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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 2:37 pm ar 2 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Livermore Lord Livermore Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 2:37, 2 Mai 2024

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bridges of Headley, on his opening speech. I thank him and the Economic Affairs Committee for their report into an independent Bank of England. It is a pleasure to speak in such an illustrious debate today, alongside so many distinguished and genuinely expert noble Lords. It was a particular pleasure to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Lamont of Lerwick, whose reforms as Chancellor laid some of the groundwork for independence. I join others in also congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan of Chelsea, on his maiden speech.

This report from the Economic Affairs Committee marks the 25th anniversary of Bank of England independence, which the committee described as an appropriate time to review the operation of the framework first set out in the Bank of England Act 1998, taken through the House of Commons—as her excellent speech reminded us—by my noble friend Lady Liddell of Coatdyke. I consider it a privilege to have worked in the Treasury for the Chancellor who introduced operational independence with respect to monetary policy. The committee quotes Gordon Brown’s reasoning for this move:

“we will only build a fully credible framework for monetary policy if the long-term needs of the economy, not short-term political considerations, guide monetary decision-making. We must remove the suspicion that short-term party-political considerations are influencing the setting of interest rates”.

Those words, as the noble Lord, Lord King, made clear, have proved to be correct.

As a result, there is now a broad consensus in favour of retaining independence, and it has become one of the most enduring reforms of the new Labour Government. Indeed, in the Government’s response to this report, the current Chancellor stated that he remains

“fully committed to monetary policy independence”.

The committee’s report bears out this consensus, while rightly acknowledging that external factors, such as globalisation, have contributed to favourable conditions over this period. The report states:

“For much of the past 25 years, the enhanced credibility of monetary policy brought about by independence has contributed to a low inflation environment. The absence of political interference is seen by many as a major component of stable inflation expectations”.

The report also confirms that the majority of expert witnesses who gave evidence to the inquiry were clear that independence has been a significant factor in promoting price stability. I am therefore pleased the committee concluded it has a

“strong view that independence should be preserved”.

I regret, however, that this view was not shared by all former Prime Ministers. Liz Truss, who is currently on a book tour, stated in an interview with LBC radio on 15 of April, that interest rate setting is “a political decision” that

“should be in political hands”.

In a world of unparalleled complexity and uncertainty, it is institutions which can provide the stability of direction, co-ordination and appropriate incentives for sustained economic success. For much of our history, the strength of our institutions has bestowed credibility in international markets and underpinned our economic success. Politicians who undermine those strengths play a dangerous game.

As the noble Lord, Lord Gadhia, said, we saw the consequences of exactly that in the aftermath of the disastrous mini-Budget in September 2022, with its programme of unfunded tax cuts, amidst a concerted effort to undermine our independent economic institutions. Markets spiralled, the pension fund industry came close to collapse, and the Bank of England had to step in to restore calm. Those events dramatically altered the economic fortunes of our country. In October 2021, the Bank of England base rate stood at 0.1%. In little over two years, that rose to 5.25%. In October 2021, debt interest was forecast to cost £29 billion this year; that figure now stands at £82 billion.

The last Labour Government introduced Bank of England independence, and the next Labour Government will maintain it. It is Labour’s view that the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee must continue to have complete independence in the pursuit of its primary objective of price stability. A Labour Government would retain the 2% inflation target, while the Financial Policy Committee will continue with its core objective of financial stability.

The Economic Affairs Committee’s report raises a number of key issues, which it believes need to be addressed. The first of these concerns the interaction between fiscal and monetary policy, where the committee believes clear lines of responsibility and effective communication are required between the Bank and the Treasury. I note that the Bank of England Act sets out that, subject to the Bank’s objectives to maintain price and financial stability, the Bank should support the economic policy of His Majesty’s Government, including their objectives for growth and employment.

With respect to fiscal policy, Bank of England independence reflected an understanding that politics will always present a powerful temptation to pursue macroeconomic policies that may not be in the medium to long-term national economic interest. Similar logic applies to the concept of deficit bias. Politicians may be tempted to put off necessary fiscal decisions or to ignore the long-term consequences of policy choices. It remains true, as Gordon Brown said, that in a modern economy

“the discretion necessary for effective economic policy is possible only within a framework that commands market credibility and public trust”.

That is especially true if the Government are to be able to take urgent, discretionary action when crisis strikes.

Far from wanting to “see the back of” the Office for Budget Responsibility, as some now advocate, the next Labour Government will strengthen the OBR with a new fiscal lock, guaranteeing in law that any Government making significant and permanent tax and spending changes will be subject to an independent forecast from the OBR. We will not waver from strong fiscal rules. In line with the committee’s call for accountability to Parliament, the new fiscal lock and fiscal rules will be put to Parliament to agree.

The second issue identified by the committee’s report concerns the Bank’s remit, an issue raised by many noble Lords today. The committee believes that the widening of the remit to include climate change, for example, risks jeopardising the Bank’s ability to prioritise its primary objectives. I respectfully disagree. Monetary policy and financial regulation cannot stand still in the face of new risks, not least those posed by climate change. The European Central Bank’s Isabel Schnabel has set out the implications of climate change for monetary policy: losses that could translate into the balance sheets of financial institutions and reduce the flow of credit; impacts on labour productivity and health-related inactivity, which could lower the equilibrium real rate of interest and constrain the space for conventional monetary policy; and the impact of supply-side shocks on prices. Given the onus to mobilise investment to achieve the energy transition, those challenges are especially acute.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox of Soho, said, macroeconomic policy has an important role to play in our climate transition. Labour has set out plans to require financial institutions and FTSE 100 companies to publish their carbon footprints and adopt credible 1.5 degrees-aligned net-zero plans. We disagree with the current Chancellor’s decision to downgrade the emphasis put on climate change in the remits of both Bank committees. The next Labour Government will reverse these changes at the first opportunity, because there can be no durable plan for economic stability, and no sustainable plan for economic growth, that is not also a serious plan for net zero.

The committee’s inquiry also examined the possible introduction of a central bank digital currency. Here, Labour recognises the growing case for a state-backed digital pound to protect the integrity and sovereignty of the Bank of England and the UK’s financial and monetary system. We fully support the Bank of England’s work in this area. The committee’s report rightly raises a number of public policy issues that could arise, including issues such as threats to privacy, financial inclusion and stability, which we too want to ensure are effectively mitigated in the design of any such digital currency.

The final issue raised by the committee’s report is accountability, referred to by several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Chandos and the noble Lord, Lord Macpherson of Earl’s Court. I very much welcome the Chancellor’s commitment, in his response to this report, to send copies of remit letters to the chairs of your Lordships’ Economic Affairs Committee and the Treasury Committee.

I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Bridges of Headley, and the Economic Affairs Committee for their report. Throughout this debate, we have heard about the damage that inflation can do to family finances. The Bank of England therefore plays a crucial role in our nation’s economy. Some 25 years since independence, this report provides a valuable basis for debate.