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9 Dec 2010 : Column GC71

Grand Committee

Thursday, 9 December 2010.

Budget Responsibility and National Audit Bill [HL]

Committee (4th Day)

2 pm

Amendment 40

Moved by Lord Eatwell

40: After Clause 8, insert the following new Clause-

"Peer Review Committee0

(1) There will be a Committee of 5 suitably qualified persons, not being or having been members of the Office, to be known as the Peer Review Committee (the "Committee").

(2) It will be the responsibility of the Committee to prepare an annual report on the accuracy of fiscal and economic forecasts prepared by the Office, including the appropriateness of the methods employed.

(3) The Committee must-

(a) publish the report,

(b) lay it before Parliament, and

(c) send a copy of it to the Treasury."

Lord Eatwell: My Lords, I hope we can have a fairly brief Committee today, not least because the annual contest between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge at Twickenham has just kicked off. This, however, is not a contest but an attempt to improve the Bill. In moving Amendment 40 and speaking to Amendment 43, I believe we can significantly improve it.

We have already discussed whether the OBR should write its own school report, as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, referred to it. There was general agreement around the House that that was a bad idea. In proposing this amendment I have, as I am sure Ministers and officials have, examined procedures in equivalent organisations in other jurisdictions. The most relevant of these is the US Congressional Budget Office, although there are significant differences between the two organisations. The CBO is answerable to Congress, whereas the OBR is a creature of the Executive. This has been the source of many of our difficulties in constructing a framework of independence. None the less, we have something valuable to learn from the CBO, which uses clear and extensive peer review. As I am sure the Minister is aware, the CBO is scrutinised by a large and very distinguished peer review committee of, I think, about 20 people. Nothing so large is necessary for the rather more limited activities of the OBR. None the less, independent peer review will undoubtedly be valuable. It will not only add to the intellectual input to the activities of the OBR-undoubtedly a positive factor-but act as a further buttress to independence. The peer review committee of the Congressional Budget Office publishes its findings on the CBO website, enhancing the transparency of the entire process.

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We have already discussed the need for the past forecasts of the OBR to be assessed by some independent authority. That independent authority could be the peer review committee proposed in Amendment 40 to the Bill and Amendment 43 to the schedule, although there could be other ways of doing it. Amendment 40 provides the peer review committee with clear and unambiguous terms of reference. It must report on,

This is a clear technical remit; the committee would not be allowed to stray into the realms of policy.

Amendment 43 provides some detail on the appointment of the peer review committee. Again, I have looked at the practice of the Congressional Budget Office, where many of the members of the peer review committee are nominated by the council of the American Economic Association. I have suggested that the ideal body to recommend to the Chancellor persons of appropriate technical expertise would be the equivalent professional body here in the UK-the council of the Royal Economic Society. Otherwise, appointment will be by the Chancellor, with the approval of the Treasury Select Committee of another place.

It might be argued that the process of peer review will take place anyway in the context of vigorous debate among economists and econometricians over forecasting and policy. However, I submit that without a dedicated peer review committee this debate, which will take place anyway, will tend to be unfocused. The particular value of the peer review committee is to have a group of very well qualified professionals who see it as their responsibility to examine the results and the methods of the OBR. As I suggested, there may be other ways of achieving this objective, but I believe that an independent review of the OBR's record and methodology will add tremendous value to the process and help to buttress the independence of the OBR, which is something that we all seek. I beg to move.

Lord Burns: My Lords, I have a lot of sympathy with the idea of having independent reviews of forecasts and the methods employed at some intervals during the process. My concern is whether the amendment makes too much of a meal of the issue. It is important to have an appropriate way of appointing an independent person or persons to undertake this work. My preference would be to give this job to the non-executive directors of the OBR. That seems a perfectly respectable way to do this. It is common practice in companies that the independent directors should appoint auditors and should look after other forms of oversight.

I cannot believe that a group of five people is needed to undertake this task, which, as the amendment says, is to evaluate forecasts and to look at the methods used. If we are not careful, we will have the same problem as we have had with the MPC-quite soon, one runs out of qualified people to fill a committee.

I also have concerns about whether an independent review is needed every year. Not a lot will change each year. We will have one year's figures in the forecasts and we will be able to look at the outturns. When one is looking at issues relating to bias and variables, one typically needs a run of years to be able to see the

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pattern of the forecasting record. The Bill suggests that there should be an annual review, but to me the issue is how often one needs independent input into this process. I would be cautious about that. It is a task that one could leave to the non-executive directors, who would decide whether, for example, an independent review was needed every year or whether internal and independent reviews should be held in alternate years. I would leave it to the independent directors, or members of the office, to determine the number of people needed for these investigations, who to recruit and whether to recruit the same people on successive occasions.

I support the idea of independent input, but let us not make a meal of it. The task is on a different scale from that in the US example that the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, cited. We need something of a size that is appropriate to the task in hand.

Lord De Mauley: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, and his noble friends for their amendment and to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, for his contribution. The Government recognise the importance of external expert challenge, which is the issue that the noble Lords have raised. Indeed, the fact that the OBR analysis is publicly available means that it is open to scrutiny.

On a previous occasion, we debated whether the OBR should produce an assessment of forecast accuracy. This process needs expertise in forecasting, which the OBR clearly has. The Government argue that this expertise will be difficult, although not impossible, to find elsewhere. It also requires a full understanding of the data underpinning the forecasts. Again, the OBR has this, and a similar level of knowledge is scarce elsewhere, although, I acknowledge, not unobtainable.

Assessing previous performance provides a very valuable opportunity for the OBR to learn and understand what has driven diversions from accuracy. It is clear that it is the OBR's intention to use the report in this way and that it has the right skill set to do so. The noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, mentioned the Congressional Budget Office. I understand that, although it does indeed have a panel of external advisers who meet twice a year, the CBO carries out its own analysis of previous forecasts. I think that our proposed design is in line with discussions with international organisations.

The proposals in the amendment raise a number of issues that we need to consider. The Government, for example, believe it is difficult to envisage that the committee could get into the detail needed to produce a comprehensive and meaningful assessment. Like the noble Lord, Lord Burns, we share the concerns about a body of five people being needed to scrutinise this work. We are not sure whether the noble Lord envisages that they would be paid and, if so, how much. We also feel that there is an issue of focus and that it might be appropriate to look at a larger section of the OBR's work, because perhaps all parts of its work could benefit from external expertise.

In general, in a broader context there is nothing to stop any person or organisation assessing the OBR's forecast accuracy by looking at its forecasts and comparing them with the actual outturn data. Where value can be added is in making sure that the OBR uses all the best information. That is why we put an emphasis on

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transparency across the piece. None the less, we accept that bringing in external expertise could be very useful. We believe that it is consistent with the Bill as drafted but that it is important to take a more proportionate approach. Of course, the OBR already has the power to convene advisory panels to provide external perspectives if it sees fit, and Robert Chote indicated his interest in that in his evidence to the Treasury Select Committee. The OBR is already drawing on external expertise, as noted in its autumn forecast statement.

In conclusion, the Government will reflect on whether additional steps are needed in the light of this very helpful debate and suggestion. In particular, I am interested in the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, which I should like to take away and think about.

Lord Eatwell: I am grateful to the noble Lord. Perhaps I may take up a couple of the points to which he referred, as did the noble Lord, Lord Burns. First, there is the question of whether there would be enough people to do the job. The Treasury sends out a compendium of about 40 independent forecasts, so at least 40 independent forecasting organisations are doing this job. It seems to me that within those organisations, as well as within universities and research organisations such as the national institute, there is a sufficient pool of talent to draw on over the years to ensure that this job is well done.

Secondly, in suggesting that there should be a team of five, I was not recommending that they all commit themselves to do the job in any one year; rather, I was proposing that they act as a committee, perhaps assigning a couple of its members to do the job each year. The group of five would provide continuity over the piece.

There was then the question of how much the committee members should be paid. I should tell the noble Lord that academics, in particular, are so obsessive and competitive that they will do this in exchange for a good lunch. Given the amount that they are paid, they are not so well fed these days, and I do not think that there would be any difficulty in finding suitable people at a reasonable level of remuneration.

The key issue is bringing in external experts who are committed to doing the job. As I conceded in my opening speech, the transparency with which the OBR is to operate will attract outside commentators. What is needed is a group of people who have suitable expertise, in whom the Chancellor and the Select Committee of another place have confidence, and whose responsibility it would be to comment on the two major forecasts per year that the OBR is required under the Bill to make. However, I am heartened by the Minister's response and look forward to further discussions on this matter. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 40 withdrawn.

2.15 pm

Clause 15 : Employment etc of former Comptroller and Auditor General

Amendment 41 not moved.

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Amendment 41A

Moved by Lord Touhig

41A: Clause 15, page 5, line 36, leave out "such person as may be so specified" and insert "the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and abide by the decisions of the Committee"

Lord Touhig: My Lords, perhaps I may at the outset apologise if I am partly responsible for your Lordships having to meet again today. I very much regret that I had not anticipated the speed with which your Lordships would complete their deliberations on earlier amendments. Although I was around on Monday, I was in the Chamber. I apologise again if my failure to be here has meant that the Committee has had to meet again today.

I apologise also for the fact that this amendment is a manuscript amendment. My original Amendment 41 was deficient in that it used the term "Advisory Committee on Public Appointments", when it should have said "Advisory Committee on Business Appointments". I took the information from the 15th report of the Public Accounts Commission. I am afraid that I should have been more careful and checked out that information.

Until earlier this year, I served on the Public Accounts Committee in the other place. As a result of that experience, I have been able to witness at close hand the tremendous work that the National Audit Office does and to see how important the work of the Comptroller and Auditor-General is in keeping a check on how government spends the taxpayer's money. Crucial to the role of the C&AG is the independence of the person who occupies that office. It is vital that the office is both independent and seen to be independent. For this reason, none of his decisions should be seen as being born of self-interest.

Under the Bill, future appointees to the office of the Comptroller and Auditor-General will serve a one-term period of a maximum of 10 years. There will be the real prospect of former C&AGs, on leaving their appointment, seeking other employment. Indeed, in a letter to me following Second Reading, the Minister made that very point-I have copies if any noble Lord wishes to have sight of it. In the letter, the Minister points out that the Government hope that future C&AGs will want to continue their careers after they complete their 10-year term of office. If this is to be the case, it is important that sufficient safeguards are in place to ensure that that does not compromise the position of the Comptroller and Auditor-General in office.

The Public Accounts Commission's 15th report of March 2008, to which I have referred, contained a number of proposals that sought to create safeguards. The Bill, however, reduces some of them. The commission proposed that the former Comptroller and Auditor-General should abide by decisions of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments if he or she were to take up any further employment having left the job. My Amendment 41A would require this.

The Bill states merely that former C&AGs should consult with such people as may be specified by the Public Accounts Commission. I understand from

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the Minister's letter that the wording in the Bill would allow for more flexibility on which individuals or organisations were asked to give advice. While I understand from the Minister's letter that the wording in the Bill would allow for more flexibility on which individuals or organisations are asked to give advice, it could result in inconsistency over time, as to both who gives the advice and what advice is given. It is fairer on former Comptroller and Auditor-Generals if, at the outset of their term of office, they know who will give them advice on any appointment that they may take up on leaving office as well as the basis on which these decisions will be made. As such, I suggest that stipulating who will advise former C&AGs is preferable. Furthermore, the commission's original proposals stated that former C&AGs would have to abide by the advice that they were given regarding their future employment. The Bill does not allow for that.

The Minister in his letter to me following the Second Reading debate stated that, if a former C&AG were to take up a position against advice received by the commission, the commission would be free to make that advice public. He drew the parallel with how advice is given to former Ministers and argued that that would be a strong deterrent against any former C&AGs going against that advice. However, former C&AGs do not have the same high profile as former Ministers; a former C&AG who ignored the advice of the commission would perhaps not attract as much attention or interest as a former Minister who did such a thing. Hence my Amendment 41A.

Amendment 42 would change the time limit on when former C&AGs may accept Crown employment. If former C&AGs were immediately able to accept a position that is in the gift of the Government, there would be a danger that some people could perceive such an appointment as being a reward for actions taken while in office. That would undermine the integrity of the C&AG and lead to his actions while in office being called into question through speculation about his future.

The Public Accounts Commission suggested in its 15th report that former C&AGs should be prohibited from ever accepting any post that the National Audit Office has audited or which was in the gift of the Government. That is a heavy penalty. The Government agree: the Bill prevents former C&AGs from providing services to the Crown or to a body that is required to open its accounts to audit by the National Audit Office for a period of just two years. However, while it is entirely understandable that we would not wish to put a restrictive life ban on former C&AGs, I suggest that two years may be too short a period. If we accept that the greatest risk is of attempts by the Executive to influence the C&AG, the sensible course would surely be for a time limit to be at least five years. In that time, there is the real prospect that the Government will have changed and that a former C&AG's appointment would be considered as a Crown appointment by others. Such a time limit would mean that a C&AG would not be able to rely with any certainty on the incumbent Government still being in office at the time when he or she might accept some Crown appointment, which would overcome any suggestion of political influence on any decisions that a C&AG would take

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while in office. Amendment 42 would be the best guarantee that, between a C&AG leaving office and subsequently being appointed to a Crown position, there was likely to have been a general election.

The Bill is in the main a good Bill. It proposes to do some sensible things, but our task is to scrutinise, question and improve it. I suggest that the two amendments that I have tabled for your Lordships' consideration will make some improvement to the Bill.

Lord Eatwell: I support Amendment 41A proposed by my noble friend Lord Touhig, albeit on a slightly different basis. Given that this appointment will now be for only one term of tenure, it is important that we attract people of the highest quality to the post. If they felt that their future career prospects were endangered, it is likely that we would not have the very best field from which to choose. Therefore, when someone comes to the end of their tenure, it is appropriate for them to receive advice from an established committee whose procedures and standards are well known and in the public domain, and whose approbation or approval of a particular post is seen as having undergone a strict assessment as to the impact on the integrity of the post and the individual. If we are to get the best applicants for this sort of job, we must give some certainty about the nature of their future careers. The involvement of an established body with agreed procedures and standards would help to provide that.

Interestingly enough, if my noble friend's Amendment 41A were accepted, his Amendment 42 would be less important. The committee would have given its approval of the post and that would receive general acceptance. Therefore, the longer time period might not be so necessary. However, I defer to my noble friend, who has much more experience in these matters than I do. The Government should look carefully at Amendment 41A, which would improve both the Bill and the performance in this particular post.

The Commercial Secretary to the Treasury (Lord Sassoon): My Lords, I apologise to the Committee for my failure to be here on time. I should like to place on record my gratitude to the police officer outside-I should probably not name him, but I will write to the commissioner-who let me vault the double line of barriers, even though that caused lots of other people in the square, whose intentions in getting to this building were probably not as well meaning as mine, to try to follow me. I place on record my gratitude to the Metropolitan Police officer who exercised some judgment in letting me through. I am sorry that I did not get here at the beginning.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, for raising this question again because it is important that we get right the balance. We must protect the matters of propriety around this office and balance that with what the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, said about attracting the best candidates to the office.

The fact that this amendment is named Amendment 41A rather than Amendment 41 points out the difficulty with naming a particular body, which could come and go over the years. I believe that it is appropriate to leave

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it to the specification of the Public Accounts Commission, which can decide on the appropriate body to make the decision at the time. I see the point that the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, is making about the desirability of certainty. Of course, it would be open to the Public Accounts Commission to specify at the time of the appointment-obviously not of the current Comptroller and Auditor-General but of future C&AGs-which relevant body would apply. Specifying a body now that could change over the years would provide a degree of unnecessary inflexibility and the law would have to be changed if the body specified ceased to exist. Critically, we have the protection that the appointment is in the hands of the Public Accounts Commission. The certainty point is something that could be taken into account at the time of the appointment.

2.30 pm

Lord Eatwell: The amendment reads,

From that, it is not clear to me that the person is to be determined by the Public Accounts Committee, which does not seem to follow the way that the Bill is drafted. I take the noble Lord's point about succession, although usually when bodies succeed each other their responsibilities are passed on in a reasonably coherent way. This wording does not quite seem to achieve what the noble Lord believes it to achieve, but I shall leave him to consider that. I am not trying to make a difficult point; it is just that the drafting does not seem to be quite right.

Lord Sassoon: That is the intention behind the drafting but I shall see whether, on reflection, it achieves that. I think that we can accommodate the degree of certainty, albeit that, even in the period of appointment of a C&AG, the relevant advisory committee could change.

I turn to the question of abiding by the committee's decisions. I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, says about this being different from ministerial appointments or other Senior Civil Service appointments, where similar conditions apply. However, as we have seen in recent years, there is, as there should be, a considerable focus on current and former Comptroller and Auditors-General. It is inconceivable that similar pressures to those that apply to Ministers and officials would not apply very directly in this case. Therefore, just as, so far as I am aware, it is not written into other Bills, I do not believe that there is a need to write into this Bill the necessity to abide by decisions. If it were thought appropriate to draw attention to this point, I believe it would be more applicable to the terms of appointment rather than the Bill.

On Amendment 42, I certainly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, that we must make sure that we get the best field of candidates. If the matters that are the subject of Amendment 41A are addressed properly, which I believe in the total construct they are, then I believe that a period of two rather than five years strikes the right balance when considering the terms of the appointment. Again, it is difficult to say what the appropriate read-across should be, but two years is the

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period during which former Ministers go through clearance procedures, and this is a tighter requirement, as it should be.

In addition, there are potential difficulties concerning the legal enforcement of such a restriction. The issue here is whether, by specifying five years or some other relatively high number, we would risk infringing age discrimination legislation by making the appointment process exclude those who were getting closer to-I do not know what the term should be-perhaps our best years. Therefore, there are real concerns and there is clearly no easy answer to the question of what the right number might be, but the legal advice that the Government have received is that, as one pushed that number up-and five years would certainly lead to the legal advice being uncertain-there would be a significant risk that the restriction would be thought to be an infringement of age discrimination legislation. Therefore, subject to making it absolutely clear that Clause 15 works as intended-I think that it does, but I will look again-I believe that we have struck a proportionate balance which ensures that we get the best candidates for the job but does not in any way leave open a suggestion of impropriety afterwards.

Lord Touhig: I am grateful to my noble friend and to the Minister for their responses. I take the point that my noble friend Lord Eatwell made: if Amendment 41A were accepted, the necessity for Amendment 42 would perhaps not be as great. I also take his point-it was one reason that prompted me to draft this amendment-that the Bill simply says that,

I hope the Minister will go back and look further at that, because there is some merit in specifying who will actually look at these matters; indeed, in 2008 the Public Accounts Commission recommended that it should be the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. The advisory committee was formerly chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, and is presently chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Lang

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of Monkton, so it has a distinguished chairman and a distinguished membership. The committee's website says:

"The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments is an independent body which provides advice to the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, or other Ministers if requested, on applications from the most senior Crown servants who wish to take up outside appointments within 2 years of leaving Crown service".

I rather think that it will not be abolished in a hurry, because we will always need such a body to give advice to Prime Ministers and to others on these matters.

I am certainly encouraged that the Minister says that he will perhaps go back and further reflect on this. He mentioned his concern that Amendment 42 might have an impact on age discrimination. As someone who celebrated his 63rd birthday on Sunday-I am still flattered, as a new Member of your Lordships' House, when colleagues come up to me and ask, "Are you settling in, young man?"-I take the Minister's point as a fair one. Having said that, I await the Minister's further reflection and coming back to us, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 41A withdrawn.

Amendment 42 not moved.

Clause 15 agreed.

Clauses 16 to 20 agreed.

Amendment 43 not moved.

Schedule 2 agreed.

Remaining clauses and schedules agreed.

Bill reported without amendment.

Committee adjourned at 2.40 pm.

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