Leave our vital statistics alone

What do we drink, smoke, spend? If a leading survey is dropped, no one will know, warns David Walker
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The Independent Online
Want some social facts? Sixty-two per cent of people aged over 75 use a walking-stick, 12 per cent use a manual wheelchair, and 16 per cent use a Zimmer frame.

More info on the way we live now? Sixty-four per cent of professional people visit the dentist for a regular check (down from 69 per cent in 1983) against 38 per cent of unskilled manual workers (up from 29 per cent in 1983).

Still hungry for data? Of all fertile women - those aged 16 to 49 - 26 per cent use the pill, 17 per cent rely on the male condom, 5 per cent have IUDs, 12 per cent have been sterilised, the partners of 12 per cent have had a vasectomy, and 3 per cent rely on the "withdrawal" method.

You may be fascinated in a gee-whiz way. But if you are a doctor or health planner, contraceptive maker, academic or politician, you may actually need to know all this. The trouble is, the great machine for gathering these vivid snapshots - the General Household Survey (GHS) - has been "suspended" and may soon be axed as a cost-cutting measure by the Office of National Statistics. Its disappearance will rip the heart out of Social Trends, the widely praised overview of British social life, the 1997 edition of which is being published on Thursday.

The GHS is an endless source of nuggets, such as that 64 per cent of people of Indian descent own their homes on a mortgage compared with only 41 per cent of whites. It is the best used of all official surveys of how we live, especially prized for the understanding it offers of the relationship of social characteristics, incomes, lifestyles and consumption of food, alcohol and tobacco.

And pensions. The GHS says that of men employed full-time, 60 per cent belong to a company pension scheme, 29 per cent have a personal pension. Of women employed full-time, 54 per cent have a company pension, 22 per cent have a personal pension.

Pamela Meadows, director of the Policy Studies Institute, says GHS data on the characteristics of smokers has influenced how anti-smoking campaigns are targeted. The influential Institute of Fiscal Studies says it relied on GHS figures for its reports on childcare arrangements and the connections between people's skills and their earnings.

Researchers say data from the GHS is the only source for comparing the changing condition of Britain during the Conservative era. Ending it could make any comparisons with before 1979 more difficult.

Researchers are anxious. John Hills, reader in economics and social policy at the London School of Economics and author of the major Joseph Rowntree Foundation study of income inequality during the past two decades, says: "The crucial thing is consistency - without a run of data over the years we cannot accurately tell what is happening."

The Office of National Statistics, a sub-department of the Treasury which runs the GHS, says it has to make cuts and most of the data in the survey can be found elsewhere. It insists this year's GHS - based on data collected last year - will still be published, and that it may decide to go ahead with a survey in 1998.

But Janet Lewis, director of research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, says the purpose of the surveys should have been considered before economies were sought.

Angela Dale, professor of quantitative social research at the University of Manchester, says: "In a democratic society you need good information about what is happening and how things are changing."

Researchers fear worse is to come. After killing off the General Household Survey for 1997, the Office for National Statistics says it wants to review all its surveys including the vital Labour Force Survey, the only independent check there is on the accuracy of official unemployment figures.

Meanwhile, the Home Office and other departments are looking for big savings from their research budgets. The cuts, says Roger Jowell, director of Social and Community Planning Research, amount to a "scorched-earth policy" which could leave the next government in the dark about social conditions and the success or otherwise of its welfare reforms.

Ending the GHS will affect work being on trends in the distribution of income, on lifestyles, how families share the care of infirm elderly relatives, the progress of the children of single parents, leisure and sporting participation, as well as changes in smoking and drinking habits. Professor Dale calls such information "fundamental - and not available from any other source".

The GHS alone records that the North-West is the English region in which single parents form the highest proportion of its families; that the proportion of women cohabiting rose from 13 per cent in the early 1980s to 23 per cent in the mid-1990s.

In a letter of protest to the statistical mandarins of Whitehall, Denise Lievesley, director of the Data Archive at the University of Essex, adapts an old adage: "While the price of information does not come cheap, ignorance is far more expensive."

John Hills says the GHS is especially good for recording the use people make of welfare and other services.

He is completing a project examining whether there is such a thing as a "social wage" - whether people on lower incomes get more benefit from subsidised public services than those on higher incomes.

According to Sara Arber, professor of sociology at Surrey University, the importance of the GHS is that it shows trends over time - it was started in 1971 - and any interruption threatens that continuity. She is working on an NHS project on the health of children of lone parents and GHS data allows her to look at how often they attend clinics and surgeries, where their parents work and how much they are paid.