Finance: Interest Rates — Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:37 pm on 18th March 2014.

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Photo of Lord Barnett Lord Barnett Labour 2:37 pm, 18th March 2014

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whom they consider ultimately responsible for United Kingdom interest rates.

Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Lords Spokesperson (HM Treasury) (Whip), Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, the UK’s monetary policy framework, set out in the Bank of England Act 1998, gives operational responsibility for monetary policy to the independent Monetary Policy Committee. Decisions on setting the bank rate and the remuneration rate on reserves are for the judgment of the MPC. It uses its macroeconomic tools to aim to meet the inflation target of 2% in the medium term.

Photo of Lord Barnett Lord Barnett Labour

My Lords, the noble Lord did not quite answer my Question, about where the ultimate power rests. The Bank of England Act, which he cited, is worth quoting. Section 19(2), on reserve powers—as he knows, the Treasury never gives away old powers without some reserves—says:

“An order under this section may include such consequential modifications of the provisions of this Part relating to the Monetary Policy Committee as the Treasury think fit”.

In those circumstances, surely the noble Lord must accept that the real power rests with the Chancellor, who has power as he thinks fit. Will he be so kind as to tell us, first, why he normally never answers the question properly and, secondly, whether he now accepts that the Chancellor has the ultimate power, as my Question asked?

Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Lords Spokesperson (HM Treasury) (Whip), Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, interest rates are set by the Monetary Policy Committee. The noble Lord quoted rather selectively from the Act. If he had read Section 19(1) instead of Section 19(2), he would have found that the Treasury’s powers to which he referred are applicable only if they are,

“required in the public interest and by extreme economic circumstances”.

In the absence of “extreme economic circumstances”, the Treasury has no reserve powers.

Photo of Lord Vinson Lord Vinson Conservative

My Lords, whoever is in charge, is it not time we had a monetary policy system that paid due regard to the rate of exchange? A trading nation cannot ignore the rate at which it exchanges its goods. Is it not time our policy embraced the effect of interest rates on the rate of exchange as well as on inflation?

Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Lords Spokesperson (HM Treasury) (Whip), Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

No, my Lords, I do not think it is. You cannot control both. One of the interesting things about the large depreciation in the pound is that it did not have the impact on the balance of payments that people expected. The rate of exchange is only one of many variables that determine how competitive and successful exports are. All the evidence is that it is not quite as important a determinant as used to be thought.

Photo of Lord Peston Lord Peston Labour

My Lords, as background to this Question, we should remember that when we were debating the 1998 Act the Minister went to great lengths to emphasise that the activities of the Monetary Policy Committee would be scrutinised not only by other place but also by this House. Certainly, when I was chairman of the Economic Affairs Committee—a committee I invented, as the Minister is well aware—we used to see the Governor of the Bank of England regularly. All that is background to a very simple question: when was the last time that the Governor of the Bank of England went to the Economic Affairs Committee and was scrutinised by it?

Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Lords Spokesperson (HM Treasury) (Whip), Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not read the papers of the Economic Affairs Committee as assiduously as I should, and I cannot quite remember. My recollection from reading them from time to time is that the governor still goes, although not as frequently as when the noble Lord set up the committee. The committee was established specifically to review the workings of the Monetary Policy Committee; it was not an Economic Affairs Committee—I had the honour of sitting on it with the noble Lord. Although the governor does not come to the committee as frequently as he used to, he still does come—but I shall write to the noble Lord to tell him when the last time was.

Photo of Lord Razzall Lord Razzall Liberal Democrat

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the powers of the Monetary Policy Committee are even greater than are often thought? Does he further agree that the best example of this—if he were to read the minutes of the last meeting which have been published—is that the governor’s wish to include reference to the output gap in forward guidance was overruled by the Monetary Policy Committee, thereby indicating its power?

Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Lords Spokesperson (HM Treasury) (Whip), Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, one slightly surprising thing about the way in which the MPC has worked is the independence of its members vis-à-vis the governor. When it was established, I think that there was a view that it would be a poodle of the governor, because a significant number of members are other employees of the Bank of England. That has not proved to be the case, and governors have, if not regularly, then on a number of occasions been overruled by the rest of the committee over the years.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Shadow Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

My Lords, I have two questions, the second being short. First, the Government used to say that low interest rates were a sign of the success of their policies. Now that rates are beginning to edge up somewhat, they are saying that it is a further sign of the success of their policies. How does the Minister resolve this contradiction? Could he answer a second question: how many women are on the Monetary Policy Committee?

Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Lords Spokesperson (HM Treasury) (Whip), Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

On the latter question, I am sure that the noble Lord will join me in congratulating the woman who today has been the MPC’s latest appointment as deputy governor. On the first question, the success of the system was that it enabled the Monetary Policy Committee to “look through”—to use the technical phrase—a temporary peak in inflation, when it went up to 5% because of external factors, and keep interest rates low, which helped the recovery. I think that most people would agree that interest rates are at an unusually and historically low level and that, as the economy recovers, we would expect interest rates slowly to rise, although, as the governor said in the recent forward guidance, it is expected that any increase in interest rates will be very gradual and that the new equilibrium is unlikely to be as high as it was in the past.