Retailers cry foul as economists question official data

Renewed doubts about the quality of official data surfaced yesterday as the Government postponed publication of figures on the housing market, and the latest data on retail sales met with incredulity from the industry and some economists.

A spokesman for HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), responsible for the property market data, explained that statisticians and economists at HMRC thought that "something didn't sit right" in the data when they compared them with previous months' results, hence the decision to withhold the information.

It comes a fortnight after publication of Ministry of Justice data on repossessions was postponed for a week "due to a temporary problem with the computer system". The Liberal Democrats' Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, said: "It seems strange that when figures are bad, they are also often late. If we are to have any confidence in government figures, we must know that they are fully independent. Late or inaccurate statistics only go to further undermine this Government's credibility."

Separately, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that retail sales in the three months to July rose by 0.7 per cent and that "underlying growth in retail sales volumes remain positive". The ONS said that, between June and July, the volume of sales jumped by 0.8 per cent, "reflecting rises in all sectors". Such strong evidence would weaken the case for a cut in interest rates later this year, but monthly data is volatile, and the ONS series has become more so recently, with a sharp rise in May's sales data wiped out by a dramatic fall in June.

However, some cast more serious doubts on the figures. Stephen Robertson, director general of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), said: "Few retailers will recognise this positive picture. These ONS figures suggest July's total sales values were up 3.8 per cent on a year ago, well above the miserly 1.7 per cent shown by the BRC's figures ... It's hard to see what could produce the sales-growth boost ONS is reporting, or its finding that smaller retailers are outperforming larger ones. We respect the ONS's process, but this report doesn't seem to reflect the current retail reality."

The ONS maintains that the BRC's estimate "does not effectively reflect sales by small and medium businesses" and "does not include businesses in sectors which have shown relatively strong growth in recent periods. For example, the internet-only retailers of home entertainment and major food discount stores". Chains such as Aldi and Lidl have performed strongly during the downturn.

"Several data series are becoming unforecastable," said Ross Walker, an economist at RBS. "I don't think there is a great risk of a major policy error but it probably does mean that it increases the chances of an error. The bigger risk is it delays policy from becoming pre-emptive."

Decisions on interest rates, unusually finely balanced now, crucially depend on economic data. In a speech last month, the deputy governor of the Bank of England, Charlie Bean, pointed out the difficulties the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has in interpreting them when setting rates. Mr Bean said: "We don't even have a precise picture of the current state of the economy. As a result, controlling the economy has been likened to driving along a winding road looking only in the rear-view mirror. Indeed it's worse than that as we don't even have that good a view of where it has been in the past either. It is as if the rear window is also a bit misted up."

Mr Bean added that, while official numbers remained the "primary signposts", the MPC would also refer to the BRC, CBI Distributive Trades and Bank of England Regional Agents' survey evidence too. "The conformity of the picture given by the Distributive Trades survey with other potential indicators of spending, such as consumer confidence and the Agents' reports, have led us to place less weight on the official data on retail spending for the present," he said.

The ONS relocated from London to Newport in south Wales this year, leading to a large number of staff changes. The PCS union warned then that the move would "undermine the quality of the statistics".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Selby Jennings: Oil Operations

Highly Competitive: Selby Jennings: Our client, a leading European Oil trading...

The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operations Manager

£43500 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operatio...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - LONDON

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000 + Car + Pension: SThree: SThree are a ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K: SThree: We consistently strive to be the...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all