The Office for Budget Responsibility should not be given the responsibility of auditing the manifestos of different political parties, the fiscal watchdog's own independent reviewer has argued.
The Canadian economist Kevin Page today delivered the first external review of the performance of the OBR, which was established by the Coalition in 2010 with the goal of restoring public trust in the integrity of the public finances. In his recommendations Mr Page said that “caution” should be exercised when it came expanding the watchdog's mandate.
Speaking to The Independent Mr Page went further. “Should it [costing opposition manifestos] be done? Yes. But maybe the OBR isn't right for it” he said. The advice is a setback to the shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, who has been pressing for the OBR to be given the job of auditing the opposition party's fiscal plans to build Labour's credibility with the public in advance of next May's general election.
Mr Page's position is also more negative than that of the OBR itself, which has said it would be prepared to audit manifestos provided it is given sufficient financial and staffing resources by the Government to do the job properly. The Chancellor, George Osborne, has resisted taking this step and the OBR has strongly suggested that it is now too late in the day for it to cost manifestos at the next election.
Mr Page said his view on the subject was informed by his own experience in Canada, where he was the first ever Parliamentary Budget Officer, doing a similar job to the OBR. He said costing opposition manifestos would be a very different job from what the OBR has been doing over the past four years and that co-operation from political parties and the provision of the necessary details of spending plans could not be guaranteed. “People don't always pick up the phone” he said.
Mr Page suggested one possible solution could be to have a separate legislative budget office, reporting to Parliament, working separately from the OBR. The first body could audit party manifestos, while the OBR would concentrate on its fiscal and economic forecasts, he said.
One of the other main conclusions of Mr Page's report was that the Government and Parliament should put in place some “long-term succession planning” for the OBR's leadership in order to lessen the risk of losing key staff. The term of the OBR's chair, Robert Chote, comes up for renewal in October 2015. Mr Chote said in an interview with The Independent earlier this year that he hoped rival political parties would let him know ahead of next May's election whether they wanted him to continue doing the job.
Another recommendation from the Page review was that the OBR should make greater efforts to make its work on the public finances accessible to “non-technical readers”. Overall, the Page review was highly positive about the performance of the watchdog. It said the OBR had “succeeded in reducing perceptions of bias in fiscal and economic forecasting and had increased the transparency of its products”.