Statistics chief faces double inquiry into errors

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The Independent Online

The UK's chief statistician has been summoned to appear before MPs next week as it emerged yesterday that the Government's watchdog is launching an investigation into the quality of official figures.

News of the inquiries comes in the wake of a series of dramatic revisions to key economic data that prompted a debate over the wisdom of the Bank's decision to cut rates in July.

Len Cook, the National Statistician, faces a rough ride from the Commons' Treasury Select Sub-Committee on Wednesday. Yesterday he told the Independent: "I can defend the competence of my department in any environment.

"We make the odd mistake and we've made more mistakes that I expected us to do but we produce a huge variety of statistics and we get a large proportion of them right first time." He welcomed the review and said that, as a New Zealander, he had been surprised by the scale of criticism that had been levied over the issue.

Michael Fallon, the Conservative MP who chairs the sub-committee, said yesterday that there was widespread concern over some of the recent revisions the ONS had made.

"We have had this catalogue of significant changes made to quite important economic statistics and we need to find out why these changes are being made and the effect they could be having on economic policy makers," he said.

"We will be looking for some reassurance from Mr Cook that there's some explanation for these major revisions."

Mr Cook will also face questions on other statistical revisions or anomalies that even led to speculation of political influence on the ONS, which is a department of the Treasury.

The latest census figures are reckoned to underestimate UK population growth by up to a million. It revised import figures by £22bn because of a fraud on mobile phone and computer chips.

The Conservatives unearthed a double-counting of Britons' pension contributions they said left a £10bn black hole. The Tories also seized on a decision to classify Network Rail as a private company, which meant its debts would be kept off the Government's balance sheet.

Mr Fallon said yesterday: "The suspicion is that the Treasury's influence could be malign."

Meanwhile the Statistics Commission, a non-statutory advisory body set up by the Treasury in 2000, said it would launch a wide-ranging review of the way the ONS produces its figures.

Professor David Rhind, its chairman, said: "The ONS has got a number of things significantly wrong and that's completely unacceptable. Public trust in statistics is absolutely fundamental to the way the economy runs and to many other decisions." Mr Cook said users of the ONS's data had to decide on the balance they wanted between the accuracy and speed of the statistics.

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