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Bank of England & Financial Services Bill (Lords)

April 19, 2016

Mark made the following contributions to a debate on the Bank of England & Financial Services Bill. A new clause had been put forward relating to chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority and his or her duty to appear before the Treasury Committee of the House of Commons.

Harriett Baldwin

I would like to start by emphasising that the Treasury Committee is an esteemed Committee of this House and provides exceptional scrutiny of the Government and their regulators. Through its programme of pre-commencement hearings, it questions appointees to several posts before they start work. After appointees have started, they can expect to appear regularly before the Committee, and the public can expect the Committee to hold appointees firmly to account.

The Government welcome that scrutiny of appointees—it is a critical democratic function. That is why we have tabled new clause 12 to ensure in statute that the Committee always has the chance to scrutinise a new Financial Conduct Authority chief executive before they start work.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)

Will this be setting a bit of a trend? For which other important posts—there will be a number of other important posts at not just regulators but other City institutions—does my hon. Friend think it would be appropriate for the Treasury Committee to have a similar approval process?

Harriett Baldwin

I am speaking very narrowly to new clause 12. I am sure the Treasury Committee and other Committees will look at the issue again. I expect it to be part of the ongoing discussions between Parliament and the Executive. However, I am speaking to the very narrow characteristics of new clause 12.

Mark Field

It is worth saying a little about what happened in relation to Martin Wheatley. Although he was not technically dismissed, his term was not renewed. The situation was straightforward. In July 2015, it was announced that his term would not be renewed in March 2016. As a result, he left his office six months early. I accept that that may have been a mutual decision between the Treasury and Mr Wheatley, but it certainly gave the impression, at least, that, even if it was not a fully fledged dismissal, it was a non-renewal, and, ultimately, the exit from office came six months before the end of a fixed term.

Harriett Baldwin

My right hon. Friend has stated the facts about the term of office to which Martin Wheatley was appointed and the fact that the Government chose not to renew it. It is appropriate to pay what I hope is a cross-party tribute to the excellent work of the acting chief executive, Tracey McDermott, who stepped into the role at that time. She has carried out the role for almost a full year in an absolutely exemplary fashion.

 

Harriett Baldwin

I respect and pay tribute to the fact that the Bank of England was founded by someone from Scotland, so the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to draw attention to the fact that this is an historical anomaly. I would be the first to accept that the monetary policy of the Bank of England is set for the whole United Kingdom. That does not mean to say that we will accept the new clauses that would change the name of the Bank of England, because we think that its name has been well established over 300 years.

Mark Field

I think that the Treasury is right, in this instance, not to change the name. The Bank of England has a brand. I do not need to give a history lesson to the nationalist Members, but the Bank of England was founded in 1694, which was before the 1707 and 1800 Acts of Union that might—for two of the three other parts of the United Kingdom, at least—otherwise have had an impact on its initial name. Its brand is important, and I hope that those from the other parts of the United Kingdom will not feel as though their interests are being downgraded simply because they do not appear in the headline name, not least for the reasons that have been set out. It is important that we recognise that the Bank acts for the entirety of the United Kingdom, and that it therefore pays great attention to the voices of those in all parts of the United Kingdom, not just England.

Harriett Baldwin

Yes, and on that point I hope that the support of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) for the united nature of our kingdom means that the Scottish National party has moved on from the discussions of last year in which it wanted to break up the United Kingdom. I hope that the party ​will accept the settled will of the Scottish people to continue to benefit from monetary policy that applies right across the country.

 

Harriett Baldwin

Price stability must have primacy, because we judge that having a single lever aimed primarily at a single objective is the best way to make sure that the inflation target is credible. That, in turn, anchors all-important inflation expectations and helps us to keep inflation under control. Our system has shown that it produces good labour market outcomes. Despite global uncertainty, we have record numbers of people in work, an unemployment rate that is at its lowest in a decade, and a claimant count that has not been lower for more than 40 years. Moreover, targeting low inflation ensures that hard-earned wages are not eroded by inflation.

Mark Field

I must confess that I entirely agree with what the Minister is saying about inflation. I, too, am old enough to remember what inflation was like, particularly in the 1970s. However, it seems to me that the Bank of England’s sole monetary policy lever is to say that we must keep the inflation rate down. Surely we must recognise that inflation has now been well below the 2% target for a long time. I accept that we should never believe that inflation, and all the distortions it makes in our economy, has been entirely vanquished, but should there be a different inflation target, or a different set of remits for the Bank of England, to recognise that it should pay attention to other aspects of the economy in its monetary policy?

Harriett Baldwin

My right hon. Friend, who is an extremely wise and knowledgeable person—I will not refer in any way to his age—highlights an important point. He also emphasises the behavioural characteristic of the recency effect. Inflation is well below the 2% target today, but only during the lifetime of the last Parliament it was above 5%. Even during the six years that I have been a Member, we have tested the parameters of the inflation target. I do not think there is any need for us to make any changes to that target this afternoon.

 

Mark Field

I have a brief question on amendment 6. Although I accept that transparency and openness are the spirit of the age and we cannot necessarily move entirely against that—[Laughter.] We do our level best some of the time. I am sure that the Treasury will be at the vanguard of this. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, at times of great difficulty, when there are issues about the stability or functioning of the UK’s financial banking system, it would be appropriate not just for the Treasury Committee but for the Treasury itself to have some say in suggesting when openness should not be fully fledged? The safeguards that he has put in place in the amendment refer only to the Treasury Committee; does he not see that there might be instances when Ministers might rightly have concerns about issues of stability that should be protected from open transparency at least for a time, although there could then be a move to make the minutes and other things more open at some future point, once the particular threat had passed?

Richard Burgon

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It may be that transparency is the spirit not just of the age but of the future—we shall see.

 

Mark Field

For the record, I do not think there was any undue interference from the Treasury, and I am happy that Andrew Bailey is taking over—he will be a good chief executive. None the less, there was that perception within the square mile and we must hold that fairly close to our hearts.

May I also say how much I approve of the Treasury accepting the guts of new clauses 1 and 9? It is greatly to its credit that we have not had to go through the House of Lords, because it does a discourtesy to this House when such changes are made through amendments in the House of Lords, rather than being part and parcel of discussions in advance of Report.

Mr Tyrie

One other issue is the apparent statutory protection against dismissal, which came into question as a result of Martin Wheatley’s departure. Whatever the reality, the current statutory protection appeared inadequate, which was perhaps because he was appointed only for a three-year term. Five years—a goodly and longer term—will provide more protection. To put it even more simply, the changes rectify in another way the risk of arbitrary dismissal. For example, if the Treasury Committee strongly supports keeping the incumbent after four and a half years, it can make that abundantly clear in a report and recommend to the House of Commons that any other candidate is voted down. So in practice, with the letter, we already have the protection that we wanted.

Mark Field

Does my right hon. Friend have some small concern that if a measure is not included in the Bill, no precedent will be set? To return to an earlier exchange that I tried to have with the Minister, that might give the Treasury licence to take this as a sui generis case, rather than recognising that the Treasury Committee should perhaps have a more important role in approving the appointments of a number of senior figures in the financial services firmament.

Mr Tyrie

That argument can be turned on its head. One can argue that this sets a precedent that is more easily rolled out, without the need for statutory change, to other bodies. In the Treasury field, we now have a statutory double lock for the appointment and dismissal of the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility, which was recently found to be of some use following controversy about alleged interference in the production of the forecast—again, we did not find any evidence of that, but the perception of it might have weakened the OBR. We have a requirement for a resolution of the House prior to the appointment of the chairman of the Office for National Statistics, and now we also have these arrangements. So we have a battery of different arrangements on which to draw.