MPs tell Government to take control of ONS

There is a widespread perception that the Treasury is already too mighty in Whitehall

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) should come under the supervision of the Treasury because the Chancellor’s department has “skin in the game” when it comes to the production of accurate economic data, the Treasury Select Committee (TSC) will recommend today.

In a letter to Sir Charlie Bean, who has been commissioned to produce an official report on the ONS by the Chancellor, Andrew Tyrie, the chairman of the TSC, suggests that the Cabinet Office should be stripped of its nominal responsibility for overseeing the ONS.

The call is unlikely to be universally welcomed given the widespread perception that the Treasury is already too mighty in Whitehall, and because of fears of political influence in the production or presentation of sensitive statistics.

“The deterioration in the quality of economic statistics has taken place under the nominal responsibility of the Cabinet Office, a department with no skin in the game … Serious consideration should be given to whether the Treasury should now assume lead Government responsibility for official statistics ” Mr Tyrie writes.

He also makes a stinging criticism of the UK Statistics Authority, currently led by Sir Andrew Dilnot, for being “asleep at the wheel” while the quality of economic data has deteriorated. Mr Tyrie recommends the authority be scrapped and replaced with a “new autonomous body.

The Royal Statistical Society (RSS) said the TSC proposal was misguided. “Strengthening the independence of statistics is laudable but bringing them under the purview of the Treasury would achieve the opposite … There would be the constant question of whether Treasury had influenced the figures,” said Mike Hughes, chairman of the RSS’s National Statistics Advisory Committee. The Government has ignored repeated pleas from Sir Andrew to remove the 24-hour pre-access that ministers get to the ONS’s key statistical bulletins. 

Sir Charlie,  formerly of the Bank of England, was asked by George Osborne to conduct a review of the ONS’s output after the last election amid widespread concerns about the quality of the agency’s work.

His final report is due to be delivered at next month’s Budget on 16 March.

In 2013, the Bank’s Governor, Mark Carney, compared the output of the agency unfavourably with that of the Canadian statistics agency, singling out the ONS statistics on business investment, which he felt were implausible. The statistics were subsequently revised up.

Back in 2011, The Independent revealed the Bank had begun to question the competence of the ONS after it repeatedly released key economic data later than promised.

The TSC also recommends that it should have the right to approve the appointment and dismissal of the chair of the UK Statistics Authority in the same way as it currently does for the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility.

 

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