Audit

Bank of England and Financial Services Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 9 February 2016.

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Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Shadow Minister (Treasury) 2:00, 9 February 2016

I beg to move amendment 14, in clause 9, page 7, line 15, at end insert—

“(6A) The Comptroller may enquire into the Bank’s success in achieving its stated policy objectives but shall not enquire into the desirability of such objectives having been set.

(6B) Reports by the Comptroller into the functioning of the Bank shall be published promptly unless in the opinion of the Treasury Committee of the House of Commons such publication would be likely materially adversely to affect the stability or functioning of the UK’s financial or banking system.”

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 21, in clause 11, page 11, line 30, at beginning insert—

“Subject to sections 7E(3) and 7ZA(6A) of the Bank of England Act 1998,”

I remind the Committee that if amendment 14 is withdrawn or negatived, amendment 21 falls.

Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Here we turn to the role of the National Audit Office and the new proposals to afford the NAO power to investigate the functions of the Bank. This is a positive development, which we welcome, but it is important to get the legislation right and to ensure that no loopholes are left to prevent the NAO from conducting its necessary work.

The Comptroller and Auditor General was clearly concerned about the proposals in the Bill as published that would have allowed the court of directors a veto over the new powers for the NAO. There was significant discussion, however, at the Treasury Committee and at all stages in the other place. At the Treasury Committee Andrew Bailey said that the issue was to do with

“getting the boundary right between what is appropriate, in my view, which is value for money in terms of the way we run the Bank of England, and questioning the basis of monetary policy, which would not be in my view appropriate.”

Our amendment fits in with that, though I expect that the Government will disagree with us.

The draft memorandum of understanding that the Minister provided the other day stated that the comptroller does not expect to second-guess expert discussions by Bank officials. The amendment asserts that the comptroller may inquire into the Bank’s success in achieving its policy objectives. We believe that that does not encroach beyond the boundaries of questioning the merits of policy decisions, but would assist the National Audit Office in ascertaining whether the Bank is delivering value for money. Amendment 21, which is consequential on amendment 14, would require that reports by the comptroller into the functioning of the Bank be published promptly to allow relevant Select Committees, should they wish, as well as other Members of the House, to make an assessment of the National Audit Office’s findings.

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

We are moving on to the part of the Bill that covers the role of the National Audit Office and the publication of its reports. One of the Bill’s objectives is to enhance the Bank of England’s accountability and clauses 9 to 11, which allow the National Audit Office to conduct value-for-money examinations of the Bank for the first time, are key in that respect.

The independence of the Bank and of the National Audit Office, which are two vital public bodies, was carefully considered in developing the arrangements, and I believe that the clauses in the Bill strike the appropriate balance. It is probably best if I first set out some background on the important role of the National Audit Office’s value-for-money studies in supporting transparency to Parliament and the public.

The National Audit Office scrutinises public spending on behalf of Parliament. It reviews whether public bodies have used public money efficiently, effectively and with economy and makes reports on those issues to Parliament. In carrying out its work, the NAO is precluded by the National Audit Act 1983 from reviewing the merits of policy objectives. That is the case in relation to all the bodies with which it currently engages and the Bill ensures that the same restriction will apply in relation to its oversight of the Bank.

That is an important point in relation to amendment 14, which I believe is unnecessary. The amendment states that

“The Comptroller may enquire into the Bank’s success in achieving its stated policy objectives but shall not enquire into the desirability of such objectives having been set.”

The Bill as drafted will have that exact effect. The comptroller will be free to question the Bank’s success in achieving its policy objectives, but not the merits of the objectives. The Bill reinforces that by setting out specific areas in which the NAO cannot question the merits of the Bank’s policy decisions. That extra protection, which has been agreed to by both the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Governor, reflects the crucial importance of protecting the independence of the Bank’s policy decisions.

In all of those areas, the Bill will allow the NAO to examine the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of the implementation of policy decisions and of the resources underpinning them, but not the merits of the decisions themselves. Specifically, the Bill carves out the merits of policy decisions taken by the Monetary Policy Committee, the Financial Policy Committee and the Prudential Regulation Committee, the merits of policy decisions taken by the body within the Bank responsible for the supervision of financial market infrastructures and the merits of policy decisions taken by the body within the Bank responsible for the exercise of its resolution functions, but where the Bank has used its statutory resolution powers in relation to a financial institution in difficulty, the NAO would be able to consider any resolution policy decisions relating to the institution concerned. That is particularly important given that the Bank is now the resolution authority for the UK and has primary operational responsibility for financial crisis management. In future, therefore, the NAO will be able to examine the role of the Bank in interventions like Northern Rock—it is a shame that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw is not in his place to hear that exciting news. That bespoke arrangement recognises the unique and crucial role that the Bank plays in UK economic policy. I believe that it strikes the right balance and will bring about a significant improvement in the Bank’s accountability.

The second part of amendment 14 would require the comptroller to publish reports promptly, unless the Treasury Committee judges that publication was likely to have a material adverse effect on financial stability. Again, I submit that that is unnecessary. Adequate protections are already built into the legislation to prevent the disclosure of certain types of sensitive information. Proposed new section 7H of the Bank of England Act 1998, inserted by clause 11, will ensure that the comptroller is subject to the same limitations on disclosure as the FCA in relation to information received by the Bank. Those limitations are set out in the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 and will restrict the NAO from disclosing information held by the Bank for the purposes of monetary policy; financial operations intended to support financial institutions for purposes of financial stability; and the provision of private banking services.

Furthermore, the subject of sensitive information is covered by the memorandum of understanding between the NAO and the Bank, which ensures that there is a codified agreement between them on how sensitive information should be treated. It makes it clear that there may be instances in which the Bank is prohibited from disclosing information. Where that is the case, it will explain why that is the case to the comptroller. The memorandum also makes it clear that there may be situations in which the Bank is able to disclose information to the comptroller but legal restrictions apply to onward disclosure or publication.

In terms of the timing of publication, Parliament has rightly delegated to the comptroller discretion over the content of NAO reports and the timing of their publication. He acts independently on Parliament’s behalf, and it is important that he is able to use his judgment on how Parliament and the public are best served.

I hope that I can reassure the Committee by saying that once the comptroller has signed off a report for publication, there is an in-built incentive to lay it in Parliament and publish it within a short timeframe. Prompt publication mitigates the risk of the report’s conclusions being overtaken by events. Moreover, the process from completing the report to publication is very simple. Typically, it takes between two and four days, but it can be speeded up if required.

Amendment 21 seeks to disapply the restrictions on the disclosure of specially protected information that the National Audit Office has received from the Bank for certain reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General. As I have said, information is specially protected from time to time if it is held by the Bank for the purposes of monetary policy or for financial operations supporting financial institutions to maintain financial stability. A good example, which we heard about this morning, is emergency liquidity assistance.

The reason why restrictions are placed on the disclosure of such information is that its publication could harm the financial stability of the UK or adversely affect the Bank’s monetary policy operations. A report by the NAO on the extent to which the Bank has achieved its financial stability objective could, in fact, be destabilising if, for example, it revealed market-sensitive information about financial operations undertaken by the Bank to preserve financial stability in a particular period.

I trust that all Committee members will agree that those restrictions on disclosure are entirely appropriate and, indeed, vital. I urge the hon. Gentleman not to press his amendment.

Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Shadow Minister (Treasury)

My colleagues and I have listened to what the Minister has said. She went, with characteristic detail, into the Government’s position on this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw, who is not in his place, scolded or praised me—I do not know which—for moderation earlier. We did not press our amendment to a Division on that occasion, but having listened to what the Minister has said, and because transparency is a key principle when it comes to the work of the Bank of England and we want to expand that transparency, we seek a Division on amendment 14.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 6, Noes 10.

Division number 1 Christmas Tree Industry — Audit

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 10