The Treasury select committee has published a report that aims to address a “misjudgement” by an MP that threatened the independence of the Office for Budget Responsibility.
Sir Danny Alexander, former chief secretary to the Treasury, allegedly made requests for non-factual changes in 2014.
Today (22 February), the select committee chairman, Andrew Tyrie MP, said this attempt to influence the OBR’s outlook looked like a “misjudgement”, because it gave the appearance of a minister trying to lean on the OBR.
He said: “The OBR’s independence is hard-earned and easily squandered. Little or no damage appears to have been done in this case, but this shouldn’t be repeated.”
Mr Tyrie said the Treasury select committee “will do what it can” to prevent any further such episodes, and suggested a revised Memorandum of Understanding is needed.
“This should make crystal clear that early sight of the OBR’s work is for fact-checking and quality assurance purposes only.”
Mr Tyrie said any requests or comments which could be construed as going beyond this should be brought to the attention of the chairman immediately.
According to the committee chair, the OBR initially resisted providing information to the committee to enable it to assess whether political interference by HM Treasury or ministers had been attempted, or succeeded.
“That was a mistake,” Mr Tyrie stated. “The transparency brought to this by Parliament is the best safeguard of the OBR’s independence.
“The committee expects the OBR to be more receptive to requests for information in future.”
The review of the OBR was taken on by Treasury official Sir David Ramsden, who Mr Tyrie said is “manifestly professionally incapable” of conducting an independent review of the OBR, because he is bound by the Civil Service code, reports to the chancellor, and has a duty to support government policy.
The chancellor, he said, is also against the idea of the OBR costing parties’ manifesto pledges in the run-up to general elections.
“It is not surprising that Sir David’s review considered it to be a bad idea,” Mr Tyrie argued, adding Sir David did not seek the views of political parties and failed to reflect the balance of opinion with those he chose to consult.