Nomination of the Chief Executive Officer of the Prudential Regulation Authority: parliamentary oversight

Bank of England and Financial Services Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 am on 23 February 2016.

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‘The Chancellor of the Exchequer shall not nominate a person as Chief Executive Officer of the Prudential Regulation Authority without the consent of the Treasury Committee of the House of Commons.’—

Brought up, read the First time, and Question proposed (this day), That the clause be read a Second time.

Question again proposed.

Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I would like to express my hearty support for new clause 3. Select Committees have routinely held pre-appointment hearings for a number of public appointments since 2008, with a number of candidates not approved. The previous coalition Government did develop the scrutiny agenda somewhat when the Chancellor agreed to the Treasury Committee having a power of veto over appointments to the Office for Budget Responsibility in 2010.

The Public Accounts Committee has a veto over the appointment of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Appointments to the Monetary Policy Committee and the Financial Policy Committee of the Bank of England are made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and are then subject to a confirmation hearing by the Treasury Committee. The Treasury Committee has power over the chair and board members of the Office for Budget Responsibility, an arrangement that the Chancellor told the Treasury Committee he would put in place

“because I want there to be absolutely no doubt that this is an independent body”.

The Minister will be aware that, when it examined the proposals for the future Financial Conduct Authority in 2013, the Treasury Committee made a number of recommendations on the accountability of the new body to Parliament, including that the legislation provided that the chief executive of the FCA be subject to pre-appointment scrutiny by the Treasury Committee. The Treasury Committee was disappointed by the Government’s response, particularly in view of the deficiencies in the accountability mechanisms for the Financial Services Authority.

I would like to express support not only for the new clause tabled by the Scottish National party, but for the view of the Treasury Committee, as set out by its Chair, Mr Tyrie, in his letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 26 January, following the appointment of the current Prudential Regulation Authority chief executive, Andrew Bailey, to be the next leader of the FCA. In that letter the right hon. Gentleman set out his Committee’s view that it should have a veto over the appointment and dismissal of the chief executives of both the FCA and the PRA. Indeed, the letter said that the FCA’s chair, John Griffith-Jones, told the Committee that there was merit in that proposal when he met its members on 20 January.

It would be helpful to know whether the Chancellor has responded to that letter, and whether the Minister can share with us now the Treasury’s thinking on extending pre-appointment hearings and the power of veto to those two positions. I thank the hon. Member for East Lothian for flagging up this issue with his new clause, which we support and will consider returning to on Report, if the Government are not on board with it.

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

I am going to convince Opposition Members that this new clause is not necessary. I will give them an updated response on the Chancellor’s views and the process of recruitment for the new chief executive of the PRA, the deputy governor for prudential regulation. That newsworthy notification to the world is taking place in front of a large crowd, as we can see.

My understanding of the proposed new clause is that it would give the Treasury Committee a statutory veto over the appointment of the chief executive of the PRA, which is soon to be the Prudential Regulation Committee. I am well aware that the Treasury Committee, of which the hon. Members for East Lothian and for Bassetlaw are members, has proposed this measure. Last month, following the announcement of the appointment of Andrew Bailey as chief executive of the FCA, we received a letter from my right hon. Friend Mr Tyrie, in which he argued that the Treasury Committee should have a veto over both the appointment and the removal of the chief executives of the FCA and the PRA. The Chancellor has replied to the Treasury Committee in a letter, which normally would be published by the Committee—I imagine that it has been published already. We believe that such an arrangement is neither necessary nor appropriate for the financial regulators, and I will articulate the reasons why.

First, such an arrangement is not necessary to protect the independence of the FCA and the PRA or of their chief executives. The model of independent regulation that we have in the UK gives the regulator a clear statutory framework of objectives and duties and ensures that regulatory decisions are taken in an objective and impartial way. Importantly, this legislative framework protects the independence of the PRA and the FCA chief executives. It includes provisions that require the terms of appointment to be such that the appointee is not subject to the direction of the Treasury or of any person.

We agree that it is important that the Treasury Committee holds a pre-commencement hearing before the new PRA CEO takes up their post. However, we believe that it is important that the Chancellor remains the person who is fully accountable for deciding on the right person for the job. Pre-appointment hearings are not common for chief executive posts. Hon. Members will understand that such a process would potentially introduce scope for delay and public disagreement, which would not help to recruit good candidates. For example, candidates who are otherwise very good might not want to disclose their interest to their current employer in advance of confirmation of the appointment.

The hon. Member for East Lothian has argued that the arrangements for the appointment of the chief executives of the FCA and PRA should mirror those for the senior leadership position at the Office for Budget Responsibility; that appointment requires the consent of the Treasury Committee. However, the financial regulators are materially different from the OBR. The OBR was established to examine and report on the sustainability of public finances and, by doing so, to help Parliament hold the Government to account for their fiscal policy decisions—the same argument applies to the Comptroller and Auditor General—and as such the OBR has a unique model of dual accountability to the Government and to Parliament.

The previous Government proposed the statutory veto of the Treasury Committee over appointments to provide an assurance of independence and to ensure that those individuals at the OBR have the support and approval of the Select Committee. However, we do not believe that that model of dual accountability is appropriate when regulators are independently carrying out executive functions of the state, such as regulating and supervising the financial services industry. As I have said before, I would welcome the Treasury Committee holding a pre-commencement hearing with the chief executives of the PRA and the FCA. That would provide an important opportunity for Parliament to scrutinise new appointees to those offices before they take up their posts.

Let me update the Committee on the process for appointing the next chief executive of the PRA, who will take over from Andrew Bailey. The Government are running an open competition. The post was advertised on Friday 19 February, which was last week, and the closing date for applications is 4 March—the window is still open should any members of the Committee wish to apply. The appointment is made by the Queen, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. Interviews will be conducted in mid-March by a panel chaired by Sir Nicholas Macpherson, together with the second permanent secretary, the chair of the court and one of the other deputy governors. It is expected that the new chief executive will take up the position as soon as possible, but by 1 July 2016 at the latest. You see, Mr Brady, we have all the breaking news after 2 pm in this Committee.

There is another argument that is not in my speaking notes, but which I strongly believe is the case. Let us hypothesise that whoever is appointed through that process then goes through the pre-commencement hearing with the Treasury Committee that we have agreed, and that Committee produces a report that is extremely unfavourable to the person nominated by the Government. I think we can all see that, from a practical point of view, that would be as powerful as having a pre-appointment hearing.

Let us look back at the recent examples of Andrew Bailey’s move to the FCA and, for those of us with slightly longer memories, the appointment in the previous Parliament of Mark Carney as the new Governor of the Bank of England. The Chancellor invested a lot of personal time in those appointment processes, persuading individuals to come across. Imagine if he had had to say, “It is not actually in my power to offer you these jobs; it is in the power of the Treasury Committee.” Would we have seen candidates of such quality prepared to put their names forward? I submit that we would not.

I therefore think that the Government have made the right judgment in agreeing to a pre-commencement hearing. I hope that I have explained to the Committee why I do not believe it would be appropriate to accept the new clause, and I hope that the hon. Member for East Lothian will withdraw it, or that the Committee will vote it down.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

Dear, oh dear. Democracy only goes so far. The United States, with all its systems, must be appointing terrible people, seeing as elected politicians there have a whole range of conferments or otherwise, from the top of the judiciary downwards. Not to give an august body such as the Treasury Committee, which is elected on a cross-party basis by Parliament, the ability to reject an unsuitable applicant demonstrates the fundamental weakness of the last few Chancellors and of the current one, in the style of his predecessor but one—Mr Brown was an example, and Mr Osborne closely mirrors him in every way. Chancellors perceive that they have all the wisdom, yet they are not confident enough to trust a cross-party Committee that would rarely even contemplate criticising, never mind vetoing.

Having sat on that Committee at four different times with a range of Members—indeed, I seem to recall that you, Mr Brady, were one of its leading members when I was first on it—I know that there has never been an instance when it has misused its powers on a partisan basis. Of course, there may be exchanges, particularly with Chancellors and Ministers, where one senses and smells more of a partisan element. However, there has never once been an inkling of that in decision making.

For the Executive to hold in these powers is dangerous for the Executive and for Parliament. The power is simply with a single name; there is no choice or selection process. The proposal from the hon. Members for East Lothian and for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, which is the same one unanimously put forward by the Treasury Committee in this Parliament, is for the ability to interview and, if necessary, vote against an applicant. That focuses on what the Government want from the post holder and the skills that the post holder will bring. It scopes out precisely how that remit is seen by Parliament. We are the elected representatives. Therefore, in exactly the same way, very successfully, Parliaments past brought in the Select Committee system and further democratised that process through elections to Select Committees. That is popular inside the House and, as time will show, it is increasingly popular outside, as the general public understand how it has strengthened our democracy.

It is a weakness of the Chancellor, and a weakness of this Government, not to be prepared to have that level of scrutiny. I put it to the Minister that the only scenario in which a nominee of the Chancellor would hit any significant problems with any Treasury Committee is if the Chancellor of the day had rushed hastily into the wrong kind of appointment and questions were raised on that basis. That must be the Chancellor’s fear, and it is an unconfident Chancellor—one wonders why—who is not prepared to trust his judgment against 11 elected Members of Parliament, re-elected by their peers to a Treasury Committee of which, by definition, the majority and the Chair are of the same political persuasion as himself. That is a sign of great weakness.

I feared that there was an element of that weakness when Mr Brown was Chancellor. It was weakness, rather than strength, in trying to hold on to too much of the decision making. I fear that the current Chancellor is of the same mould and does not have the confidence to trust his own judgment. Therefore, I believe that there should be, now and in future, the opportunity to vote on this if the Government are too foolhardy and choose to embarrass their Back Benchers by reiterating the weakness of the Chancellor, which is demonstrated by what the Minister has outlined this afternoon.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury 2:15, 23 February 2016

If I may, I will come back on some of the points made by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, who seems, I submit, to prefer American democracy to British democracy. I do not know whether this is a preference he has publicly stated, but it certainly seems to be his revealed preference, judging by his comments before lunch on the second Chamber and his comments now. American democracy is very different from ours, it is true, and I am sure that each has different advantages and disadvantages. In America, the judges are elected, for example. That is not something that we have chosen to do in this country. In America, obviously, their second Chamber is directly elected. That is not something that this Parliament has yet chosen to do.

Obviously, the power of the Executive in the British system of democracy is considerably greater when it comes to Budget matters than in America, where for a long time they were unable actually to pass a Budget. In America, where the Senate must confirm presidential nominations for many public appointments, there have been significant delays in filling vacancies. At the end of 2010, for example, 22%—over one fifth—of Senate-confirmed positions remained unfilled or temporarily filled by acting officials. Introducing scope for delay and public disagreement could impede the recruitment of good candidates to these positions. These are Executive posts and, as I said previously, candidates may not wish to reveal their interest to a current employer in advance of being confirmed in the appointment process.

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

I remind the Committee that for most of last year the Treasury Committee was in touch with the Chancellor, who was very dilatory in making a fresh appointment to the head of the FCA. Delays can occur even when the Executive are in charge.

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

Again, I have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman. There has been a very capable and competent acting chief executive at the FCA throughout this time. I submit that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw would rather that Bassetlaw were in America, from what he has said.

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

I will allow the hon. Gentleman to rebut that calumny.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

The Minister should know her history. The Pilgrim Fathers and the pilgrim contract that created western democracy in the style of the United States originate from Bassetlaw, as does the Great Reform Act of 1832. The writer of the Great Reform Act lived in my house at the time. Bassetlaw and American democracy therefore go together, but we are English. We are part of the United Kingdom. We want our Parliaments to be confident enough to make decisions. If it is not good enough for the Monetary Policy Committee and the OBR, is the Minister really saying that we are not getting people of suitable calibre for those posts?

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

The Minister really is saying that. I am saying that these are Executive roles, which the Executive should continue to be able to appoint, obviously with a pre-commencement hearing by the Treasury Committee. I fear that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw’s ancestor’s ticket for this voyage must have got lost, but it was very interesting to hear about the connection with his constituency. Without more ado, I urge the Committee to reject this amendment.

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

I normally have a great deal of respect for the Minister’s judgment, but I detected something in her tone which said that even she did not fully agree with her position. On the first point, she argued that statute guarantees the independence of the regulators. If there is anyone is this room, including the Minister, who can put their hand on their heart and truly say that no regulator has ever been leant on by a Minister of any party, then I will accept where the Minister is going. I am a tiny, wee bit cynical that sometimes, despite statute, Ministers of all parties and all jurisdictions tend to lean. We should try to tempt them away from that by giving a parliamentary underpinning to the role and the position of the regulator. That is at the heart of this.

The Minister also cites the problem that might arise from dual accountability to the Executive and to Parliament. If there is conflict, I am always happy for Parliament to triumph over the Executive, but maybe the Minister wants this to be the other way round—indeed, she has said as much. My point is that we already have a degree of dual accountability. The Treasury Committee, standing for Parliament as a whole, questions the regulators on a regular basis to make sure that they are fulfilling their brief. The Committee is not questioning them on policy, but to make sure of their independence. The actual accountability already exists. We are just making it clearer here.

The Minister says that as an alternative there could be a pre-commencement interview. If there is a problem with confusion of lines of responsibility, that is actually a worse way to go than making it clear that the Committee, standing in for Parliament, does have the role of confirming the appointment.

My final point is that this would interfere with the quality of the candidates we might get. I remind the Minister that every single member of this Bill Committee had to stand for election. We put ourselves before the electorate; that is democracy. All we are arguing for is the principle of democratic accountability. If there are candidates for senior Executive positions who are frightened of democracy, they do not deserve the job.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 6, Noes 10.

Division number 4 Christmas Tree Industry — Nomination of the Chief Executive Officer of the Prudential Regulation Authority: parliamentary oversight

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

New Clause 4