Lib Dem confusion and inconsistency on Scottish OBR

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   By a Newsnet reporter

The SNP has highlighted what they describe as the confused state of the Libs Dems and the anti-independence No campaign’s response to the announcement by Finance Secretary John Swinney that he is considering establishing a Scottish body equivalent to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR).

Despite former Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott calling for the establishment of such an organisation on the grounds that “Scotland needs to judge where best to spend taxpayers’ money”, his replacement Willie Rennie has described the Scottish Government’s plans for such a body as a “ministry of half truths”.

Earlier this week Mr Swinney announced that he was considering setting up a Scottish equivalent to the OBR and said:

“My view is that Scotland will require to have an independent forecasting body that can provide independent assessment to both the government and to parliament as to what may be generated as a consequence of these taxes and I am giving consideration as to how that should be established.”

Mr Swinney’s announcement had apparently received prior backing from senior figures within Mr Rennie’s party.  Writing in the Scotsman newspaper in September 2012, former Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott called for the establishment of an “OBR with a kilt” in order to ensure that budget decisions were made with the interests of taxpayers and the general public in mind.

Mr Scott wrote:

“Spending and the changes in spending matter. Scrutinising any government’s natural inclination to hide the detail matters. But this year’s budget bill faces less scrutiny than ever before. A government majority in parliament means that Nationalist ministers will get their way. Never before has there been a stronger need for independent analysis of Scotland’s budget.”

Mr Scott did not clarify why he believes there is now less scrutiny of the budget decisions of the Scottish Government than there was when the Labour / Lib Dem coalition ran the Scottish Executive, as it was then called.  However the Shetland MSP called for a Scottish OBR to be established, and added:

“The UK government got this bit right. They divorced economic and financial forecasting which could be manipulated by politicians from central government. They established the Office of Budget Responsibility. The OBR is not a friend of the UK Chancellor. It is not meant to be. The OBR provides an independent assessment of the nation’s books for the government, but also for all MPs, policy makers, you and I. The headline growth figure indicates whether we are in or out of recession. The OBR believes the UK is currently in recession. When they consider the economic numbers have improved then their forecast will change accordingly. No such emphatic independent assessment is made of the Scottish Government’s performance.

“Scotland needs an ‘OBR with a kilt’. Scotland needs to judge where best to spend taxpayers’ money. Take one example. Free personal care is not affordable in its current form say those who have studied the finances. Rubbish says the Scottish Government. Instead of rhetoric, decision-making by ministers and parliament should be based on fact.”

However, despite the fact that the plan announced this week by Finance Secretary John Swinney meets the demand made by Mr Scott last September, current Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie dimissed the proposal out of hand, and has accused Mr Swinney of attempting to “rubbish the reputation” of the UK OBR.

Mr Rennie said:

“John Swinney doesn’t like the answers he’s been given on the economy, so he’s cooking the books and looking to appoint his own chef.

“In his Budget speech in January, John Swinney was happy to cite the OBR when it suited him. As soon as the OBR provide inconvenient facts John Swinney resorts to trashing its reputation.

“The nationalists’ obsession with independence is clouding their vision to the point where they’ll only surround themselves with yes men. Setting up a ministry of half truths won’t cover up the holes in the nationalists’ independence assertions on the economy.”

Commenting, SNP MSP John Mason, who sits on the Finance Committee at the Scottish Parliament, said:

“These conflicting and confusing views within the Lib Dems suggest that Willie Rennie is pursuing opposition for opposition’s sake – he is rejecting an initiative that his own predecessor as Lib Dem leader specifically called for!

“It is clear that Westminster isn’t working.  The only way to set spending and taxation at levels that work best for the people of Scotland is to have full control of the economic levers in Scotland.”