Wake up and smell the coffee, MP tells National Statistician

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The Independent Online

Len Cook, the Government's chief statistician, yesterday mounted a robust defence of his record during an ill-tempered exchange with a powerful committee of MPs.

He said the Office for National Statistics provided the fastest and most accurate statistics services in Europe if not the world.

Mr Cook, the National Statistician, was summoned to appear before the Commons Treasury sub-committee after a series of revisions to key economic data.

Last month it was forced to double its estimates of economic growth sparking fears that July's cut in interest rates was based on inaccurate information.

He admitted the raising of the estimate of quarterly GDP growth to 0.6 per cent from 0.3 per cent had been "outside expectations".

"I don't happen to be pleased we had a revision of this size," he said. "But these are not errors, these are not mistakes. They are revisions."

He said that over the past 10 years the average revision between the first and final estimate of quarterly GDP had been 0.1 percentage points. "There's an unreal expectation to produce a figure on GDP 25 days after the end of the quarter that would be within 0.1 per cent of the final figure," he said.

"The UK had fewer revisions in the 1990s in economic statistics than any other country in the EU. We believe in publishing very timely statistics. The UK gets an immense competitive advantage from both the high quality and timeliness of the data."

He faced a rough ride from the committee, which accused him of providing figures that might have misled the Bank's monetary policy committee.

David Ruffley, the Tory MP for Bury St Edmunds, said: "I suggest that you wake up and smell the coffee because there's been a catalogue of revisions - downwards, upwards and sideways."

The controversial GDP figures were released after July's decision but may have influenced the Bank's decision to hold rates in August and September.

Mr Cook said the Bank used several other sources as well as ONS data. "I can't tell you about the weight they give to any single statistic in a given quarter," he said.

The changes to GDP figures were due to a massive revision to estimates of construction by the Department of Trade and Industry. Separate revisions to trade figures, which added £40bn to imports, were because of problems at Customs & Excise.

But Mr Cook declined to pass on the blame, saying instead he was "working closely" with senior officials at both departments.

He said problems with the 2001 Census, which found the UK population was more than 1.1 million lower than previously thought, were due to failures with the previous count 10 years earlier.

The new figures triggered a storm of protest from councils in Manchester and London who said the lower estimates would lead to savage cuts in their grant funding

But Mr Cook said the 1991 Census had mistakenly estimated the number of immigrants that had settled in these boroughs.

He conceded this meant these boroughs, which include the Tory strongholds of Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea, had received more grant aid throughout the 1990s than they were entitled to.