Business Comment: Economic council is a verbal trick

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The Independent Online
As a finishing touch to all the dramatic changes he has made to the running of economic policy, Gordon Brown has named the first two members of his Council of Economic Advisers. But the two experts, both highly respected in their fields, will not be working together, as the title "Council" suggests. Rather, they will advise different teams of Treasury officials on their separate areas of expertise.

Fair enough. The Treasury has for a long time very sensibly drawn on outside talent in this way. But it means that this is a Council in name only, a verbal gimmick that will allow the Chancellor to live up to a high-falluting pre-election pledge.

The similarities with the US Council of Economic Advisors begin and end with the name. For the US version advises the President rather than his Treasury Secretary. It is an independent focus of economic advice, semi- detached from government.

It is usually composed of very high-profile and independent-minded economists who can speak their own mind if they disagree with aspects of policy. They might not last in the job if they were too outspoken too often, but equally they are not lightly sacked.

The American CEA actually bears a closer resemblance to the Treasury's ill-fated panel of "wise persons", in that it publishes every year an annual report on the state of the economy and its future prospects. This report is taken as an authoritative assessment. However, it has a status the Treasury panel's reports never achieved because they were deliberately selected to disagree with each other - or represent a wide range of views, as the official gloss put it.

Like the panel it replaces, our own new Council of Economic Advisers is clearly not meant to provide a heavyweight, cohesive commentary on the Government's economic policy in the same way as its US namesake. It is hard to resist the suspicion that, in fact, the last thing Mr Brown wants is any possibility of disagreement with his policies, especially from anybody with the status that an established reputation brings.

So all praise to the Chancellor for bringing in advisers to top up the Treasury's own extensive expertise. But he should not expect anybody to fall for the gimmickry of a fancy-sounding but empty title.