The Bank’s monetary policy objective is to deliver price stability – low inflation – and, subject to that, to support the Government’s economic objectives including those for growth and employment. Price stability is defined by the Government’s inflation target of 2%. The remit recognises the role of price stability in achieving economic stability more generally, and in providing the right conditions for sustainable growth in output and employment. The Government's inflation target is announced each year by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the annual Budget statement.
The 1998 Bank of England Act made the Bank independent to set interest rates. The Bank is accountable to parliament and the wider public. The legislation provides that if, in extreme circumstances, the national interest demands it, the Government has the power to give instructions to the Bank on interest rates for a limited period.
The inflation target
The inflation target of 2% is expressed in terms of an annual rate of inflation based on the Consumer Prices Index (CPI). The remit is not to achieve the lowest possible inflation rate. Inflation below the target of 2% is judged to be just as bad as inflation above the target. The inflation target is therefore symmetrical.
If the target is missed by more than 1 percentage point on either side – i.e. if the annual rate of CPI inflation is more than 3% or less than 1% – the Governor of the Bank must write an open letter to the Chancellor explaining the reasons why inflation has increased or fallen to such an extent and what the Bank proposes to do to ensure inflation comes back to the target.
A target of 2% does not mean that inflation will be held at this rate constantly. That would be neither possible nor desirable. Interest rates would be changing all the time, and by large amounts, causing unnecessary uncertainty and volatility in the economy. Even then it would not be possible to keep inflation at 2% in each and every month. Instead, the MPC’s aim is to set interest rates so that inflation can be brought back to target within a reasonable time period without creating undue instability in the economy.
The Monetary Policy Committee
The Bank seeks to meet the inflation target by setting an interest rate. The level of interest rates is decided by a special committee – the Monetary Policy Committee. The MPC consists of nine members – five from the Bank of England and four external members appointed by the Chancellor. It is chaired by the Governor of the Bank of England. Decisions are made by a vote of the Committee on a one-person one-vote basis.
The MPC meets over three days each month. At the first meeting, normally held on the Thursday prior to the MPC decision, members discuss their views on how to interpret the most recent economic data. At the MPC's second meeting - the first of the two policy meetings, normally held the following Monday - MPC members debate what the appropriate stance of the policy should be.
The MPC's final meeting - its second policy meeting - is normally held on the Wednesday. Following further discussion on the appropriate stance of monetary policy, the Governor puts to the meeting the policy which he believes will command a majority and members of the MPC vote. Any member in a minority is asked to say what level of interest rates he or she would have preferred. The decision is published at 12 noon on the Thursday.
The MPC is committed to the greatest possible degree of transparency around its decision-making. The minutes of the MPC meetings are published simultaneously with the interest rate decision. They also record the votes of the individual members of the Committee. The minutes give a full account of the policy discussion, including differences of view.
In addition to the monthly MPC minutes, the Bank publishes its Inflation Report every quarter. This report gives an analysis of the UK economy and the factors influencing policy decisions. The Inflation Report also includes the MPC's latest forecasts for inflation and output growth.