Bank of England policymakers question competence of ONS

Economics experts' frustration with delay to statisticians' 'Blue Book' starts to boil over

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The Independent Online

The Bank of England has begun to question the competence of the Office for National Statistics, The Independent has learnt. Senior policymakers at the Bank feel they are being let down by the statistical gathering organisation, which last month announced a delay in the publication of its national accounts statistics, known as the Blue Book, for the second time in two years.

The Blue Book was originally due to be published on 1 November. But the ONS announced in September that the full data will now not be released until 23 November, due to the need to make revisions. The Bank of England was planning to use the Blue Book figures in preparations for its November growth and inflation forecast.

The Bank's report will be published, as scheduled, on 16 November, but Threadneedle Street researchers will now not have access to the range of data that they would normally rely upon to make their calculations.

"It's a question of competence, of getting quality data in a timely fashion in the manner of other countries," said a senior source at the Bank.

The frustration over the Blue Book is only the latest in a long line of complaints from Bank officials about the performance of the official statistics-gathering agency. Andrew Sentance, who left the Bank's Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) in May, said: "There are long-standing concerns at the Bank about the quality of the economic data from the ONS. My own reaction was not to regard it as gospel. The ONS is like one data point – you have to look at a wide variety."

Mr Sentance also says the Bank's doubts about the reliability of ONS figures is the reason why the MPC has, in recent years, published its own estimates of historic GDP data, alongside those of the ONS, in its quarterly growth forecasts. He also said the MPC has been looking at a wider range of data sources because of concerns about the quality of the ONS's output. In its official 2010/11 assessment of the ONS, the Bank judged the agency's performance "satisfactory", but complained about the 12-day delay in the publication of the 2010 national accounts for the first quarter. It said: "That reduced the information set available to the MPC at the time of their July meeting, and also caused disruptions to the August 2010 forecast process."

Some at the Bank of England have also voiced frustration with the ONS's new website, which was launched in August to "make it easier for our users to find the content they are looking for". But many users have complained that the site actually makes it more difficult to access economic data.

The ONS yesterday put the blame for the delay in the Blue Book on a "major new international [data] classification change" and stressed that it had given the Bank as much early information as it could. "We gave the Bank exceptionally early pre-release access for operational reasons," said a spokesman.

Many private-sector forecasters have expressed similar concerns about the ONS's performance. "There are no excuses for these delays," said Simon Goodwin, a senior economic adviser to the Ernst & Young Item Club. "It makes life very difficult, and not just for us but also for other forecasters like the Bank of England too."