Public sector value-for-money report due before election

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT could be handed a pre-election windfall from plans that emerged yesterday to rush out a report on value for money in public services just before polling day.

The Office of National Statistics said it planned to incorporate major changes to the way the output of education, public order and social services are calculated when calculating economic growth. Len Cook, the National Statistician, said he aimed to publish the changes to historic figures in nine key areas "before the end of April".

The figures could potentially lead to a massive improvement to the measurement of public sector output and productivity going back several years for areas such schools, childcare, prisons and the police.

The issue of value for money in public services will be a key election battleground in the wake of claims by the Conservatives that the billions of pounds the Government has poured in are being lost in wage rises and red tape. The changes follow the publication yesterday of a year-long review by Sir Tony Atkinson, a leading academic economist, that made more than 50 recommendations on the way the ONS produces its public sector growth figures.

The issue was plunged into controversy after it emerged Mr Cook would have the power to decide whether to publish those figures if a general election is called for 5 May.

The ONS confirmed it would follow government guidance, which says Mr Cook can decide whether to release ad hoc statistics during a hustings period. It risks a repeat of a political row a year ago when the ONS used Sir Tony's interim findings to produce figures showing that NHS output had risen 29 per cent between 1995 and 2003. This was up from the 19 per cent previously calculated, adding as much as 0.1 per cent to annual GDP. It triggered accusations by the Conservatives that the Government was using Atkinson as a "propaganda tool".

Yesterday Oliver Letwin, the shadow Chancellor, published a draft Bill to give greater independence to national statisticians. "Public trust in national statistics is at an all-time low. We are absolutely determined to rid the system of political interference," he said. Commenting on the issue of pre-election changes to public services data, a Tory spokesman said: "Given the political sensitivity of the issue, why on earth are they looking to rush out new data just before a general election?"

Mr Cook said he was aware of the political sensitivity, adding that he did not yet know whether anything would be published before polling day. "It is my responsibility as National Statistician to uphold the continuing integrity and acceptance of the national accounts," he said. "Statistics that measure public sector activity have a sensitivity in public life."

In his report Sir Tony, the warden of Nuffield College Oxford, made 54 recommendations on how to improve the measurement of the output and productivity of the public services. "The method of measuring government output can make a considerable difference to the recorded growth rate of the economy," he said. "There is an intrinsic case based on public accountability for seeking to measure what is achieved by spending on public services."

In a separate move to calm markets in the run-up to an election, the Bank of England said the meeting of its Monetary Policy Committee on interest rates would be delayed if it fell on polling day.

Meanwhile, Gordon Brown insisted the Government would meet its fiscal rules, after a warning by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that the Government would order a pounds 13bn tax increase to fill a hole in the public finances.

Outlook, page 37