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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.