Robert Chote, the chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility.
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The OBR should be given the power to adjust tax rates

Just as an independent Bank of England has helped ensure monetary stability, so a more powerful OBR could ensure fiscal sustainability.

On Wednesday, George Osborne will present his first Budget delivered during a period of economic growth. Despite a deficit forecast to be £111bn and the highest national debt since England last won the World Cup, he is under pressure from both sides of the coalition to reduce taxes, whether on low earners via the personal allowance or middle earners by cutting the higher rate threshold. It is entirely reasonable that politicians are seeking to take advantage of growth forecasts ahead of what will be a closely-fought election. But the last thing the Chancellor can or will do is put further pressure on the public finances via major tax reductions. He will announce improved borrowing projections but he will emphasise that the deficit and debt are the defining challenges, and that they are proving harder to overcome than he expected.

Ahead of the 2015 election, both major parties are jockeying to be seen as the safest pair of hands on the public finances. Both Osborne and Ed Balls have acknowledged the depth of the UK's problems and committed to tough deficit reduction targets. Osborne has pledged to achieve an absolute budget surpus by the end of the next parliament and will introduce a new Charter of Budget Responsibility in this year's Autumn Statement (to  "fix the roof when the sun is shining"), while Balls has promised to run a current budget surplus (leaving room to borrow for investment). 

Short-sighted handling of the public finances has contributed enormously to the economic mess that the UK finds itself in. For the past 20 years, Britain has seen debt steadily climb as successive governments have spent heavily in recessions but failed to save enough in booms. On average, the response to recessions has been 70 per cent greater than the surplus generated in good times. That has lead to a "debt ratchet" that causes debt to rise over each business cycle. Today, the national debt is about £124bn higher than it would have been if the ratchet did not exist.

One reason for the its existence is a persistent overconfidence among politicians and officials. Twenty one of the 25 official forecasts since 2002 have projected that the current budget will return to surplus within five years. When he entered office in 2010, Osborne even adopted that yardstick as one of his two fiscal targets. Yet the budget has not once been in surplus in the past 12 years. 

In 2002, Gordon Brown introduced a set of fiscal rules that the IMF rated as some of the best in the world. The Treasury monitored compliance and the National Audit Office looked over its shoulder. In 2010, Osborne introduced his own, tougher, rules and he looks set to introduce a new rule as part of his Charter of Budget Responsibility. These measures have been the equal of anything seen around the world but all have been broken within a decade and all have been insufficient to avoid the debt ratchet persisting.

One solution that has been exceptionally effective is this government's creation of the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR), which has dealt with the UK's forecasting problems. Set up in 2010 to resolve persistent errors, the OBR has gradually built its credibility through impartiality and transparency. It has forced the Chancellor to adjust his Budgets on a number of occasions when the numbers did not measure up. So successful has it been that Balls wrote to its chairman Robert Chote to ask him to assess the opposition's manifesto pledges. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander has since lent his support to the idea.

The expansion in the OBR's responsibilities is a worthwhile first step but it is capable of much more. In future, the OBR could take on responsibility for defining fiscal sustainability and, eventually, the power to adjust tax rates to ensure it. The government recognised that forecasting problems could be largely fixed by passing the responsibility to an independent body. The same may well be true of fiscal sustainability more generally.

The Bank of England is a powerful illustration of how beneficial it can be to delegate operational decisions to an independent, expert body. The Bank's independence ensured that the nation avoided a damaging tightening of monetary policy in the midst of the recession. The same cannot be said of fiscal policy where the latest estimates suggest that consolidation has cost the UK around 3 per cent of GDP so far. That cost might have been avoided if debt and the deficit smaller had been lower when the crisis began.

Successful fiscal councils overseas demonstrate the need to balance responsibility with credibility. The Dutch CPB is an established part of the political landscape and plays an instrumental role in setting budgets and evaluating manifesto pledges. In the US, the Congressional Budget Office assesses alternative policy options for the government. The credibility of these institutions has been built over decades and it would be a mistake to give the OBR too much responsibility too fast. Nonetheless, evaluating manifestos should be the beginning of the OBR's expanding set of responsibilities, not the end.

James Zuccollo is senior economist at Reform

James Zuccollo is senior economist at Reform

Photo: Getty Images
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We need to destroy Isil, yes. But the Prime Minister has no plan

And so, until there is a better plan on the table, I will vote against bombing Syria, says Owen Smith.

There are no decisions we make as MPs more important than whether we commit our country to combat, with its inevitable loss of military and civilian lives. That is a view shared by MPs of all parties in the House of Commons, who treat their responsibility on this question with the utmost seriousness. I have no doubt, therefore, that the Prime Minister and all those who have concluded that we should enter more fully into combat in Syria, starting with bombing the Isil/Daesh stronghold Raqqua, have done so after careful consideration, believing that this action is necessary to protect the security of the UK, through defeating Isil and bringing stability to Syria.

However, I respectfully disagree with them, and I will not be supporting a motion to bomb, based on the arguments brought forward by the Prime Minister last week.

My opposition is not rooted in pacifism, it is a hard headed and finely balanced judgment based on what I think the likely strategic, security and military effects of our involvement are.

The Prime Minister is right to set out objectives to defeat Isil and the formation of a stable, inclusive government in Syria.  These are aims that we all should share and at some point the use of British military force may well be required to achieve that outcome.  I might well support military action if a comprehensive and serious plan were put to parliament by the Prime Minister.  However, the case that Cameron currently proposes singularly fails to explain to the country how bombing will achieve his twin objectives. In fact, he is equally hazy on both the end state he desires and the end game to deliver it, and even on the question of military action, it is the Opposition's job to point to holes in the government’s argument.

Though I, like most MPs, am no military expert, I have studied these issues with great care and, along with many military and diplomatic experts, I cannot see that that Britain adding around an extra 10 per cent per cent bombing capacity (we will contribute six to 10 planes) to the US, French and other forces’ capabilities is likely to make a truly telling contribution to what we can all agree should be an agreed military objective: degrading and defeating Isil.  Especially given that there have already been around 3,000 air strikes against Isil in Syria.

I am sceptical that our weaponry is significantly more effective than that of the US, however excellent our personnel. I am also sceptical that bombing can avoid civilian casualties. And am wholly unconvinced that bombing, without significant, committed, united and effective ground troops to hold and build on the territory cleared by the bombs, will deliver the objective. It may not even be enough to chase Isil out of their stronghold in Raqqa. If the Prime Minister had been able to build a coalition of support from neighbouring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and others, willing to commit troops on the ground to take and hold ground cleared by air strikes then the equation would be very different. However, the current coalition is incomplete, and the ground troops insufficient.

Cameron has talked of there being perhaps 70,000 men under arms in opposition to Isil and ready to engage on the ground, but this does seem to me, as to many others, to be an optimistic assessment. Evidently, some of the anti-Isil and anti-Assad forces can be effective, as the Kurdish militias (the YPG) showed in driving back Isil forces from the northern town of Kobani last year, under cover of US planes. But these successful moments of defence have been few and far between and have mostly either involved these Northern (Rojava) Kurdish fighters or their ethnic countrymen from Iraq, the US-trained Peshmerga. Neither group is in close proximity to Raqqa and both see their primary objective as securing a Kurdish homeland from Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Other groups, some suggest as many as a hundred, are fighting across the region, but have a wide variety of allegiances and aims, tribal and religious, including two powerful groups that are off-shoots of Al-Quaida.  So it seems clear that the Prime Minister’s current proposals offer no realistic prospect of ground forces securing territory in and around Raqqa, which will ultimately be necessary to effectively neutralise the Isil threat, both regionally and internationally.

Nor is it clear to me what Cameron hopes Bashar al Assad will do in the event of increased bombing of Isil.  Assad is currently fighting on several fronts, against Isil, against the Kurds and against other groupings, some of them the ‘moderates’ the PM hopes will help. It remains uncertain as to whether Assad will view the bombing as an opportunity to intensify his fight with Isil, or to crush the moderates whose main goal is to depose him.

Perhaps more important a reason to oppose this action than the apparent holes in the military strategy, is the lack of a plan for what comes after. The current situation on the ground, provides scant hope for a peaceful and inclusive government to emerge, even in the event of Isil being eradicated. Far more likely is the continuation of pre-existing conflicts and the emergence of new crises from the rubble of Raqqa. British bombs might hasten the end of this phase of the conflict, if supported by a real and reliable land army, but it is only diplomatic, financial and, crucially, regional political pressure that stands a chance of any form of stability.

Maybe these questions would shrink in size if I truly felt our security at home would be increased by our bombing Isil in Syria.  But I do not.  Isil is a terrorist organisation, but it is also an insurgent army, an idea and a brand. It’s monstrous reach out of Syria, to Paris most tragically, but potentially to any of our towns and cities, may well be in planning, arming and instigating. And I am sure that the Security Services could draw evil, concrete connections between Raqqa and the Bata’clan. But Isil’s reach, and its strength, is intangible too: in its propaganda and cultural call to arms.

The only way we can be sure of defeating the Isil threat to our streets and in the region, is to find a long term political solution in Syria.  Unfortunately in my judgement, the proposals put in front of us to vote on this week do not offer that potential.  The prime route to ensuring that Isil’s capacity to threaten Western Europe is destroyed is to build on the recent peace talks in Vienna, with the aim of constructing a concerted international strategy on defeating Isil.  For this to be successful, global and regional partners must play a central part in the strategy, showing that the world is united in opposition to the poisonous ideology of Isil. And Arab nations, with Sunni majorities, must be in the vanguard of both peace talks and any military action.  

Finally, I repeat that these are judgements, not facts, and I may well be proved wrong. But I reach my conclusion as an internationalist, a European and someone who loves France and the French people. Their call for us to join with them is, for this MP, by far the most compelling to step up our engagement to actual combat at their side. But it is neither unpatriotic nor cowardly for us not to do so. The UN Resolution and NATO Treaty invoked by France, call on us to engage in ‘such action as it (the individual member states or NATO as a whole) deems necessary, including the use of armed force’. That tells me that any action our Government undertakes, including bombing, will be legal. But is does not tell me whether it will be strategic and wise, politically or militarily. And just as we cannot outsource our defence to our allies in the US or France, nor too can we outsource our judgement.

And so, until there is a better plan on the table, I will vote against. 


Owen Smith is Labour MP for Pontypridd and Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions.