I was fascinated by the fact that every time George Osborne mentions the Office of Budget Responsibility he prefaces it with the word “independent”, almost to the extent you could easily think it was actually called the Independent Office of Budget Responsibility.
There is a saying, of course, that “if you have to keep saying you are a Lady, you clearly aren’t” (a saying exploited to great effect by David Walliams and Matt Lucas). Osborne’s insistence that the OBR is “independent” seems to be in the same psychological category.
The OBR was first setup, if that’s not stretching the term, by the Tories whilst in Opposition. After the Coalition was formed they created it ‘for real’ using the usual Crown Prerogative powers that allow our ‘elective dictatorship’ to do more or less anything it likes. Now they are in the process of formalising the OBR and putting it on a statutory footing.
Mr Osborne has said that he doesn’t want the OBR to examine “alternative policy paths”. This is a similar restriction to that placed on the National Audit Office and the Audit Commission. This does not mean the OBR, or the NAO or AC aren’t “independent” but it does severely curtail their freedom. In the OBR’s case it means they can’t easily examine “what if” projections, something pretty fundamental to a forecasting outfit.
To be fair to George Osborne, he has suggested that in the run-up to Elections the OBR could cost/forecast all the main parties policies. Whilst that is fairly radical, it would probably be too little too late.
If Mr Osborne really does want the OBR to be an independent forecasting/checking agency then he should both abandon this restriction and also hand it over to Parliament, making it into a Parliamentary Budget Office along the lines of the US Congressional Budget Office. Not much chance of that.