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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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