The Tories cynically veto Balls's plan to allow the OBR to audit Labour's manifesto

Osborne is determined to claim that there is a "black hole" in Labour's spending plans, whatever the Office for Budget Responsibility may say.

One of the biggest obstacles to a Labour victory at the next election remains the lack of economic trust in the party. Three years after David Cameron and George Osborne entered office, it is still blamed more for the spending cuts than the coalition (owing to "the mess" it left in 2010) and viewed as fiscally irresponsible. With Labour likely to pledge to invest significantly more than the coalition in housing and other infrastructure projects (while abiding by George Osborne's day-to-day spending totals), it is politically vital to shift this perception.

That is the task that Ed Balls has set himself for his speech today in which he will announce that he has asked the Office for Budget Responsibility to audit every tax and spending pledge in Labour's election manifesto. Balls will say:

In tough times it's even more important that all our policies and commitments are properly costed and funded.

The British people rightly want to know that the sums add up. So we will go one step further and ask the independent Office for Budget Responsibility – the watchdog set up by this government – to independently audit the costings of every individual spending and tax measure in Labour's manifesto at the next election.

This is the first time a Shadow Chancellor - the first time any political party in Britain - has ever said it wants this kind of independent audit. A radical change from what's gone before, but the right thing to do to help restore trust in politics.

It's a smart move that provides Ed Miliband with some political cover ahead of his speech tomorrow, which is likely to include major spending commitments on housing. But, crucially, Balls's plan would require an extension of the OBR's remit, which does not currently allow it to scrutinise the opposition's fiscal policies. Any change to this would require the approval of parliament, with number-cruncher-in-chief Robert Chote emphasising that a "cross-party consensus" is "highly desirable".

But just 17 minutes after Balls's announcement, the Tories put paid to any hope of securing one, with Sajid Javid, the increasingly prominent Economic Secretary to the Treasury, declaring:

Ed Balls knows this is not allowed under the Budget Responsibility Act and the OBR's charter, so this is just a stunt to try and distract attention from the fact that Labour have been found out for making unfunded commitments that would just mean more borrowing and more debt.

Nothing has changed - it's the same old Labour. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls still want more spending, more borrowing, and more debt - exactly how they got us into this mess in the first place. And it's hardworking people who would pay the price through higher taxes and higher mortgage rate.

The Tories' decision to torpedo Balls's plan is entirely politically motivated. There is no reason in principle why they should refuse to allow the watchdog founded by Osborne in 2010 to audit Labour's policies. But there are plenty of political ones. The Tories are understandably reluctant to allow Labour to enhance its fiscal credibility and to repeal claims of a "black hole" in its plans.

Tonight, Balls's SpAd Alex Belardinelli has rightly responded by asking how the Tories intend to justify their opposition to the proposal.

It will be worth watching to see how Osborne's team respond when independent figures, dedicated to encouraging evidence-based policy, deplore their cynicism.

George Osborne and Ed Balls attend the State Opening of Parliament, in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster in London May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA