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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Pity the Premier League – so much money can get you into all sorts of bother

You’ve got to feel sorry for our top teams. It's hard work, maintaining their brand.

I had lunch with an old girlfriend last week. Not old, exactly, just a young woman of 58, and not a girlfriend as such – though I have loads of female friends; just someone I knew as a girl on our estate in Cumbria when she was growing up and I was friendly with her family.

She was one of many kind, caring people from my past who wrote to me after my wife died in February, inviting me to lunch, cheer up the poor old soul. Which I’ve not been. So frightfully busy.

I never got round to lunch till last week.

She succeeded in her own career, became pretty well known, but not as well off financially as her husband, who is some sort of City whizz.

I visited her large house in the best part of Mayfair, and, over lunch, heard about their big estate in the West Country and their pile in Majorca, finding it hard to take my mind back to the weedy, runny-nosed little girl I knew when she was ten.

Their three homes employ 25 staff in total. Which means there are often some sort of staff problems.

How awful, I do feel sorry for you, must be terrible. It’s not easy having money, I said, managing somehow to keep back the fake tears.

Afterwards, I thought about our richest football teams – Man City, Man United and Chelsea. It’s not easy being rich like them, either.

In football, there are three reasons you have to spend the money. First of all, because you can. You have untold wealth, so you gobble up possessions regardless of the cost, and regardless of the fact that, as at Man United, you already have six other superstars playing in roughly the same position. You pay over the odds, as with Pogba, who is the most expensive player in the world, even though any halfwit knows that Messi and Ronaldo are infinitely more valuable. It leads to endless stresses and strains and poor old Wayne sitting on the bench.

Obviously, you are hoping to make the team better, and at the same time have the luxury of a whole top-class team sitting waiting on the bench, who would be desired by every other club in Europe. But the second reason you spend so wildly is the desire to stop your rivals buying the same players. It’s a spoiler tactic.

Third, there’s a very modern and stressful element to being rich in football, and that’s the need to feed the brand. Real Madrid began it ten years or so ago with their annual purchase of a galáctico. You have to refresh the team with a star name regularly, whatever the cost, if you want to keep the fans happy and sell even more shirts round the world each year.

You also need to attract PROUD SUPPLIERS OF LAV PAPER TO MAN CITY or OFFICIAL PROVIDER OF BABY BOTTLES TO MAN UNITED or PARTNERS WITH CHELSEA IN SUGARY DRINK. These suppliers pay a fortune to have their product associated with a famous Premier League club – and the club knows that, to keep up the interest, they must have yet another exciting £100m star lined up for each new season.

So, you can see what strains and stresses having mega money gets them into, trying to balance all these needs and desires. The manager will get the blame in the end when things start to go badly on the pitch, despite having had to accommodate some players he probably never craved. If you’re rich in football, or in most other walks in life, you have to show it, have all the required possessions, otherwise what’s the point of being rich?

One reason why Leicester did so well last season was that they had no money. This forced them to bond and work hard, make do with cheapo players, none of them rubbish, but none the sort of galáctico a super-Prem club would bother with.

Leicester won’t repeat that trick this year. It was a one-off. On the whole, the £100m player is better than the £10m player. The rich clubs will always come good. But having an enormous staff, at any level, is all such a worry for the rich. You have to feel sorry . . .

Hunter Davies’s “The Beatles Book” is published by Ebury

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories