Balls makes new challenge to Osborne to back OBR audits of party manifestos

The shadow chancellor writes to Osborne as Treasury select committee chair Andrew Tyrie says that OBR auditing could "enhance the quality of public debate".

When Ed Balls announced at the Labour conference that he wanted the OBR to audit every tax and spending pledge in the party's election manifesto, the idea was immediately torpedoed by the Tories. With Osborne and Cameron determined to run a 1992-style election campaign that targets Labour's "black hole", they were never likely to approve a move that would enhance the opposition's fiscal credibility. And since Balls's proposal would require an extension of the OBR's remit, he could not proceed without their agreement. 

But that has not deterred the shadow chancellor from returning for another try. Labour has published a draft amendment to allow the OBR to "provide independent scrutiny and certification of the policy costings of any political party which has at least 5 per cent of seats represented in the House of Commons at the request of that political party." In addition, Balls has written to Osborne urging him to support the proposal, so that the change can be made "well in advance of the 2015 general election". 

He also has written to Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie, the chair of the Treasury select committee, who responded tonight by saying that "OBR involvement has merit if it can enhance the quality of public debate on tax and spend."

"In 2010, the Treasury Committee recommended that the OBR should have absolute discretion over the work it undertakes. I made clear in the Commons that this should include examining, at their request, the fiscal policies of opposition parties at election time. Both the Government and the Opposition rejected this approach at that time.

"If the OBR were to undertake this work, it would be essential to obtain a measure of cross-party support about the terms under which it would be conducted."

In a striking exchange with Tyrie in the Commons in October 2010, George Osborne said that "There is a question of whether we want the OBR to be able to cost Opposition policies at the time of a general election. I propose to have discussions with Opposition party leaders about whether that is the appropriate thing to do, and it would be a legitimate matter for the House to debate and decide."

The discovery of that quote will make it a lot harder for Chancellor to now dismiss the proposal out of hand.

You can read Balls's letter and Labour's amendment in full below. 

Dear George,

As you know, I recently proposed that the role of the Office for Budget Responsibility be enhanced by enabling it to provide independent scrutiny and certification of costings of political parties’ manifesto commitments on spending and tax, while ensuring the OBR is not drawn into party politics by commenting on the merits of individual policies or examining alternative policy scenarios.

While the Chair of the Treasury select committee has previously said he is not absolutely sure the current legislation necessarily rules out such a role, the Chairman of the OBR has told me that the legal advice he has received from the Treasury Solicitor’s Department is that a change in the law is necessary for the OBR to carry out this role and to develop a political consensus on this change and protect the OBR’s independence.

As I said in Brighton, we would support any changes needed to the OBR’s Charter and primary legislation and would seek to build cross-party consensus to achieve it.

In order to achieve that consensus, I am today publishing a draft amendment to the law which would enable the OBR to carry out the role I have proposed. The Clerks of the House of Commons inform us that, with your support, one option available to us is to table this amendment to next year’s Finance Bill so that the change could be made well in advance of the 2015 general election. 

I hope you will support this important reform, which I believe will enhance the role of the OBR while maintaining its impartiality and independence and ensure a more informed debate in Britain at the next election.

I am also writing to the Chair of the Treasury Committee to seek his support for this change.

I would be happy to discuss my proposal with you further and look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Ed Balls MP


Draft amendment

Office for Budget Responsibility

The Budget Responsibility and National Audit Act 2011 is amended as follows:

(a) after subsection 4(4) of the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Act 2011 insert –

“(4A) It shall also, before a General Election,

(a) provide independent scrutiny and certification of the policy costings of any political party which has at least 5 per cent of seats in the House of Commons at the request of that political party, subject to receiving sufficient information from that political party,

(b) state whether it agrees or disagrees with the policy costings of the political party making a request, or whether it has been given insufficient time or information to reach a judgement, and

(c) publish details of the independent scrutiny and certification of policy costings conducted under subsection (a) on the Office website, and place a copy in the Library of the House of Commons.”

(b) omit subsection 5(3)(b) and insert –

“(b) may not consider what the effect of any alternative policies would be, except in the performance of the duty contained in subsection 4(4A) above.”

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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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.