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Budget Responsibility and National Audit Bill

March 22, 2011

Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): The course of events that the hon. Gentleman describes is surely a tribute to the independence of the advisory body-the OBR-during its first phase following last June’s Budget, but does he not share my concern that if it were to have the increased powers, it would cease to be advisory and independent, which it should be, and in some way would become a challenge to Treasury policy? It is correct that it has relatively limited powers, but above all those powers should remain independent and advisory to the Treasury.

Chris Leslie: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about creating a third institution when it should be Parliament’s job to challenge the Executive and the Treasury on their policies. The point we want to make through the amendments is essentially that, simply to have a fiscal mandate in the charter for budget responsibility is inadequate. We feel that it is important to have a growth mandate to supplement the fiscal mandate in the charter and, more than that, that the Office for Budget Responsibility should also have a duty to assess the impact of the Treasury’s policies on the real economy, on employment and on growth. I do not think that that necessarily sets the office’s face against or in juxtaposition to the Treasury-it would simply give it absolute clarity that it had the right and appropriate remit to consider those wider real economic effects.

Mr Field: But there is already a clear monetary mandate in the hands of the Bank of England. Surely a growth mandate along the lines that the hon. Gentleman suggests would muddy the water, if not necessarily between the Treasury and the OBR, then between the Bank and the OBR?

Chris Leslie: Perhaps this is where I differ from the hon. Gentleman. I think that a slightly dry and narrow focus on the accountancy issues in the draft charter for budget responsibility, as well as a monetary policy focus at the Bank of England and in the charter, with no or scant focus on the real economy-economic growth, employment and some of those very important issues that affect all our constituents-would be a deficiency in the role of the OBR.

Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): The shadow Minister and I took part in a debate the other day that goes to the heart of these questions. Does he not agree that although fiscal policy is regarded-with qualifications as the result of the motion the Government put before the House the other day-as exclusively a matter for the House of Commons, unfortunately and disastrously, European economic governance affects the question of growth and the issues that go with it? Does he not agree that his proposals would be overtaken by the proposals that are going through the European Union?

Chris Leslie: I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. I hope that he would acknowledge that we have tried to table a constructive set of amendments, we do not believe that a purely fiscal mandate for the Treasury or the OBR is wide enough. His view is that growth and fiscal policy will also be influenced from beyond these shores and especially by European Union policy. That may well be true.

Mr Cash: I do not wish to correct so much as to advise the hon. Gentleman that my position is exactly the opposite. Fiscal policy remains in this House and should do so, despite what the Government did the other day, and economic growth should also be determined here and not in other arenas. In the Public Bill Committee, he referred to judicial authority as a result of the interpretation of the statutory duties imposed in this place. Does he really want the Supreme Court to apply its determination of its ultimate supremacy over both fiscal policy and economic growth?

Chris Leslie: No, I do not. That was one reason why we raised this issue in Committee. The Bill sets out tests on the responsibilities of the OBR and the Treasury yet there was not really an adequate response from the Minister about the justiciability of those tests. For example, the Minister gave no cut-and-dried answer to the question of a member of the public who might wish to sue the OBR on its efficiency or effectiveness, what sort of legal process that might entail and where it would eventually go. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point.

In a cynical moment in Committee, I raised an eyebrow about the fact that 10 clauses are necessary to establish the OBR. I queried whether we needed 10 clauses to do that. The Bill contains a number of embellishments that, in a more sceptical moment, made me suspect that it was slightly padded out to make it appear to be a grander piece of legislation when a couple of clauses and a schedule would probably have done the trick. Perhaps I was unfairly cynical.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) draws a useful parallel with monetary policy and the Bank of England, but in reality the bank’s Monetary Policy Committee currently interprets its remit flexibly because of the state of the economy. If the committee interpreted its remit rigidly, it would raise interest rates, because inflation is above the target level. It is not doing so, however, because it is sensibly looking at the wider interests of the economy.

Chris Leslie: My hon. Friend is entirely correct, and I am glad that the Bank of England is being flexible, but absolutely, if such mandates are set out rigidly in legislation, as the mandate is before us, and if they are interpreted as they currently are, it is hardly any wonder that the Treasury has a blinkered view of the economy and is obsessively-some might say, fetishistically-focused on deficit reduction and debt to the exclusion of almost any other facet of the economy. What we need right now is a flexible approach to economic policy which can take account of environmental and external facts, jobs and growth, and those are the issues we are raising today.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way on the point about flexibility. Where does he think the 2% inflation target, set for the Bank of England, should be, not least in the context of the Japanese economic crisis, with the pressures on US dollars and the insurance industry, and with the potential for rapidly growing inflation, which might require the 2% figure to be reconsidered imminently?

Chris Leslie: Of course, those issues are in the hands of the Chancellor. He has a Budget tomorrow, and I do not know whether he is thinking of revising his monetary policy mandate, but I would be very surprised if he were. My hon. Friend will notice, however, because I know he follows the small print of the Budget and of financial documents, that in the small print the Treasury has chosen for its GDP deflator, when it comes to public expenditure, an inflation rate of 1.9%, which is slightly at odds with the fact that the retail prices index is 5.5%. Again, the cynic in me would suggest that the Treasury has chosen that approach, because to do otherwise would blow a hole in the middle of the Government’s financial plans.

John Mann: I thank my hon. Friend for generously giving way a second time. The reason for exploring the issue is in this “charter”-this grandiose term-set out before Parliament. Chancellors might change their point of view, perhaps sensibly, if they look at the real economy, but how hamstrung will a Chancellor be in the future if some back-dated charter has been agreed but is itself too restrictive and requires change? Is not the measure before us rather a stranglehold-purely presentational-that could come to haunt this or future Chancellors?

Chris Leslie: My hon. Friend suggests that the measure is phantom paraphernalia, enrobing the creation of the Office for Budget Responsibility simply to give it a sense of grand importance, and in fact it could have deleterious consequences. That is certainly one crucial reason why we felt it important to table the amendment, stating that at the very least there should be a broader set of mandates within the charter, and that a growth mandate would be especially important.

Mr Mark Field rose

Chris Leslie: Before I give way to the hon. Gentleman, I just want to point out that in Committee we debated the remit of the Office for Budget Responsibility and whether it should be broader and take account of wider economic and social policies. So, for example, we tested out the notion of whether the OBR could have responsibility for assessing the impact of Treasury policy on child poverty, or whether it should have responsibility for assessing the impartiality of the local government finance settlement.

One promise in the Conservative party’s localism paper, which came out before the general election, was to have the Audit Commission undertake an independent test of whether there was impartiality in the settlement. That has been dropped subsequently.

John Mann: It’s been dropped?

Chris Leslie: It has been dropped, and that is indeed something which we should come back to at another point.

This time, on Report, we thought, “Let’s look as strategically as anybody could possibly want to,” and having a growth mandate-a responsibility for growth and employment-and assessing the impact of Treasury policy seemed quite unobjectionable, at least to me when tabling the amendment. This time, on Report, we felt we should look at this as strategically as anybody could wish. Having this growth mandate-this responsibility for growth and employment and assessment of the impact of Treasury policy-seemed quite unobjectionable, at least when I tabled the amendment.

Mr Field: It would probably be unwise for these provisions to be too wide. The credibility of inflation targeting would be undermined if the target were to be changed even on an irregular basis, if at all. As the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) said, the remit of the Bank of England covers not only inflation targeting but the greater interests of the overall economy. The latter remit is less well known than the former, but it is the reason interest rates have stayed at a very low level given the high levels of RPI and CPI that we are experiencing.