Lib Dem conference: could it reform the OBR?

Yesterday’s Lib Dem conference rebellion over free schools and academies – apparently regarded by the media as the major headache for Nick Clegg – is unlikely to stop Michael Gove and the Department for Education in their tracks. Academies and free schools will continue to be rolled out in some shape or form, even if not as fast as the government likes.

However, the result of today’s conference vote over “ensuring fairness in a time of austerity” could – with an emphasis on could – affect the workings of the Office of Budget Responsibility. Critics in the past have said the OBR, supposed to be an independent scrutineer of the Treasury’s fiscal policy, isn’t independent enough.

The motion in its final form says that the OBR, a Conservative rather than a Lib Dem brainchild, should be “genuinely independent of government by having its committee appointed directly by Parliament” and have its remit expanded “to include assessing the socio-economic impact of Treasury policy, as stipulated in the Equality Act 2010.” In other words, make sure that cuts don’t discriminate against women, minorities etc.

I understand – and the Lib Dem press office has yet to respond to this – that Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander (whom I have already reported as having intervened in the motion before conference) asked for the bit about Parliament appointing the OBR head to be cut out. Which rather suggests that the motion is not considered a dead letter in Cowley Street.

The motion might be just hot air were it not for three factors:

1) Lib Dem conference motions feed into party policy – not the same as coalition policy, of course, but still policy that the party is meant to press for

2) There is a movement on the left wing of the Lib Dems to see this motion through (which may or may not be effective enough to actually achieve that), and

3) Legislation setting out the OBR’s structure and terms of reference in statute is on its way to Parliament.

(from Tribune blog)

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