UK statistics review launched by Sir Charlie Bean

Sir Charles Bean Image copyright Getty Images

An independent review of the UK's economic statistics has been launched by former Bank of England deputy governor Sir Charlie Bean.

It will consider whether the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is well-placed to cope with future challenges.

Chancellor George Osborne commissioned the review at the time of last month's Budget and is expecting interim recommendations in the autumn.

It is calling for submissions from users of statistics by 25 September.

Sir Charlie told the BBC that he was not expecting to be able to cover all areas of the review in the interim report and that some aspects would only be included in the final report, which is scheduled to be published in time for the 2016 Budget.

Among the areas the review will consider will be whether the producers of official statistics are well-placed to keep pace with the latest advances in data collection.

Sir Charlie said that much of the framework of the UK's economic statistics had been developed after the Great Depression of the 1930s.

As part of its attempts to open itself up to new sources of data, earlier this year the ONS appointed open data expert Heather Savory as its deputy national statistician in charge of data capability.

Among her successes so far has been modernising the software used by ONS staff and their wifi arrangements.

However, staff exploring the possibilities offered by alternative data sources have had problems with the ONS's IT firewall. Attempts to modernise - for example, by including figures from online supermarket shopping in the inflation figures - seem to have been progressing slowly.

Return to London?

There have been two other reviews of the ONS in the past 12 months. Sir Charlie said he was not planning to duplicate recent research and that he would use the existing work as an input into his own report.

Last year, Dame Kate Barker published her own independent review of the national accounts and balance of payments statistics.

She suggested that the ONS should establish a team of economists, possibly in London, which would allow it to draw on expertise from other government departments.

In 2007, the ONS announced that it was moving all of the statistical work that it carried out in London to other parts of the country, with most of the functions relocating to Newport. The vast majority of the existing staff decided not to relocate.

Sir Charlie said there would not be a big focus on whether the move to Newport was a mistake but that he was likely to examine what the consequences were.

Also in the past year, Institute for Fiscal Studies director Paul Johnson published a review of the ONS measures of inflation, which encouraged the government to stop using the retail prices index as soon as possible because of its flawed methodology.

There was some surprise in 2013 when the ONS decided to leave the methodology behind the RPI unchanged despite identifying problems with the calculation that meant it overestimated inflation.

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