The UK Statistics Authority has expressed concern to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) about media reports suggesting that its commentary on ‘special events’ affecting the recent quarterly GDP figures was “politically motivated … in support of the coalition Government”.
In a letter sent 16 August to ONS director general Stephen Penneck
(pdf format, opens in new window), the UK Statistics Authority chair Sir Michael Scholar wrote, “There can be no justification for raising questions in this way about the impartiality and independence of the commentary provided by ONS … your motivation is purely to provide impartial, objective and honest statistics”. Sir Michael said he recognised that the ONS’s independence of government and any form of political control “is well understood by all your staff who have no reason or motivation to seek to please the Coalition or any other Government.”
The ‘special events’ referred to in the ONS commentaries included extreme winter weather, the exceptionally mild April and the royal wedding. Sir Michael stressed “the importance of frank and helpful commentary alongside official statistics, both to help users better understand the statistics and to demonstrate that, where they arise, inaccurate stories have no basis”.
But he suggested that “there may be benefit in further developing the commentary so that it is fully understood by all commentators that a discussion of special factors will routinely be published regardless of whether the effects of those factors is to increase or decrease GDP. It may also be that any quantified estimate of the net effect of the special factors should only be published as part of a full analysis, if at all.
“I would be grateful if you would consider whether a free-standing assessment of quarterly contextual factors could be usefully issued at the same time as each GDP release; and also review the prominence given to a discussion of these factors in the release and accompanying news conference.”
In the same letter, Sir Michael expressed “great concern about the publication and subsequent correction of miscalculated estimates of Output in Construction by ONS on 12 August 2011, estimates which have implications for UK GDP statistics”. The initial figures published by the ONS overstated output and caused a temporary surge in Sterling’s exchange value.
The UK Statistics Authority has asked the ONS to explain how this error came about, and announced that it will be undertaking its own independent inquiry.