Yesterday [11 March 2014] Andrew Tyrie, Chair of the Treasury Committee, the cross-party Parliamentary Committee charged with overseeing the Bank of England’s activities, asked the BoE to reconsider its policy of destroying transcripts of MPC meetings once MPC had signed off the version of minutes to be published. He said: ‘There seem to me to be a good number of arguments for keeping such records, among them, to bolster public confidence that the minutes published after MPC hearings are an accurate reflection of what was said.’ Well put.
Of course the Treasury Committee can’t instruct the Bank to do or reconsider anything, let alone preserve and release transcripts of MPC. So this is no guarantee that anything will change. But it does make it harder for the BoE not to preserve these transcripts, especially, since on the day, neither Mark Carney nor Paul Fisher could muster a convincing account for why the transcripts were destroyed, and looked distinctly uncomfortable. The tactic of raising this on the day when the main business was to quiz Carney about foreign exchange markets – if it was a tactic – was clever. We might guess that the Bank would be glad to show willing on this smaller matter in the face of the more serious threat to its integrity.
However, Tyrie’s request is peculiar in one respect. The Bank is not the right body to consider whether to change a long cherished policy of destroying tapes of MPC meetings. It clearly has a conflict of interest, or, even if it doesn’t, might look as though it does. One the one hand, it wants the monetary policy framework, and all the infrastructure surrounding it, to be above reproach, and to function smoothly. But we might reasonably suspect that it would also suffer from the disease that most central banks, in fact most large organisations, have, which disposes them to keep things secret as a default, minimising scrutiny of their actions, and maximising discretion to present their affairs in a favourable light.
The Bank might wish to insist that the release of transcripts could have a deleterious effect on the operation of monetary policy, which is its own sphere. At some point, it has to have discretion to manage some things itself without interference. But the publication of transcripts has broader ramifications. For the credibility of public sector records policy and freedom of information as a whole. And for the ability of those outside the Bank to gain insight into the effectiveness of the MPC and the personalities that might seek reappointment or promotion from it. These things don’t concern only the Bank, so we can’t expect it to weigh these factors up appropriately.
Still, in the absence of the Treasury itself doing anything about it, Tyrie’s request to the Bank was welcome.