Statistics watchdog condemns ONS data revisions

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The Independent Online

Britain's statistics watchdog launched a withering attack on last week's revisions to key data on pensions and NHS output yesterday, saying they undermined public confidence.

Britain's statistics watchdog launched a withering attack on last week's revisions to key data on pensions and NHS output yesterday, saying they undermined public confidence.

The Statistics Commission said some of the revisions could have been avoided by better management, planning and investment. "Public trust in official statistics is influenced by the nature and quality of the methods used to compile the figures," David Rhind, the commission's chairman, said.

"Improvements to the arrangements under which official statistics are produced are needed to underpin public confidence."

The reprimand for the Office for National Statistics, the government department that produces the data, is the latest episode in a long-running saga of revisions to official numbers the Bank of England uses to set interest rates.

It carries extra weight as the commission's members include leading figures, such as Derek Wanless, the former NatWest chief executive who produced a major review on the NHS for the Government, the former BBC director Patricia Hodgson and Collette Bowe, a former City regulator.

Last week the ONS published major revisions to both economic growth and pensions contributions going back over several years.

It cut the pensions savings figure for the eight years up to 2002, the most recent period for which data is available, by a total of £53bn or 23 per cent. This included a £12bn revision for the year 2002 on its own.

It led the Pensions Commission, which looks at whether pension saving is sufficient, to say it made it more likely pensions savings would prove to be inadequate.

Professor Rhind said the revisions "might have been avoided by taking different managerial, planning or investment decisions in the past".

Richard Alldritt, the commission's chief executive, said: "If you look at the pensions story it does look as if the system as a whole needed to be attended to with much greater care.

"It was quite clear that there were serious problems and that a different approach was going to be needed."

Mr Alldritt said it was a "tricky call" as to whether the health revisions, which raised NHS output to more than 4 per cent a year between 2001 and 2003 from early estimates of between 1.9 and 2.6 per cent, were avoidable.

"The old method of estimating NHS output was rough and ready and that could have been flagged up more clearly as to how rough it was," he said. The revisions, which also saw economic growth revised up in six of the past eight years, are the latest in a series of changes to data over recent months.

Professor Rhind said: "Statistics of importance to national policy over a period of years are now seen, in retrospect, to have been potentially misleading; and there remains the prospect of further revisions."

An ONS spokesman said: "The ONS made it clear at the time it released the revisions that we are continually looking to improve the quality of the statistics we produce."

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