Tories call for revamp of official statistics

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Indy Politics

The Conservative Party yesterday unveiled plans to set up an independent body to check the Chancellor's public finance figures as part of a shake-up of official statistics to stop ministers "fiddling the figures".

The Conservative Party yesterday unveiled plans to set up an independent body to check the Chancellor's public finance figures as part of a shake-up of official statistics to stop ministers "fiddling the figures".

Oliver Letwin, the shadow Chancellor, said national statistics had not been presented an "impartial and accessible way" under Labour. He said there was widespread scepticism over Gordon Brown's claim in his pre-Budget report speech that he would meet his "golden rule" on the public finances despite admitting to higher-than-expected deficits.

Mr Letwin said the rule was devalued because the Chancellor was able to choose the start and finish dates for the economic cycle, that set the boundaries for assessing whether he has balanced the books.

A Tory government would stick to the Government's fiscal rules but hand over the responsibility for assessing them to an independent Fiscal Projection Committee (FPC). This would prepare key assumptions on tax, spending and growth used in the Budget and test whether the Chancellor has met the golden rule that he must not borrow to fund current spending over the course of an economic cycle.

The FPC would be made up of independent experts appointed by the Comptroller and Auditor General and approved by the Chancellor and the Commons' Treasury Select Committee. Mr Letwin said: "This will give Britain the most accountable and transparent fiscal framework for accounting and national statistics in the world."

He also announced plans to make the Office for National Statistics, the Treasury department that produces key economic data, independent of government. Under the plans the ONS would be split into a 1,000-strong National Statistics Office that would publish analysis and reports on all available official statistics. It would be headed by the National Statisticians, who would be an officer of the House of Commons and answerable to Parliament.

Meanwhile, a new Social and Business Surveys Office, an agency of the Cabinet Office headed by the Registrar General for England and Wales, would take over responsibility for primary data collection, censuses and civil registration. The moves follow accusations that the Government has exerted political pressure on the ONS over issues such as productivity, and criticism by the Bank of England of the quality of its preliminary estimates of GDP growth.

Neither the ONS nor Len Cook, the National Statistician, was available for comment. Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, said: "It is good to see that, with the exception of the Chancellor, there is a political consensus building to prevent the Government from both setting its own tests and then marking its own results."

Paul Boateng, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, did not comment on the proposals but said no one would believe the Conservatives until they gave details of their own tax and spending policies.

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