Andrew Tyrie blasts ‘out of touch’ Office for National Statistics

Andrew Tyrie

Andrew Tyrie, the chairman of the Treasury select committee, has redoubled his criticism of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for falling behind its international peers and jeopardising policy decisions with poor quality data, reports The Guardian.

Tyrie’s committee heard evidence from Sir Charlie Bean, the former Bank of England deputy governor, as he prepares a report for government into the quality of UK economics statistics.

Bean told the cross-party group that the nation’s number crunchers “could do better”, had suffered a loss of expertise when their main office was moved to Newport in Wales and that a new generation of statisticians should be more pro-active in producing figures that reflect a rapidly changing economy.

Tyrie was more forthright, reiterating the committee’s long-standing concern that ministers and Bank of England policymakers were having to work with statistics tarred by poor data collection and production, or “rubbish in, rubbish out statistics”, as the Conservative MP put it.

The government has asked Bean to lead a review of the country’s economic statistics, and he is due to report back around the time of George Osborne’s budget in March.

Bean’s interim report, published last month, found “statistics have failed to keep pace with the impact of digital technology”. He also urged government departments to share their data more freely with the ONS.

Commenting after Thursday’s committee hearing, Tyrie said: “It’s clear from Sir Charles’s interim report that the UK has fallen behind other countries, and that some of our statistics are scarcely fit for purpose.

“The ONS has fallen a long way short, lacking intellectual curiosity, prone to silly mistakes and unresponsive to the needs of consumers of its statistics.”

Tyrie also questioned why Bean’s review had been commissioned given Britain already had a watchdog, the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA), set up to safeguard the quality of official statistics.

“The watchdog, created in 2008 to keep ONS, among others, up to the mark, has been asleep on the job,” said Tyrie.

Bean, however, said UKSA had been “quite active at instigating reviews when things go wrong”. But he conceded: “Certainly all is not well, if it had been well then I would not have been commissioned.”

In his interim report, Bean criticised the ONS for failing to keep pace with a changing economy where, for example, people book holidays on smartphones rather than at travel agents. He repeated his call for statisticians to be more agile when thinking about the statistics that users in the public and private need.

“One of the problems with the ONS in the past, [it] has been a bit locked in the mindset, turn the handle, here’s the numbers and not asking itself enough, ‘What do these statistics mean now?’,” Bean told the Treasury Committee.

In order to keep up with the digital revolution, the ONS should do more exploratory research with universities and other partners into the most helpful statistics, Bean recommended. His hope is for Newport, where the ONS recently moved its main operations, to become a “hub of statistical expertise”.

Asked about the impact on national statistics from the move to Wales from London, which started in 2007, Bean said the damage was not irreversible but that it would take years to rebuild the expertise lost when many long-standing staff members left, rather than move with the ONS.

“National income accounting is something you learn on the job … so you are talking about 10 years before you’ve really adjusted to it. So we are getting to the point now where those transitional costs should be starting to disappear,” he said.

Tyrie’s criticism of the ONS follows a previous session of the Treasury committee in 2013 where it heard from Bank of England governor Mark Carney, that some statistics were not as reliable as policymakers would like. Carney, at the time recently arrived in the UK from the Bank of Canada, told the committee: “I was much more comfortable with the data in Canada.”

Tyrie urged Bean not to pull any punches in his final report. “Poor statistics lead to poor public policy decisions and hold back the private sector, resulting in a loss of welfare to millions of people,” Tyrie said.

“It’s already clear that there is a lot wrong. Sir Charles has a rare opportunity to put it right. These don’t come often. He must take it in his final report.”

Asked to respond to the hearing, a UK Statistics Authority spokeswoman said: “We look forward to reading Sir Charles’s final report and recommendations.”