs Committee when it developed the report and so this is my opportunity to thank our chair, the noble Lord, Lord Bridges of Headley, for his outstanding leadership on this and other issues. I miss participating in the EAC.

I will speak later about accountability and the lessons that we have to learn that are embedded in this report and the Bernanke report. But to my surprise, I think it is very important that I first state clearly and unwaveringly the support of my party for an operationally independent Bank of England. It seems to me that in the debate today that has been called into question—along a spectrum, perhaps with the noble Lords, Lord Frost and Lord Blackwell, at the more extreme end—but it is crucial if we are to have credibility in domestic and international public markets and with the public at large. If there is one body that the public mistrusts more than the Bank of England, it is certainly politicians. I thank the noble Lord, Lord King, for giving us in great detail examples of how it is just impossible for anyone at a senior level in politics not to seek to manipulate issues such as interest rates and inflation when there is electoral and political victory at stake.

As I said, the report contains many recommendations that I hope will be taken up. The one that captures me the most, and this was picked up by virtually every speaker, is the issue of groupthink. The noble Earl, Lord Effingham, quoted Ben Bernanke, whose observation that the Bank’s

“deficiencies were characteristic of the central banking community in general rather than the Bank alone” speaks to the broad groupthink that affected the whole central banking community globally.

I fully endorse the recommendations in our report for more diversity of thought at the Bank and the proposal that the Court of the Bank should play a stronger oversight role. Back in 2016 I opposed the Government’s decision to reduce the number of non-executives on the court and abolish its oversight committee. It is now vital that challenge be brought back into the system, at both court and monetary policy level. I will talk about accountability later, but the element of challenge is vital. It is just improbable that people of sufficient calibre and expertise, across a variety of thought, cannot be recruited into the various and appropriate bodies within the committees of the Bank.

I turn to the Bernanke report. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell—and the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, may have said the same thing—I was shocked to realise just how out of date the tools are that underpin economic forecasting at the Bank. For those who have not read the report, the phrases include:

“Some key software is out of date and lacks functionality … insufficient resources … makeshift fixes … unwieldy system”.

That is really quite damning. How we got here I do not know, but I suspect that everyone in the House would agree that it needs to be changed quickly, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, is certainly someone I would turn to for advice in this arena.

Once we got a grip on the fact that the forecasting is inadequate at present, I began to have some understanding of why neither the Bank nor the Treasury seems to capture and understand the risks of continuous quantitative easing, including the fiscal implications of, in effect, swapping nearly half the public debt overnight from long-term fixed rates to volatile rates, halving duration and aggravating asset inflation. We have to recognise that quantitative easing was a vital tool in dealing with liquidity problems, certainly after the 2008 crash and in the early days of Covid, but it is not an elixir to drive forward economic growth. That issue should have been caught if we had had much better forecasting and ranges of scenarios as well as diversity of thinking.

We now face quantitative tightening at a time when the Treasury is also issuing high levels of public debt and one of the major purchasers of gilts, the DB pension funds, have far less appetite for those instruments. We are in a difficult place, and it is going to take some time to unwind all this. I go back to the argument that these issues need to be resolved by the Bank objectively looking at the economy, not by political interference.

As well as fixing the system at the Bank, we have to ensure that the Treasury and the Bank can at least communicate properly with each other, without compromising the Bank’s independence, to ensure that fiscal policy and monetary policy are made with an understanding of what is happening in each arena. As our report says, that co-ordination responsibility falls primarily with the Government; they set the inflation target for the Bank and control fiscal policy. However, as we took evidence, I could not see any clear lines of responsibility or clear communication mechanisms. It seems to me that the issue is handled largely informally, and I think we would all ask for more clarity. I strongly endorse the report’s recommendation that the Bank and the Debt Management Office of HM Treasury should publish an MoU on the interaction between monetary policy and debt management. Like the many others who have said this, I simply do not understand why the Treasury does not publish the deed of indemnity—that is completely beyond me.

Our report—this is where I probably differ from some others on the committee—focuses quite strongly on the remit of the Bank, which has of course expanded significantly in recent years, and recommends far more transparency and debate around that remit, especially in Parliament. I agree with that process of debate and transparency, but I think this issue is getting seriously overplayed. Staff and resource the Bank properly and, it seems to me, it can cope with more than a single remit. In terms of shaping our economy to tackle climate change, I would be very worried to see the Bank of England step out of that arena in the crisis that we face.

Let me close on the issue of the accountability of a body as central as the Bank is to the functioning of our economy. Independence is not in conflict with accountability; for that reason, I believe that aspects of the work of the Bank should be looked at by our new Financial Services Regulation Committee. That committee is a significant step forward, but the Bank could make that work, and parliamentary scrutiny, easier if it effectively ensured a flow of information to us. Information seems to come out in unquestioned bites or has to be extracted through very brief committee evidence sessions. I would like to see a much more open and constant flow of information. For example, in the case of quantitative easing, it could have helped Parliament greatly had we had a detailed discussion of the economic risks from significantly expanding the Bank’s balance sheet. To do that, we have to have a committee that is properly resourced and powerful.

I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, that Parliament has a responsibility, as a whole, to step up its level of oversight. I hope we will seize on that. I hope indeed that the Government, and all sides of this House, will provide support to the proposal from the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, and the committee that we have a detailed five-year review, so that this discussion is regularly in front of us. Also, there should be no no-go areas. Why should we not discuss issues such as the inflation target? Discussion and challenge are very different from political interference and taking over control. Because we know that there has been a failure to provide diversity in appointments, it also seems to me that somehow bringing Parliament into some element of a confirmation process makes a great deal of sense.

I believe that there is a lot we can do and lessons that we can learn. I very much endorse the support of the committee and I am pleased we have got the Bernanke report. I wish it was all being taken a bit more seriously by both the Bank and the Government. Again, I thank the committee for the privilege of allowing me to have been one of its members.