Abolition of Oversight Committee

Bank of England and Financial Services Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 9 February 2016.

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Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Shadow Minister (Treasury) 10:15, 9 February 2016

I beg to move amendment 10, in clause 3, page 4, line 5, after “would” insert “materially”.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 11, in clause 3, page 4, line 7, leave out “may” and insert “shall”.

Amendment 12, in clause 3, page 4, line 11, after “directors” insert—

“and

(c) for the review to be conducted by a person who is not an employee or director of the Bank.”

Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The abolition in clause 3 of the oversight committee was clearly a very controversial part of the original Bill, as evidenced at each stage of the debate in the House of Lords. My colleague in the other place, Lord Tunnicliffe, supported Lord Sharkey in seeking to challenge it. Labour Members believe that the abolition of the oversight committee is an attack on accountability within the Bank, and yet another example of the Government rolling back recent legislation. I am sure that we will come to that topic on another day.

Not only is the reverse burden of proof or the presumption of responsibility being removed before it is even implemented, but the oversight committee was established only in the Financial Services Act 2012, as hon. Members will remember. The Government clearly felt unable to sustain their line of argument, and in amending the clause to allow a majority of non-executive directors the power to initiate reviews, they have made a welcome concession. It remains our view that the abolition of the committee is a retrograde step. We are yet to be convinced that affording the non-executive directors this power without the existence of the previous forum for discussion will mean that power can be exercised effectively. Perhaps the Government can say how they believe the non-executive members will discuss their concerns outside of the meetings of the court. Will they have to organise something akin to a stand-alone non-executive directors meeting? Perhaps such a forum exists, and the Minister can inform and enlighten me about it.

Following the negotiations in the other place, we have decided to allow this change in the Bill to be made. We will keep a watching brief on how it works over the coming months and we will seek to take advice from the non-executive directors on how they feel it has affected their ability to carry out their oversight functions.

We have proposed a number of amendments to improve the clause, particularly amendment 12, which seeks to increase the authority of the non-executive directors. On Report in the Lords, the Government stated that the initiators of a review among the non-executive directors would determine that they have the power to decide who should carry it out. It could be someone external or someone internal, from the Independent Evaluation Office.

During a Treasury Committee hearing, the Governor was questioned at length, and told the Chair of the Committee that the IEO’s work is set by the court. Therefore, our amendment seeks to give the non-executive directors a duty to bring in external expertise and analysis to conduct such a review into the work of the Bank. Amendments 10 and 11 would further clarify and strengthen the Bill in that regard.

Photo of George Kerevan George Kerevan Scottish National Party, East Lothian

I, too, had reservations about the abolition of the oversight committee. I warm to it to the extent that we have clarified, or are in the process of clarifying, the role of the court in a narrower sense as a proper functioning board of a wider organisation, although the Minister’s responses in the previous debate have given me some cause for concern.

It is important to grasp that the existing oversight committee is nothing more than the non-executive directors meeting as a body, so the existing oversight body gives some official grounds for the non-executives to meet. I have been on many boards where it was quite the norm for non-executives to meet informally, and one trusts that the non-executives on the court are of sufficient experience to be able to do that. Nevertheless, there must be a worry if the current ability to meet separately and to be resourced as the oversight committee is taken away. Therefore, the amendments being proposed to the clause are a useful way of just stressing on the part of Parliament that what I have described is what we expect the non-executives to do.

It might be important to consider circumstances where the non-executives might want to discuss the overall direction of the Bank. We have had one such experience in the last couple of years. The major activity of the Prudential Regulation Authority, which is soon to be the Prudential Regulation Committee, has been to conduct the stress tests on the banks. It does so under separate legal obligations from Europe. The stress testing is a highly extensive and highly resource-driven activity, and there were issues in the first round of stress testing because resources were clearly being directed from other parts of the Bank to help the PRA to do its job. There were issues about who was making decisions, and about whether enough resources and staff time were being made available from the other parts of the Bank to the PRA. A number of the non-executive directors became slightly alarmed about how the stress tests would be conducted and about the availability of the necessary resources.

There can be quite significant points when the non-executive directors would have to say, “We are worried about the deployment of resources by the executive directors. We want to stand back and look at how this is being done.” The non-execs must have the power as a body to lean against the significant influence of the executive. The Bank of England is one of the major institutions of the UK and of global banking, and the Governor of the Bank, Mr Carney, for whom I have a great deal of respect, is one of the most senior central bankers in the entire world. Leaning against him when he says, “Do this or do that,” is difficult. The amendments would give the non-executives some backbone, so when they are worried about the direction of resources they can say, “Whoa.”

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw 10:30, 9 February 2016

My view is similar to that of the hon. Member for East Lothian, in that I do not object to removing the oversight committee if the functions are effectively outlined. In addition to the example of the stress tests, there are various potential events—some would call them calamities, others opportunities—that would affect the structure and ethos of the Bank of England. They include British exit from the European Union or Scottish independence. They would require the court to act effectively and strategically. If there is a feeling of conflict in direction—direction being what should happen and what people should spend their time on—the ability to draw in external reserves and expertise is key. The power to do that has to be there.

Amendment 12 in particular would be useful to the Government and would complement their approach. I put it to the Minister that it would be helpful, given the direction of travel. I tend to concur with the Treasury Committee’s general view on this point, but only if the court is right and the non-execs have that power. The Treasury Committee, on behalf of Parliament, has made it clear that bringing the non-execs from the court into the Treasury Committee and having that dialogue in public and producing transcripts of it, which has not happened in the past, will be an important feature in the future.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

The line-by-line consideration of this provision in the other place and here this morning has been extremely helpful. Before I speak to the amendments, let me give the Committee an example of the problems in the oversight committee’s current arrangements which I think will inform our debate. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw mentioned the 2013-14 foreign exchange market investigation, which sought to establish whether any Bank officials were involved in or aware of the FX market manipulation. In October 2013, the Bank’s governors initiated an extensive internal review, and they regularly briefed the court at its meetings from November 2013 onwards. In March 2014, it became clear that an independent investigation would be appropriate. The oversight committee took over the investigation and appointed Lord Grabiner QC. That is a very good example of the oversight functions. In practice, the executive needed to join the oversight committee discussions for the oversight functions to work and be effective, both as the investigation progressed and once attention turned to delivering the recommendations. It would be better practice to make the oversight functions the responsibility of the whole court. That is the purpose of the clause.

I welcome the opportunity to speak to the amendments and to explain the improvement in the oversight arrangements at the Bank of England and the power we have ensured for the court’s non-executive majority. The Bill brings the court closer to the model envisaged by the Treasury Committee, which called for a board with powers to conduct ex-post reviews of the performance of the Bank; for board members to be authorised to see all the papers submitted to the Monetary Policy Committee and the Financial Policy Committee; and for the board to be responsible for reviewing the processes of the Bank’s policy committees. Making the oversight functions the responsibility of the whole court makes it clear that every member of the court, executive and non-executive, can be held to account for the use of these functions. No member of court can claim that the oversight functions were not their job, since they will now rightly be the responsibility of all.

That replaces the current arrangement in which there is effectively an oversight committee overseeing the work of an oversight board. That is neither efficient, nor best practice. In fact, on Second Reading my right hon. Friend Mr Tyrie, Chair of the Treasury Committee, put it well when he said:

“The oversight of the executive will be the responsibility of the court itself, rather than a sub-committee. Even though it was not called a sub-committee, it was, in fact, a sub-committee, and a weaker committee than the court.”—[Official Report, 1 February 2016; Vol. 605, c. 668.]

During the Bill’s passage through the House of Lords, we introduced the power, which has been welcomed by members of that House, that this amendment seeks to alter. This part of the Bill ensures that a majority of non-executives can always initiate performance reviews without needing to secure the agreement of a majority of the whole court. If just four non-executive directors want a review, they will be able to initiate it. Under our proposal to give more powers to the non-executive directors to do their job effectively, the initiators of a review would determine who should carry it out. This could be someone external or someone internal, including the Bank’s relatively new Independent Evaluation Office. The amendment would take away their discretion and make the new Independent Evaluation Office irrelevant.

The Bank’s Independent Evaluation Office reports directly to the non-executive chair of court. A few months ago, it published a review into the Bank’s use of forecasting—a clear example of where an internal review is appropriate. In our opinion, Lord Grabiner’s inquiry into Bank officials’ awareness of market manipulation in the foreign exchange market was an example of where an external review was appropriate.

The Bank’s non-executive directors, as we have heard in a previous debate, are selected for their ability to bring new perspectives and experience and to challenge and scrutinise the Bank’s executive. It is right to give them the powers to ensure they are able to fulfil this role. The amendment would send a message that we do not trust the non-executive directors to do their job. For the discretion of those high-quality non-executives to determine what reviews should be carried out and who should carry them out, it would substitute a conveyor belt of external reviews.

Those commissioning a review, whether the court as a whole or the non-executive directors, are best placed to decide whether an internal or external review is most appropriate. The Bill rightly allows that discretion for the whole court and for the non-executives. The amendment would take away that choice, which we think would be bad news for effective oversight. I hope the hon. Member for Leeds East has listened to the arguments. We all agree that the important power in the Bill for the non-executives to act independently to initiate reviews of the banks should not be constrained in this way, and I hope that after due consideration, and after the extremely valuable debate in both Houses, he will withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Shadow Minister (Treasury)

We do not intend to divide the Committee on the amendments to clause 3, although I will make one observation. I might get the quote wrong, but I remember a line in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”:

“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”

The oversight committee was praised by the Minister, but now, under clause 3, it is to be buried. It was praised by the Minister in response to an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw, and now we see that it is about to be buried, which we regret. We welcome the concessions that have been made. We do not wish to press the amendment, but we reserve the right to return to these issues on Report. I also point out that the internal evaluation office can continue, tasked by the court. The amendment refers to decisions by non-executive directors. Internal evaluation is the Bank marking its own homework, which should worry us all. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

The clause gives the oversight functions previously delegated to the oversight committee, which has been a sub-committee of the court, to the full court. What do we gain by making the oversight functions the responsibility of the whole court? We want to keep those functions, which we all agree are important, and now every member of the court, executive and non-executive, can be held to account for the use of those functions. Should something go wrong, no member of court could ever claim that the oversight functions were not part of their job. They will now rightly be everyone’s responsibility.

We have heard how that arrangement was endorsed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chichester on Second Reading, but it is worth harking back to what the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards recommended when it set up the oversight committee. In its report, the commission endorsed the Treasury Committee’s recommendation that the Bank’s board should be responsible for conducting the ex-post reviews of the Bank’s performance and we believe that that is precisely what the Bill will achieve. The commission went further—I am sure that hon. Members will have read its report before arriving this morning. On page 482, the commission rejected the oversight committee created in the 2012 Act. The commission denounced the committee and despaired that

“It, rather than the Court as a whole, will be responsible for monitoring the Bank’s response to, and implementation of, the recommendations of any review it commissions.”

It is therefore important to stress that, through the Bill, the court as a whole will be made responsible for ensuring oversight of the Bank.

We have also talked about how the clause will enable full and frank discussion involving both the executive and the non-executive majority on how best to exercise the court’s oversight functions. The non-executives bring challenge, scrutiny and outside experience while the executive minority provides the in-depth knowledge of the Bank’s operations. By abolishing the oversight committee, we bring the court closer to the model envisaged by the Treasury Committee, which called for: a board with powers to conduct ex-post reviews of the Bank’s performance; board members to be authorised to see all the papers submitted to the MPC and the FPC; and the board to be responsible for reviewing the processes of the Bank’s policy committees.

It is important to emphasise that the Bill protects the ability of those non-executive directors to initiate performance reviews. We do not need them to secure the agreement of a majority of the whole court. Should a majority of non-executives wish to initiate a review, the rest of the court will not be able to block it. The initiators of such a review would determine who should carry it out. It should be someone external or internal, including the Bank’s new Independent Evaluation Office.

The clause safeguards the non-executives’ oversight of the Bank and provides additional protection against the emergence of groupthink. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4