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, the MPC. Decisions on setting bank rates are for the judgment of the MPC, with the aim of meeting the inflation target of 2% in the medium term.
My Lords, I take it from that that the noble Lord is saying that the Chancellor agreed with the Governor of the Bank of England. It was a long-winded Answer but I assume that was what was saying. It has very serious consequences in many different areas for people who are already paying interest rates of well above 0.5%. However, the biggest problem is growth. At the moment it is very good, but the consequences of higher interest rates could be very serious for growth, and could mean that growth levels might not be sustainable. What evidence does the Minister have for saying that inflation is going to rise so much that we require this interest rate hike?
My Lords, I did not actually say that. As the noble Lord is aware, the level of inflation at the moment is at a low of 1.5%. The Governor of the Bank of England has made it clear, through the work in reviewing forward guidance, that interest rates will rise when the Bank believes that excess capacity in the economy is being used up and where the forward outlook is for higher inflation over a two-year period, which is the remit of the MPC. The Bank has made it very clear, though, that any increase in interest rates, whenever it takes place, will be gradual, and that any new equilibrium rate of interest that is reached is likely to be significantly less than the 5% that obtained before the financial crash.
Does my noble friend not agree that it is useful to set the current rate of interest in context? For instance, if one looks at the period during which the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, was Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the median rate was something like 10%, and rose to even 15%. Is it not quite an achievement to retain a level of interest rates below 3%, and should we make sure that people do not fear a rise, exaggerate it and damage economic growth?
My Lords, that is an important point. As I said in answer to the earlier question, any increase in interest rates is likely to be gradual and to reach a new equilibrium that is lower than it was in the past. It is worth saying that mortgage payments are at a historically low level in terms of proportion of income, and that rates would have to rise by 4% to get to the 2007 proportion of income. Nobody, I think, whether it is the Bank of England or independent experts, has suggested that interest rates are likely to rise by that much in the foreseeable future.
My Lords, to place this important Question in context, is it the Government’s view that there are two possible aims of economic policy: the first is that we should maintain as high a rate of real, sustainable growth as is feasible, and the second is that we should maintain a stable, low inflation rate? Bearing in mind that those two objectives are not always compatible, what is the Government’s view of what the policymakers ought to be doing at the moment?
My Lords, the Government have given the MPC the role of ensuring that inflation stays as near as possible to 2%. As the noble Lord knows, subject to that, the Government have given the committee the role of pursuing their policies in terms of employment and growth. Separate to what the Bank is doing, the Government have set in train a whole raft of policies, whether they be apprenticeships, reducing national insurance payable by businesses or increasing tax-free investment allowances, which we believe will lead to growth—non-inflationary growth. It is extremely interesting in terms of those two, as he says, incompatible points, that during the life of this Government we have been able to generate an additional 2 million jobs, and inflation over the period has, if anything, fallen.
My Lords, is it not simply the case that the 0.5% policy rate was a crisis rate, set because of the economic crisis in which this country was plunged, and the fact that we are now likely gradually to come to more normal rates of interest is a tribute to the fact that we are successfully emerging from that crisis?
The noble Lord is exactly right. One of the benefits of a gradual increase in interest rates will be that savers, who have had a very poor return on their savings, will start to get what they would consider a more normal return in the future.
My Lords, will the Government contemplate giving forewarning of a rise in interest rates? It is quite clear that people have become used to this very low rate indeed, and the Minister is beginning to indicate that it is not going to be tolerated for much longer.
My Lords, there is incessant speculation in the media about when interest rates might rise. The Governor of the Bank of England and the MPC’s inflation report help to guide people as to when this is likely to be the case. In February, the latest inflation report set out a number of criteria against which the Bank would judge when rates should rise. Anybody is capable of seeing how the economy is going and reading what both the governor and commentators say about when such rate rises are likely.