COMMONS

Call for evidence on Statistics for the economy and public finances

17 December 2014

The Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) is examining the topic of statistics for the economy and public finances, as part of a programme of work on statistics and their use in government.

PASC invites those with informed views on the issues to submit evidence by noon on 27 January 2015. Information on how to respond is at the end of this paper.

Aims of the inquiry 

  • identify the key areas of concern relating to the quality of statistics for the economy and public finances; and
  • highlight issues for the Government after the General Election in 2015 and for the UK Statistics Authority and the National Statistician.

The Treasury Select Committee continues to ask detailed questions about the economy and public finances; PASC is interested specifically on the adequacy of the statistics to support a wider range of users engaged with the economy and public finances.

Background

This study is one of the final parts of PASC's programme of work on statistics, launched in June 2012, consisting of eleven short “studies”, each of which focuses on a discrete topic. Some of the studies involved both written and oral evidence and published reports, and in some cases the Committee pursued its investigation in writing alone.

The eleven topics investigated by the Committee are:

  1. The operation of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007.
  2. The work of the Office for National Statistics.
  3. Statistics and the regions and nations of the UK.
  4. Communicating and publishing statistics.
  5. Migration statistics.
  6. Transparency, open data and statistics.
  7. The Census.
  8. Budgeting for statistics across Government.
  9. Statistics for the economy and public finances.
  10. The comprehensiveness of official statistics.
  11. Crime statistics

Recent developments

The new National Statistician John Pullinger, appointed in summer 2014, set economic data as a key priority: “the first area of focus is to inform decisions about the economy, business and finance”.

We are concerned that key stakeholders (the Bank of England, HM Treasury and the Office of Budget Responsibility) have all given the Office for National Statistics low ratings for performance in this area, reported in previous UK Statistics Authority / ONS annual reports. The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, said that data was better in Canada, where he previously worked.

Questions for written evidence

We have identified a number of areas of statistics relating to the economy and public finances – listed below – which may require improvement. We are interested in hearing answers to the following questions:

  1. Are these the right areas for improvement, within the broad topic of statistics for the economy and public finances? Are there any which are missing?
  2. Which are the top three areas for improvement? What needs to be in place to make improvement happen?
  3. What would excellent statistics for the economy and public finance look like?

Key issues of concern

In this short inquiry, we do not intend to investigate in detail all the topics listed below. We do not want to receive detailed comment on the substance of each topic. Rather, we hope to identify the key issues of concern and suggest a priority order for those areas of statistics for the economy and public finances which the Office for National Statistics should focus on after the General Election. The areas we suggest need improvement are:

  • The Budget Red Book. The sources document published by HM Treasury is very limited in scope and not useful for the reader, who might reasonably want to put forecasts in the context of historical data. There may be more ONS could do.
  • Long time series. Changes in definition mean that not all series have a long history, but changes to the ONS website and its publication policy mean that finding data for long runs of years is often difficult and sometimes impossible.
  • Public finances. There are several publications available, including the monthly ONS release, the Treasury’s Public Expenditure Statistical Analyses (PESA) and Whole of Government Accounts, and the Combined Online Information System (COINS), the database for UK Government expenditure. However, it is still hard for the user to have a full and clear picture of the state of the finances.
  • Publications. The ONS used to set out a picture of the economy based on a reading of all economic data, for example, through the compendium Economic Trends (now discontinued). There is evidence produced by others, such as the Bank of England, Confederation of British Industry, Chambers of Commerce and the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply, is no longer incorporated into ONS publications and analyses but arguably should be to give a fuller picture.
  • Inflation. We look forward to seeing the outcome of the UK Statistics Authority’s review into the Retail Prices Index and Consumer Prices Index, due to be published at the end of 2015, which will sit alongside the already announced new governance structures. Further work, such as reconciliation of all price indices, may be needed.
  • Access to data. We have previously reported on both communicating statistics and on open data; these issues will certainly need continuing attention in order to best meet the needs of users of statistics for the economy and public finances.
  • Administrative data. We have previously reported on the future of the census and are supportive of plans for greater use of administrative data. Concerns remain about the speed of development progress. The scope for innovative and improved economic data is huge. We anticipate that data collected through administrative records and new digital sources will be different from the traditional economic data but could shed a fuller light on developments in the economy and society more generally.
  • Local and regional data. More could be done to provide local, or even fuller regional, economic data.
  • Research and development spending. More could be done to measure the hard-to-measure elements of the economy, such as software or financial services.
  • GDP. We noted the findings of the review conducted by Dame Kate Barker and welcome observations on the significant resulting work programme for ONS.
  • House prices. We note ONS’s consultation on the “development of a definitive house price index”, and await the results which will inevitably lead to more work.
  • LIBOR and other financial data. Interest rates and other financial data are mostly not produced by ONS. The LIBOR manipulation crisis of 2012 was damaging to the reputation of statistics. There is a question over what ONS’s role should be in relation to such data which, in the light of the events of 2008, are increasingly important to understanding the economy.
  • Labour market statistics. As the economy recovered there was much debate about the “productivity puzzle”, giving rise to concerns about the reconciliation, accuracy and detail of labour market statistics. That has now given way to concerns about the statistical robustness of (real) earnings growth figures.
  • Statistical resources. There is a question mark over whether resources are allocated in the most appropriate way. For example, whether more be done to measure services (reducing detail in the manufacturing data).
  • User engagement. The adequacy of ONS’s engagement with users on statistics for the economy and public finances.

How to respond

After having read the guidance on submitting evidence, please submit your written evidence via the inquiry page by midday on 27 January 2015.

If you do not have access to the internet, you can send a paper copy of your response to the Clerks of the Public Administration Select Committee, 7 Millbank, House of Commons, SW1P 3JA. Please state clearly who the submission is from, i.e. from yourself in a personal capacity, or sent on behalf of an organisation.

To discuss any aspect of your submission, email pasc@parliament.uk or phone 020 7219 2995.

Further information

Image: iStockphoto

Share this page