The Coalition has made great play of its plans to take powers away from central government and hand them to local bodies that are more accountable – an argument used most recently to justify the sudden closure of the Audit Commission last week. It’s all good, voter-friendly, anti-Labour stuff. But its highest-profile move to increase independent scrutiny of Parliament – the newly-created Office for Budget Responsibility – is already under the cosh. Today, its outgoing boss Sir Alan Rudd told the BBC he regretted its role in the publication of some Coalition-friendly post-Budget employment projections. Independence is all very well in theory, but when you’re based in the Treasury and staffed by civil servants, it’s not so easy in practice…
Budd – who’s leaving after just three months in the job (he insists, a little dubiously in our view, that this was always the plan) – was talking about the time when the Guardian published a load of leaked Treasury data suggesting the emergency Budget would cost 1.3m jobs over the next five years. On the grounds that this was a misleading picture, the OBR then supplied the Government with forecasts suggesting overall unemployment would actually fall every year throughout the period (the discrepancy was largely because private sector job creation would step into the breach – a controversial theory in itself, but that’s another story).
Budd insisted today that he and his office were totally impartial, and acted only to correct a misleading account. And given his subsequent public criticism of the way David Cameron used the figures, it’s hard to argue that he’s a Coalition lick-spittle. But although the new version may have been a more accurate, nuanced version, it was always going to open the OBR up to criticism that it wasn’t actually independent at all. When your reputation is predicated on impartiality, helping the Government rebut the left-wing press is not the best way of bolstering your credentials.
In truth, though, we’re not sure the OBR is ever going to be truly independent as long as it sits within the Treasury and relies on civil servants there for most of its data. And it can’t really win either way: whether it supports or opposes the Government, it’s going to be seized upon by one side of the political divide.
That’s why we actually have some sympathy for the decision to axe the Audit Commission, and move some of its functions into the private sector (however badly it was handled from a management point of view – its 2,000 staff just got an email out of the blue). Eric Pickles suggested it had become a ‘creature of the Whitehall state’ – and it can’t be easy to scrutinise Government departments objectively and forensically when you’re surrounded by them...
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