After Osborne's spin, it's time to bring parliament and the public into the spending process

Institutional reforms can reduce the extent to which short-term tactics trump long-term thinking.

As with most spending rounds in recent history, George Osborne’s announcements last week were as much about politics as economics. It was, as the BBC’s Iain Watson noted, a nakedly political exercise, intended to define the battlegrounds for the next general election. In addition to electorally popular protection for schools, pensions and the NHS, the Chancellor attempted to lay a series of traps for Ed Miliband and Ed Balls on social security. It shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us that spending rounds are conducted like this, but it should be a disappointment.

The British economy is still very far from healthy and the government that wins the election in 2015 will still face incredibly grave fiscal challenges. We cannot afford for sound economic policy to be subordinate to the desire for soundbites and election tactics. That’s why parliament and the public have to be brought back into the spending process.

Consider the 2010 Spending Review. It was probably the most important political event of the parliament but it was the result of a rushed and secretive process and was subject to the bare minimum of scrutiny, with the Treasury select committee carrying out a one month inquiry on its content. The Fabian Society Commission on Future Spending Choices today publishes its first report, Spending Wisely, and calls for a comprehensive package of reforms to strengthen the ability of parliament and the public to hold the chancellor to account for the spending decisions he makes.

We think the public should have access to much better information about public spending, so they know where their money goes. One option would be a Citizen’s Tax Statement, which we think would reassure many people that most government money is spent on priorities people share.

Next we recommend that future governments set out 'draft' plans for consultation in advance of major spending decisions. Pre-announcement leaks to friendly journalists and running commentaries on cabinet negotiations just aren’t good enough. If we want proper scrutiny of spending decisions it is vital that parliament, policy experts and the media are given the chance to comment on relative priorities, review the evidence and rationale informing decisions and highlight unforeseen consequences. In fact, ministers ought to welcome this change as it would give them the freedom to change their minds without being accused of a humiliating climb-down.

Alongside this draft  we also propose a new long-term spending statement, which would require the government to explain its thinking on the direction of public spending over 10 or 20 years. Subsequent year-by-year decisions would then need to relate to this multi-decade perspective, or minsters would need to explain why not.

The commission suggests that the Office for Budget Responsibility should become a servant of parliament, charged with giving MPs the firepower to hold the chancellor and ministers to account. The OBR emerged in 2010 from a Conservative election manifesto promise and has transformed how fiscal policy is debated. But it focuses on the announced policies of the government of the day, so is unable to aid parliamentarians in weighing up the merits of alternative approaches. For the sake of good governance, its remit could be expanded, so that it is more like the US Congressional Budget Office. Finally parliamentary scrutiny might be strengthened by the creation of a separate Budgetary Committee, easing the burden on the chronically overworked Treasury select committee.

But simply scrutinising the spending allocations is not enough. The commission also calls for a new institution to advise on how to get more out of public spending. We propose the creation of an independent Office of Public Performance to police the quality of public spending and to help build public trust and understanding. Its aim would be to ensure that when decisions are made, as much attention is focused on what they are intended to achieve, as what they cost.

Politicians won’t stop being politicians. But institutional reforms can reduce the extent to which short-term tactics trump sound, long-term thinking. The public need to have confidence that decisions are being taken for the right reasons and the only way for that to happen is to shine more light on the murky process of setting budgets. 

George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street in London on 19 June 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Turkey's terrifying post-coup crackdown is nearing the point of no return

Horrific stories of rape and torture are emerging from Turkey's jails.

Recently, we have seen Turkey plunge into a full-blown crisis, with its terrifying post-coup crackdown. More than 10,000 people are currently in detention, including soldiers, police, judges and teachers. 

Amnesty International’s team in Turkey has gathered horrific evidence of torture, rape, sexual abuse and beatings of detainees in official and unofficial places of detention. Two lawyers in Ankara told us that detainees had witnessed detained senior military officers being raped with a truncheon by police officers. 

Our researchers on the ground also heard numerous reports of detainees being held in stress positions for over 48 hours, denied food and water and being denied access to their family or lawyers. 

One lawyer working at the Caglayan Courthouse in Istanbul told Amnesty that some of the detainees were extremely emotionally distressed. One detainee attempted to throw himself out of a sixth story window and another repeatedly slammed his head against a wall.  

President Erdoğan has remained conspicuously silent over these abuses. Is he condoning this torture and ill-treatment through his silence?

To be sure, public security is an understandable priority in Turkey, but no circumstances can ever justify the level of human rights abuses we are now witnessing. 

This crackdown is of a scale not witnessed in Turkey since the dark days of martial law imposed after the military coup in 1980. 

The Turkish government must now show the political resolve to stamp out these abuses and to follow the rule of law in its investigations and maintenance of public security. Independent monitors, as well as lawyers, should be granted immediate access to the detention centres and family members should be informed of the whereabouts of their loved ones. Transparency and openness are urgently needed. Blocking such requests only fuels suspicions that terrible abuses are indeed happening inside the detention facilities. 

The arbitrary arrests we have seen, in most cases with no charges given, are grave violations of the right to a fair trial, which is enshrined in both Turkey’s national and international law.

There now prevails an extreme climate of fear and instability across Turkey, where to criticise the government’s actions or speak out against violations now carries with it the risk of being labelled "pro-coup". 

Arrest warrants issued for dozens of journalists are part of a brazen purge based on political affiliation. Six of these journalists are currently detained. Rather than stifling press freedom and intimidating journalists into silence, the Turkish authorities must allow the media to do their work and end this oppressive clampdown on free expression.

The government has set itself on a perilous course since declaring a state of emergency on 20 July, including extending the amount of time detainees can be held without charge from four to 30 days. And shutting down schools, NGOs and media centres.

It’s absolutely vital that the authorities take some time for calm reflection and ensure they can discern between criminal acts and legitimate criticism, no matter how uncomfortable it may make President Erdoğan.

These are truly dangerous times for human rights in Turkey. And to make matters worse, President Erdoğan has threatened a return of the death penalty. The death penalty was abolished in 2004 as part of a move for Turkey to gain entry into the European Union. If it is reinstated, Turkey will disqualify itself from membership or future membership of the EU. 

Amnesty welcomes the fact that the UK Government has stressed the importance of the Turkish authorities maintaining the rule of law and called for the Turkish authorities to reject a return to the death penalty. 

In a recent phone call, Theresa May underlined the UK’s full support for Turkey’s democratically-elected government and institutions and said there was no place for military intervention in politics. Amnesty hopes that she will also publicly demand that the authorities immediately halt the human rights crackdown and allow immediate access to independent monitors and lawyers into places of detention. 

Kristyan Benedict is Amnesty International UK’s Crisis Response Manager