Number cruncher: Wanted: a more honest guide to the public finances


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Ostensibly the two most important statements on the economic state of the nation, the Autumn Statement and the Budget, have always been deeply political matters.

Inevitably so, as voters have always placed the economy at the top, or close to the top, of their list of concerns, and the issue determines how people vote.

So we have always expected a certain amount of spin to be attached to these announcements. However, the extent of the distortion applied by chancellors and shadow chancellors has become more extreme in recent times. It was Gordon Brown who perfected the art of re-announcing changes to tax and spending, and some of his Conservative predecessors who started to make numbers sound bigger than they are by accumulating savings or giveaways over the life of a parliament, or even longer. As we saw last week, George Osborne and Ed Balls are skilled in picking the few statistics that support their respective cases out of the general morass of misery that the public finances represent.

There is an alternative to this ritualistic, confusing and unedifying spectacle. We could ask Robert Chote, head of the independent Office for Budget Responsibility, to make a statement each year to the nation. Mr Chote is a figure of irreproachable rectitude; his reputation in his field is unassailable and he has no interest in misleading the public. The documents the OBR produces are admirably clear and honest, and have led to some very awkward moments for the Chancellor, and, for that matter, his shadow. The Institute for Fiscal Studies undertakes similarly valuable work, and its efforts too deserve a wider airing.

As it is, though, we are faced with another six months of lies and statistics as the election approaches. Behind the smoke and obscured by the mirrors, somewhere lies the truth.