Andrew Tyrie: 'Just carrying on as we are isn't an option'
The Business Interview: The chairman of the Treasury Select Committee has brought vigour and increased public examination to the role
When Andrew Tyrie was elected chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, it's safe to say the financial sector and its regulators didn't expect what was coming. Measured in manner, slender in build and ascetic in appearance, the Conservative MP for Chichester's approach is the opposite of MPs' grandstanding. So the deluge of demands, correspondence and public dressing-downs from the new chairman took many by surprise.
This is, he warns from his spartanly furnished office in Westminster, a new age of public accountability that gives the committee the job of stirring things up on behalf of the people. "We can't carry on as we are. Those who think the waters will close over them and we can more or less carry on as we used to be are deluding themselves," he says.
The committee's increased clout is partly, Mr Tyrie says, a result of the "quiet revolution" taking place in Parliament. Select committees are more independent because whips no longer select members and chairmen are elected by Parliament in a secret ballot.
But its calls are also based on the disaster that overtook the country during the financial crisis when the financial sector was allowed to run out of control by the largely faceless quangos that regulated it.
One of the first powerful figures to face committee pressure was the Chancellor. The committee extracted a veto over the appointment and dismissal of the chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) last year and threatened to intervene if the OBR's independence was threatened.
Next in line was the Financial Services Authority (FSA), whose one-page note last year on Royal Bank of Scotland's failure was ridiculed. Under pressure, the FSA agreed to produce a fuller report and in May the committee imposed its own City grandee examiners, Bill Knight and Sir David Walker – in effect taking control of the report.
"That is exactly what we are doing," Mr Tyrie says. "They are in there right now working on this. They are specialist advisers appointed by the Treasury Committee on the extent to which the paper is a fair reflection of the background material on which it is based."
Over the summer, the Vickers Commission was forced to bring forward publication of the banks' representations on banking reform.
"We pressed vigorously for what were almost entirely private discussions between Vickers and the banks to be published so that we could have a public debate because the public had written these cheques out and had underwritten the mistakes of many of the banks, so surely the public deserved an explanation," Mr Tyrie says.
A recent and notable target for Mr Tyrie's calls for accountability is the Bank of England. The committee has proposed a shake-up of the Bank's "antiquated" governing court, pushed for earlier intervention powers for the Chancellor in a crisis, and demanded to see minutes covering the Bank's discussions on Northern Rock. After resisting disclosure for a number of months, Sir David Lees, the court's chairman, found his correspondence with Mr Tyrie made public – a tactic Mr Tyrie enjoys using.
When it gets its new powers to supervise the banks and tame overheated markets next year, the Bank will become a "superquango" that must be accountable to the people, Mr Tyrie argues.
"There is a moral hazard problem in any accountability structure for a central bank that is this powerful in the field of financial stability. The bank understandably enough doesn't want to find itself responsible for decisions where it doesn't have the authority to act. But Parliament equally understandably doesn't want to allow the Bank to take decisions that affect taxpayers without direct democratic oversight."
The Chancellor has already hinted strongly that he supports the committee's proposals and Mr Tyrie is determined. "Anyone who knows anything about the committee or indeed about me must have noticed that, whatever else we are, we are persistent."
How are these grand institutions adjusting to increased public examination? "No institution or individual rushes to make themselves more accountable and subject themselves to more scrutiny for the decisions they take but, to their credit, the senior people both in the FSA and the Bank of England have appeared to be realising that a higher level of accountability gives them a greater authority to act."
And how about the banks themselves, whose bosses have faced increasingly regular grillings by the committee?
"Just carrying on as we are is not an option and I think the banks have grasped that. Initially, partly as a result of the shock and the cost of the financial crisis, the banks were slow to grasp the effect of this on their position in the wider community," Mr Tyrie says.
He says bank bashing is counterproductive, and the committee has become less accusatory and more forensic in its approach. "The committee under [previous chairman] John McFall was right to act as a lightning conductor for public discontent in the immediate aftermath of the crisis but we are well past that phase now. What we are now trying to do is to help think through what regulation should look like to maximise the welfare of millions of Brits."
This common touch from the Oxford-educated chairman is reflected in the committee's rejection of plans to phase out cheques – a move by "sophisticated, financially literate, metropolitan people" that would have hit "the small traders whom we most need to secure the recovery".
The chairman's tone also appears to be less severe than in the early days, when Helen Weir, the former head of Lloyds' retail bank, was told she had made "a ludicrous remark".
"I didn't mean to be rude to her and I don't think that should be part of what the committee does," Mr Tyrie explains. "I asked her if she thought people should be able to know how much they are being charged by their bank and she replied, 'Well, they do know' and I asked how much she was being charged and she didn't know."
Some have argued the committee now risks overload. Mr Tyrie reveals that he has taken on secondees from the Bank, the FSA and other institutions to help out as well as enlisting the advice of luminaries such as the former Bank of England economists Bill Allen and Geoffrey Wood and John Tiner, the ex-head of the FSA.
Mr Tyrie says: "The Treasury and the Bank should be scrutinised by the same body. The scope of what the Treasury Committee should be looking at is the same. What has changed is that the legitimate demand for information from the public has increased."
They may not have seen it coming but the money men are in a new era and will have to get used to it.
The CV: Andrew Tyrie
* Born in 1957 in Rochford, Essex, the son of a furniture retailer, he was the first generation of his family to go to university at Trinity College, Oxford. Before Mr Tyrie became the Conservative MP for Chichester in 1997, he was a senior economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. He had previously been a full-time adviser to successive Chancellors of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson and then John Major.
* He likes to keep fit by running on the South Downs. And describes himself as "passionate" about preserving the "natural beauty" of the Chichester District, and the Downs for future generations.
* The BBC apologised to Mr Tyrie earlier this month following a report in October that it said gave a "misleading impression" that he had been influenced by a Downing Street official to "say something he did not believe to be true". Mr Tyrie said: "They have accepted that they made a mistake – we all make them – and apologised."
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