Jo debates appointment of Governor of Bank of England

Joseph Johnson: I congratulate the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on his extraordinary luck in topping the private Members' ballot not once but twice, and on choosing this important subject from among the many that must have competed for his attention.

The Bill, which requires the Treasury Committee to consent to the appointment or dismissal of the Governor of the Bank of England, goes to the heart of a very important constitutional question about the precise nature of the responsibility of, respectively, the Executive and the legislature in relation to public appointments. As we suffer the after-effects of a profound financial crisis, none of us needs to be reminded that this is a matter of interest not just to constitutional experts. The quality of regulation and supervision can have dramatic effects on rates of economic growth and on the wealth of nations.

Furthermore, as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington said, at a time of great change in the regulatory framework, which deliberately places the Bank of England at the very heart of our financial system, it is entirely right to double-check that we do, indeed, have in place appropriate scrutiny mechanisms for the Governor. The Financial Services Bill, which is now in the other place, gives the Bank considerable new powers in macro-prudential and micro-prudential regulation, and in the assessment and management of financial crises. Its governance should, indeed, be appropriate to these new powers, as the Treasury Committee has argued in its review of the Bank's accountability to Parliament.

While I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Bank must be accountable for its actions, I am reluctant to go as far as him, in calling for the radical step of providing the Treasury Committee with co-decision rights, in the form of a veto over appointment and dismissal. I will try not to linger over arguments that have already been very well made by many colleagues on the Government Benches, but let me reiterate that there has been an increase in accountability since the Bank acquired operational control over the setting of interest rates in 1997. While Bagehot's dictum, "We must not let daylight in upon magic", applied initially to the monarchy, it could have been said to have applied just as well to the Bank of England prior to 1997, but that is clearly not the case today.

Since 1997, the Treasury Committee has held regular pre-commencement hearings with the Governor, Deputy Governor and Monetary Policy Committee members, providing Parliament with a valuable opportunity to challenge key appointees before they begin work. Since 2009, these appointments have also been subject to open public competition. That was precisely what happened in 2009, when Paul Tucker became Deputy Governor, and this Government, like the previous Government, have agreed that that eminently sensible practice will continue.

The process of increasing accountability has carried on under this Government. Provisions in the Financial Services Bill for a non-renewable eight-year term, rather than the current system of a renewable five-year term, combined with internal reform of the Banks' board arrangements, will further reinforce the Governor's independence from the Government and the quality of oversight undertaken by the court of the Bank of England. The accountability deficit, which definitely existed, has therefore narrowed considerably over the past 15 years, and it will close still further if the Bill is enacted. Providing for a parliamentary veto over the appointment and dismissal of the Governor is not an ideal solution for closing what might remain of any accountability shortfall. I do not want to repeat what has already been said, in particular by my hon. Friends the Members for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) and for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) in their excellent speeches, but I worry that giving the Treasury Committee strong powers—in effect, powers of co-decision—in the appointment of the Governor might negatively impact on the Committee's ability to scrutinise the Bank and hold the Governor to account for his performance. Put simply, Committee members will be unwilling to criticise the work of the Governor if they were complicit in his appointment in the first place. Having invested their own reputational capital in the appointment of the Governor, they will inevitably to some extent pull their punches in questioning him later. That is just human nature, and that is why we have a separation of powers in the Committee system.

Jeremy Corbyn: The hon. Gentleman is obviously experienced in these matters, but what about the parallel case of local government-appointed chief executives? Also, the fact that there is a joint appointment of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner by the London assembly, the Mayor and the Home Secretary does not fetter their ability to ask tough and robust questions, as they are required to do—and as we are required to do. I do not see why somebody who was involved in deciding who to appoint to a post will later not properly question what that appointee does. We are here because people have sent us here to ask tough questions.

Joseph Johnson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his excellent intervention, but I would make an important distinction between being consulted and having the right of decision. That is a fundamental distinction and, on balance, arrangements that tilt towards giving the Select Committee system powers of decision over public appointments are going too far. The role of Select Committees might be better restricted to consultation than decision.

Brandon Lewis: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is another distinction, particularly for the example of local authorities? I was a local authority leader when we appointed a chief executive, and there are two implications. First, although the chief executive is approved by the council, they are always clearly the choice of the leader and, more to the point, they are the chief executive of the body appointing them. They do not become the governor of a body that is, in theory, completely independent, as would be the case with the Select Committee.

Joseph Johnson: I thank my hon. Friend for that point. I remind the House of what I was permitted to relay about the private views of the Chairman of the Treasury Committee. His private view—he was not speaking in his capacity as Chairman of the Committee—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. With respect, shall we leave the Chair of the Treasury Committee to express his own views and stop talking about his private views?

Joseph Johnson: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will follow that guidance.

I am equally concerned that giving the Treasury Committee a veto over the dismissal of a Governor could, in certain circumstances, create an unacceptable situation in which the Governor has lost the confidence of the Government but hangs on as a lame duck. That would clearly be unacceptable given the Executive powers he would be discharging on behalf of the state. That is exactly why the Government have historically attempted to address those issues by limiting the Treasury Committee's role to non-statutory pre-commencement hearings with members of the Bank's policy committees, which of course already include the Governor and deputy governors.

Let us not forget that the Treasury Committee already has a huge impact through its oversight, as Lord Burns noted in another place,

"simply by the way it brings people in, talks to them, summarises its opinions and then leaves it in the hands of Ministers to decide how far they wish to take account of those views".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 June 2012; Vol. 738, c. 163.]

Kwasi Kwarteng: Does my hon. Friend think that the Bill would give the Select Committee enormous powers that are totally incommensurate with its constitutional functions in this House?

Joseph Johnson: Yes, I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Like other Members who I will not mention again, I think that it would be far preferable for the Treasury Committee, if it is to have a formal role in any appointment of the Governor of the Bank of England, to be a statutory consultee. I do not believe that it would be remotely appropriate, however, for it to be given powers of decision over any such appointments.

In my view, moving towards the system of making the Select Committee a consultee, perhaps through a tweak to the Financial Services Bill as it goes through the other place, would be a more sensible system that would not cloud lines of accountability and would, in my view, avoid putting the Treasury Committee in the position effectively of having to mark its own homework. That would inevitably be the case if it were given veto rights over a candidate that it had itself jointly chosen in a binding pre-appointment hearing. From Parliament's perspective, I believe that it would be better and preferable to stick with the status quo, whereby the appointment of the Governor is a matter for the Crown on the advice of the Chancellor and the Prime Minister. That enables the Treasury Committee to do its job of holding the Bank to account regularly and effectively in hearings with policy committee members.

In support of calls for a parliamentary veto of the appointment of the next Governor of the Bank of England, much has been made of the supposed precedents set by the Treasury Committee's veto in the appointment of the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility. Reference has also been made to the rather more long-standing role of the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee in the appointment of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The CAG is an officer of Parliament but until 1983 they were appointed by the Executive. Since the passage of the National Audit Act 1983, the CAG has been appointed following a vote in the Commons on a motion proposed by the Prime Minister with the agreement of the Chair of the PAC. The selection process preceding that is run by an unusual partnership between Parliament and the Government, with the Chair of the PAC sitting on the selection panel with representatives of the Executive.

I happen to think that the comparisons are rather misleading and unhelpful. The role and responsibilities of the Governor in economic and financial policy making are completely different from the role of the Chair and members of the OBR, who are responsible collectively for producing forecasts and other analyses twice a year. In the case of the OBR, a parliamentary veto of the appointment can make sense in terms of providing assurance about the independence of the role of the OBR. The role and responsibility of the Governor are completely different. Whereas the OBR performs an important function in providing an independent and unbiased forecast on which Government policy can be based, the Governor carries out Executive functions on behalf of the state and has responsibilities delegated to him for key areas of economic policy.

A further important difference already touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth is that the appointment of a prospective Governor is clearly market-sensitive in a way that appointments to the OBR or National Audit Office in the case of the Comptroller and Auditor General clearly are not. Once an appointment is announced, his or her perceived policy leanings—whether or not, for example, the next Governor is perceived to be a hawk or a dove—can be duly factored into asset prices in an orderly way. Pre-appointment hearings of a sort that give MPs on the Treasury Committee a potential veto could quite easily cause anxiety and costly volatility in financial markets, for little obvious benefit—a point also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng).

To reiterate the central point, rather than giving the Treasury Committee a veto, a better option would be to upgrade and modernise consultation arrangements, potentially to include not just the Chair of the Treasury Committee—a point that I made earlier—but the chairman of the court of the Bank of England. It is important that we upgrade and modernise the court of the Bank of England so that it can perform its oversight function more effectively than it traditionally has done and so that it feels properly empowered to use the rights that it already has under the Bank of England Act 1998, which are to manage the Bank's affairs, other than the formulation of monetary policy. That means much more than simply addressing what many have described as an excessively deferential culture at the "court of King Mervyn", as the Financial Times cheekily described it some time ago. It means more than changing the court's somewhat archaic name, or removing a little of the flummery—the men in pink coats deferentially bearing silver platters around the Bank, and so on.

Jacob Rees-Mogg:  It would be a tragedy to change some of the historic appurtenances of the Bank of England that remind us of the great rich tapestry of our history.

Joseph Johnson: My hon. Friend is right. It is important to focus on the substance of what needs to change at the court, rather than on the men in pink coats and the silver platters. That means ensuring that members of the court, or the supervisory board, as the Treasury Committee would prefer it to be called, have the ability and willingness to take a tough and challenging line, with a chairman who is prepared to take on a rather more effective and higher profile role than has, perhaps, been the case in the past.

Logically, if anyone should be given a right to consent to the appointment or removal of the Governor of the Bank of England, it should be the chairman of the court of the Bank of England, rather than the Treasury Committee as a whole. That avoids many of the constitutional difficulties to which many of my hon. Friends have referred.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr Mark Hoban): To help my hon. Friend, the Governor can be removed only at the request of the court of the Bank of England.

Joseph Johnson: I thank the Minister for that intervention. The Governor can be removed only with the assent of the court of the Bank of England, but the chairman of the court is not at present a statutory consultee in the appointment of the Governor. One of the means of strengthening the court as an oversight mechanism might be to consider whether the court, through the chairman of the court, could be made a statutory consultee in any appointment process. If the chairman and the court are to be taken seriously by the Governor, and given that it would be unacceptable if a Governor were appointed in whom the chairman of the court did not have confidence, it is essential that he should be seen to be somebody who has played a significant role in the appointment of the Governor. I am therefore sympathetic to the idea—originally floated, I acknowledge, by Baroness Wheatcroft in the other place—that the chairman of the court of the Bank of England should be consulted by the Chancellor, and I hope that the Government might consider tweaking the Financial Services Bill to that effect on Report in the other House.

The legislation as it stands does not prohibit the Chancellor from consulting widely before recommending that a candidate be appointed as Governor, and in practice the Bank of England and the Treasury work closely together to recruit key Bank of England posts.

The Financial Services Bill would strengthen the governance of the Bank of England if it specifically mentioned the chairman of the court as a statutory consultee, and thereby indirectly achieved the principal objective of the Bill before us without introducing all of the constitutional risks that come with giving the Treasury Committee a veto.

As I said earlier, there is an important distinction between binding pre-appointment hearings and advisory confirmation or pre-commencement hearings. We more or less have the balance right today between those two forms of parliamentary scrutiny, and I strongly urge the House not to veer wildly to an extreme that it may later come to regret.

I have made clear my concern that the Treasury Committee's ability to scrutinise the Bank of England effectively would be impaired if we were to make it complicit in the appointment of the Governor. I have also argued that the supposed precedents set by the role of Parliament in the appointment of the head of the OBR and the Comptroller and Auditor General are misleading. With an enhanced role for the chairman of the court of the Bank of England, potentially with a consultee role for the Treasury Committee; with an enhanced and streamlined court of the Bank of England, whose members are empowered to create a real atmosphere of challenge; with the introduction of a single eight-year term for the Governor rather than renewable five-year terms; and with regular scrutiny of the Governor, his deputies and policy committee members by an impartial Treasury Committee, we are putting in place a stable and strong governance structure for the 21st-century Bank of England that will equip it to play a central role in this country's economic and financial system.