Goodbye, Oxo Mum. Hello, Ally McBeal. UK's price index catches up with the times

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The Independent Online

If household shopping habits are anything to go by, Ally McBeal has replaced the Oxo family as the model for how modern Britons live. Low-calorie, ready-cooked meals for one are "in" and the stock cubes needed to make traditional family dinners are "out".

With the change in eating habits has come a switch in leisure pursuits. The personal stereo player – better known as the Walkman – is history. The new must-have item is the DVD player. And, as if anyone really needed to be told, smoking a pipe is just passé.

This snapshot of the Zeitgeist of the British nation is not the result of a poll for a glossy women's magazine but the official view of a Whitehall department.

Every year the nation's bean counters – the Government's official statisticians – must decide what items should be counted when it comes to calculating the rate of inflation on the high street. In its annual review of the "basket" of goods and services used to calculate the monthly rate at which prices are rising, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has chucked out a range of cooking ingredients that no shopping basket was once complete without. So chilled reduced-calorie and frozen vegetarian meals, processed sliced cheese, a range of ethnic takeaway meals and frozen prawns are what the British consumer now favours over canned salmon, loose tea, stock cubes and red potatoes.

The statistics office said the changes threw a "fascinating light" on changing spending habits. "They suggest that households are adapting their eating habits to cope with busy lives, leisure patterns and changing tastes," said Anna Brueton, a senior statistician with the ONS.

"It's clear that people spend less time preparing food and the number of sit-down family meals is declining."

The Civil Service – hardly an organisation at the cutting edge of change – may just be confirming a long-term behavioural trend that many of us have already lived through.

A take-home supermarket meal, a fashionable woman's top, crystal wine glasses and leg wax – all included for the first time – would probably be found in the fictional Bridget Jones's shopping basket.

And anyone found walking out of a supermarket with a tin of powdered skimmed milk, pipe tobacco, a shower curtain and a set of darts – all "out" from today – could be mistaken for an extra from a 1970s sitcom.

The whole exercise is part of the task of calculating how fast high street prices are rising to help the Bank of England set interest rates. Unless the statisticians are looking at the goods and services that people are buying, the final number will probably be wrong.

The basket of goods was first assembled in 1947 to replace a list of arbitrarily defined "essentials" that until then were used to keep a track of rising prices. These "essentials" included prices for wild rabbits (unskinned), sewing machines, back-laced corsets and schoolgirls' navy woollen gym tunics. "Choice and variety have greatly increased over the last half century," said a spokes-woman for the ONS, noting that 650 items are now monitored compared with 250 in 1947.

In an oblique way, changes to the survey mirror the upheavals in modern family life. The unskinned rabbits of 1947 had become luncheon meat by 1976 and are now represented by a whole mini-basket of different meats and poultry.

The clothes mangle has become the washing machine, infants' smocked frocks are Babygros and the humble gramophone record is now represented by the DVD and the recordable CD.

Yesterday's revisions to the basket showed that households are spending even more of their hard-earned spare cash on leisure and entertainment. It now includes DVD players, disposable cameras and cable telephone charges. They will replace personal stereos and the cassettes to play in them as well as blank video tapes and, perhaps oddly given the continuing popularity of the sport, sets of darts.

The gardening and DIY boom triggered by TV programmes such as Ground Force and Changing Rooms is reflected by the inclusion of aluminium stepladders, fabric roller blinds, bath taps and plastic patio sets. People are also spending more on personal goods and services, with women's hair dye, leg waxing and sunglasses all making an entry to the basket. Solicitors' fees for drafting wills in our ageing population have also been introduced.

Clothes joining the new inflation basket, which takes effect today with the inflation figures for February, include boys' branded sports tops and girls' fashion tops. No clothing items have been thrown out, which may be fortunate as the ONS has a mixed record when it comes to calling fashion. It ejected men's cardigans in 1997 just as a craze for buttoned knitwear, inspired by the Pulp singer, Jarvis Cocker, was sweeping the high street. They were brought back in 1999.

When the annual review does get it right it is sometimes a rather belated mark of changing trends and fashions.

In 2000 it ruled that leggings – which fell out of fashion in the 1980s – were no longer de rigueur and would be replaced by shorts. Last year the casualty was the ski pant, which had not been popular outside Alpine resorts for some 10 years.

Only recently the ONS launched a short-lived consultation on ending its practice of keeping a record of the number of days lost to strike action – just as disputes on the railways, and in schools and the Post Office appeared to herald another season of discontent.

Cricket lovers can be forgiven for thinking the ONS is about to make another mistake. Yesterday's decision to throw out the price of admission to cricket matches comes as England's team celebrates a welcome Test victory over New Zealand.

Ms Brueton said the changes were based on a combination of spending patterns, diaries filled in by shoppers for the ONS, visits to shops and reports in newspapers and magazines. Personal prejudice did not come into it, she insisted.

"We have dropped loose-leaf tea for the first time since 1947 but I would never drink anything else," she said.

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