Outlook: There are lies, damn lies and statistics

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The Independent Online
WHO WOULD have thought that a Government organisation as arcane as the Office for National Statistics could stir up such a hornet's nest of controversy? Statisticians are meant to even more boring, predictable and upright than actuaries, and yet here they are in the eye of the storm. They couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery, seems to be about the sum of the House of Commons Treasury Committee report on the Office for National Statistics published yesterday.

This matters, the MPs say, not only because the ONS gobbles up pounds 123.2m of public money every year, but also because the Government and others have to rely on the integrity of the ONS's information in setting policy. As for the rest of us, we have to rely on its integrity in order to judge the success or otherwise of that policy.

But it is not just the luckless Dr Tim Holt, director of the ONS, who gets it in the neck for a poorly run ship. Mervyn King, deputy governor of the Bank of England, the Chancellor, the Treasury, Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all are criticised for their part in the the earnings data debacle, the episode that prompted the Committee's interest.

By implication, Mr King is accused of using the ONS as a scapegoat for the Bank's own error in putting up interest rates last June. The Bank was well aware that the earnings data was faulty, the report implies, and should not have used them as a basis for policy. Worse, Mr King then puts himself on to the committee charged with investigating the problems, a clear conflict of interest, the Committee suggests.

These suggestions have so angered Eddie George, Governor of the Bank of England, that he has felt moved to write a public letter of complaint to Giles Radice, chairman of the Treasury Committee. This is the sort of thing that comment columns like this one receive all the time, but the Treasury Select Committee?

The ONS obviously needs to reform and modernise itself and certainly it would be a surprise if Dr Holt is left in place to be the one charged with that process. But as the Treasury Committee implies, it does not become the Bank of England to blame the ONS for its own policy mistakes. It was Benjamin Disraeli who said in the last century that there are lies, damn lies and statistics. The Bank should know that as well as anyone.