Forum for National Recovery: Fundamental change is moving on to the agenda

IN THE afternoon, the debate shifted from the immmediate problems of economic recovery to the structural weaknesses in the way Britain reaches economic and financial policy decisions. Two themes dominated the sessions: the role of commercial financial institutions, the banks and the building societies; and the role of non-commercial financial institutions, the Bank of England and the Treasury.

It was clear that the general perception of building societies is more favourable than that of banks. The fact that there is a problem in housing finance was generally attributed to public policy - the long-term effects of mortgage tax relief, the decline of the private rented sector and the boom-bust cycles in the economy - rather than the commercial institutions, such as the building societies, which lent the money.

In the case of the banks, however, there was more a perception of institutional weakness, in particular that banks were not close enough to their customers. There is a commercial message here which the banks are well aware of, but to judge by the debate, they need to concern themselves more vigorously.

But the need for reform was even more evident in the session on the public institutions. There was a fair divide over the suggestion that the Bank of England should be made more independent of the Treasury: the Bundesbank is not seen by all as the ideal model. But if the Bank is to become more independent, there was widespread acceptance that it should be reformed in such a way as to make it accountable for its policies. People who distrust giving more power to the Bank would be much more comfortable if it were changed in such a way as to make it more responsive.

As for the Treasury, clearly the meeting felt that it had to change. The mood was best summed up by the view that the Treasury was trying to do too much, and as a result not doing anything very well.

The Independent's suggestion that the Treasury should be split into an Office of the Budget which dealt with fiscal matters, and a Department of the Economy which co-ordinated economic policy and helped offset a bias against industry, was echoed by many speakers from different backgrounds.

It seems that the need for structural change in the way Britain is governed is starting to become a live issue in a way that would have been unthinkable a few months ago. For example, Howard Davies, the director-general of the CBI, was able to predict that the Bank of England would become independent in the next few years. If Britain was part of a European currency system, it would need an independent central bank as other EC banks became more independent; if Britain remained outside, it would need an independent bank for international credibility. Equally, reform of the Treasury has now been put clearly on the national agenda in a way that would have been almost unthinkable three or four years ago.

Structural change is not a party political issue. Indeed, the partisan nature of politics is part of the problem. If there was a clear message for politicians from the afternoon's discussion, it was that they are arguing about the wrong things. They should be less concerned with the sort of issues that dominate Westminster debates and more interested in the much bigger issue of the reorganisation of Whitehall.

(Photograph omitted)

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